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Thoughts on Micro 4/3

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Over the last month I’ve spent a lot of time with the new Micro 4/3s cameras: I took a Panasonic G-1 on vacation a few weeks ago, spent a week shooting the Olympus E-P1 with various lenses and adapters, and then this last weekend took the new Panasonic GH-1 out with the 14-140mm kit lens. Plus spent about 20 hours reading various online discussions and reviews of them.

Each of these cameras has generated a lot of excitement, not only in the 4/3 community, but among people who primarily shoot other brands: the G-1 as the first Micro 4/3 camera; the Olympus because of its tiny, rangefinder-like size; the GH-1 because of its ultra-sophisticated movie mode and video optimized lens. Since each has been released, however, the reviews and comments have been mixed, running the entire range from “its everything I hoped” to “it totally sucks”. As is so often the case when opinions vary so widely, the difference in opinion has as much to do with the photographer’s expectations prerelease as it does with the reality of the camera when released.

At any rate, I’ll share my thoughts and summaries regarding these cameras as pertains to photography (I think its too early to say a whole lot about them as video platforms). A few overall observations first:

  • The Panasonic and Olympus versions of Micro 4/3 are completely different—less similar than a Canon 50D and a Nikon D300 are—despite sharing the same mount and sensor.
  • These are first generation (OK, second for the GH-1) cameras. There are kinks to be worked out yet, particularly for Olympus
  • Like any brand-new system, the real limitations are about lack of lenses as much as anything else.
  • By the way, my prediction is that despite the shortcomings these are going to be smashing successes. The recent Olympus bashing in particular reminds me of what occurred when the Canon 5D was first released: pages and pages of “what it lacks” comments on the various forums, but you couldn’t seem to buy one anywhere. A year later everyone talked about it as a ‘landmark camera’. Have you tried buying an E-P1 or GH-1 lately? Plenty of people are saying “I wouldn’t have one” in online forums, but guess what? They don’t have one.

Two completely different systems

They share the same sensor and lens mount and their lenses are somewhat interchangeable. But they look very, very different and handle very differently too. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Image stabilization is in-body for Olympus, in-the-lens for Panasonic. So an Olympus lens on a Panasonic body is not stabilized. Conversely you can turn of the lens’ IS when using a Panasonic lens on the E-P1 to take advantage of the in-body stabilization. Advantage Olympus, probably.
  • The LCD on the Panasonic is articulated and very high quality. The Olympus is adequate. Advantage Panasonic.
  • Panasonic has a wonderful electronic viewfinder (EVF). Olympus has an optional plastic aiming piece they call a viewfinder for their 17mm lens. Panasonic again.
  • The Panasonic, everyone seems to agree, has a much quicker autofocusing system and more robust manual focusing ability. Panasonic once more.
  • The Panasonic has more lenses available at the moment, but that’s a wash since they can be used on the Olympus camera also.
  • The Olympus looks cool and different (YMMV here).
  • The Olympus is less expensive. Probably appropriately so, but give some credit.
  • The Olympus is smaller (not lighter) and can in theory fit in a large pocket (well, a very large pocket with the zoom lens on—see below).


The Olympus E-P1 (left) and Panasonic GH-1 with kit lenses mounted and fully extended

I mention the differences mostly to point out these are different cameras with probably different purposes and different photographers in mind. The GH-1 is much more a “little SLR” and is more enjoyable for me to work with. Its pretty much like shooting any of my other cameras, easy to learn, easy to use. I don’t think it will be a primary SLR alternative for many people, at least not yet, but I bet a lot of folks who can afford it will grab it as a second camera. And not just (or even mostly) current four-thirds shooters.

The E-P1 is more difficult to learn and use (at least for me). I found myself desperately wanting a viewfinder at times and while it didn’t take to long to learn to compose with the LCD, it was challenging in bright sunlight and difficult to manually focus. Plus the shooting position, held away from me, made it hard to keep the camera still. My impression is Olympus has positioned the E-P1 for people moving up from a point and shoot camera to an interchangeable lens camera, rather than toward SLR shooters looking for a smaller body. But I may be totally off base, and in another month maybe shooting with it will seem more natural. Its probably fair to mention that shooting in Memphis in July is a true test of how bright a camera’s LCD is. It might be fine in another month or so.

My thoughts at this point? The GH-1 is a much better camera, but for me personally I’ll probably use the E-P1 more. Why? Because I’ve been looking for years for something better than a point and shoot that I can carry around all the time. So far I’ve gone from Canon G9 (very nice P&S) to the Sigma DP-1 (epic fail) to the G10 (very nice P&S) without being totally happy. The E-P1 doesn’t make me totally happy either, but I like the images and flexibility way better than what I can get from the G10. However, if I go on another vacation where I don’t want to carry my SLRs, but do want a serious camera, I’d take the GH-1 because its much easier for me to use and has a more robust feature set and autofocus. But I’m not done thinking yet, so follow along.

The lenses aren’t ready for prime time (including the 17mm prime)

When I took the E-P1 out for extended testing I also took an Olympus 4/3 to Micro 4/3 adapter so I could shoot some of Olympus’ best glass on the little camera. The results shocked me, but they shouldn’t have. With the 14-42mm kit lens I got very nice images. Better than anything I could have possibly gotten with the best point and shoot. The 17mm prime had a nice wide aperture, but wasn’t dramatically sharper than the kit lens. I shot with all the Panasonic Micro 4/3s lenses and they were similar. But when I put some great glass in front of that little camera the images became dramatically better. I can’t put up large enough examples to show on this blog page, but you can see some of the different lenses I used and the quality difference HERE The exact same thing is true on the G-1 and GH-1 also. Put a better lens on the camera and you get dramatically better images. OK, this shouldn’t have surprised me—I gave up shooting with my 18-55mm kit lens many years ago. Better glass makes all the difference. DUH!

OK, there’s two points to be considered here. First, obviously, is that as Olympus and Pansonic release professional-quality Micro 4/3s lenses, these cameras are going to be much more capable and be used much more seriously. But its the second point that is going to make these cameras smashing successes in the near future, before the good Micro 4/3s lenses become available. Because of the small flange-to-sensor distance, virtually every manufacturer’s lenses can be shot on the Micro 4/3s cameras via an adapter right now. Adapters are available for Canon EOS, Canon FD, Nikon, Olympus 4/3, Zuiko OM, Olympus PEN, Leica M and Leica R, and even screw mount lenses.


The Olympus E-P1 mounted with 17mm Micro 4/3 lens (left) and with Olympus 14-35mm f/2.0 on adapter (right).

People are quick to point out that putting a huge Olympus 70-200mm f/2.8 lens on an E-P1 is rather silly and defeats the small-size purpose, and it is. But there are dozens and dozens of amazingly sharp and small manual focus lenses available for very reasonable prices that work wonderfully on the Micro 4/3 cameras right now. Already the ‘alternative lens forums’ like the one at FredMiranda.com are filling up with reports by the more experimental hobbyists about using lenses like the Voigtlander 15mm and older Leica rangefinder lenses on Micro 4/3s cameras. An acquaintence who sells Leica and Voigtlander rangefinder lenses says business is booming since the E-P1 has been released. And your friendly neighborhood rental shop just ordered half a dozen different Micro 4/3 adapters since we’re getting so many requests.

This is the main reason I think Micro 4/3s will be a smashing success even before the cameras are what we hope they’ll be. Its the perfect platform for the hobbyists and experimenters among us to play with rare and classic glass. I’ve already heard the E-P1 called the ‘poor man’s Leica M8 rangefinder’ for just this reason. But I disagree. It has better image quality than the M8 does when used with fine Leica lenses. And you can pick up two E-P1s (or a GH-1), a few adapters and 5 or 6 nice lenses for the price of an M8.

So, Roger, which camera?

Well, to be honest, I’d wait for the E-P2 if I was buying. I want the EVF, great LCD, and better focusing of the GH-1 (both better autofocus and easier manual focus). But I want the in-body Image Stabilization of the E-P1 to use with all that fine old glass I’ll be putting on my adapters. I think its clear Panasonic isn’t going to add in-body IS since they’ve already developed in-lens IS. I hope Olympus figures out autofocus and adds a nice EVF and better LCD. Until then, whichever camera I’m using, I’ll probably be moaning about not having one of the features that the other camera has. But for my shooting style with manual focus glass (I tend to set at hyperfocal distance and snap away) I’ll probably use the E-P1 a bit more — focusing is less critical for me and IS and small size are more important. I think I’m in the minority, though. I think most people would rather have the better focusing capabilities and viewfinder of the Panasonic if they are buying one of these today.

Roger Cicala
Lensrentals.com

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