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The rise of the Compact Pro

The introduction of the micro four thirds system and other converging compact/ digital technologies has delivered a new breed of camera that gives the professional gear a run for its money. Just as the digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR) revitalised the photographic industry, the new ‘micro four thirds’ format and its alternatives are taking the camera world by storm.

This new frontier in micor four thirds cameras was pioneered by Olympus and Panasonic. Put simply it presented a camera with a smaller form factor than traditional DSLRs but served up similar features including interchangeable lenses and plenty of opportunities for manual override.

How were they able to achieve this great leap forward? Unlike a traditional SLR camera and its digital counterpart which use a mirror box and penta prism system that sent the image to the view finder for composing shots, the micro four thirds got rid of these elements opting instead for a CMOS sensor and display screen. Eliminating the mirror and prism gave rise to a smaller more compact body – making a light weight alternative; a boon for semi pro photographers who were often deterred from carrying their DSLRs around due to their size.

Why four thirds? The name comes from the camera’s format – rather than using the widescreen 3:2 format of a traditional SLR, the micro four thirds shoots in 4:3, hence the four thirds of the title. With Olympus and Panasonic braving the way, other manufacturers came to the party with Sony and Samsung soon presenting their own ‘mirrorless’ systems.

Here’s our run down on the best of the bunch.

OLYMPUS E-P2

Olympus launched the micro four thirds camera with the E-P1. This camera has since been replaced with the E-P2 which offers higher specs than its predecessor and improved accessories.

Clocking in at an impressive 12.3 megapixels the E-P2 combines the high-quality still images of a DSLR with high definition (HD) video and stereo Linear PCM audio recording – all crammed inside a compact, easy-to-use camera body. A new twist is the accessory port which is used to slot in the included VF-2 electronic view finder or an optional external microphone adapter.

The aforementioned viewfinder slides easily into the accessory port to provide 1.15x magnification for a 100 percent field of vision. It can also rotate up 90 degrees so you can shoot even the most challenging angles, whilst the diopter can be adjusted to suit most eyesight allowing photographer’s that wear glasses to focus on their subjects without donning their specs.

In this increasingly multimedia environment the E-P2 delivers on all fronts. A still photo, video and audio recorder in one, the E-P2 gives the user complete creative freedom. The AF Live View supports continuous autofocus so the technology locks onto your subject making it sharp and crisp with just the touch of a button.

Whilst the new picture mode, iEnhance, automatically selects exposure levels for optimum colour saturation.  Add to this face detection, shadow adjustment, new diorama settings and a multitude of interchangeable lenses and you have one hot camera that’s intuitive to use straight out of the box or can be cranked onto manual and customised with additional lenses to suit all your needs.

PANASONIC LUMIX G2

A step up from the Lumix G1 camera that launched the micro four thirds system for Panasonic, the Lumix G2 offers another world first by delivering touch controls to the micro four thirds system. Intuitive what you see is what you get controls let you touch the screen to set everything from auto focus to shutter release.

The 60 frames per second Live View function even allows you to see your settings in advance so you will know exactly how your image will appear. The 12.3 megapixel Live MOS sensor and the new Venus Engine HD II integrating Intelligent Resolution technology assure high image quality in both photo and movie recording.

Yes, movie recording – like the Olympus, the Lumix G2 offers the ability to shoot HD footage in addition to motion jpeg. An HDMI output also serves up easy playback of your movies and photos to your HDTV with the purchase of an additional HDMI cable.

The Intelligent Auto mode (which most Panasonic Lumix users will be familiar) presents the user with optimal settings for use in both photo and movie recording and can be activated by the simple flick of the iA button. Touch on a face and it will set to portrait mode, touch on the background and it will set to scenery…

The Auto Focus feature can lock on a subject and track it even if it moves, while the multi AF lets you set multiple focus points according to your composition.

While achieving breakthroughs in advanced functions and compactness of the design, Panasonic also refined its digital imaging technologies – image quality is superb. The 4:3-type 12.1-megapixel Live MOS sensor featured in the DMC-G2 offers the best of both worlds — the superior image quality of a CCD sensor, and the lower power consumption of a CMOS sensor. According to the manufacturers specs this technology is what makes it possible to read 4 channels of data simultaneously. It also helps the DMC-G2 deliver 60 frames-per-second Full-time Live View images, while faithfully reproducing high-resolution images with fine detail and rich gradation.

Best of all the Lumix G2 is compatible with a huge number of lenses from the Leica range via an optional mount adaptor making it a great system camera to shoot and suit any situation.

SONY NEX-3 & NEX-5

Just launched in Australia this month, Sony’s take on the micro format sees the company delivering the world’s smallest and lightest interchangeable lens digital camera body wrapped around a whopping 14.2 megapixel APS HD CMOS sensor that also provides full 1080i HD video capture.

Sony has always pioneered user friendly technology (although this did often mean you were stuck with proprietary systems) and the NEX-3 and NEX-5 have been designed with both the novice and the professional in mind. The compact design will appeal to all users and the amateur camera enthusiast will appreciate all the auto features that will have them snapping off professional shots with ease.

The 3D phase has already hit TV and now Sony are bringing it to the still photography as the NEX-3 and NEX-5 are set to pick up a firmware update in the next month or so that will allow photographers to capture 3D panorama pics thanks to their patented Sweep Panorama technology, enabling you to create images that literally leap from the page.

Great gimmick, but what you really want to know about is the traditional camera specs and again, Sony delivers. Coming late to the market means they have had time to hone their product. These cameras deliver pristine image quality, with rich tonal gradation and low noise. With an ISO up to 12800, and 14.2 megapixel resolution quality pics are even possible in low light without the use of flash.

The camera body is compatible with a wide range of A mount lenses from wide angle to fish eye with the addition of a mount ring.

SAMSUNG NX10

For the NX10, Samsung has taken the best features of the DSLR and the compact camera to deliver a new Compact Pro that will appeal to photo enthusiasts looking for a camera with great features and interchangeable lenses without a hefty price tag.

Rather than the traditional LCD screen, the NX10 is equipped with an Active Matrix Organic Light Emitting Diode (AMOLED) a fancy name for another type of screen, yes – but it is lighter in weight than traditional LCDs, is thinner and brighter and offers a faster response time (3000 times faster than a LCD in fact) so no more clunky wait between what you see and what you get. They also use a super large APS-C size CMOS sensor (almost double the size of a four thirds format) to ensure your camera delivers photos that reproduce colours far more accurately and serves up crisp images. The supersonic dust removing function vibrates 60,000 times per second to ensure no dust makes its way onto the sensor when you swap lenses. Add to this a whopping 14.6 megapixels, and a super smart AF system that measures contrast data from the image sensor and directly calculates the distance – and you have a camera that is capable of reacting to any situation. Shooting video has become a norm for most cameras these days but the NX10 lets you shoot 720p HD vision, which will have your home movies looking pretty special when you watch them back on your HD TV.

With an ISO of 3200 you can still get respectable images in low light. This is truly a take anywhere camera from museums (no flash allowed) to capturing that great action shot as a still or video.

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