A Mirrorless Ocean

In my last post on the topic, I started off reflecting on the sheer variety of mirrorless (or CSC, compact system cameras), and ended up seeing the spirit of playful creativity they bring. Today, I want to get back to the camera themselves. Like many, I continue to be a DSLR user with a compact, or compacts for backup. As my needs changed, I ended up getting more bodies to meet them, not to mention lenses, attachments, batteries and so on, this being life for a photo enthusiast or pro, you simply want the best tool for the job. Now we have a whole new range of possibilities opened up by this growing range of CSCs, which while they can’t yet, in my opinion, replace a DSLR in many areas, in others they may even be better than one, which isn’t something I could say about many compacts, by virtue of being ligher, smaller and much, much more discrite.

Interestingly, despite all being in their own way attractive and exciting they bring a new range of pros and cons, not just in the camera themselves, but as systems. I’ll go into what I see these as being below. By the way, the order is based around their approximate date of introduction, though I do save one for last. I’ll get onto which I like best in the conclusion, which if you’re anything like me you’ll scroll right down to, although I think you’ll be able to guess from the various summaries.

You’ll notice that the features of the camera are generally in the ‘pros’. Why? Well, to do anything else would just end up repeating them, as it’s generally the features that are lacking, or don’t work, that end up being cons. I’ve also tried to focus on balancing usability concerns along with IQ, to my mind (of course!), as unlike the bulky but ergonomically time-tested and proven DSLR’s, these are all about the portability, with IQ arguably coming a close second. Many of these cameras would never survive going toe to toe with a modern DSLR in IQ terms (though a few of them, interestingly enough may even surpass them), but then again, they don’t have to, it being enough they are all far, far better than even a ‘high end’ (1/1.7″ sensor) compact. With each of them I list the system name and crop factor compared to 35mm full-frame. It may be a dated frame of reference in our digital world, but it’s the only commonly-agreed one we have, so it serves a purpose. So here we go, an early 2012 survey of the CSC options of our time…

CSC Systems Today

Olympus Pen EP-3

Probably the nicest CSC of the bunch, but not necessarily the most powerful.

Olympus (Pen, Micro 4/3 mount, 2x)

Pros- The Pens offer a beautiful range of bodies, with retro-styling and built-in shake reduction (uniquely, as other manufacturers limit this to the lens-based stabilisation). As cameras to use, this is very attractive, as unattractive models just aren’t much fun. Being M 4/3, the longest standing CSC system and arguably the inspiration behind the others, there is already a great and growing selection of lenses, far better than any other CSC system. With the Panasonic made, though Leica-designed 20mm f/1.7, 25mm f/1.4 and 7-14mm wide-angle, you have some of the best lenses anywhere, certainly for the price. Olympus is catching up too, after initial efforts just to make lenses smaller, ending up with their decent folding zooms, they are now making world-class optics again, just as they did for the original 4/3 system, in the 12mm f/2 and 45mm f/1.8. What is unique about these lenses, aside from their relatively very small size, is their small price. there is just no way you could make lenses of this quality in this price range for a full-frame, or even probably an APS-C camera. Simple reason- a sensor that is easier to design for and much less glass needed to cover it.

The latest bodies have very fast contrast-detect autofocus, which works well in good light and with stationary subjects. Due to the inbuilt IS and styling, they are a favourite for using classic MF lenses with adapters, or perhaps even newer ones as well. Their software also offers excellent jpeg conversion, wonderful menus and creative ‘picture styles’, which along with the fantastically styled bodies, makes for a uniquely attractive photo-taking machine. Throw on a nice, stabilised prime and you could be in photographer’s heaven, especially with the recent EP-3. Very soon, the high-end, weather-sealed EM-5 will be released, along with a ‘new’ 16mp sensor and 5-axis stabilisation, built in viewfinder and weatherproofing., though until it comes out, we won’t know for sure how good it is.

Cons- The current highest end body (EP-3) is pricey, whilst older models, which are still on sale, have much worse AF. It uses an older, probably even 4-year old 12mp sensor, so you have to wonder if you are getting good value for money with it. No inbuilt EVF, just fairly low-resolution LCDs for focusing. There is a good external EVF, but it’s bulky, which seems to defeat the purpose of a small system. Also, the M 4/3 sensor is smaller than APS-C, as found in most DSLRs, making for worse dynamic range, high ISO and making it harder to limit the depth of field. The lack of phase-detect AF means the camera can’t do motion tracking very well, making them a poor choice for sports, crawling babies, even flowers swaying in the wind. If you found yourself missing a lot of shots on your compact due to movement, you may see the same thing happening here.

Another con is that despite being a large and growing system, it still lacks what many pros need- bright 2.8 zooms. Even if it had them, they would need to be at least f/2 to compensate for the smaller sensor, as are Olympus’s M4/3 zooms. They are probably (in f/2.8) coming though, as Panasonic has already shown prototypes at the latest CES show. Due to the laws of physics, they’ll be best balanced on the larger bodies making for a relatively compact system rather than a small one, as cropped-sensor DSLR users have been enjoying over the past decade, only more so.

Summary- Olympus offers the nicest bodies in my opinion, with the design, stabilisation and software. With the right lenses, you could really by in a photographer’s Nirvana. The only things holding me back right now are the lack of phase detect AF, which I suppose could be made up for if they develop an even better contrast detection alternative, and the seriously outdated sensor. The upcoming EM-5 promises a better sensor, though being micro 4/3, it will probably be a tweaked version of the one used in Panasonic’s G3/G1X, which is an improvement, but not nearly as good as it’s APS-C rivals, despite having much smaller lenses to compensate.

Panasonic G1X

Stylish and simple, this camera has everything going for it, but can it’s ‘evolution’ match other maker’s ‘revolutions’?

Panasonic (Various Bodies, Micro 4/3 mount, 2x)

Pros- Along with Olympus, newer models have very fast contrast-detection AF and the growing selection of lenses. The higher-end models have a newer 16mp sensor, that has better high ISO and dynamic range than the former 12mp sensor , which in the case of the rangefinder-styled G1x has made its way into a small body. The larger models have good, built-in EVFs, which gives them a mini-DSLR styling. They have excellent 1080p video, with fast AF, especially in the flagship GH2 model. If you want something smaller. though, with great controls, taken as a set, the G1X and it’s retracting power-zoom offer a great image quality combo in a small and stylish body.

Cons- Lower end models are like plastic Fisher-Price toys, seemingly to appeal to the lowest common denominator (ie a compact user looking to move up slightly). As with Olympus, no phase-detect AF, and the disadvantages of the smallish sensor in this category. Panasonic also has a reputation for poor jpeg output and dull, unnatural colours. After using their compacts, I’d have to agree to an extent. It’s not so much that their colours are always so bad these days… just that other makers do better, especially Olympus, with their incredible colour. Also, no OS in the bodies means it can’t be used with primes or legacy glass, a small point perhaps, but a missed opportunity all the same.

Whilst their primes are excellent and the original 14-45mm OiS zoom is a bit of a legend in its own lifetime, there seems to be a lot of controversy about the newer ‘x’ branded power-zooms. Perhaps as a consequence of their attempted miniaturisation (very effectively, I might add in the case of the diminutive 14-42mm x), I have seen a lot of complaints of the OiS not working and in fact blurring shots just when it is needed and also of the long ends being soft and blurry compared to their predecessors. Leica actually refused to have them branded with their name, as they depend so heavily on digital correction to resolve their various distortions. There also seems to be some variance in reports, as whilst some professional reviews praise them, users are having some really bad experiences and even advising to turn of the stabilisation and forgo using the long ends of the zoom. Seeing as they are quite expensive in their range, I’d personally hold off getting one until the issue is resolved, or else work within the limitations they might have, as having such a small, retractable zoom is very attractive, if it actually works well.

There is also and this is just my opinion (but not only my opinion), the absolutely dreadful interface and overlays Panasonic is plagued with. Much like my LX5, there are a collection of very useful features buried in menus with obscure terms (okay, it’s even worse for me as I need to work out the Japanese interface as Panasonic has yet to figure out how to make their menus bilingual). The overlays take up much of the screen, so you end up switching them off even if they would be useful. Plus their LCD’s are small and low resolution compared to the competition. I really get the feeling that whilst some of the cameras are seriously designed by and for photographers, the same can’t be said for the interface. Panasonic, if you are in any way listening, please rewrite the book here!

Summary- The higher end Panasonics offer a very compelling system, with some remarkable lenses. Yet to get an EVF, you need a bulky body that goes against the spirit of CSCs, giving them an underwhelming impression, despite their capabilities. If the new G1X had one, it would be just perfect, with its full range of controls, 16mp sensor and attractive styling, yet for now you are stuck with it being an accessory and an expensive one at that (without being as good as the Sony model, either). The G1X, like the similarly-styled GF1 before it, remains a very attractive camera, at a good price point, yet one that can’t be seen out of context of the competition it now faces in today’s crowded marketplace. After playing around with it for a bit, it’s a camera i can recommend, but not one I can solely recommend.

Unless you are doing video or can handle a larger body, I think Olympus has the edge… except for their outdated sensors, this is. I can’t say I find Panasonics as enjoyable to use as some other brands, due mainly to their interfaces, which for me prioritise the wrong controls, leaving others buried, but this is a small issue when compared with something like lens choice or image quality.

Overall, as they have done for so many years, Panasonic offers a serious selection, with many models (including some discontinued ones on sale for hefty discounts) offering a very good ‘bang for your buck’. Whether you can live with what often comes across as an electronic maker’s venture into cameras is up to you… I’ve certainly got a lot of good use from my Lumix compacts, whatever their shortcomings and the G1X is a very attractive package. I suppose my general feeling is that most of their cameras are a work in progress and other than the GH-2 they have yet to produce anything that comes across as ‘fully finished’ to me as a NEX 7, EP-3, or V-1. Talking of the NEX7…

Sony NEX-7

The most powerful CSC of them all. Yet power comes at a price and looking at that ginormous lens, at a size, too.

Sony (NEX, E-mount, 1.5x)

Pros- The larger APSC sensor is used, including the latest, most efficient iterations. High megapixels in the new Nex-7 make for 24mp of detail, even if the sensor is worse at high ISO than the 16mp versions. The benefit of Excellent EVFs, in the case of the NEX-7, the highest resolution one available being built-in, without a protruding bump. With an adapter, it can do phase detect with the Sony A-mount lenses, which include some incredible and unique Carl Zeiss AF designs. MF focusing is made easier with ‘focus peaking’, showing on the LCD when focus is achieved, making this perhaps the best CSC for this. Also, the LCDs are high resolution and excellent in use.

Thanks to the APS-C sensor, legacy lenses, with adapters, ‘only’ have a 1.5 crop, which is better for wide-angles than M4/3’s 2x, or Nikon CX’s 2.7x. Arguably, these smaller lenses are best suited to a compact system. The bodies are remarkably small and slim.

Cons- We are still in the realm of APS-C, so you can’t quite have the benefits of full-frame photography. The small bodies look ridiculous once anything but a pancake lens is mounted, as the lenses are so bulky and protruding. The lens selection is also shockingly bad, with poor quality zooms and a crummy 16mm f/2.8 pancake. There doesn’t even seem to be much of a change to this in the near future and even if more lenses do come, they will likely be either huge and bulky, or incredibly dark. If thinking of using it with other glass, who really wants to get a camera, just to use it with adapters to use lenses from another system, even if it be closely related like the Sony Alpha range?

Summary- For an APS-C system in a small package, Sony Nex is very attractive and offers incredible IQ with the right lenses, not to mention the EVF. Access to Carl Zeiss lenses and the rich selection of older glass is remarkable, yet Sony really need to make some more lenses specially for NEX, or have a body that doesn’t need adapters for ‘A’ mount ones. What they could do with most of all are a pair of folding zooms and a new pancake or two. With just this, they’s have a much more compelling system that could rival DSLRs as well as other CSCs. Yet, conspiracy theory time, do they actually want to avoid risking their Alpha DSLR body sales in such a way?

Pentax Q

It’s small and neat, like a toy. Wait a minute… it is a toy!

Pentax (Q, Q mount, 5.5x !/K-01, K mount, 1.5x)

Pentax has a new ‘toy camera’ system, yet with a sensor size of 1/2.3″, smaller than even a high-end compact, I don’t think it’s fair to include it here. Think of it as an iPhone on steroids. Cute and small, I’m sure people will get good results with it, but I just don’t feel sensor technology is yet at a level to make this satisfying for many uses. It keeps the size of a compact, but with it it’s sensor disadvantages. Perhaps with the toy lenses it will appeal to some, but I regard it as just too small to invest in.

They have also just beaten Canikon to the APS-C punch with the K-01, a camera that works directly with their K-mount lenses, including of course the fabled limited series, in useful-for APS-C lengths such as 43mm, 31mm and 77mm. It has the excellent Sony 16MP sensor, which from using in my D5100 I can attest is incredible, so is at least equal with NEX just for this. Yet, it has no EVF and also probably no phase-detect AF, which could slow it down a lot with the K-mount lenses that aren’t optimised for this, though this remains to be seen. It’s also pretty big, which makes it questionably a Compact SC at all, though it is mirrorless and presumably lighter for it. In terms of the mount, I’m hoping that Nikon go a similar route, though making sure to have a good EVF and phase-detect AF unit installed. Even though like NEX, many lenses will be overly large on such a sensor, there is always to chance of pancakes and foldable zooms that are smaller.

Pentax K-01

With it’s ‘unusual’ modern-art looks, the K-01 offers an unprecedented lens selection thanks to it’s K mount. We will have to see more when it comes.

We still look forward to the release of the K-01 and some initial reviews, so I think it premature to go into it’s pros and cons in too much detail yet, though I do intend to update this piece when the time comes. Suffice to say, I believe the future of high-quality mirrorless lies in APS-C, simply because it’s a larger, but not too large sensor. Yet the present may well go to smaller fomats, as they lay better claim to portability and people may well be willing to sacrifice some IQ just for the smaller size, especially if they already have a DSLR for anything more serious.

Ricoh (GRX System, with exchangable lens/sensor modules)

Pros- Ricoh has designed a unique system, composed of modules that mount, with the lens and sensor in one package. This has meant that ‘superzooms’, as found on bridge cameras or even compacts can be fitted, with the advantage of tiny size and the use of their extensive, excellently crafted controls and solid, metal bodies. The idea is that whilst people go out and buy new bodies to save space on a compact, now they can have it all in one. As the sensors go larger, so does the quality increase.

Ricoh GRX

All cameras in one… but what if you want a better sensor?

The system is already quite wide-ranging. It starts with the 10mp 1/2.3″ sensor with the small 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 equivalent lens, then there is a ‘high end compact’ 24-72mm f/2.5-4.4 equivalent with a 1/1.7″ sensor, climbing to a 12mp APS sensor behind 28mm f/2.5 and 50mm f/2.5 lenses, with an APS-C based 24-85mm zoom and even a Leica M-mount adapter, each 12mp though there is a special, rangefinder-optimised sensor for the M-mount with specialised micro-lenses. The APS-C lenses are reputedly excellent, though not without shortcomings.

Although it never gets really small, it allows for a compact system unlike any other. Usually you have to choose betwen sensor sizes and the lens lengths or DOF they dictate, yet not here.

Cons- A major complaint is the built-in sensors, which drives up the price of each ‘module’ and means you could get stuck with outdated technology. This to some extent has already happened, with the 12mp sensors being some way behind Sony’s latest and greatest 16mp models. Another one is the price, the APS-C modules are expensive and the smaller ones cost about the same as an entire compact would (albeit probably with far worse build and controls). They also aren’t the best in their class when compared in tests, which at least partly comes down to being stuck with outdated sensors, which also make newer features like 1080p video impossible without an entire upgrade (which will presumably come in time).

Another problem is the slow AF, especially so with the APS-C lenses. This makes the GRX, despite it’s intentions as an all-rounder, simply inappropriate for a lot of types of photography, seeing as MF is difficult at best. There is an available EVF, though not one of the best ones, though no classy optical viewfinder a la Fuji (though rangefinder OVFs are possible for the primes).

Summary- So far, the GRX system has met with limited adoption, though that alone is far from being an argument against it. It forms a reasonably complete and unique alternative for someone who doesn’t want to compromise on use of a decent body and wants a wide variety of lenses that make use of the various sensor advantages available today. Would I get one? Probably not, as much because of the cost as anything. I would want the best sensors available and good AF from a system, which this currently can’t offer. I’m also not convinced of the size advantages, when having a compact in my pocket is as small as I’d need and the compacts I have are better specified.

Still, it is an interesting system and I will keep track of how it evolves. It is already one of the best alternatives for M-mount shooters, offering that unique sensor and a solid, if less than Leicaesque body. Potentially, it could bring an M4/3 mount, Nikon adapter and others. Once it truly opens up to other lenses, it could have some of the same advantages as NEX, offering a platform for various lenses. If it can lay claim to be the best optimised non-Leica M-mount, it could well find a lot of takers just for this, if not for users of Leica legends, then for legacy cheapies and Voiglander marvels. One thing is for sure, there is no set of lenses quite as brilliant as the M mount and an easy way to make the most of them is not to be sniffed at.

V1 in white

Small and handy, it won’t stay at home.

Nikon (N1 System, CX mount, 2.7x)

Pros- Initially derided for their small sensor choice (2.7x ‘CX’ crop), after reviews and the sheer delight of pros, some of us are taking a second look at this and wondering if Nikon was right all along. With both phase and contrast-detect AF, the Nikon is probably the fastest-auto-focusing camera in the world. Then with the addition of the new Expeed III processor, also moving unheard of amounts of data. I’ve tried is in person and it is quite an extraordinary experience, to take 60 photos in a second and have the camera choose the best picks straight afterwards, all the while the AF being near-instantaneous.

So far, two models have been released, J1 and V1, the latter having a small built-in EVF and a higher resolution LCD, not to mention faster flash synch speed. Both are small and the lenses also, using folding optics and being light, that is accept the relatively huge 10-100mm powered zoom.

The sensor is amazing, having better high ISO and dynamic range than the Olympus 12mp ones, which just goes to show how much progress has been made and can be expected. In fact, if it wasn’t for such progress, such a camera wouldn’t even be possible. It also comes with a weak anti-aliasing filter, makign for very sharp and contrasty images.

Another plus and a main one for Nikon shooters is that with a simple adapter called the FT 1, AF-S or older AF-I lenses with built-in motors can AF on this, and I mean AF very fast! Having the AF on the sensor itself helps here, making for a much slimmer alternative than the Sony A-mount equivalent. With the 2.7x crop factor, though it will be hard to find anything worthy of the term ‘wide angle’, you can have some quick and dirty telephotos of unheard of brightness. A simple 35mm f/1.8 will be a 95m f/1.8, presumably good for portraits and a mere 50mm f/1.8 gets you a 135mm f/1.8, which otherwise just wouldn’t exist. Your trusty 70-200mm f/2.8 is now about a 190-540, then put on a VR 70-300mm f/4-5.6, hold her steady and you get a 190-810mm, which won’t be too unpleasant for wildlife photography and a whole lot smaller than anything else that exists in this range! Unlike using a teleconverter, there is no f-stop penalty as you are just magnifying the centre of the lens, so I suppose picture quality will all depend on how just much it can take. Also, it remains to be seen how well the AF really does work in such situations, especially when you are magnifying a fairly dark (i.e. f/5.6) lens.

Cons- Despite the smaller sensor, they aren’t much smaller with lens than the most compact M4/3 cameras. There is even less chance to limit the depth of field, especially since right now there are no bright primes, just a 10mm f/2.8. To limit noise, it is also only have 10mp, enough for many uses, but offering a fair amount less detail than the 16mp or so norm in other cameras. The tight crop is most of all a disappointment to Nikon users who were hoping to use their existing lenses, except of course for those into wildlife photography or looking for small telephotos. In my case, most, perhaps 75% of my photography is done at or below 50mm in full-frame terms, so although I can already think of some very interesting uses for a carry-anywhere telephoto, I’m not sure how much it will actually get used (though perhaps as a second body?… Hmm!)

For enthusiasts, the controls are extremely minimal, without even a M/A/S/P dial, instead having a few gimmicky features such as the best shot mode that enthusiasts will probably steer clear of in the long run (though they may well be fun to use). Anything else requires menu access, which though beautifully displayed, can be tiresome. Apparently there is a problem with the camera defaulting to slow shutter speeds indoors, regardless of the lens being used, so people are missing shots unnecessarily (though this could be a good time to switch to ‘S’ mode, even if the prospective customers for this camera probably don’t have a clue what that is). Also, the V1 is quite expensive, though it’s a matter of opinion whether it is actually overpriced. Rather than pay for sensor size, you seem to be paying for the build, EVF and processing power. Time and sales figures will tell how popular this turns out to be, yet for the moment it seems to be doing very well.

Summary- The Nikon 1 is a remarkable system. At first I was really let down by the small and seemingly uncompetitive sensor size, but the more I look at it, the more sense it made for Nikon to have gone with their CX sensor, despite all the online hate it got them about a ‘missed opportunity’ compared to M4/3. There is already a lot of competition in the larger sensor (M4/3+) cameras, which they presumably wanted to avoid (hopefully only for the moment) and by being small it allows for other aspects to be perfected, such as the incredible focusing speed with its sensor-based AF system, which holds great promise. I’m pretty sure that these advances will reappear in larger bodies in the future, allowing for DX, or even FX mirrorless cameras using the existing lenses, plus some new ones, without the dramas 4/3 or Sony A mount users face if they decide to go mirrorless. Yet, it should be added, this is all ‘pie in the sky’ until it actually comes and at least they do have adapters to bridge the gap until ‘universal’ mount cameras appear in the world.

There really is no doubt for me that this is an amazing system that will meet the needs of people who just want to get a good shot, much more efficiently than any of the other current offerings. Right now, there is a distinct shortage of lenses (though none of the duds that plague the NEX system) and a pressing need for very bright primes to allow for some depth of field affects and use of lower ISO’s in low light. As for whether such a small sensor can be popular, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and we are already seeing pros give raving reviews and then snap them up for a take-anywhere camera. For this really is a good replacement for a high-end compact, even if it isn’t yet serious competition for M 4/3.

Still to be released, this promises to be the photographer’s dream, with specialised lenses to match. Leica finally has some competition.

Fujifilm (X-Pro System, X mount, 1.5x)

Pros Fuji also seems to be offering some interesting alternatives, with its X100 and soon-to be released X-Pro 1. The X100 is fixed lens, though offering excellent quality at a very useful f/ 35mm-equivelant. The X-Pro one will be expanding on this, with a selection of excellent primes, with zooms to follow.

Only Leica and M4/3 offers such a good range of super high-quality lenses and with a specially designed APS-C sensor that removes the AA filter (as does Leica), there will be a degree of sharpness from the camera that DSLR users can only dream of. It also promises a special sensor that will make for better than full-frame high ISO, which samples being released seem to already verify. In terms of beating high-end DSLR’s at their own game and in fact revealing their very real shortcomings, I think Fuji is leading the charge. Leica is even thinking of a lower end body to get on the bandwagon, though all at a very different price-point if you take lenses into account.

Another pro is the revolutionary viewfinder, incorporating both electronic and optical elements. CSC usually lack the optical view, which for many makes them unusable. Even an ‘excellent’ EVF like Sony’s Nex-7 has, is still not a patch on the colour, light and beauty of simply seeing reality though some high quality glass. It’s this, along with the fine lenses, that makes even the Fuji models so attractive (including the new high-end compact X10).

Cons- The price is higher than most, especially for a X-Pro 1 with lens. Also, As with NEX, the lens selection will be small. In this case there will actually be no zooms for a while, which may be a deal breaker for some. I personally miss a 35mm equivalent for the Pro 1. I know the X100 has it, but I wouldn’t want to be getting both, though it seems one is planned for the future.

The big con for the Fuji systems is slow AF, even with contrast detection. This has led to a lot of returns of the X100, as shots are missed or mis-focussed, especially in poor light. As I understand it, you can pretty much forget about anything moving fast, which severely limits the flexibility of the system.

Another ‘con’, shared by so many CSC systems, is the lack of in-body IS, which is especially useful when manual focusing, which the Fuji is otherwise optimised for.

Summary Fuji is soon to offer the most compelling digital rangefinder yet. It may not be fast, but it will have AF and both optical and electronic ‘hybrid’ viewfinders. For people who want the simple, prime-lens based high-quality capture that rangefinders were getting in the film era, this may well see it’s return, along with the benefit of AF and other newer technologies, if only as options. Already, the X-Pro 1 was awarded ‘best of show’ accolades for CES 2012 and I am pretty sure it will be a big seller. The question for people already with a system is the price for something that isn’t even trying to be a jack of all trades. How much is a gorgeous picture-taking experience worth when such good or acceptable IQ is available elsewhere? That’s a question a lot of people will be asking their wallets over the next year.

Leica M9 in Black

The ultimate camera, at the ultimate price, with lenses that cost more than most jewelry.

Leica (M8 and M9, M mount, 1.3x/ 1x)

Pros- Okay, lets save the best till last. After being around practically since the birth of photography, Leica finally made a switch to digital and with the best ergonomics and image quality of all. Amazingly, they managed to put an 18mp full-frame sensor in a rangefinder body. a sensor that in many ways as the best in its class at lower ISOs, due partly to having no AA (anti-aliasing) filter in the way. With access to some of the best lenses in existence, not only Leica’s own, but also Carl Zeiss, or for cheaper alternatives, Voigtlander, and that sharp sensor, you can reach an imaging pinnacle simply unavailable elsewhere.

Cons- At $9000, plus thousands more for their legendary lenses, it’s well out of my and many a mortal’s scope. Rumours are coming of a cheaper system for the masses and we will just have to wait and see what ‘cheaper’ means to them, but I suspect it will be aimed at the pros and uber-rich. It comes with the traditional range-finder territory, but of course there is no AF. Interestingly, there may well be some way of adding this is the future, though this will be another ‘wait and see’. No EVF or tiltable LCD, which would be a useful addition to the system, even if the very idea of it might send the customer base in cries of dismay. Also, the LCD itself is of low resolution, which is a strange oversight in such a high-end camera, though I suppose they have to save something for the M10.

Another con, that is shared by medium format users, is the comparative lack of higher ISO shooting. The Kodak CCD sensors are optimised for supreme results at base or lower ISOs, not to be boosted up to higher ones. Here as anywhere, there is no free lunch.

Summary- Accept no compromises? Then Leica is the only way. And whilst I am now a Nikon shooter, I would rather be a Leica shooter. The fact that it has the very best lenses is a factor, and the discrete shooting style made possible. Being manual focus slows things down when they move quickly, but with zone-focusing you can time things just right to get the shot exactly right. Leica is intentional shooting, showing the character of both photographer and subject, with a minimum of computer interference in between. I wasn’t originally going to include Leica here because of the cost, but it is indeed, as it always has been, a mirrorless system and all the better for it.


Despite only being a few years old, there are already a selection of compelling choices in CSCs, with not only their own strengths and weaknesses, but distinct characters that are more than the sum of their parts. Chosing a system to join isn’t so much about identifying the ‘best one’ as each has such a good collection of features, more eliminating the ones that won’t work for you. It’s true that once people are committed, they can tend to become trolling ‘fanboys’, deriding competing systems for being too large or small, or making false claims that they will soon cease (known as spreading ‘FUD’, fear, uncertainty and doubt). The reality is that the camera makers are just as committed, both financially and emotionally, to these systems as their users are and there is room for a variety of them to stay relevant for quite some years to come. In general, Olympus, Panasonic, Fuji and Sony are the most committed so far, simply because they don’t have a very successful DSLR range to protect and depend on (Sony Alpha continue to trail the big two, though that might well change). Yet Nikon and no doubt soon Canon will put just as much energy into their systems, even if they will be clearer about the ‘backup’ role they intend for them. So any elimination will ultimately be for your needs, not any authoritative dismissal of the system’s value, whatever people may claim.

In my case, the first to go is Pentax, who for now are just using too small a sensor for my needs. As one of the APC-S photographer’s best friends, with their limited digital primes, I expect this may change in their next offering. Then is Leica, for having too large and therefore expensive a one (for my budget and sanity). Next to go is Panasonic, for having no cameras I really like and a general aversion to their colour output, though I’m sure there are those out there who would prefer it. The G1X looked tempting… until I saw it had no EVF and to be honest, I’m not wild about the styling, or their unreformed interface. It’s a difficult choice, but next to go is Sony’s NEX, unless I decide to get into the legacy lenses or some particular primes with it. That thin body with a huge lens hanging off just doesn’t make much sense to me, despite all the advances in the NEX-7 and I’d almost rather use a DSLR than something that ungainly. Ricoh’s GRX is more of a curiosity for me, at least until it has a killer feature or module I just can’t live without. Certainly, a full-frame, autofocusing Nikon module would do it, but I can’t see that materialising any time soon and I don’t have any M-mount glass to use on it (yet).

Which conveniently leaves us with the Olympus, Fujifilm and Nikon bodies. Of these, there are only a few Olympus ones with enough speed to satisfy me, being those from the EP-L2 onwards. I could either live without the EVF or more probably buy one if I really got into it. With this, I’d probably get a kit zoom and then a couple of bright primes, such as the Pana-leica 25mm f/1.4 and the Olympus 45mm f/1.8. Of course, there would also be the option of waiting for the next generation to come along, hopefully with a built in EVF and a newer, 16mp sensor.

With Nikon, I’d leave aside the J1 and go straight to the V1. I know, just know I’d love using this camera. It is perfect to take anywhere, much like my LX5, or a Canon S95 would be, but with infinitely better shot speed, AF and high ISO. In short a camera that doesn’t get in the way or keep me waiting around, in many ways truly a small DSLR in performance terms, something none of the other cameras (except perhaps the Panasonic GH2) can offer. I’m not too thrilled about the small sensor or massive DOF, but I’m also not so sure they are dealbreakers at the end of the day, seeing that for anything more ‘serious’, I’d be using my DSLRs.

I’m not sure anything smaller than a APS-C sensor is enough for real, serious quality, especially in terms of DOF control, though the size increase for zoom lenses makes having a super-small camera paired with them , as with NEX, a bit ludicrous. I think Nikon, Canon and Pentax, not necessarily in that order, will transition to moving their whole line to mirrorless versions in the near future, allowing for easy use of their existing lenses. Whether they can stop their users from trying out other systems in the meantime remains to be seen.

I think full-frame may turn out to be unnecessary for most uses, if great advances can be made in APS-C, not only for low light usages, but increasingly bright lenses to make up for the greater depth of field and specially designed for the smaller image circle (i.e. cheaper for it). As someone with quite a few DX lenses, I do have a stake in this, but I think it also makes sense from a practical standpoint, in which full frame lenses have to be so long and heavy. I know, M4/3 users can legitimately make the same claims, though with only Panasonic making sensors of that size and Sony, Nikon, Fuji, Canon and others putting so much work and research into APS-C (as well as full-frame), it seems obvious to me where the real break-throughs are likely to happen. Just to simplify it further, I’ll offer my-

Top 3 Picks

1) Nikon V1, with kit zooms and the 10mm f/2.8 prime, not to mention the F-mount adapter.

I already use Nikon, so whilst I was initially disappointed with this offering, the more I see, the more I like. The fast operation and built-in EVF make this a great take-anywhere camera, I’ll have a very good chance of getting the shot, which after all, is the whole point of this, especially since all these smaller cameras limit MF possibilities. The image quality is much better than any compact and pretty much up there with the M 4/3, thanks to its efficient sensor, so while I’d like a bigger sensor with more MP and control over depth of field, in terms of size it’s a compromise I’m willing to make to have something good with me daily. The lenses are really good and so small, especially the incredibly pocketable tele-zoom.

Also, being able to use my Nikon lenses with adapter in AF is a huge plus. If it was my only camera, I’d want a bigger sensor, but we are talking second system here anyway, so being able to use existing lenses helps a lot, even if they will all suddenly get very long (2.7x).

2) Olympus EM-5, EP-3, or oldie but goodie E-PL2, (if I’m on a budget), with kit zoom, optional EVF2, Panasonic 25mm f/1.4 and Olympus 45mm f/1.8.

Olympus seems to me to be the best overall system of the CSCs, especially with the combination of Olympus’s retro-themed and complete, image-stablised bodies with the ‘Pana-Leica’ prime lenses. Their only drawbacks compared to the Nikon are a lack of phase-detect AF and in most models built in EVF, which makes for an expensive and ungainly addition. In terms of getting one, I am holding off until Olympus’s exhaustively named OM-D EM-5 hits the streets some time in April. I prefer the styling of the Pens, but am pretty sure I’d miss having an EVF build in and also would much prefer a newer sensor. That said, the list price is pretty high for a CSC with a small sensor, so I may well spring for a lesser model

3) Fujifilm X-Pro 1, with the 35mm f/1.4 pancake.

Here we have something that could relegate my DSLRs to second-class status, something Canikon wouldn’t want to do if they could (and they quite possibly could, some day, seeing what they are capable of). The image quality should be incredible, the handling in relatively still situations a dream. I am thinking if this for travel and nature photography (not wildlife, landscapes, flowers, macro and so on), not to mention portraits. A kind of leisurely style of AF, where accuracy is enough without speed. I can still use my D300 for events, sports and anything where people are liable to move around unpredictably. I’d be using the X-Pro 1 for the street, the mountain, the heritage-worthy sight. I’d enjoy it, get amazing shots I might not otherwise manage and cherish it. If not quite a poor man’s Leica, at least a not especially rich man’s version and with AF, to boot.

I’ve never really thought of any of my (D)SLRs as objets d’art, (except perhaps the beautiful but heavy F90X and D300), I just use them because they are convenient, both viewfinder and lens collection being pretty much irreplaceable. Meanwhile this, like the better Olympus Pens, but with an inestimably better imaging potential, is a camera to love and cherish. Due to the price, I’ll probably never get one, but I can dream and, (unlike those of that ridiculously priced Leica), dreams do have a habit of coming true!


1) Aside from trying them out in stores numerous times and reading about them, both in reviews and user reports, I don’t have any personal experience of actually using these camera systems, but in today’s internet-based age, the information is widely available and samples can be seen, so I feel I’ve been able to form a pretty clear opinion of their relative strengths and weaknesses. Still, you the reader should take this all with a hefty pinch of salt in terms of my ability really to do the subject justice. On the other hand, by not having one, I’m in a pretty objective frame of mind. A purchase generally needs to be justified, or if regretted, generally bitterly (though with all these cameras, the image quality is good enough so there’s no real reason to feel that way).

2) My summaries are all based around a set of personal preferences, if anyone’s views were universal, there’d probably only be a couple of cameras made in the first place! My point of this exercise I suppose is to outline that there are lots of good choices out there, more than you might realise exist if exposed to too many ‘fanboys’, though rather than suffer under the delusion that there is one ‘best’ option, it makes more sense to look around and find what is best for us. Yet, I did find when writing this that there were enough dealbreakers to put me off many models. Such a process of elimination can work wonders and you just need to work out what features you can’t live without, rather than write off any camera per say. For example, the large lenses on NEX make it incompatible with my desire for something smaller, though at the same time I have to admire the supreme image quality their range of sensors give and this makes it a better DSLR competitor than most others just for this reason.

3) The third disclaimer is that I really don’t recommend you go out and buy one of these cameras just on the strength of my recommendation alone (thats a lot of use of the word recommend!) go to a store and try it out, read reviews and hover over forums to find out the experiences of end users, who are users much like you rather than being comparing reviewers. There is no point in getting what you think is ‘best’ if it isn’t what suits your style or needs. Whilst Apple has done an incredible job of bringing usability, function and style all together in their gadget packages and swept the world with them this way, the situation is a lot more complex in the world of digital cameras. Perhaps we need an Apple camera? Perhaps if we had one it would be something like the Nikon 1. Too handicapped for much serious work, but with legions of happy users declaring it the ‘next best thing’. Or on the other hand, perhaps not!

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  1. First Plunge into Mirrorless « Perfect Futures

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