Micro Four Thirds Format for Filmmakers
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.
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.
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 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.