If you want more control over your camera, but aren't ready to make the leap to a DSLR, a Micro Four Thirds camera might be the system you're looking for.
Last week, Nikon finally lifted the curtains off its first Micro Four Thirds-style camera system, called the Nikon 1 Series (read our hands-on first impressions here).
The new Nikon range joins the ranks of the Olympus Pen, Sony NEX and Panasonic GF series in one of the fastest growing segements in the the digital camera market.
Micro Four Thirds offer the best of both worlds in terms of compact and DSLR technologies. Image quality is much better than a regular compact, and you’ve got a choice of hardware that’s a lot smaller and more convenient to carry around than a DSLR. The absence of a mirror system also comes with some advantages.
Most Micro Four Thirds cameras come in more colours than basic black.
These cameras are generally more compact than a DSLR, yet retain the ability to change lenses and usually come with more onboard controls than a standard compact camera. Image quality also tends to be superior to most point-and-shoot compacts courtesy of a larger imaging sensor.
How it works
The term 'Micro Four Thirds' is something of a misnomer, unless the camera in question has been manufactured by Olympus or Panasonic. A more accurate name is "mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (MILC)", which covers all camera models that use this system.
MILC cameras have no mirror arrangement reflecting the image to the viewfinder (indeed, they often have no viewfinder at all - just like most compacts).
This is different to DSLRs, which use a mechanical mirror system and pentaprism/light box to direct light from the lens to an optical viewfinder on the back of the camera. When a picture is taken, the mirror flips out of the way, allowing light to hit the imaging surface.
|DSLR cameras (on the left) have a mirror arrangement that enables the photographer to see what the lens will see. Removing the mirror mechanism means MLIC cameras (on the right) are smaller. Click to enlarge.
As the above diagram shows, the absence of a mirror system allows MILC cameras to house large sensors in smaller cases - although, once you begin to add telephoto lenses, external flashes and other assorted attachments, the size advantage begins to diminish. Some MILC models look virtually indistiguishable from a DSLR, while others are much smaller.
MLIC cameras come with plenty of the user-friendly features found in point-and-shoot cameras, such as face detection, auto-calibration and intelligent scene recognition modes. This makes them a good option for compact users who want an upgrade in image quality, but prefer to keep things familiar.
MLIC cameras usually come bundled with one or two lenses as part of a kit. Additional lenses need to be purchased separately, and there are plenty of choices for creative photography (the Panasonic Lumix G range offers over a dozen lens options, for example). It is also possible to use certain DSLR lenses with a mount adaptor: handy if you've already invested in a DSLR.
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