Unleashing the Beast

Secrets for maximising image quality on mft systems by Eduardo Marquez. Material in this article may not be reproduced, transmitted or distributed in any form without the written permission of Theory4.

Published September 4, 2017

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Backstory

Disclaimer: This article is not sponsored by Olympus or any other company. What I write here is my experience after taking thousands of images with an Em-10, Em5 Mark II, and a Pen-F over a span of 2+ years. Most of the images in Theory4 have been shot with these cameras for professional and personal use.

There is an old misconception that many photographers still have today about cameras: the bigger the sensor, the better the (*insert your preferred technical spec here*). Coming from a D800, a D700, D300, D200, and having used a couple of Fuji X cameras, I was just as skeptical as everyone else the day I won an Em-10 in a local photo contest. I decided to have a laugh and took the E-M10 for a spin - kit lens and all - the next day.

At base ISO, the E-M10 raw's looked just as good as my old champion, the Nikon D700. White balance was always SPOT ON (as opposed to Nikon's warm colour casted images) and tone & sharpness seemed better. What was supposed to be an entry-level toy of a camera soon to be designated as door-stop had just stood toe to toe with one of the best cameras I ever owned.

But there's more.

The raw files had enough latitude to recover plenty of highlights, and the noise was not as bad as everyone claimed. The other complaint which I kept reading about was the system's inability to produce bokeh easily because of it's 2x focal length multiplier, but this was also disproved once I got my hands on the 17mm f1.8 and the ridiculously cheap 45mm 1.8 lens. So what was going on here!? Why wasn't everyone jumping ship to this compact bad-ass system that included image stabilisation, 1/250 flash sync speed, and had lenses half the size and weight of full frame cameras?

Because nobody took it seriously. Few Pro's are willing to take the time to use these cameras for professional work out of a misconception that it won't deliver.

In 2015 I gave this system a proper shot. The following notes are the result of hundreds of hours of experimentation with Olympus cameras both in the field and in post. I abandoned my Nikon gear and worked exclusively with this new system for personal and commissioned assignments. Here are my findings.


01 / Set Adobe Standard as the calibration profile in Lightroom

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Forget the other colour profiles (camera natural, camera neutral, portrait, etc). Adobe standard is the way to go if you want maximum dynamic range and colour accuracy. This goes in contradiction to the popular trend of selecting a profile closest to the in-camera setting, which delivers punchy Olympus colours at the expense of dynamic range and out of gamut reds. If you find your images too flat after switching to Adobe Standard, simply add +45 to the blue primary saturation slider in the camera calibration box.

02 / Calibrate your camera with a colour checker

To get accurate colours in Lightroom & Photoshop you need to calibrate your camera with a colour reference target. I use the SpyderCheckr from Datacolor, but any will do. This is critical for displaying realistic colours in LR & PS. The following example compares the same image of a color checker target with and without the corrections applied: 

With colour calibration activated

Without colour calibration

Notice the hue shift in the blues. The calibrated image shows a true blue sky, while the uncalibrated image shows cyan skies. The difference in these images is subtle, yet it becomes more apparent when you start pushing the raw files. White balance was set to auto.

03 / Shoot at ISO low

Using a micro four thirds system requires more shot discipline then when using a full frame camera because the sensor is less forgiving. Mft cameras have twice the amount of sensor noise at all ISO's when compared to their full frame counterparts, yet most photographers stay away from the low iso option due to its reported cut in dynamic range. I personally have not noticed any significant degradation in dynamic range when using iso low, however what I HAVE noticed is a significant decrease in noise. This is important because digital noise quickly becomes visible as you work through heavy post work. At iso 200 images already display the same amount noise as an iso 400 image taken on FF. It doesn't take much pushing in LR before noise becomes visible in the shadows. Iso low fixes this, and allows the files to be much more malleable before they start falling apart.