Sunday, March 21, 2010

New "Middle Class" Cameras Available Now

If you’ve always wanted a camera with the features and image quality of an SLR and the size of a compact, your dream has just come true. There is a new class of cameras referred to unglamorously as Micro Four Thirds. Four thirds refers to a sensor size found in some SLRs while Micro indicates the camera bodies are small.

These cameras look much like compacts but have interchangeable lenses – which of course will add to the size depending on the focal length. They are smaller than SLRs because they do not have the “reflex” mirror or prism used in the SLR viewfinder. Image composition is done with the LCD or optional electronic viewfinder.

The Four Thirds sensor size is on the small end for an SLR but many times bigger than any sensor found in compact cameras. Pixels can be bigger on a larger sensor and pixel size is more important than huge pixel counts. If you are wondering about the "four thirds" name, digital camera sensor sizes are based on an archaic TV tube measurement system that only vaguely makes any sense at all.

This diagram illustrates various sensor sizes beginning with "full frame" (upper left) that is equivalent to a 35mm film negative. Only a few high-end DSLRs have such a large sensor. The four thirds sensor is shown at the right of the second row. It is significantly smaller than some other DSLR sensors in the first two rows but many times larger than any compact sensor shown in the third row.

A typical Micro Four Thirds camera
4.5x2.8x1.7in   -   11.8 oz - without lens

Panasonic and Olympus have products available today with prices in the $600-900 range. As with SLRs, additional lenses can drastically increase the price of the camera “system”.  For more information on compact and DSLR cameras look at my comparison video.

Lens flexibility is a major design improvement with the Micro Four Thirds format. The lens "mount" or connector usually differs from camera to camera which is why Nikon lenses do not fit on Canon cameras. The Micro Four Thirds format defines both the sensor size and the lens mount so lenses are compatible among the various brands. Because lenses can be the most expensive component of your system and because they often last years longer than the camera, this turns out to be a very big deal.

At this writing the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 and Olympus PEN E-P1 have nearly identical specifications: same sensor size (4/3), same pixel count (12mp) and same burst rate (3fps). The Panasonic offers built in flash while the Olympus does not. The Olympus has image stabilization (IS) but the Panasonic does not. The Olympus IS is built into the camera resulting in simpler, smaller and less costly lenses.

More companies will get into the fray soon which will make more cameras and lenses available and inevitably cause prices to drop. The winner may be the company that comes up with a more appealing name for the product category!

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