More on Mirrorless

Like a lot of people, during many years of DSLR use, I’d been wanting for some time a lighter, alternative and I decided a few months ago to follow my heart on this and give M4/3 a try. Thanks to some superb pricing, I found myself with an Olympus EPL-2 with the twin zoom kit, something I’d had my eye on for some time, but already having an extensive Nikon system, had been loath to start investing in another one. Yet realising that without too much outlay I could have a pretty comprehensive kit that is very little trouble to carry around and a real pleasure to use, I took the plunge and haven’t really looked back.

Seeing the quality I could get and in many cases superior sharpness and colour, has been quite a revelation. Olympus and Panasonic have given me access to a new family of relatively small, light lenses of incredible quality, with the promise of more to come. Just looking at the results from the 25mm f/1.4 Pana-Leica, or Olympus’s groundbreaking 75mm f/1.8 or 60mm macro is just astonishing. No, I don’t (yet) have a complete system on it, nor do I need to, as I have the Nikons for that. What I do have is a highly portable, if not quite ‘compact’ sized system, with very good sensors, ergonomics and lenses that are in many ways better than their equivalents on DSLR systems, which may come as a surprise to anyone assuming that bigger must necessarily be better.

Meanwhile, I have kept building my ‘main’ Nikon system and have some of the reasonably priced Nikon primes. They are a lot more fun to use than zooms and are sharp and bright, but no way do they have the character and level of interestingness of my M4/3 ones. There is a reason for this.  Whilst my 35mm and 50mm f/1.8’s are in many ways excellent lenses, with fine sharpness, bokeh and usability, they are offered as Nikon’s ‘second best’ to their larger, f/1.4 cousins. Meanwhile, on M4/3, there is no ‘full frame’ to encourage users to ‘upgrade’ to… To mind almost as ridiculous as asking 35mm film users to go out and get a medium format camera if they want a good lens!

Whilst there are grades of lenses on M4/3, you can get some incredible ones without too much outlay. Thanks to the smaller and ‘designed for digital’ sensors to cover, you can get some really excellent glass especially developed for them, a situation we previously only found with the high-end compacts (though M4/3 sensors are so much larger than such compacts that you have a big advantage). What really showed me the strength of the system was reviewing my images, seeing just what I was able to achieve with them. Thanks to Olympus’s intelligently built-in shake reduction and lenses that don’t really need to be stopped down, I could get away with much lower ISOs, so avoid the disadvantage here. I started to get some really amazing results and being able to use the small cameras more casually is undoubtedly a factor in this. In terms of the lens designers, the format means they can much more easily make small sharp creations, that perform really well indeed.

Here are my lenses and a little comment on what it’s like to use them. These aren’t of course reviews, but in a sense user reports. They an’t objective tests, but my feelings of what it’s like to use them. The reference point is all I really know; my experiences with Nikon’s line, on DX, which has it’s own significant advantages when it comes to dynamic range and depth of field control, not to mention being light years better at higher ISO’s (especially compared to the aging sensor in the EPL-2).

Olympus 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II kit lens

I’ll start with probably the weakest lens first. I do like this lens, especially at wider angles stopped down a little (which I only need to do much with this lens in the M4/3 system). It is pretty much unbeatable for the small size and convenience it offers. Yet the longer lengths seem to me a bit softer and less contrasty. Also, whilst the foldable optics are what makes it so small, it’s a pain to use the switch to unfold and refold it all the time. I know, you could just keep it extended, but I find myself doing it all the same.

If I’m to compare, as a kit lens, I generally feel I the Nikon 18-55 is a more flexible lens than this, offering more control over DOF and also being sharp across the range, especially in the center. Strangely enough though, Nikon users feel a need to ‘graduate’ from the limiting lengths of this lens, which makes the comparison a bit academic. What saves this lens is it’s quick focusing, excellent sharpness at wider lengths, which you’ll probably use it more at anyway and the wonderful Olympus colours.

With the handy size, you could well end up getting your best photos with this, as it could be with you more often than others, but I personally wanted the option to increase my weight allowance a bit and get a lens that makes the most of these sharp little cameras, investing in the venerable…

Panasonic 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 OIS kit lens (though sadly one no longer offered as a kit)

After reading so many good reports and seeing some stunning images, I decided to get this lens. It turned out to be cheaper to get ‘secondhand’ in mint condition (probably unused), with the excellent GF1 body thrown in than new, so who am I to complain?! That body, by the way, is ergonomically perhaps the best M4/3 body I’ve come across. It really does feel like a rangefinder for the digital age, rather than a feature-packed compact. If it wasn’t for the fast changes of technology and their effect on image quality, I’m sure it would be even more widely used than it already is. It feels just right like few non-film cameras do, much more so than it’s GX1 descendant.

The lens is a real beauty. Aside from my (very heavy) f/2.8 pro zoom lenses on Nikon, its the best zoom I’ve ever used… and if you take size into account, it’s altogether the best zoom I’ve used. The contrasty photos, the edge-to-edge sharpness, and the pleasant character is something beyond what we are used to getting out of a DSLR zoom. Now, I know it’s digitally corrected, but it is done so well that the process is seamless. Sharp, sharp, sharp. Like I said above, the Nikon kit lens is very good, one of the best DX lenses overall, and offers more DOF control on its sensor, but this is on another level. On the Olympus, with its gorgeous colours, it’s magic… Though at the end of the day, I’d still rather rock with a prime. I heard mixed reports about the very useful 20mm f/1.7, especially on an Olympus body, so again I went for something bigger than usual, to escape from any compromises, which got me the …

Pana-Leica 25mm f/1.4

Now here we have one of the reasons I bought into this system in the first place… For access to a ‘magical’ Leica-designed lens, at a phenomenally lower price than the real thing. This is a very sharp lens, especially closed down a little, but still more than sharp enough wide-open, which is something I can’t honestly say about any of my DSLR lenses, which generally improve in an obvious way as you close them down a bit. This in itself, whether it’s the Leica optics or the M4/3 matching of lens to sensor and electronics, is pretty mind-blowing.

Then there’s the rendering. Sharp, but not harsh, preserving the delicate details and textures of the subject. Wonderful skin tones, flower colours and edges of clouds. The bokeh is without a doubt the best of any lens I have, bar none. This is in terms of quality, there a of course longer ones (at the end of the day, this is 25mm) with more bokeh visible, but none with such nice effects, especially when up close to something.

This lens also focuses smoothly and quickly and also silently, which makes it a good match for video. I do indeed prefer it to my Nikon 35mm or 50mm primes, though it is a close contest with my huge Sigma 50mm f/1.4. That has beautiful bokeh too, probably at least as good, if not quite so full of character and by being twice as long, produces more of it, but that’s a lens so large it often stays home… Whilst this, though no toy miniature, can easily come to the party.

Olympus 40-150mm f/4-5.6

This is my longest lens on M4/3 and its small size, especially folded, shows another the advantage of The format. I’ve been getting some good results with this and I just love the way it can be slipped in the bag. My Nikon 70-300mm, which of course costs a lot more and weighs a ton more, does give more reach (450mm equivalent compared to 200mm) and produces a creamy bokeh a lot more easily, but that is comparing apples to oranges. For what it is, this is great and very sharp. I’m not sure it could be so small without the in-body stablisation either.

This lens is a great deal and whilst I haven’t used it so much yet, it is gradually starting to grow on me. If I have to compare to my Nikon equivalent (though the kit-lens 80-200mm Nikon is a closer match), it is way more portable, which is a huge plus, whilst the Nikon on it’s larger sensors makes it easier to isolate the subject in a smooth sea of colour, the weight and bulk make it hard to bring on longer walks, considering it needs to be accompanied by something wider. Ultimately the Nikon gives me more photographic options, but this can give beautiful results too and fits in a pocket, even a small one. One doesn’t really replace the other and using M4/3 as a companion system seems to make a lot of sense.

Overall my conclusion is that whilst Nikon provides some good, perhaps even excellent lenses for their system, I don’t find they have the character and presence of some of the M4/3 gems, nor are they so exquisite in their imaging. I feel they are designed with a generous, yet broader, cruder brush, perhaps simply because there is more glass involved. Impressive and usable though they may be, to an educated eye, there is something missing and that something is a sense of individuality, an attention to the smallest details. They may have contrast, but not quite as much ‘microcontrast’, as if they are producing images that aren’t intended to be seen up close. It is nothing to do with pixels or peeping, but attention to detail, convenience being hard to come by on a system where lenses could easily grow out of proportion were they ‘fully designed’. Horses for courses, quantity over quality.

Even worse, in many case their designs are biased towards full-frame, which means extra bulk and weight and perhaps even a compromised design to try to meet that format’s need for sharper corners. The advice to stop down for best results, or just close your eyes and not look too closely can wear a bit thin. DX lenses could actually better than FX ones, a point often lost.

By contrast, except for the compact upgraders, M4/3 users are more likely to be enthusiasts, so there is a market for fun, innovative and also elegantly precise lenses… even if it is in fact a relatively small one, the fact is it exists. For there is no upgrading from a M4/3 camera, only to better equipment in the same family, unless one is to leave the system, so Panasonic and Olympus are making great efforts to involve their users. By contrast, Canikon would love for their users to ‘upgrade’ to full frame, though without offering any plans for a smaller version of that (the huge D600, with it’s equally huge lenses doesn’t qualify, though it is a step in that direction).

Right now, my DSLR system is way more versatile, varied and complete and I don’t consider M4/3 a replacement for it, more of a compliment. Yet throw in a few more classy lenses and a good flash, all of which has been released and then I may have all I reasonably need. In a small package. Add a supremely efficient sensor, like the one in the much-praised EM-5, with an even better EVF and you have a real winner.

For many, the (their) system is complete enough as it is and preferable for being so light. Whilst I’m not quite in that camp, I can see it happening soon as more gaps in the lens kine get filled. Just recently, Panasonic released a pair of excellent f/2.8 zooms, which whilst they’d need to be brighter to provide an equivalent depth of field, will certainly produce great results.

If a lot of the DSLR users have upgraded from a compact, looking for something better and on top of this there is a strong desire for a smaller, casual-use or travel camera for more ‘serious’ photogs, the rather basic-looking entry-level DSLRs will have to morph into something a lot sleeker if they are to survive the rise of mirrorless.

Just on a personal level, I think Nikon has made a mistake in taking so long to develop useful primes for the DX user. We really need at least some of the likes of-

16mm (24mm equivalent)

18mm (28mm)

24mm (about 35mm)

35mm (about 50mm)

55mm (about 85mm)

70mm (105mm)

90mm (135mm)

Yet Nikon only gave us the 35mm f/1.8, offering a very expensive 24mm f/1.4. Looking at their pattern of releases, I can see them offering an 16/18mm of some description and certainly a 24mm f/1.8. I know we can use legacy lenses, but they are both too soft on digital and too noisy for video, due to their dated screw-drive AF. Saying we should go MF for the quality on cameras without focus-peaking and small viewfinders is pretty ridiculous IMHO. It just means that after all these years, DX is a less viable system in many ways than mirrorless systems that have only been around for a few years.

I can’t help feeling that Nikon has been falling asleep at the wheel on this issue, being so worried about protecting its traditional markets that they failed to innovate. True, they have the CX ‘1’ system, but it has hardly any lenses and is way to small-sensored to use anything wide effectively from the larger cameras due to the huge crop factor. Sure, it does allow amazing hyper-telephoto usage, but that really is a minority concern and I wonder about the quality it can give on anything but the best lenses. Also true is the wide range of DX zooms both they and 3rd parties have made, but then we are back to the argument that a bright prime is more attractive to use and more conducive to snapshot/creative photography. We altogether have a situation where DX finds it hard to compete, being both too big and not comprehensive enough, which is far from being necessary, as I think handled right it, it has many more years to go in it and in many ways is the ‘best compromise’ sensor size of them all, if one wants some DOF control.

Yet there are admittedly some technical challenges in making wide primes, or even very compact zooms when you have the mirror to think of. The kind of lenses Leica and now M4/3 can handle need a very low distance from the sensor, without needing to be corrected to make way for the mirror. Even if they did make the DX primes we want, they might not be much smaller than the zooms they replace and may need a complex design to maintain quality. If this is the case, they may actually be hard to market, even if they were made.

It seems to me that the time is right for Nikon to start on its DX mirrorless line, if only to compete with NEX, Fuji and the high-end of M4/3. All they need is the same quality of on-sensor Phase-Detection AF that the 1 system cameras have, scaled up and passive adapters would allow users to switch relatively seamlessly. Put in a high quality EVF and excellent movie modes and you would have a very attractive camera. It would mean phasing out DX DSLRs and admitting that despite all the investments made, they were nothing much more than a midway step until mirrorless systems were ready, the same kind of admission that the 4/3 makers had to make when they transitioned to Micro 4/3 and finally found their market.

Who knows, they may even end up using a smaller sensor and doing again what they did with DX and saying you could use existing lenses in crop mode for the time being. They might even copy the M4/3 sensor size, as Canon more or less did with their G1X, yet I think APS-C is plenty small enough, with foldable optics used for lenses and a regular sized flash mount. It’ll definitely be a difficult transition to make, with a high risk of users drifting to other systems, but then again this is already happening and it’s just a question of the speed this happens at.

This is definitely a difficult yet promising time for the camera manufacturers, yet I have to say that mirrorless systems are not only growing, but are upon us as the best way to handle at least the smaller (less than full-frame) sensor sizes and have a wide range of lenses at reasonable sizes. I expect that even by the next Photokina, Nikon will have a mirrorless DX solution on show. Which all doesn’t mean we should sell our DSLRs right now in anticipation, as that system itself will take generations to be as fulfilling as the DSLR’s we have now and using lenses even on passive adapters will probably be ungainly to say the least. Hopefully ‘hybrid’ cameras will emerge that can use both types of lens, the same way full-frame can use DX lenses in crop mode, increasingly with enough resolution to make them viable for even pro work. If you throw in built-in Wi-fi connectivity and perhaps an option to use CX lenses in crop mode, you have a really futuristic machine.

It’s certainly an amazing time to be a photographer. The emerging cameras of the future will make it even more amazing still.

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