Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Micro Four Thirds System - The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1

As soon as I first read about this camera I was hooked. The concept seems simple enough, something I (and I am sure many others) have dreamt about since joining the digital revolution. Sometimes to the extreme, "Just give me a sensor and a shutter, that I can stick an optic on!" Whatever the case, Panasonic's GF1 fulfills a niche, a need really, within my camera kit, the joy of which I can hardly begin to describe (a little over the top? I'm sorry, I swear this thing is just that cool!).

Micro Four Thirds and the Camera Continuum:

After having shot film for a substantial number of years (not nearly as many, relative to others, considering my age) my first digital camera was a DSLR, a Canon XTi to be exact. While looking for my first digital camera, I of course initially began looking at compact point and shoots (P&S). Being that the price of DSLRs was so much higher compared to P&Ss, I figured it would be a good intro into the world of digital while, depending on the model, affording me some creative tools to continue making images in a similar fashion to what I was currently used to. Not so. In fact, it was nothing short of impossible for me to fathom surrendering the many fully manual functions I possessed within my DSLR, in a considerably less expensive P&S. So in narrowing down my decisions, I kept ending up back at cameras like the Canon Powershot G series, or something similarly near a $500 pricetag. Well for that kind of money, I could get an entry level DSLR!

I became discouraged from buying a P&S further by the fact that their performance. Even those with the full manual controls, paled in comparison to the DSLRs. Now at the time, it wasn't a huge deal. Size wasn't really a concern and being the tech junkie that I was (and still am) I thought, "I actually WANT one of those beastly looking tank cameras!" Not that I am overcompensating...Just liked the idea of having a solid, robust piece of machinery in my hand.

In any case! I ended up going the route of the DSLR. No regrets, never looked back. For most tasks, nothing compares in quality, to date (though it seems that is changing). I have continued to have a hard time justifying forking over $500+ for a P&S sidekick camera, that will only leave me grabbing the DSLR to get what I need. It wasn't until I began doing some photojournalism that I really began questioning the DSLR. I was actually finding that despite its creative superiority, it's size was a big problem (no pun...). People often altered their behavior upon seeing it. That coveted cloak of invisibility to preserve journalistic accuracy only became more illusive. People did not seem to mind, however, seeing me with a small P&S camera. Well on a bright, clear day under average conditions, with a modest output size (4x6 print, web image), a P&S can produce some very nice images. So I picked up a Canon G9 gave it a try. I found it to be a very reliable camera, as well as discreet. The lack of mirror box allowed me to take nearly silent shots, in comparison to the thundering clack of the DSLR. Still, the G9 (as well as almost all P&Ss) had some shutter lag, lacked any real burst capabilities, had a fixed lens. Worse yet, it performed fairly sketchy beyond ISO 800. Well humans have made do with what they had for thousands of years and I'm certainly not here to complain. Technology just wasn't there yet.

Enter the "Poor Man's Digital Leica":

The Micro Four Thirds System is great. Let me first just say, the GF1 is by no means perfect nor is it the "end-all be-all". Along with Olympus's EP1 and EP2, it represents a revolutionary new niche in digital photography. One that is empowering, as well as affordable (unlike the supremely expensive Leica M9, $7000 worth of awesomeness). My excitement is probably more directly related to the conceptual implications the Micro Four Thirds System represents.

I will delve further into the specifics with some ISO comparisons and more DIY projects involving the GF1 in the future. But generally what does the Micro Four Thirds System (M43) have to offer? The M43 system is based on the Four Thirds System developed by Olympus. With the M43 system, you get basically, a Four Thirds sensor (that is roughly 30% smaller than an APS-C sensor, and a 2x crop factor, same as the Four Thirds System cameras), in a thin pocketable body. The mount is called a Micro Four Thirds mount. It is smaller than the standard Four Thirds mount and lenses from the latter are compatible through an adapter.

Why It Matters:

The sensor in these cameras is 9x that of standard P&S. Larger sensor, means larger photo sensors in the chip as well as shallower depth of field capabilities. ISO performance is much better than P&Ss. The camera itself has DSLR-like shutter lag, hardly any. Burst modes. Relatively quiet. And most important of all, because of its lack of a mirror box the flange to sensor distance is short enough, with the right adapter, virtually any and every lens ever made for a film camera can be used on this camera.

The bundled Panasonic Lumix 20mm f/1.7 Pancake lens is a compact gem of a lens that gives the beautiful shallow DOF feel of a DSLR or even the older film compacts.

Of the various options currently available in the M43 system, it seems the GF1 is the most capable and well thought out at this point. Plus, the bundled 20mm f/1.7 was a big sale point for me. In getting a small camera such as this, having an ability to utilize depth of field is incredible.

Changing the Way We Shoot:

I used to lug my D700 around everywhere, just in case something came up. I love making images. The P&S was just convenient but in the end I was often looking for more in the images that came out of it. New cameras like the M43 cameras, or Ricoh's new GXR are redefining how we think of compacts. Utilizing the newest technology, these companies are putting the power of the DSLR is our hands, without the weight, social impedence, or just outright inconvenience. Take as you will, but it is happening. I for one, am embracing full heartedly. The images are still made by the photographer, no matter how large or small the camera is.


Wikipedia's article on the Micro Four Thirds System

DPreview - Panasonic GF1

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