Camera Systems

Back when digital cameras started appearing around the turn of the millennium, it pretty quickly turned out that just making a digital version of an 35 mm SLR camera was not a very efficient move. The image quality with full frame sensors was and is awesome and the control with the mirror-and-prism produced viewfinder image through the lens was very precise too. But they were (and are still) very big and extremely expensive.

So the digicam makers started putting smaller sensors that wouldn’t use all the image formed by the expensive and large lenses. But they were cheaper. Some lenses with a smaller image circle started appearing to go with the smaller sensors, but the lens mount stayed the same so you could still use your old lenses. Viewfinders started getting worse because of all of this too. The cheap SLR:s were a hollow shell of their former glory.

Various camera makers made different models. The big ones like Canon and Nikon of course stuck to their own old mounts. Others used their own or allied together to use some lesser film SLR mounts. Various pure objective manufacturers made multiple versions of their stuff to fit each mount.

It pretty quickly dawned to most people that this was a very unoptimal system. Everything was too outmoded, big and scattered.

So, one manufacturer, Olympus, pulled its reins up and introduced the four thirds standard that was open for anyone to use and make lenses and cameras for. In it, the sensor and image circle are half the size of 35 mm film. Four thirds means 4/3 inches. Some pretty good lightweight SLR cameras were produced for this, the Olympus E-series. Also some nice lenses.

A few years later it was time (some might argue it should have been done ten years earlier) to take the next step. Olympus together with Panasonic rolled out the Micro Four Thirds system. In it, the mirror and prism are entirely dispensed with. This reduces the camera to basically a thin plate with a sensor on it at the back and lens mount at the front. For aiming, you either use the screen, an electronic viewfinder or even an optical viewfinder. The latter two can be fixed in the camera body or separate accessories.

Optical viewfinders bring memories from days when “street photo” cameras were small rangefinders, as late as the nineties. Manual focus, batteries that lasted for years, shutter sound is a whispering click – and excellent image quality and good availability of very bright wide angle lenses. This could again enable photography that the new kids didn’t even know of, and had dismissed as that horrible quality pocket camera shooting from the waist.

Samsung and Sony caught on, publishing their own NX and NEX cameras, both with proprietary mounts that more lenses were promised for later. The NEX especially is a fascinating camera as it has a pretty large sensor* but the body is very small, though it’s partly a visual trick.

So, the most interesting cameras to me in this sector are those that one can put in a pocket with a “pancake” prime lens with great light power and good image quality. Shoot anywhere and quickly, yet get good results.

Olympus Pen vs Panasonic GF. These are the pocketable micro four thirds contenders. Both have various models and their small good and bad sides. At the moment the Panasonic GF1 looks the best to me as one can buy it with the 20 mm f 1.7 lens. (20mm is the equivalent of 40 mm in old film terms, at the same time the light power drops to 3.4 equivalent, so it’s not really as outrageously good as it sounds.) The Olympus comes with a f 2.8 lens. Buying just a frame and then an objective would be too expensive at this point.

The dark horse is Sony NEX-5. I’ve heard good experiences from people on it. The lens is only 16 mm though (with a bigger sensor too) so it’s quite wide.

The Bazaar and the Cathedral

But all in all, what perhaps the camera makers don’t understand is that if I’m buying something worth six or seven hundred euros, I want to have some future proofness from it. I am buying a system. I want to depend on it, buy more components, upgrade, maybe sell stuff, switch with friends, loan to and from people who are using the same system. Creating a system means creating an ecosystem. If some marketing person at some company decides that users won’t need some feature that I certainly would need, I don’t have to care one iota, since because of compatibility, I can buy that exact feature from a competitor. Camera companies have seemed desperate to protect their own turf, keeping specifications and standards close to their chests, releasing new lens mounts and features. At the same time the market has fragmented and only a few legacy solutions have had enough of a user base to generate at least some competition. This all has led to bulky and expensive systems with little choice by the user. Probably much less efficiency and thus less profit for anyone but Canon and Nikon in the exhcangeable lens camera market.

That’s why I support the micro four thirds standard in principle as well. I hope lots of manufacturers join it, or rather, just start making stuff for it. If I buy a Sony camera, who knows if I can get any lens for it after ten years? Or if they’ll turn out to have crucial gaps in the product palette that are not filled due to political reasons inside the company? They don’t have a 40 mm film equivalent bright prime at the moment for example.

Open standards are a lot like Linux that comes from Unix. And that’s certainly very resilient, coming from the seventies and kicking ass to this day. Open standards promote diversity and level playing fields where even non-mega-conglomerates can do business. It might seem even slightly contradictory to say that many actors should agree on a standard so that there could be diversity, but the history shows this to be the case very much. I think the camera manufacturers are underestimating the customers. We are suspicious of yet another single-manufacturer lockdown. We want a comprehensive system!

All in all, if Olympus and Panasonic can get some more companies to make stuff for micro four thirds, I think it can be a real winner, as a platform, as a system. We certainly need diversity and choice. Costs will also come down since the market will be larger.

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