Back in 2008, digital cameras fell into two basic categories: point-and-shoot cameras, and digital single-lens reflex cameras (digital SLRs or DSLRs). Now, there’s a new camera category that attempts to bridge this divide: Four Thirds Cameras. These cameras combine the compactness of a point-and-shoot camera with the advanced features of a DSLR camera. Depending on who you talk to you, you’ll hear these cameras called “Micro Four Thirds”, “Interchangeable Lens Compacts”, “Hybrid Digitals” or even “EVIL cameras” (Electronic View-finder, Interchangeable Lens).
Basically, the appeal of these cameras is that they are small enough to fit into a jacket pocket, but are capable of taking professional photographs. So, if you want to take high-quality photos while traveling, hiking, or while strolling through the city, these cameras are for you. Because they have interchangeable lenses, they allow for a photographic versatility previously unavailable on a compact digital camera.
Four Thirds Cameras achieve this compactness by doing away with the mirror lens system, and some of the manual controls normally found on DSLRs. Instead, Four Thirds cameras use a LCD viewfinder, and typically have most controls accessible via on-screen menus.
Like DSLRs, these cameras have image sensors that are much larger than point-and-shoot cameras, which makes for better photos, especially in low light.
Right now, only four companies make interchangeable lens compact cameras: Olympus, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony. Olympus and Panasonic use the Micro Four Thirds standards, while Samsung and Sony have proprietary systems.
Currently, the range of lenses made specifically for these cameras is limited. But you can fit them with older lenses by using a simple adaptor ring. They actually support a wider range of lenses than most DSLRs, because they have a thin lens-to-sensor distance. This means you can make use of lenses from Canon, Nikon, Leica M, Contax / Konica, Contax G, Sony / Minolta A-mount, Olympus 4/3, Olympus PEN, and even cinema C-mount lenses. Note, however, that these lens may be manual focus only and require an aperture ring or control mechanism for usability.
Here is our round-up of the best “Micro Four Thirds” or “Interchangeable Lenses Compact” cameras for under $600:
Olympus PEN E-PL1 Micro Four Thirds Camera
The Olympus PEN E-PL1 is the Micro Four Thirds camera that has received the most recommendations from experts and buyers. We surveyed reviews on the major camera review sites: Imaging Resource, DPReview, CNET and Amazon.
The Olympus PEN E-PL1 is a sturdy, 12.3-megapixel camera that includes a built-in pop-up flash. You can purchase this camera with a 17mm lens, making for a very portable configuration.
Reviewers say this camera takes great photos, rivaling the quality available from the best DSLR cameras. Additionally, this camera has the Olympus JPEG engine which is regarded in the business as one of the best. It has a 2.7-inch LCD screen that incorporates a “Live View” function, replacing a built-in viewfinder.
This camera does have a few drawbacks. Reviewers say the auto focus feature is quite slow, and that the camera has noticeable delays between shots compared to a DSLR (although a firmware upgraded has helped this). Also, the camera has no manual control wheel but instead has menu commands for adjusting aperture, shutter speed and exposure. Those who are accustomed to a control wheel might find this process tedious. It has a maximum shutter speed of 1/2000th sec — most DSLR cameras have max of 1/4000th sec or above.
Also, the battery life is not stellar on the PEN E-PL1. Most reviewers said the camera lasted only one full day of use before needing a recharge (about 290 shots per charge). Some reviewers suggest bringing extra batteries if this is an issue.
- Solid, compact construction
- Features a pop-up flash
- Features image stabilization
- Delays between shots
- Slow Auto-Focus
- No manual control wheel (for aperture, shutter, and exposure adjustments)
- Battery life is not great
- Maximum shutter speed 1/2000th sec, vs. 1/4000th for most DSLRs
Overall, this is a top-rated, rugged camera that can take gorgeous pictures. The slow auto-focus and menu-based controls may frustrate some. Selling for under $500, this is a great step-up from a point-and-shoot camera, it provides many of the advanced features found in DSLRs.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G2 Micro Four Thirds Camera
The Lumix DMC-G2 is another Micro Four Thirds camera that gets top marks from expert reviewers. Like the Olympus PEN PL-1, the quality of the images from this camera are typically stunning, and on par with images from a quality DSLR.
The Lumix DMC-G2 features 12.1-megapixels sensor, and a touch-screen LCD that rotates 180° from side to side and tilts 270° up and down. Reviewers were very impressed by the build quality and the ergonomics of this camera. They say the camera is quick to start up, and has snappy performance, compared to its competition.
On the negative side, reviewers pointed out that the camera has no image stabilization, and the image quality is poor in ISO 1600 and above. The Lumix DMC-G2 is also not the most compact camera of its kind — it’s a bit heavier and larger than the Olympus PEN E-PL1.
- Fast auto-focus
- Fast start-up time
- Easy-to-use menus
- LCD accurately shows the image you’ll get
- LCD screen can be rotated
- Sturdy build
- Not as quite as compact as competition
- Image quality in ISO 1600 and above is not as good as a DSLR
- Delay between photos is 0.5-1 secs
Sony Alpha NEX-3 Interchangeable Lens Camera
In response to the Micro Four Thirds cameras introduced by Panasonic and Olympus, Sony has created its own line of compact, lens interchangeable cameras. So far there are only two cameras in this line: the Sony Alpha NEX-3, and the Sony Alpha NEX5. These cameras use E-mount lenses, but other lenses can be used together with an adaptor.
The Sony Alpha NEX-3 is one of the highest rated cameras of its type, priced under $500, and directly competing with the two cameras we reviewed above. Sony’s Alpha NEX3 is even more compact that those cameras. Sony claims it’s the world’s smallest and lightest interchangeable lens camera. The exact dimensions are: 117 x 63 x 33mm, and it weighs 297g (10.5 oz). Despite its size, this camera boasts a sensor that is 50% larger than the Micro Four Thirds format. This is a breakthrough unique to Sony, and reviewers say this improves image quality overall.
The NEXs don’t have a built-in flash, but come with an attachable external flash, which draws its power from the camera’s main battery.
One thing to note — the range of lenses available for this camera is quite limited at this time. You can use A-mount lenses (used by Sony’s Alpha DSLR cameras) by using a LA-EA1 adaptor. This is an optional accessory. The bundled 18-55 mm F3.5-5.6 lens has a metal finish and is of excellent quality. However, you will need buy a compact lens if you don’t want to obliterate the camera’s slim profile (see photo above). You can buy this camera with a 16mm lens bundled with it.
- High resolution image sensor
- Good ISO performance
- Good build quality
- Tiltable high-resolution screen
- Good point-and-shoot support
- Limited lenses available
- LCD hard to see in bright sunlight
- Potentially short battery life (if screen is left on)