Thursday, July 7, 2011

My View On The Micro 4/3 System: Part 1

I've talked about Micro Four Thirds cameras before, usually not in a very positive manner, but recently I've taken the time to look at the system a little bit more closely. I have been follow the progression of these mirrorless or interchangeable lens compacts (referred to as ILC from now on) for the last few years, but for the majority of that time I did not see the appeal. To me ILC systems seemed to be cameras that were only targeted at causal point and shoot users, but I no longer see them that way at all. What helped me to see the value of the m4/3s cameras? It is a bit of a journey that started several years ago, after I upgraded to the Nikon D300 from my first DSLR, the Nikon D80.

The D300, and the D700 that I primarily use now, are high performance cameras with excellent build quality and controls, but that performance comes with a cost, weight and bulkiness. After I started using the D300, and some higher quality lenses, I realized how pleasant it would be to have a nice light camera to work along side it. I was looking for a camera that would make a good backup, but also could be used as a primary one when the general purpose of an outing was not photography. I quickly narrowed my choices down to a high end point and shoot (Canon G10) or an entry level DSLR (Nikon D60).

My first thoughts turned to the then still available Nikon D60, but cost locked that option out at that time. So I started looking at the used market for something that would fit my budget. I came out of my hunt with a used Olympus E-410 with 14-42mm kit lens, which I thought would fit my needs. The camera was small, light, used interchangeable lenses and had what I would call, good enough image quality. At that point the Olympus 4/3 system (there was no m/43s then) offered the smallest interchangeable lens cameras on the market. Even the newest of these cameras were several generations behind APS-C sensor cameras terms of performance, and it didn't help that I had one that was several generations old. So after about 8 months I gave up on that solution. The E-410 was small, but not much more portable than the Nikon system I was primarily using, so it never left home. Over the past few years I tried several solutions, compact Nikon DSLRs (D40x, D3100) and a true compact (Nikon P7000), but nothing really fit what I wanted. The cameras were either, too big to be truly considered portable (D40x/D3100), or gave up too much in terms of image quality (P7000). 

After all those failed experiments, hunting and failing to find what I wanted, I felt a little stuck. Meanwhile, a new type of cameras started to appear on the market, so called mirrorless (ILC) cameras. The first of these cameras came in the form of the micro four thirds system from Olympus and Panasonic, followed by the Sony NEX and Samsung NX systems. At first I did not think that these ILC cameras would be a viable option for me. The idea of using two lens systems did not seem overly appealing. Not only that, to make matters worse the Micro Four Thirds seemed to be incomplete in terms of lenses, and the cameras seemed over priced for what they had to offer in terms of performance. I did not feel like being an early adopter to a new type of system, that I felt was not complete. E-P1/E-P2 and Panasonic GH1/G1/GF1 seemed excessively expensive for what they were, and my thought was, why would I spend that much when I could get a entry level DSLR kit for less? Of course I was forgetting a key factor, size and weight, which for some reason I just couldn't see. I'll have more to say on that later though.

So what does all this have to do with my view on the Micro Four Thirds system? Well, let's just say that my feelings about these cameras changed once I actually took the time to look at them more closely. I realized that I was judging the system based on what other people thought, rather than my own experience. So this past week I spent some time reading about m4/3s cameras, their users, the expanding number of lenses available, and finally went to use a few of them in a local camera shop. I'm working on a series, starting with this post, as to why I now believe the m4/3s system is a viable primary camera system for many enthusiast photographers, and as backup/travel system for owners of professional and demanding amateur photographers.

Click here Read Part 2 of the series