By Christopher Lane
I’ll begin by admitting that I am a dyed-in-the-wool Nikon guy, and Leica wannabe. I love my D700. I have strayed to Canon and Pentax, but when the chips were down I always returned to the Nikon fold.
I've also owned several Leicas, but always wound up selling them. Most of the problems that plagued my M8 have been solved, but these days it’s hard for me to justify spending $4,000 on a camera...especially with a college-bound daughter. So, no Leica for moi at the moment.
Now, don’t misunderstand me—the D700 is perhaps the best DSLR available. But it’s big and heavy, and, for the most part, F-mount lenses are too. It would be wonderful to be able to throw a small, light camera over my shoulder, slip a second lens into my pocket, and go.
Even so, when Micro 4/3 was announced, I paid no attention to it. I was settled on Nikon and Leica, after all. It wasn’t until a friend kept talking it up that I discovered that it was indeed a very exciting development. I've been paying attention ever since.
'One Camera, Our Lenses'
At first I was drawn to Micro 4/3 because it had the potential to be my "Poor Man’s Leica" or the elusive DMD. While possibly true, this was a very narrow-minded view of the new format. Like many of you, I have a tendency to seize on one idea or get lost in technical specifications or reviews. Sometimes I simply fail to see the forest for the trees. It wasn’t until just recently that I realized that Micro 4/3 is not just exciting: it is revolutionary.
Here’s why. One Nikon DSLR is pretty much like another. Some Nikon DSLRs are full frame and most are not. Some are bigger and some are smaller. Some are expensive and some are cheap. Some are faster and some are slower. The company makes a digital single lens reflex camera. the bells and whistles vary, but at its essence each Nikon DSLR is pretty much just a variation on the same theme. The same goes for Canon, Pentax and Sony. A Leica M has looked pretty much the same since the dawn of 35mm photography, almost to the point of absurdity (witness the location of the M8’s SD card slot).
Only when one starts considering lenses does that picture change. The variety of glass available to the modern photographer is awe-inspiring, from super-tele behemoths to jewel-like pancakes. Unfortunately, each manufacturer has taken a slightly different approach to lens design and construction. For its consumer grade lenses, Canon favors ƒ/4 while Nikon uses ƒ/3.5–ƒ/5.6. Pentax has a wide selection of pancake primes, while Nikon has none. Panasonic and Olympus have lenses in focal lengths tailored to 4/3. And then there are those wonderful lenses from Leica. Each manufacturer has developed its own proprietary lens mount, further limiting your choices. F mount, K mount, M mount, R mount, 4/3 mount.
I call this the "One Camera, Our Lenses" approach. Nearly every market player uses it. They make one basic camera type and give you a choice of the lenses they think you want.
This is where Micro 4/3 is truly revolutionary. As Micro 4/3 is developed, it will take a "Many Cameras, Many Lenses" approach not tied to any specific lensmaker or camera design. So far, Micro 4/3 has given us the DSLR-like Panasonic Lumix G cameras and the Leica-sized Olympus E-P1, and now Panasonic's GF1 has been announced. That’s just the beginning. Doubtless there are many other designs possible, some of them likely to hit the market in the next few years.
Therefore, investing in a Micro 4/3 system does not mean tying yourself to one specific camera body type from one specific manufacturer. You can mount the same Micro 4/3 lens on an SLR-like EVF camera one day and a compact the next.
As the English say, "simply brilliant."
Micro 4/3 and more and more
Then there is the true implication of the "Many Lenses" part. I have long held that, in the digital age, your first and biggest investment should be your lenses. To a certain extent a digital camera's shelf life is limited, but the shelf life of a good lens is not. As I write, there are Micro 4/3 adapters available from reputable manufacturers for lenses in the following mounts: Four Thirds, Leica/Zeiss/Voigtländer M, Leica R, Nikon F, and Pentax K, and probably some others that I’m not aware of. There are sure to be others to come, but that’s already quite enough for me and my pocketbook. So now I can mount any lens from any manufacturer I like. How much I want to spend is the only limiting factor.
I remains to be seen if other manufacturers will take the "Many Cameras, Many Lenses" approach. Neither Canon nor Nikon seem inclined to innovate in this area. Even if they do, Panasonic and Olympus have a big lead, and each year there will be more of the Micro 4/3 "Many Cameras" and "Many Lenses." If they can partner with others to develop lenses for the Micro 4/3 mount, so much the better. Leica has clearly stated that they have no intention of developing a Micro 4/3 camera, but it will produce lenses with the Micro 4/3 mount, the first one being the newly announced 45mm Macro.
So hooray for two of the smaller players, Panasonic and Olympus, for breaking the "One camera, Our Lenses" mold. As I see it, that's a real breath of fresh air and a truly revolutionary approach to camera design and development. I’m excited to see what’s around the next corner.
Featured Comment by Andrew: "My favorite lens on my E-P1 is the Zeiss C Sonnar 50/1.5."