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).



The Future of DX?

Note-the following is culled from my reply to a comment on the post The Future of DX- Some Predictions From Thom Hogan, an issue that I feel is even more relevant now, with mirrorless cameras gaining abilities so quickly, one wonders about the long-term future of the smaller DSLRS. I got so involved in writing it, I thought it best to make a full post, lest it be lost in digital obscurity.

Essentially, it maintains that the DX format is far from dead, nor is it really ‘killable’, whether at the lower end by M4/3, or the higher with full-frame, as it offers a great and times even high-end compromise with the virtues of FX. Digital allows for miniaturisation of resolution as never before and newer lens designs make for bright primes of incredible quality, even at lower prices, designed with the help of computers and mass-produced to exacting standards with modern processes. If phone cameras can make so much progress, can something as relatively large as APS-C really be too small for most uses? More likely too big!

Does DX have a future despite the advent of FX (full-frame) digital systems and their advances? Yes, I think so, absolutely. DX sensor size was and is a compromise format. Looking at it’s history, it was first an attempt to modernise film, though the ill-fated ‘APS’ Advanced Photo System films, which were certainly enough of an advance in convenience for most users, if film had survived as the mainstream media long enough to continue in the face of rising digital. Yet even 35mm film was originally a compromise, with medium format being the choice of pros, 35mm meanwhile offering either acceptable or in the case of specialised films and lenses, stunning quality in a portable package.

Things have moved on and people’s expectations have changed. Ultrawide and telephoto lenses are seen less as exotic and more as integral parts of any real system that wants to be taken seriously. DX quite simply can offer smaller versions of these, with acceptable or astounding (relative to the films that went before) resolution and dynamic range. It captures a lot of information and with the rise of 24mp sensors and presumably lenses to go with them, it could well evolve further.

Compromises tend to do very well. DVD was originally a compromise, limiting resolution for lower processor needs for display and to satisfy Hollywood’s desire to control digital distribution. Then a more convenient distribution system came along (not always legally…), in the form of direct digital downloads. These evolved into HD and full-HD varieties and Blu Ray was unveiled, offering sumptuous quality and gorgeous sound… I know, as I enjoy using it. Yet since digital downloads are so perceptibly close for most users and also offer a decent enough advance over DVD for larger screen (a video equivalent to larger print sizes?), Blu Ray is having trouble gaining faction. Perfection has always had trouble competing with a combination of convenience and decent, if not absolute quality.

DX offers Nikon’s and a lot of company’s best chance of competing with the ‘engineered’ compromise of M4/3. DX will always offer a stop or two of advantage and has the benefit of many legacy lenses of all sizes, especially if we include the altered angles on FX lenses. It can be shrunk and even shrunk further, as we see on Fuji’s new Pro-1 system and the success of NEX (which at least shrink the bodies…) The idea of making FX mainstream is, in my view, doomed and not just for price. The lenses and gear generally are just too big and heavy for our digital age. Telephotos, especially, will have to be longer and with the popularity of capturing amateur sports and birding, etc, this is a clear disadvantage, which continues into the bulky ultra-wides. It’s only real advantage is the easy usage of legacy lenses, which with their lack of built-in motors or stablisation isn’t such an advantage after all, at least in the long run.

Nikon are evidently trying to push FX and will soon offer the D600; a smaller, lighter and well-equipped body, yet one that will need relatively humongous lenses in many cases. Legacy lenses often won’t have much in the way of IQ on high-resolution FX, with light falloff and soft corners. This wasn’t so bad on the D700 perhaps, but with 24mp sensors and up, it will increasingly show. I’m not sure how long people will put up with that in the face of the incredible quality being offered in smaller formats. In fact, my guess is they often won’t, especially as resolution rises, and newer and even larger lenses will need to be offered. My M4/3 25mm Pana-Leica is perhaps the best lens I own and had the format been any larger, the cost of perfection would have been prohibitive.

This isn’t to say that FX doesn’t have a great future- I think it does and may well buy into the D600, partly for all the lenses I already have. Yet Nikon should be careful to remember that due to technological progress, this is most probably the medium format of our day, medium format replacing large format and large format becoming increasingly obscure.

Canon has worked this out and made a foray into DX-sized mirrorless, even after their M4/3-sized (or so) sensor in the G1 X. Nikon should and I believe will do the same, yet in the meantime both companies have lost a lot of sales to the mirrorless makers, customers that it may be hard to win back in many cases. The reason for the neglect, to ‘push people’ to FX, a format they may really neither want nor need (except for specialised applications), a format that the D800 has shown needs the very best lenses to function well at higher pixel densities, is a very risky proposition. Other brands are making the DX primes and even wonderful zooms to go with them.

I have friends who say they don’t mind about weight, but then their actions speak louder than words, when they tend to use lighter lenses, or a smaller camera, given the chance. People with D700s and a 24-70 f/2.8 are picking up an Olympus OM5 (or Panasonic G1X) and saying, “Hey, this does everything I need to and without the chiropractor!” I think the D600 will be a wonderful camera and open up FX, with it’s fantastic control over depth of field, to a lot more people, yet it will never be as mainstream as, say, the D7000, or even more so, the D3100, or D3XXX. Beautiful, sharp, small primes are the future for enthusiasts. People who salivate over Leica will flock to Fujifilm or others offering something similar. In refusing to offer them and making ever-larger lenses instead, Nikon is looking to the past, to mediums format’s mantra of ‘quality at any size’ for inspiration, ignoring a huge and growing market segment as it does so.

And no, in case anyone is wondering, the Nikon 1 as it stands now is in no position to rectify this! Perhaps some time in the misty future when ultra-bright lenses are easily made and it can achieve depth of field control. I’m sure it can offer more than adequate resolution and even dynamic range (just look at the warm response to Sony’s recent RX100). Yet to offer the control over depth of field a larger format has on, say, an f/1.4 lens is talking f/0.8, or even less. Sorry if my maths are out, but whatever the exact figure, it’s science fiction with today’s technology and for me, at least, some control over depth of field and the resulting ‘bokeh’ is essential.

Looking forward to the far future and yes, of course the Nikon 1 system could reign supreme, with unimaginably good sensors and the lenses o take advantage of them. If Leica can make small yet immaculate primes for generations, it must be possible! But so far, no-one has been able to do so affordably. If a format lives or dies with its lenses, we will be waiting years for the 1 system to mature and for this user, at least, it makes more sense to use other systems like NEX or M4/3 in the meantime, alongside my trusty, yet also evolving, DSLRs.

Impressions of The Canon M… A Bridge to the Future

Canon EOS M: hands-on preview of Canon’s first mirrorless EOS: Digital Photography Review.

Canon has, as expected, announced the EOS M – its first mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. Based around the same 18MP APS-C sensor as the recent EOS 650D/T4i, the EOS M is the first model to use a new, smaller ‘EF-M’ lens mount. It is launched alongside two EF-M lenses that use STM stepper motors optimized for use with the camera’s hybrid AF system. As we’ve seen before in the mirrorless sector, the EOS M is predominantly aimed at the point-and-shoot upgrader market looking for DSLR quality and makes greater use of a 650D-style touch-screen interface. We’ve been using the EOS M for a little while and have prepared a preview, looking in more detail at Canon’s first mirrorless EOS camera and how it handles.

It may not be all there yet, but there are a lot of promising signs with Cann’s new mirrorless camera. Its actually the route I hope Nikon goes soon, too. Being based around an APS-C sensor that can autofocus with the EOS range of lenses with a simple, passive adapter fitted, there should be a lot of compatibility and no loss in image quality compared to their DSLR range. Yet such a design does bring compromises compared to smaller-sensor digital ranges.

Lets get those ‘dislikes’ out of the way first. An initial body with few manual controls and what looks like poor ergonomics. Reputedly slow autofocus, especially with most existing EOS lenses. No viewfinder, whether opticlal or electronic. EOS lenses will be comparatively large on such a small body and it’s questionable whether people will really want to use them this way, which will mean people need to buy new ones, anyway. With all this, the sensor is probably a generation or two behind the best ones from Fuji or Sony, as used to such great affect in other APS-C cameras. Lastly, the price is high for what looks loke a scooped up compact, even if it isn’t one.

Now let’s see those positives! First of all, there is nothing to stop Canon from fixing practically all these problems in a better body, perhaps one coming out as soon as this Autumn. An attachable EVF, or even a built-in one as in the Sony Nex-7 or Olympus EM-5 could be added and a newer sensor for better quality. The AF, which already has traces of on-sensor PD-AF, which is suitable for legacy lenses and movement-tracking, could be vastly improved. In the form of the G-series of cameras, especially the newest G1X, Canon has a great range with multiple manual controls and great ergonomics to upgrade to this mount with. In fact, many are surprised they didn’t do so already, though perhaps they are ‘testing the waters’ with a simpler model first. If the body is a tad bigger this way, perhaps like the Panasonic G, or GH models, that’s no problem as far as using existing lenses goes, which is surely the biggest advantage of this design choice.

Now it’s true that Sony and others have adapters that can do this, but they arenall flawed in ne way or another, especially by not offering fast autofocus. The Sony one that does is huge and expensive, making me wonder if a DSLR wouldn’t be better for this. The M4/3 ones have really slow AF, due to no PDAF on their sensors. The best AF is probably on the Nikon 1 series… But who wants a 2-7x multiplier in normal use? The inability to control depth of field here is also pretty limited, it’s no wonder most of the cameras targeted at serious users or pros are based around APS-C or larger sensors. Not everyone is looking for a ‘large compact’, leaving aside some of the exotically bright f/0.95 lenses for M4/3 for the moment.

So although this particular model is limited to the point of uselessness for the likes of me, it bodes very, very well for the future. Even the touch screen interface seems to do a lot right, being capitative and multi-touch (like a smart phone), rather than needing hard presses like the Panasonic models I’ve tried. Although I’d like many more manual controls, for the tactile feeling they bring, a good touch screen would certainly beat laborious menus for the increasingly complex features that digital cameras have these days.

Until a better implementation comes along, I’ll stop short of awarding this a Perfect Future award. This does in the longer term seem like the perfect bridge between DSLRs and mirrorless, especially for those with a large investment in glass. Wether it is successful and pans out to more sophisticated models remains to be seen, but with Canon’s success rate, I can hardly imagine it being a failure. And as a great copier of their ideas in so many fields, I’m hoping for a Nikon alternative, one which gets more right from the start, too (anyone for an APSC V1 with more controls… count me in!

Then sooner or later, though probably a bit later, we’ll have the full-frame mirrorless cameras, the first real competition to the stratospherically pricy Leica M9 range. My own view is that if enough fine, bright primes are made for APS-C sensors, this won’t be as necessary as it now seems, as Fujifilm seems to be demonstrating with their new range. We’ll have to see, though, as the is always room for more quality if there’s a market for it that is.

Life with the Olympus E-PL2

Finally, I got myself some mirrorless action and I have to say, I’m loving it! In many ways this is the camera I’ve been waiting for years and I just came around to realising it did indeed arrive, already. As a DSLR user, I love the image quality and ever-increasing features, but hate the bulk, and in some ways mirrorless cameras this Pen are a salvation from it. Looking at images on the computer screen, I’m seeing a lot of quality there already, some incredible colours and outstanding sharpness, even from the entry-level zooms I got with it. Sooner or later, I’ll be getting After a while I got the Pana-Leica 25mm f/1.4 and expect to be was beyond my wildest dreams even more blown away by results from this, the best prime lens I’ve yet to use.

In terms of high-ISO, dynamic range or resolution, the results from the 12mp sensor are not really up to the standards of my Nikon D5100, but perhaps up there with earlier cameras, I’m not quite sure. I generally cap it at ISO 800, which is not even as good as the D5100’s 3200, but still the advantages are astounding. With full-time live view, I can see the results of exposure, picture styles or the special Olympus Art filters right up before I press the shutter button. Let me tell you, that in itself is a revelation. I remember the film days when you’d stop down the lens with a button to have a DOF preview, which was actually a pretty big deal them and you’d generally want a camera that could do this. This is the same thing, just 1000x more effective. You can be way more creative than ever before in this way, AS you take the picture, not at a PC afterwards, or to a lesser extent, checking the results afterwards. That whole, ‘take the picture now and get it ready afterwards’ takes away a lot of the thrill and pleasure of experimenting with photography, creating images that have never, ever been taken exactly that way before. This camera and the system it is a part of helps restore the excitement, at least for me.

The camera is small and light, the lenses too, being almost weightless, even the (slightly long by comparison), 80-300mm equivalent zoom (80-150mm). Putting IS in the camera was a remarkably prescient choice, allowing for such small, light lenses, and for absolutely every lens used to be stabilised, which is especially wonderful for immaculate primes. I just love it and find it very effective and the beauty is newer iterations will be even better, on the same exact lenses. I found I could  discretely take photos of people and things and dogs, for that matter, without any intimidation and with fast, accurate and face detecting autofocus (yes, even on the dogs). Seeing as I am getting this as a kind of replacement or grade to a high-end compact, this is a revelation and of course newer models will have even better AF and perhaps even phase-detect, as Nikon incorporates.

Did I say it already, but I love the colours! So vivid and natural and pleasing, perhaps the nicest I’ve yet seen from a digital camera, except perhaps my trusty old F30 largish-sensor compact by Fujifilm, that captured some very pleasing colours as well. I like my vivid Nikon colours, too, but they don’t quite ‘sing to me’ in the same way and certainly the skin tines don’t seem quite as good. I generally use them in Raw and fiddle around (less and less though these days, as the quality is outstanding there, too) but at least at lower ISOs, I’d happily use this camera in Jpeg. Fast, quick,responsive and a picture that’s ready to see straight from the camera.

The Art filters seem to me more usable and pleasing than I have on my Panasonic LX5 and are certainly more interesting than anything I’ve seen in another camera. Even ‘Pop Art’ looks good to me, though I’ve been playing around with the dramatic tone and grainy black and white options more, the later giving a super-contrasty look that suited a lot of images and the former, yes, you guessed it, an element of drama. I’ll put a few examples up here to see what I mean. Of course, all this is nothing you couldn’t do in a way at least on a computer afterwards, but where’s the fun in that, at least with a compact-sized camera suited for quick sharing. I like living now and shooting now and this helps me to do that. Of course, if you are anal like me, you can do the ‘Raw + Jpeg’ trick and have a regular photo too, at a cost in file-size and probably I’ll end up doing that sometimes at least.

I also love the built-in flash, which you can actually angle upwards and bounce. How intelligent is that?! A flash that’s always on the camera and can be bounced all the time. Sure, it’s not as powerful as an extra one, but it will be enough in many cases. Along with the built-in stabilisation, this really feels like a camera from the future and makes others that appear to have a built-in pressure to buy more accessories rather than the feature itself seem antiquated. I know, though, that lens based stabilisation and larger flashes are a lot more capable, especially for power users, but since there is nothing to stop them from being added if need be, it is a simple act of genius to include them in the camera body.

So, I am finding mirrorless even more enjoyable to use than I thought, much more so than any compact. Though I am now a member of the M4/3 club, it has opened my eyes up more to the advantages of such systems generally. The Nikon 1 system has a smaller sensor, but much faster and more flexible AF (very important, this, as MF will be hard on these small cameras) and even smaller lenses, the disadvantages of course being less ability to control the DOF, which for me is essential and the small lens selection right now, especially when it comes to primes. NEX offers much better image quality, but again, a small lens selection and whilst in both these cases you can use more with an adapter, that is hardly ideal and they are going to be massive and ungainly on the camera. Here the Nikon has an advantage, as it will easily AF the larger lenses, up to a point, but with the 2.7x crop, it’s really more for telephoto than regular usage. Anyway, just throwing that in, as other systems are also excellent, carefully designed and worthy of consideration. Who knows, I may get one from theirs too in the future, but for now I’m very happy with this and in fact looking forward to both more lenses and a better, E-M5 style body in the future, especially if I find myself using this more than I anticipated.

One thing is for sure, just a few minutes with a mirrorless camera will convince you that with their quick, easy operation and excellent image quality, this is the way of the future and DSLRs will find themselves in increasing competition from them, after a while finding it hard to survive. I wont be selling my gear and moving camp, though, as I’m very confident that Nikon (and Canon) will make APS-C and eventually full-frame mirrorless models over the next few years and my lenses will be just as relevant on them for decades to come.

First Plunge into Mirrorless

I’ve finally taken my first plunge into the great ocean of mirrorless cameras! It’s something of an historic moment for me, as after 15-odd years of using Nikon SLRs, I’m finally buying into another system (not including a host of compacts). After a lot of careful (some would say obsessive) research and window-shopping, I finally clicked the buy button, on an Olympus E-pl2. It’s kind of interesting, as my first cameras were Olymouses, compacts that looked easier to use than an SLR and full of the latest technologies, at least for that time. Today, unusually for a tech-lover like me, I went for something a generation behind in performance for the consistent retro-styling and a sense of being fun to use. I really love the EP-2/ EP-3 styling and the E-pl2 is the most recent scaled down version of this Olympus has made. In fact, I’ve had my eye on this camera ever since it was first announced and the fact that I can now buy it online for a mere ¥42,700 (I know, the price keeps changing), with a two-zoom kit pushed this shopper over the edge. That’s what I’d generally spend on just one DSLR lens, or a high-end compact. I’d really like the EP-3, a truly beautiful and fast camera but it comes at a much higher price and contains a lot of outdated technology when you compare it with the soon to be released EM-5, so any kind of big purchase like that is something I’d do in the future, or perhaps never do, with all my investment in Nikon gear. This way, I get to dip my feet in that great ocean without too much risk of drowning in it.

So with all the choices out there, why did I chose this? One big influence was this blog post by Jonathan Fleming, which shows what wonderful images you can get straight out of this unassuming camera. Another one was the peculiar price oscillation I saw for this on Amazon. Though according to the price has been gradually sinking over the past few months, it actually alternates every few days between 42,700 and 51,000 yen, so that’s a pretty decent saving for timing it right. For me, online shopping is a bit like hunting a wild animal, you need just the right amount of planning and cunning if you are to get the killer deal! Of course, there were many other possibilities and still are. Mirrorless certainly offers a lot of variety, but the good thing is that if you stay away from the latest and greatest,  they are generally priced so affordably that you could buy more than one if you really wanted. Still, no-one wants to waste their hard-earned money and I recently made a fairly exhaustive study of the options out there right now, in my post, A Mirrorless Ocean, which is probably too long for anyone to do more than glance at, but if you scroll down to my conclusion, you’ll see what I mean.

Other Options, Other Opinions

Small but massively heavy, more the first of the robo-cameras than the last rangefinder.

If you look at that post, you’ll see that initially my favourite was the Nikon 1 series, so why the second choice? Well, trying out the Nikon J1 and V1 in my hand basically put me off them. I realise they have excellent performance (in good light) and sharp little lenses, but they really feel like bars of molded soap. In the case of the feature-rich V1 though this is more like a smooth brick; at around 500kg, that thing is heavy and not exactly good-looking. The J1 loses a lot of its advantages, but it is lighter, though I had to wonder, do I really want to whip out something so toy-like and amateur-looking everywhere I go? This is all the more relevant in a walk-around, social camera, than one I’ll be relying on on photography-centric trips. Answer- resounding ‘no’. Then, at our camera show in Ginza, one of the members was taking photos with an elegant EP2 and asked me to take his photo. It felt so nice in the hand and after all, shouldn’t the things we use feel good? This is a published photographer, who used Contax rangefinders and medium format around the world. The fact he used only this EP2 on a month trip around Europe last summer was a pretty good advertisement. Style and performance in one- and the E-pl2 is a direct descendant of that model (which I’ll admit feels a lot nicer to use).


The nearest competition for me was the Panasonic G1X. With better movies and AF in a decent body, along with a newer 16mp sensor, it is an attractive option. Yet there were strikes against it, too. For one thing, it doesn’t have an affordable twin-zoom kit and I think I could well use these little cameras for their telephoto ability, which becomes very large on DX and simply massive on FX. I actually often use my Canon G9 in this role, with its generous 35-210mm lens and decent 1/1.7” sensor, sometimes with a 2x converter. Having something an order of magnitude better for this without too much extra size is very attractive. Yet buying lenses separately quickly becomes very expensive and I’d rather invest in my Nikons that way. More to the point, the G1X feels too serious for me, just too minimal and cold. Plus the menus are not only horrible to look at, but only in Japanese (here), for some bizarre reason. Small points, perhaps, but I want a camera I actually enjoy using. Picking it up, it feels solid and capable, but not really all that much fun, which I suppose is the idea of styling something as more tool than toy.


From what I’ve seen, though, similarly to my LX5, the pictures from it come out dull and lifeless, so you have to PP to get them looking as vibrant as Olympus Jpegs. No problem if you use it in Raw, though it’ll probably take time to get them looking just right and I find with things like skies, Panasonic goes for some weird colours that are really hard to correct, though it may be possible. With Lightroom camera profiles you can shoot in raw and generally only need to adjust exposure or white balance a little, but Panasonic needs much more than that to look good enough. Aside from this, it really is an excellent little camera and it is a very hard choice between it and the E-pl2, it also having it’s own retro style and solid controls, being a bit like a scaled-up LX5. It has an attractive twin lens option at ¥51,000, with both the prime 14mm f/2.4 and a stabilised 14-42mm zoom and whilst  I like that set if only for the prime, I would much prefer the excellent 20mm f/1.7 Panasonic makes, which I’ll probably end up getting and using as my main lens. Yes, it’s that good, so much so that the set with the GF1 it first came out with has actually appreciated with time and is offered for a hefty 80,000 online! Panasonic’s original kit zoom 14-45mm is also reputedly the best in class, despite it’s size, so I may well get one of those some day. That’s the great thing about M4/3, the variety of good lenses, small and relatively affordable, something I’ve been waiting in vain for on Nikon DX mount.

Then we have the newer Pen models. The E-pl3 improves on this in so many ways. It brings a tilting LCD, faster AF and 1080p video, but it also brings a super-slim compact style body with no built-in flash. I just didn’t like the feel of it, especially with the kit lens on it, the same way I feel about the NEX models. It is elegant in its own way, but has few control and none of that retro, cool style I look for in a Pen. I can see why it exists and they made a great job with it, as similarly to a lot of Panasonic users it is aimed fairly and squarely at those upgrading from a compact who probably don’t really want to carry around a DSLR, though would like at least some of its performance. I’m certainly not dissing it as a camera, though at the end of the day, it costs quite a lot more for the same kit as I have (¥66,000 vs ¥43,000), yet it both loses the retro styling and doesn’t add a newer sensor. Essentially, a well-taken photo will be the same. I figure that the Pens are refreshed so frequently that soon there will be a nice model with all those and more features, especially the new 16mp sensor and 5-axis optical stabilisation of the E-M5, perhaps even with a new pancake lens improving on the current, dark 17mm f/2.8 Olympus makes. I prefer having various bodies with lenses than changing lenses and missing a shot, so having this in addition some day might be an option, though I’m tired of waiting for it to appear, as not only will it take a while to come out, but it will start off being around twice the price, which is more than this consumer wants to spend on such fast-changing technology.

You pays your money and you makes your choice.

So you pays your money and you makes your choice! I’m anticipating really loving the style and feel of this camera, though perhaps feeling a bit frustrated by its performance. Hopefully it’ll be enough, but we’ll have to see, as I’m generally shooting still things anyway. In a sense, though, the body’s being thrown in with the lenses, probably in the hope that I’ll buy more of each in the future. We’ll have to see about that, though I definitely have my eye on that Panasonic 20mm, which would make for a fantastic little set and probably all I’d want or need in many situations; yes, it sounds that good! A rangefinder for the new millennium. The zooms are really just for their convenience, though I do love their small size and smooth, fast, silent focussing, which will be great for video (even if this cam is a bit backward in that area, not a major concern for me as I won’t use it much). This has actually been a long time in the making, I’ve had my eye on a Pen for years now and really desired something like that, with built-in IBIS and a small lens to take around with me. Who knows, I might like the results so much it gets chosen instead of my Nikons. I’m really looking forward to playing around with it, taking some semi-macros and using the art filters, possibly in RAW+Jpeg mode, so I have a ‘regular’ photo as well. It’s certainly going to be a big just up from my compacts, my only other choice for really traveling light and one I was never completely satisfied with, with their tiny sensors and fixed lenses.

* Note, product photos were taken at the 2012 CP+ Show in Yokohama, Japan. No cameras were hurt in the making of this blog post.

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…


The Playful Spirit of Creative Photography

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Since I last broached the issue last year, there have been a flurry of releases and announcements making this ‘compact system camera’ (CSC) genre increasingly attractive, not only for what we’ve seen, but also for what it hints at. So why bother with a smaller camera? Apart from being more portable, it stands a good chance of being more fun. Look at the DSLR’s. With a few exceptions perhaps, they all look practically the same. Whilst they may have picture styles and so on, the tendency is to shoot as literally as possible, to capture the scene and perhaps play around later with post-processing. They are image-capture machines, very good ones and allow for a lot of creativity, but I’m not so sure that they actively encourage the same kind of experimentation and zaniness as a smaller camera might, one that you bring along to capture what you happen to see and do, rather than having necessarily stepped outside to ‘take photos’.

By contrast, each company’s mirrorless models are wildly different, almost as if they were species as various as a tiger or an antelope. Not having to support a mirror or film has made just about anything possible. Sony, Olympus, Panasonic Nikon, Pentax (and no doubt soon Canon, too), have not only different sensors, but an entirely different concept of what kind of body to put it in. We are witnessing a kind of biodiversity that never really came to digital imagery, except for the odd ‘camera of the future’ prototype until now. Sure, there were some unique designs released, often in compacts, but unless larger sensors were being used, as these do, there wasn’t much point in taking them too seriously and they were often evolutionary dead ends. Now that semi-large-sized sensors like M4/3 or NX can be so high quality, the door is open for all kinds of form-factors and experimentation.

Along with this, I also detect a rekindling of varied, creative photography itself. Now that macho megapixels are less important (and I think they still are to a point, just to get enough fine detail in an image), there is more of a focus on the image’s richness. Dynamic range, artistic style, pleasing colour are all coming to the center stage the way they haven’t since, well, choosing different films was all the rage! Once you can trust your camera to do its thing in the image processing pipeline, there’s just more a state of mind that might produce interesting photos as a by-product of a zest for life, rather than one feeling pressured to capture things ‘as they are’ in the world. It’s basically a question of philosophy and of not letting the power of the gear dictate how it is used, impose any seriousness that might be stifling, or otherwise limit you with an awe of technology. Feeling open to playfulness is a good thing, as playfulness leads to creativity, playfulness being in itself a creative state.

Anyway, I just got into all this to suggest that we should be open to other types of photography, whether post-processed or done with magical filters on the camera (preferably with jpeg/RAW capture to ensure a pristine digital negative). To my mind, this free approach has its natural home on the rangefinders, the Holgas, light DSLRS and perhaps even the camera phones, as they are (relatively) small, light, unassuming and also in their own way very precise, specially made and specialised towards a particular type of capture. A rangefinder is naturally at home with a bright prime, a Holga with its diffuse, mysterious lens and a camera-phone (though less and less these days) simply low quality, lo-fi, with the unique aesthetic this brings. Okay, camera phones have long lost this ever since the iPhone 3G had its camera upgraded, but you will see that Instagram et all makes up for the progress by lofi-ing it once more.

Now, with mirrorless, we have another burst of rangefinderesuqe tools making their way into the world, discouraging merely literal photography with their picture styles, art modes and what not. As they get more popular, they have made their way onto DSLR’s too, with increasing sophistication. I wonder if the results will be taken seriously the same way cross-processing, various types of black and white and exotic lenses are? I suspect it will all come down to how well the effect is done.

In a sense all this is a strange and ironic business. For a camera to succeed it has to be taken seriously, but here I am talking of making them more fun to use. In fact a seriously designed and capable camera that doesn’t get in the way ends up being a lot of fun to use. Knowing the final image will be high quality just helps you get into it all with gusto. The results of all this really can be incredible!

To close, here is a slideshow of image edits of The Incredible Machine, which I’ll be showing in a gallery in Ginza later in the year. The photos were all taken years ago in England, with a Nikon D70 and a Tamron 24-135mm lens. The filters were all added from FX Studio Pro, a sophisticated filtering program available from the Mac App store, or on iOS as an iPad version. I had great fun seeing how the photo changed, not so much getting further away from the original as you might think. No, no, no, getting closer to the nostalgic feeling that the event inspired in me. What is reality? In terms of our personal experience, it’s only what we see of it and through the arts, this insight can miraculously be shared.

Mirrorless World

It is now 2012 and I think this will be the year when the mirrorless, or CSC (compact system camera) comes of age. New systems will emerge and already establish ones will reveal a lot more of their potential. While I don’t see any yet as a true replacement to a DSLR, whether it be cropped or full-frame varieties, they are an excellent back-up system or alternative for those who don’t really want to use one in the first place… which to my mind includes a lot of the people who have been buying them for the past years simply because if oyu want a good image, there hasn’t been much choice.

Here at Perfect Futures, I am preparing a pretty exhaustive look at what some of these systems bring to the table and, more importantly, what they mean for photography in general. In the mean time, I wish you all a belated new year and the best of luck with whatever projects you are involved in!

Hands on With the Nikon 1

People following this blog may notice a recent obsession with mirrorless cameras, excited by their new features, in the search for something small yet high quality to carry around. Well, expect this theme to continue, as I go hands on with the new Nikon 1, their sudden but not entirely unexpected entry into the mirrrorless field. I will add one thing here straight off the bat- it would be foolish in my view for anyone to discount this camera out of hand for those wishing to upgrade from a compact. Likewise, it is far from certain that this is Nikon’s last word on the mirrorless scene. Although they have effectively discounted anything quite the same as Micro 4/3 by going smaller than it, I’d be very surprised if they weren’t prepping a NEX-like APS-C version that would (probably with an adapter) work well with F-mount lenses, offering fast AF at least with the AF-S ones. So bearing this all in mind and remembering the target market- upgraders from a compact, lets see how she handles!

J1 Red

The J1- Competition for compacts?

First of all, this is one small camera, about the size of a compact. In the case of the J1, it is also pretty light, though I found the magnesium-alloy V1 to be a bit heavy. Well, magnesium is there to give more strength to the body and for some people it will feel more substantial, more like an old-school rangefinder, despite the modern, minimalist, almost industrial styling. The V1 is the enthusiast model, a bit strange seeing as the camera is purportedly being aimed at compact users, but I suppose we are lucky to have it, as with its built-in EVF yet small size, it is one of the very few mirrorless cameras ready for semi-serious photography right out of the box, without needing a bulky add-on as do the Olympus and smaller Panasonic models. Now, some will say, seeing the size and weight of these, ‘what is the point of the smaller sensor’? Well, I think in terms of the size of lenses, in this realm, less (bulk) is more. Yet, with a body you have to hand-hold and operate effectively, there is a point where the controls would get so small and the feel so insubstantial that you reach the point of diminishing returns. In short, there would be no point in making the body even smaller, though I would hope for smaller and brighter lenses.

It feels decent to hold and the capabilities of the electronics within it really shine. Hearing the uzi-like whirr as it shoots in 60fps and then offers you a perfectly sharp choice make this a great snapshot camera whoever is using it and even on a longer lens, the autofocus dances around the screen as you move the position in a way I’ve never encountered before, including my DSLR. The D300 with its ‘good’ AF hunts with my 70-300 VR2 in less than perfect light, especially when not using the central bank of cross sensors and then it often refuses to even pick up anything. Even a short lens takes time to get in position, wasting valuable microseconds of the moment I was looking at. Here, this process still noticeably takes time, but much less of it. I should add that, like any AF system, it required something contrasty to lock onto. It still is no substitute for prearranged MF, though for most people and many situations AF is, of course, necessary.

Then we have the lenses. Much has been made about how dark they are, how big and heavy the longer ones are, too. What is the point of a sensor half the size of Micro 4/3, if you end up with in many cases actually bigger lenses? Well, first of all, we have to address a certain myth here. This being that a larger sensor and smaller lens will necessarily end up with a better final image. Now, I know no-one is saying a smaller lens will take a better photo, but in asking for this compromise for convenience, it has to be remembered that it is just that, a compromise and one not so different from accepting a smaller sensor. Smaller sensors are inherently cheaper to make and in this case, allow for the deployment of much higher technology in the processing and AF departments, with less area to cater for. Oversized for their format though they may seem, we will have to see from image testing if the Nikon lenses are better, for their cost, than those from other companies. I know, for a start, that the kit lenses for the Sony NEX and Olympus Pens get terrible reviews. By contrast, the larger and more expensive (especially now it has to be ordered separately) Panasonic 14-45mm gets very good reports. Could it be that the search for smaller lenses is turning up underperforming ones? None of this is for free. If the Nikon lenses are the same size, darker, but still optically much better, it may be worth it, at least for the moment. This system is crying out for smaller, brighter lenses, no doubt about it. Yet if the ones it has are very good, and Nikon’s track record with kit lenses make this entirely feasible, then at least we will be seeing some good images right from the get go without any need for users to research, mix and match to get even a decent normal zoom , as on the other systems. This issue is clearest with the absurdly large and heavy 10-100mm, which is as big, yet darker than it’s DX 18-200 counterpart, or the Sony NEX equivalent! So, while I’m not all that happy with the lenses’ size or brightness, making a light wide zoom isn’t all that easy and for the moment this camera shares the mirrorless problem of lenses that are too big for their bodies. Hopefully and if it takes off, others will come.


V1 LCD- hard to see here, but very sharp and vibrant.

The next thing is the on-camera operation. Now here we are definitely in compact territory. It is a clean, simple menu, but even to switch between A/S/P/Auto modes, you have to use a camera menu. More many photographers, simply not good enough. But here, again, we should pause for thought. The aperture setting originated with film cameras, where there would be an enormous difference between, say, f/2.8 and f/8 (about as high as you should go on such a small sensor without risking diffraction, anyway). Yet, on the Nikon 1, unless you are really close to something, I doubt it will really make all that much discernible difference. There simply isn’t all that much control over DOF, especially with the dark lenses available now. Add to this the fact that a lot of compact users, who are the intended market, wouldn’t even know what this is, and you have a good reason to delegate it to other functions. Usually, there are the obligatory ‘scene modes’ in this place and more recently, ‘Art’ modes, offering B&W, toy camera and a host of others, some of them very interesting. Yet Nikon here goes further, offering both high quality 1080P video at 60i, though there are compacts offering this too, and a kind of moving picture mixing a second of slow-motion footage with a photo. I’m not sure this will catch on, or just be a novelty, but it is interesting to see a blending of Full HD video and a photo in one. It reminds us that digital cameras are becoming more and more electronic imaging devices, constructing the final result from captured data, and less optical mechanical devices, in the traditional vein. I’m not sure about it in this instance, but this kind of thing, especially with photos being shared through the internet more than being printed, may be the ‘photo’ of the future, capturing the mood of the occasion in a way a still photo would find harder. Anyway, as with so much else about this camera, interesting and innovative, even if not photographically essential.

Along with the fast AF, made possible by phase-detect modules being on the sensor itself working along with the usual contrast detect (reliance on the latter alone making for slower AF on most mirrorless systems, though of course it’s gradually getting better), we have a new form of electronic shutter. It can take photos as fast as 1/16000 second, and up to 60fps. Applying this to larger formats with their bright lenses and large sensors, this could be a real game- changer, but even in the realm of upgrades from compacts, it can bring a new types of convenience. This seems to me to be the trump card of this camera, what with its current inability to have significantly smaller dimensions than the competition (if indeed, that could desirably be done at this phase, considering ergonomics and quality lens design). Which brings us conveniently to the marketing question- is it worth paying so much for this? People will vote with their wallets, but I’d say a very clear ‘no’! The price will have to come down a lot, even by as much as half to make it attractive to the likes of me. Consumers who generally buy compacts also probably won’t pay so much for what comes across as so little, however hard Nikon tries to make it attractive. I’m not saying such fast AF and processing isn’t worth what they are asking, just that it’s not something I see many people, consumer or enthusiast, being willing to splash out on, especially seeing as it is a new system with a weak selection of lenses. Having said that, this may be part of Nikon’s plan, lowering the price after a time after they’ve increase the perceived value of the product. Even if they become class leaders, their features of 1080p capture and relatively fast AF are becoming ubiquitous, so I don’t see people spending a high premium just for that. In fact, for the moment the pricing is attracting a lot of internet hostility, much as the PS3’s launch did, so whilst Nikon may see all publicity as a good thing, I think they should be wary of consumer backlashes, tempting people to buy something as a lifestyle accessory and then making it unaffordable. Either way, I expect the price to fall in a pretty dramatic fashion in the coming months.

J1 in white. Just another fashion accessory for girls?

So now we have to ask, who exactly is this being aimed at? As Nikon says, people wanting something better than a conventional compact and prosumers, or even perhaps pros, wanting something significantly smaller and lighter. This is of course the conventional wisdom of mirrorless solutions, but I see Nikon going far beyond this, at least with their advertising campaign and ability to garner so much attention to the device, despite it’s seeming limitations. Even more so than any before it, it is positioned as a consumer electronics device even more than as a camera, appealing to a broader market than photo enthusiasts and perhaps aiming to create new ones, just as the iPod found new MP3 listeners, or the Nintendo DS found new gamers. It is not being marketed as a ‘camera’, but more as a fusion electronic imaging device emphasising video as much as photography, even having the two mixed together. Not only is there the ‘motion snapshot’ mode, but also the ability to take a full-resolution photo while taking a video. The 60fps capture mode is also video-like, automatically taking picks from a video stream in full resolution. I see Nikon as trying to do with this format what Apple did with the iPod, or more recently iPhone and to a lesser extent, iPad, positioning their device as a non-geek lifestyle accessory that will enhance their visual communications. Now this could be BS or a very profound statement of the position of digital cameras in our culture right now. Time will tell if this is a big hit for Nikon, or just a resounding flop.

My bet? Until they can bring down the price and get a small, light wide-ranging zoom on the thing (27-150 equivalent, or so), this just won’t be much of a better option than a compact for much of their target audience. Relatively high prices for what you get vs a DSLR and an unrealistic expectation that people will change lenses (a PITA even for pros, who often gravitate towards Nikon’s 24-120mm on full frame despite the better IQ of their 24-70mm) are really holding back mirrorless cameras, despite their advantages. A more realistic target, especially with the V1, would be the LX5/G12 scene by offering size and convenience and much better quality. As an LX5 user, I’m actually very interested in how it shapes up and the availability of more lenses for it, small wide zooms and even exotic primes in the f/0.9 range. Marketing can do amazing things, though and I’m sure the IQ will be more than enough for the target audience, so their benefit from flexible usage will more than make up for any relative deficit there. I’m pretty sure it will be successful, as actually are all the mirrorless lines, just maybe not quite as much as Nikon hopes.

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!

Straight, No Chaser.

A Traditional Photography Blog - dehk © 2016

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