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Small Chip, Big Chip: Micro 4/3 vs. Full Frame Image Magnification

Mark Vargo, ASC

The difference in apparent image magnification between MFT and Full Frame cameras is important. Know your options before your next shoot.

All Images via Mark Vargo, ASC. 

Micro 4/3 or Full Frame magnification? There are a number of arguments for each: quality, portability, price, practicality. However, one of the most important considerations is the difference in apparent magnification between small chip and big chip cameras. In my opinion, you’ll want to use both.

I’ve always been interested in different film formats, having worked with so many of them as a visual effects artist at ILM and Boss Film Corp. In those days, we used larger film formats like Vista Vision and 65mm to preserve maximum quality due to generation loss — which is inherent in optical composite printing and subsequent release print processes. For proof, look no further than an IMAX film for superior image quality from a large original negative.

Small Chip, Big Chip: Micro 4/3 vs. Full Frame — Aperture Comparisons

In general, the image quality of a small chip compared to a big chip is far less obvious than comparing super 16mm and Vista Vision images. Digital images aren’t plagued by grain, dirt, and negative scratches that are far more onerous on smaller film formats. Plus, the data is digital rather than emulsion-based, so there’s no perceptible quality loss in sharing and copying. In other words, NO emulsion-based printing intermediates are necessary for VFX or release printing. For more about printing intermediates check out “Blue Screen 1980” below.

The playing field is far more level when comparing digital sensor sizes for color, detail, and sensitivity. In fact, the only notable difference is the apparent image magnification relative to the sensor size in a camera. Below are some comparative examples of magnification — or, more precisely, the field of view — differences between small- and large-chip cameras.


50mm

Small Chip, Big Chip: Micro 4/3 vs. Full Frame — 50mm Comparison

For those of you considering a wide angle theme for your next project, a big chip camera might be the way to go. You can capture beautiful wide shots without resorting to spherically imperfect “wide angle” lenses. To get undistorted, high-quality wide shots with a small-chip camera, you’ll need pricey 8, 10, or 12mm lenses. I recommend shooting some tests before you commit to one or the other.


100mm

Small Chip, Big Chip: Micro 4/3 vs. Full Frame — 100mm Comparison

In all of the test photos, the truck was 300 feet from the camera. The 100mm lens in the big chip frame renders a horizontal view of 108 feet and a vertical height of 60 feet. The small-chip horizontal is 52 feet with a vertical dimension of 29 feet — almost twice as tight as the Canon 5D field of view. So, to match the size of the Lumix small-chip 100mm image, you’ll need a 200mm lens on the big chip camera.


150mm

Small Chip, Big Chip: Micro 4/3 vs. Full Frame — 150mm Comparison

If you’re thinking about lensing your next project with a telephoto feel, a small chip camera might be the way to go. The micro 4/3 line of long lenses are small, lightweight, reasonably fast, and well-priced. To match the 150mm micro small chip example above, you would need a 300mm lens, and that can be one big hunk of expensive glass. Think about all the camcorders you’ve owned: lousy on the “wide” end with way more telephoto than a novice ever needed. That’s because those cameras have a very small sensor — an unfortunate, almost counterintuitive design for the beginner resulting in shaky, unwatchable family memories.

Small Chip, Big Chip: Micro 4/3 vs. Full Frame — Lenses

The lens on the left above is a Micro 4/3 Olympus 40-150mm f4-6.3 zoom that I bought used for $125. The lens on the right is a Canon 70-200mm f2.8L zoom that I bought used for $1,600. I shot with these two lenses for this post. The 50mm full frame was photographed with 17-55mm f2.8L zoom.


Final Thoughts

When shooting for the highest possible quality, bring your full-frame sensor camera and lenses. If you need a big telephoto, rent it. You can’t beat the large “negative” image that you can blow up to billboard-sized prints. If you’re packing light, a micro 4/3 system with a couple of zoom lenses is more than adequate, and it’s what I take on vacation, location, and wildlife shoots. The images are very good, and the replacement cost if lost or stolen won’t break the bank — or your heart.


What are your thoughts on micro 4/3 vs. full frame? Let us know in the comments.