Olympus + Panasonic: New “Micro” Four Thirds & Wild Speculation

And that means what exactly? 

Well, it means a lot of things – and it could be very cool.  But quickly – what is “four thirds”?  It refers to a sensor size of 18×13.5mm found on the likes of Olympus DSLR cameras (more can be found here).  In contrast – the middle product lines of Canon & Nikon DSLR’s are shooting something near 22x15mm – which translates to a slightly different crop factor between the two lines (x1.6 vs. x2 for the Olympus four thirds).

So, why is “micro” cool?  Well – first, here’s the scoop at DPReview(and pretty good place to read up on other new gear).  Bottom line – Olympus & Panasonic are eliminating the mirror and optical viewfinder on their four thirds systems.  This then allows for smaller lenses and body. 

From my perspective – without a lot of data – I’m thinking the smaller form factor + smaller lenses could create one sweet street photography setup.  But, hey, that’s just me and we don’t even have a product announcement yet – just a technology plug.

Of course, the hot oil and flaming arrows are already hitting the forums (mind you – still without a product announcement).   But I think folks might be missing the point. 

What are folks discussing?  Some folks are concerned that it’s still called a DSLR even though there’s no mirror and optical viewfinder.   OK – fine.  Great catch.  But this certainly isn’t a point & shoot.  Rangefinder?  Nope.  So, what is it?  Well, some DSLR’s have “live view”.  Are they not SLR’s when “live view” is on?  What do we call them then?  Maybe I should be concerned about this – I’m not.

Viewfinder.  OK – this may be something to squabble over.  Often times photographers don’t want LCD’s in the way when framing an image.  It doesn’t matter if it’s on the back of a camera or a very small LCD in the viewfinder.  Photogs are looking for photons reflecting off the subject hitting their eye.  I have to say I’m pretty much in this camp.  A solution?  Optical viewfinder attached to the hot shoe (or cold shoe).  Yeah – OK it won’t be a 100% frame – but, shoot enough pictures – and we’ll figure it out.  I think I can live with an optional viewfinder (if Oly decides to go in this direction).

What gets me most excited by this is the potential cost + performance tradeoff of the system.  Now, mind you, no cost has been announced – because no product has been announced – so we can wildly speculate.  Let’s talk trends.

Olympus cameras are currently in the neighborhood of $450-$600 (body only) for the E-420 & E-520.  This new micro system, theoretically, should cost less to manufacture – could this mean a lower price on the body?  And, then, of course, there’s glass.   Good glass costs money.  Honestly, I don’t have great knowledge of the sweet glass in the Oly system.  But, there does appear to be at least one pancake lens in the lineup – a 25mm f/2.8 going in the mid to high $200’s.  That translates to 50mm with the crop factor – a classic field of view.

What could this mean?  Small, reasonable systems with larger sensors without breaking the bank.  And, yes, us Canon / Nikon users have a thousand reasons to stick to our mainstay – but, wouldn’t it be cool to have something small to tote around on the streets?  Or for that birthday party?  And, really, from what I can tell, Oly makes some reasonably good systems at some reasonably good prices. 

I think I could go this way instead of a P&S in my bag.  But, then again, it’s easier to write about it then to actually fork over the cash for it.  Either way, it’ll be fun to see where this goes.

Of course, Photokina is still over a month away.  It’s likely more cool stuff will be announced soon.

Let me know what you think.  -Jones

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