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Friday, September 12, 2008

Panasonic Launches First 'Micro Four Thirds' Camera


Back in August, Olympus and Panasonic announced a new camera standard called Micro Four Thirds. Today Panasonic has launched the first camera using this standard, and it looks very interesting, if flawed.

SLR cameras were designed for the film era. The "reflex" refers to the mirror inside, which redirects light to the viewfinder and then flips out of the way when the shutter is fired, letting the light fall onto the film. Because of the mirror, the body of an SLR is relatively large, and because the lenses are so far away from the film plane (or, these days, the sensor chip), they have to be big, too. Look at the size difference between a compact camera and an SLR for an instant example of this.

Micro Four Thirds does away with the mirror, making the camera much smaller. The gimmick is that you can still change lenses, just like an SLR. And because the sensor size is standard across Micro Four Thirds cameras, the confusion of focal length multipliers disappears (although if you do want to know the 35mm equivalent, just times multiply by two), and you you don't have to sell all your glass if you swap from one camera brand to another.

Panasonic's new Lumix DMC-G1 uses all these advantages to make a tiny, full featured camera which is somewhat misleadingly being called the "world's smallest digital SLR" -- remember, to be an SLR it needs a mirror.

Inside you'll find a 12MP N-MOS sensor, a 3" LCD screen, an ISO range of 100 to 3200 and an electronic viewfinder. This is the first problem. No matter how crisp and sharp the viewfinder, it will never be as good as looking through a lens at the real scene in front of you. The advantage is that you still get a TTL (through the lens) image like you would with a mirror. The alternative is a rangefinder, an optical viewfinder which sits close to the lens but shows a slightly different view.

The camera is indeed small (Reuters says that Panasonic is "targeting female users who want a high-performance machine that does not weigh too much" -- perhaps they could continue the patronization with a pink model). But into that body are packed some neat controls.


From the top you can see that a lot of functions normally hidden in menus have their own switches. On the left, there is a dial to select the focus mode (single, continuous or manual) and on the right, a lever around the main dial selects the shooting mode: single, continuous, bracket or self-timer.


The rear view reveals a big, flip-out LCD (3") which might go some way to mitigating the optical 'finder. There are also direct access buttons for ISO and white balance. If only Panasonic had managed to put an aperture ring on the lens and a real shutter speed dial on the top plate, this configuration could be perfect. And for those of you asking the obvious question: Yes, it does shoot RAW.

Two lenses will be available at launch. The Lumix G Vario ƒ3.5-5.6 14-45mm (28-90mm equivalent -- multiply by two, remember?) and the Lumix G Vario ƒ4-5.6 45-200mm (you can the math on this one). Given Panasonic's "special relationship" with Leica, we should probably expect some Micro Four Thirds lenses from the Wetzlar (or Solms) company.

In fact, given the troubles with Leica's M8, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see it abandon bodies altogether and concentrate on lenses, much as Sega dropped the hardware side of its business and stuck to what it knew best -- games.

For a first stab at this new format, The G1 is a good effort. If it takes a good picture, it could be a huge success. And even the problems can be ironed out: The Micro Four Thirds system means that all kinds of body shapes can be built around the base specification and share the same lenses.

The G1 will ship on October 31st in Japan, crossing the seas soon after. Kit price ¥90,000 ($840).

Matsushita to launch world's smallest SLR camera [Reuters]

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 [Imaging Resource]