Musings on Micro Four Thirds

On 19 September 2008 the Large Hadron Collider created a black hole that sucked us all into a parallel universe. The cover-up claimed that a fault had damaged several of the magnets but apart from that nothing untoward had happened. They would say that, wouldn't they?

In this parallel universe, things are not as we remembered. Santa doesn't exist. The Earth goes round the sun. Water really can remember the influence of chemicals even when diluted beyond the level identified by Avogadro's constant, and homeopathy turns out to be true after all. Sometimes I find that I am the last person around to know such important things!

At Focus on Imaging at the NEC in 2010, I became possibly the last person to discover that the Single Lens Reflex concept may be nearing the end of its useful life. Luddites like myself may argue against this. But I expect the rest of you are already aware of it, and are puzzled that some people are finding it so hard to catch up. I'll try to redeem myself by showing that I really do understand, honest!

The defining feature of an SLR is the mirror, of course. It takes up space, and so forces lenses to stay a significant distance from the plate ... er, film ... oops, sensor. This causes many lenses, especially wide angle lenses, to be big, heavy, expensive, and aberration-prone. (They have to be designed as reverse-telephotos aka inverted-telephotos). Compare them with wide angle lenses for the Leica M-Series which don't have to contend with a mirror. (Ask a Leica enthusiast to explain this!)

Now design a lens mount that doesn't allow for a mirror. (Call it "Micro Four Thirds"). Make the mount-to-sensor distance half of the normal SLR equivalent. Make the diameter of the "hole" (an esoteric technical term) a bit smaller because the light rays are converging on the sensor from a closer mount distance. Avoid any need for reverse-telephoto lenses. What do we have?

Smaller and lighter bodies. Smaller and lighter lenses, especially wide angle and normal lenses. (Perhaps a bit cheaper too, but not necessarily). No "clunk" and vibration from the mirror. And no optical path between the lens and the eye ... help!

We need EVIL cameras. ("Electronic Viewfinder, Interchangeable Lenses"). The latest such camera recently had its world-wide launch at Focus on Imaging - the Panasonic Lumix G2. And I was so out-of-touch that I was astonished by it! I "knew" that electronic viewfinders suffered from lag and smearing - so why didn't I see it when I looked through it? And I'm sure I could think of a use for the ability to look at a scene on the live-view screen on the back of the camera, touch the screen where the object of interest is, and have the camera automatically focus on that object and take the picture.

These cameras need complicated electronics instead of mere glass. They have Moore's Law on their side. Moore's Law says that if you think something electronic is impossible, then within 2 years it may be possible, another 2 years after that it will be likely, and yet another 2 years after that it will overwhelm us. In 5 years time we will surrender to our new masters and throw all our SLR systems away ... perhaps.

What about image quality? Micro Four Thirds is the new mount, but the sensor size is the earlier Four Thirds standard. Just a bit smaller than the APS-C sensor-size used in my Pentax and in many of the less-than-full-frame dSLRs in use. It is used in Olympus and Panasonic dSLRs. It has about 10 times the area of the sensor of the sort of compact camera you could buy in a supermarket.

At the moment there are about 8 camera bodies and perhaps 12 lenses (from Olympus and Panasonic and others) in the Micro Four Thirds ranges. Not many - but the format was only launched in August 2008. And there are adapters to allow most SLR (and other) lenses to be used on the bodies, with limitations. (Micro Four Thirds was called at the time "the most exciting digital photography announcement this year". I don't remember it! Which universe was I in at the time?)

Could a keen birder do all his bird photography with one? Could a studio worker do all his portraiture with one?


Not a chance ... this year. But ask again in 5 years time. The answer may still be "no", but it won't be such a silly question. (The ability of some electronic viewfinders to track and focus on an object as it moves across the field of view is interesting). Debates are raging about the relevance for serious photographers, with views from "never" through "useful as a carry-around camera but no more" to "the end of SLRs is imminent". It depends on you requirements. And the balance will evolve year by year.

I've succumbed! For some time I've wanted a lighter camera to carry everywhere than my lightest Pentax. But I wanted one that would provide high technical quality prints at A3+, my standard size for competitions. This needs raw images from a largish sensor, and rules out typical supermarket compacts. So I've decided to join the party with the Lumix GF1 plus the f/1.7 20mm lens. (Not the above G2, which is bigger and not yet available).


It recently arrived, and really does deliver that technical quality. I've now got a camera that doesn't even have a viewfinder as standard! I'm one of those twits you see holding a camera a foot or two in front of their faces, looking at the screen on the back. (Well ... until I attach the optional electronic viewfinder).


I have no intention of abandoning my Pentax system. The GF1 is for when a Pentax dSLR (with one of my sizable lenses) is inappropriate or inconvenient. But when I get my Zimmer Frame, I may find it more convenient to attach a smaller camera to the Zimmer Frame's tripod bush. (They do have tripod bushes ... don't they?)