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Five years ago, if you wanted to travel light, you had to choose between a DSLR and a compact digital camera. The former offered great image quality and versatility, but were much larger and more costly. The compacts were easy to carry, but suffered in terms of versatility and image quality. Then, along came a new breed: the mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera. By doing away with the DSLR’s bulky and complex moving SLR mirror, mirror box and pentaprism or pentamirror viewfinder, manufacturers were able to produce much smaller cameras, yet retain DSLR-size image sensors and, thus, DSLR image quality.
The first mirrorless models were Micro Four Thirds (MFT) cameras from Panasonic and Olympus featuring the same 17.3×13.0mm-sensor format used in Four Thirds system DSLRs. These were soon followed by models from Sony (NEX series) and Samsung (NX series), then Fujifilm (X-Pro1 and X-E1), Pentax (K-01) and Canon (EOS M) featuring even larger 25.6×15.6mm (roughly) APS-C sensors. Nikon joined the fray with its Nikon 1 series (J1, J2, V1 and V2) with smaller CX (13.2×8.8mm) sensors and extremely quick shooting; Pentax offers the smallest mirrorless interchangeable-lens models of all, the Q and Q10, designed around 6.2×4.6mm sensors.
As the number of models increased, the mirrorless cameras rapidly gained popularity with consumers as higher-quality alternatives to all-in-one digital compacts, and with more serious shooters as second take-everywhere cameras. But today’s mirrorless models actually can serve as primary cameras for outdoor photographers, delivering DSLR image quality, DSLR control and versatility, quick frame rates (albeit sometimes with focus locked at the first frame) and even complete systems.
Mirrorless cameras come in two basic form factors: “mini-DSLR” and “flat.” The former—exemplified by Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-GH3 and G5, Olympus’ OM-D E-M5 and Samsung’s NX20—look like tiny DSLRs, and can be held the same way, viewing via a built-in eye-level electronic viewfinder (EVF). The latter look and operate like consumer all-in-one digital cameras, but take interchangeable lenses and in some cases have built-in eye-level EVFs; these are more “pocketable” than the “mini-DSLRs.” Both styles can produce excellent image quality; which one you choose will depend on your preferred method of shooting (camera to your eye or held at arm’s length).
|Canon EOS M, Olympus OM-D E-M5, Sony NEX-5R, Nikon 1 V2, Fujifilm X-Pro1|
While the first mirrorless models offered minimal lens lines, today those have expanded considerably. Mirrorless pioneers Olympus and Panasonic offer 10 and 17 lenses, respectively, and since their mirrorless cameras are all MFT models, they can use all of those lenses. This provides users with “native” focal lengths equivalent to 14mm to 600mm on a 35mm camera. Olympus also offers an adapter to use Four Thirds-mount lenses on MFT cameras, and Panasonic has adapters to use Leica M and R lenses on MFT cameras.
Sony offers 11 E-mount lenses for its NEX cameras, from a 10-18mm fisheye zoom and a 16mm superwide-angle to a 55-210mm supertele, for a 35mm-equivalent focal-length range of 15mm to 315mm. There are also two adapters that allow use of Sony A-mount (and legacy Konica Minolta) DSLR lenses; Sony’s LA-EA2 adapter incorporates a quick phase-detection AF system like the one in Sony’s SLT-A65 translucent-mirror DSLR and, thus, provides quick phase-detection AF with those lenses on the NEX cameras. Nikon offers six lenses for its Nikon 1 J1/2 and V1/2 mirrorless cameras, as well as the FT1 Mount Adapter, which allows use of F-mount Nikon DSLR and SLR lenses. The six Nikon 1 lenses range from a 10mm to 30-110mm zoom, equivalent to 27mm through 297mm with a 35mm camera.
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3
Pentax offers six lenses for its tiny Q and Q10 mirrorless models (providing 35mm-equivalent focal lengths of 17.5mm to 249mm), plus an adapter that permits use of the wide range of Pentax K-mount SLR lenses. Pentax’s K-01 mirrorless model takes K-mount lenses, no adapter needed; current AF lenses range from a 10-17mm fish-eye zoom and 12-24mm superwide zoom to a 560mm supertelephoto, for 35mm-equivalent focal lengths of 15mm to 840mm.
Canon currently provides two EF-M-mount lenses for its EOS M mirrorless model, 22mm and 18-55mm, but the Mount Adapter EF-EOS M allows use of all Canon EF and EF-S DSLR lenses—more than 50, ranging from an 8-15mm fisheye zoom and a 10-22mm superwide zoom to an 800mm supertele for 35mm-equivalent focal lengths of 16mm through 1280mm. Samsung offers 10 lenses for its NX mirrorless cameras, plus a K-mount adapter that lets you use the wide range of K-mount lenses on the NX cameras. The NX lenses range from 16mm to 18-200mm, for 35mm-equivalent focal lengths of 24mm to 300mm.
Since mirrorless cameras don’t have the DSLR’s bulky mirror box, they can be much thinner than DSLRs. And the reduced flange-back distance between the lens mount and image plane not only makes for smaller cameras, but it also means you can use just about any lens for which an adapter can be found on just about any mirrorless body. A number of companies offer a wide range of adapters, including Novoflex and Pro-Optic. If you have some lenses for your DSLR, you may be able to use them with your mirrorless camera via such an adapter.
Granted, one of the main reasons for mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras is to reduce camera and lens size, but when you’re hauling gear to out-of-the-way locales over rough terrain, every ounce and cubic inch saved helps. A mirrorless body weighs much less than even an entry-level DSLR, much less a mid-range or pro model, and a kit based around a mirrorless body weighs less and takes up less space than one based around a DSLR body, even if you include a supertele DSLR lens in the kit, because the mirrorless body, its native lenses and accessories are all smaller than their DSLR counterparts.
All mirrorless models provide viewing via their rear LCD or OLED monitors, which can be convenient for landscape and macro shooting. Many offer tilting and even rotating monitors, making odd-angle shooting, such as ground level and above one’s head, simple. Touch-screen monitors let you focus anywhere in the frame merely by touching the desired spot.
For landscape and macro work, the zoomed live-view image is a great aid for manual focusing. Some cameras even provide focus peaking, where in-focus areas are highlighted with colored lines. This works best when the camera is used on a tripod and, yes, mirrorless cameras have tripod sockets like DSLRs. While some may think carting a tripod around negates some of the benefit of the compact mirrorless camera, it’s easier to carry a tripod and a compact camera body/lens system in the field than a tripod and a much bulkier DSLR system.
The external monitors can be hard to see in bright sunlight, and holding the camera at arm’s length with a long lens attached creates stability problems. To provide convenient, eye-level, DSLR-style shooting, more than two-thirds of today’s mirrorless cameras either provide a built-in electronic viewfinder or offer a clip-on one as an optional accessory. Such an eye-level finder is nice for shooting in bright light and essential for handheld long-lens work.
All current mirrorless interchangeable-lens models can record full HD (1080) video, as can most current DSLRs. The main point here is that you probably won’t have your DSLR with you at all times, but a little mirrorless model can be your constant companion, keeping you ready to capture magic moments in still and full HD form. Some mirrorless cameras accept an external stereo microphone for better sound with no camera noises recorded.
The Rest Of The System
All current mirrorless models are powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, and come with a battery and charger. Because mirrorless cameras are always in Live View mode, and often have smaller batteries than DSLRs to keep size down, they don’t get as many shots per charge as DSLRs. So it’s important to buy and carry some spare batteries when you take a mirrorless camera into the field. As with DSLRs, it’s also a good idea to carry extra memory cards; current mirrorless models all use SD/SDHC/SDXC cards, and Sony NEX cameras also take Sony Memory Stick PRO Duo and PRO-HG Duo media. If you intend to shoot video or RAW still images, it’s wise to get the fastest cards available, with a large capacity, because HD video and high-megapixel RAW files take up lots of space.
Most mirrorless cameras have built-in, pop-up flash units, and the few that don’t come with a tiny dedicated unit. Some offer small flash units designed to complement the system, and many of those from the DSLR manufacturers can use the same external flash units as the company’s DSLRs. Some mirrorless models provide wireless TTL flash with multiple units—ideal for macrophotography and lighting nearby night subjects in star-trail shots.
The Olympus OM-D E-M5 and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 are splashproof (as are some, but not all, of their lenses), and underwater housings are available for the OM-D E-M5 and Nikon’s 1 series (J1/J2/V1/V2) and standard 10-30mm zoom—handy if you like to shoot in rainy conditions (or underwater, in the case of the Nikons). Underwater housings are also available for some of Olympus’ PEN mirrorless models, including the new E-PL5.
Samsung’s NX20, NX210 and NX1000, and Sony’s NEX-6 and NEX-5R have built-in WiFi, and you can add it to Olympus mirrorless models via the optional PENPAL unit. This allows wireless transfer of your images from camera to computer or the Internet—useful at your WiFi-compatible motel after a day of shooting in the field while on a multiday road trip.
Most systems offer either wired or wireless remote control, handy to minimize shake in tripod work and for firing the camera from afar to capture elusive critters.
Fujifilm offers handgrips for the X-Pro1 and X-E1, and Panasonic has a battery grip for the new GH3. These provide more comfortable shooting, and in the case of the Panasonic, more battery life. Canon, Nikon and Pentax offer geotagging GPS units for their mirrorless cameras.
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|EVF||Monitor||Max. FPS*||Built-In Flash||Dimensions||Weight||Price**|
|Canon EOS M||18.0 MP CMOS||APS-C||100-12,800||None||3.0-in. 1040K-dot||4.3 (1.7)||No||4.3×2.6×1.3 in.||9.2 oz.||$799**|
|Fujifilm X-Pro1||16.3 MP X-Trans||APS-C||200-6400||Hybrid||3.0-in.1230K-dot||6||No||5.5×3.2×1.7 in.||14.1 oz.||$1,699|
|Fujifilm X-E1||16.3 MP X-Trans||APS-C||200-6400||OLED||2.8-in. 460K-dot||6||Yes||5.1×2.9×1.5 in.||10.6 oz.||$999|
|Nikon 1 J2||10.1 MP CMOS||CX||100-3200||No||3.0-in. 921K-dot||60 (10)||Yes||4.2×2.4×1.2 in.||8.4 oz.||$549**|
|Nikon 1 V2||14.2 MP CMOS||CX||160-6400||Yes||3.0-in. 921K-dot||60 (10)||Yes||4.2×3.2×1.8 in.||9.8 oz.||$799|
|Olympus OM-D E-M5||16.1 MP Live MOS||m43||200-25,600||Yes||3.0-in. 610K-dot^||9 (4.2)||Incl. acc.||4.8×3.5×1.7 in.||13.0 oz.||$999|
|Olympus PEN E-P3||12.3 MP Live MOS||m43||200-12,800||Optional||3.0-in. 614K-dot||3 (3)||Yes||4.8×2.7×1.4 in.||11.3 oz.||$899|
|Olympus PEN E-PL5||16.1 MP Live MOS||m43||200-25,600||Optional||3.0-in. 460K-dot^||8 (3.6)||Incl. acc.||4.4×2.5×1.5 in.||9.8 oz.||$649|
|Olympus PEN E-PM2||16.1 MP Live MOS||m43||200-25,600||Optional||3.0-in. 460K-dot||8 (3.6)||Incl. acc.||4.3×2.5×1.3 in.||7.9 oz.||$599|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3||16.1 MP Live MOS||m43||200-12,800||OLED||3.0-in. 640K-dot^^||6 (4)||Yes||5.2×3.7×3.2 in.||16.6 oz.||$1,299|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1||16.0 MP Live MOS||m43||160-12,800||Optional||3.0-in. 460K-dot||4.2 (3)||Yes||4.6×2.7×1.6 in.||9.6 oz.||$469|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-G5||16.1 MP Live MOS||m43||160-12,800||Yes||3.0-in. 920K-dot^^||6 (3.7)||Yes||4.7×3.3×2.8 in.||12.2 oz.||$699|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF5||12.1 MP Live MOS||m43||160-6400||No||3.0-in. 920K-dot||4 (3)||Yes||4.2×2.6×1.5 in.||7.9 oz.||$519**|
|Pentax K-01||16.3 MP CMOS||APS-C||100-12,800||No||3.0-in. 921K-dot||6||Yes||4.8×3.1×2.3 in.||16.9 oz.||$629|
|Pentax Q10||12.4 MP CMOS||1/2.3-in.||100-6400||Acc. optcl.||3.0-in. 460K-dot||5||Yes||4.0×2.3×1.3 in.||6.4 oz.||$599|
|Ricoh GXR A16 24-85||16.2 MP CMOS||APS-C||200-3200||Optional||3.0-in. 920K-dot||4||Yes||4.5×2.9×3.9 in.||18.0 oz.||$799|
|Samsung NX20||20.3 MP CMOS||APS-C||100-12,800||Yes||3.0-in. 614K-dot||8 (3)||Yes||4.8×3.5×1.6 in.||12.0 oz.||$999|
|Samsung NX210||20.3 MP CMOS||APS-C||100-12,800||No||3.0-in. 614K-dot||8 (3)||No||4.6×2.5×1.4 in.||7.8 oz.||$899|
|Samsung NX1000||20.3 MP CMOS||APS-C||100-12,800||No||3.0-in. 920K-dot||8 (3)||No||4.5×2.5×1.5 in.||7.8 oz.||$549|
|Sony NEX-7||24.3 MP CMOS||APS-C||100-16,000||OLED||3.0-in. 921K-dot^||10 (2.5)||Yes||4.7×2.6×1.7 in.||10.3 oz.||$1,199|
|Sony NEX-6||16.1 MP CMOS||APS-C||100-25,600||OLED||3.0-in. 921K-dot^||10 (3)||Yes||4.7×2.6×1.7 in.||10.1 oz.||$849|
|Sony NEX-5R||16.1 MP CMOS||APS-C||100-25,600||Optional||3.0-in. 921K-dot^||10 (3)||Incl. acc.||4.4×2.3×1.5 in.||7.7 oz.||$649|
|Sony NEX-F3||16.1 MP CMOS||APS-C||200-16,000||Optional||3.0-in. 921K-dot^||5.5||Yes||4.6×2.6×1.6 in.||9.0 oz.||$599**|
|Note: APS-C sensor measures approximately 23.6×15.6mm; m43—17.3×13.0mm; CX (1-in.)—13.2×8.8mm; 1/2.3-in.—6.2×4.6mm
*Maximum frames per second at full resolution; focus locked at first frame. (Max. frame rate with AF in parentheses.)
**Indicates estimated street price with kit lens; otherwise, estimated street price is for body only.
^Indicates tilt monitor
^^Indicates tilt/swivel monitor
Mirrorless Camera System Accessories
|Third-party lens makers like Sigma and Tamron offer options for several mirrorless mounts. You can get microphones for video shooting, flash units and adapters to further expand your options. CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Tamron AF18-200mm F/3.5-6.3 Di III VC for NEX cameras; Novoflex Nikon to Micro 4/3rds adapter; Olympus flash; Sony HVL-F20S flash for NEX cameras; Sony Compact Stereo Microphone; Sigma 19mm F/2.8 EX DN and 30mm F/2.8 EX DN for NEX and Micro Four Thirds cameras.|