State-Of-The-Art Mirrorless

Once viewed by many as a consumer fad, mirrorless systems have matured and are attracting a growing number of pros and enthusiasts
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Sony a7R II

It’s a bit of a misnomer, the way we talk about a “mirrorless” camera, especially in the digital age. That’s because the term “mirrorless” is used to indicate that these cameras aren’t single-lens reflex (SLR). The SLR uses a mirror to send light to an optical viewfinder and then (when that mirror is raised) allows light to pass through to the imaging sensor.

Lots of cameras, then, are “mirrorless,” from the camera phone to compact digital cameras to large-format film bodies. What mirrorless means in common use, though, is a camera that has the design and styling of a traditional SLR camera, but without the reflex mirror. It would be more accurate to call them “mirrorless SLR-looking cameras with interchangeable lenses,” but that would be ridiculous. While some have advocated for calling them Compact System Cameras (CSCs), the term “mirrorless” seems to have stuck.

Many in the photo industry considered mirrorless cameras just a fad, little more than a fashion trend that celebrated retro looks, but provided little benefit to the serious photographer. That’s because the first mirrorless cameras were really just scaled-up compact cameras, with interchangeable lenses bolted onto yesterday’s technology.

Today, mirrorless cameras make up the most vibrant and, to some, exciting segment of the camera market. After years of evolution and a healthy dose of competition, mirrorless cameras are starting not only to catch up with DSLRs, they’re starting to surpass them in terms of focus speed and accuracy.

They’re also starting to mature, with distinctly different technologies focused on distinctly different segments of the market. For many photographers, the question now isn’t, “Is mirrorless right for me?” but, “Which mirrorless system is right for me, and why?”

The product lines differentiate themselves—for the most part—based around the size of the sensor used in the system. Systems with 1-inch, Micro Four Thirds, APS-C and full-frame sensors are all available, and they all offer an increasing array of functionality, though with associated trade-offs.

That’s not because the capabilities of sensors limit performance, but rather because the size of the sensor is the driving factor in the design of a camera. All the other engineering choices stem from the sensor at the heart of the camera, so when camera companies are looking to achieve something with their mirrorless systems, they start with the right sensor to accomplish their goals.

For the most part, each company has lined up behind a single sensor, though Sony has models based on two different-sized sensors, but with the same lens mount.

Nikon 1 V3

Cameras based on a one-inch sensor offer the greatest portability, but the lowest image quality—especially in low light. One-inch sensors are commonly found in compact digital cameras like the Sony RX100 and the recent Canon G3 X. They’re designed to be small and energy-efficient, but their sensor size makes them poor performers in low light.

It’s helpful to think of these as being on par with other compact digital cameras, with the benefit of interchangeable lenses. That makes them more versatile than compact digital cameras, though less portable, since the system lenses tend to be bigger than the built-in lenses on most compacts and lack the ability to retract into the camera.

Nikon has a large range of cameras in their Nikon 1 line, which includes eight palm-sized models that vary in price and features. The most basic model, the Nikon 1 S1, has very few manual controls or interface elements, while the Nikon 1 V3 looks like an itsy-bitsy Nikon DSLR.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II

Micro Four Thirds
Around a decade ago, Olympus and Kodak announced a camera system standard called Four Thirds, designed to reimagine camera design in the digital age. The first partners for the Four Thirds platform included Fujifilm, Leica, Panasonic and Sanyo, and others, and each partner was able to create bodies and lenses that would be interchangeable in the system.

Four Thirds cameras, which were DSLRs, didn’t really take off, but the revised Micro Four Thirds (MFT) standard did. Introduced in 2008, the standard has the same sensor size and lens mount specifications as Four Thirds, but the new standard did away with the mirror entirely, truly ushering in the era of mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras.

The sensor in the MFT standard is about 30% smaller than APS-C, but much bigger than one-inch sensors. The primary design factor when the MFT camera system was created was portability. There was, at least in the first cameras, an image-quality penalty to using a camera with such a small sensor. Over the years, though, MFT cameras have become much more capable, delivering some stunning results in very small packages. Lens diversity has improved, as has autofocus speed, and the small size of the sensor allows today’s modern camera processors to capture and process images at blazing speed.

The downside to MFT systems compared to cameras with a larger sensor (APS-C and full frame) is that they don’t perform as well in low light, all other things being equal. Actually, they don’t perform as well in bright light, either, from a technical standpoint, but it’s less noticeable than the low-light images.

Most of the original partners in the Four Thirds consortium are no longer making products for MFT cameras (some, like Kodak, aren’t really in business anymore). The remaining camera players—Olympus and Panasonic—have a huge array of cameras available from entry-level to pro.

New cameras in the Micro Four Thirds platform from Olympus include the enthusiast OM-D E-M10 Mark II and the upper-end OM-D E-M5 Mark II, which hides professional features in a retro body. Panasonic, which focuses a bit more on the video performance of the platform, released the LUMIX DMC-GX8, which features high-end 4K recording, including a mode for shooting video and capturing stills from it. The more compact DMC-GF7 is a portable body, with built-in flash and manual controls.

Samsung NX500

The APS-C-sized sensor gets its name from a film format introduced right around the time that digital was born. APS-C was designed to provide a film cassette with a smaller form factor than a 35mm camera and an easier loading process. The combination was designed to create a smaller, lighter camera for enthusiasts and beginners. Unfortunately, for the format, digital arrived and eliminated the demand for APS-C film cameras.

Larger than Micro Four Thirds and smaller than full frame, APS-C straddles the middle of the two, while still offering some interesting advantages and keeping fewer of the penalties. Since APS-C sensors are larger than MFT sensors, they can create images that exhibit less noise in low light and have wider dynamic range, but they still don’t perform as well as a full-frame camera.

With the smaller size compared to a full-frame system, however, they can provide most of the image quality in a much smaller body. And since the APS-C sensor is smaller than a full-frame sensor, a powerful APS-C sensor can fit into a smaller camera body and the images can be processed more quickly. (Again, all things being equal.)

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX8

Canon has recently released their APS-C EOS M3 to the U.S. market—the camera was previously only available in Europe—and joining it is the new entry-level M10 (available only as a kit with a zoom lens), which includes Canon’s DIGIC 6 processor, improving the quality of JPEG images and video.

Samsung’s latest mirrorless flagship, the NX1, launched in September 2014, though it really started to become adopted this year. The small camera can capture 28-megapixel images at 15 frames per second and clears the buffer at lightning speed. This year, Samsung announced the NX500, a scaled-down travel and go-anywhere body, with the same sensor as the NX1, albeit operating at a more “modest” 9 frames per second.

Until Samsung joined the APS-C market, Fujifilm was the primary name in the APS-C mirrorless market, with their impressive X-T and X-A lineup. The company has really dedicated themselves to creating cameras that appeal to the advanced photographer, with fully manual controls and their legendary Fujinon lenses. This year, the flagship X-T1 was updated with an infrared version, the X-T1 IR, but the star of the show is the X-T10, a compact travel body that doesn’t skimp on features. The X-T1 is a favorite go-to camera for travel and street photography.

Sony also produces APS-C cameras, most notably the a6000, which, as of this writing, is still the top of Sony’s APS-C lineup. The a6000 has long been rumored to be “about” to be updated, but the current body still provides superfast autofocus (it’s often used by sports photographers). Sony also released the consumer-minded a5100, an update to the a5000 body.

Fujifilm X-T1

Full Frame
Full-frame cameras, as the name implies, use the same full-sized sensor found in 35mm cameras. Full-frame sensors are traditionally found inside pro DSLRs. A full-frame sensor has better performance than smaller sensors at a given resolution, thanks to the larger pixels the sensor can contain.

Up until October of this year, there was only one manufacturer of full-frame mirrorless cameras, and that was Sony. The company has shaken up the photography market with a series of cameras using not only full-frame sensors, but as of this year, state-of-the-art sensors not even found in pro DSLRs. The backside-illuminated (BSI) sensor in the a7R II has vastly better sensitivity in low light than similar sensors in the full-frame arena.

This year Sony released updates to all three of their full-frame systems, the a7 II, a7R II and a7S II. The a7R II is the company’s pixel king, with a 42-megapixel BSI sensor, which gives it incredible low-light performance. The a7S II has a 12-megapixel sensor, which gives it even better low-light performance, and the a7 II, released earliest this year, set the stage with improved autofocus and five-axis stabilization now found across the second-generation a7 lineup.

Even better, adapters allow the Sony cameras to work with a host of lenses, including those from Canon, Leica and Nikon (with various levels of performance). That’s good, because up until this year, Sony’s lens selection was limited as the platform was rolled out. There’s now a better range of lenses from Sony, Zeiss and others that natively work with the a7 cameras.

Canon EOS M3

With Canon and Nikon sitting out the high-end mirrorless market (for now), Sony had a lock on the full-frame mirrorless segment—until Leica announced the new SL. A massive and powerful camera, the SL is more about performance than small size. The SL can capture 24-megapixel images at 11 frames per second, setting a record in full-frame image capture. At launch, there only will be a handful of lenses available for the system, though adapters will allow the Leica SL system to work with almost every Leica lens ever built.

This new full-frame system will shake up this market, providing some competition to Sony and making the full-frame mirrorless segment one to watch for the next few years.

Smaller, Lighter, Faster, Better?
While mirrorless cameras started off as more compact alternatives to DSLRs, the vast array of models and platforms has really allowed photographers to pick systems based on their particular shooting styles and needs. There’s no such thing as a “bad” mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera, only models that have more or fewer of the features an individual photographer might need.

You can follow David Schloss on Twitter and Instagram @davidjschloss.