Mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras came into being because many felt that DSLRs were too bulky to carry around much of the time. The idea was to provide DSLR image quality in a noticeably smaller, lighter package. This was done by putting DSLR image sensors into smaller bodies, and that was done either by using a flat, compact point-and-shoot camera form factor or by removing the mirror box and prism finder from a DSLR-style form factor, replacing the latter with an electronic viewfinder.
Most of the early mirrorless cameras were aimed mainly at people moving up from a point-and-shoot, who wanted the flexibility of interchangeable lenses and the boost in image quality inherent in larger sensors. Today, though, there are mirrorless models aimed squarely at the DSLR user—cameras that can do almost everything a DSLR can do, and often more. About the only place in outdoor photography these top mirrorless cameras might fall short is bird-in-flight photography (the AF systems aren't quite there yet for that, the electronic viewfinders aren't ideal for tracking quick, erratically moving birds, and the native lenses aren't long enough). But for landscapes, flowers, street photography and wildlife other than birds, mirrorless cameras can easily hold their own—if not beat DSLRs—and the compact mirrorless systems are much easier to cart around to wherever you're going to shoot.
The main difference between the "mini-DSLR"-style mirrorless cameras and actual DSLRs (besides the latter's greater bulk) is the electronic viewfinder (EVF) that replaces the DSLR's optical viewfinder. The EVF shows you the image produced by the image sensor, as it will be recorded, allowing you to see the effects of white balance, exposure compensation, special effects and the like live in the viewfinder. EVFs also can display more information, including histograms and focus peaking (which highlights in-focus edges in the image for easier manual focusing), and you can zoom the image to really examine it. (Of course, all this applies to the external LCD monitor, too, but the EVF provides it with the camera held comfortably up to your eye for stable shooting, especially with long lenses.) EVFs also provide more eyepiece dioptric correction—where you might need glasses with your DSLR, you might not with an EVF camera. Some EVFs (and external LCD monitors) can tilt and rotate, making for easy selfies and low- or high-angle shooting—an SLR finder doesn't do that.
Of course, another way of looking at it is that what the EVF shows is essentially a relatively low-res video on a half-inch screen, while a DSLR finder shows the image from the lens with no electronic interference. DSLR optical finders are always on, and don't drain the camera's battery. Longtime DSLR (and film SLR) users will need some time to get used to an EVF, but many have come to prefer the EVF for the benefits noted. Unless you're a bird-in-flight specialist, you probably should be more concerned about other camera features than whether a potential camera purchase has an EVF or an optical SLR finder.
Fujifilm's only "mini-DSLR"-style mirrorless model, the flagship X-T1 is based around the company's unique X-Trans CMOS II image sensor, which differs from conventional Bayer arrays by using a more random arrangement that positions red, green and blue pixels in every horizontal and vertical row. This minimizes moiré and false colors, allowing Fujifilm to do away with the sharpness-robbing optical low-pass filter required by most Bayer-sensor cameras. The 16.3-megapixel X-Trans CMOS II, introduced in the X-E2, incorporates more than 100,000 phase-detection pixels for quicker autofocusing in good light (the camera automatically switches to contrast-based AF in dim light). The body is made of die-cast magnesium, with milled aluminum dials and extensive weather sealing. The camera can function in temps as cold as -10° C.
Featuring "the world's highest magnification" (0.77X, 35mm equivalent) for a digital camera, the X-T1's 2360K-dot OLED EVF has a superquick lag time of just 0.005 seconds, with four display modes. Digital Split Image and focus peaking make manual focusing easy. There's also a tilting, 3.0-inch, 1040K-dot LCD monitor. The X-T1 can shoot at 8 fps with focus tracking (3 fps with full-time Live View). It's also the first compact system camera (CSC) that's compatible with SDXC UHS-II memory cards, with data writing in continuous mode that's about twice as fast as that of a conventional SD card. This also helps with video, as the X-T1 can do both 720 HD and 1080 full HD at 60p, as well as 30p.
One-touch WiFi connection makes it quick and easy to transfer images to a smartphone or computer, and geotag images (via the smartphone's GPS). Using the Fujifilm Camera Remote App, you even can operate the camera from your smartphone or tablet.
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A recent firmware update (ver.3.00) includes some features of particular interest to outdoor photographers (in the X-T1 Graphite Silver edition only): Natural Live View, which makes the EVF image look "real"; 1/32,000 electronic shutter (handy when trying to shoot a fast lens wide open for selective-focus effects in daylight); and Completely Silent Electronic Shutter (useful when you don't want to disturb nearby wildlife).
Currently, 18 X-mount lenses are available, from 14mm to 50-230mm, with five WR weather-resistant models. The optional VG-XT1 vertical battery grip is also weather-sealed. The body measures 5.0x3.5x1.8 inches and weighs 13.7 ounces. Estimated Street Price: $1,199.95. www.fujifilmusa.com
Olympus OM-D E-M1
Olympus offers three "mini-DSLR"-style cameras (four, with the recentintroduction of the OM-D E-M5 Mark II, successor to the original E-M5, Olympus' first mirrorless camera with a mini-DSLR form factor). Despite the new camera's sensor-shift high-resolution mode, the E-M1 remains the flagship.
The E-M1 introduced a new 16.3-megapixel Live MOS image sensor with no low-pass filter, providing on-chip DUAL FAST AF, with 37-point phase-detection AF used when a Four Thirds System lens is attached and 81-point contrast AF when a Micro Four Thirds lens is attached. (When continuous AF is selected with an MFT lens, both systems work together to improve tracking performance.) A TruePic VII image processor with Fine Detail Processing II technology optimizes image quality for still images and video.
Olympus' excellent 5-axis sensor-shift image-stabilization system compensates for yaw, pitch, roll, and vertical and horizontal shift, and works with all lenses. (The Panasonic GH4, Fujifilm X-T1 and Samsung NX1 don't have in-body sensor-shift stabilization, instead relying on stabilizers in some of their lenses.) The E-M1's magnesium-alloy body is dust-, splash- and freeze-proof. Built-in WiFi lets you upload images to your smartphone wirelessly, operate the camera from your smartphone and geotag images using the smartphone's GPS.
A big electronic viewfinder features 2.36 million dots and 1.48X (0.74X 35mm-camera equivalent) magnification, with a 0.029-second display time lag. There's also a 3.0-inch, 1037K-dot tilting touch-screen LCD monitor. For manual focusing, focus peaking is available. The E-M1 can shoot at 10 fps (6.5 fps with continuous AF), and a big buffer lets you shoot up to 41 RAW or 95 JPEG images in H advance mode. Video capabilities include 1080p, 720p and 640x480, all at 30 fps. Sound is stereo via built-in or external mic. You can record in MOV or AVI format. Other features include 12 Art Filters, 8 Art Effects, in-camera HDR, an intervalometer and multiple-exposure capability.
Like all Micro Four Thirds System cameras, the E-M1 can use all MFT lenses. Olympus currently offers 20, from a 9mm fisheye and 9-18mm superwide zoom to a 75-300mm supertele (with the MFT sensor's 2X focal-length factor, this provides focal lengths equivalent to 18mm through 600mm on a 35mm camera). Also, just about any lens for which an adapter is available can be used on MFT cameras, with manual focusing. The HLD-7 vertical grip provides easy vertical-format shooting, and holds an extra battery for added shooting capacity. The body measures 5.1x3.7x2.5 inches and weighs 15.6 ounces. Estimated Street Price: $1,299.99. www.getolympus.com
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4
Panasonic's first mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera (and the first mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera on the market) was a "mini-DSLR" type, the G1. Since then, Panasonic has produced more mini-DSLR models than anyone. The most recent is the flagship Lumix DMC-GH4, which combines excellent video and still capabilities.
The 16.05-megapixel Digital Live MOS sensor and Venus Engine with quad-core CPU make possible 4K video—4096x2160 cinema 4K at 24 fps and 3840x2160 QFHD 4K at 30 fps in MOV/MP4 format. Files are stored on SD/SDHC/SDXC media; Panasonic recommends UHS Speed Class 3 for 4K video (the camera can shoot 200 Mbps All-Intra or 100 Mbps IPB). The GH4 can stream real-time 4:2:2 8- or 10-bit video to an external monitor or recorder like the optional DMW-YAGH pro audio-video interface unit. The camera can also do 1080p full HD video at 60, 30 and 24 fps, as well as 720p HD and 640x480 SD video. A 2359K-dot OLED electronic viewfinder provides convenient eye-level operation for both still and video (with 1.34X magnification, equivalent to 0.67X on a full-frame camera), while the free-angle 3.0-inch, 1036K-dot OLED touch-screen monitor makes for easy odd-angle shooting.
As a still camera, the GH4 can deliver 14-bit RAW, as well as JPEGs, at 16 megapixels, at up to 12 fps (in AFS mode) or 7.5 fps with continuous autofocusing. Using the electronic shutter, shooting rates as high as 40 fps are possible. Normal ISO range is 200-25,600, with 100 also available in expanded mode. Quick contrast-based AF featuring DFD (Depth from Defocus) technology is available for both still and video shooting, with focus as quick as 0.07 seconds.
Built-in WiFi with NFC provides easy connection to your smartphone or tablet, and the Panasonic Image App lets you operate the camera remotely from your smart device and even embed geotagging data in an image after shooting.
Like all Micro Four Thirds System cameras, the GH4 can use all MFT lenses. Panasonic offers 22, from an 8mm fisheye to a 100-300mm supertelephoto (with the MFT sensor's 2X focal-length factor, this provides focal lengths equivalent to 16mm through 600mm on a 35mm camera). The optional LED1 video light and BGGH3 battery grip add versatility.
The rugged die-cast magnesium-alloy body is splash- and dustproof, and the shutter has been tested to 200,000 cycles. Mechanical shutter speeds run from 60 to 1⁄8000 sec., with flash sync up to 1⁄250 sec. The body measures 5.2x3.7x3.3 inches and weighs 16.9 ounces. Estimated Street Price: $1,499.99. shop.panasonic.com
Samsung has been making "mini-DSLR"-style mirrorless cameras (as well as "flat-style" ones) for quite some time. Their new flagship NX1 features the highest-pixel-count APS-C sensor, and the only backside-illuminated one, a 28.2-megapixel unit that gave it the top score among APS-C mirrorless cameras in DxOMark.com's sensor ratings. BSI puts the wiring on one side of the sensor and the light-sensitive elements on the other for a better fill factor—and better image quality. Samsung's 14-bit DRIMe V processing also enhances image quality.
The NX1 can do 4K video, 3840x2160 UHD 4K at 30 fps directly to the SD card in the camera, no external recorder needed, and 4096x2160 4K at 24 fps to an external recorder. The NX can also do 1080 full HD, 1280x720 HD and 640x480 SD at 60, 30 and 24 fps, saving to a card or an external device. There's a built-in stereo microphone, plus jacks for an external mic and headphones.
The hybrid NX AF System III features 205 on-sensor phase-detection points (153 of them cross-type), plus 209 contrast-detection points, working together to bring you the speed of PDAF and the accuracy of CDAF. A 221-segment TTL metering system, ISO settings from 100-25,600 (expandable to 51,200) and shutter speeds from 30 to 1⁄8000 sec. (with flash sync up to 1⁄250 sec.) provide lots of exposure control. The NX1 can shoot at up to 15 fps.
A 3.0-inch, 1036K-dot tilting touch-screen Super AMOLED monitor complements the 2360K-dot XGA OLED eye-level electronic viewfinder. It's all contained in a durable, weather- and dust-resistant magnesium-alloy body. The 16-50mm ƒ/2-2.8 S kit zoom also features a splash- and dust-resistant design and has an ultraprecise stepping AF motor.
Built-in WiFi and Bluetooth, with easy connection via NFC, make it simple to transfer images wirelessly to a smartphone or tablet, or geotag images using the smartphone's GPS. With USB 3, there's superquick wired transfer of images.
Like all NX-system cameras, the NX1 can use all NX lenses; there's currently 17, from a 10mm fisheye and 12-24mm superwide zoom to 18-200mm and 50-200mm zooms. The body measures 5.5x4.0x2.7 inches and weighs 19.4 ounces. Estimated Street Price: $1,299.99; $2,499.99 (16-50mm ƒ/2-2.8 S zoom, battery grip, extra battery, charging cradle). www.samsung.com
Sony a7 Mark II
Sony has been producing mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras since 2010, but it was in 2013 that they shook up the mirrorless world by introducing the first full-frame model—two, actually—the 24-megapixel a7 and 36-megapixel a7R. In spring 2014, Sony added the low-light/4K video specialist a7S model, and now have introduced the successor to that first a7 model, the 24.3-megapixel a7 Mark II. It's state of the art, and brings full-frame into our price category.
The a7 Mark II is the first full-frame camera with 5-axis SteadyShot INSIDE sensor-shift image stabilization, which compensates not only for up-down and left-right camera shake, but also pitch, yaw and roll. This feature works with all lenses, and even in conjunction with stabilization built into Sony OSS lenses, but note that with some lenses, especially manual-focus third-party lenses, you don't get all five axes of stabilization.
Like the original a7, the a7 Mark II's Hybrid AF system uses 117 on-sensor phase-detection AF points (77 in APS-C mode) and 25 contrast-detect AF points, but it features new algorithms that makes it 30% faster and 1.5X more accurate than the original a7's. AF and auto exposure are provided during the camera's fastest 5 fps shooting rate. The a7 Mark II also starts up 40% faster than the original a7.
The Sony Bionz X processor allows for enhanced video capability, including 1920x1080 at 60p and 50 Mbps using the fast XAVC S codec, Picture profiles and Sony's S-Log2 gamma for wide dynamic range. The 2359K OLED EVF provides easy eye-level viewing for stills and video, while the 3.0-inch, 1229K-dot LCD monitor tilts 107° up and 41° down, and provides manual-focus peaking and video zebras.
All of the a7 cameras share the same compact "mini-DSLR" form factor, and take Sony FE-mount full-frame lenses (of which there are currently 10, from a 16-35mm ƒ/4 to a 24-240mm ƒ/3.5-6.3, with more on the way). You can also use E-mount (NEX) lenses, but they were designed for APS-C sensors and will vignette (you can set the camera to crop to APS-C format automatically when an E lens is mounted to avoid this). You can also use Sony A-mount DSLR lenses via the LA-EA2 and LA-EA4 adapters (the latter has a built-in PDAF system featuring Sony's TMT semitranslucent mirror technology), and just about any other lens for which an adapter is available. The body measures 5.0x3.8x2.4 inches and weighs 19.6 ounces. Estimated Street Price: $1,499.99. store.sony.com