Full Frame vs Micro 4-3 Revisited with Pro Olympus Lens

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About Chris Corradino

"Through the lens, I learn more about myself and the world around me. From the fragile beauty of a fleeting moment, to the destructive capabilities of man and nature, my camera is a vessel of self expression. Though this journey began as a personal one, I’ve had the honor of sharing my images with a worldwide audience. Recent credits include the Associated Press, USA Today, National Geographic Online, The New Yorker, and Wall Street Journal. While I’m truly proud of these accomplishments, perhaps my greatest joy comes from teaching others how to control their camera and fulfill their creative vision."

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Months ago I shot a head to head comparison with my OMD E-M10 and a Canon 6D. In that test, the 6D image was clearly sharper, but the lens used on the E-M10 was not necessarily known for its quality (17mm f2.8).

Many readers on the 43rumors site mentioned the need to shoot it again, but with a better lens. Fast forward to a few months later, and the Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 is now my go-to lens for the mirrorless system.

The optical quality of the 12-40 is no secret as it’s one of the highest rated options in the micro four-thirds line. What a difference a lens makes, as this time, the results were vastly different. Before digging into the close up comparisons, I thought it would be helpful to show the full scene for context.

About the Test

Camera Left: Canon 6D with Canon 17-40mm f4

Camera Right: Olympus OMD E-M10 with Olympus 12-40 f2.8*

*I did have a polarizer on the Olympus for this shot. While it does change the color in the sky, and look of the water, it does not benefit the overall sharpness. As such, I don’t believe it skews the findings in an unfair way.

Below: Magnified portion of image viewed at 1:1 using XY comparison in Lightroom CC.

  • It should be noted that this was not a scientific test as the camera settings were not precisely the same, nor was it done in a studio. They were however, close enough to make it a fair real world comparison. Both were shot handheld with a fast enough shutter to prevent camera shake. Ironically enough, they were taken one year apart, almost to the same day and time.
  • Both images were captured as RAW files with no noise reduction or sharpening applied. These were loaded straight into Lightroom CC, and compared with the XY comparison tool using the 1:1 option. These are the screenshots from my Mac.

The first thing that jumped out at me were the corners of the frame. On the Canon image, they are incredibly soft, almost unacceptably so. Meanwhile, as most reviewers have noted, the Olympus is sharp from corner to corner.

From there, I looked at the clarity of the foliage which was blotchy at best on the 6D. Compared to the EM10, they look terrible. Wind was not the issue here, nor was depth of field.

In fact, the 6D was set to f10 which is the sweet spot for the 17-40mm with little diffraction. Meanwhile the OMD E-M10 was at f4 and considering the DOF equivalent, this means the f4 provided the equivalent depth of field as f8 on a full frame camera.

At this point I started asking myself, how can this be possible!? Based on everything I’ve read about sensors, it seemed inconceivable that an entry level mirrorless could out-punch a full frame DSLR. Yet, the results clearly speak volumes.

I then looked at the center of the frame, and this is where the images were largely similar. This proves that the technique used to capture the Canon shot was not flawed by technique, but rather optics.

It leads me to believe the issue is due to the limitations of the lens towards the outside of the frame. This would be more understandable for a kit lens, but it’s an “L” series designed by Canon to meet the needs of professionals. In fairness, it has served me very well as my go-to for landscape shots all over the world in a variety of conditions. Moving forward however, I see its role being greatly diminished.

This research came just in time as I prepare for an expedition around Iceland. I already love the functions and usability of the OMD E-M10, but wanted to make absolutely sure it could give me terrific output I need for professional use including stock, magazines, and large prints.

This lens is a game changer, and I won’t hesitate to use the Olympus over the Canon for these once-in-a-lifetime landscapes.

I welcome your insight into these surprising results. If you’d like to see the actual RAW files, you can download them here.


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  • Rich

    Thanks for the comparison, it makes me feel a bit better with my purchase of an Olympus E-M5 II. I fell in love with the build quality and look of the O-MD line and last year I finally decided to finally invest in a “good” camera after many years of using a film SLR. When the digital era arrived I purchased several point and shoots but never invested in another good camera. Having never owned a larger sensor DSLR I’ve been bothered by the feeling that I was possibly missing out on better photos, particularly when it comes to noise and higher ISO performance… also I see that larger sensor cameras appear to be more popular and also seem to be taken more seriously on the many photography sites I visit. I did buy the 12-40mm Pro, and though it’s a bit large and heavy for the E-M5 II it’s the lens I use most of the time. I still question my choice of M4/3 at times but I’ve already invested a good deal of money in it, though If I were to switch over I would probably consider one from the FujiFIlm camera line.

    • BigEnso

      Rich, I was a Nikon shooter up until about 2 years ago. I had been using Nikon equipment for over 40 years. After lugging a D800 and some big glass around Europe for a month, I came back, sold all of my Nikon stuff and moved to an Olympus OM-D EM-1 with the 12-40 f/2.8. It was the best move I ever made. I don’t use the 12-40 for travel though. I use a Tamron 14-150 f/3.5-5.8 Di III. It is the only M43 lens Tamron makes and it works great. What makes the E-M1 (and most likely the E-M5 II) so great is the image stabilization system. It has allowed me to get shots handheld that I would not have been able to shoot on the Nikon without a tripod. Considering how many places prohibit tripods these days, that is a blessing. As an example, I was back in Europe shooting in a cathedral in Budapest which was not particularly well lit. I was able to shoot a 1 second, ISO 200, f/8, 14 mm (28 mm equivalent) image handheld. If you do a 100% crop of the back wall, you can still read the writing. You can take a look at it here if you like: http://www.davidkuenleyo.com/p219534738/h4fc7e6e7#h4fc7e6e7

      • Rich

        David, thanks for your input, that is a beautiful shot! I really appreciate your take on it considering you had been using a full frame camera. Do find the high ISO performance of Micro Four Thirds a disadvantage at all?

        • BigEnso

          Rich, no I don’t. One of the nice things about the image stabilization is that it lets me shoot at a lower ISO than I would have without it. Even at higher ISOs though, I haven’t had any problems. I looked for something shot at an ISO higher than 1600 but with the IS, I never seem to go hither than that.

          These two images were shot at ISO 800: http://www.davidkuenleyo.com/p631382227/h7D24208C#h7d24208c http://www.davidkuenleyo.com/p1034098398/h466a8871#h466a8871 And this was at ISO 1600: http://www.davidkuenleyo.com/p631382227/h76918877#h76918877 All were handheld.

          • Rich

            They look great, I looked through some of your other images too and they’re all really nice. Looks like you’ve traveled to some pretty cool places. I didn’t know Tamron made that lens… I’m curious about why you chose it over the Olympus 14-150mm as they’re relatively close in physical size, aperture, and price.

          • BigEnso

            I checked DxOMark for their evaluation and since they were essentially the same, I went with Tamron based on price. It was roughly $150 less than the Olympus. I definitely haven’t been disappointed with the choice.