Mirrorless cameras – ready for prime time?
Are the days of the SLR numbered?
Posts from Scott Bourne and Trey Ratcliff singing the praises of these next-generation cameras coincided with the recent announcement of the Fuji X-Pro 1 system, and showed that the exciting action in the camera world at the moment is not happening with DSLRs.
Even Nikon’s release of the scary-good D4 hasn’t attracted that much attention (at least partly due to the scary-high price).
The Fuji system is carefully aimed at all the serious photogs who would love a Leica M9 but can’t or won’t pay the money for it (and the very spendy lenses). Fast primes mated to a small discrete body with a big sensor inside is the sort of stuff that gets our attention very quickly.
But with the Sony NEX series, the Olympus/Panasonic Micro 4/3rds environment, the NIkon 1 series and the new Fujis we’re now looking at 4 different standards. Steve Huff, who definitely know what he’s talking about, maintains that none of them are the perfect choice right now, and that sounds about right.
But even if, as Trey Ratcliff argues, the days of the SLR are numbered, it seems to me that it’s still too early for a lot of us to jump ship from our SLRs. From where I sit, surrounded by some Canon gear and some Micro 4/3rds gear, these are the things that are making me pause:
No clear comprehensive upgrade path
With the SLRs, Canon, Nikon and to a lesser extent Sony, you can choose one system and know that in three-five years you’ll still likely be with that system. I started with Canon because I inherited an old film SLR and lens from my mother in law. The body went almost immediately when I bought my Rebel XT, and the lens not too long after that. But six years, 3 bodies and eight lenses later, it’s still Canon in my bag.
Right now with the mirrorless options, there’s so much new stuff emerging so quickly that you can’t know what the next best step is, let alone what will happen in three years’ time. My micro 4/3rds Olympus EPL-2 and Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 is a great combination, but I’m not even sure I’d get a single new M4/3rds lens or body now. The lens choices are good, but the sensors in the Sonys and new Fuji look much better.
On the other hand, while the Sony bodies look good, the lenses are pretty big and there aren’t that many options. And no-one’s even shot the Fuji, so it’s too early to say (although there’s a lot of love for its daddy, the X100).
Lots of money for less absolute quality
What you like about a camera isn’t just its potential image quality. Some of your other priorities might trump IQ – size, focus speed, lens choices, ergonomics . . . but for the same money as you’d spend on any of these mirrorless systems, you could get some really good SLR gear, that would perform better in absolute terms under quite a few real-world situations (so long as you had the camera with you – which is of course one of the great appeals of the smaller systems).
Depending on what you shoot, 90% of it could potentially be covered by the mirrorless setup you choose, and there is the ineffable appeal of something small enough to slip into a (albeit pretty large) pocket. But to me, there are enough limitations of all the systems currently that I couldn’t sell my 5D II, (even if I didn’t shoot video with it).
Limited depth of field control
Given the physics of using smaller sensors than the full-frame SLRs, and the limited number of extremely fast lenses, there are a bunch of shots that you just couldn’t get with these mirrorless cameras that you can with SLRs. I borrowed both the Canon 35mm f/1.4 and the 85mm f/1.2 last year, and while I wasn’t completely sold on the 85mm, the 35mm f/1.4 just sang. And the creative options that both gave me, not even counting their low-light performance (which I’m charitably suggesting might be repeatable by some mirrorless in-camera ISO magic), is currently impossible for these mirrorless cameras to reproduce.
But since the Fujis and Sonys already have APS-C sized sensors, it’s quite possible we’ll see full-frame size sensors in the not too distant future, without the Leica price tag.
Where are Canon in all this?
I see they’ve released the G1 X, with a much larger sensor (which was always the Achilles heel of the G-series cameras before), which is good to see. But to stick a slow medium zoom on it makes it clear it’s not really for serious enthusiasts.
Maybe they’re afraid to cannibilize the sales of their DSLRs, but they’d be better to cannibilize those sales themselves, than see the money head off to Fuji or Sony. A small Canon mirrorless body with a big sensor and an EF-lens adapter would be a great thing to see – maybe the G1 X sensor (larger than a Micro 4/3rds) will be the basis of some interchangeable lens action in the future.
Pick your poison
I don’t want to sound like I’m dissing the mirrorless cameras (although I agree with Trey Ratcliff that ‘mirrorless’ isn’t a great name for them). I just submitted a portfolio to get a place on a documentary photography workshop with Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Deanne Fitzmaurice, and realised that around half the images I submitted were shot with my EPL2.
My real point is that while the turbulence in the high-end digital market is exciting, it makes it hard to know where to spend your money next. I think there’ll be even more fragmentation for the next while, before things settle down.
Some people (mainly enthusiasts, I’m guessing) will take the money they would have spent on an SLR and some lenses, and put it into a mirrorless system that will be their only camera. There’ll get almost all the performance they would have got, and take more photos because their system is smaller and easier to lug around.
Some pros will stick solely with the big bodies because they’re too invested in the systems, don’t need the benefits the mirrorless cameras and/or shoot the kind of work that can only be done with full-on DSLRs – sports, wildlife, some portraiture.
Other folks (pros and wealthy amateurs) will run both sets of systems in parallel, choosing the right setup to leave the house with as the job or mood dictates that day.
I’m already in the third group, which is bad for my bank balance, but it’s exciting for the range of options now open to me and the rest of us. If only I could decide what my next step will be in the mirrorless arena.