Micro Four Thirds: The Battle of the Bulge

Micro Four Thirds: The Battle of the Bulge


It’s been a while since we’ve seen a new camera format, and this year brought us two of them. One is Leica’s medium-format-in-a-DSLR-body S2, which has undoubtedly piqued the interest of some pros and those with deeper-than-average pockets.

Perhaps more importantly—at least for your more mainstream customers—is the development of the Micro Four Thirds system. Panasonic released the G1, the first Micro Four Thirds system camera in September and Olympus showed a mock-up of its concept camera at Photokina and Photo Plus East this year.

We recently spoke with Olympus’ Sally Smith-Clemens and David Brigandi, Panasonic’s National Marketing Manager for Imaging about the Micro Four Thirds format and both agreed that the target market for this format are consumers who want the flexibility of interchangeable lenses without the bulk of a standard DSLR system, especially those who are transitioning from compact/point-and-shoot models. Smith-Clemens suggested that the DSLR market is at the saturation point where there is an opportunity to introduce new products such as a Micro Four Thirds system.

We thought a goal of the original Four Thirds system was supposed to be smaller, lighter lenses but that never really happened. But it seems that Micro Four Thirds is fulfilling that goal. Right now, we know that Panasonic’s G1 looks like a very small DSLR, while Olympus’ concept camera resembles a rangefinder.

We think there’s room for both since the Panasonic will appeal to photographers who want the DSLR look; others (including this reporter) would like to see a rangefinder design like Olympus’ concept model. And I’m not alone–while photographing the Olympus concept camera at Photo Plus, at least a half-dozen photographers walked by and commented on how much they loved the rangefinder form factor. But we’ll have to wait and see what Olympus does in the future.

Either way—DSLR or rangefinder body—Micro Four Thirds cameras and lenses are decidedly smaller than even standard Four Thirds systems. However, in order to shrink the camera and lenses, something had to go, namely, the mirror box. That means that Micro Four Thirds cameras are, technically, interchangeable lens cameras but not SLRs. And, without a mirror box, there’s no optical viewfinder – probably not a real dealbreaker for some snapshooters transitioning to an interchangeable lens camera since they’re already using the LCD or, perhaps, even an electronic viewfinder to compose images. We think that there may be some resistance to the EVF from current DSLR users, but that’s yet to be seen. And while the Panasonic G1 has an EVF and a Live View LCD, we still don’t know what Olympus plans to do.

Of more concern, at least among some photographers and reviewers, is the implementation of autofocus. Without phase detection AF, Micro Four Thirds cameras will have to rely on contrast detection AF, which traditionally has been slower than phase detection AF. Early Panasonic G1 test reports from journalists indicate that the camera is, across the board, pretty fast. Panasonic’s Brigandi noted that the L10’s Live View AF takes about 1 second, while the G1’s is about 0.33-0.4 seconds, which is quite impressive.
Brigandi points to several reasons for the camera’s responsiveness, including an additional two pins on the lens (from 9 to 11), which increases the speed of communication between the lens and the camera. An improved Live MOS sensor and a new Venus Engine with dual processors also help boost the camera’s AF speed.

The elimination of the mirror box also translates into smaller lenses (the flange back distance is reduced by 50% with Micro Four Thirds), which also helps boost AF speed. As Smith-Clemens mentioned, there’s less bulk for the motor to move when seeking AF, so autofocus—although based on contrast detection—can be more responsive.

Perhaps the biggest drawback at this point is lens compatibility. Currently, now, there are only two Micro Four Thirds lenses for the Panasonic G1 (more are promised). Although standard Four Thirds lenses will fit on a Micro Four Thirds camera with an adapter, only manual focus will be available unless the lens supports contrast detection AF.

But the new format is perfect for video since there is no mirror. Panasonic will be releasing a Micro Four Thirds with HD video in the near future. We’re still waiting to find out what Olympus has in mind for its model. But for now, it seems that the Panasonic G1 has given the Micro Four Thirds format an excellent start. yy