Panasonic recently introduced its ninth micro four-thirds camera, the Lumix GF3, a camera designed for serious photographers who want the benefits of a dSLR in a lighter, smaller form factor. Micro four-thirds is a relatively new camera standard introduced by Panasonic and Olympus in 2008 and one that may be unfamiliar to many photographers.
Is it for you? Whether you’re looking to move up to a more professional camera or extend your camera arsenal, we'll show you how new format cameras stack up against more familiar compact and dSLR cameras.
The micro four-thirds standard was developed through a partnership between Panasonic and Olympus as an alternative to their bulkier dSLR counterparts and the entry-level dSLR cameras made by rivals Canon and Nikon.
If your camera skills have gone beyond the pocket camera, and lugging around a bag full of heavy dSLRs and lenses seems daunting, micro four-thirds cameras are worth consideration.
What is micro four-thirds?
There are three features that when combined, define a micro four-thirds camera: the sensor and associated picture format, the lack of a mirror (which eliminates the need for an optical viewfinder) and interchangeable lenses.
Micro four-thirds is based on an earlier standard, four-thirds, which refers to the size of the sensor inside the camera and the aspect ratio of the picture. Sound familiar? The 4:3 ratio is the same as that of older televisions and is based on the golden mean.
“The golden mean goes back thousands of years to when artists realized that a four-by-three proportion is more pleasing to the eye than any other,” Michael Schoenfeld, a professional advertising photographer, told TechNewsDaily.
Canon, Nikon and others use a 3:2 format, which is the same ratio found in 35mm film.
“The standard of 35mm was simply an accident of small film format brought to us by Leica,” Schoenfeld explained. “Leica invented the 35mm format and camera simply to test motion picture film which is exactly one half of a 35 mm or two-by-three frame. The 3:2 format has been intensely debated for decades and rare is the professional who loves it.”
The image sensor of a micro four-thirds sensor is closer in size to a dSLR sensor and larger than those found in compact cameras.
“A bigger sensor usually results in lower noise in low-light pictures,” he said.
Noise is to digital images as graininess is to film, and both are undesirable. A bigger sensor may also allow the photographer to get a fuzzy or out-of-focus background, a common look desired by professional photographers.
Removing the mirror from the camera was what made the lighter, smaller size possible and put the “micro” into micro four-thirds. Without a mirror, no optical view finder is possible. Instead, micro four- thirds cameras have electronic viewfinders, which may result in a delay, frustrating to professionals and hobbyists alike.
“Push the button and it’s several seconds before the picture is taken. That’s called latency and everyone finds that annoying,” he said.
Panasonic has addressed this problem and has closed the latency gap between its micro four-thirds camera and speedier dSLRs.
Like a dSLR, micro four-thirds cameras feature interchangeable lenses. Photographers can exchange lenses for different types of shots such as close-up, panoramic or wide field of view and narrow field of view or telephoto.
Along with a smaller camera body, micro four-thirds lenses are also smaller and lighter weight. The lenses with their smaller openings offer equivalent performance to their larger, dSLR counterparts.
Panasonic and Olympus are the only major manufacturers of cameras using the micro four-thirds standard.
Open is good for the consumer
The electronics industry is rife with manufacturers who design products that are only compatible with their own line of components. Manufacturers know that if you own a lot of their lenses, you’ll probably buy their next new camera body.
Fortunately, almost any brand of lens can be used with a micro four-thirds camera and a simple adapter.
This is good news for the owners of dSLRs and lenses who have made big investments in their camera equipmen t. Those lenses will most likely fit a micro four-thirds camera, offering a lightweight alternative without the staggering cost of new lenses.
And that’s good news for photographers trading up from a pocket camera. With many lenses to choose from and an open standard, micro four-thirds cameras are a future-proof investment.
In the market
The new Panasonic Lumix GF3 with 12MP sensor and 14mm lens will be available beginning in July for around $700, with other lens/body packages arriving in August starting at $600.
Olympus introduced its latest model PEN micro four-thirds camera this spring, the E-P2 with a 12.3MP sensor, which available for around $650 with a 17mm lens.
Both cameras also record HD video: the Lumix records in 1080i at 60 frames per second or 720p at the same rate, while the PEN offers 720p recording at 30 frames per second.