In part 1, we dealt with SLR systems. Today, we’ll look at what will probably be a secondary system for most serious photographers, or as primary system for less serious ones.
On paper, the system makes sense for consumers – it definitely doesn’t have the image quality required for commercial work – however, Nikon shot themselves in the foot twice: firstly with the obscene pricing, then by dropping it to laughable levels. And then they dropped an anvil on the same foot by crippling it with a whole slew of slow consumer zooms. I think it would have had a much stronger response with a series of fast pancake primes – two isn’t enough – because the sensor itself is actually quite good, and the camera’s AF performance is unparalleled in the mirrorless world, and rivals that of DSLRs. I can’t recommend this system at the original asking price, but at the last closeout prices of $350 or so, it’s a very interesting option against a premium point and shoot – especially given the larger sensor, built in EVF and interchangeable lenses. But I just can’t recommend it otherwise, unless you want to put your F mount glass on it via adaptor and use it for birding (then, it makes sense: 300/2.8 turning into an 810/2.8 with AF and VR, anybody?) It’s surprising how a company that makes DSLRs that are so ergonomically and functionally right can make both compacts and mirrorless cameras that are so bad.
My last comment about the Nikon 1 applies here, too: the EOS-M is both an ergonomic disaster, and terribly slow to use. At least they had the sense to offer an interesting fast prime in the initial lineup. Whilst the Nikon 1’s 28/2.8 equivalent would appeal to documentary shooters, most people upgrade from compacts – in this segment of the market – for nothing more than bokeh. Canon understands that much. Again: terrible lens lineup, slow AF performance and limited feature set mean that this isn’t really a system to buy now; given Canon’s usual tiered feature and pricing strategy, I don’t see them letting it acquire any of the higher end features either – this means it’s not really of any interest to serious photographers. It doesn’t even have the crop factor and AF speed benefits of the Nikon 1 that would make it appeal to nature photographers.
The granddaddy of all mirrorless systems: lens choices coming out the wazoo, each with its own religiously-defended strengths. Hell, there are seven major variants of the 35/1.4 Summilux alone. Let’s not even talk about the 50mms. It’s also the only full-frame mirrorless system, though until the M Typ 240 becomes widely available, none of them will have live view. The weaknesses of M rangefinders are manifold: limited choices of lens without external finders (28-90mm); no zooms, macros or telephotos; parallax errors; potential focusing errors if your rangefinder drifts out of calibration; etc. But it does have some great strengths, too: an enormous, bright finder; the ability to focus fast wides accurately; size and discretion. You can also interchange your lenses and accessories with the film Leica Ms, if you fancy a change of medium. I think the M 240 is perhaps the most interesting of the lot – live view and EVF capability mean that you can actually use it as a supplementary body for another system, providing you get the right adaptor – this isn’t something that was previously the case with the M8 and M9. There are also no end of third party lens choices too, in case Leica doesn’t make what you need (or you can’t afford it).
Micro four thirds
By far the most mature of all of the mirrorless systems; the lens lineup is nearly complete with the exception of tilt shifts and fast telephotos. You even get multiple options at most key focal lengths, and there are plenty of fast primes to choose from. I don’t personally like the ergonomics and UI of the Panasonic cameras, but the lower end ones are good value for money; the current Olympus set is the one to have – either the OM-D or E-PM2; don’t bother with the E-PL5 unless you really need the tilt screen and can’t afford the OM-D. Actually, for the vast majority of photographers – even some professional ones – you don’t really need any more system than this; high ISO is comparable to the full frame cameras of a few years ago; responsiveness is good, there are plenty of lens choices, and the bodies are incredibly customizable and very ergonomically friendly. (The exceptions would of course be if you need continuous AF or shoot sport or make huge prints.) Even the flash system is mature and sufficiently fully-featured to compete with the big boys. I think what makes this perhaps your best mirrorless option is the fact that the user base has now developed critical mass; there are plenty of other companies in the Micro Four Thirds group that are offering lenses, accessories, etc. that it will be around for some time to come. I do wonder what’s going to happen to Olympus now that Sony appears to be their biggest shareholder…
The other contender for mirrorless; large sensors, small bodies. Leading with image quality and body features like built in EVFs. Lens lineup is still limited, however; fast primes are sorely lacking, as are fast zooms. As usual, no end of consumer options. Good option for video – both because of the sensors and the emphasis that Sony puts on it. Despite owning one of these for some time, and modifying several to be multispectral, I still see this as a single-camera rather than a system – the lens options just aren’t there. Users are probably going to buy the base kit and stick with it, or buy one of the fast primes – probably the Zeiss 24/1.8 – and stick with that.
I was originally quite curious about this system because of the lenses selected for launch: they actually made sense, like a photographer was doing the product planning. All of them were high quality, fast, small primes; there was even a macro in there. The body was reasonably sized, and had the handy hybrid viewfinder. It could even accept Leica M lenses with an official mount adaptor. But it fell on its face in the same place as the X100: ergonomics/ usability and speed. The camera is simply too sluggish; I had too many missed moments with the X100 and the borrowed X-Pro. The XE1 seems a bit faster, but still not fast enough – and the optical finder is gone. I might as well just continue using the OM-D, because it’s both faster and the image quality is known and not that far behind. Perhaps things will be different if Fuji uses the X100S’ phase-detect sensor on subsequent iterations. This system still remains an interesting option, however: it’s the lenses that make it worthy of serious attention. But wait until there’s a body suitably equipped to deal with them.
I’d never really given this system serious consideration until doing the research for this article. Firstly, there are interesting lens choices. Secondly, it seems like Samsung is willing to keep throwing money at the problem until they create something that takes off; too bad they don’t seem to have a photographer on board in their UI/ product testing department. At the discounted prices being offered for some combinations, it’s worth a look. Image quality isn’t bad, but isn’t quite as good as the latest OM-D or NEX cameras. I would consider this system on the assumption that sooner, rather than later, Samsung will stop pouring money down a black hole; base the decision on the lenses that are currently available rather than what might come. That said, the roadmap looks healthy.
I bought one of these back in the early days – I like the GR Digital III so much that I thought it would be a no-brainer. Turns out, I was wrong. Buying modules with lenses tied to sensors meant that it would get expensive fast; what Ricoh should have done is separate things even more: sensor module, lens module. That way, we get the best of both worlds: multiple mounts, upgradeable sensors, and retention of glass. I get the impression that the system is mostly dead today except for the M-mount APS-C module, which is a shame, because the ergonomics and built quality are great, and customizeablity is outstanding – as with every Ricoh product. It feels solid and tactile in the hand, and that makes you want to use it – even if the larger sensor modules are painfully slow to focus. The long term future of this system is in question after the Pentax acquisition, I think: having that many different options for mirrorless – Q, GXR, K01 (now discontinued) – doesn’t make any sense at all, especially given that none of them are really complete, viable options in their own right. Sad, but I’m going to have to say give this one a miss – unless you really want to use Leica M glass and can’t afford say, a used M8 – which would be a much better option.
This is a fun toy, but really nothing more than that. It’s simply far too limited by the sensor size; let’s not even talk about the non-existent lens choices. That said, the very fast telephoto that was recently released and small body may make it an interesting option for voyeurs.
The two subcategories below are thrown in as wildcards, in case you hadn’t considered those options. Who knows, they might suit your shooting style better.
Truth be told, most people don’t need a mirrorless camera, let alone a DSLR. There are a lot of very competent compacts – covered here – that would fit the bill for the majority of situations. Granted, there’s some enjoyment to be had in the operation and handling of a nice device, but think of the amount of angst you’ll save your back by not lugging around 10kg of cameras and lenses on holiday – not to mention marital issues. Sensor performance has improved considerably, and coupled with some very fast lenses – the LX7’s f1.4-2.3 optic, for instance – might be on par with a mirrorless camera and f5.6 kit zoom, and not far behind a DSLR. Cheaper, too – that leaves you a bit more in your pocket to go to places to actually use the camera.
I was thinking the other day that perhaps there’s no reason for some people to make the jump to digital after all – if you’ve been shooting film for 20 years and are comfortable with it, why make the leap to trying to understand photoshop, data management, raw conversion etc? If anything, it might be better to stay with it since the used prices of previously unobtainable equipment have likely dropped to surprisingly low prices. Or, you could just be part of the Lomography crowd…
Whatever you buy though, don’t underestimate the importance of having friends who shoot the same system – both as a source of advice and expertise, and to be able to tap their experience (and if they’re generous, raid their lens cupboards). At the same time, a system choice isn’t a religion – even if it seems we’re only a few lines away from starting a holy war on most forums – some things will work for some, others for others. This is why we have choices. Seek information to make an informed one, but don’t be a zealot about it. Make the right choice for you. MT
Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved