Digital photography changed a lot of the "rules" of photography & the way photographers went about doing what they do. One of the consequences of this has been the sheer number of images that have been produced worldwide. Parallel to this the internet has opened up endless possibilities for showing, sharing & selling your work.
Pretty revolutionary stuff. While all this has been going on, whats been happening to cameras? Well, after a small burst of innovation at the start - Sony Mavica, Nikon Coolpix etc. they pretty much look the same as they have for years. A Photographer fast-forwarded from the 1970's, while acknowledging style differences would recognise the DSLR & compact camera types around today.
So what do we have currently? We have the digital SLR, based on the 35mm SLR. Most are very conservative designs. 50 years ago (yes 50!) the Nikon F appeared. Most modern DSLR's are not that different in design or function, once you substitute the sensor for film. We have Medium & Large Format systems with digital backs, which I'll pass over quickly as they are a minority, very expensive option, and we have compact, "point and shoot" cameras.
Every "serious" photographer knows that DSLR's are for "art", compacts are for "snapshots". DSLR's are aimed at professionals and "enthusiast" photographers. (Interesting word, implies professionals aren't enthusiasts?) The "serious" photographer might have a compact in his/her pocket on occasions but basically its that divide & has been for years. Everyday "non-serious" photographers are believed to not want to think about their cameras. They just want to "point" it & "shoot" it. I've always found this an incredibly patronising view. Considering the complexity of current mobile phones the idea that the majority of people can't be bothered to learn how to use a DSLR is photographic arrogance. "Ahh - but its understanding the relationship between aperture & depth of field etc. etc" I hear them say - well it took me half an hour to explain this to my 15-year old nephew, who then proved he understood it by working as a stills & video cameraman at two recent weddings my company shot, and using lenses such as Nikkor MF F/1.2 lens with ease.
Isn't what we all want, kit that lets us concentrate on doing the most important thing, taking pictures? Most people, and that includes myself, aren't particularly concerned about what equipment they use, but ARE concerned about the pictures that come away with.
So what have the Camera companies provided us with to accomplish this goal? DSLR's have become ever more sophisticated. Until recently I owned & used a Nikon D3X. An astonishing camera in terms of the images it produces, & the speed with which it produces & processes them. I have a Canon 5D MkII, which allows me to shoot hand held, in low light, without flash or a tripod & produces sharp, low noise 60MB files. It also shoots full 1080 HD video footage at broadcast quality! Truly amazing. Back in 2000 I was pretty impressed by my Olympus E-10, which shows how far things have come.
However there has been a trade-off in terms of weight, size and complexity. While I could happily carry my E-10 around all day, the same is not true, for me, of cameras such as the D3X. Some people manage it - the photographer who bought my D3X was a wedding photographer who was going to work with a D3X & a D3 fitted with 14-24 F/2.8 , 24-70 F/2.8 & 70-200 F/2.8 zooms! Tot the weight of that lot up on your calculator! He was also using a whole series of custom functions in the camera that I never realised existed. I'm no technical slouch but freely admit that I used a fraction of the D3X's capabilities. Some I didn't actually understand but most I just didn't need.
So whats happened to the "compact" "point and shoot" cameras? Well, not a lot that that I can see, apart from cramming more and more pixels onto their tiny sensors. Some of the output from these things is truly awful. I had a D-lux 3 for a while, which was generally regarded as one of the better "compacts" & was appalled by the softness & poor dynamic range of the images. I wasn't expecting great things but I was expecting more than I got.
However it did impress me in terms of lightness, portability & discretion.
Then along comes micro four thirds. When I first saw the initial announcements about this, my first thoughts were - "Why did nobody come up with this before?" When you think about it, it seems obvious. As photographers we all want the best quality we can get. We also (apart from the "Photography as Jewelery" people) presumably want equipment that isn't going to cripple us in later life. The process that enabled this "holy grail" was the removal of the SLR mirror & the substitution of an electronic viewfinder. Having used these on some early digital cameras I had, I wasn't that worried. It was certainly better that having to use a rear screen exclusively for composition. While I think screens are wonderful for tripod use, I've always liked the "shut out the rest of the world & concentrate on the image" aspect of viewfinders.
I eventually bought a G1 + 14-45 lens around a year ago. I immediately appreciated the size & weight. On taking a few shots & looking at them on the screen I was stunned. Like many others the equation of "Compact camera = rubbish pictures" was firmly implanted in my brain. My experience with the compacts that I had owned hadn't done much to get rid of that view.
However this wasn't a defining "road to damascus" moment. I still had it in my head that somehow this wasn't a "proper" camera. Despite all evidence to the contrary I somehow couldn't get my head around the fact that it was so small and so light. I come from an era when "real" photographers used Medium Format so it was still difficult for me to accept this as a viable alternative.
When the GH1 appeared I was firmly sold on that as a video option. While the 5D MkII produces incredible video footage, it can be difficult to use. The GH1 is much better designed for shooting video & is a joy to use. However that still didn't convert me.
I imagine that I wasn't alone in appreciating the m4/3 system but not prepared to fully embrace it. Then two things happened that did fundamentally change my mind.
The first was the discovery that m4/3 was able to accept, via adapters, many different lenses. I had initially seen that Leica M fit lenses could be used but the real revelation was a post on a forum about using Nikon lenses. I've had a collection of Nikon primes for some time including Manual Focus lenses & was excited about being able to use them on my G1. A few gracious replies from photographers on various forums told me how to do this & I bought an adapter & started to take pictures. This was a true turning point. However misinformed and short-sighted it now appears, I couldn't get it into my head that the G1 was a "proper" camera. The simple act of fitting a Nikkor 50mm MF F/1.2 lens changed this perception almost immediately.
Things accelerated from here. More adapters followed, I bought some Olympus 4/3 lenses, some S/H Voigtlander M-fit lenses, & I started using the G1 all the time. I was getting (35mm equivalent) 100mm F/1.2, 170mm F/1.8, 270mm F/2.8 options in a lightweight, user friendly package. Lens options I'd either only dreamed about or ruled out because of size and weight.
With the zeal of the converted I even started a group on flickr which was dedicated to using these alternative and legacy lenses on the G1. http://www.flickr.com/groups/1084614@N23/ This led me eventually buy a Leica M8 - but thats another story. http://davidmartynhughes.blogspot.com/search/label/Leica%20M8
The second defining moment was being taken to hospital in an ambulance with a back spasm so bad that I was literally screaming in agony. I've been abusing this part of my body for a long time, but it took this to finally convince me that a change was needed.
Both of these factors led me to where I am now. A collection of G-Series cameras, Lumix lenses & adapters for a collection of Nikon & M Mount lenses.
I'm also not alone. Many photographers, including professionals, are selling DSLR's to invest in this system. Other camera manufacturers are working on new products & the future looks exciting.
Finally - a list. (Who doesn't love a list?)
Why all the fuss about micro four thirds?
1. Its a small light, yet technologically advanced, system.
2. Its every bit the equal of many DSLR's in terms of image quality. Indeed tests (Amateur Photographer) on the G1 showed it out resolving a Nikon D3 & D300 at low ISO's.
3. The two companies involved so far, Panasonic & Olympus have gone for quality systems, designed for photographers & aspiring photographers.
4. Some of the lenses being produced are truly special. e.g. Lumix 20mm F/1.7 & Lumix 7-14mm F/4.
5. Access to some of the best lenses ever made - Leica, Nikon, Zeiss, Canon FD, Olympus
6. Simplicity or Complexity available in the same camera.
7. A choice of colours! What is it with camera manufacturers and black cameras!!!
8. Its only in its infancy - theres a lot more potential here.
9. Breaks down the barriers between heavy, big DSLR's and small compact point & shoots.
10. Shows real quality is possible in a small camera.
Apparently getting your hands on some of this kit is difficult, so it seems that supply is having trouble keeping up with demand. It does seem that many others also believe that this may be the best thing to happen in the camera market for some time.