It’s been a while since an entirely new niche of digital camera has come along, but with the release of the Olympus E-P1 and the Panasonic DMC-GF1, that’s what we have. These “Micro Four Thirds” cameras represent the first significantly new class of camera since, possibly, Canon’s D30 SLR in 2000. With their small size, interchangeable lenses, and sensors that are larger than what you’ll find in a point-and-shoot, they offer a new option for SLR shooters who want a smaller second camera, but don’t want to give up too much image quality. Conversely, for point-and-shooters who are ready to move on, but don’t want to hassle with the weight of an SLR, a Micro Four Thirds camera might be just the ticket. But which of these two cameras is right for you?

The Micro Four Thirds specification offers the promise of high-quality cameras with less bulk than an SLR, and that’s exactly what these two models provide.

The E-P1 and GF1 are pretty much the same size. This isn’t much of a surprise, since the image sensor and lens mount only allow for so much shrinkage.

Both cameras are significantly smaller than an SLR. Figure 2 shows the GF1, with it’s 20mm f1.7 prime lens sitting next to a Canon EOS 30D with a 50mm f1.2. Granted, you could stick a smaller 50mm lens on the Canon, and there are smaller SLRs out there, but still it should be obvious that these cameras are in completely different categories when it comes to size and bulk.

GF1 vs. Canon’s D30

Much has been made of the Olympus’ design, and it is a very pretty camera. But, while Panasonic opted for a more modern design, I personally don’t find it any less attractive. Also, for street shooting, the black finish of the Panasonic seems a little more “low-profile” than the shiny, retro E-P1.

The overall look and feel of these cameras is definitely “35mm rangefinder.” While they don’t actually include rangefinder viewfinders, (much more on this later) the small size and boxy designs make you feel like you’re carrying around an older, small, Leica-style camera.

Obviously, you don’t pick a camera based on looks, but it is nice that both vendors have worked to give these cameras a sense of style.

The Guts

Both cameras clock in at roughly the same pixel count. The E-P1 packs a 12.3 megapixel sensor, while the GF1 delivers 12.1. In other words, both of these cameras provide enough pixels for just about any type of “regular” use. With twelve megapixels, you can comfortably blow up to sizes larger than what you could do with 35mm.

Both cameras sport 3″ LCDs, but there’s no comparison between the two: the screen on the Panasonic GF1 is dramatically superior. Where the E-P1’s screen displays 230,000 pixels, the GF1 doubles that at 460,000. On a camera that is “live view” only – that is, where you have to use the LCD screen as a viewfinder – this is a fairly significant difference (especially with an $800 price tag). With the E-P1 screen, you can actually see individual pixels, and a visible grid. The GF1 provides a much clearer view of your scene. (One thing that’s very strange is that the new E-P2 – which released after the GF1 – still has the same, inferior screen. Why Olympus has not recognized this deficiency is really a mystery.)

The GF1 screen has a 3:2 aspect ratio, while the E-P1 screen has a 4:3 aspect ratio. While both cameras can shoot in either 4:3 or 3:2, a 3:2 image on the Olympus is cropped on the screen, while a 4:3 image on the Panasonic is cropped. Plainly, Panasonic is expecting you to shoot at a 3:2 aspect ratio. For users coming from 35mm film or a digital SLR, this will be the preferable way to shoot. Personally, I find the 4:3 aspect ratio to be a little too narrow, so I typically shoot in 3:2. This means that the GF1’s screen shows a larger image at my preferred aspect ratio.

Both cameras have roughly the same number of controls, but the GF1 also includes a pop-up flash, while the E-P1 is flash-less.

While a pop-up flash on a camera this size will inherently be small, and therefore not have much range, it can still be very handy for simple fill applications, so the lack of flash on the E-P1 is a bit annoying. Olympus sells an external flash for $200, but bolting more things onto these cameras kind of defeats the purpose of their small size. One nice thing about the Micro Four Thirds system, is that you can freely swap the flash between cameras.

Of course, there is no zoom control, because these cameras use removable lenses. So, the zoom is a traditional zoom ring on the lens. For an SLR shooter, this will feel perfectly normal, but point-and-shooters will need to re-adjust. However, they should find that a zoom ring presents a great advantage over the zoom control on a point-and-shoot camera, because it allows for much finer control. You can zoom to any point in the focal length range, not just the regular intervals and stops provided by the zoom control.

In terms of kit lenses, both vendors offer similar options. You can buy the Panasonic GF1 with either a 20mm f1.7 lens, or 14-45mm f3.5-5.6 zoom lens. The Olympus E-P1 comes bundled with either a 17mm f/2.8 lens, or a 14-42mm f3.5.56mm lens. For all Micro Four Thirds cameras, use a 2x multiplier when calculating 35mm focal length equivalency.

Both of the prime lenses that are offered are “pancake” lenses – that is, they’re not very long. They each come out to around an inch long from lens mount to lens cap, making them very small lenses indeed. Even the zoom lenses are tiny, when compared to equivalent lenses on an SLR. This small size is a function of the smaller image sensor used in a Micro Four Thirds camera. Because the lens doesn’t have to project an image onto as large a sensor as what an SLR uses, it can be made much smaller than an SLR lens.

Personally, I like to shoot with wide angle lenses, so I prefer the Olympus 17 to the Panasonic 20, in terms of field of view. But, I also like the option for very shallow depth of field, so the Panasonic’s maximum aperture of 1.7 is much more compelling to me than the Olympus 17mm’s 2.8. Ideally, I’d like to have the 17mm at 1.7.

Olympus’ 14-42 is a little bit shorter than the Panasonic 14-45, so if small size is your chief concern, then you may want to opt for the Olympus lens offering. However, the Panasonic’s lens is stabilized, so if you choose the GF1, you may want to go for the stabilized option. The beauty of Micro Four Thirds, of course, is that lenses are swappable between vendors, so if you want the GF1, you can still use the Olympus lens.

It’s worth noting that the Panasonic GF1 is not fully autofocus compatible with all Olympus lenses. On some lenses, such as the Olympus 17mm, the autofocus tracking mode – which can track a moving object and keep it in focus – is not available. Of course, you’re probably not going to be doing a lot of sports or wildlife shooting with a 17mm lens, and regular autofocus still works fine, so this isn’t a huge issue. Here’s a chart with more detail on GF1 lens compatibility.

As in their larger cameras, the two vendors have taken different approaches to stabilization. Olympus uses a sensor-based system, which means that all lenses on the camera receive the benefits of image stabilization, while Panasonic uses a lens-based stabilization scheme. While the Olympus might seem an obviously advantageous approach, bear in mind that on the E-P1 you don’t ever see the effects of stabilization in the viewfinder. The advantage of lens-based stabilization is that you can see its effects while you frame.

The Micro Four Thirds lens selection currently offers a focal length range of 7 to 200mm – or 14 to 400mm in 35mm terms – spread across eight different lenses. In other words, unless you’re looking for something really unusual, like a tilt/shift lens or a fisheye, you already have a fine assortment of Micro Four Thirds options. Obviously, if you have very specific lens ideas in mind, you’ll want to check out specific lens offerings before you buy.

Both cameras use SD cards and, as you would expect, support SDHC. They are capable of shooting raw, and Photoshop Camera Raw profiles are now available for both.

Features

If you pay much attention to digital cameras, you know that they’re all loaded with gobs of features, most of which you will never need. For example, while the white balance bracketing feature provided by both of these cameras can be a handy way to handle difficult white balance situations when shooting JPEG, if you’re sophisticated enough to identify this problem and solution, then you’re probably shooting raw. (What’s more, raw does not offer any more of a workflow headache than does sorting through shots with bracketed white balance.) Rather than go through every feature of each camera, I’m simply going to focus on the ones that I feel a serious shooter is concerned about, and touch on some of the unique features of each camera.

Both cameras provide the requisite shooting modes – auto, program, priority modes, and full manual. They both provide scene modes for handling specific situations (landscapes, food, portraits, etc.) and these scene modes work in JPEG or raw mode. They also both provide a big assortment of predefined JPEG processing styles. With these, the camera will automatically process the image with different color parameters to achieve different looks. Of course if you’re shooting raw, these features are irrelevant.

In Program mode, both cameras provide a Program Shift feature which will automatically cycle through all reciprocal settings for the current meter reading. This gives you a fair amount of manual control even in Program mode. Exposure compensation is also easily accessed on both cameras. Priority and manual modes also make simple work of changing settings.

The GF1 includes two custom modes on the Mode dial. You can easily configure these any way you want. When you switch to one of these modes, the camera will immediately set all settings according to your definition of the mode. So, for example, you can set up an HDR mode that specifies aperture priority, raw format, and a particular bracketing interval.

Both cameras offer dedicated buttons for ISO setting, white balance, and autofocus mode, making it easy to get to these essential functions. The E-P1 also includes a button for drive mode, which lets you switch to burst, or self-timer. The Panasonic, though, has a rocker switch around the mode dial, which lets you change from single to burst mode, but it also offers a cool addition that I’ve never seen: a drive mode with autobracketing. Because you almost always want to use drive mode when shooting a bracketed set, having both features on a single control is very clever. Both cameras offer burst speeds of just around 3 frames per second.

In general, the cameras come out about equal when it comes to basic control. The everyday features that you need when shooting are easy-to-access, and quick to configure.

Some other standout features:

* On the GF1, Panasonic has implemented an excellent depth of field simulation mode. A single button takes you in and out of this mode, which does a very good job of showing you the actual depth of field of your final image. When working with the fast f1.7 20mm, this is a very handy feature. Olympus also provides a depth of field simulation which works well in bright daylight, but in low light often renders an image so dark that shallow depth of field is difficult to see. Also, the Olympus simulation is somewhat hampered by the low-quality screen.

* Both cameras offer a square aspect ratio. It’s been a long time since I’ve used a camera that had a square format, so it’s been a lot of fun shooting in squares. Of course, you can always crop a rectangular frame to a square, but being able to frame “live” to a square format is a very nice option.

* Both cameras also offer a 16:9 aspect ratio, which can be fun for framing wide subject matter.

* Both cameras have built-in sensor cleaning and pixel mapping features. (Pixel mapping will eliminate dead pixels on the image sensor. These can appear as bright points in your final image.)

* The E-P1 has a cool on-screen level that uses the camera’s rotation sensor to present a gauge that shows when the camera is level.

 

Here you can see the E-P1’s level feature. When an axis lights up green, it is level.

Again, both cameras have all of the essential primary and secondary features that you need when shooting, so you most likely won’t make a choice based on feature set.

Interface

Where you might end up making a buying decision, though, is interface. The two cameras are very different, and it’s a little difficult to say what it is, exactly that makes them seem that way. To put it simply: I find the GF1 to be substantially easier to use than the E-P1. I’ve been reviewing digital cameras since 1997, and it’s been years since I’ve had to look in a manual to figure out how to use a function, but with the E-P1, I routinely had to look in the manual to figure out how to do things that should be quick and routine, such as turning off the LCD screen, or activating auto bracketing. Of course, once you learn the stuff , things get a little easier, but the E-P1 really requires practice to stay on top of its interface. Even after you think you’ve got it, it’s pretty easy to accidentally put it into some kind of mode where what you always thought worked, no longer does.

By contrast, the GF1 has a very intuitive interface that’s very easy to figure out, and it’s simple to find your way through even to features you’ve never used before.

The rear control layout of the Panasonic GF1.

Here’s an example of the difference in complexity. On the E-P1, it takes five menu steps to get to the autobracketing control. Bear in mind that each one of those steps can take multiple button presses, or dial turns. By contrast, on the GF1, you simply move the drive mode switch to burst/bracketing. (Note that the GF1 autobracketing feature is frustrating because the biggest bracketing step it allows is .7 ev. However, it does let you create brackets of 3, 5, or 7 shots. Even my Canon 5D Mark II doesn’t allow brackets bigger than 3 shots. The E-P1 allows bracketing steps that include full stops.)

 

The rear control layout of the Olympus E-P1.

Here’s a weird one, while both cameras offer a square aspect ratio, Panasonic lists theirs as a 1:1 aspect ratio while Olympus lists there’s as 6:6. Of course, 6:6 is a square aspect ratio, but this seems rather an obtuse way to denote it, and “obtuse” is probably the best way to sum up the Olympus interface.

Viewfinder

I’m devoting an entire section to the viewfinder discussion because this is a huge issue on these cameras, and one that may prove to be a deal-breaker for you, if you’re coming from an SLR.

One of the reasons a Micro Four Thirds camera is so much smaller than an SLR is that there’s no mirror/pentaprism apparatus to allow an optical, through-the-lens viewfinder. While this allows for a nice small camera, it means you’re stuck with an LCD-only viewfinder. Either company could have put an optical viewfinder on the camera, like what you might find on a point-and-shoot, but this would make the camera larger, and these viewfinders are typically lousy, anyway.

On the one hand, an LCD viewfinder is nice because it gives you a 100% view of your image. On the other hand, an LCD viewfinder is difficult to see in bright daylight, and doesn’t provide the clarity of an optical viewfinder. Shooting landscapes with either of these cameras is very difficult, because if you’re looking into a bright scene, there’s a good chance that you won’t be able to see the screen at all.

As mentioned earlier, the GF1 screen scores tremendously over the E-P1 thanks to its much higher resolution. But both screens suffer from the other problem with LCD viewfinders: limited dynamic range.

The image on the viewfinder is being generated by the camera’s image sensor, and there’s no image sensor that has the full dynamic range of your eye. So, when you look at the LCD screen, there’s a good chance that elements in shadowy areas are going to be invisible. If you were hoping to compose with those elements, then you’re going to have a much more difficult time than you would with an SLR. I often find that I will see a scene that I think might be interesting, will look at the LCD screen, and find that I’m not sure what it was that I found compelling. If I look back at my scene, I’ll realize that what I was hoping to compose with simply isn’t visible in the dark shadows of the LCD.

 

The image on the left shows what this scene will look like on an LCD viewfinder. Because of their limited dynamic range, an LCD viewfinder will often be incapable of showing all of the details in the shadow areas of your scene, even though the final image, as seen on the right, will include these details. This limited view can make composition more complicated.

Of course, you can work around this by looking back and forth between the screen and your scene, but this will slow down your shooting process quite a bit.

Point-and-shoot users may not find this to be too much of a hassle, since they’re already used to it. However, they may not be entirely aware of the greater compositional power they’ve been missing out on. SLR users will most likely feel somewhat crippled by the LCD screen.

Another problem with LCD viewfinders is shooting position. When you hold a camera out in front of your face, it simply isn’t as stable as if you’re holding it against your face, as you do with an SLR.

Olympus provides an optical viewfinder that clips into the E-P1’s hot shoe, but this only shows an accurate view when you’re using the 17mm lens, and then it’s still only a roughly 85-90% view of your scene.

Note that the viewfinder will not work on the GF1 (even though the 17mm lens will) because the hot shoe mount is a slightly different size.

Panasonic has addressed this issue with a clip-on electronic viewfinder. This is basically llike the eyepiece viewfinder you’ll find on a video camera. What’s nice about the EVF is that it works with any lens, at any focal length. However, it still has the same limited dynamic range as the camera’s LCD screen, so it’s not really a substitute for an optical viewfinder. Also, the image in the viewfinder is pretty small, so if you’re coming from an SLR this will be a bit of a shock.

Panasonic’s done a good job with this accessory, though. It includes a pouch that can easily attach to your camera strap. What’s more, the viewfinder can tilt upwards to 90°, making it ideal for shooting at odd angles.

Still, SLR users will need to think very carefully about whether they can work with an LCD viewfinder. I’ve tried to tell myself it’s not really that different from looking at the ground glass of a twin lens reflex, but it is. A ground glass shows you a bright, clear image with full dynamic range. No LCD can do that.

Focusing

Both cameras provide very good autofocus, but the Panasonic autofocus system is noticeably faster. While this doesn’t matter so much for many types of shooting, for the type of street shooting that you might want to do with a small camera like this, the sluggish autofocus on the E-P1 is a little bit annoying.

Both cameras allow for manual focus, and while autofocus on an LCD screen can be a drag, both vendors have provided a hefty zoom feature on-screen to aid in manual focusing. When the GF1 is in manual focus mode (which you set from the back of the camera) any time you turn the autofocus ring on the lens, the camera will automatically show you a greatly zoomed version of your image. On the E-P1, you use controls on the back of the camera to zoom in and pan about. The GF1 mechanism is a little bit more slick, but won’t necessarily work with lenses that you’ve adapted to work on the camera (more on that shortly) while the E-P1 will work with any lens you put on the camera.

Ultimately, both cameras are fine with manual focus, but the Panasonic’s superior screen definitely gives it an edge. When shooting at 1.7 with the 20mm lens, it was possible to focus with extreme accuracy.

Third-Party Lenses

In addition to any lenses that conform to the Micro Four Thirds standard, you can adapt a wide array of other lenses to work with any Micro Four Thirds cameras. Any Four Thirds lens can be adapted, and will retain a fair amount of camera-to-lens communication. But there are also adapters for many many other formats from Leica M-mount to old Yashica and Pentax lenses. You can find a big list of adapters here. Obviously, adapted lenses will not have autofocus or automatic aperture control – you’ll have to manually set these parameters on the lens.

Image Quality

The good news with this comparison is that, no matter which you choose, you’re going to get great images from either of these cameras. Both of them yield excellent results, thanks to the high-quality lenses that both vendors are shipping. JPEG processing is very good on both cameras, though I shoot almost entirely in raw. Raw performance is very speedy so, unlike a raw-equipped point-and-shoot camera, you aren’t penalized with small buffers and slow write times when shooting raw with these cameras.

I was particularly impressed by both camera’s high ISO capability. I’m not going to show any high ISO crops here, because on-screen examinations of noise are pretty meaningless, unless your only goal is to display your images on-screen. If you’re spending upwards of $800 for a high-quality photographic tool, I’m assuming you’re going to print. While ISO 800 and above can look pretty noisy on-screen, both of these cameras deliver excellent prints all the way up to ISO 1600. Are they as clean as my Canon 5D Mark II? No. Are they much cleaner than digital SLRs of just 2 or 3 years ago? Absolutely. I have no qualms about shooting with either of these cameras in low light at high ISO.

Some users have pointed out that the Olympus seems to deliver cleaner images at high ISOs, but it’s important to note that Olympus amps up their ISO ratings by about a stop. Straight out of the camera, E-P1 images shot with the same settings as the GF1 will be darker, and so appear less noisy. By the time you’ve brightened the E-P1 images up to the same overall brightness as the GF1’s images, you’ll see the same amount of noise.

The small sensors in these cameras mean they don’t have the dynamic range of a digital SLR. This can result in clipped highlights and shadows, so if you’re a landscape shooter, these cameras may not cut it, as you’ll hit overexposure in your highlights long before you would on a digital SLR.

The Micro Four Thirds small sensor size has another impact. If you’re coming from a digital SLR, you’ll find that you won’t be able to achieve depth of field that’s as shallow as what you can get on your SLR. Here’s a simple test showing the difference in depth of field between a micro four thirds camera, an APS-C sensor, and a full-frame sensor.

 

Upper left: Panasonic GF1. Upper right: Canon EOS D30. Bottom: Canon EOS 5D Mark II. All images were shot at f1.8.

Unfortunately, because of differences in focal lengths it was not possible to frame these shots identically, but take a look at the backgrounds and you can see that the Micro Four Thirds cameras don’t go quite as shallow as the SLRs with bigger sensors.

But now take a look at Micro Four Thirds as compared to the Canon PowerShot G11, a camera with a typical point-and-shoot-sized sensor:

 

Top: Panasonic GF1. Bottom Canon G11. Both shot at f2.8.

Plainly, there’s not a huge difference between Micro Four Thirds and a typical point-and-shoot camera at a given aperture. Of course, the big difference is that with a camera with removable lenses, you can opt for a faster lens to achieve shallower depth of field.

Video

Both cameras provide video modes with 720p, 30fps HD video, and both are capable video cameras. Of course, the advantage to shooting video with a camera with removable lenses is that you have the option to go with a fast lens for shallow depth of field. Fortunately, both vendors have included the option to control aperture when shooting video.

The weak spot for both cameras when shooting video is autofocus. If the plane of focus in your scene shifts too much, both cameras will start seeking for correct focus – as they should. While this seeking may look fine while you’re shooting stills, it can be very distracting when shooting video.

Neither camera provides an external mic jack, and because zooming requires a lot of camera handling, the internal mic will pick up a lot of extraneous camera handling sounds.

In general, I assume that if you’re serious about video, you’re not shopping for an $800 still camera.

Conclusion

Your first question with a Micro Four Thirds camera should be “do I need one?” If you’re a point-and-shoot user, and you’ve been looking for a camera with better image quality, better low-light capability, more lens options, and the ability to shoot shallow depth of field, then a Micro Four Thirds camera is a good choice. However, for the price of either of these cameras you could also get a digital SLR. Granted, the kit lens that you’ll get with an SLR won’t be as good as the lenses on these cameras, but you’ll get a real viewfinder, and a larger sensor, meaning even shallower depth of field possibilities, and possibly better low-light capability. You’ll also get a camera that absolutely won’t fit in a pocket. I was able to fit either of these cameras in the pocket of the heavy windbreaker I was wearing. So, if size is an absolute concern, then a Micro Four Thirds camera is a better option.

If you’re an SLR shooter, then both of these cameras are definitely a compromise, simply because of the lack of SLR viewfinder. When you throw in the smaller dynamic range, and inherently deeper depth of field, you’ll find that a Micro Four Thirds camera is definitely not an SLR replacement. Of course, they’re not meant to be.

The size of these cameras is very appealing, and the fact that they deliver such good image quality, shoot in raw, and have reasonable low-light performance means that I don’t feel as compromised shooting with it, as I do when working with a point-and-shoot camera. And did I mention that they’re smaller than an SLR?

Because of their rangefinder-like styling, it’s not hard to imagine yourself taking these cameras out on the street and spending your afternoons shooting Cartier-Bresson-type candid street scenes. This type of shooting would be easier if the lenses had depth of field gauges, to better facilitate hip shooting, but still, these are good walk-around cameras.

That said, you could easily do the same shots with your SLR. I hear a lot of people saying “no, my SLR is too big and intrusive for that kind of shooting” and I just don’t buy that anymore. It’s the attitude and courage of the photographer that makes good street shots, not their gear. Also, with the proliferation of digital SLRs, I don’t find that subjects on the street are surprised or put off when they see a big camera. So, don’t buy one of these cameras because you think it’s going to open up a new style of shooting. If you can’t shoot street shots with your SLR, you still won’t be able to with a Micro Four Thirds camera.

If you’re a point-and-shoot user who wants to learn more about photography, or have more control of your image, then these cameras are very good options. I often hear people say that they’re hesitant to go with an SLR because they’re afraid of the complexity. But since any SLR can be used as a point-and-shoot, this isn’t really an issue. These cameras are the same way. You can put them in auto mode and use them as point-and-shoots, but with the option for better lenses, or you can start to take manual control, and learn more about exposure. Either way, you’ll have a camera that’s almost as easy to tote around as your point-and-shoot.

If you do decide you need one, then I find it hard to recommend the Olympus over the Panasonic. The Panasonic GF1 has superior autofocus, a much better interface, a built-in flash, and a dramatically better screen. Really, the only thing the Olympus E-P1 has going for it is sensor-based stabilization, and you can always just opt for stabilized lenses on the GF1. While you can’t get stabilization in every focal length, you can get it in the lengths that really need it.

As with any camera decision, though, you should get your hands on both units before making a decision. You may find that one camera feels better, or has an interface that makes more sense to you. In either case, you’ll get a camera that produces great images.