The New State of Mirrorless 

(commentary)

From time to time I write about where we are in terms of some desirable photographic traits in the mirrorless market. Since we've had a lot of cameras introduced recently, it's time for a quick update:

  • Focus — The Nikon 1 cameras are still the winner here, as nothing else can quite match them with continuously moving subjects yet. However, the Olympus E-M1 is wickedly fast on static subjects and decent at some types of moving subjects. Everyone seems to be upping their game here, so if you tried a mirrorless camera two years ago and thought it just couldn't deliver for focus, you might want to check again. 
  • Dynamic Range — With a small caveat, the Sony A7 and A7r just run rings around anything else we've got. Those sensors that were so good in the Nikon D600 and D800 are still good ;~). The small caveat has to do with the way Sony compresses raw files. They use a lossy compression, and what gets lost depends upon subject detail (or lack thereof). It's a complex subject, and it rarely ends up as an artifact that shows, but I personally would rather have the full data available. I would also point out that, despite the DxO numbers, I don't find the m4/3 dynamic ranges to be all that deep. These cameras, from a practical sense, are about where we were with crop sensor DSLRs four years ago, before the latest adjustments to the Sony APS sensors. Do not expect D800 (or A7r) level dynamic range out of m4/3 cameras. Not even close. That said, there's plenty of dynamic range in virtually all of the mirrorless cameras these days. One other thing: be careful about metering. The new E-M10 seems to be metering to protect highlights far more so than the E-M5, for instance. This has the net result of technically underexposing the raw data (though it is lifted back up by the JPEG processing and raw converters), and if you shoot at metered exposures you're actually sacrificing some dynamic range in order to often protect just a few specular highlight pixels (see this article).
  • JPEG Quality — Olympus and Fujifilm have long been known for their pleasing out-of-camera JPEGs. Panasonic and Sony have come a long way recently and are basically close to that level. Note that I wrote "pleasing," not "accurate." Moreover, most people talking about JPEG quality actually tend to not get in and do much, if anything, with the sub settings. What they're really talking about is "the default settings produce really nice images." Yes, we've come quite a way with this. But frankly, we've always had a lot of tuning ability, and there hasn't been a camera yet I couldn't get "pleasing" JPEGs from. 
  • Low Light Capability — This is a slightly trickier thing to write about, because we have some shenanigans we have to watch out for. For example, if you boost contrast so that shadows drop to black fast, you can mask noise. What I'm seeing more and more is that camera makers are changing their "curves" in how raw data is interpreted to gain a little boost in noiselessness. This is a trend that started in the DSLRs and now has spilled over into all cameras. That said, ISO 1600 isn't to feared on any mirrorless camera, and many now do quite well into the ISO 3200 to 6400 range. Moreover, we've gotten some interesting new noise reduction in post processing solutions that can be amazing. The DxO Optics Pro PRIME technology, though it will probably take many minutes to run on your computer, does a really good job of dealing with pixel level noise. 
  • Handling — The current trend is towards making mirrorless cameras into "mini DSLRs" in terms of both looks and handling. That's not a bad thing. We do, after all, have 50+ years worth of tuning the SLR-type handling (sometimes for the good, sometimes into strange not-so-good realms). A well handling modern DSLR is faster to use and easier to set than older film-type SLRs. Yes, I know you all love "retro" dials, but that doesn't make a camera necessarily faster and easier to set, it mostly makes for more visible feedback when the camera's display are off. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against dials, but they have to be done right, not done randomly. The Olympus E-M1 is probably the camera that most handles as I'd expect coming from a Nikon DSLR (twin control dials, plenty of controls accessible with eye at viewfinder, etc.). But more and more I'm finding that the others are similar. The Sony A7's are more DSLR-like than mirrorless, for example. The recent Fujifilm X bodies are all trending that way. Panasonic's GX7 and GH3/GH4 are definitely mini-DSLR like, even though the GX7 has a more rangefinder-style body design overall. For the most part, handling has gotten far, far better on mirrorless cameras in the last couple of years. Olympus, however, really needs to rethink their menu system and the way they name options. It still gives me a headache every time I have to set up a new Olympus camera the way I want to shoot with it. 
  • Price — If you want to know what's holding mirrorless back from gaining significant market share against DSLRs, this is the item, with maybe one exception. Canon and Nikon just dominate the US$500-800 price range with DSLRs. Plenty of DSLRs. Highly competent DSLRs. DSLRs that use lenses that people may already have in their closets, and for which almost any lens you'd ever desire has been made. Meanwhile, the best of the mirrorless bunch, like the E-M1 and X-T1, sell for more than the Nikon D7100, which is a supremely competent DSLR. Basically, you pay a lot of money for smaller size and weight. Meanwhile, for less money than mirrorless you can get more and better pixels generally (24mp in crop sensor DSLRs at reasonable prices, for example). Mirrorless hasn't cracked the DSLR defenses yet. The exception might be the Sony A7 and A7r. These are lower-than-DSLR price full frame mirrorless cameras. They have a size and weight advantage over the full frame DSLRs with no image quality penalties. Where they fail at equalling the DSLRs is in focus and frame rate performance, particularly with moving subjects. And where Sony is particularly vulnerable for the time being is in lens choice. 
  • Lenses — Every mount has a different weakness, but they all have a common weakness, too: good telephoto choices, especially performance telephoto. 
    • Canon EOS M — Three lenses, not all available in the US. Overall rating: inadequate.
    • Fujifilm X — Nice lineup of primes up to 60mm. Work in progress with zooms. Overall rating: adequate.
    • Nikon 1 (CX) — Quickly gave us a small, basic set, then decided to start putting them in waterproof housings. Overall rating: barely adequate. 
    • m4/3 — Plenty of options in primes and zooms and even third party lenses. But basically we're topped off at about 200mm equivalent for high performance optics for the time being. Yes, I know you can stick the old 4/3 lenses on the E-M1 and get reasonable focusing, but this isn't a solution for m4/3, it's a solution for people who have 4/3 lenses (e.g. buy an E-M1 and adapter). Overall rating: more than adequate. Could be great with more and better telephoto options. 
    • Samsung — A very nice set of the basics, with promises for more. Overall rating: adequate.
    • Sony E — Hey, everyone took a break while trying to work on FE lenses. Basically Sony built a basic set of lenses, but now has moved on for the time being. Overall rating: adequate.
    • Sony FE — Two great lenses (35mm and 55mm), one mediocre lens (28-70mm f/3.5-5.6), one lens still not shipping everywhere yet (24-70mm f/4). Overall rating: inadequate.
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