This post on Mirrorless Cameras is by David Moore from Clearing the Vision.
Up until recently, there were two main paths you could take when choosing a digital camera. As we know, point and shoots offer affordability, small size and convenience, but the trade-offs are limited manual options and constrained image quality.
Digital SLRs are more expensive and larger, but deliver better images and more control, as well as the greater flexibility that comes with interchangeable lenses.
Now there’s a third group of cameras that are smaller than DSLRs but with much larger sensors than regular point and shoots (up to the APS-C size seen in DLSRs). Some have electronic viewfinders (EVFs), and some support interchangeable lenses.
What they all have in common is their lack of a mirror to bounce an optical image of what you’re shooting to a viewfinder (you either compose using the rear screen or the electronic viewfinder if there is one). This keeps the size down.
Cameras in this mirrorless class include the Micro Four-Thirds offerings from Panasonic and Olympus (such as the well-regarded PEN series), and the brand new Nikon 1 camera system. Other cameras in this middle ground are the retro-cool Fujifilm X100 (and its new little brother the X10), and the Sony NEX series (with the NEX-7 looking particularly interesting).
Some people are trying to call this class of camera EVIL – for Electronic Viewfinder, Interchangeable Lenses – but it doesn’t really work as a catch-all. The Fujis, for example, don’t have interchangeable lenses (but the X100 does have the EVF built in), while the PENs and NEXs out of the box don’t have the viewfinder (but do support interchangeable lenses).
On the Plus Side
You can debate the strengths and weaknesses of individual cameras in this group all day, but there’s no doubt they offer an interesting option both for people moving up from point and shoots, and for more serious photographers who don’t want to lug a heavy SLR around all the time.
I shoot professionally with a Canon 5D Mark II, and I’ll reach for it if someone’s paying me, if I’m in particularly challenging conditions or if I want the absolute best quality I can get. But carrying it all the way round a theme park for two days on a recent family vacation showed me that the best camera isn’t always the best camera to bring with you.
So I bought an Olympus E-PL2 (reduced in price because its successor has just been released) with a couple of lenses, and I suddenly saw what I’d been missing.
With easy to access manual controls and fast glass (the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 is a near-standard 40mm equivalent on the M4/3rds bodies), I wasn’t giving too much up, but I was gaining large amounts of portability. The 4/3rds sensor is only slightly smaller than the APS-C sensors found in most DSLRs, but it’s more than five times bigger than the sensor found in high-end point and shoots like the Canon G12.
The sensor delivers pretty good low light performance, and the in-body stabilization means you can often use lower ISOs than you’d expect as the light fades.
For casual shooting and street photography, these cameras are more discrete and subtle than a large SLR with a zoom. People react much less strongly to them, especially if you’re using the rear LCD for composition. The Fuji X100 even has a silent mode that renders it particularly stealthy.
In all but the most extreme conditions, the image quality from these cameras if often comparable to a lot of DSLRs. They also inject some fun into your shooting, somehow inviting you to play more than the serious DSLR gear.
So what’s the downside?
One downside is that while these cameras are smaller and lighter than DSLRs, they’re not quite pocketable, especially with a zoom lens attached. You’ll still need a bag, or to hang them off your shoulder.
The choice of lenses can also be limited, especially if you’re used to Canon and Nikon’s myriad options for standard DSLRs.
And while they might look more like point and shoots, they’re not cheap. Here in the US, the new Olympus EP-3 is $900 with a kit lens, the Fuji X100 is $1200 and the new Sony NEX-5N is $699 with kit lens (the NEX-7 is $1,349 with lens). The Panasonic 20mm F/1.7 lens I use is around $350, while Sony’s new Carl Zeiss 24mm F1.8 for the NEX cameras is listed at an eye-watering $999.
At these sort of prices, something like a Canon Rebel T3i with a couple of lenses might start to look pretty appealing. Although one interesting point is that the Sony, Nikon and Olympus cameras support adaptors that allow you to mount a pretty wide range of legacy lenses on your new digital body.
Nonetheless, at the moment you can find a DSLR set-up that will ultimately deliver better image quality for the same money. But that’s not worth much if you often leave the camera at home because it’s too much to carry around all the time.
This type of camera isn’t for everyone, but there are two groups for which they could do an excellent job. An enthusiast trading up from a point and shoot doesn’t automatically need to think about a DSLR when looking for a ‘good’ camera.
These mirrorless systems also work well for more serious shooters looking for a smaller but still capable option when they just want to have fun.
Compared to comparatively slower speed of innovation on the DSLR side (there have been no new full-frame SLRs from Nikon or Canon since 2008, for example), what’s been happening over in the mirrorless world is definitely more exciting, and some of the innovation is carrying across to the larger bodies. Sony’s new A77 camera boasts a translucent mirror and electronic viewfinder, for example.
A lot of us would love to have a Leica M9 to carry around with us – a small and understated camera capable of producing amazing results. But since we’re not all likely to win the lottery at the same time, one of this new raft of mirrorless cameras might just fit the bill.
David Moore is an Anglo-Irish photographer, writer and web designer at home in the high desert of New Mexico in the US. You can find him at Clearing the Vision.