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Back to the Future for Micro Four Thirds

Discussion in 'Open Discussion' started by goldenlight, Mar 16, 2010.

  1. goldenlight

    goldenlight Mu-43 All-Pro

    Jan 30, 2010
    Micro Four Thirds is not so much a new format in digital photography (“standard” Four Thirds using the same sized sensor has been around for a number of years) as a new concept, and one which is taking the world of photography by storm. So much, in fact, that it has already spawned a number of imitations from Ricoh, Samsung and Sony – using different sized sensors but all broadly based on the same concept, and others are bound to follow. For now, though, :43: remains the undisputed leading format in this class of camera. But what next for the genre, where do we go from here?

    For the answer, I believe we have to go back to the future. Let me explain. Prior to 1925 medium format roll film reigned supreme, despite plate cameras still offering significantly better quality, due to greater portability and ease of use. You could use a digital analogy of APS-C sensors and “full frame.” In 1925 that all changed with the introduction of the Leica, a design that Oskar Barnack had been working on for about twelve years and which utilized the much smaller 35mm film format originally designed for movie cameras. Despite the obvious trade off in quality the new miniature format was a resounding success and the rest, as they say, is history. This new film format could be compared to :43:.

    But how did 35mm cameras develop and how is that relevant to :43: when surely the only thing they have in common is a smaller than traditional image forming area? Already, in fact, there are startling parallels. Initially, the new breed of 35mm cameras were quite expensive compared to the established roll film models, in much the same way as :43: cameras are currently more expensive than entry level DSLRs, and formed a bit of a niche market for serious and well-heeled photographers. As time progressed, however, and other manufacturers supported the format, prices dropped in relative terms and 35mm cameras enjoyed mass appeal, as no doubt :43: is destined to do. It's interesting to look at the designs of the early 35mm cameras in relation to the early :43: offerings.

    It's O.K. making a tiny body just big enough to house the film, or sensor, but some provision has to be made for viewing the subject. Initially 35mm cameras had either a very small and inadequate built-in finder or a much better external finder that clipped in the accessory shoe, making the camera more bulky. I suppose the modern parallel in :43: is the choice between LCD screen only, which has disadvantages in certain situations, or a clip-on EVF.

    35mm cameras continued to evolve with bigger built in finders, at the expense of larger body dimensions, a bit like the Panasonic G1, except of course that this pre-dated the other :43: cameras that provide an LCD screen only. However, by refinement of design and improving technology, the nirvana of truly pocketable 35mm viewfinder/rangefinder cameras was eventually achieved culminating, it could be argued, in the Olympus XA.

    During the same period, of course, film quality improved in tandem with camera development. Initially convenience was the only attraction of the smaller film format, which suffered in overall quality in much the same way as :43: does to some extent compared to full frame. But eventually emulsion technology improved to the stage that for a while, before the introduction of Velvia, it could be argued that 35mm Kodachrome 25 surpassed the E6 120 roll films available at the time. Whilst this is unlikely in digital sensor terms, it's not inconceivable that the technology will progress to the point that for all practical purposes an :43: sensor will equal anything bigger.

    To my mind it's no coincidence that Olympus, makers of the superbly performing yet diminutive XA and before that the still highly regarded 35RC should also be in the vanguard of designing and developing the new breed of :43: digital cameras. Olympus have chosen to style their initial models for this format on the PEN range of 50 years ago, no doubt partly for nostalgic reasons, but I think if we look back to the XA we get a glimpse of how the future may look for :43:.
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  2. OzRay

    OzRay Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Jan 29, 2010
    South Gippsland, Australia
    Ray, not Oz
    I think what Olympus has done with m4/3s is to get the P&S crowd interested in getting higher quality results from a camera format and shooting style with which they are familiar. And as an adjunct, they've also provided the serious/semi-serious photographers with a compact, flexible and versatile camera to meet specialised needs. It kind of captures two parts of photographic history, the Box Brownie that brought 'high quality' photography to the masses, in a small, easy to use package compared to the professional cameras of the time. It also emulates the Leica, as you suggest, that gave the professional a compact, flexible and versatile camera. What concerns me somewhat about the future is that Olympus may be aiming too much at the amateur market and forgetting that there is a pretty big pro/semi-pro market that likes what they see, but it doesn't yet meet what they need.

    I think that there are two areas to consider here. Firstly, the body itself needs some professional touches, most notably a built in eye-point EVF, the detachable one is great, but way to fiddly and delicate for pro use. And there has to be the ability to use decent flash with the body. If Olympus waits too long, Nikon/Canon will come out with such a camera and that will get all the adulation and attention. Secondly, whilst it doesn't concern me overall, as I'm happy with my manual lenses, Olympus really needs to provide some higher quality lenses to suit the needs of those at the working end of photography. What's needed is something a lot better than what is currently available. I hope that Olympus is considering these issues, as I see no reason why a professional m4/3s camera shouldn't have a place in the inventory.


  3. goldenlight

    goldenlight Mu-43 All-Pro

    Jan 30, 2010
    Spot on Ray, Olympus needs to expand the range and diversify within it, it could then mean all things to all people. At the very least there should be a goal of producing a rangefinder style body with built in EVF, not much bigger than the existing Pens. As you say, a credible range of high quality glass is another essential. We know that Olympus can produce the very best glass in the business, witness the SHG lenses for the E-System, but in :43: Panasonic seem to be making all the running. That is great, as Panny lenses are fully compatible, but how much stronger would the system be already with similar input from Oly?

    Compact, consumer grade zooms are fine for may users upgrading from P&S, the bigger sensor alone will ensure quality that far exceeds their experience up to now, but I suspect what many users of this forum would like is a comprehensive range of high quality primes. The 17mm is O.K. but hardly puts in a stellar performance compared to what we are used to from DZ optics. Imagine a digital equivalent of the Leica CL with 10mm, 14mm, 20mm and 40mm fast, high quality primes with Panasonic focus speed and Olympus IBIS, featuring an LCD screen to Panny standards and built in EVF to rival the Oly clip-on. I guess that would do most of us and none of it seems unachievable.

    At the other end of the scale a sub £400 scaled down E-PL1 with budget zooms would really make inroads into the P&S market. Some of us, who want a compact and lightweight high quality camera on a budget would no doubt be attracted to a pro spec model with built in EVF etc., but a high quality, fast, fixed lens of around 20mm. Without the need for an interchangeable lens mount and with video stripped out it could be truely pocketable and relatively inexpensive. It might not be possible to reduce it to the size of an XA, but certainly the size and style of a 35RC should be achievable. I'd buy one today if it was available!
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