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).

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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.

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…

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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

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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