Which Micro Four Thirds camera to buy – March 2010?

Written by Gary on March 10th, 2010

The good news is that we are getting a little spoiled by the rapidly increasing number of cameras available in the Micro Four Thirds camera system, perhaps the bad news, is that there is no single perfect camera for everyone, and that the technology is changing rapidly, so which ever camera you buy, you can bet there will be an even better one in 12 months.

Micro Four Thirds camera size and image quality make them the ideal camera for families, travel, work, social, macro, documentary, conference and general walk-around photography – image quality is far better than compact digital point and shoots which have limited ability for acceptable enlargements, and are far more versatile and fun to use.

Thus, my rule #1, don’t spend too much on a camera body but enough so that it will do what you need now with some room for your short term growth – better to spend more on good lenses such as the almost essential Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens.

Firstly, I don’t want people to follow my advice and find that this system will not suit their needs, so here are a few things this system will NOT be good for:

  • fast action or sports photography where you want to use continuous autofocus – the AF system is rapidly improving and is as good as entry level dSLRs and will track a walking person, but it is still no where fast enough to track fast moving subjects. You can still do sports photography, but you will need to pre-focus on a certain spot to get good results.
  • rapid burst rates – the current cameras perform similar to entry level dSLRs at 3-3.5 fps burst rate, if you want faster then go for a semi-pro or pro dSLR
  • very high ISO – ISO is acceptable on these cameras up to 800-1600, although the new ones do allow up to 6400, but for most people using these cameras, particularly with a fast lens or with image stabilisation or a tripod, these ISO levels are adequate. The GH-1 has less image noise at all ISO levels than a Canon 7D, so if you need substantially better high ISO performance then you need to go to a full frame dSLR.
  • very shallow depth of field at wide angle field of view – an inevitable compromise with a smaller sensor is that it becomes harder to get shallow depth of field at a particular field of view, and this is largely an issue with effective focal lengths 100mm or less in 35mm terms. This can be mitigated to a certain extent by ensuring you use the widest aperture lenses you can get (eg. Panasonic 20mm f/1.7, Leica-D 25mm f/1.4, Olympus ZD 50mm f/2.0 macro, Voigtlander 50mm f/1.1, Carl Zeiss 85mm f/1.4, Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8 tilt shift lens, etc) or by using tilt adapters to turn your legacy lens into a tilt lens and thus be creative with your depth of field. The upside is that you can use wider aperture lenses to reduce camera shake in low light and still get just enough DOF for portraits so that tip of nose to ears are in focus – something that is more difficult to do on larger sensor cameras at the same ISO.
  • power zoom and audio level control for videos – unlike dedicated video cameras, this system does not, and probably never will for some years, allow power zoom during video. The current cameras do not allow manual setting of audio level, so you may need to use an add-on audio tool, or record audio separately as I do with a Zoom H4N digital recorder.
  • radio wireless remote TTL flash – currently this is only possible via third party accessories and unfortunately, these are currently only made for Canon and Nikon dSLRs. You can do infrared wireless remote TTL flash with the Olympus E-PL1.
  • heavy, big lenses > 1kg are not very ergonomic on these small cameras but can be used although tripod use via a lens tripod mount is advisable.
  • remote control of the camera is limited, and currently, there is no intervalometer capability or GPS recording.
  • no live video output for remote viewing live – hopefully this will be addressed soon.
  • weatherproofing is not currently available as yet
  • a fast AF portrait lens – there is an expensive Panasonic 45mm f/2.8 macro lens, but I would advise the less well off to use a manual focus lens until Olympus release their 50mm f/2.0 macro lens for M43 cameras – probably in 2011.
  • it does not scream that you are a professional – if this is important then get the biggest pro camera you can get

If Micro Four Thirds doesn’t do the above why buy it?

Simple, the best camera is the one you take with you and you are much more likely to take a Micro Four Thirds than a big, heavy, noisy dSLR which is often not acceptable in social situations and is too intrusive to allow you to capture those precious candid moments.

Perhaps more importantly, its smaller size means people are less likely to hold you as a professional and create unwanted expectations or prevent you from photographing events such as concerts or sports events.

A Micro Four Thirds camera is a perfect compact kit to compliment a full frame dSLR or high end Olympus dSLR such as an E-30 or E-3 (or the forthcoming E-5).

It can do things dSLRs cannot do such as:

  • continuous AF during HD video (GH-1 wth 14-140mm HD lens)
  • fast manual focus magnified assist anywhere on the frame without having to move a mirror out of the way – great for legacy lenses and tilt-shift work
  • quieter for use at conferences, etc
  • can convert almost any legacy 35mm lens or Four Thirds lens into tilt shift lenses – and when using Four Thirds via the new Hino tilt-shift electrically coupled adapter, you still retain full control over the lens including aperture control, EXIF, and AF – so now you can have a 18-36mm tilt shift lens in 35mm terms – if you couple this with an Olympus ZD 9-18mm lens, and it will be image stabilised to boot!
  • all lenses including legacy lenses will be image stabilised if you use Olympus cameras – you can do this with Olympus Four Thirds, Pentax, and Sony dSLRs but not with Canon or Nikon.
  • you can use almost any lens ever made including Leica M, Olympus Pen, Canon FD which cannot be used on dSLRs without losing infinity focus.

Now, that is out of the way, let’s look at the main differences between the brands – Panasonic and Olympus:

Panasonic cameras:

  • tend to be more optimised for video rather than still photography, although the GH-1 has the best sensor at present
  • option of AVCHD video compression on all cameras except G1 which has no video at all
  • ability to have continuous AF during HD video – GH1 with 14-140mm HD lens
  • ability to record in 1080i HD video – GH1 only at present
  • rely on optical image stabilisation in the lens, thus you will not get image stabilisation for legacy lenses or non-MegaOIS lenses, but the image stabilisation if present, does work during video.
  • not as good as Olympus for using legacy lenses (see below)
  • marginally faster AF at present
  • flip out and swivel LCD on some cameras – the Gx and GH1 cameras
  • touch screen LCD on the newest cameras – the G2 and G10
  • faux-dSLR styling with hand grips and built-in EVF on some cameras – the Gx and GH1 cameras
  • can use the aperture ring on Panasonic Four Thirds lenses – not functional when used on Olympus cameras
  • unable to over-ride flash sync
  • corrects lens aberrations in-camera for most Micro Four Thirds and Four Thirds lenses
  • will not AF a Four Thirds lens if it is not CDAF-capable (Olympus will AF these, albeit slowly)
  • automatically activates manual focus assist on turning lens focus ring of a MFT or FT lens when in MF mode
  • cannot select a filter to use in B&W film mode (can do this on Olympus)

Olympus cameras:

  • much better for use of legacy lenses or non-CDAF Four Thirds lenses as:
    • in-built image stabilisation (IBIS) which will work on ANY lens – just set the focal length for legacy lenses – but does not work during videos
    • AF works on non-CDAF Four Thirds lenses but slowly
    • TTL flash works with legacy lenses (Panasonic cameras seem to assume lens is set at f/2.8)
    • MF assist even easier to access, although perhaps the new Panasonic touch screens may change this
    • do not get the occasional Panasonic firmware issues of “no lens attached” errors even when Panasonic camera has menu item set to “shoot w/o lens”
    • Olympus appear to be making a unique .5x wide converter for OM lenses which will have CDAF autofocus capability – will this function on the Panasonic cameras if and when it does eventuate?
  • B&W mode allows you to select a filter – this is important for skin tones or dramatic skies.
  • various art filters
  • electronic camera level guide – not on the E-PL1 though
  • able to force a high flash sync speed for sunlit portraits at wide aperture if the FP flash mode (HSS) is not adequate
  • better jpeg image colours in general
  • only the E-PL1 has a built-in flash
  • infrared remote TTL flash – E-PL1 only at present
  • no support for AVCHD video – only motion jpeg and currently limited to 30fps 720p, not 60fps 720p as with GH-1
  • no built-in EVF model as yet
  • rear LCD screen tends to be lower resolution (230,000 dots) and fixed but better in sunlight than that on the GF-1
  • optional EVF for the E-P2 and E-PL1 is very high quality, comparable to the GH-1, G2 EVF and much better than that on the GF-1 and G10
  • multiple exposure feature may be useful for some

A few notes about the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens:

  • I have singled out this lens as this has become the MUST HAVE lens if you have a Micro Four Thirds camera
  • it is not perfect – it doesn’t have an aperture ring on the lens as a Leica-D 25mm f/1.4 lens does – but then, most modern lenses don’t have this, and the manual focus ring is not that great to use, it does not have optical image stabilisation, and it may need some aberration correction if you don’t use Panasonic cameras.
  • BUT, what this lens does it provide you with low light capability with its f/1.7 aperture, a nice 40mm field of view in 35mm terms, for closer work at least, it has a relatively narrow depth of field with lovely background blurring (bokeh), incredibly sharp images and all this in a beautifully compact form.
  • This lens is great for street work, candid photography, indoor photography of kids and pets, travel, documentary, art galleries and museums, and can be used well for portraits although its wider field of view means it is better for portraits which tell a story rather than tight head and shoulder shots – the 16:9 image aspect ratio available in these cameras can really help with the story telling.
  • When used on Olympus cameras, the potential need for post-processing is easily offset by the additional image stabilisation the Olympus cameras add to the low light capabilities of this lens.

So which camera to buy depends upon your needs and budget:

Best quality video, or best high ISO performance plus flip out LCD, high quality EVF:

  • Panasonic GH-1 with 14-140mm HD lens is the clear winner although relatively expensive.
  • the sensor on the GH-1 is not only over-sized so that you can do 16:9 or 3:2 images uncropped, but it seems to be giving high ISO performance approximately 1 stop better than the Olympus cameras or the G1, or GF-1, and its image noise level is BETTER or as good as, the Canon 7D according to DxO, and not too far off the Canon 5D MII, BUT you do get some banding in shadow areas at ISO 3200.

Best for using legacy manual focus lenses:

  • Olympus E-PL1 -cheaper but this may be frustrating for advanced photographers when using digital lenses
  • Olympus E-P2 – best option for enthusiasts
  • if you want built-in EVF or a flip out screen then the Panasonic G2 with its touch screen MF assist may be a good option

Best for using Panasonic lenses where 720p video is adequate:

  • Panasonic G2 or, if on a budget, the G10 but the EVF is lower resolution
  • Olympus E-PL1 or E-P2 if you can manage lens aberrations or they are not a big priority,  and you don’t need built-in EVF or flip out LCD screen.

Cheap, no need for video:

  • Panasonic G1

I just want that great retro styling and don’t need built-in flash or EVF:

  • Olympus E-P1 “Pen”

The family camera for non-enthusiasts with built-in flash and 720p video capability:

  • Olympus E-PL1 – designed for dummies – but also great for those on a budget who are happy to use cheap manual focus legacy lenses, as this camera should be great for that purpose, and you can buy the electronic viewfinder later when you can afford it.
  • Panasonic G10 or G2  – if you want a flip screen with touch capability and you can get the all important, Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens as part of the kit at a reduced price.

Clinical / medical / dental / macro / conference / continuing education photography:

  • Panasonic G2, GH-1 or Olympus E-PL1 or E-P2 with Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens and a macro lens – either Olympus ZD 50mm f/2.0 macro (manual focus only on Panasonic cameras but that is best for macro work anyway), the expensive Panasonic M43 Leica-D 45mm f/2.8 OIS macro, or you can use almost any other macro lens ever made via an adapter – as you will be shooting manual focus anyway, this is not an issue. Olympus will be bringing out a new Micro Four Third macro lens perhaps in 2011.
  • consider an Olympus Ring Flash for Four Thirds system – easiest when used with the Olympus ZD 50mm f/2.0 macro with an ring flash adapter which can also double as a sturdy lens hood for this lens.
  • for conferences, consider getting an Olympus OM 135mm f/2.8 lens and adapter for low light telephoto videos and photos of Powerpoint presentations.
  • for general purpose you will also like to add in a Micro Four Thirds zoom lens – if you get the GH-1, then the Panasonic Lumix 10x zoom 14-140mm OIS lens is the best lens for video work. Olympus will also be bringing out a much more affordable 14-150mm lens.

Rumoured new Micro Four Thirds cameras in the pipeline:

  • Panasonic GH-2 (perhaps late 2010) – this would be similar to the GH-1 and I would expect this toadd touch screen, GPS, and even better HD video modes, although the much anticipated, global silent shutter may not be available until a GH-3 in 2011-12.
  • Panasonic GF-2 (perhaps late 2010) – this would be similar to the GF-1 but according to this patent that has been filed, it may at last bring a Leica rangefinder style viewfinder placement – an in-built EVF placed on the far left so that you nose does not hit the rear LCD screen, but more importantly, it allows your left eye to remain open and assessing the full view not just what the camera can see. Furthermore, it suggests that this EVF will be tiltable.

Finally, don’t forget to budget for some accessories:

  • spare battery
  • good UV and circular polariser filters for lenses – plus consider a square gradient ND filter such as Cokin for dramatic landscapes
  • Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens – currently RRP $A700
  • consider a lens adapter to allow use of legacy lenses such as Olympus OM lenses which you can get relatively cheaply on Ebay such as a macro lens (eg. OM 50mm f/3.5 macro), 50mm f/1.8 or 100mm f/2.8 lens or 135mm f/2.8 lens.
  • a bounce flash for nicer portraits – eg. Olympus FL-36(R) or Olympus FL50(R) – perhaps get a cheaper non-R model from Ebay – the non R models do not support remote TTL flash, and you almost certainly won’t need it anyway.

3 Comments so far ↓

  1. Grant says:

    Hi Gary

    Is the G2 sensor the same as G1 or is it more like the GH1’s?

    I am keen to buy into ‘serious’ digital (still using my Canon T90 SLR and my G7 compact just died). The m43 concept is on paper well matched to my requirements but I tend to choke on tests that say “contrast-focus is slower than phase type and dodgy at night, and the 4/3 sensor’s lower dynamic range means blown highlights and blocked shadows in brightly lit scenes, even raw: so overall IQ is “good, not outstanding”.” (photoreview.com.au on the G1)

    So I like your comments on the GH1 sensor being a good still-image sensor, but video is not my main focus. I want that sensor’s performance in m43 still cameras: do you think Olympus or Panasonic is going to comply?

  2. admin says:

    Hi Grant I believe the G2 sensor is more like the G1 than the GH-1, presumably Panasonic have their reasons for this – perhaps to keep the GH-x series desirable and more expensive.

    If dynamic range, high ISO performance is important to you in a compact camera, then the GH-1 would be the better choice and has similar IQ to other cropped sensor dSLRs such as a Canon 7D.

    If shooting sports or fast moving subjects is your thing, then you better stick with a Canon 7D or 1D MIV and buy the L lenses.

    Personally, I don’t care that my Canon 1d Mark III has more dynamic range and better high ISO IQ than my GH-1 – I still use the GH-1 for > 90% of my photos now – because it is more fun, has some better features, and is much more portable and less imposing.

    There is no one perfect camera – each has its compromises and you have decide which are the important features for you.

    But remember if it is too big to take with you then it is useless to you no matter what its IQ.

  3. admin says:

    oh, and I would expect the next batch of M43 cameras will have sensors at least as good as the GH-1 – except perhaps for the entry level models.