Nikon Goes Mirrorless

Today is an exciting (or disappointing) day in the history of Nikon cameras- their first mirrorless hybrid camera is out and it brings their first new mount for 50 years. Coming with a 2.7x crop, we have a smaller sensor than even micro 4/3, which comes as a surprise for many Nikon watchers, given their existing wide range of DX and full-frame lenses which will scarcely be usable on it, aside from the exotic possibility of becoming very long zooms. Yet, with it finally arriving I can see how it makes sense from the point of view of the company. A new mount can scarcely be designed especially to use older lenses through an adapter, especially in the case of mirrorless systems that supposedly offer something lighter and smaller, whilst the use of any adapter will be ungainly compared to a straight lens connection. Also, for even high-end compact users there will be a noticeable jump in quality without giving away too much in size. Still, there is always the possibility, to my mind almost the inevitability of a ‘Nikon 2’ or whatever using a DX-sized sensor, though for this we will have to wait and see a few more years.

Meanwhile, we have to ask, what are the actual advantages or disadvantages of having a smaller sensor size? In terms of image quality, it will be a lot harder to get a purely noise-free image, especially at higher ISOs on such a small sensor. Unless they can work miracles, which I don’t think they can, the SNR will be a lot worse than Micro 4/3, which is twice as large and incomparably bad compared to the gorgeous sensors in the Sony NEX range, being DX (APS-C) sized and three times as big. It will be very hard to limit the depth of field unless you get very close to an object with a bright lens,; and so far no such lenses have been released, though I expect they are planned. So much for the disadvantages, how about the advantages?

First of all there will be the kind of tremendous depth of field you get with compacts, yet at four times the sensor size, coming with a potentially much higher quality image, which could be very useful for macros or landscapes, providing the sensor is up to snuff. Then there is the ease of implementing exotic features. Apparently, this has the fastest AF in the world and is capable not only of 10 fps full-resolution shooting, but for limited periods 20, 30, or even 60fps (when prefocused). This is quite simply unheard of in the history of photography and presumably easier to implement on a smaller sensor capturing less data, though we will have to wait and see if this can be upscaled to the DSLRs. There is apparently even AF taking place on the sensor itself, which makes me think that such lightning fast AF may make for a different picture taking experience than I’ve had.

Even if there is little shutter lag on a DSLR, there is always at least some pause whilst the camera focuses (or I do). Imagine a machine that perceptibly does away with this phase, however short it may be. Combining this with video may also be very effective, providing, as with any AF system, it actually focuses where you want it to, though with smart enough algorithms it could well be effective. The slow-motion video and snapshots blended with short, slow-motion 1 second video modes are also intriguing (which Nikon calls ‘Motion snapshot’), though perhaps more for their novelty value than anything else. Yet it could well start a trend, people taking video snapshots instead of straight photos, capturing the moment in a more dynamic way than before without resorting to realms of video.

Would I buy this? For the moment, no. The price, at nearly $900 for the advanced model, which having the EVF is more attractive, is just too much for me for a camera with such a small sensor. also, similarly to NEX, the lens selection is too small and for the moment way too dark. Hearing how small the senor is, you’d hope for something brighter; after all, my LX5 has an f/2-3.3 24-90mm lens, so I’d be surprised if they couldn’t make something a bit bigger but in that general realm. I doubt it’s low-light abilities, which for me is a good reason to step up beyond compacts and I’m not even sure about it’s ergonomics, squarely built as it is. But for all of this, I’m far from writing this off.

So far mirrorless cameras have been a bit too large to be bring everywhere cameras the way a compact is and a DSLR, even a small one, emphatically isn’t. I’m not sure if this will do that, but even if this body/lens combo doesn’t, by designing for such a small sensor, unseen levels of miniaturisation could be possible, especially in the realm of lenses that outside of compacts are generally too long- wide ranging zooms or telephotos especially. The price is way to high right now, but I expect it will come down quite quickly, again, if not in this model, in the next. This opens the way for what Nikon is not so secretly hoping for- managing to crack the ‘near compact interchangable lens’ market and getting the kind of wide adoption they managed to get with models like their D40, one of the most spectacularly popular DSLRs in history. So, what I am getting at here is that even if this doesn’t satisfy the pros or the enthusiasts , with their desire for better image quality, it could well be a successful consumer camera and be one used in unique amd unheard of ways.

For myself it is the end of a long journey of waiting, as I could really do with a smaller alternative that sits somewhere between my LX5/TZ7 combo of compacts and my relatively huge DSLRs, which even with smaller models need a massive lens to get the kind of telephoto reach we are now spoiled with. Mirrorless, in short, is something I am pining for, admittedly as a kind of luxury, but like my iPad slotting between my iPhone and laptops, this area of luxury can be the most relaxing and liberating to use, as there is less to carry yet you have all you generally need. Being an enthusiast, this sensor is just too limiting in resolution and higher ISOs to be happy with, so I am thinking more seriously of getting me some Sony NEX or M 4/3 action in the near future. Yet for me, they are stalled for the moment. NEX for it’s lack of lenses, despite the gorgeous 5N and NEX 7 bodies and M4/3 for using the same sensors for the last 2 odd years, despite Panasonic having a more advanced 16MP model in it’s G3. So I am playing the wait and see approach there, too, perhaps getting what I want next year. So what do I want with a mirrorless camera? I’ll tell you, here-

1) Much smaller than my D3100 (which rules out the G3 in my book, for being just a little smaller)

2) 16MP minimum sensor with clean image (for cropping and large prints)

3) Good high ISO up to 800, decent to 1600 and kind of usable at 3200 (as I get with DX)

4) Ultra-fast AF, which they all claim to have, even if Nikon’s is a little faster

5) Stablisation. preferably in-camera, as Olympus offers, but in lens is okay too.

6) 1080p video, 30fps, no less

7) Preferably a built-in high res EVF, which only the NEX7 and Nikon’s V1 have in a small body

8) A small, collapsible standard zoom with high quality, which Panasonic are promising for their new ‘pancake zoom’

9) A good price, which for me is below ¥70,000 for a kit, as my main investment will still be DSLRs. I'(d be willing to compromise on some of the other points to get this, as it is after all my bottom line, bearing in mind that much more capable sensors and bodies will probably be developed, but my lenses will still work on them.

10) Cheap adapters to use other lenses with them, be they Nikkors, Leicas or whatever, opening up some serious experimentation.

So with all this, what are my top choices? I’m still undecided, until the new M 4/3 come out next year, but if Sony can make some small, excellent pancakes or collapsible zooms, (which I’m not sure they can), the NEX system, with it’s fantastic bodies and sensors would be ideal. Failing that, M4/3 in either Olympus or Panasonic flavours looks to be a good compromise, with a wide range of possibilities and far better than compact image quality, if not up there with DSLRs. Despite my enthusiasm for it’s potential, I’m not all that interested in the Nikon 1 as it stands now. The senor is simply too small for me and the lenses too dark, though if Nikon can put some of it’s features into their next round of DSLRs, we could be in for a real treat. Alternatively, it’s price could plummet like an HP Touchpad,perhaps to quickly build up it’s user base, and I could get one for curiosity value alone.

Connecting my 70-300mm VR via adapter could give me a 190-810mm f/4-5.6 lens with better quality than any superzoom, or with my 80-200mm f/2.8 I’d get an unheard of 216-540mm f/2.8. Even my 50mm would become an amazing 135mm f/1.4,, (though I should add that even though the lenses will still be bright, their ability to limit DOF will be limited by the small sensor).  Even if the kit lenses are duds, some very interesting, auto-focused experimentation might be possible!

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