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Micro-Four Thirds cameras - Mirror-less reflections

Ketaki Bhojnagarwala | Updated on August 17, 2011 Published on January 24, 2011

Olympus EPL-1   -  BUSINESS LINE

Panasonic Lumix   -  BUSINESS LINE

If you’ve been bitten by the photography bug, chances are that at some point you’ll be looking to make the upgrade from a simple point and shoot to a more professional DSLR. So far, there hasn’t really been a middle path – a semi-professional camera for photographers who want to shoot great looking photos, but don’t want to deal with the complicated functions of a DSLR. This is where a micro four thirds camera comes in – patented in 2008, you now have major players like Panasonic and Olympus who use the technology. So could a micro-four thirds camera potentially replace a DSLR?

How it works

The Micro Four Thirds system is a follow up from the Four Thirds system, which is a new, open standard for DSLR cameras. While the Four Thirds system focussed on a 100 per cent digital concept and high mobility, the Micro Four Thirds system takes this one step further and aims to drastically reduce the size of DSLR cameras, while using the same 4/3 type image sensor used by the Four Thirds system. Micro Four Thirds completely eliminates the mirror box from the camera, and uses the Live View for shooting instead. By doing away with the mirror box, the flange of the camera is effectively reduced, making the camera much more compact.

Since a Micro Four Thirds camera’s body is smaller, the compatible lenses also need to be reduced in size. This has been achieved by making the lens mount diameter up to 6mm smaller, while still allowing the lens to transmit the same amount of optical flux as a Four Thirds camera. It also uses an 11-contact connector between the lens and the camera, which is two more than the 9-contact connector on Four Thirds cameras. However, it is still possible to use Four Thirds lenses on a Micro Four Thirds camera using an adapter.

Today, the main players in the Micro Four Thirds category are Panasonic and Olympus. Panasonic introduced the first Micro Four Thirds camera in 2008, the Lumix DMC-G1, which shipped with a standard 14-42 mm lens. Olympus followed suit with the Pen E-P1 camera in 2009. Both cameras used contrast-detection autofocus and eliminated the optical viewfinder. Subsequently, both companies followed up with further launches in the Micro Four Thirds series, so now photographers can choose from 11 cameras in the category.

Lenses

One of the main reasons people shift from pocket digicams to DSLRs is to be able to use the different lenses on offer. Big players in the DSLR segment such as Nikon, Canon and Sony manufacture a large selection of lenses, and other lens manufacturers like Tamron, Sigma and Tokina make compatible lenses too.

In the Micro Four Thirds category, currently the variety of lenses is limited to what Olympus and Panasonic have on offer. Olympus Micro Four Thirds lenses are available under the brand name M.Zuiko, and include a standard 14-42mm lens, 17mm pancake lens and 75-300 mm zoom lens, among others. Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras are also compatible with standard Zuiko Four Third lenses, with the use of an adapter.

Panasonic’s Lumix G micro system also manufactures a variety of lenses, including a new 3D lens.

Some DSLR lenses are compatible with Micro Four Thirds cameras, however there might be certain drawbacks, such as autofocus and optical image stabilisation not working. Another factor is that DSLR lenses are bulky, and therefore not really suited to the more compact Micro Four Thirds body, making the camera look disproportionate and also making them difficult to handle.

Features

Because of their size, and the elimination of the mirror box, the design and build of Micro Four Thirds cameras are flexible, much like pocket digicams. They are also available in a variety of colours, appealing to a large section of consumers who aren’t professional photographers, but want a camera that looks cool as well as takes a good shot.

Like DSLRs, Micro Four Thirds come with a bunch of scene modes, but focus a lot on manual functions. So you get the standard P, S, A and M modes, as well as full control of ISO, White Balance, Exposure and Metering. Some cameras like the Olympus E-PL1 come with digital zoom as well. The later Panasonic DMC models even come with HD recording, so you can take home videos in high definition.

Pros and Cons

Obviously the first advantage of a Micro Four Thirds camera would be its size. For example, any of the Lumix series of cameras with a pancake lens is easily pocket sized, and much easier to carry around for everyday photography than a bulky DSLR.

The electronic viewfinder also makes it especially easy to adjust exposure, White Balance, etc, giving you a real time preview of how your image will look before you snap the shutter button. This is a more familiar feature to those used to a pocket digicam, making it easier to frame the shot than using an optical viewfinder.

One reason why some photographers prefer Micro Four Thirds cameras is due to inbuilt image stabilisation, which is offered on the Olympus Pen series. This means that even vintage lenses (with the right adapter) can be used on the cameras to achieve great results.

The downside of this is of course the lack of compatible lenses, which limits the usage of these cameras. For example, for sports or wildlife photography, a telephoto lens with a maximum zoom of 400mm or 600mm is a must, and as of now the highest zoom available for Micro Four Thirds is 300mm.

The mirrorless design of these cameras also means that changing lenses can expose the sensor to more dust than DSLRs, which have a mirror and a shutter protecting the sensor.

Another downside obviously is the fact that that these cameras are priced at almost the same price point, or in some cases even more, than DSLRs. So for a photographer who wants to go pro, it makes more sense to invest in a DSLR. The Micro Four Thirds category is fairly limited and new, which also makes the resale value of the cameras less.

Bottomline

Micro Four Thirds cameras have pioneered a change in traditional DSLR design, and even gained a large fan following. However, some factors such as lack of options, high cost and competition from rivals such as Sony’s NEX cameras have deterred many professionals from opting for them. Still, the concept is fairly new, so time will probably tell whether the change will catch on with other players like Nikon and Canon. Until then, if you want to go pro, it might make more sense to opt for a DSLR instead.

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Published on January 24, 2011
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