Not so long ago, there used to be only two real choices for the amateur or beginning pro – I’m going to exclude the high end medium format systems and specialized large format systems because if you need that, you generally already know it – Nikon and Canon, Nikon and Canon, and that was about it. The last year or so has seen both smaller systems breach the limits of sufficiency, and larger systems possibly become overkill for most applications. From the general chatter online, in the comments and in my inbox, it seems that a lot of people are in the process of rethinking their gear: lighter and smaller is a definite trend. There’s a lot less thought given to switching than previously; the image quality differential these days is pretty much nil at the low to mid levels, and with the exception of the D800E, also true at the high end.
The confusion now comes from the fact that mirrorless is not only disruptive, it’s mature, alluring and possibly also cheaper – but more importantly, the promise of small and easy seems to have put the fun back into photography for a lot of people. Perhaps it’s because of the weight facilitating portability (and thus having the camera with you all the time), but I think it’s actually because psychologically, the smaller cameras aren’t seen as being quite so serious – thus encouraging experimentation and perhaps unexpected, but welcome, results.
Before we start, however, I’d like to note a few things:
- If your current system does everything you need it to, then you don’t need to read this article. Whatever you think you may gain from the grass being greener on the other side of the fence will be outweighed by the fact that you’ve got to learn everything all over again and retrain your muscle memory. Ignorance is bliss, and all that. Only think about switching if there’s something very specific and very critical that you are lacking.
- There’s nothing wrong with running two systems, if that’s the only solution you can find to multiple problems. I do – in fact, I’ve got four and a half – Nikon AF, Nikon MF, Micro Four Thirds, Leica M and Hasselblad V.
- If the quantitative differences between choices are small, prioritize the qualitative ones. Small irritants can be rapidly magnified if you’ve got to use the camera for twelve hours a day, and little things you like about it can motivate you to go out and use it – which in itself will help improve your skills.
- If you’re thinking of buying into any mirrorless system with the intention of using your old lenses, think again: it’s not really worth it because operation is clunky, balance is unwieldy, the wides usually don’t play nice with the sensor, and it’s generally more hassle than it’s worth. The sole exception is if you need reach and don’t mind focusing manually.
- Ask yourself if you really need the DSLR. Carrying around more camera than you need isn’t fun. You’ll be surprised just how many of the lower end options these days do far more than you expect them to – even compared to the ‘pro’ cameras from not so long ago. It’s the manufacturers’ way of convincing you that you need an upgrade…
- If you’re not doing this for a living, then the idea of need is relative: sometimes quirky and fun might just be better.
What follows is a subjective assessment of the various options currently available. Yes, I am somewhat biased because I know the systems I own better than the ones I don’t; that said, I’ve shot with most of them at one point or another, either as loaners or while I wore a magazine editor’s hat.
A mature and complete system with high back-compatibility – to the early 60s – but to maximize image quality and utility from the modern cameras, you’ll really need to be using the latest generation lenses anyway. D800E leads the entire 35mm format DSLR pack for image quality by some margin, challenges medium format. Compact pro bodies (D300s, D600, D800/E) all have built in flashes for triggering remotes, which are lacking on Canon’s 6D and 5DIII. Amazingly, the other cameras in the range aren’t that far off, either. Excellent flash system – that goes for operation, control, and most importantly, metering consistency. Providing you shoot FX, has special purpose lenses to cover just about every possible situation; the only weaknesses I can find are the inability of the PCE lenses to rotate tilt and shift axes independently; the lack of a superwide PCE, a long macro, a macro that gives greater than 1:1 reproduction. If you shoot DX, you’re going to have issues with fast primes – especially anything wider than 35mm equivalent. Personally, I find the overall ergonomics of the system to suit me best out of any of the other options; however, what does drive me crazy is how Nikon seems to make annoying and unnecessary little changes between successive body iterations – why do the buttons need to move, or swap places, or seemingly acquire/ lose abilities at will? Not doing anything really innovative in the DSLR space.
Similar comments to Nikon: there’s no back compatibility, but it does mean that every single lens that mounts will give you full functionality (if not perhaps be entirely up to par with the latest sensors for image quality). More flexible and higher quality for video output than Nikon, though it seems this might be changing with the D600 and D800E. Canon actually does have the ‘missing lenses’ – the TS-E’s rotate independently, there’s a 17mm TS-E, a 180 macro, and the MPE – the 1-5x lens. Flash exposure isn’t as consistent as Nikon, but the newer flashes gain RF triggers, which is an enormous improvement over the unreliable infrared triggering – and allows for use beyond line-of-sight. The sensors no longer hold the enormous lead in noise as they did in 2005-7; in fact, if anything, it’s the other way round – Nikon may perhaps have leapfrogged them by degrees, but the fact is that Canon isn’t doing anything innovative in the DSLR sector either. Like Nikon though, Canon bodies and lenses have strong secondary market demand, which means that upgrading is quite painless – and their incredibly frequent upgrade cycles mean the older bodies are still a viable option because they really aren’t that different performance-wise.
Despite the lens catalog inherited from Minolta and the relationship with Carl Zeiss, Sony has a lot of holes left in the lens lineup – macro options are mediocre; telephotos nearly non-existant, and tilt shifts completely absent. There are a lot of consumer-grade zooms, though, which perhaps says a lot about this company’s target market: note also that it means you’re stuck if and when you decide you need a bit more from your gear. However, credit must be given for innovation – they tried to solve the live view/ AF problem with their translucent mirror technology; what I don’t understand is why they didn’t just use a Pellicle mirror and call it a day – you’d be able to retain the optical finder and perform full time continuous AF, without much penalty in light collection. The use of a secondary sensor (at first) and EVF (still) seems unnecessarily complicated. Granted, it allows high frame rates with ease, but EVF technology still isn’t up to a good optical finder. And Sony’s AF coverage and continuous AF performance leaves a lot to be desired; it still isn’t as good as the best of Nikon or Canon’s systems. Image quality somehow doesn’t seem to be quite as good as the other companies even though they use the same sensor; there’s some disparity in the processing algorithms, it seems. The only reason I can see to consider Alpha is if a) there are some lenses you absolutely must have, like the Zeiss 135/1.8; b) you shoot video and need AF while filming. Otherwise, this doesn’t strike me as a long term system option.
Another niche system – you get a lot of things you get nowhere else (small, high quality AF primes in metal and strange focal lengths; weather sealing on all bodies; great manual controls) – but at the same time, the system is very limited indeed. Still, I could see it working for the travel or street photographer on a weight diet; or even the documentary photographer. The bodies are very configurable, have great ergonomics, and image quality on par with the equivalent Nikons – they share the same sensors, at any rate. Like Sony, however, I don’t see this as a full or primary system unless you have a very specific set of needs.
Four thirds – Olympus
At this point, Olympus desperately needs a new body for the system. The trouble is, the OM-D spanks the pants off the E-5 in every way but continuous autofocus performance. With the exception of some of the smaller consumer bodies (E-400 and derivatives), Four thirds never really delivered what it promised – lighter and smaller. The lenses, however, are superlative. Even the cheap plastic kit zooms are surprisingly good; the super high grade, all-metal, weather-sealed pro lenses are outstandingly good – and priced accordingly. It would really be a shame to see these lenses put out to pasture; they can be used on a M4/3 body, but they’re slow to focus and enormously out of balance. I think there’s no need to say that this isn’t really a viable system choice at the moment.
What Sigma does have is a surprisingly strong range of lenses – everything that’s available as an OEM for other brands is also available in their own SA mount. The problem is the cameras: they’re expensive, slow, and image quality is an issue at everything but the lowest ISOs. The Foveon sensor is great if used in a narrow window – perhaps for studio and landscape work – but it really doens’t deliver a true 3x15MP performance; it’s probably closer to about 2x. Combine this with the price, abysmal resale value, difficult-to-obtain accessories and support, and if you need resolution, you’re better off with a D800E.
Part 2 – dealing with mirrorless camera options and left-field choices – continues tomorrow. MT
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