The Micro 4/3 Movement and a new camera, the Olympus E-PL1

E-PL1
Olympus E-PL1 with 17mm Lens by The Digital Story

The Micro 4/3 mount has been moving forward at a blistering pace.  DSLR design has been and still is stuck with the same basic size and shape requirements from the film era.  Point and shoot cameras have shown design innovation, but their sensors are far too small and their lenses are far too slow and far too permanently attached to be of serious interest to enthusiasts.  Full frame DSLR’s are the darlings of professional photographers and amateurs with demanding image quality requirements, especially in low-light.  Of course, some simply like having the biggest  and the best (mostly just the biggest).  Those people don’t usually care about being discrete, so they probably aren’t the target market for Micro 4/3 cameras.

The major innovation that makes Micro 4/3 different from conventional SLR design is the lack of a flappy mirror.  SLR’s give a view of exactly what the lens sees by reflecting the light from the lens up to an optical viewfinder.  This allows for a true “live” view of your subject.  Not to be confused with “live-view” which is how point and shoot cameras and most SLR’s display their images on the back LCD screen.  The problem with that mirror is that it takes up a lot of space.  It’s also loud.  Both things that will get you noticed in a bad way when you are trying to take candid photos of strangers, friends, or geese.

The second innovation (arguably) of the Micro 4/3 standard is the smaller sensor.  The sensor is still much larger than point and shoot cameras, but it is roughly 1/4 the area of a full-frame sensor (full-frame means the sensor matches the size of one frame of 35mm film).  Full frame sensors were the goal simply because they match the size of a piece of film which allowed camera designers to continue working within well established confines.  How could a size that was settled upon by experimenting for over 100 years using chemicals and paper just happen to be the ideal size for a piece of silicon with millions of tiny light-buckets on it?  That would be quite the coincidence.  Large sensors have a lot of benefits based on laws of physics that have remained the same for at least the last couple of decades (that’s a joke, physicists, sit down).  Simply put, they capture more light, allowing for better low-light photography.  Unfortunately, large sensors require large lenses to cover the entire area of the sensor with an image.  So now we’ve got a large camera and a large lens and the combination has made hunchbacks out of photographers since time began.  Isn’t it possible that a smaller sensor could be a better mix of price/performance/size?  In-camera noise reduction and optical correction is only going to improve, so the reliance on physics alone for good low-light photography is being diminished.  Whatever you may think about the Micro 4/3 standard (there are a lot of LOUD arguments about this topic), you can’t fault companies like Olympus and Panasonic (and Samsung and Sigma and Leica) for finally attempting some innovation.  Why should cameras look essentially the same 25 years after the first autofocus SLR?

This picture shows the difference in size between a conventional DSLR and a Micro 4/3 camera.  The difference in image quality is nowhere near the difference in size.  No wonder people are SHOUTING about this subject all over the internet.  Just read a few of the comments to this article at Wired.com.  It seems that the emotions and personal attacks on the author are a little out of proportion to the subject matter.  People are calmer discussing abortions and gay marriage.  The picture below shows what happens when you walk around with a DSLR: you get noticed.  I think it adds to the picture, but I’d rather get noticed by choice, not by accident.

Duck Food
Duck Food, by me

My problem with the Micro 4/3 movement thus far has been the prices.  Up until now, you’d be set back a minimum of $900 to buy into the system, where an APS-C SLR with potentially better image quality only costs about $400.  The balance is shifting, though, because Olympus has just announced that they are releasing the Olympus E-PL1, which will sell for $599 with the foldable 14-42mm lens.  Not a bad deal, even though I’d rather buy it with the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7.  I’m guessing I won’t see that bundle any time soon.  Still, progress = good.

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One thought on “The Micro 4/3 Movement and a new camera, the Olympus E-PL1

  1. Oh, man. This hits home in a major way. Here in Korea, cameras are so cheap and the compensation seems so large, if you know what I mean. I’ve never seen a group of people walking around with such large cameras!

    Seriously, though, I think I could run circles around them with my piddly D40x from Best Buy but theirs look mighty impressive. I’m also guessing I could create some McGyver-esque setup with a roll of film and sardine box that would take photos just as well.

    People are spending extra money (thousands of $$) on the ability to blow up a photo to the size of a billboard. But when was the last time anyone actually created an image that big? Probably never, and he/she dropped an extra grand to get the 20MP, 45 lb. body.

    I say just get what you need to make really nice 11×14 images and put all that money to something that matters for making great images — like a better, more purposeful lens.

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