Hey, a guy can dream.
Olympus and Panasonic, two upstart manufacturers with a tiny slice of the camera market but a couple of really high-quality products under their belts, today announced the Micro Four Thirds System, a set of standards for compact, interoperable lenses and camera bodies. Neither company has announced specific products yet, but they undoubtedly will in the coming months.
The image on the right, from the Micro Four Thirds information site, shows how much skinnier the profile of the new cameras will be compared to those of SLRs.
The announcement may sound technical, but it's a welcome chink in the monolithic dominance of bulky, retro-styled digital single-lens reflex cameras.
Here's why Olympus and Panasonic's crazy new plan should give you hope, even if you'll never buy a camera based on it.
Canon and Nikon rule the digital camera market today, with inexpensive digital SLRs that give ordinary schmoes like me the ability to feel like a pro photographer while making pretty decent pictures. These single-lens reflex cameras are modeled on 35mm film cameras, and their quality is better than that of compact pocket digicams for two reasons: They have larger image sensors, and they have bigger lenses. In both cases, size confers an advantage because the imperfections (in silicon or in glass) that cause problems in smaller cameras become unnoticeable on a larger scale. Plus, SLRs sport interchangeable lenses, giving you the option of upgrading the optics in whatever dimensions you can afford: aperture, focal length, or clarity.
But SLRs are bulky. Plus, they hew unnecessarily to the design requirements of obsolete film cameras -- simply because that's what people expect a quality to camera to look and feel like. That's why the daydream of pro photographers and amateurs alike has been, for years, a small digital camera that uses interchangeable lenses -- preferably the really good lenses made by Leica.
The new Micro Four Thirds standard is based on the older Four Thirds standard, and uses the same relatively large image sensors found in Four Thirds cameras, like the nearly perfect Olympus E-510 and the smaller, still impressive Olympus E-420. Micro Four Thirds cameras will also be able to use lenses from the older, larger standard, with an adapter.
But Micro Four Thirds does away with the flip-up mirrors used in SLR cameras, enabling the camera bodies to be made much slimmer (the distance from the camera mount to the sensor is cut in half, so the entire depth of a Micro Four Thirds camera should be considerably smaller). It also calls for a 6mm reduction in the size of the lens mount, which doesn't sound like much, but should enable much more compact optics.
Instead of peering through an SLR viewfinder, you'll compose your shots using an LCD on the back, just like you do with a compact digicam, or using an optical or electronic viewfinder that sits alongside the lens.
And, because it's a standard, you won't be committed to a single manufacturer for all your future upgrades. You could buy a Panasonic camera and use it with a Sigma lens, unlike Canon and Nikon owners, who are locked into their respective brand choices until death or theft separate them from their camera bodies.
But will the new Micro Four Thirds standard turn the camera world on its ear? Probably not, even though the camera boffins at DPReview are terribly excited about it.
The earlier Four Thirds standard (which, by the way, will continue to exist) hasn't exactly taken the world by storm. Canon and Nikon continue to push the envelope in terms of image quality, they have a far wider range of optics and other accessories available, and it appears that consumers really do want big, swinging cameras.
But perhaps Micro Four Thirds cameras can do something like the Eee PC did when it came out: Provide a compact, inexpensive alternative to the dominant mindset, and kick off some real design innovation in the industry.