The Quest for the Perfect Camera-The Micro Four Thirds Camera System

When I was studying with Ansel Adams in 1973, someone asked a question that I have since heard countless times: What’s the best camera? Wisely he answered, It’s not the camera, it’s the photographer. And boy, was he right! Still, there will always be the battle between brands.  And while we all have our favorite, all brands and most models are capable of shooting excellent photos. Truly, as Ansel said all those years ago, the difference between a good and great photo isn’t a matter of equipment; it’s a matter of the person looking through the lens.

But as long as the search for a perfect camera persists, I’ll offer my two cents on which bodies and lenses are, in my opinion, the best.

Currently, my smallest camera is the Canon S 90 – a point and shoot that shoots RAW. This is the camera I take with me when I want to carry something small and light. My newest acquisition (and the camera I’ll be talking about in this article) is the Panasonic Lumix GF1. My smaller DSLR is the Canon 7D. (This camera actually belongs to Canon, as they loan RMSP bodies and lenses for our Career Training students; when there’s an extra, I use it—and LOVE it!) My large professional camera is a Canon 1D Mark III; this is my workhorse. In fact, I used it last weekend to photograph my wife and son running in the Missoula Marathon!

Having four different cameras is great, as they all have their strengths.  But which of the four offers professional quality, control, compactness and the ability to shoot RAW and video?

In the early days of film cameras—when the goal was small and sharp—that perfect camera was the Leica M Series (which is still an amazing camera, by the way). Then came the Rollei 35: a beautiful, tiny classic. The Olympus XA, the first of our small clamshell cameras, was next, followed by the Konica Hexar 35mm fixed focal-length lens. The latter is a small, light and inconspicuous camera one could carry all day and get great shots. But which is the “best” digital camera that’s comparable to these film cameras?

Today, in the wide world of digital photography, there isn’t a consensus about the one perfect model—though, I have to say, I’ve found a pretty solid option. About a month ago, when I was having lunch with my good friend Joe (who continually impresses me with neat new photography gadgets), he let me fiddle with his Panasonic Lumix GF1 with a fixed 20mm F 1.7 lens attached. The camera is part of the Olympus and Panasonic Micro Four Thirds System. The sensor is still a good size–exactly one half the size of a full-frame sensor–and big enough for high quality shots even at higher ISOs. [NOTE: Because the sensor is exactly half the size of a full-frame sensor, we multiply the length of the lens by two to give us the old 35mm equivalent. Joe had a 20 mm lens, so 20 X 2 = 40 mm equivalent.] With this camera you have three options to see the image you’re capturing: you can (1) buy a small external live viewfinder that slides on to the hot shoe; (2) hold the camera in front of you and use the LCD screen like a point and shoot; or (3) purchase an optical viewfinder to slide onto the hot shoot. Joe had a Voigtlander 40mm finder on his camera. And after playing with it at lunch….what can I say, I fell in love!

So, with a larger sensor (compared to a point and shoot) as well as the ability to shoot RAW, was this the small professional camera I’d been looking for? Well, after Joe lent it to me for a few days, I bought it from him.  It’s now what I almost always carry with me—and it’s pretty darn great. For serious professional work, I’ll still carry my Canon with those sweet L glass lenses. But for a professional-quality camera to just tote around, I’ll reach for my GF1.

System Options

My son Forest, who’s going to the University of Montana this fall and majoring in photojournalism, bought the same body (GF1) with a kit that included a 14-45mm lens (the 35mm equivalent is 28-90mm) and an external viewfinder. Both of our set ups are great, but different—and the differences are worth considering in terms of our distinct needs and cost.

Neil’s Set Up:

  • Panasonic Lumix GF1 body
  • Panasonic Lumix 20mm F 1.7 lens
  • Voigtlander 40mm hot shoot optical viewfinder
  • Total cost without Voigtlander viewfinder: $800* (viewfinder adds $160)

Forest’s Set Up

  • Panasonic Lumix GF1 body
  • Panasonic Lumix 14-45mm lens F 3.5-5.6, includes lens hood
  • External live viewfinder
  • Total cost $744.00*

*These prices are from B&H Photo in New York

So, after carrying and using this camera for three weeks, what do I think? It’s great. But with the pluses come some minuses. Below are some of each.

What I Like:

  • low cost for a camera of this quality
  • compact
  • lenses are sharp and very small
  • 20mm lens is super fast so ISO can remain much lower (usually 100)
  • 14-45mm lens has an effective zoom range and very effective image stabilization
  • solid and well built
  • shoots RAW, so can be used easily with Lightroom and Photoshop
  • not intimidating for people you’re pointing your camera at, which translates to less  self-conscious subjects and stronger photos
  • layout of much-used controls is very convenient; ISO, for example, is right at my thumb

NOTE: I shoot this camera mainly on aperture-preferred automatic, using exposure compensation when needed.

What I’m Less Fond Of:

  • there’s no built-in optical viewfinder (then again, this is why the camera can be so small)
  • in bright sun, the LCD is difficult to see (however, in both Forest’s and my set up, I have explained how you don’t need to use it anyway)
  • there isn’t a large selection of lenses… but growing fast!
  • when using a high ISO, noise is higher than in some brands

And while I’m at it, here are a few accessories you might want with your GF1:

  • if buying the camera with a 20mm lens, purchase a 46mm sunshade
  • an extra battery
  • a 4GB SDHC card or larger
  • a small case for the camera (I am currently checking out some small Kata cases that I think will be perfect)
  • a small, lightweight tripod if you will be shooting in lower light

There are two large photo shows this autumn, so right now there are almost no new cameras and lenses on the market, as all the major manufactures will announce theirs just before the first show opens. With that in mind, if you’re thinking of buying a new camera, you might want to wait a month or two. Photokina takes place in Germany from September 21 to 26. PDN PhotoPlus is in New York City from October 28 to 30.

There’s no such thing as the “perfect” camera. However, the small camera I describe above is as good a bet as any. My system (compared with Forest’s) has the advantage of an ultra-sharp super-fast lens for quick, low-light shooting; Forest’s setup has the advantage of 35mm equivalent of 28-90mm zoom for a wide range lens. Ideally, a photographer would own both of these – one for the zoom range and one for the speed of the lens. Of course, you should handle this camera before buying it to make sure it’s precisely what you’re looking for. Either way, Olympus and Panasonic have done well by creating a micro four thirds camera system with a good-size sensor. Now it is time for Canon and Nikon to do the same—maybe this fall?

Here are  more images Forest and I have taken with the Panasonic Lumix GF1.

*All links to B&H Photo Video are associated with an affiliate linking program. All proceeds of the affiliate links are put towards an RMSP student scholarship fund.

16 thoughts on “The Quest for the Perfect Camera-The Micro Four Thirds Camera System

Peter Johngren

Hi Neil –

Have participated in RMSP workshops and loved them. I was a long time Nikon fan – still have my FM-2 – and also had an Xpan. Sold the Xpam and its lenses and got the Panasonic GF-1, live view finder, the 20mm 1.7, the 14 – 45, and the 45 – 200 and absolutely love the whole system. I now only use my Nikon D-80 to photograpy a guy’s folk art – it stays in the house.

The GF-1 is elegant, feels like a precision instrument, is classic yet it is the future, in my opinion. Who wants to photograph nature with an anvil around his neck. I don’t plan on buying another DSLR now that the GF-1 is here. It brought back photography for me, which had become stale. I am even learning Camera RAW because of the GF-1.

Peter

Dick Dailey

Neil,

I have taken RMSP workshops and attended all the lectures I could, and enjoyed all of your offerings.

The picture of the Lumix without its lens reminds me of a Leica M series camera. Is Leica manufacturing this camera for Panasonic?

Dick

Profile photo of Forest Chaput de Saintonge

Forest Chaput de Saintonge

To the best of my knowledge, Panasonic manufactures their own lenses and camera bodies.

I could be wrong though, it would be worth some research.

Tim Leonhardt

Neil,

Interested in your take on the Olympus offerings in the micro four thirds format – the PEN cameras (EP-1 and EP-2). I’m currently shooting Oly DSLR, and these cameras seem like a great option. Of course, my 50-200mm might look a little odd with a PEN attached! Does the GF-1 shoot HD video like the Oly’s?

Tim

Profile photo of Forest Chaput de Saintonge

Forest Chaput de Saintonge

Tim,

The GF1 will shoot 720p video which technically is HD video, it will not however shoot in full 1080p which is an even higher resolution.

Thomas Moore

Neil / Forest,

Thanks for your efforts on this review, guys.

This system has excited me for a long while and I’ve been looking at both the GF1 and the Olympus EP-2.

When I finally slot a micro-4/3’s into my current line-up (Canon S90 and 5D mkII) I’m expecting it to be my most-shot and most satisfying camera. I am planning on waiting for either an update from Panasonic on the GF1 or other offerings.

One detailed question on the neat looking Voigtlander 40mm hot shoot optical viewfinder – can the in-body flash still pop-up / work with this attached?

Miss you guys heaps . . . see you next month, hopefully,

Thomas

Profile photo of Forest Chaput de Saintonge

Forest Chaput de Saintonge

Thomas,

nope, unfortunately the built-in flash will not pop up when the optical viewfinder is on the camera.

It does however have clearance to pop up when you are using the Panasonic EVF (Electronic View Fnder).

Annie

Forest or Neil,

Does the shutter behave like a P&S or a DSLR? Looking for a small, compact camera that can still keep up with kids.

Thanks!
Annie

Profile photo of Forest Chaput de Saintonge

Forest Chaput de Saintonge

Annie,

It behaves almost entirely like a DSLR, the only difference would be the fact that these cameras don’t have mirrors. This means that there is much less camera shake when capturing taking photos.

Forest

Peter Johngren

The shutter behaves like a DSLR without the lag of a P&S, in my experience. The GF-1 is also very fast in focussing in spite of the “live view” feature. There is really nothing annoying about the camera that I can think of. Everything has been very well thought out.
Peter

Edie Edwards

Unfortunately, I have never had the pleasure of learning photography nor have I shot many pictures with any type of camera as my ex always did that for me. I now need to buy a camera strictly for taking pictures of jewelry to edit with Photoshop CS4 and then post on the web.

I will be using a EZ cube light box. Could you please tell me if this camera would be a good choice for what I am hoping to do? Or if you can suggest a better selection for me?

Thank you!!
Edie

Chuck Capriola

Hello Edie;

To do Jewelry Photography, you would want to use a camera that has a Macro lens.

The Panasonic Leica DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm F2.8 ASPH. MEGA O.I.S. Lens has a built-in image stabilizer. The lens allows you to capture your subjects in their actual size. It is also great as a medium-length telephoto lens for portraits, snapshots and landscapes.

• Minimum focus distance 0.5′

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/651734-REG/Panasonic_H_ES045_Leica_DG_Macro_Elmarit_45mm.html#features

I would also suggest using a remote control and tripod for maximum sharpness.

The Panasonic DMW-RSL1 Remote Shutter Release
http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/459679-REG/Panasonic_DMW_RSL1.html

The Manfrotto 785B Modo Maxi Tripod is a hybrid photo/video application tripod that folds up to a compact 17″, yet reaches a full height of 59″. With the range of professional features included in this affordable model, this tripod is ideal for use with compact digital SLR cameras, conventional point and shoot cameras, or consumer camcorders.

The hybrid joystick (grip action) style ball head offers a comfortable, natural grip to easily position the camera. The Photo/Video Selector Button switches this head over from multi-axis operation to pan/tilt only operation, which is the ideal mode for video operation.

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/427320-REG/Manfrotto_785B_785B_Modo_Maxi_Tripod.html#features

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Annie

Thanks, Forest and Peter! That’s music to my ears!

Wilton Zola

Mike Edwards, killed by a Hay Bale last Friday. I think I’ve lost all my faith in God now. RIP.

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It amazes me the wonders that can be recorded with one of these digital cameras. Remarkable commentary, fascinating insight you supplied.

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