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Real World Review: Micro Four Thirds

Written by Daven Mathies

When Panasonic and Olympus announced the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) system in 2008, many people, myself included, thought “ho hum.” There were too few lenses fully compatible with the system, it didn’t meet the needs of professional shooters, and consumers didn’t understand why they were being asked to pay a digital SLR price for a camera that wasn’t a real SLR. (Plus, nobody likes improper fractions.)

Three years later, the system has grown in leaps and bounds, improving image quality and working out the kinks to refine its position in the camera market. While initially targeted as a less-frightening alternative to entry-level DSLRs, current MFT camera models are also competing with high-end compacts. Cameras like the new GF3 from Panasonic are smaller (body only) than a Canon G12, but feature a much larger imaging sensor plus the versatility of interchangeable lenses. On the high end, Panasonic’s GH2 has finally brought MFT to the professional level, offering cinematic quality video and solid high-ISO performance.

A few months ago, after selling my Nikon D300 and shooting nothing but film for a while, I picked up a Panasonic GF2 with the 14mm “pancake” lens on a whim. My first thought was, “Wow, look how small that lens is!” I mean, I’d handled this camera every day in the store, but it still shocked me. While I admit it doesn’t quite compare in image quality to an SLR, it is certainly close enough.

Buying into a new system is usually a laborious process filled with remorse (anyone who has switched from Nikon to Canon or vice versa can tell you this). Not with the GF2, however! (It’s hard to feel remorseful about something so cute. It’s kind of like buying a puppy.) As soon as I charged the battery, I was out shooting and having a great time.

Shooting with the GF2 was a completely new approach to photography for me; I felt, in many ways, as I did when I was a student with my first film camera (only not as confused.) I discovered that when I am having fun, it’s much easier to be creative. That is by far the most important thing this little camera has taught me. I take it with me practically everywhere I go, and because of its size and weight I barely notice it. (Keep in mind, I used to carry a full-size DSLR and lens everywhere I went.)

Despite whatever limitations presented by the MFT system, the simple fact is that I am getting images I would have never even tried for in the past because it wouldn’t have been “worth it” to drag out my DSLR. I am experimenting, documenting, and having a heck of a lot of fun. This camera has expanded my horizons. I’m meeting new people, trying different restaurants, and have become more interesting to my friends. (Okay, that was a lie.) I really didn’t want to go here, but commercial photographer Chase Jarvis had it right when he said, “The best camera is the one that’s with you.” He was referring mostly to cell phone cameras, but I’m glad the GF2 is the camera that’s with me—it’s way better than my iPhone.

With the range of Micro Four Thirds cameras available today from both Panasonic and Olympus, there is likely one for almost any style of shooter. While I still do all my professional work with a DSLR and I don’t anticipate that changing anytime soon, Micro Four Thirds is definitely my system of choice for a personal camera. That’s not to say that MFT can’t handle professional demands. Pros looking for a great hybrid still/video camera will appreciate the features (and the price) of a camera like the GH2, and can now rest assured that this system is here to stay. Unlike three years ago, there are now lenses available for every situation, from fisheye, to macro, to super-telephoto. What’s more, with an adapter you can mount virtually any other camera lens on an MFT body (including Leica M-mount lenses, if your wallet allows.) While the prices on the camera bodies have improved as the models have stratified, most consumers will likely still find price to be the highest barrier for entry into the system. The cameras themselves are reasonable and compete well against advanced compacts and low-end DSLRs, but some of the best lenses can fetch around $900. One should note, however, that these prices are often hundreds less than the comparable Nikon or Canon SLR lenses. Most importantly, these cameras offer great creative opportunity for photographers in the most fun, most useable way. And I can’t put a price on that.

*Since the introduction of the MFT system, other companies have released similar, but different, compact cameras with interchangeable lenses (such as Sony’s NEX system.) The acronym MFT refers only to Micro Four Thirds, which is specific to Panasonic and Olympus. There is, as of yet, no agreed upon term for the more general classification of this type of camera, but several do exist. Most commonly you will see ILC for Interchangeable Lens Compact or EVIL for Electronic Viewfinder with Interchangeable Lens.

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