Micro Four Thirds Format for Filmmakers

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Filmmakers once had a simple choice when it came to what format they shot on. The two professional formats were 35mm and 16mm film. 35mm was, and still is, the gold standard, used on big-budget feature films. 16mm was thought of as the more accessible and affordable alternative, used on documentaries and independent films. Deciding to shoot on 16mm rather than 35mm meant using smaller, lighter cameras and less money spent on film.

When digital video introduced a lossless, easy-to-edit alternative to analog video, video became a viable medium for filmmakers. High-definition digital video cameras now compete with 35mm and 16mm as an origination format for feature films, and digital is now the dominant format for documentaries. But, the choice of which digital format and which digital camera to shoot on can be overwhelming, with everything from a full-frame sensor, as in the Nikon D800, to an APS-C sensor, as in the Canon 7D, to a Four Thirds sensor, as in the Panasonic GH3. But much like the choice between 35mm and 16mm, the choice of which digital format to shoot depends on the type of project and the look, as much as, if not more, than just the budget.

The image below illustrates the comparison of film format sizes to digital format sizes

Full-frame SLRs, like the Canon 5D Mark III, have become the darlings of independent film because their sensor size is akin to what digital still photographers call “full frame” or equivalent to 35mm still-photo cameras. While still-photo photographers venturing into motion for the first time often insist on a full-frame sensor size as the standard for their imagery, savvy directors and cinematographers realize that many other choices now exist, each with its own advantages, shooting style, and visual look.

The APS-C sensor-size cameras, sometimes referred to as “cropped-sensor” cameras, are the closest in character to 35mm motion picture film. While still cameras and motion picture cameras use 35mm film, still-picture cameras run it horizontally while most movie cameras run it vertically, resulting in a smaller image area, which is closest to the size of the APS-C sensor. The Canon Cinema Series, like the Canon C300, are considered APS-C but with a slightly larger size that is equivalent to what is called Super 35 or centered 35 motion picture film format.

Micro Four Thirds cameras have a sensor size that is closer to 16mm or, more specifically, Super 16mm, its widescreen successor. Because of this, many filmmakers are adopting the MFT format for many of the same types of projects that once were shot on 16mm. MFT cameras are being used for documentaries that call for small, compact, highly mobile cameras and for independent films wanting a vérité style and a more objective camera. The advantage of Micro Four Thirds as a format doesn't stop there. Not only are the cameras smaller and often less expensive, they offer more lens choices, longer shooting times, and greater depth of field.

One of the most talked-about features of the new digital cameras has been depth of field, and how the lack of it is a much-welcomed creative feature. For decades, video footage had very little selective focus compared to film; everything from a few feet in front of the lens to the horizon seemed to be in focus. The blurred background and sharp separation of the main subject was a creative feature of film, not video. Today, that distinction is gone. Since the physical sensor sizes of digital cameras have matched standard film sizes, it is more a question of which look you prefer. Smaller-format video cameras with 1/4- to 2/3-inch sensors still produce a deep depth of field, which is a benefit for applications like news gathering, but filmmakers almost universally want the ability to control how much of the foreground and background is in focus. 

The Micro Four Thirds system, with a sensor size equivalent to a 4/3-inch video tube, allows filmmakers to achieve a shallow depth of field that is cinematic and less like video, yet is also versatile and easy to focus. Shooting on 35mm or the digital equivalent sensor means as shallow and selective focus as possible, but it also means that keeping the image in focus can be a real challenge. On movie sets, Assistant Camera and Focus Pullers use measuring tape, place marks for actors and on lenses, and are aided by digital rangefinders and other tools, all to keep the image in the desired focus. This was another reason 16mm was a popular alternative to 35mm, since the greater depth of field for the same viewing angle was easier to manage, especially for documentaries and small or one-person shoots. MFT cameras and lenses have that same benefit of greater depth of field, yet maintain a selective focus that differentiates it from small-sensor video footage.

Before Micro Four Thirds cameras, earlier models of Four Thirds sensor cameras were SLRs that had smaller mirror mechanisms, bodies, and lenses than traditional SLRs. The innovation to the Micro format did away with the mirror mechanism for a shallower lens mount and even smaller camera body. Because of this short lens-flange-to-sensor distance, Micro Four Thirds cameras can be adapted easily to nearly any lens type, since the adapters have room to sit in-between the lens mount and the rear of the adapted lens, and there is no SLR mirror mechanism that might hit the lens's rear element.

Without the SLR mirror mechanism, Micro Four Thirds cameras are natively “live view,” making them ideal for video production. While SLR cameras function in video by locking up the mirror, blocking off the optical viewfinder, and holding the shutter open, MFT cameras are always in an active video mode and don’t have the extra burden of having to hold up a reflex mirror and lock off the camera’s still-image functionality. This is also a benefit to battery life.

One might think that a reduction in sensor size, like a drop in film size from 35mm to 16mm, would result in a reduction in resolution, but the resolution of MFT cameras is the same as and, in some cases, higher than HDSLR cameras. Full 1080P high-definition is standard on all these cameras, and as we will see in the exploration of today’s MFT cameras, some of these cameras even outpace the top HDSLR cameras in terms of the information they are able to record.

Cameras

Olympus was the company that developed the Four Thirds format together with Kodak, and their latest Micro Four Thirds camera, the Olympus OM-D E-M1, is a terrific still camera to introduce a photographer to the world of video. With the look and feel of a traditional SLR camera, the OM-D E-M1 is smaller than most SLRs, but still has the durable, robust feel of a professional SLR camera and all the functionality of larger photo cameras. Deceiving at first, its top viewfinder looks like an SLR’s top prism, but the Olympus features a well-placed, built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF) as well as a back screen, and both can be used for shooting stills or video. The Olympus OMD is a camera that is very adept at still photography, and video up to 29 minutes can be shot in your choice of .mov or .avi format. One drawback for professional filmmakers is the lack of a 24-frame-per-second recording feature, the standard for theatrically released films. But, with the latest OM-D, you get a fully capable still camera that also offers full 1080P video at 30 fps and all the benefits of lens choice that the MFT format has to offer.

Panasonic was an early adopter of the Four Thirds format and has become one of the most popular camera brands for the format. The just-released Panasonic GX7, like the Olympus OM-D, is a great still camera with full HD video, but while the OM-D is designed with the form factor of an SLR, the GX7 borrows its form from a traditional rangefinder camera. The viewfinder of the GX7 is set on the far left upper corner of the camera back. Street photographers will also appreciate its rectangular body that is unobtrusive and great for street photography and its tiltable, 3-inch screen. This Panasonic gives you the choice of the video frame rate of 30 or the 24-frame-per-second cinematic look, so for a transition from street photographer to street cinematographer, it’s a great choice. Panasonic is producing cameras that are equally popular with still photographers and professional filmmakers. 

Panasonic’s GH3 camera is building on the success of the GH2 that came before it, not just as a still camera but as a professional movie camera. It is not unusual to see the Panasonic GH3 fully rigged out and used as a professional film camera on set or on a shoulder rig shooting a documentary film. The camera is a true hybrid that straddles both worlds of still photography and video. The compact size and abundance of features and accessories make the Panasonic GH3 one of the most popular MFT sensor cameras both for advanced amateurs and true professionals. The camera has found huge success among cinematographers and directors who want an advanced Micro Four Thirds format camera with full manual controls, 24P/30P/60P frame-per-second filming, minimal compression (up to 72 Mbps bit rate), plus the ability to output audio to headphones, and a standard 3.5mm mic input. The Panasonic GH3 is an excellent 16 megapixel still-photo camera, but the success it has found with both narrative and documentary filmmakers is a real testament to the adaptability of the MFT format.

Serious filmmakers are already familiar with the company called Blackmagic Design. Their entrance into the video market with a ground-up design, small digital cinema camera was so anticipated, it created a big name for the company, even before the first camera shipped. Blackmagic chose the MFT format for its first cameras, knowing the open standard and vast lens compatibility would be a great benefit going forward.

The Cinema Camera from Blackmagic features the largest screen on any Four Thirds camera or HD-capable SLR. At five inches diagonally, the touchscreen on the Blackmagic covers almost the entire back of the camera, which itself only measures 5” wide and 4.5” at its deepest point. The simplicity of the design and the ease of operation of the Blackmagic belie the power of this dedicated movie camera. Its 2.5K sensor delivers resolution of 2432 x 1366 in RAW format and 1920 x 1080 in Apple ProRes format and records to solid-state drives.

The Blackmagic Cinema Camera is a professional camera made for video production. Its native 16:9 sensor is slightly smaller than those found in Micro Four Thirds photo cameras, providing a lens crop factor of about 2.4x. It does not have an active lens mount like the other MFT cameras, so while it mounts all MFT lenses and adapters, it will not control aperture or have autofocus functionality. This is a camera for the seasoned professional or a still photographer who is ready to set down his still cameras for some serious filmmaking.

Another deceptively simple camera from Blackmagic is their Pocket Cinema Camera, a small compact camera that is also designed for serious video production but is incredibly easy to use and is packed with some of the most advanced features of any digital cinema camera on the market. This time, Blackmagic designed a camera with a sensor size that exactly matches the Super 16mm film frame; this makes the crop factor on the Pocket Cinema Camera approximately 3x as opposed to the 2x factor of the standard Micro Four Thirds cameras, yet it still uses the MFT standard lens mount and has an active lens mount. The camera records full 1080P video in 24P or 30P in 422 Apple ProRes format or RAW format to fast SDXC cards.

Lenses

Before we run down a few of the lens options most popular with MFT cameras, remember that since Micro Four Thirds is an open format, not limited to one manufacturer, unlike SLR camera lenses, MFT lenses can be shared across brands. A Panasonic MFT lens will function on an Olympus camera and vice versa; all share a common lens mount as well as electronic “active” lens communication when present.

Since MFT cameras are small and compact, makers like Olympus make some compact focal lengths that minimize the overall camera-with-lens size. The Olympus 17mm f/2.8 for Micro Four Thirds is a terrific small and lightweight lens that has an equivalent still-camera focal length of a 35mm normal wide-angle lens or a 50mm standard lens on the Pocket Cinema Camera, and its small size makes the Pocket Camera pocket-able. One note of caution: when looking for Olympus lenses for Micro Four Thirds, be aware that Olympus still makes lenses for the Four Thirds SLR system cameras (prior to Micro), and while those lenses can work very well with MFT cameras, an adapter is needed to mount them.


Panasonic makes excellent MFT lenses, both zooms and fixed focal lengths. Most notable from Panasonic is the widest lens made for the Micro Four Thirds format, the Panasonic f/7 to f/14mm 4.0. With an equivalent 14mm to 35mm focal length, it is extremely wide, yet it is a rectilinear wide angle, not a fisheye, so it maintains straight lines even on the edges of the frame. The Panasonic 25mm f/1.4 lens, designed by Leica, is an excellent standard lens for the MFT format with legendary Leica-designed optics and a fast aperture.


Sigma has introduced Micro Four Thirds lenses in 19mm, 30mm, and 60mm focal lengths. These beautifully designed prime lenses are all f/2.8 aperture lenses and feature the latest in lens technology and quiet, accurate autofocusing.


For the fastest lenses in any format, Voigtlander delivers ultra-fast apertures not usually available for SLR cameras. They make a 17.5mm, a 25mm, and a 42.5mm for the Micro Four Thirds format. All have a remarkably fast maximum aperture of f/0.95. All three are manual-focusing and manual-aperture lenses.


Some of the highest-end lenses you can use with a native Micro Four Thirds Mount are the Carl Zeiss Compact Prime lenses. They are most commonly used on movie sets. Available in focal lengths from 15mm to 135mm, they feature geared focus and aperture rings and are marked for easier focus and exposure pulling. Zeiss also makes two Compact Zooms for MFT cameras, the 28-80mm and the 70-200mm.


Rokinon lenses are hugely popular, and the 16mm Cine Lens for MFT features geared focus and aperture rings and clear markings on the side of the lens barrel, while the 7.5mm is an affordable fisheye lens. These manual-focus lenses are optically excellent for film, music video, or ad production on a budget.

Lens Adapters

Lens adapters work exceedingly well with Micro Four Thirds. All are as easy to mount as a normal lens. The most commonly used are for Nikon F or Canon EOS lenses, since they are the most common SLR lenses that people already own.

Note that the majority of lens adapters will not communicate with the active lens mount of the MFT cameras, so lenses with manual aperture rings and smooth manual focus rings are usually preferred. Redrock Micro does make an active adapter called LiveLens for adapting Canon EOS lenses, for the MFT active mount, since EOS lenses have electronically controlled apertures.

Other popular adapters for MFT cameras are for Leica R and M lenses. Leica lenses, especially the M series, are highly sought after, and the Micro Four Thirds system is one of the few camera systems capable of using the lenses that are made for rangefinder cameras. The Leica lenses produce excellent color reproduction and saturation and low distortion wide angles.

Cinema lenses with a PL mount are commonly adapted to Micro Four Thirds cameras. Most of these adapters come with a support that holds the weight of the lens, since cinema lenses, especially those designed for 35mm, can be quite heavy.

Whether you are a one-man crew shooting a run-and-gun style documentary, or a director of photography on a low-budget feature, your choice of what format to shoot is an important one. There are more choices than ever. Micro Four Thirds is a versatile choice that opens up a large number of possibilities. An entire film can be shot on a Panasonic GH3 with a Rokinon 16mm Cine lens and look amazingly great, or you can go all out and rig a Blackmagic Cinema Camera with a full support package, buy a set of Zeiss Compact Primes, and shoot your movie with Hollywood-quality results. The Micro Four Thirds system offers a wide and flexible range of choices for filmmakers of all types and budgets.

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This is a very good professional article. It is educational too for the average photographer .
It explains about different film and video formats, different still cameras, lenses and adapters.
Thank you for writing such a good and helpful article.

Samuel M. Daniel
New York, N.Y.

Excellent article. Learned a lot about sensor size and lens and how best to use the tech to one's advantage. Thanks for posting this.

R. Moran

"….the type of project and the look, as much as, if not more, than just the budget".

I'm glad to see you have an editorial credit for a well written and researched editorial. I know, or at least it seems that you favor an APS-C sensor, which has made great leads in industrial design-however it is hard to see where this editorial is your point of view or that of the B+H. You present all the nessessary information correctly, still there is that lingering question on point of view. I might suggest to you to start your own blog, Kind regards.

John Patrick Naughton

Just a note to BMPCC users, the Sigma Lens (I purchased the 19mm and the 30mm) have no manual aperture controls and you can not control the Lens thru the Camera either, so they stay wide open at 2.8

Do you know if the "wide open" applies to the Canon EF lenses. I have several Canon EF lenses and I'm debating on the purchase of a MFT camera (GH3 or GX7) because of the investment I will have to make in MFT lenses. That also means that I would have to purchase a lens adapter with aperture control like the EZPhoto or Kipon.

As Canon lenses do not have aperture rings you would need to get an adapter that has an aperture ring built in to allow you to adjust it.

Not sure which camera or mode you are using but I have full control through my e-m1 and e-m5. In apeture priority I can easily pick it.

The first 2 images in this inDepth article is excellent. Great way to visualize the differences in sensor size and DOF

The HD video statement "choice of the video frame rate of 30 or the 24-frame-per-second cinematic look" made it sound like there is no 60fps which is a plus for this camera. The camera specifications lists HD video 24fps and 60fps and I'm not sure where the 30fps comes from because I have never found a place listing that rate before this article. Other than that, it is a really good article.

A really outstanding article for those contemplating camera alternatives for film makers. My only comment is that new comers thinking of their choice of hardware really need to think about how they will factor in capturing sound for their projects. This was a great article about formats and depth of field, but for documentary projects, how you manage your audio is as important as the "look" and the work flow implications for sound need to be factored into your decision around DSLR, MFT or a camcorder with XLR inputs.

This is an inaccurate and misleading article. The basic premise about format size — that APS-C is like Super 35 while micro 4/3 is like Super 16 — is erroneous. Actual micro 4/3 standard sensors (as found in models from Panasonic and Olympus) are substantially larger than Super 16. The crop factor of micro 4/3 vs Super 35 is about 1.4x, whereas the crop factor of Super 16 vs micro 4/3 is about 1.5x. So micro 4/3 standard sensors are roughly midway between Super 35 and Super 16 in size, but are actually slightly closer to Super 35. Saying that that a micro 4/3 standard camera is like Super 16mm (crop factor 1.5x) is as misleading as saying a full frame 35mm camera is like APS-C (crop factor 1.5x) — and almost as misleading as saying a full frame 35mm camera is like Super 35 (crop factor 1.4x).

In fact, only the Blackmagic cameras have sensors closer in size to Super 16 than to Super 35, but they are substantially smaller than micro 4/3 standard sensors. The Pocket Cinema Camera in particular actually has a Super 16 sized sensor. However, since the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera does not have a standard-sized micro 4/3 sensor, it should not be used to illustrate the size of micro 4/3 sensors as in the first illustration. Since it has the smallest sensor of any camera with a micro 4/3 lens mount, the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera is the most misleading choice to exemplify the sensor size of micro 4/3 cameras vs competing formats.

This article simply makes the point that MFT represents a smaller format choice, compared to full frame and APS-C, much like the choice between shooting 16mm and 35mm film, and not that MFT is an exact match to 16mm. You are correct that the cameras by Black Magic use a smaller sensor than standard MFT cameras. We chose to use the Pocket Camera in the first illustration not to say that all Micro Four Thirds sensors are the same size as Super 16mm, but to show that there is an MFT-mount camera extremely close in size to the format. It should also be noted for readers that standard MFT sensors have an aspect ratio of 4:3 (more square), but when shooting video, they use a 16:9 area. Even factoring that in, you are correct that standard MFT is larger than Super 16mm. But, it is significantly smaller than Super 35mm and APS-C, making the cameras smaller, easier to handle, and a good choice for many projects wanting lightweight cameras that deliver high-quality results.

Thank you for your reply. You may not have intended first illustration (and its caption) to suggest that "all Micro Four Thirds sensors are the same size as Super 16mm", but that is exactly what an uninformed reader will conclude upon seeing it since the caption reads "comparison of film format sizes to digital format sizes" with "MICRO FOUR THIRDS" listed under the BMPCC and Super 16 film overlay. As it stands the graphic is highly misleading and should be revised so as not to confuse readers.

  • > This article simply makes the point that MFT represents a smaller format choice, compared to
  • > full frame and APS-C, much like the choice between shooting 16mm and 35mm film, and not 
  • > that MFT is an exact match to 16mm.

That is our complaint. The acronym MFT stands for Micro Four Thirds System. The word "System" referring to the Standard, that when first created, applied to Sensor Size, Aspect Ratio, Lens Mount, and AF Design. Current usage is no longer so limited.

For Manufacturers who want to use the exact Sensor size Wikipedia quotes it as: "The image sensor of Four Thirds and MFT is commonly referred to as a 4/3" type or 4/3 type sensor (inch-based sizing system is derived from now obsolete video camera tubes). The sensor measures 18 mm × 13.5 mm (22.5 mm diagonal), with an imaging area of 17.3 mm × 13.0 mm (21.6 mm diagonal), comparable to the frame size of 110 film.[1] -- [1] Not up to date Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micro_Four_Thirds_System ."

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Recently a few Manufacturers do take just the MFT Mount and back it with a larger Sensor than 16mm, currently 35mm is popular for MFT. BM and JVC both have Cameras coming that use 35mm MFT.  JVC Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1hEENpUrPc&list=UUUH9y35fQqOKZQwmwOGYR0g .

Your whole Article seems to put forth the idea that MFT is for APS-C or MFT sized Sensors, the Mount (or anything else in the Standard except the Sensor size) is not limited to a particular sized Sensor. Some new (2014) semi-pro 4K Camcorders (and Cameras that want to be Camcorders) use 35mm (FF) Sensors and some use the MFT Mount. The letters MFT do not equal APS-C or nearly equal 16mm, its more like 22.5 mm diagonal and not limited to that small.

I feel ginsbu has some good points and I'd like to hear some further rebuttal from ginsbu to the posted comments. We really need an accurate assessment of how these formats perform compared to some standard we're familiar with, such as 35 mm film, so articles like this should be held to a high standard of clarity.

I wish the article diagrams clearly showed what was measured by the sensor size numbers -- diagonal? horizontal?

Strikingly absent was the issue of signal-to-noise as sensors get smaller. Small sensors will suffer in low light sooner than large sensors if engineered equivalently.

Also, pixel density must be considered. If a large sensor has enough pixels, the viewfinder can be "masked" to frame a smaller region which can be virtually equivalent to shooting with a smaller format sensor camera. Clumsy in post, sure, but a flexible option available only to large sensors. Some cameras now I believe now have modes to explicitly capture with subset areas of the sensor, offering extreme flexibility.

If you really won't need a large sensor for your project, the smallest sensor acceptable generally means a smaller camera and less expensive lenses and accessories, an important practical consideration. But if chosen as your only camera for all projects, I'd opt for the largest sensor I could afford to gain the great benefits of low-light shooting, control of depth of field, maximal signal-to-noise, etc.

Very good article, but I do have one question. Why you don't mention the Panasonic AF100 on your camera list?
Thanks

Sadly, the Panasonic AF100 has dreadful low light capabilities, and in my opinion is no match to a hcked GH2 (which is also far cheaper). Of course it has all the XLR audio stuff, nice of course, and the shutter is a proper video camera shutter, but otherwise its no major thing anymore. The GH4 will wipe it away in seconds.

Great article and comments. Any thoughts on audio capabilities?

The in camera audio with these cameras isn't fantastic, and not many have external mic jacks. The best option for audio would be to go with an portable audio recorder, and then sync sound in post process. Zoom, Tascam, and Marantz all make some excellent options for this. We do have several InDepth articles on audio for DSLR, which would be applicable to the micro four thirds cameras as well. You might also look at the InDepth article How to Use a Portable Audio Recorder on a Video Shoot.

For weeks I have  been trawling the internet and trying to understand all the technical jargon .....I could have saved all this time If I had found your site earlier, because it explains everythg I need to know perfectly and clearly. Something that guys in camera stores have been unable to do! Thanks! It's an Awesome site! 

I'd be interested to see how well the Panasonic G4 is received..With its YAGH attachment it will take XLR sound feeds, give four SDI out ports and is claiming greater sensitivity with its low light capabilities. As a TV cameraman who already owns a 2/3" O2 Panasonic 'ENG' type of camera i'm seeing you 5D and it's successors dig into and take my market away for all the good reasons of shallow depth of field etc..Low light ability. .but there are changes on the TV horizon like 4k and lots of camera people font want to keep buying new expensive full frame cameras if a cheaper MT camera with good lenses will do..discuss!

Also it is worth mentioning the metabones lens adapters for use with MFT cameras.

They are custom tailored for BMCC,BMPCC, and other MFT cameras.

These specialise in squeezing every last bit of light ouf a lens and can push the F-stops in some lenses down to under F1.

Also they can considerably sharpen the clarity of the image too. Read about them here:

http://www.metabones.com/products

Does anyone know of a good mount for EF lens to the Nikon G mount Metabones BMPCC speedbooster? Or I have FD lenses, anyone know of any good mount for FD lenses to the Nikon G mount Metabones BMPCC speedbooster? Thanks

To be clear are you looking to try to stack two adapters? The Speedbooster to convert Micro 4/3 to Nikon and then a Nikon to Canon adapter? 

Brilliant article. Love to read more material like it. Specifically, what the ideal cameras and lenses would be for an action film for example, be it short or feature, with various kinetic stunts and movements involved. I can't stand seeing "modern" shows and movies, where the shutter speed is setup to make fight scenes and chases look more hip. As if there's frames missing. What happened to filming the good old-fashioned, smooth way, where every shot was a cinematic 24 fps one.

Great Article,

                      Its true the Micro 4/3rd has a lon way to go along with New and Established Film-makers!

Excellent article !!!

Thank you very much for all the detailed information you gave me.

Congrats Mr. Thomas Simms!

The Olympus 17mm f2.8 is a terrible lens for video! While the optics are fine, the autofocus is very noisy, and for this reason, is useless for video.

I also own the Pana-Leica 25mm f1.4. Of course optically it is astounding, and the autofocus is completely silent and very smooth. An excellent lens for video (if you are happy with the focal length that is).

The most important consideration for lenses is the silent autofocusing. If using a camera body without image stabilisation built it, a secondary consideration whether the lens is image stabilised. This helps enormously with getting nice footage.