DigitalCameraReview.com
Round Up: A Micro Four Thirds Field Guide
by Jamison Cush -  2/19/2010

What once was a trade show concept has become an imaging reality. A couple of years after the launch of the first Micro Four Thirds camera, the Panasonic G1, we're knee-deep in models from Panasonic and Olympus. In this round up, we offer a snapshot view of the current Micro Four Thirds offerings and a head-to-head look at the specs and feature sets of each camera.

A Micro Four Thirds camera essentially combines the size and convenience of compact camera with the performance and interchangeable lenses of a DSLR. At first glance, Micro Four Thirds cameras may seem like an inexpensive alternative to DSLRs; but the standard does provide a host of benefits not offered by their (usually) more expensive counterparts.

The most obvious is size; with no lens equipped, most Micro Four Thirds models are pocket friendly. Also, Micro Four Thirds cameras shoot video more effectively with continuous auto focus, which is not available in DSLRs. In addition, four thirds lenses will work on Micro Four Thirds devices through an adapter.

Micro Four Thirds cameras also have drawbacks when compared to DSLRs. Depending on how you look at it, the fact that they don't include a through-the-lens optical viewfinder can be a negative (Micro Four Thirds cameras lack an internal mirror component, making a separate optical viewfinder or electronic viewfinder necessary). A smaller sensor generally means poorer performance at high ISO. In fact, many entry-level and less expensive DSLRs outperform Micro Four Thirds cameras when individual features are compared.

Taken as a complete package however, Micro Four Thirds cameras from Panasonic and Olympus (the standard creators and only current device manufacturers) have been garnering respectable reviews and have carved out an interesting niche serving as something more than mere bridge devices for those serious about getting serious about photography.

Here's a rundown of available devices:

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
Panasonic released the first Micro Four Thirds camera in late 2008 to largely positive reviews. DigitalCameraReview.com's Dave Rasnake raved about the new technology, claiming the G1 offered "the ‘best of both worlds' when it comes to SLRs and point-and-shoots."

Of note was speed and precision of the G1's impressive contrast-detection auto focus, an early concern as most DSLRs rely on a phase detect AF system, which many experts assumed was much quicker and more effective. The G1's size and rugged body was smaller than the smallest SLR. And the electronic viewfinder impressed, putting to rest concerns about the lack of a TTL viewfinder.

That said, when compared to many DSLRs, the G1 fell short in a few areas. Image noise hindered output beyond ISO 800 and the white balance was inconsistent. Overall, DCR claimed the G1 was a bit pricey at launch, considering the specs were comparable to many entry-level DSLRs.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1
Panasonic followed up the G1 with the Lumix GH1, a very similar device with one notable exception: the GH1 featured what DCR reviewer Howard Creech called "exceptional video capability," adding, "in the video arena the GH1 is the top dog." He went on to claim, "It's the only currently available DSLR featuring HD 1080p/24 fps video, Dolby Digital stereo audio, real-time autofocus during filming, focus tracking and face detection (in video mode) and a kit lens designed to facilitate video capture with a smooth stepless iris and ultra-low-noise focus motors."

Also, DCR found the GH1 to produce "bright, bold, and slightly over-saturated (colors) with harder contrast... what veteran photographers call consumer color." This is in stark contrast from most DSLRs, which produce neutral, native color.

With this unique blend of offerings, DCR thought the GH1 was an excellent model for shooters "graduating from a prosumer/long zoom digicam to their first DSLR." However, serious photographers not interested in shooting video were warned to stay away.

Olympus PEN EP-1
Olympus' first Micro Four Thirds offering, the EP-1, also earned its fair share of positive reviews. DCR's Jerry Jackson loved the form factor, which bared resemblance to the Leica M-series rangefinders and original Olympus Pen. All in all, the reviewer claimed, "The E-P1 offers something no other DSLR currently on the market does: simplicity combined with retro style in a camera that fits in your pocket or a small purse." DCR went on to describe the E-P1 as "a camera that delivers exceptional image quality and the flexibility of interchangeable lenses in a package that's small enough to fit in your pocket."

Olympus E-P1

Unfortunately, DCR also found a handful of major issues with the E-P1. Like the Panasonic G1, image quality suffered at high ISO settings. Unlike the G1, the E-P1 was found to be "unacceptably slow," with an autofocus a full second slower than most entry-level DSLRs. The lag was compounded when combined with one of the available art filters, a real issue for shooters snapping action or sports shots. Also, the electronic viewfinder was eliminated, forcing users to rely on the monitor for image framing or an external viewfinder that slides into the hot shoe.

As DCR noted however, "the E-P1 makes a superb photographic tool for photographers who are willing to take their time with photography."

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1
Taking a page from Olympus, Panasonic reduced the size of its third Micro Four Thirds offering by also eliminating the viewfinder, a move that did not sit well with DCR reviewer Jim Keenan. "With reading glasses now a permanent part of my wardrobe, cameras with only monitors for image composition and capture are a pain - glasses pushed down on the nose so I can see over them to locate the subject, then tip the head back to see through the glasses so the monitor is clear."

Keenan also pointed out that despite the compact size and great image and video quality, the hidden costs of Micro Four Thirds cameras add up, putting the device in range with mid-level DSLRs.

"On the downside, there's an adaptor for legacy Four Thirds lenses: MSRP about $170. Another for Leica M lenses at about $250, and yet a third for Leica R lenses at another $250. An electronic view finder will set you back about $200. Get one of each to go with the $900 GF1 and you're approaching $1800. A Nikon D90 and stabilized 18-200 lens will set you back under $1600, give better high ISO performance and a higher continuous shooting rate (at least for a time)."

Despite that particular gripe, the general consensus about the GF1, and the other Micro Four Thirds cameras previously released, remained the same, near DSLR performance without the bulk or weight.

Olympus PEN E-P2
DCR found the E-P2 Micro Four Thirds camera as being very similar to its predecessor, the E-P1. We also claimed it provided DSLR-like images in a compact device featuring "excellent build quality." However, the same drawbacks still applied. The E-P2 had a relatively slow autofocus, though slightly improved from the first firmware version of the E-P1, lacked a built-in flash and electronic viewfinder, and was considered a bit pricey for the specs.

Still, as an easy-to-use device producing high-quality images, DCR dubbed the E-P2 as another respectable addition to the Micro Four Thirds family. Our reviewer likened the E-P2's high rating to the successful combining of a sports car and a minivan. The E-P2, DCR claimed, "really does a very good job of merging the creative flexibility of a DSLR with the convenience and ease of use of a compact point and shoot."

Olympus PEN E-PL1
Olympus announced the E-PL1 in February, touting it as a step-down alternative to E-P1 or E-P2. Essentially, Olympus scaled down the vaunted build quality and feature set of their previous models to offer consumers a less expensive Micro Four Thirds model, about $200 less than the EP-1 at launch.

The E-PL1 won't carry a rotating subdial around the four-way controller, won't ship with an electronic viewfinder, and will sport a smaller 2.7-inch LCD. The E-PL1 will have a new Live Guide function to help guide beginners through manual controls by displaying the results live on the LCD screen before the picture is shot.

In an early preview with a pre-production unit, DCR claimed that the "E-PL1 is decidedly the most point and shoot oriented camera of the bunch. It doesn't have all of the sophistication of its predecessors, but it offers almost all of the same functions with the addition of a built-in flash for a lower price."

Micro Four Thirds: Its own niche
Despite all the comparisons to DSLR models, Micro Four Thirds cameras are not true SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras. What technically distinguishes them from DSLRs is a lack of a mirror and mirror box... if there is no mirror, there is no reflex action.

So while many reviewers refer to Micro Four Thirds cameras as "bridge devices," comparing them to entry-level DSLRs, Micro Four Thirds cameras have really carved out their own niche. They successfully combine near top-of-the-line image quality with ease of use and a compact body. In addition, for shutterbugs looking to shoot a little video with their stills, most Micro Four Thirds models offer superior video capability.

As Panasonic and Olympus further refine the standard, lower prices, and add more features, many photographers who have already made the leap to a DSLR may consider adding a Micro Four Thirds model to their collection.

Comparison Shopping

Resolution (effective) Video Resolution Sensor Electronic Viewfinder Built-In Flash Display ISO Dimensions (body only) Weight (body only)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 12.1MP NA 17.3x13.0 mm MOS yes yes 3" LCD 100-3200 4.9"x3.3"x1.8" 0.85 lbs
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 12.1MP 1080 17.3x13.0 mm MOS yes yes 3" LCD 100-3200 4.88"x3.29"x1.78" 0.85 lbs
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 12.1MP 720 17.3x13.0 mm CMOS yes (not included)
yes 3" LCD 100-3200 4.69"x2.8"x1.43" 0.65 lbs
Olympus PEN EP-1 12.3MP 720 17.3x13.0 mm CMOS no no 3" LCD 100-6400 4.75"x2.75"x1.43" 0.7 lbs
Olympus PEN E-P2 12.3MP 720 17.3x13.0 mm CMOS yes (external, included) no 3" LCD 100-6400 4.75"x2.75"x1.43" 0.7 lbs
Olympus PEN E-PL1 12.3MP 720 17.3x13.0 mm CMOS

yes (not included)

yes 2.7" LCD 200-3200 4.51"x2.84"x1.63" 0.7 lbs