Maximum Micro Four Thirds Image Quality

by Nov 23, 2021Photography Blog

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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Maximum Micro Four Thirds Image Quality

Let’s start by answering the big question many of you will be wondering about. Yes, Micro Four Thirds cameras can produce great image quality. In a moment, I’ll explain how you can maximise your image quality when shooting with a Micro Four Thirds camera. But first, you need to know why it’s possible, even likely, you’ll see image quality issues.

Quality Problems with Micro Four Thirds Cameras

It’s very easy to produce poor quality images when shooting with a Micro Four Thirds camera unless you take the steps outlined in article. The camera manufacturers also haven’t the situation in the past. A few years back when there was surge in Micro Four Thirds interest, rather than continuing to produce good cameras with high quality lenses, they chose to launch low-cost, budget equipment.

The good news is, if you pair todays’ Micro Four Thirds cameras with a good quality lens, you will produce an extremely sharp and detailed image.

But detailed, sharp images aren’t the only characteristics of image quality. Image noise is a factor and something many who try the Micro Four Thirds format complain about. Critics of the Micro Four Thirds format will claim that the sensors are noisy because they’re too small, but this isn’t true as you’ll see in a moment. In fact, this is a good point to talk about our first method of maximising Micro Four Thirds image quality which relates to exposure.

Controlling Camera Exposure

From talking to many photographers, most appear to rely on their camera to get the exposure right and only check the histogram for clipping. Some photographers will even deliberately underexpose their shots slightly to ensure there is no highlight clipping in the scene. They then correct the exposure in their RAW converter during post processing. With many cameras, especially full frame cameras, this approach works well. But it doesn’t work well with Micro Four Thirds cameras. In fact, it will produce significantly lower quality images.

Here’s an example to of what can happen when you underexposed an image using a Micro Four Thirds camera.

Recovering shadows in Micro four thirds RAW files often produces poor results

Here you can see the original raw file on the left which was exposed for the brightest areas of the scene. Now look at the image on the right to see what happens when you try to recover the shadow detail. The immediate problem you see is the horrible colour cast in the shadows. And if you were to magnify the recovered shadow area (watch the video at the end to see this), you’ll find lots of noise with poor detail and sharpness.

The problem here is that the dynamic range isn’t in the shadows in a Micro Four Thirds camera, it’s in the highlights. To see the difference, look at this next image.

micro four thirds image exposed for the shadows

Here we can see the original RAW file on the left, which was exposed to open the shadow detail, but this has caused the sky to blow out. The image on the right is the corrected RAW file where the highlights have been largely recovered (I could have gone further).

Highlight recovery in Micro Four Thirds RAW files is extremely easy and produces the best quality images. If you were to magnify this image and examine the shadows, you would find they are free from noise, any colour cast, and there is lots of sharp detail.

So, if you want to maximise the image quality of your Micro Four Thirds camera, expose for the shadows, and recover the highlights in postprocessing. But do remember, there is still a limit to how much highlight recovery you can successfully apply. You will need to spend some time experimenting with and learning the limits of your camera. If in doubt, always bracket the exposure so you can apply exposure blending techniques if necessary.

Take Care When Sharpening Photos

Assuming you’ve exposed your image for maximum quality, the next problem to avoid happens when you apply sharpening. I’m sure you’ve heard the advice not to sharpen the sky in your photos. Despite this many photographers continue to apply capture sharpening to the sky in their images. In fact, the design of some of the most popular RAW converters encourages this.

Consider Lightroom where you apply a default level of capture sharpening to the entire frame in the Details Panel along with noise reduction. Because there isn’t an obvious way to avoid sharpening the sky with these controls, many photographers choose to ignore the problem.

With many cameras, and especially full frame cameras, a small amount of sharpening to areas like the sky doesn’t cause a problem. But with Micro Four Thirds format images, it can lead to serious quality issues. The problem isn’t the camera but rather how you are processing the RAW file.

Sharpening a micro four thirds raw image using the Masking slider

One easy way to reduce the negative effect of image sharpening in areas like the sky is to use the Masking slider in the Details Panel.

To see what’s happening, when you sharpen an image, hold down the option key (alt key on a PC) whilst moving the Masking slider. When the slider is to the far left, the entire image will be white. This tells you that the sharpening is applied to every pixel. As you move the Masking slider to the right, you will see that the edges in the image are shown in white whilst the other areas of the image are black. The white areas are where the pixels are being sharpened whilst the black areas receive no sharpening.

By using the Masking slider, you can limit the sharpening applied to the sky and this simple step can significantly improve image quality. Unfortunately, this isn’t a perfect solution. You will still find you sharpen some edges that are detected in clouds. Fortunately, there is a solution.

Removing all Capture Sharpening from the Sky

It’s quite easy to remove all sharpening from the sky in an image. The first step is to select the sky using the Lightroom masking tools. If you’re using version 11 of Lightroom or later, you can use the new select sky feature. Alternatively, if you’re using an earlier version, you can use the Linear Gradient to select the sky, but you may then need to remove areas with the Erase Brush. If you’re not sure how, this series of short Lightroom videos will help.

Removing sharpening from the sky

Having selected the sky, move the Sharpness slider in the adjustment controls left to -50. A value of -50 completely removes all sharpening applied to an image in the Details Panel. Values lower than -50 will blur the selection so try to avoid going too low.

Selecting the sky to remove the sharpening isn’t the only step to take. You can also apply additional noise reduction to the area. This is easy to do using the Noise slider in the selection controls.

Remember, to maximise Micro Four Thirds image quality you should limit the sharpening you apply to the sky or other areas of continuous tone. At the same, you should consider applying additional noise reduction to those areas if necessary. This allows you to limit the noise reduction you apply to the image globally which means you probably need less sharpening.

Another useful tip you’re using DxO PhotoLab 4 Elite or later is to apply deep prime noise reduction. This alone will be sufficient to produce excellent processing results with Micro Four Thirds RAW files although I still recommend taking care with the exposure.

Be Careful with Dehaze Adjustments

As well as sharpening, Adobe Lightroom has another adjustment control that can cause problems with Micro Four Thirds image quality. That adjustment is the Dehaze slider. Dehaze can be an effective adjustment for landscape photo editing, but with Micro Four Thirds RAW files you must be careful.

If you haven’t taken the time to remove unnecessary sharpening from areas like the sky, or you haven’t applied noise reduction to these areas, then the Dehaze slider is likely to introduce unwanted texture. You might also find that the Clarity slider can cause similar problems when used globally.

If you’re using a RAW converter other than Lightroom, it may have similar editing adjustments to the Dehaze and Clarity sliders. Treat these with a similar level of caution when editing your Micro Four Thirds RAW files.

Now take a moment to watch this video where I demonstrate and explain the editing mistakes discussed in this article.

Maximum Micro Four Thirds Image Quality Summary

To maximise the quality of your Micro Four Thirds images, you must address three important areas:

  1. How you expose the scene when capturing your RAW file.
  2. Where you apply sharpening to your image.
  3. Where and how to apply noise reduction to your image.

When you adopt the advice in this article, I’m confident you will achieve excellent image quality. The Micro Four Thirds format is extremely versatile and can produce excellent photography when used correctly.

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