We're about due a good format war. For better or worse, the dust has settled on the Blu-ray vs HD DVD scrap, and anyone looking for the next tech donnybrook will have to look elsewhere. Fortunately, fight fans, the camera market has seen competing formats squaring up to each other. Olympus and Panasonic have teamed up on the consumer-oriented Micro Four Thirds format, while Samsung is sharpening a rival system. We smell blood... in a few years.
In photographic terms, format broadly means size, the term carried over from the days when film format defined the size and shape of a camera. The Micro Four Thirds system is, as the name suggests, a smaller take on the Four Thirds system originally developed by Olympus and Kodak. Four Thirds is a standard size of lens and sensor for dSLRs, which has the advantage of being smaller and thus affording smaller, lighter cameras such as the Olympus E-420 and E-520.
Micro Four Thirds manages to be even smaller because it dispenses with the mirror. This means that when cameras are eventually produced to Micro Four Thirds specs, they won't be SLRs. Although the sensor will stay the same size, the cameras themselves will be smaller because there's no mirror and no optical viewfinder.
The reason this is interesting is because it's a step closer to a true digital take on the flexible camera system: at present, the only cameras with interchangeable lenses are dSLRs, another legacy of the film age. With live view and electronic viewfinders potentially rendering optical viewfinders obsolete, is there any need for the single lens reflex system?
And just to spice things up, Samsung has stolen some of the Micro Four Thirds thunder with its announcement of a rival system. Based on the APS-C-size sensors, the system will arrive sometime in 2009. We'll be interested to see if other manufacturers get onboard with either of these systems or reveal themselves as new challengers. Meanwhile, as impartial, disinterested commentators, we say: Fight! Fight! Fight! -Rich Trenholm