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Jan 24

Micro 4/3 vs a Full Frame Legend

Sensor Shootout: Panasonic GH2 vs Panasonic GX1 vs Canon 1Ds Mark II

As many of you are aware by now, I have recently made the switch from Canon DSLRs to the micro 4/3 system.  I’ll all the details for another post, but it was primarily to reduce size and weight. So over the last year or so have sold almost all my DLSR equipment and transitioned entirely to Micro 4/3, namely the Panasonic GH2 and GX1.  These cameras are at the top of the Micro 4/3 format of mirrorless Compact System Cameras and are large sensor interchangeable lens cameras that can provide very high image quality in a very small package.

I had been extremely pleased with the image quality out of my new cameras, and surprised that in print I essentially can’t tell them apart from my old Canon files.  So, before the very last of my DSLR gear goes away in the next week or so, I decided to set up a little test to see in reality how they perform vs what I was shooting.  So I have pitted my little Micro 4/3 cameras against a legend in the camera world: The Canon 1Ds Mark II.

Full Frame Legend

The Canon 1Ds Mark II was the second professional grade full-frame (35mm size) camera released by Canon.  When it was released, people were astounded by its extremely high resolution and amazing image quality.  When it was released, it retailed for $8,000 US.   It is certainly not a new camera, having been released way back in 2004.  Obviously, modern full frame cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II, Nikon D700 and upcoming Canon 1D X and Nikon D4 will outperform this body.

However, I view it as a benchmark camera for a few reasons.  First, when it was released, the 16.7MP resolution was so far above the competition that it remained Canon’s flagship until 2007.  Second, throughout the mid and later 2000s, this camera was used for a HUGE amount of professional work, from landscapes to fashion.   The 1Ds II has seen photos published in the best photo magazines and has been used for gallery exhibitions by a large contingent of photographers.  Finally, while current full frame cameras are better, it is easily safe to say that the image quality out of this beast is good enough for professional use and making large prints (I have personally made 40×30″ prints from this camera that look outstanding).  If many of the best fine art and landscape photographers were able to use this camera for years, it should be good enough for the vast majority of photographers.  In fact, the camera has an almost legendary status in the photographic community and many serious hobbyists and professionals alike still rely on this camera for their best work.

The Contenders:

GH2 with 25/1.4 - 663g

GX1 with 25/1.4 - 536g

1Ds Mark II with 50/1.4 - 2,259g

Now, before the flaming comes on in the comments, a few observations:

1. I know this test is not indicative of ALL shooting conditions.  I tried to set it up so that it would give an indication of performance in a variety of conditions, but obviously there’s a limit to this.  I do not have the time or inclination to re-run this test four or five more times under additional circumstances.

2. My conclusion is about image quality, not any of the other advantages here…I know full frame is capable of shallower depth of field and micro 4/3 is far more portable.  DSLRs have better continuous autofocus (and Micro 4/3 has more accurate and faster single shot autofocus)…that’s not the point of this…mostly.

3. Make your own conclusions.  I’ll present my thoughts on the data, but everything is here for you to look at.

The Setup

To best test these cameras in a situation that I would best see their strengths and weaknesses, I had to decide on a setup.  I chose to do a still life, lit by window light.  I had an extremely overcast day, which ensured that the light would stay constant outside during the test, and the directional and somewhat dim light would ensure a high dynamic range would be present in the captured area, but I didn’t want harsh shadows.  Indeed, when processing the RAW files, the dynamic range of the scene exceeded the available data for all three cameras, which was achieved by shadowing some areas and introducing glass and plastic surfaces which caused large areas of highlights to examine.   I also made sure to include some blue items, some red items and I put my color checker chart to both provide a common white balance target and to see if any obvious color casts would be present.  I didn’t expect much variance in color, however, as you’ll see next.

 

The scene captured by each camera. Focus on the cookie in the middle

To put all cameras in a situation to succeed, all three cameras were processed using custom RAW profiles generated specifically for each individual camera, using the Color Checker Passport and Lightroom.  In this way, each camera’s color should be very close to each other, or as close as they can be given each sensor’s performance.  Since I use these for all my shooting, I didn’t have to do anything special here.  Each camera’s shots were white balanced in Lightroom using the same square of the color chart, and all develop settings were identical.  After RAW import, I recovered as much data as I could from each file, which included recovering shadows until they did not clip any more, (which was, using Lightroom 4 beta, +24 blacks on the GH2 and GX1 and +22 blacks on the 1Ds II).  I also recovered as much highlight data as could be done using the Whites slider (-100).  I used the automatic chromatic aberration removal in LR 4 beta for all shots (though neither lens has a significant amount of CA).

Each camera was set securely in the same spot, with each shutter fired using the 2 second timer, with mirror lockup on the 1Ds II.  I used the camera’s internal meter at -0.3 EV.  While this yielded images extremely close to each other, the GX1 shots metered very slightly darker than the GH2, and the 1Ds II metered ever so slightly lighter than the GH2.  There ended up being about a 1/3 stop difference between the GX1 and 1Ds II shots, with the GH2 sitting 1/6 stop between them.  Keep note of this, but ultimately, I don’t think it has much of an impact on the results.  I didn’t do a straight conversion of shutter speed, f/stop and ISO as the rated ISO is different between different digital cameras, and since natural light was used, I needed the cameras to compensate for possible changes in outdoor light.  While the outdoor light was consistent, I couldn’t guarantee against minor fluctuations.

I used the Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4 lens at f/5.6 on the GH2 and GX1, and I used the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 lens at f/11 on the 1Ds II.  These apertures were chosen as they provide for adequate depth of field to evaluate more of the scene, and they yield identical depth of field for each shot.  Since the sensor is smaller, with an angle of view crop factor of 2 compared to the 1Ds II, I needed to close down two stops on the 50mm lens to achieve the same depth of field.  This is because I was shooting with double the focal length at the same distance.  (Look up a depth of field calculator if you are confused).    Also, since each camera is roughly 16 megapixels, these apertures have the same effect from diffraction, so should be an apples to apples comparison.

Next: The test…

About the author

Jordan Steele

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Admiring Light; Photographer; Electrical Engineer and Dad

28 comments

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  1. cosinaphile

    Jordan, im tremendously impressed by the scope and care you took to make this fascinating comparison

    m 43 is maturing into a real contender… i no longer use my Nikon d 80 for the bulk
    ,i cant wait for your review of the Olympus pro…. ihope you can review one when they come out

    the clarity and style of the review are impeccable i like your approach better than dp review
    your iso 6400 iso with the pushing of the canon was very cool
    your commentary is nicely written too

    thanks loads for this

    paul in nyc

  2. Ulfric Douglas

    Thanks for posting such a careful test and adding tweaking results too, very interesting.
    I particularly like the way clicking on an image enlarges it to a sensible size without any flash-based nosense. Thanks for keeping things simple.
    Can you post a portrait sample too, with near-to-wideopen apertures … I mean in a new comparison section. I’d like to see the real value of 35mm-frame, as I see it.

  3. Deelooloo

    Hi, thanks for the interesting comparison – would be good to see it done with the GH2 on the latest firmware and would also be good to see the images as raw rather than jpeg.

    1. Jordan Steele

      Well, you’re in luck! The above comparisons WERE done with the GH2 on the latest firmware, as well as everything shot in RAW. (I can’t show the images in RAW, as RAW files aren’t viewable on the web). Read the first page and I detail the shooting procedure as well as the RAW processing for each camera. All RAW conversion was done in Lightroom 4 beta, and the images were not touched after conversion.

  4. ASD

    Thanks for test!

  5. Old Jim

    Thank you. I’m amazed at the clarity you bring to this subject. I think I understand everything you reported and was able to see the results in the views.
    I am more often confused after reading a review but that is not the case here. Thanks again! :-)

  6. nobby

    This article has convinced me to go ahead and do what I was considering – selling my DSLR (Nikon) kit, and putting the money into more glass to use with my newly acquired GX1. I hate lugging kit around, and so often the DSLR kit bag was left at home while I pocketed my Canon S95 (or G9 prior to that) and shot with that instead. I’ve only had the GX1 for a couple of days but the instant I first read about it I realised that it was probably the ideal way forward – and as soon as it was in my hands (with the kit compact power zoom attached) and I’d taken a few test shots, I was hooked!

    Thanks for putting together such a concise and informative comparison.

  7. Alan Halfhill

    Jordan, I have also sold my Canon gear in favor of m4/3rds. 2 60D’s, 24-105, 70-200, 10-22, 28, 50, 85, 400 EF lenses. All gone. Bought GH2 with 14-140, 7-14, 100-300, 14 f2.5, 25 f1.4, 45 f1.8 m4/3rds lenses. Adapters for other older lens. Quite a kit.

    Boy did I save money and weight. People are really impressed with the small size of the system and the pictures. How small my camera bag can be.

    The main reason I did this is was on a trip with my 60D and was using Live-View more that the optical viewfinder. I had a HoodLoupe on the swivel LCD. I loved the instant feedback. I thought it would be great to have a Viewfinder that had Live-View. Also, a lot of my work is video production and the GH2 rivals much more expensive cameras in video quality. Better than the Canon.

  8. kai

    the big question here is: is that GH2 stock or hacked? I’ve seen video footage of the GH2 at 12800 with the same amount of grain you’re showing here at 3200. i think it’s unfair to compare a stock gh2 when the hack is free, easy and beefs the camera up so much.

    1. Voldenuit

      Hacking a GH2 does not change its still capture or noise characteristics. The reason HD video is showing less noise at high ISO is because the image has been downsampled from 16 MP to 2 MP when converting to 1080p.

      There’s no reason not to hack the GH2 for video capture, but don’t expect much (if any) improvement to your stills from it.

    2. Jordan Steele

      The GH2 was with the latest official firmware. As Voldenuit mentions, the reason video footage looks cleaner is the reduced size. The stock GH2 shooting video at ISO 3200 looks extremely clean, and ISO 1600 and below shows absolutely no noise at all in video.

  9. JimD

    A good common sense approach to real comparison, that being, what one sees. I read in many articles of pros moving to m43 and having great experiences. Then I remember the “experts” (mostly not pros but self promoting enthusiasts) who derided 43 and m43 because of sensor size, swivel/tiltable monitors, live view, movie mirrorless and noise these were NOT dSLR things. How times change the most of these ‘experts’ have run off with their tails between their legs or are making last ditch stands with the last items of noise and dynamic resolution. They forget that when a print is made or a display is shown on a TV or monitor this is not seen and people don’t seem to care any more.
    What would these people have done with a film camera loaded with a roll of 100 ISO film in the old days when the sun was going down.
    As Jordan has pointed out for most prints and displays the images from M43 are totally acceptable and la lot less painful to achieve.

  10. Mark

    Thanks, very well done. I’m considering a similar switch. As bodies come and go, the real dilemma for m43 is the lenses. Yes there are many,but I don’t see any that can match the canon 14-105+100-400 or oly 14-54/12-60 + 50-200.

    1. Jordan Steele

      Micro 4/3 does still have a little bit of a hole at the long end, with regards to fast lenses, though it should close a bit this year. Panasonic will be releasing a 12-35mm f/2.8 and a 35-100 f/2.8 as well.

      One nice thing is that if you really want to, the Oly 14-54 and 50-200 work very well on Micro 4/3 with the 4/3 adapter. Autofocus and everything. Of course, the lenses are a bit big for the system, but oh well.

  11. Andrea

    wow, this is a nice indipendent test. Simple and to the point.
    Clearly the dynamic range seems the only drawback in image quality then.

    As I do lots of Underwater pictures this is not a major point of disadvantage.
    But the increased depth of field and compacteness of the whole M43 system and lenses make this new technology a true winner.

    As I see new high grade prime lenses coming up there is no reason to look back into the huge dslr land for me. The mighty Canon and Nikon have a lot of work to do now to keep up.

    Thanks

  12. ljmac

    Are you sure the IDs Mk II’s “DR advantage” isn’t just due to a slightly different tone curve, or even a lower contrast lens? The contrast and edge-to-edge sharpness of 4/3rds lenses is almost always superior to their equivalents in other DSLR formats.

    1. Jordan Steele

      Of course, in this test, it would be impossible to rule out what you are suggesting, but I know from experience that the 1Ds II has better dynamic range. This is especially evident in the amount of detail recoverable in the highlight range in RAW. The GH2 and GX1 files can recover a little over half a stop in the highlights. The 1Ds II can recover almost two full stops. It’s rather remarkable, and one of the very few things that made shooting with the 1Ds II better. That said, I’ll take the savings on my back and shoulder and just expose properly (or do an HDR if I need the extra DR).

      1. Voldenuit

        Interesting. I use a GF1 and can recover 1+ stops in post. I do however shoot knowing that m43 has less DR than APS-C (or FF), and it informs my shooting style. In some ways, this has improved my photography, having to think about exposure before pressing the shutter release.

        I have read that the GH2 has less DR than the GH1, so this might be a factor.

        However, I switched from a 40D + L lenses to a GF1 + small primes a few years ago, and my shoulders and back are thankful for the reduced weight.

  13. compactcamerakit

    Good and interesting tests, thank you for publishing this article. I did a quick and simple comparison between the Panasonic G3 (with Panasonic 20mm f/1.7) and the Nikon D700 (with AF 50mm f/1.8D) myself. Having a 16 megapixel sensor the G3 noticeably outperforms the D700 (12 megapixel) when it comes to detail. I was a little surprised by this, because I thought the D700 sensor would still be superior, having larger higher quality pixels or something like that. At higher ISO’s (800-1600) the Nikon D700 yields cleaner images, but with some noise reduction, the G3 files look reasonably good. You do lose some of that extra detail though. I think that the difference in small prints is almost invisible. It also depends on the subject and light conditions at the moment of photographing. Anyway, I too am pleasantly surprised by the technical progress that has been made. A micro 4/3 camera kit weighs less and is much smaller than full frame or even APS-C kit. Also AF on the latest m4/3 camera bodies and lenses is fast and accurate enough for most uses. However, for heavy duty pro work I would not recommend these small systems.

  14. Jack

    I can’t seem to be impressed with the comparison of sensors 7 years apart. The GX1 sensor is performing really well – even more so in the Olympus OM-D. Why don’t you compare the OM-D to the current crop of best APS-C cameras and see it outshine some of them? No handicaps, no generation gaps, 100% fair fight and beating the best out there. That would be really convincing.

    I have seen the samples out there and I am convinced the OM-D can beat the Sony NEX 5N, the 60D or even the D7000 in a fair fight. This is especially true in the JPEG mode, because the Oly JPEG engine is probably the best out there.

    1. JP

      I agree with Jack. Comparing it with a a famous but outdated 1D-II is not entirely fair, and reeks of rationalisation (for switching to 4/3). A better comparison would be with the Canon 7D or the 1D-X.

      1. Jordan Steele

        Well, it’s a 1Ds II, not a 1D II, and what it reeks of is ‘It’s the Canon camera I happen to own.” Not having easy access to a 7D precludes comparisons with it, though I will be doing some comparisons between the E-M5 and the Sony NEX 5N or 7 in the coming weeks.

        However, if you look around, you’ll see that the 1Ds II is slightly superior to the 7D. The 1D-X is not in the same league. We’re talking about a $7,000 brand new pro DSLR. It SHOULD kick the snot out of any m4/3 camera. If it doesn’t, there’s something seriously wrong.

        My rationale for switching from Canon FF with a bag full of L glass to M4/3 was entirely rationalized by size reduction, which is huge. The fact I get quite similar image quality is a nice bonus (especially with the E-M5).

        1. JP

          Fair enough.

  15. Jacques Cornell

    Thanks for sharing this information. It scratched an annoying itch to know how my new GX1 would have compared to my old 1Ds2. I have a 1Ds3 for my commercial work, and it is demonstrably better than the GX1 and 1Ds2 in terms of resolution and dynamic range (much more recoverable shadows), but I find I never take it with me when I go on long walks to shoot landscapes because of the combined weight of the camera, lenses and heavy tripod. Hence the GX1. I’ve long figured that the 1Ds2 was about all I could ever need in terms of IQ for my travel & landscape photos, which I print up to 16″x24″. I suspected that the GX1 was close, and your comparison has put my mind at ease on this score.

    FWIW, I recently tested my Panasonic 14-45 zoom against my Canon 17-40 f4L & 70-200 f4L zooms and found its performance to be as close as to make no difference in a print, which is to say very, very good.

  16. Shamael

    There is only one good reason to use FF, and that is shallow DOF. Now, it is evident, if you compare sensor sizes, that some can’t do in DOF what others can, but, others can perfectly do what some can’t. What does that means? Well with the choice of adapters and lenses on the market, you can get DOF as much as you want on any ILS camera, just get a faster lens. But try to get a full sharpness all over the picture with a FF sensor, here you’re done.

    Now, magnify any FF sensor shot and wee when the moment comes that you see the single pixels. Do the same with an smaller sensor, you will find out the the dynamic range advantage and higher iso performance comes only from the larger pixel size you find on a FF sensor. A 24 mpix FF equals a 12 mpix APSC. Now, what makes me a bit sad, is the pixel race and the thought that more is better. If, today, Sony would redevelop the Nikon D200 sensor and push it with modern techniques to get higher Iso ability, i would like to get a NEX with that sensor right away. We do not race for pixels on the end, we race for billboard sized shots, and, seriously, “who needs that?”. Do you shoot billboards, and if you do, with a soft like fractal designs Print Pro, you just make any size billboard with a 10 mpix shot.

    Steve Huff has made a compared match between Laica M, Sony RX1R, and a Nikon 1V1, and resized all shots of the 3 cameras to same size. Now, Jack, guess what? Well? it’s just the same as you show us here, same quality, different FOF, different color temperatures, but on the end, not worth to spend up to 17000$ for nuts.
    Where one can see real worlds of differences, is on medium format, but here again, take the quality and all the disadvantages, beginning with the real world of difference in prices, and you’re done.

    Take care and tks for the test

    Shamael

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  19. GlueFactoryBJJ

    Great comparison!

    Especially with Canon cameras, which appear to have a LOT of noise reduction going on even when supposedly turned down to their minimum, modern MFT cameras still appear to be able to hold their own with FF cameras of 4-5 years ago. It’s a great time to be a MFT photographer!

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