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DSLR Performance In A Point-And-Shoot Size?

The new class of cameras—mirrorless, interchangeable-lens models—gives serious nature photographers some interesting options
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You’ve likely heard the buzz about the new mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras by now (some call them EVIL, for “electronic viewfinder, interchangeable lens”). And because half of them resemble point-and-shoot compact digital cameras, you may have dismissed them as not being serious shooting machines well suited to your needs as an outdoor photographer. If so, you may want to look again. From a feature and image-quality standpoint, these are essentially DSLRs tucked into truly tiny packages.

The idea is simple: Put a big DSLR image sensor in a compact-camera body with interchangeable-lens capability. How to make the body tiny? Eliminate the bulky (and costly) SLR mirror box and prism viewfinder assemblies.

Mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras come in two basic form factors. “Mini-DSLRs” (Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-GH1, G2 and G10, and the Samsung NX10) look like little DSLRs, but have built-in, eye-level electronic viewfinders (EVFs) instead of SLR mirror boxes and pentaprisms. These are noticeably smaller than DSLRs, but not pocketable. “Flat” models (Olympus’ E-P1, E-P2 and E-PL1, Panasonic’s DMC-GF1, and Sony’s new Alpha NEX-3 and NEX-5) lack the eye-level EVF and thus look like compact digital cameras. Composing (and manual focusing, when desired) is done via the LCD monitor, as with a compact digital camera.

Think about that for a moment: Have you ever thought twice about carrying your big DSLR or a bulky DSLR system out into the field? Well, now we have interchangeable-lens cameras that can produce DSLR image quality, yet fit into a (admittedly large-ish) pocket. And all the mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras do HD video! A compact camera not only is easier to carry than a DSLR, but you can easily take it places it would be difficult to take a DSLR—scrambling up rocks to get that perfect viewpoint, for example. And the mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras always are in Live View mode, so you don’t have to fumble around to enter Live View before doing high- and low-angle shots using the LCD monitor to compose. And now you don’t have to give up image quality to a tiny compact-camera image sensor, or full control over everything, to have a truly compact camera system.

SLR vs. Mirrorless

Many OP readers use DSLRs. Should you switch to a mirrorless, interchangeable-lens model? Perhaps a better approach is to ask if you should acquire a mirrorless camera to complement your DSLR. The answer likely is “Yes!” But here are a few things to consider:

A DSLR’s eye-level SLR viewfinder provides a clearer view than an electronic viewfinder or an external LCD monitor, especially in dim light and with action subjects (the EVF will flicker when you pan the camera to track the action). But the new generation of EVFs is much better than earlier versions, and a simple device like the Hoodman HoodLoupe can make using an external LCD monitor in bright light much easier (with DSLRs, too!). For long-lens work, a DSLR is better, though—holding a tiny camera with a big lens at arm’s length isn’t the steadiest method.

Have you ever fumbled around trying to set your DSLR for Live View mode while the moment was rapidly vanishing? All the mirrorless cameras are in Live View mode all the time—no need to fumble with anything. Of course, with a DSLR, you can pick the camera up and “scout” potential shots through the lens without switching the camera on; with a mirrorless camera, you can see an image only when the camera is on.

The external LCD monitor can be an advantage for high- and low-angle shooting, especially with the cameras that have tilting LCD monitors (Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-G2 and DMC-GH1, and Sony’s NEX-3 and NEX-5). A few DSLRs with Live View capability have tilting LCD monitors, too (Nikon’s D5000, Olympus’ E-3, E-30 and E-620, and Sony’s
DSLR-A330, A380, A500 and A550).

The phase-detection AF systems in DSLRs are better for action subjects than the contrast-based systems in the mirrorless cameras (although the contrast-based systems in many mirrorless models are quicker than the contrast-based systems employed by DSLRs for Live View operation). If you want to capture birds in flight or sports action, a DSLR—not in Live View mode—is a better choice.

But the mirrorless cameras are much smaller and lighter than DSLRs, meaning you can carry them conveniently where it wouldn’t be easy to take a DSLR, or where having a conspicuous camera isn’t desirable. And thus, the mirrorless cameras can get you some photos that you’d miss if you just had a DSLR.

All of the mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras except the original Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 (recently replaced by the G2) provide HD video capability. There are currently only six DSLRs in the same price range with HD video capability (five higher-end DSLRs also offer video, but cost much more than the mirrorless cameras). Video lets you capture the motion and sound of the outdoors, as well as those magical, frozen moments—action at a bird’s nest or watering hole, roaring rapids and waterfalls, a deer scampering across a meadow and much more.

Along with a host of DSLR features and modes, mirrorless cameras offer some features DSLRs don’t provide. Panasonic’s new Lumix DMC-G2 has a touch-screen LCD monitor that makes it easy to operate the camera without searching for buttons and dials. Sony’s NEX-3 and NEX-5 offer Sony’s Sweep Panorama, which allows you to create a stitched panoramic image in-camera merely by sweeping the camera horizontally or vertically across a scene. Panasonic offers the Lumix G Vario HD 14-140mm zoom for Micro Four Thirds System cameras, which is designed for video with a silent focusing motor—and which can’t be used on Four Thirds System DSLRs.

Bottom line: Many outdoor photographers will be best served by having both a DSLR and a mirrorless, interchangeable-lens camera. The mirrorless camera provides the same image quality as a DSLR of equivalent sensor size and pixel count, but in a much more compact package.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Sensor Size
Mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras have DSLR-sized image sensors. Those from Olympus and Panasonic have 17.3×13.0mm Four Thirds System sensors, while those from Samsung and Sony have 23.4×15.6mm APS-C sensors, the size used in many popular entry- and mid-level DSLRs. By comparison, typical higher-end compact digital cameras have sensors one-fifth to one-eighth that size.

The significance of these numbers is this: Smaller sensors can make for smaller cameras (although Sony’s APS-C-format NEX-3 and NEX-5 are currently the smallest mirrorless models). But bigger sensors have more room for more pixels of a given size, or larger pixels for a given pixel count. And all things considered, more pixels, and larger pixels, are better. More pixels mean the ability to make bigger prints before the eye can make out the pixels, as well as the ability to picture finer detail. Larger pixels mean more light-gathering efficiency, which translates to better low-light and high-ISO performance. The mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras produce far better image quality than the compact digital cameras, especially at higher ISO settings: true DSLR image quality.

Another important facet of sensor size is its effect on a lens’ field of view. Smaller sensors crop into the image produced by any given lens, creating a “telephoto” effect. Camera manufacturers list a focal-length factor for their digital cameras based on the sensor’s field of view vs. a “full-frame” 35mm image frame’s field of view. A full-frame DSLR frames just like a 35mm SLR; the focal-length factor for full-frame sensors is 1.0x. An APS-C sensor crops in on the image formed by the lens such that it covers the field of view of a lens 1.5x longer on a 35mm camera; hence, its 1.5x factor (Canon’s slightly smaller APS-C sensors have a 1.6x factor, Sigma’s, a 1.7x factor). The even smaller Four Thirds sensor has a 2x factor: A 100mm lens on a Four Thirds (or Micro Four Thirds) System camera frames like a 200mm lens on a 35mm camera.

This is great for sports and wildlife photographers, who seldom can get close enough to subjects for dramatic frame-filling shots: All your lenses are, in effect, 1.5x, 1.6x, 1.7x or 2x “longer.” It’s not so good for wide-angle landscape photographers, whose wide-angle lenses also become “longer” and less wide-angle: A 24mm lens on an APS-C camera frames more like a 40mm lens on a 35mm camera; a 24mm lens on a Four Thirds (or Micro Four Thirds) System camera frames like a 48mm lens on a 35mm camera.

Mirrorless Camera Sensor Sizes

(Micro Four Thirds vs. Four Thirds vs. APS-C)

You can see the relative sizes of APS-C and Four Thirds/Micro Four Thirds image sensors. These are the image sensors that dominate the mirrorless category. To date, there are no mirrorless cameras with “full-frame” image sensors.

When you first hear the term “Micro Four Thirds System,” you may think the sensor is smaller than the sensor used in regular Four Thirds System cameras. Actually, it’s exactly the same size: 17.3×13.0mm. The “Micro” comes from the camera size, not the sensor: Micro Four Thirds System cameras are smaller than Four Thirds System DSLRs, largely because the former lacks the latter’s bulky mirror boxes, focusing screens and pentaprism or pentamirror viewfinders. Doing away with the mirror box means the distance between the lens mount and the image sensor can be decreased and, in fact, that distance in Micro Four Thirds System cameras is half that in regular Four Thirds System cameras, making for much slimmer bodies. Reducing this “flange back” distance also allows the lens-mount diameter to be shrunk some 6mm, which also makes for smaller camera bodies—and lenses.

In theory, the smaller sensors in the Micro Four Thirds cameras should allow for smaller cameras, but not quite as good image quality, while the larger APS-C sensors in the Samsung and Sony mirrorless cameras should produce better image quality, but slightly bigger cameras. In practice, the Four Thirds cameras produce excellent image quality (and the APS-C-format Sony NEX-5 we’re testing is at least as good, so far), and the Sony APS-C models are the smallest mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras out there as of this writing. Your decision should be based on how comfortable a given camera is for you to operate and how its feature set and lens selection mesh with your shooting needs, rather than on whether it’s a Micro Four Thirds model or an APS-C model.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Lenses For Mirrorless Cameras
Micro Four Thirds System cameras have a good selection of lenses available, from a 7-14mm zoom to a 45-200mm zoom, which are equivalent to 14-28mm and 90-400mm zooms on a 35mm camera. And these lenses are much smaller than equivalent lenses for DSLRs. You can use a Four Thirds mount adapter to attach regular Four Thirds System lenses if you need more “reach”: Olympus’ 70-300mm ƒ/4.0-5.6 zoom is equivalent to 140-600mm on a 35mm camera, and Sigma’s 300-800mm ƒ/5.6 “Sigmonster” is equivalent to a 600-1600mm zoom on a 35mm camera! Although that may be a bit much for such tiny camera bodies, it’s still 1600mm! Adapters also are available to attach other popular-mount lenses to Micro Four Thirds System cameras. Bear in mind that some of the non-Micro Four Thirds lenses aren’t compatible with the cameras’ contrast-based AF systems and will have to be focused manually.

Samsung’s NX10 uses a new NX mount. Three NX-mount lenses were introduced with the camera: a 30mm ƒ/2 “pancake” lens, an 18-55mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 MEGA O.I.S. stabilized kit zoom and a 50-200mm ƒ/4-5.6 MEGA O.I.S. stabilized telezoom. With the APS-C sensor’s 1.5x “crop” factor, these provide focal lengths equivalent to 27mm through 300mm on a 35mm camera. More lenses are in the works, including a 60mm ƒ/2.8 macro, but they’re all expected to be within the 18mm through 200mm focal-length range.

Sony’s new NEX cameras use a new Sony E mount, and the initial E-lens lineup consists of a 16mm ƒ/2.8 “pancake” lens and an 18-55mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 OSS stabilized kit zoom. The Alpha NEX Camera Mount Adapter will allow users to attach existing A-mount lenses for Sony DSLRs. Sony’s A-mount lenses range in focal length from an 11-18mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 zoom to a 500mm ƒ/8 Reflex (mirror) lens, providing 35mm-camera-equivalent focal lengths from 16.5mm through 750mm, including macro lenses and some excellent albeit bulky Carl Zeiss lenses. Note that the adapter does not provide autofocusing capability.

While the mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras aren’t pocketable when the larger lenses are attached, special flat “pancake” lenses are available for all of them, which keep size down: Olympus’ M.Zuiko 17mm ƒ/2.8, Panasonic’s Lumix G 20mm ƒ/1.7, Samsung’s 30mm ƒ/2.0 and Sony’s E-mount 16mm ƒ/2.8.

Olympus Pen E-P1
The first of the “flat,” mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras, the E-P1 was inspired by Olympus’ “Pen” 35mm cameras of the mid-20th century. Its stylish design won many fans (and sales) early on, and its feature set didn’t hurt: 12.3-megapixel, Four Thirds-format High Speed Live MOS sensor, built-in sensor-shift image stabilization with all lenses and sensor-dust removal system, 3.0-inch, 230,000-dot LCD monitor, a full complement of auto and manual shooting features and more. The E-P1 can shoot 1280×720 HD video and 640×480 SD video, both at 30 fps, with stereo sound via a built-in microphone (Olympus is a big name in audio recording, too). Six Creative Art Filters let you add such effects as Soft Focus and Grainy Film to both JPEG and RAW images in-camera. As a Micro Four Thirds System camera, the E-P1 can use all Micro Four Thirds System lenses and (via adapters) Four Thirds System and other lenses. ISO settings range from 100 to 6400. Dimensions: 4.7×2.8×1.3 inches. Weight: 11.8 ounces. List Price: $799 (with 14-42mm zoom).

Olympus E-P2
Featuring a stylish and rugged, retro-style, “flat” body like the E-P1, the E-P2 comes in a more discreet black color that may be less conspicuous when trying to approach photogenic critters in the wild. The E-P2 also has a 12.3-megapixel, High Speed Live MOS sensor with ISO settings up to 6400. It can do 1280x720p HD and 640x480p SD video at 30 fps, with stereo sound, but—unlike the E-P1—slows you to set shutter speeds and apertures manually. Like the E-P1, the E-P2 has built-in sensor-shift stabilization that works with all lenses, a sensor-dust removal system and a 3.0-inch, 230,000-dot LCD monitor (an optional detachable eye-level EVF is available, too), and can use all Micro Four Thirds System lenses, plus (via adapter) regular Four Thirds System and other lenses. The E-P2 features eight Creative Art Filters, adding Diorama and Cross Process to the E-P1’s six filters. As with the E-P1, you can display one image on the LCD monitor and record another over it. Dimensions: 4.7×2.8×1.4 inches. Weight: 11.1 ounces. List Price: $1,099 (with 14-42mm zoom and EVF).

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Olympus E-PL1
The lowest-priced member of Olympus’ “flat,” mirrorless, interchangeable-lens triumvirate, the E-PL1 is probably better suited to the compact-camera user moving up than to the DSLR user. It’s simple to operate in point-and-shoot mode, but harder to set things manually than with the E-P1 and E-P2. The E-PL1 does have an advantage over its stainless-steel brethren: a built-in flash unit. It also—like the E-P2, but unlike the E-P1—accepts an accessory eye-level electronic viewfinder, a boon to the DSLR user. Features include a 12.3-megapixel, High Speed Live MOS sensor, Supersonic Wave Filter sensor-dust remover and sensor-shift image stabilization with all lenses, a 2.7-inch, 230,000-dot LCD monitor, ISO settings from 200 to 3200, six Creative Art Filters, and the ability to shoot 1280×720/30p HD and 640×480/30p SD video (with a button to enter movie mode directly). Dimensions: 4.5×2.8×1.6 inches. Weight: 10.4 ounces. List Price: $599.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1
The second Micro Four Thirds System camera (the first was the DMC-G1, recently replaced by the DMC-G2), the DMC-GH1 features a “mini-DSLR” form factor, with a built-in, eye-level electronic viewfinder to complement its free-angle 3.0-inch, 460,000-dot LCD monitor. It features a quicker-than-usual, contrast-based AF system that functions in video as well as still shooting, including continuous AF for moving wildlife subjects. The GH1 can shoot 1920×1080/60i video in AVCHD format, 1280×720/60p video and 640×480/30p and 320×240/30p video, as well. Other features include a 12.1-megapixel, Live MOS image sensor, built-in pop-up flash (a more powerful accessory flash unit also is available), ISO settings from 100 to 3200, stereo sound via a built-in microphone, plus a jack for an external stereo mic and a sensor-dust removal system. There’s no built-in, sensor-shift image stabilization, but a number of the lenses feature MEGA O.I.S. optical stabilization. Dimensions: 4.9×3.3×1.8 inches. Weight: 13.6 ounces. List Price: $1,499 (with 14-140mm zoom).

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G2
The new DMC-G2 features a 3.0-inch, 460,000-dot, free-angle LCD monitor like the GH1, but the G2’s also is a touch-screen that lets you set camera functions and even trip the shutter merely by touching the appropriate icon on the screen. There’s also a high-resolution (1,440,000-dot), quick-refresh, eye-level EVF. The G2 can shoot 1280×720/60p video in AVCHD Lite format and 1280×720/30p, 848×480/30p and 640×480/30p video in QuickTime Motion JPEG format. The 12.1-megapixel Live MOS sensor is complemented by a new Venus Engine HD II with more processing power and better noise reduction. ISOs run from 100 to 6400. A built-in microphone records mono sound, and there’s a jack for an external stereo mic. Like all Micro Four Thirds System cameras, the G2 can use all Micro Four Thirds System lenses, plus other lenses via adapters. There’s a built-in pop-up flash, and a more powerful external flash is available. Dimensions: 4.9×3.3×2.9 inches. Weight: 13.1 ounces. List Price: $799.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G10
Introduced with the G2, the G10 shares the G2’s compact dimensions, 12.1-megapixel, Live MOS sensor and Venus Engine HD II processing, and built-in pop-up flash unit. The basic differences: The economy-model G10’s 3.0-inch, 460,000-dot LCD monitor doesn’t swivel or provide touch-screen features, its built-in, eye-level EVF provides lower resolution, and it lacks the G2’s AVCHD video format (top video format is 1280×720/30p Motion JPEG). Like the G2, the G10 offers a built-in, sensor-dust-removal system, compatibility with SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards and 3.2 fps shooting (with Live View off; 2.3 fps in Live View). Dimensions: 4.9×3.3×2.9 inches. Weight: 11.9 ounces. List Price: $1,499 (with 14-140mm zoom; $599 alone).

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1
Panasonic’s only “flat” form-factor, mirrorless, interchangeable-lens model, the GF1 basically combines features from Panasonic’s “mini-DSLR” models in an even more compact package. There’s a 12.1-megapixel, Live MOS sensor, a 3.0-inch, 460,000-dot LCD monitor (nonswiveling), a built-in pop-up flash unit (a more powerful accessory unit also is available), quick contrast-based AF, an optional clip-on eye-level electronic viewfinder, ISO settings from 100 to 3200, shooting up to 3 fps, and compatibility with SD/SDHC (but not new SDXC) memory cards. You can shoot 1280×720/60p video in AVCHD Lite format, or 1280×720/30p, 848×480/30p, 640×480/30p and 320×240/30p video in Motion JPEG format. Sound is mono via a built-in microphone. Dimensions: 4.7×2.8×1.4 inches. Weight: 10.1 ounces. List Price: $899 (with 14-145mm zoom).

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Samsung NX10
Samsung’s mirrorless, interchangeable-lens model is the NX10, which has the familiar look and feel of a DSLR, but is much smaller despite its APS-C-format, 14.6-megapixel Samsung CMOS image sensor. That’s largely thanks to replacing the bulky SLR mirror box and pentaprism finder with a high-resolution, eye-level electronic viewfinder. The NX10 also features a 3.0-inch, 614,000-dot AMOLED (Active-Matrix Organic Light-Emitting Diode) monitor, which uses much less power than conventional LCD monitors, has a faster refresh rate and higher contrast, and provides easy viewing in all light. The NX10 can do 1280×720/30p HD video and 640×480/30p and 320×240/30p SD video, all in MPEG-4 (H.264) format, with mono sound. Features include a built-in flash unit, built-in sensor-dust remover, shooting up to 3 fps and ISO settings from 100 to 3200. The NX10 takes NX-mount lenses, of which there are currently three, but more are on the way. Dimensions: 4.8×3.4×1.6 inches. Weight: 12.4 ounces. List Price: $699 (with 18-55mm zoom).

Sony Alpha NEX-3
The NEX-5 “kid brother,” the NEX-3 offers just about all the same fine features (including the 14.2-megapixel, APS-C-format CMOS image sensor, 7 fps shooting, ISO settings to 12,800, 3.0-inch, 921,000-dot tilting LCD monitor, Sweep Panorama mode, Auto HDR mode, Dynamic Range Optimizer, simple operation and more). The main differences are the NEX-3 doesn’t provide the NEX-5’s 1920×1080/60i AVCHD video format or the NEX-5’s magnesium-alloy front fascia. Both models lack a built-in flash unit, but come with a detachable flash; neither has an eye-level EVF (nor is one available as an accessory). Both cameras feature a new electronic E lens mount and can take new Sony E-mount lenses. Lenses for Sony’s Alpha DSLRs also can be used via adapter, but with manual focusing only. Dimensions: 4.4×2.4×1.5 inches. Weight: 8.1 ounces. List Price: $599 (with 18-55mm zoom).

Sony Alpha NEX-5
The tiny and stylish NEX-5 has lots going for it, including a new 14.2-megapixel Sony APS-C CMOS sensor, a 3.0-inch, 921,000-dot LCD monitor that tilts for easy high- and low-angle shooting, the ability to shoot full-res images at 7 fps (with focus and exposure locked), ISO settings from 200 to 12,800, and slots for both Sony Memory Stick PRO Duo and SD/SDHC/SDXC media. It can shoot 1920×1080/60i AVCHD video, 1440×1080/30p HD video and 640×480/30p SD video. A turn-and-click wheel and two soft keys make design and operation simple. There also are such outdoor-oriented features as Sweep Panorama (press the shutter button and sweep the camera horizontally or vertically to produce in-camera stitched panoramas), Dynamic Range Optimizer (to tame high-contrast scenes), Handheld Twilight mode (combines data from six shots made in rapid succession to minimize blur) and Auto HDR. Dimensions: 4.4×2.4×1.5 inches. Weight: 8.1 ounces. List Price: $699 (with 18-55mm zoom and clip-on flash unit).

The Leica Factor

Leica’s superb and costly M9 and M8.2 digital rangefinder models qualify as “mirrorless, interchangeable-lens” cameras, but they’re in a whole different category. For one thing, they’re rangefinder models, with precision wide-base rangefinder manual focusing. For another, you could buy all of the other mirrorless, interchangeable-lens models, with their standard lenses, for less than the price of an M9 and its lowest-cost lens. But the Leicas are the ultimate “connoisseur” cameras in the category. The M9 features a full-frame 18-megapixel sensor, and the M8.2 has an APS-H (1.3x focal-length factor) 10.3-megapixel sensor, both CCDs.

Basically, these cameras are classic Leica M-series rangefinders, with digital sensors in place of the 35mm film mechanisms. They use the same quality lenses and feature the same rugged construction and smooth, silent operation that built Leica’s reputation, but shoot digital images instead of negatives and slides. Focusing is manual-only, as is advance (the accessory Leica Motor M drive can’t be used with the digital M cameras).