Part I is here.
Using cameras is fun for me. I've told the story before that when a younger cousin got a Disc [sic] camera for Christmas, years ago, I borrowed it and shocked her by using up all the film she got with it (three Discs, which might normally have been expected to last her until about June) by the end of the day. When my younger brother showed up on summer vacation with an early digital camera, I frequently requisitioned it. I thoroughly enjoy mucking about with cameras.
Both the Panasonic GF1 and the Olympus E-P1 with their respective "pancake" primes are a delight to use. They're fast, portable, unobtrusive, and easy to handle. I frequently carried one or the other around in the pocket of a chuck roast jacket and slipped it in and out to make a quick pic whenever the spirit moved me. Most of the time no one around me was the wiser, and if they noticed, they didn't care. The cameras aren't big enough or serious-looking enough to be threatening.
It's a particular style of play...er, shooting, of course, and it might not be to every photographer's taste...
If using an 8x10 view camera might be thought of as the analog of setting up a canvas on an easel to make a painting, then the cameras I like tend to be analogous to notepads. I worked it out before I was even out of photo school that despite my love of craft, I was naturally a 35mm photographer, not a view camera photographer. I like the note-taking aspect of small cameras. At least half the shots I take, if not more, are simply artifacts of noticing and/or recording things, wherever I am, whether it's my new bike or a friend at his gallery show or just a strange gourd at the local vegetable stand (GF1, E-P1, GF1, respectively).
If you are that kind of photographer, at least some of the time, I'll bet you'd enjoy using these cameras too. If you are a more careful or more businesslike photographer, they might not be as much to your liking.
The 'DMD' idea
In 2005 I wrote a brief essay on The Luminous Landscape envisaging the need for a type of camera that has lately finally arrived. There's nothing so sacrosanct about the DMD idea: all I thought we needed were pocket digicams with image quality good enough that we could put prints made with them up next to prints made with our DSLRs without calling attention to any obvious disparity between the two in terms of image quality. I anticipated that these would complement DSLRs, not replace them. Not a complicated notion. I was surprised that it took so agonizingly long to happen, but Micro 4/3 is the embodiment of that idea—not that there was any connection, I hasten to add—and both the GF1 and the E-P1 are indeed DMDs to the manner born*.
It is an product category that appears to be gathering force, and I would be surprised if the next few years don't bring a snowballing of similar offerings: Nikon patents for a mirror-box-less camera have already been uncovered, and of course Leica's "Micro APS-C" X1 is being readied for launch as we speak. My prediction is that this will be a standard category in short order, and will eventually supplant the lowest tier of DSLRs, the current entry-level. If nothing else, manufacturing constraints dictate it: the mirror-box and prism assembly is a large part of the manufacturing complexity of any SLR, and resists cost-cutting past a certain minimum. Mirror-box-less cameras sans prisms have a big advantage there.
What about IQ? Image quality is an elusive concept and a moving target, of course, and the world has changed somewhat since 2005. The situation is not so clear as it was when wrote the DMD article. Miniature sensors have gotten much better, and "DSLR" no longer equals "APS-C"—DSLR quality has shifted upward too. Plus there's the nagging sense we all seem to have that the Micro 4/3rds offerings aren't quite up to DSLR quality in the IQ department, although no one, including the manufacturers' reps, seems to quite know why.
So are large-sensor compacts really...necessary? Do they offer enough more than digicams that their advantages make sense?
My answer is "yes." I think they do, still, even today. It's all a continuum, and of course you have to take into account what I said about IQ in Part I of this post. I have to confess that I'm not quite convinced yet that I could live with the IQ of either of these cameras as an only camera for any length of time. Maybe, maybe not. But my sense is that these Micro 4/3 cameras fall in the "good enough" area of the spectrum whereas digicams, even good ones, are still a little ways down the spectrum in "not quite good enough" territory. It's true, digicam sensors are awfully good at base ISO in good light. But Micro 4/3 gives you enough high-ISO performance and enough enlargeability and enough d.o.f. control that I think most photographers could work with them comfortably, whereas digicams are still imprisoned by the limitations inherent in the size of their sensors when you move too far from optimum conditions and their sweet spot. That's my judgment, anyway. YMMV.
For the moment, comparing just these two cameras (and we saw how evanescent such an errand is, when the E-P2 announcement shoehorned itself in between the two parts of this post—something I didn't anticipate or plan), it seems clear that the GF1 is the better camera. It's not a big difference, but most of the small differences accrue in the GF1's favor. It's faster, more responsive, more ergonomic, more da business, more da bomb. It's got it goin' on. My son hates it when I talk like this.
If you're an Oly fan or owner there's utterly no need to take affront at that judgment. I've noted before that citizens of the modern world have been trained since birth to be fanatical shoppers, and we become much more so the closer two alternatives are to each other, when logic would dictate the opposite. Doubtless the GF1's advantage will last a season or two and then the ground will shift again underneath everything and we'll be gerbils on the wheel of shopping again.
In the end, using a camera is the best cure for shopping angst, and to use either of these cameras is to love it.
I might add that I did not get a chance to try the Olympus's seductive-looking VF-1 finder (right), but I love clip-on finders and I could see that accessory swaying an individual's choice to the Olympus.
What's my own pick? (Drum roll.) Well...a little of each, actually. While I really liked the GF1 and could easily live with it long-term, I've written many times of my great fondness for image stabilization or IS (as well as my genial dislike of zooms), so my choice is clear: it's the Olympus E-P1 for me. (Fireworks.) However, I like it best with the Panasonic Lumix 20mm ƒ/1.7 lens.
I've written extensively about this before, and I don't want to digress too much here. But IS is a funny subject.
I'm convinced I sometimes have the camera equivalent of what golfers call "the yips." The yips is a condition that afflicts mainly older golfers when putting—it's a state of acquiring tiny involuntary twitching movements as a result of trying to hold steady. It's such a maddening condition that some golfers hate hearing the word mentioned, and it's serious enough that it has ended some professionals' careers. I've come to believe that IS helps me in part because of its mechanical function, but also in part because it makes me relax and gives me confidence.
My friend (and frequent TOP contributor) Carl Weese points out that the opposite might be true for others: they might see IS as a crutch and get sloppy about their camera-holding technique, and thus take worse pictures as a result of IS rather than better ones.
Here's a random out-of-the-pocket E-P1 snapshot, the kind of shot my hard drives are littered with, this one of my friend Art last weekend. We were walking and talking; I was moving, Art was moving, the camera was definitely moving. IS makes maybe one out of three shots like this sharp. That doesn't sound so impressive until you stop to ponder how much better one out of three is than none out of three.
I've never found another camera that implements body-integral IS as well as the Konica-Minolta 7D / Sony A700, and I really have no sense yet for "how good" the E-P1's IS is. But still, the 7D "imprinted" me for the feature. So much so that it has inverted the standard camera company hierarchy for me; in the real world, Canon and Nikon lead the field and Sony, Olympus and Pentax lag behind. In Mike-land, Sony, Olympus and Pentax lead the way and Canon and Nikon are also-rans. IS is a must for me. Your mileage really might vary.
So my pick would be (this is still hypothetical—I haven't actually bought a digital camera in a long time) the Olympus body with the Panasonic lens**, because the E-P1's body-integral IS trumps the GF1's portfolio of category wins, and because of the 20mm's stop-and-a-half advantage over the Olympus prime.
However, both of these early Micro 4/3 offerings are fine, fun, premium cameras with lots of character and plentiful object-quality. They're fun to use and if you love mucking about with cameras half as much as I do I think you'd find them enormously pleasing. I like them both very much. If they appeal in terms of type and style, highly recommended.
*To write it "manor" was originally a play on words. When in doubt, lean on Shakespeare:
Horatio. Is it a custom?
Hamlet. Ay, marry, is ’t:
But to my mind,—though I am native here
And to the manner born,—it is a custom
More honour’d in the breach than the observance.
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act I, scene IV
**And I should mention again how nice it is that Micro 4/3 is a true standard, allowing users to mix and match components.
Question from Jeffrey Goggin: "If I read you correctly, you prefer the $899 E-P1 / 17mm to the $899 GF1 / 20mm, but you also prefer the $1150 E-P1 / 20mm combo to either. If so, this raises an obvious question: In your opinion, is the performance of the E-P1 / 20mm combo worth the extra $250 it costs over either the E-P1 or GF1 outfits on their own?"
Mike replies: Answer to the first question: No, I prefer the Panasonic. As I said in the post, it's a somewhat more capable camera in most ways.
As to the second question, time to 'fess up. The answer is: no. I ordered a Panasonic GF1 and Lumix G 20mm ƒ/1.7 for myself last night (Saturday). Paid my own money for it, paid full price, paid Wisconsin sales tax. No quid pro quo (as far as I know, nobody at Panasonic knows I exist). Apart from a digital point-and-shoot that I used about twice and promptly resold, the GF1 is the first digital camera I've purchased for my own use since 2006.
I would prefer to have IS, but it's not worth that extra $250 to me. There's also the issue of resale to think about, since I'm not rich enough to buy cameras just to keep unless I have to. An overly expensive mismatched combination would be harder to resell than a "native" single-brand combination that starts out with a more conventional pricetag. Gotta think about these practical details too. —MJ