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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
This Article Features Photo Zoom
Image Quality
For nature photography, nothing is as important as image quality. Landscape and macro photographers want to make big prints with great detail. Wildlife shooters want to see texture in fur and feathers. Both examples require cameras capable of producing excellent image quality. The main point of the mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras is to provide DSLR image quality in a compact body. Most do this by putting a DSLR sensor in that compact body.

It's not so much about pixel count. Point-and-shoot digital cameras now offer 12, 14 and even 16 megapixels. But much potential detail is lost to image noise because the sensors in point-and-shoot digital cameras are very small, and the pixels are much smaller and packed closer together than those on a large DSLR sensor with the same pixel count. The combination of small sensor area and tiny pixels means point-and-shoot cameras aren't very efficient at collecting light. This results in high-noise, point-and-shoot images, especially at ISOs above 200. The noise becomes more evident the bigger you print the images. The large DSLR sensors can capture more light for lower-noise images. And for a given pixel count, the DSLR pixels will be much larger, which also enhances light collection and reduces image noise. Bigger image sensors with bigger pixels result in better image quality, and the ability to use high ISO settings while maintaining image quality. Good image quality at higher ISO settings also opens up a lot of low-light photography to the larger-sensor-camera user.

Olympus and Panasonic mirrorless models use Micro Four Thirds sensors. This means they're based around the same standard 17.3x13.0mm Four Thirds System sensor used in standard Four Thirds System DSLRs, but the cameras are much smaller due to the absence of the reflex system. Micro Four Thirds sensors are smaller than the 23.6x15.6mm APS-C sensor, but still far larger than the 8.8x6.6mm and smaller sensors used in point-and-shoot digital cameras.

Samsung and Sony use APS-C sensors in their mirrorless cameras. As we go to press, Sony just introduced the mirrorless NEX-7, with the same 24.3-megapixel APS-C sensor used in its new flagship A77 translucent-mirror DSLR.

Pentax's Q is the smallest of the mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras, in part because it has the smallest sensor: a 1/2.3-inch (6.16x4.62mm) unit typical of the size used in compact digital cameras. We haven't had a chance to test this camera yet.

Tie: Because there's so much variability of image quality between DSLR models, we can't give either the DSLR or the mirrorless, interchangeable-lens camera a clear advantage here.

Volumetric Efficiency Of A Mirrorless Outfit
Consider, for example, a high-end, entry-level DSLR body and an 18-200mm compact zoom lens (equivalent to a 28-300mm zoom on a 35mm camera). The body measures around 5.2x4.1x3.0 inches and weighs 24.3 ounces, depending on the model. The 18-200mm zoom measures 3.0x3.8 inches and weighs 19.8 ounces. Compare that to a comparable Micro Four Thirds body and equivalent zoom (14-150mm). The body (SLR-style with built-in EVF) measures 4.5x3.3x1.8 inches and weighs 11.8 ounces; the lens measures 2.5x3.3 inches and weighs 9.9 ounces. Switch to a "flat," compact-style, mirrorless body, and the camera size drops to 4.3x2.5x1.3 inches and 7.7 ounces. The mirrorless system weighs just half as much as the equivalent APS-C DSLR system. The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 75-300mm ƒ/4.8-6.7 supertele-zoom for M4/3 cameras (equivalent to a 150-600mm zoom on a 35mm camera) measures just 2.7x4.6 inches and weighs just 15.2 ounces! The size and weight savings are less dramatic with APS-C-sensor, mirrorless cameras because they require larger lenses to cover the larger sensors, but even so, the lenses—and entire systems—are noticeably more compact than DSLR systems.


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