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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Our Guide To Mirrorless Cameras

Combining compact size with the interchangeable lenses of a DSLR, mirrorless cameras offer the outdoor photographer a capable, lightweight option

Labels: D-SLRsGear

Outdoor photography—landscape, wildlife, close-up, travel and sports—covers a lot of territory and demands cameras that deliver excellent image quality and a wide range of focal lengths.

The two most popular types of digital cameras are DSLRs and compact point-and-shoots. For OP readers—nature photographers—DSLRs are far and away the most popular for several reasons. DSLRs produce excellent image quality and are very quick, and interchangeable lenses make them highly versatile. Overall, DSLRs give you performance that a point-and-shoot can't come close to achieving. The main disadvantages of DSLRs are that they're relatively bulky, complex and costly. Although overall point-and-shoot cameras don't have the performance of a DSLR, they have definite advantages. They're very convenient and simple to use, and most will fit in a pocket. The main drawbacks are that they contain tiny image sensors whose image quality can't match that of the DSLRs, they're quite slow compared to DSLRs in both shooting speed and AF performance, and they limit you to the focal range provided by the camera's built-in lens.

In 2008, a new camera type appeared: the mirrorless, interchangeable-lens camera. Sometimes referred to as EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens, although not all have electronic viewfinders), the mirrorless models have become popular with some photographers over the last couple of years. The promise of this new category is the combination of DSLR image quality and interchangeable-lens versatility with compact camera portability.

For nature photographers, the early mirrorless models weren't perfect. Three years later, and the technologies involved have advanced to the point where the viewfinders are better, sensors and processors have improved, and AF systems are faster and more accurate. In light of these advancements, we decided this is a good time to take an in-depth look to see if your next primary camera will be mirrorless.

How Do They Make Them So Small?
An SLR camera contains an SLR mirror positioned at a 45º angle to the incoming light from the lens. In this position, it reflects the light up to a focusing screen, then onto a pentaprism or pentamirror and finally to an eye-level viewfinder, which presents the image right-side-up and laterally correct to the eye for composing and focusing. When you press the shutter button to take a shot, the mirror flips up and out of the light path so the light can reach the film or image sensor. The viewfinder image blacks out briefly as the exposure is made because the mirror can't send the image to the viewfinder when it's in the "up" exposing position. Once the exposure has been made, the mirror automatically drops back down into the viewing position, and you can see through the viewfinder again.

Mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras are smaller, lighter and less complicated because they eliminate the reflex components of a single-lens-reflex camera: the mirror, mirror box, focusing screen and prism viewfinder. With these parts gone, camera designers can move the lens mount closer to the image plane, which means they can design smaller, simpler lenses. You use the camera's Live View LCD monitor for composing and focusing, just as with a compact digital camera. For those who prefer eye-level operation, some mirrorless cameras have built-in, eye-level electronic viewfinders (EVFs), or accessory attachable EVFs. The mirrorless design also does away with mirror blackout and the vibrations caused by the mirror's movement.

There's still the issue of getting a big DSLR sensor into a compact body, but the camera designers figured it out, and most mirrorless bodies are closer to point-and-shoot size than DSLR size. However, a big sensor requires a big lens diameter, so the lenses for the APS-C-sensor cameras are fairly large relative to the camera body. But the mirrorless body and lens combinations are still smaller than equivalent DSLR combos.


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