Micro four thirds has been around for a bit now, but seems to be getting a lot of interest since the Olympus EP-1, EP-2 and Panasonic GF-1 were announced. After winning one of the assignments here recently I decided to splurge and get a Panasonic GF1
to replace my Canon G10.
I have to say that I couldn't be happier with it! After having used it for a month I thought I would present some of my experiences with the format, and dispel some misconceptions:
1. What is micro four thirds? It is a variant of the Four Thirds Standard
developed by Olympus. It is based on the same 4/3 sensor (21.63mm diagonal) that is about 1/4 the area of a frame of 35mm film (full frame). The difference that makes it 'micro' is the loss of the mirror typical of DSLRs. This reduces the possible distance between the sensor and the back of a lens. As well, the format defines additional lens contacts to aid in faster and smoother live view for video.
2. Why all the fuss - isn't it just another format size? Yes, but the lack of a mirror and the slightly reduced sensor size means you have lots of room to put on adapters allowing all kinds of older manual lenses to be used. I'm not sure why it deserves such excitement, but I have to admit I love putting other camera's lenses on my GF1 and getting shots. This winter scene was taken with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 lens.
3. Is it really better than a compact, and as good as an APS-C DSLR? In my experience so far, coming from a Canon G10, I do get better results from the GF1. Stock is a particular niche that benefits, in my opinion. When you are talking about 'regular' snapshooters that only ever print a 4x6 it doesn't really matter much. But when you are submitting shots to be reviewed at 100% the pixel level detail, sharpness and noise really does matter. I have a higher acceptance ratio with this format than a compact and better yet much less time spent processing. I've never had to downsample an image to get rid of noise or grain. As for being as good as a DSLR I must say that it is close. Better would be quite a stretch :)
4. What advantages does it offer? Size is the main advantage for me. Lots of people in forums say that an entry level DSLR is really quite close in size, but for me the difference is noticeable.. I owned a Canon Rebel XT with 50mm f/1.8 lens, one of the smallest available and I NEVER fit it in any pocket on a jacket. The GF1 with 20mm pancake lens, on the other hand, really does go everywhere with me. The 20mm f/1.7 lens is a significant factor in this format's success. f/1.7 is just that much faster than f/2.8 that I find myself getting acceptably sharp shots indoors at ISO 200-400.
Another perk is that it makes full use of the live view on the LCD, letting you compose in different crop ratios, black and white, and with a live histogram (though it has its problems there). The fact that the format, including mount, is 'open' mean that at least two manufacturers (Olympus and Panasonic, plus Sigma) are making lenses and accessories.
The design and size of the sensor means that light can strike the sensor more straight on, making certain types of lens problems less of a factor. As well, the system can be lighter and smaller for the same aperture. The bigger sensor also means you get some depth of field back (or rather the ability to isolate with narrow depth of field) compared to a compact camera.
Finally, I find it to really be the sweet spot of pocketability and usability. Faster than a compact with higher quaility, yet without some of the limitations on the smaller DSLRs, especially when shooting video.
5. How about disadvantages? Price is the most significant issue right now. The GF1 is more expensive than all entry level DSLRs and the lenses aren't cheap either. The 7-14mm wide angle is $1500, and the 45mm macro $1099. I'm very happy with the body and 20mm lens, and with a cheap adapter can use my EOS lenses (in full manual without aperture control!). If I needed a few lenses I don't think I'd jump in just yet. Also, compared to a DSLR of good quality it doesn't cut it in terms of AF performance for sports, and is hard to hold for telephoto shots. Finally, the only options for viewing are live/electronic. There is no optical option. For some, viewing on an LCD only is problematic both in bright sun and becuase they can't focus close due to aging eyes (I haven't had a problem with bright sun, and my eyes are fine in that regard). Some cameras like the Panasonic GH1 or Olympus EP-2 have high quality Electronic Viewfinders to help in this regard.
All in all I think it is a format with a lot of promise, especially as video takes hold. A camera with a mirror in it that is used with the mirror up (for live view stills or video) just doesn't make sense. Get rid of the mirror and make the best of it. That is the intent of this format. For most people the loss of sensor size is made up by the fact that sensors these days are really good. For stock it wouldn't be my only choice, and I still submit most photos with my Canon 40D, but compared to the G10 it is a much better choice for my pocket! (though not the pocket book!)
Feel free to share your thoughts or experience with this interesting new format.