Micro Four Thirds Compact Camera Systems

May 20, 2011 No Comments by

Can Micro Four Thirds Compact Cameras Kill the DSLR?

by Ian Farrell

Panasonic G1

Photographers have always struggled to find a digital compact camera that can take pictures with the same image quality as a digital SLR (DSLR). Back in the days of film this was no problem: the likes of Contax, Leica and Nikon sold compact cameras with fantastic lenses and superlative build quality, and because compacts and SLRs shared a common light sensitive medium (35mm film), you could be assured of good quality from a small package.

The problem with digital photography is different cameras use different sensors. Where DSLRs use large sensors (eg 24 × 16mm) that are bursting with image quality, compact cameras tend to use tiny chips no larger than a finger nail (as small as 5.76 × 4.29mm). This leads to all manner of problems, from digital ‘noise’ to blown-out highlights and many photographers feel the need to own both a DSLR (“for serious work”) and a compact (“to take everywhere”).

Enter Micro Four Thirds

As if to answer the prayers of those photographers wondering why no manufacturer had yet squeezed a big sensor into a little box, August 2008 saw the announcement by Olympus and Panasonic of Micro Four Thirds – a new camera system that promised something different.

Full-sized Four Thirds (so named because of its 4:3 ratio frame – same as the screen on an old TV) had been around for a few years, becoming the bedrock of Olympus’ DSLR range. These cameras remained pretty bulky, though, thanks to the mirror and prism that enable DSLR users to look directly through the lens. The premise of Micro Four Thirds was simple: do away with the mirror and prism and rely on the camera’s LCD rear screen for composition. This would allow for physically smaller camera designs based around the same DSLR-sized sensor – in this case 17.3 × 13mm. Panasonic was first to launch in October 2008 with the Lumix GMC-G1 – a camera styled to look like a DSLR, but half the size. A new series of lenses accompanied it and set new standards for the rest to follow.

Olympus PEN EP1

Olympus came next with the retro-looking Pen EP-1: a digital camera that borrowed much of its looks and styling from the point-and-shoot Olympus Pen of the 1960s – brown leather case included.

Both cameras were accompanied by a flat, thin ‘pancake’ lens giving photographers what they’d been waiting for: DSLR quality in a small, portable package.

The rise of EVIL

Consumers loved them and bought the new cameras in droves. The press loved them too, despite not being able to agree on a name for this new technology. The cameras couldn’t be called DSLRs as they had no mirror or prism, but then they weren’t compacts either as they had interchangeable lenses. The term ‘hybrid’ was already in use to describe bridge cameras (which are something else entirely), so new names were needed. Compact System Camera (CSC), Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera (MILC) and even Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens (EVIL) were all discussed. The jury, sadly, is still out.

So what does Micro Four Thirds/CSC/MILC/EVIL mean for you? Could you replace your DSLR with a camera that weighs half as much? Well, yes. If you are the type of photographer who shoots good quality travel photography, portraits of the kids and enjoys some creative projects at the weekend, then something from the Micro Four Thirds stable will give you pictures that are every bit as good as an entry-level or mid-range DSLR. And maybe some new features too, like HD video.

There are downsides, of course. Focusing is slower than you’d experience with a DSLR, though not as pedestrian as in some compact cameras. You may also be frustrated by the lack of an optical viewfinder. Most CSCs use electronic viewfinders that are not a patch on the real thing, exhibiting poor colour accuracy and a delay that takes some getting used to. All this means that if you shoot action or serious portraiture, a traditional DSLR is likely the best option.

Other options

Sony NEX 5

Manufacturers outside the Micro Four Thirds consortium have also developed CSCs of their own. January 2010 saw Samsung release their diminutive NX10 while Sony released their NEX range of cameras later the same year, sporting sensors the same size as you’ll find in most Sony DSLRs.

Intriguingly, though, the two biggest players in the camera market are strangely quiet about CSCs. At the time of writing, neither Canon nor Nikon have announced such a system, although anyone with an eye on the retail market at the moment might say that they should hurry up. Compact System Cameras made up over a quarter of all interchangeable-lens cameras sold in January of this year, according to a report by GfK Retail and Technology Ltd. That’s a 160 per cent rise on the previous year. Canon and Nikon, meanwhile, are losing market share.

The appeal of these cameras is incredibly broad. Tourists and travellers love the pseudo-SLR design of Samsung’s NX11 and the incredible Panasonic Lumix GH2 and a huge number of professional photographers have the diminutive Panasonic GF1 or Olympus Pen at the bottom of their bag in case a money making photo-opportunity should rear its head.

Samsung NX11

For some photographers, it’s not just the size of these cameras that appeals. The lack of mirror allows the lens mount to be closer to the sensor than in normal DSLRs meaning virtually any old manual-focus lens can be used via an adapter. In fact the Micro Four Thirds system has more lens-mount adapters available for it than any other camera platform. If you have old Nikon, Leica, Olympus OM, Pentax or even Hasselblad optics tucked away in a cupboard gathering dust, then they could be put to good use on a Compact System Camera.

What next for the CSC?

Leica X1

Manufacturers that are already in the CSC club are producing more cameras bodies, accessories and lenses (from telephoto to ultra-wide angle) all the time and new players are entering the market too. Leica’s super sexy X1 may not have interchangeable lenses but it does sport a large sensor and super sharp optics. Likewise Fuji’s new X100

Fujifilm X100

seems to marry the best of modern digital technology (large sensor included) with classic rangefinder styling for a unique approach to a camera.

So is the DSLR dead? Well no, not yet. But it has got a distinctly bloody nose.


Want to buy a Micro Four Thirds snapper?  Here are some links:

Fujifilm FinePix X100 which, for all its slick, retro good looks costs over £1,000.
Leica X1 Black which is even more expensive….
Panasonic Lumix GF1 Black a slightly less eye-watering £599.99
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2K with 14-42mm Lens Kit in Black: £805.61
Samsung NX11 in Black: £459.00
Samsung NX10 in Black: £394.99
Sony NEX5AS with 16mm F2.8 Lens in Silver (this is the cheapest version of the NEX 5 at £390.79
Panasonic Lumix G1: £385 (used)


About the author

Ian Farrell is a journalist and photographer from Cambridge, UK. He has been shooting pictures since his parents bought him an SLR for his 12th birthday, and hasn’t been far away from a camera since. Ian has written for some of the world’s best-known photographic magazines, including Amateur Photographer, The British Journal of Photography and DSLR Photography and was editor of Professional Photographer magazine from 2005 until 2009 when he became a freelance professional portrait photographer.