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Upgrading Your Micro Four Thirds Camera System

by Chris Gampat on 11/22/2011

You’ve got a micro four thirds camera, and you want to move up to something better. Luckily, there are ways to move up in the system without having to completely switch to whole nother camera system. That saves you lots of money and time when it comes to selling and buying lenses. Like many of you reading this, I’m invested in the Micro four thirds camera system and so are many of my friends. We all started out with one camera and one lens and then moved on up depending on our own specific needs and wants.

This guide will assess the needs of those wanting to stay in a budget, shoot video, shoot stills, use the cameras as flair and for those that want to make the absolute best of the system.

Your Starter Camera and Lens

Many people often start out with something affordable and work their way up. Often times, this is the Panasonic GF1, Olympus EP2, EPL2, or now even the EPM-1. In the rare case, a user may start higher up in line with the GH2 or EP3.

As far as lenses go, the user either takes one of two different routes:

– They purchase a kit lens or pancake bundle

– They purchase adapters to use with their already purchased lenses.

Personally, I started with the Olympus EP2 and 17mm f2.8. Friends of mine have started with the Olympus EPL2 or Panasonic GF1 and Panasonic 20mm f1.7 pancake if they wanted to shoot stills. If they were more video oriented, the user most likely bought a Panasonic GH2 and adapted Russian Cinema glass that they got off eBay. (Edit: here are some links with info on this here, here and here. if you’re going to purchase one, please click my eBay link first. Kudos to my good buddy Jurek Ugarow for the information, you should all take a look at his videos.)

But then comes the need to move up in order to help you to expand your creativity. Micro four thirds users are very savvy though and I’ve noticed that they often stick to and love their cameras no matter what the results may be compared to their Nikon and Canon using colleagues. With that said, they most often stick to their guns and go for another lens.

What You Need To Know About Lenses First

The Micro Four Thirds camera system has lots of available options to play with when it comes to upgrading to a new lens. Despite being a relatively new system, Panasonic and Olympus have worked tirelessly to put out new lenses and cameras often and have even had third party companies jump on board to develop lenses for the system. Some of these companies are Voigtlander, Pinwide, and SLR Magic to name a few. Not surprisingly, all of these companies manufacturer manual focus only lenses for the system.

Something to totally understand first off is that despite the fact that Panasonic and Olympus both manufacture cameras with the same mount, they aggressively compete with one another. Olympus accessories only work with Olympus cameras and vice versa with Panasonic. Even more interestingly, the new Olympus MSC lenses will only focus super quickly on the newer Olympus cameras and will lag quite a bit on Panasonic’s lineup. Not surprisingly, Panasonic’s lenses will focus slower on Olympus bodies.

The reason for this? The companies develop their own focusing algorithms to screw each other in a way. If you can get around and accept the slower performance of using another company’s lenses, then more power to you. Personally, I can’t.

Upgrading Lenses

Going ahead and actually upgrading the lens is something that you’ll need to consider carefully to ensure that you’ll have what’s best for you. As many Micro Four Thirds users know, the system was really developed to be used with small primes and small lenses. However, the companies developed larger zoom lenses to cater to the consumers that don’t know what they’re doing with the cameras.

The more serious users (like us) spring for the small primes because of the pocket-ability. The system’s primes range from pancake size to fairly large for a small camera. Some of the best that offer autofocusing are:

Panasonic 20mm f1.7

Panasonic 25mm f1.4

Olympus 12mm f2

- Olympus 45mm f1.8

But the more affordable primes that the system offers are:

Olympus 17mm f2.8

Panasonic 14mm f2.5

So what if you want a zoom lens? I don’t believe that I’m saying this, but both the Panasonic and Olympus kit lenses are actually quite good. I hate the Olympus 14-42mm f3.5-5.6, but readers loved the images I shot with it during my time touring Occupy Wall St.

The current creme-de-la-creme of the Micro Four Thirds zoom lenses though is the 7-14mm f4 with its constant aperture and excellent image quality.

Check out:

Olympus 12mm f2 on the EP2

Olympus 12mm f2 vs Panasonic 14mm f2.5 comparison

Third Party Upgrade Lenses

The Micro Four Thirds camera system has a load of third party lenses to play with that are natively created for the mount. These lenses fill the need for a totally different niche though. There are photographers out there that love to think of their micro four thirds system as a toy camera system to play with. For those people, SLRMagic makes the wonderful 26mm f1.4 and 11mm f1.4. Be warned though, these lenses aren’t your typical run of the mill glass.

The 26mm f1.4 has super swirly bokeh and the dials for focusing and aperture control are a bit quirky. However, once you accept the fact that they’re just toys, you’ll learn to love it. Indeed, it’s why I haven’t bought Panasonic’s 25mm f1.4.

The 11mm f1.4 severely vignettes when shooting in the 4:3 ratio. For the best results, I often encourage users to shoot in the 6:6 square format. This delivers some very, very fun and in fact spectacular results.

For even more fun, consider turning your camera into a pinhole camera. The Pinwide started as a KickStarter project but it never seemed to reach the mainstream in terms of popularity. However, the Pinwide is super fun to play with and I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for a new perspective on their photography.

Now we get to the absolute best of the third party manual focus lenses. These are the:

Voigtlander 25mm f0.95

– SLRMagic 12mm f1.6

Rokinon 7.5mm f3.5

Both of them are a low light shooters wet dream with the Voigtlander delivering the shallowest depth of field that the system offers and the SLRMagic being the first cinema prime lens developed for the system. When it comes to using a fisheye lens, the Rokinon is not only affordable but sharp, small, and built exceptionally well. Both lenses have excellent build quality and any user that plays with them will fall in love with the results that they get.

Check out:

SLRMagic 26mm f1.4 review

SLRMagic 11mm f1.4 review

SLRMagic 12mm f1.6 Review

SLRMagic 12mm f1.6 video test

Pinwide Review

Rokinon 7.5mm f3.5 review

Adapting Lenses

Then, your other option is to adapt lenses. For the most part, this is advantageous to Pentax users and those who own old school Nikon lenses. However, there are loads of Canon FD lens users. Indeed, the strength of the system is the fact that since it is mirrorless, almost any lens can be adapted to the camera. The key to this is to not purchase lenses that are too big, otherwise you’re missing the whole point of the camera system.

I personally use a Zeiss Biotar Jena 58mm f2 with more aperture blades than I can count. It is my current portrait lens and delivers some of the most wonderful images I’ve seen from my EP2.

Check out:

Shooting Portraits with the Panasonic GH2

In that post, I use an adapted lens to shoot portraits in natural light.

Upgrading Cameras

Eventually, you’ll want to look into getting a second camera body. The reason for this is because of better ISO results, better autofocusing, sturdier build, etc. Indeed, I own the Olympus EP2 and EPM1. However, the latter was given to me during Olympus’s Pen Ready competition.

In a way, it’s an upgrade because of the faster autofocus system. However, day after day I find myself picking up my Olympus EP2 because I prefer its image quality and better build. But if I need to be super stealthy, I’ll put the 14-42mm MSC kit lens on the EPM1, focus quickly and get out of the way.

In practice though, that’s not to say that I can’t do that by using the Hyperfocal length focusing methods with the SLRMagic 12mm f1.6. That just takes extra work and being much more in tune with your environment.

If you want to shoot more video though, Panasonic is the way to go. The Panasonic GH2 and G3 are the current kings of the crop and there are cult followings behind these cameras in the videography world.

When it comes to stills, the Olympus EP3 and Panasonic GX1 are at the top of the game.

What you get ultimately comes down to what you’re looking for.

Check out:

EP2 vs EPM1

In that post, I assess the older camera against the new one. You can also take a look at various perspectives on the EPM1.

Olympus EP3

EP3 for street photography

MSC lenses vs Canon 7D focusing test

Panasonic lenses on the Olympus EP3

LCDVF review (for videographers)

Fader ND Mk II review (for videographers)

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