Panasonic created quite a buzz Friday with the announcement of the first actual camera to make use of the recently unveiled Micro Four Thirds format. The compact, lightweight Lumix G1 breaks new ground (if only slightly) with its form factor, but the news here runs deeper than that. Panasonic and Micro Four Thirds partner Olympus have reevaluated the basic elements of DSLR design and done some careful pruning – in terms of size, yes, but also in terms of fundamental technology.
The result? Well, it's not technically an SLR at all, for starters, and it's this kind of willingness to look beyond long-accepted tenets of digital interchangeable lens camera design that makes the G1 one of the most exciting consumer imaging announcements of the year in my mind. As a total concept, the Lumix G1 does two things right: first, it recognizes the central role of live view in the consumer digicam experience, and second, it recognizes and actively addresses the primary technological weakness of its basic design.
In paging through new camera reviews on the web a few months back, I came across a phrase that stuck out in a description of another recent live view innovation, Sony's two-sensor approach. In his concluding remarks about the live view equipped Sony Alpha A350, DPReview's Richard Butler observed that "most modern DSLR designs are saddled with their film legacy."
It's a simple statement, yet profoundly true. While the imaging pipeline of SLR cameras continues to improve, in terms of basic design there's been very little innovative thinking; digital SLRs continue to be built from the same basic engineering blueprint laid out for their film predecessors. Sub in a sensor for a roll of 135, throw a screen on the back, and there's your digital SLR. But along the way – or perhaps, until recently – it seems that few companies really stopped to think about whether it made sense to continue to carry most of the technological baggage of film cameras en masse into their digital replacements.
The digital point-and-shoot was, in many ways, a clean-sheet design: at the level of fundamental engineering an Olympus Stylus 35mm "clamshell" camera and an Olympus Stylus 1040 share next to nothing in common. Different shutter concept. Different kind of AF system. At their most basic, the two are barely recognizable as siblings. As a result, the digital Stylus makes use of digital's greatest asset, the ability to preview an image on-screen in real time before a capture is made.
With film, there was no technologically viable "better way" to do shot composition than a good, bright optical viewfinder. For those of us who learned to take pictures on such a camera, there will always be a natural bias toward this familiar system, and there may even be compelling compositional reasons for learning to shoot through a viewfinder. For grabbing quick vacation snaps, or informal portraits of family and friends, however, most casual photographers are less concerned about the particulars of shot composition, and for this much larger group of general-consumer shooters, on-screen composition is the easier, more convenient, better way of interacting with a camera.
At the end of the day, this is what the G1 is about: providing the benefits of an interchangeable lens system in a camera in which live view is a central, integral part of the design. The problem with most live view DSLRs, in our estimation, is that the system invariably feels like an afterthought – a compromise ridden option that, to use an analogy, gives a taste of what's possible but rarely delivers a satisfying meal. In doing away with the mirror box and mirror, Micro Four Thirds cameras save weight, but in doing so, they also create a design in which full-function on-screen shooting is the primary modus operandi.
Beyond merely making live view the default operational technology, however, Panasonic has recognized that the primary potential pitfall with this approach is that it gives up one of the SLR designs greatest assets: phase detection auto focus using via an independent AF sensor. By Panasonic's own admission, they recognize that offering a well-tuned, rapid focusing contrast detection system in its place – something much better than the generally lackluster efforts we've seen in this regard heretofore with DSLR live view systems – may be the single issue that ultimately determines the commercial success or failure of the G1, and of Micro Four Thirds generally.
To this end, what we saw from pre-production versions of the G1 gives me every reason to hope that Panasonic will make good on this promise. But even if the first-generation AF technology for Micro Four Thirds doesn't quite hit its target speed numbers, the fact remains that unlike the majority of DSLR live view developers at the moment, the G1 team openly recognizes that being able to auto focus with an on-screen preview and to do it quickly is important. Kind of makes those three-second AF acquisition times on some other interchangeable lens cameras with contrast-detection focusing seem like the slap in the face that they are, doesn't it?
Too many "serious" photographers will undoubtedly write off the G1 and the Micro Four Thirds system, ask pointed questions about all the hoopla around a camera that doesn't push the image quality or speed/performance envelope compared to currently available DSLRs. Indeed, this sort of discussion is already taking place in forums across the internet. What the naysayers almost universally fail to recognize, however, is just how well this system should fit with the way most of us use our cameras: the majority of casual photographers are much more interested in taking a few good snaps of their kids than having class-leading technical image quality performance. And with a bigger sensor than any point-and-shoot, there should still be plenty of IQ headroom with the G1 to keep casual shooters very satisfied for a long time.