Little Big Cameras
Your next digital camera may adhere to a standard you've never heard of: Micro Four Thirds
Launching a new consumer electronics category is a risky business, and it doesn't help when it's squeezed into the no-man's-land between two other categories. Tablet computers, for example, are awkwardly situated north of smartphones in size and south of notebooks in performance.
With November's launch of the Olympus E-P2, the population of the no-man's-land between the top end of point-and-shooters and the low end of digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras reached five models. But there's little indication that the public understands the new category any better than it did in August 2008, when Panasonic and Olympus launched their first Micro Four Thirds cameras.
That's the cumbersome name the industry uses for these so-called pro-sumer cameras: Micro represents their smaller footprint compared to that of DSLRs, and the digits stand for the 4:3 aspect ratio of their midsize detectors. A blend of professional and consumer, "pro-sumer" identifies what manufacturers fervently hope is a growing category of more feature-laden (and pricey) cameras and interchangeable lenses in a postfilm world.
According to a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association, only 6 percent of the 32 million cameras sold last year were DSLRs, and Micro Four Thirds sales were so low that the association didn't even bother to track them.
If the new category lacks consumer acceptance, at least it has a standard to lean on. In the late 1990s, Olympus, Panasonic, and five other camera and lens companies created a digital photo standard called Four Thirds, around which both camera bodies and detachable lenses could be created.
"A lot of manufacturers were morphing 35-mm cameras into digital designs," says Richard Pelkowski, a digital-camera product manager at Olympus. "We felt that we really needed a clean slate. We wanted to go with designs that are smaller and more compact." He says the Four Thirds' charge-coupled-device footprint was designed to maximize image quality, minimize size, and remove any 35-mm film legacy from digital photography. Four Thirds cameras also have shorter focal lengths and thus smaller lenses: Their 25-mm lenses are equivalent to 50-mm lenses on a standard SLR. According to the Four Thirds consortium's Web site (http://www.four-thirds.org), there are more than 40 different lenses on the market, from Olympus's 8-mm fish-eye to Sigma's 50- to 500-mm supertelephoto 10x zoom.
Micro Four Thirds eliminates the SLR mirror box, viewfinder, and, says Pelkowski, "a lot of internal components that are from analog days." Losing the mirror box is a big step: Without a separate through-the-lens viewfinder, simpler, faster, smaller cameras are possible. Micro Four Thirds cameras are between three-quarters and two-thirds the size of DSLRs but retain much of their higher-end cousins' image quality and low-light capability--or at least that's the idea. And some of the pros find the format promising.
Consider J. Dennis Thomas, a professional photographer in Austin, Texas. He uses DSLRs for his in-studio work but grabs a 12-megapixel Olympus E-P1 Micro Four Thirds shooter when he heads out for a hike or a walk downtown. "You can stick it right in your pocket," he says, and despite the E-P1's smaller footprint, "it does have a much larger sensor than your basic compact camera. That's going to give it a higher signal-to-noise ratio and a little more control over depth of field."
Focal Point: There are already more than 40 lenses for Micro Four Thirds cameras.
The smaller footprint allows Thomas's street shooting to be more candid. When he aims his DSLR, people often ask him which newspaper their pictures will be appearing in. But with his Micro Four Thirds, he says, "my eyeball's not up to the camera. It just looks like I'm pointing it in a general direction.
Jay Kinghorn, a Salt Lake City professional photographer (who's sponsored, in part, by Olympus) says that Micro Four Thirds cameras have image sensors about the size of your thumb. By contrast, point-and-shoot and smartphone cameras have sensors no larger than a fingernail and "a usable range that's limited to bright daylight for optimum results." When you step up to Micro Four Thirds, he says, "you have smaller camera size, and now you're looking at very good shots in an indoor situation."
A spokesperson from Panasonic adds that its high-end Micro Four Thirds model, the Lumix GH1, has also found a niche among independent filmmakers, who have praised it for its full 1080p high-definition video. And, like any Micro Four Thirds camera, the GH1 is one small adapter away from the cornucopia of Four Thirds lenses.
I spent three weeks shooting with the Olympus EP-1 instead of a regular point-and-shoot camera. I liked the better picture quality, but the general sluggishness and noisy autofocus in HD video mode made its US $800 retail price a deal breaker. (According to Thomas, pros don't really use autofocus: "You set up the scene, focus, and shoot.") Other Micro Four Thirds cameras get better reviews, such as the GH1, but its $1500 price tag seems a lot more "pro" than "sumer."
I'd give this product category a little more time. As prices drop and performance improves, Micro Four Thirds could soon fill the gap between the camera on your cellphone and the DSLR you don't really need.
About the Author
Mark Anderson is an author and science writer based in Northampton, Mass. He is a frequent contributor to IEEE Spectrum.