What is Micro 4/3rds?


posted on 19th of january, 2010

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.

Comments (22)

Posted by Peanutroaster on October 18, 2011
All of my photos to date are on a 4/3s camera - Lumix DMC-G2 (I sold off the kit lens rather quickly when it didn't cut the mustard and got a few better lens).
Posted by Bradcalkins on June 12, 2010
No problem :) I have been using friend's Pentax 50mm f/2 on it as it has an aperture ring as well... I keep thinking there must be a way to take the adapter and add aperture control, plus power for IS.
Posted by Retina2020 on June 12, 2010
Hey Brad. Thanks for the info. Quite impressive actually. Too bad I have Canon lenses. I know a lot of people using Nikon Lenses on it since they have the aperture adjustments on the lens. Thanks again.
Posted by Bradcalkins on June 09, 2010
I would say about 10% or less... But it rises to about 100% when I talk about my travel shots ;) Except for family vacations I now take the GF1 only when I head out on business trips for the compact size. I can honestly say that I no longer need to worry that it will run into approval issues on DT (like my compact used to). I initially thought I would use it for macro and basic stock shots for the higher resolution, but I still much prefer my SLR when the choice is there. Take a look at my comparison with my brother in law's S90... Not huge - but crisper in the details and way less fringing, etc.

I'm not really a video expert by any means - but I love the video on my GF1 for family stuff.
Posted by Retina2020 on June 09, 2010
Hey Brad. What percent of your stock photos are you currently submitting are from your micro 4/3? I too am looking into that as an option for more compactness and video capabilities compared to getting a Canon 7D.
Posted by Bradcalkins on February 20, 2010
Good point Gmargittai - I always forget that the G1 and GH1 are micro 4/3s too. While they are excellent cameras with better features in many ways it seems it took a slight reduction in body size to help the format take off...
Posted by Gmargittai on February 18, 2010
Actually the Panasonic G1 (the first m43) is not that small. It has an electronic viewfinder, so you do not always need to use the LCD.
I am using it as my main camera and am very happy with it. Practically the image quality is not different than an APSC DSLR and the tilting LCD allows all kind of new ways to hold the camera while taking pictures.
Posted by Bradcalkins on February 09, 2010
Another camera model has joined the micro 4/3rds club - the Olympus E-PL1. It seems to be geared at more point and shoot users, but aside from the lack of dials and immediate access to some controls it offers amazing quality at a reduced price (compared to the E-P1, E-P2 and Panasonic GF1). Check out the sample images on DPReview.
Posted by Bradcalkins on February 05, 2010
Thanks for using my image, Chris!
Posted by Chrisrawlins on February 03, 2010
Interesting read - I've never thought about the mirror in an SLR and I had no idea about the format you're using.

It certainly takes great pictures - I've used the first image in this blog for my blog. I love the colours and the feel of the photo. Sorry to comment here, I went to your page but couldn't see a way to send you a message. If you want to see it. Type 'Health for the Middle Ages Blog' in google and it should appear first.

Thanks again for the picture and an interesting read.

Congratulations on winning an assignment too!
Posted by Bradcalkins on January 29, 2010
Destiny - nice to see a fellow Albertan! Every month I wonder where the next 50 images will come from, but somehow it works out :)

Tan510 - thing are getting more complicated. I often wonder how anyone who isn't good with computers manages with digital photos...
Posted by Adeliepenguin on January 29, 2010
Excellent. Thank you. I heard about these cameras but haven't had the time to learn about them.
Posted by Tan510jomast on January 25, 2010
Good article. Isn't it ironic? The simpler we try to make things with progress the more complicated things get.
I can remember how a long time ago when they said that with computers we will all be working less, and killing less trees. roflmao, you know the answer for that.
I feel the same for DSLR and everything hi-tech, or as Pat Metheny once coined it "options anxiety" and the never ending updates we are faced with every time we open Windows.
Do you remember the first time we heard the phrase "built in obselescence"? Gosh, it's been so long ago, I can't even remember how long ago. lol.
Posted by Destinyvispro on January 22, 2010
Hey Brad, thanks for another well-written article. For now the pocketbook rules with me. :) If you ever want to share your work-flow and how you manage to consistently upload, sign me on as an interested party from AB. Cheers! Destiny
Posted by Bradcalkins on January 21, 2010
You're welcome!

Creativei - I haven't thought much about teaching a class, but I have thought about a PDF on searching using the Dreamfinder :)
Posted by Hlehnerer on January 20, 2010
Very informative! Thank you!
Posted by Marilyngould on January 20, 2010
Well written and very helpful, thank you!
Posted by Littlemacproductions on January 20, 2010
Great info.. thanks for taking the time to put it together.
Posted by Creativei on January 20, 2010
Brad, very informative, as usual. Thanks for sharing, Brad have you ever thought of starting a photographic class????
Posted by Fultonsphoto on January 19, 2010
First I have heard of it, and with those price tags I will rather build on my existing system, but the results seem really good for you so far, and thanks for sharing info.
Posted by Wildmac on January 19, 2010
Excellent article! Thanks Brad, I've been wondering what all the fuss was about these cameras and you've explained your experiences with it very well. Cheers Carol :)
Posted by Mani33 on January 19, 2010
Unfortunately I can not share you anything about this format at the moment! But what I can share is to thank you for these useful information! Cheers ;)



Comments (22)

This article has been read 2139 times. 10 readers have found this article useful.
Photo credits: Brad Calkins.

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