Mirrorless Versus the World

I had been working on a new article for this site when Luminous Landscape updated their article on the DxoMark test, which intersects with some of the things I was writing about. But reading Peter's latest thoughts on how to interpret DxOMark sent my thinking down a tangent course to what I was working on: specifically how mirrorless cameras relate to the non-mirrorless camera world at the moment. 

Let's see if I can do this by example:

  • CX (Nikon 1) — From a pure image quality standpoint, CX tops only one rival: compact cameras. Unfortunately, there are two "compact" cameras that have CX or larger sensors, and the Nikon 1 models don't match those cameras (Sony RX-100 and Canon G1x). In image quality. This brings up what I've been hounding Nikon about regarding the Nikon 1 for some time: The Nikon 1's advantage comes via the system, not the individual cameras themselves, and for the system to excel it has to do so either on price or extensiveness or both. The Nikon 1 fails on price (exception: the fire sale on the V1 at the moment), so it's the missing lenses and system parts that are its Achilles heel.

    That said, the Nikon 1 has one attribute that no other compact or mirrorless camera can currently claim: focus performance akin to a DSLR. It also has very high frame rates. Put those together with the FT1 and some Nikon DSLR glass and you have the poor man's wildlife kit. See, it is the system that sells. Of course, I have yet to see Nikon actually promote this in any meaningful way, which may be why they ended up with so much extra V1 inventory. 

    That Nikon has been fairly unaggressive in extending the system quickly means that if the current parts don't add up to enough to overcome the lower image quality and high price, you can see why it didn't get a lot of traction until the recent fire sale pricing started. For someone who just wants a "kit lens" type small camera, the Sony RX-100 trumps any of the Nikon 1 kits. It's only if you need something that the Nikon 1 system supports that the RX-100 doesn't have that the Nikon 1 becomes a reasonable choice in today's market. 

  • m4/3 (Olympus/Panasonic) — With m4/3 we have sort of the opposite situation. Both companies making m4/3 cameras have pushed hard to extend the system and offer options, fast. Options in cameras, options in price levels, options in lenses, options, options, options. 

    So when we look at where the current m4/3 cameras perform vis-a-vis the next larger system, APS/DX, they're either close or equal in image quality (depends a bit on which APS/DX you're comparing to), but look at the systems

    One of my long-established complaints about Nikon is its neglect of DX lenses. Here we are 13 years after the introduction and we've got a total of 17 DX lenses, and even that's misleading because 2 are duplicates and 1 isn't made any more. Yes, at the telephoto end you can substitute FX lenses, of which Nikon has 59 (see the problem?: DX cameras sell in far higher volumes than FX cameras, after all), but you're not getting any size advantage at that point for the smaller sensor involved. Meanwhile, the two m4/3 makers have already produced 30 lenses in four years (Nikon introduced 4 DX lenses in that period by comparison, despite selling many more cameras).

    So in the case of m4/3 we have a comparison to DSLR systems where: (1) the image quality is close; and (2) the m4/3 system is bigger than some rival DSLR systems already. All else equal, guess which one the consumer decides to buy?

    True, all else isn't equal. Just as with the Nikon 1, focus performance could be a differentiator for some users (e.g. those that need continuous autofocus). Still, the m4/3 cameras can be decidedly smaller and lighter than crop-sensor DSLRs and in many cases come close to equalling them for many users.

  • APS (NEX/NX/XF) — Here we have the in-between situation. With the Sony NEX cameras using the same sensor families as their crop sensor DSLRs, the absolute image quality is for all intents and purposes equal. Thus, we're back to the questions of what does the mirrorless system give you that the crop DSLR doesn't, and vice versa?

    Again, we have to talk about system instead of camera. Sony's getting there with lens and other accessories, but they're still not at Canon/Nikon DSLR levels, nor have they matched m4/3. To some degree with NEX today's purchaser is making a bet on the future; that Sony will quickly fill out the system to DSLR equivalence. That seems like a safe bet to me at the moment, but it's still a bet.

    Meanwhile, Samsung simply hasn't found traction with the NX system. It isn't for want of camera, or even to a fair degree lenses. I've found both to be good performers, well designed, and in the case of lenses most of the basic options are already present now. Where Samsung hasn't managed is in getting that message in front of customers: we make a fine camera system, as good as those others. That seems to be a strange lapse from a company that's one of the noisiest and best marketers around. Of course the camera market isn't growing like weeds as the smartphone and tablet markets are, so maybe they don't want to put their advertising clout into a flat camera market. Still, they'd be much like Sony in this market if they were better positioned to sell and market cameras.

    Fujifilm is really just getting off the ground with XF. Two higher end cameras, four lenses as I write this. Moreover, in Fujifilm's case the X-Trans sensor sets off problems with software in the workflow at the moment. Fujifilm's been fickle in the past with their odd-ball sensors, so we need more data and time to figure out whether they're going to stick with this one or not. But overall, they're like Sony and Samsung: good camera body with DSLR-like image quality but less capable focus performance, and a system that's not yet built up enough to be considered full.      

The Christmas run-up is the largest camera buying season each year. Plenty of bargains are floating around out there, but for those of you contemplating mirrorless for the first time, what I wrote above should set your focus:

  • If all you're really looking for is a small and light carry everywhere camera with really good image quality and mid-range zoom, the Canon G1x and Sony RX-100 are the cameras you should be looking at first, not mirrorless.
  • If you're looking for a system that challenges current crop-sensor DSLRs (APS, DX) in all aspects except for perhaps continuous autofocus performance, m4/3 has a more extensive system in place and gives up little in terms of performance, while the NEX/NX/XF cameras give up a bit in today's existing systems while giving up nothing in terms of image performance.
  • Special purpose needs can sometimes be met by mirrorless. The Nikon V1 on sale coupled with the FT1 lens adapter and something like the 70-300mm f/4-5.6 VR Nikkor has to be the least expensive, most capable wildlife reach package available at the moment (810mm equivalent with very good single focus, frame rates, and image quality).    

Happy shopping. Or you could just wait. Come January and February we'll see the next round of announcements in the camera world, and everything may change a bit. Plus I suspect we'll see lots of post-Christmas sales to clear off some excess inventory.

The good news is that the consumer is blessed with a lot of good choices. Virtually any of the mirrorless systems have image quality topping where we were five years ago with DSLRs. So make sure you know what it is you need, what your biases are, what you need in the future, and make an intelligent decision based upon that.

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