Reflecting on Photography Gear; Leaving Micro Four Thirds

As far back as I can remember, I've enjoyed photography as a hobby. It's probably because my father's father was a journalist and he never went anywhere without his Leica around his neck — or maybe it's just because there's something magical at being able to hold the past in your hand and look at it whenever you want.

Poppop
My grandfather, seen with his Leica Minilux

While it's absolutely true that your camera doesn't matter, I've just recently changed up my camera gear again, and I thought it might be fun to look back at some of the cameras I've used over the last 20 or so years.

We had some cheap 35mm (and APS1) film cameras when I was young, but things really took off when we got a Sony Digital Mavica (the very first one, the MVC-FD5 which took digital pictures and record them onto regular 3.5" floppy disks). No more driving to CVS and waiting 3 days for them to develop your photos? Wow! The pictures were awful, but it was a start, and I was hooked on digital photography. A few years later (in 2001), the family upgraded to an HP PhotoSmart (I think model 215, but it's not in the EXIF data) with an unbelievable 1.3MP resolution and a 4MB CompactFlash card that could store so many more photos than a 1.44MB floppy. Just look at this image (whose EXIF data says 2001-01-01, but couldn't been earlier than March 2001):

aesthetic
This is what pre-9/11 America looked like. Really bad exposure.

In 2003, there was a brief sidegrade to the still-1.3MP (but much prettier and smaller) Sony CyberShot DSC-U10. It didn't really take better pictures, but because it was smaller and lighter, it could go more places, and like Chase Jarvis says, "the best camera is the one you have with you."

ridiculous me
A ridiculous-looking teenage me captured by the CyberShot

In the meantime, my family (mostly my mother, who was always the one dutifully taking photos of family events) had much better cameras: first a Kodak DX6340, then a Canon Digital ELPH SD500.2 Come 2005, I stepped up to a Fujifilm FinePix S3100. This camera had a zoom lens! And it could take pictures in something other than direct sunlight!3 Incroyable! This camera went with me to look at colleges4 and eventually came with me to Mudd. The pictures from this camera are surprisingly still passable (unlike those from the Casio Exilim EX-Z30 that I got as a hand-me-down in 2006):

In 2008, I got another used hand-me-down, this time in the form of a Nikon D40 with 28-80mm and 70-300mm lenses (forming a pretty classic "two zoom kit"). I still didn't know what the hell I was doing, but I could do a lot more of it with this camera! Eventually someone told me prime lenses are better and to learn to zoom with my feet, so I saved up and bought the 50mm f/1.8.

I think a lot of these photos hold up very well, 13 years later. The main problems were these: (a) I still mostly didn't know what I was doing, and (b) D40 was a relatively large camera, which only came out when I knew in advance I wanted to photograph something.

The age of the smartphone had arrived, and starting in about 2009, most of my photographs started having "iPhone" in their EXIF data. Also around 2009, a new hand-me-down came my way: an Olympus E-P1. This camera took pictures that were pretty similar to the D40, but with a body and lens that were perhaps ½ the size! It didn't stay in my life long, but it did eventually inspire me in 2012 to buy myself an Olympus OM-D E-M5, which was my go-to camera for 10 years5. The E-P1 and E-M5 are both part of the "micro four thirds" (or m43) system, which is a standardized mount and sensor size6 used by a few vendors7. I went through a few lenses, but essentially all of the good photos I took on m43 were with one of these three lenses:

I think I got some decent pictures over the years:

That being said, Micro Four Thirds was never a great system. The cameras (both from Olympus and Panasonic) are all… aggressively digital, even when they're styled like a 70's-era SLR. The sensor is ¼ the area of a "full-frame" 35mm sensor, and ½ the area of an APS-C sensor (like the one my old D40 had), meaning that low-light performance and depth of field both suffer. This could've been made up for if there were lenses that really took advantage of the high crop factor, but the 12-40PRO was really the only m43 lens I used that was substantially better than APS-C or full-frame equivalents8. Despite the fact that they had to move ½ as much glass as on a larger system, the prime lenses all tended to be relatively large and painfully slow to focus. When Olympus announced that they were spinning off their m43 assets to a new company (OM Systems) and getting out of consumer photography, I decided it was time to move on.

I did some research and played with some gear, and, well, where I've landed is Fujifilm, right back where I was from 2005 through 2008. I started off with an X100V a few months ago as a compact, carry-everywhere camera to take pictures of my son with9, and a few weeks ago I decided to trade in all of my m43 gear to the local camera shop10 and get an X-T4 as an interchangeable-lens "big camera"11. Something just clicked with me and the manual controls really make sense to me now — why would you ever want a PASM dial when you can just have an aperture ring with an A setting and a shutter dial with an A setting?

So far, almost all I've done with the Fuji cameras is take approximately 600 pictures of my son, but they've gotten me excited about photography again, and I have high hopes for them. I'm especially digging the 35mm (50mm equivalent) XF35mm F2 R WR, which is the fastest-focusing lens I've ever used on any system and is incredibly sharp, even at f/2. I originally planned to get the XF56mm F1.2 R but given how great the 35mm f/2 lens is, now I'm wondering if I wouldn't be better served by the XF50mm F2 R WR instead.

Anyhow, new stuff to play with, and I've got plenty of motivation to take pictures.


  1. My mom loved the original Canon ELPH series of very compact APS cameras 

  2. I think it's an SD500; the EXIF data on the photos I have just says "Canon Digital ELPH" so I'm guessing based on release dates and my recollection of what it looked like. 

  3. The S3100 had an f/2.8-f/8 lens and could shoot at a sensitivity up to ISO 200 — awful by today's standards, but a big step up from the fixed ISO 100 of the CyberShot. 

  4. It enabled me to be that annoying high schooler who takes photos of every single thing on the tour. 

  5. Technically, the E-M5 broke and I replaced it with a used E-M5 Mark 2 in 2018, but the differences are largely immaterial. 

  6. 220mm2; the "Four Thirds" name is historical baggage related to vacuum tubes and no part of a Four Thirds or Micro Four Thirds camera is 4/3". 

  7. I guess just OM System and Panasonic now… 

  8. The Olympus 12-40 PRO is 382g; the comparable Fujifilm APS-C 16-55f/2.8 is 657g and the Nikon FX (full-frame) 24-70mm f/2.8 is 1068g. They're all great lenses. 

  9. Actually, original choice for this role was the Ricoh GR III, which is also a great APS-C camera. Unfortunately, I realized I was never using the GR III because the screen is illegible in any bright light, and there's no built-in viewfinder. I thought about buying the attachable viewfinder, but decided to go to my second choice of the X100V. 

  10. Looking Glass Photo 

  11. I know what you're thinking: don't the X100V and the X-T4 have exactly the same sensor in them? They do, but other than that they're extremely different cameras. The X-T4 has in-body stabilization, a bigger battery, and an SLR-style layout; the X100V has a super-cool optical viewfinder and is styled like a rangefinder. Commensurately, the X-T4 without a lens weighs 30% more than the whole kit and kaboodle of the X100V. 


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