Analysis of Micro Four-Thirds

analysis Aug 8, 2008

With the recent press release by Olympus and Panasonic about Micro Four Thirds (m4/3), the photo-blogosphere has been buzzing concerning productMicro43logo announcements around this as Photokina 2008 approaches. To recap, Olympus and Panasonic announced a new variation of their five year old Four Thirds digital camera platform designed for smaller, thinner interchangeable lens cameras using the 4/3 sensor and capable of providing DSLR quality images in a smaller form-factor.

However, there are many questions still floating about concerning the implementation of this digital-only specification.

Translations of the press release has Olympus & Panasonic targeting women as the main demographic for this new camera format. They also feel, to a lesser degree, that DSLR owners will be interested as well. I feel that they are underestimating the desire of DSLR owners to have a small, easy-to-carry, high-quality backup camera. Sigma botched it with the DP1 and Nikon’s recently announced P6000 may be trumped by this technology.

Another group missed entirely is the rangefinder crowd. While Leica’s M8 Leica M8is currently the only interchangeable digital rangefinder on the market, the high cost of entry and camera’s quirkiness (don’t get me wrong, I own one and love it) tends to relegate it to being a niche player. Oddly, rumors have Leica quietly bowing out of the 4/3s Alliance and producing their own lower priced DRF. Will it be m4/3?

Among the images shown during the press conference, a silhouette of a m4/3 camera body with a pancake style lens is shown. Will this proposed camera employ an optical or electronic viewfinder? Will it have a viewfinder at all – opting instead for a point and shoot Live View LCD instead?

Quoting the Micro Four Thirds website: …However, growing support for Live View shooting in the market presented another option. We could eliminate the conventional viewfinder and therefore the mirror box altogether. On this basis, the Micro Four Thirds System was conceived. It specifies the optimum flange back length required to reduce camera size and thickness, assuming the omission of the mirror box. The flange back length has been reduced to about 1/2 that of the Four Thirds System. This is considered short enough to allow radical reductions in size and thickness, without causing problems with the lens drive and while still reserving space for accommodating the devices indispensable for digital SLRs such as the low-pass filter and the dust reduction mechanism, as well as devices likely to be adopted in the future.

So it looks like the first m4/3 camera is shaping up to be an interchangeable lens P&S design with a large (and hopefully high resolution) LCD display on the back act as a viewfinder. Hopefully, someone will market a shoe mounted optical viewfinder.

Moving on to the new lens mount, the m4/3 spec calls for a lens mount that is 6mm smaller and has 11 electrical contacts to 4/3’s nine. What are the two extra contacts for?

According to the Micro Four Thirds website: “…the lens mount of the Micro Four Thirds System is equipped with two additional signal contacts for smoother Live View shooting with shorter time lags, faster higher communication speeds between the lens and body, and, of course, reduced lens and camera size.

These two contacts will also be used in high-speed data processing required for the movie handling capability expected in the future.”

Movie handling? Interesting choice of words.

Since they are using a Live Viewfinder as opposed to a more traditional design, the proposed camera can have a much smaller shutter box and still maintain the features we have all come to expect on high quality cameras: image stabilization, dust reduction and low pass filters.

If you have existing 4/3 mount lenses, adapters will be available to allow you to mount them. Since the 4/3 spec for lenses calls for a tele-centric design, the additional distance from the shutter should not have any effect on the image circle. the question here is whether they will produce adaptors for other lens mounts?

I, for one, have high hopes for the format. Olympus has really “stuck to its guns” with Four Thirds and now this new format will allow them to enter the blossoming high-end P&S market. I will be watching this with great interest!