What the &*^@ is Micro Four Thirds?
The big not-so-secret
There are only four products on the market at this point (Panasonic G1, its video-centric brother, the GH1, Olympus E-P1 and, of course, the Panasonic GF1), and they all have the exact same 13MP Panasonic sensor. But only the latest two, the GF1 and the E-P1, have taken advantage of the smaller technology to create design-forward cameras.
However, if you’re going to buy one of these cameras, you probably want the GF1 ($900 with 14-45mm lens). It couples all the good stuff from Panasonic’s existing line with a retro body that’s eerily similar to the Olympus E-P1.
The GF1 is too big, and it’s too heavy. The Panasonic GF1 is indeed smaller than my Canon XTi, but it still won’t fit in your pocket.
Yet I love carrying it around. Why? The body feels solid, as if it’s from another era, a Utopian time when men were men and companies built hardware to last—before we valued sissy silver painted plastic more than the metal it was emulating.
The GF1 (and the Olympus E-P1 for that matter) feels like a small tank in your hands, an element of war that won’t give up after being tossed in a bag recklessly. If dropped on an iPod from over 3 feet, the iPod would certainly be crushed.
Given the almost retro-style build, however, it was tough for me to lose an optical viewfinder (though a digital optical add-on is available). It’s a heavy camera to hold outstretched while framing shots on the viewfinder. But luckily, the 3-inch LCD’s 460,000 pixels mean you can just manage to find critical focus, thanks to the screen auto-zooming to your subject during manual focusing, though it can be tough to be sure you’ve really nailed it.
That screen resolution is below a premium dSLR, but it’s about twice as sharp as the E-P1—and you’ll notice.
Honestly, there’s not much we can say about the quality of the GF1’s sensor that hasn’t been said (by us, even.) The biggest particular problem is ISO noise, as you can see in the gallery below. Bottom line: the GF1 supports ISOs up to 3200, but you probably don’t want to reach beyond 800.
1. Shooting on the GF1 feels like shooting on an SLR. I’m not just talking about the ease of tweaking advanced controls. I mean, you pull the trigger, the camera takes a shot RIGHT THEN. For dSLR owners, that’s nothing new. For P&S owners, that’s a revelation.
2. There is undoubtedly more noise with Panasonic’s sensor in high ISOs than you could find in dSLRs for a similar price. But, the image quality you can achieve—I mean that intangible mix of sensor size and great glass that makes your photos feel professional—is undoubtedly beyond the realm of point and shoots, well in the SLR ballpark.
3. The Live View system features what’s, hands down, the best function I’ve ever see on any Live View system yet. Holding a Shutter Mode Effect button previews the motion blur you can expect in your final shot—saving you the heartache of the perfect preview and horrible blurry-faced end product we’ve all experience on point and shoots.
The 720P video I’d describe as solid but not extraordinary. The AVCHD (or motion JPEG) video, while inherently better than P&S systems or Mino HDs, is not razor sharp. Without side by side comparisons or the wonderful popping colours you get with a bit of sunlight (it rained through my entire testing period), I can’t make any definitive statements. But what I’ve seen from the T1i seems better (richer colours, sharper figures), and not just because it’s 1080P.
Versus the EP-1
There are definitely a few key advantages to buying a GF1 instead of Olympus’ E-P1. They include:
• Sharper screen
• Faster autofocus (I’d estimate about 3x faster—it’s noticeable)
• Built-in flash (the Olympus requires an optional mount)
But it should be noted, the E-P1 has its image stabilisation inside its body while Panasonic relies on its IS kit lens. In other words, every lens the Olympus uses will have inherent image stabilisation. Also, Olympus allows autofocusing on all Micro Four Thirds and Four Thirds lenses. The GF1 can accept these lenses, but it only retains autofocus on its own brand. In other words, lens fanatics may find the E-P1 the better bet. And if you find one or the other on some super sale, well, it’s a toss-up.
The real reason I enjoyed shooting on the GF1, and the real reason you’re interested in Micro Four Thirds if you are indeed interested, has nothing to do with practicality.
I just feel cool using it.
Every soccer mum tourist in Chicago has a dSLR. They may take prettier photos than I do, but damn do I long to be different once in a while. And I’m here to say that, if you crave a Micro Four Thirds for the same reason, it’s my opinion that the GF1 works well enough that, well, that’s OK. I’m just not trading my dSLR for one.