For almost a decade, the digital SLR has been king. But while the current offerings from Nikon, Canon and Sony are almighty machines, the convergence of format has tended to constrain style. Pictures made with the same kind of camera will all, to some degree, look a bit the same. Here and in the next post, we explore a couple of alternatives to the all-conquering DSLR – one that’s been around for a while, and another that’s fairly new.
First, we look at the new breed of micro four thirds cameras, one of the most exciting things to happen to photography in a long time.
Picture this. You’re heading out for dinner, it’s still light and you’re wondering whether you should take your camera. You decide against it. The SLR will be a millstone, and you’ve been lugging it about all day. It’ll only sit on the table getting in the way. So you go without it. Inevitably, you see a great shot along the way and wish you had your camera with you. Repeat the same scenario for concerts, treks, bus rides, a visit to a remote village, or any time you just wouldn’t feel comfortable whipping out a big, expensive, obvious-looking camera. A point and shoot won’t do either, because they’re just not good enough.
Since the advent of the digital SLR, photographers have pretty much had to choose between two types of camera – the DSLR and the compact. As the technology expanded, the choice for users somehow contracted. At the quality end you had the SLR with its flexibility, huge choice of lenses and wonderful image quality, the downsides being bulk, weight and expense. At the convenience end of the scale came the compact camera, unobtrusive and easy to operate but constrained by small image size and a lack of manual control. Apart from über expensive exceptions such as the Leica M8, that was it. Anyone who wanted to photograph with a small camera would have to make do with an undersized sensor and a non-changeable lens.
Then a couple of years ago the first micro four thirds cameras appeared, with the launch of the Panasonic Lumix DMC series. But it was not until Panasonic released the DMC GF1 with its tiny ‘pancake’ 20mm lens – soon followed by the very similar Olympus PEN EP1 – that the true potential of the format began to emerge.
Here were cameras with sensors almost as big as a DSLR, interchangeable lenses, quick performance, fully manual controls and RAW imaging. You could carry one everywhere, slipped discreetly into a pocket when not in use. The only drawback seemed to be the name for the new format, which predictably failed to fire anyone’s imagination.
The principle behind these cameras is simple enough – eliminate the mirror box which accounts for so much of the bulk of an SLR. This in turn allowed lenses to be redesigned and miniaturised. Panasonic is now onto its third GF model, the DMC GF3, the body shrinking further with each release.
But the real stroke of genius was in the lens mount. Because the cameras have been designed as digital systems from scratch, the two companies were able to make their lenses compatible, creating a range of glassware that will fit both cameras. Although there are kit zooms in standard lengths for each model, serious photogaraphers were more excited by the availability of fixed length ‘prime’ lenses. Panasonic’s initial offering was a well-received 20mm f1.7, followed by a 14mm f2.5, while the Olympus PEN EP2 can be ordered with a 17mm f2.8. Doubling the lengths to get the 35mm equivalence brings them to 28, 35 and 40mm, all wonderful sizes for everyday use. A wide range of other lenses is also available, from macro to fast telephoto zooms to fisheye. But here comes the clincher. Adaptors are available to fit practically any lens you care to think of, from Leica to Nikon to Canon. That’s right – pretty much any lens, manual or autofocus, can be fitted to these cameras, provided there’s an adaptor for it.
Now for the downside. A micro four thirds camera is not a DSLR, and although it might come close, it’s never going to match a DSLR for quality. The reason is simple – the chip is about two thirds the size of an APS sensor, so resolution is reduced. The ability to control camera noise is also dependent on pixel size, so these cameras won’t perform as well at higher ISOs as their SLR counterparts.
The other drawback flows from the elimination of the mirror. Because there’s no view through the lens, the photographer has to frame the picture using the screen, which comes a poor second to a viewfinder. Both the Olympus and the Panasonic have optional viewfinders, but they’re expensive and have limitations. The Panasonic viewfinder is electronic, while the Olympus model, being optical, only matches one lens – the 17mm.
There’s an upside to this. The absence of a viewfinder changes the relationship with the camera, encouraging a looser shooting style and dropping the barrier between subject and photographer. In other words, it’s all about spontaneity. Having your camera handy helps with that.
To see some examples of pictures taken with the Panasonic Lumix DMC GF1, see the stories ‘Flying colours’ and ‘The wonderful world of McLeodganj’.
These are the micro four thirds cameras we use at Moonpeak. They’re not the current models, but they’re close enough to their successors that a review is still in order.
Panasonic Lumix DMC GF1
Once you get over the geeky nomenclature (DMC GF1, what’s with that?), this is a beautiful camera. It literally fits in the palm of your hand, it feels solid and dependable, and with the ultrafast 20mm f1.7 pancake lens attached, slides easily in and out of a pocket. When you switch it on the response is near instantaneous, and it will fire off five shots in rapid succession before the buffer fills. To handle this camera is to realise that here at last is a compact with serious potential.
The custom options are sensible, but as with any compact camera, accessing certain features involves more menu trawling than we’d necessarily like. But the controls that really count are right up there in front – aperture, shutter speed and exposure compensation. A thumb wheel allows you to dial the values up and down, and pressing in on the wheel toggles between aperture/shutter and exposure compensation. Beautiful. A quick menu button gives access to other important variables, such as ISO, white balance, focus mode, and metering. There’s an AF/AE lock button, a dedicated button to switch between manual and autofocus, and a handy live histogram.
Although the GF2 was already on the market when I bought this model, I favoured the GF1 partly because of the mode wheel on the top. In its successors this has been replaced with a touchscreen, and like many photographers I’m more interested in manual control than nifty electronics. However, the wheel has a tendency to shift of its own accord, especially when pulling the camera in or out of a pocket, so the touchscreen begins to make sense – even if it does make you feel like you’re using a phone. One slightly annoying quirk is the way program mode defaults back to maximum aperture, but this at least forces you to keep an eye on your f-stop. It takes a little while to get used to this camera, but once you have it’s a joy to use. Angus McDonald
Good: Fast autofocus; intuitive controls; shoots RAW
Not so good: No inbuilt image stabilisation
Olympus PEN EP1
If it’s style you are after then you must look at this gorgeous little PEN. Based on its original sibling designed in 1959, it inherits its good looks and build quality. When I saw a photo of the PEN EP1, I knew I had to have it. Combined with the quality of pictures the PEN is capable of recording, it’s a treat.
I bought mine with a 17mm f2.8 lens, and it’s a pleasure to use. I particularly enjoy using manual focus which is done rotating a ring like in real lenses, and the picture is enlarged on the back LCD to assist in focusing. The colours straight from the camera jpegs are very faithful.
I leave my Canon DSLRs at home when I am not shooting news or assignments and carry this little dependable camera in a belt-pouch (having said that, I have used my EP1 for news pictures and got decent results). Great camera if you want to upgrade your compact or are tired of carrying a heavy SLR.
It does not have the quick response of a pro-DSLR nor will it shine in very low-light situations with its slower autofocus (still much faster than any compact I know), but it will make beautiful pictures if you know what you can and can’t do with this camera. Still not a replacement for your pro-DSLR, but almost there. I am still dreaming of a small camera with mechanical controls and a full frame 35mm sensor that would not require me to sell my house to own it. Ashwini Bhatia
Good: Inbuilt image stabilisation; shoots RAW; decent low light performance
Not so good: LCD is low resolution