Which Mirrorless Now?

(commentary)

As long-time site visitors know, I got into shooting with mirrorless back in 2009 when m4/3 blossomed into multiple models from multiple vendors. Specifically, I was looking for a small/light product I could carry with me alongside my DSLRs when I didn’t want to be always changing lenses on bodies (e.g. wildlife and sports). 

Here it is seven years later, and everyone—including a company that appears to be leaving the camera business—has a mirrorless option. This poses the interesting question: what if I had waited until now to pick up a mirrorless model to supplement my DSLR gear?

Let’s get a few players out of the way quickly. Warning: this will be brutal and ugly. I wouldn’t pick Leica, I wouldn’t pick Nikon 1, I wouldn’t pick Pentax Q, and I wouldn’t pick Samsung NX, all for different reasons. 

  • My problem with Leica is that at this point I have no idea what they’re doing. M, SL, TL, which one do they want me to buy? They’re all quite different. The M is a dream with small primes in the mid-range, but I don’t want to carry a bunch of primes in my convenience camera. The SL and TL have mid-range zooms that just seem a little to kit-like in their aperture capabilities, and the single SL zoom I could get at the moment is big, big, big. I’m also wondering whether if I buy into one of these lines whether the mount will still be here tomorrow and still be growing new lens support. Remember the R?
  • The Nikon 1 has been five years of promise, with very little actual delivery. The price wasn’t right, the noise quality wasn’t right, the lenses weren’t right, the controls weren’t right, the implied advantages weren’t realized, styles and controls wandered from model to model, and more. Nikon took a couple of good things—especially a DSLR-level focus system—and managed to make those non-competitive. The problem I have today is that the thing I’d want a Nikon J5 for—extreme portability—is matched by a compact camera with near identical controls, an EVF, the same sensor, and a better lens in the mid-range. Advantage squandered by Nikon. Every time I do the calculation with the Nikon 1 system, it works out to the same thing: too little for too much. Now I know that some Nikon 1 fans will immediately pounce on me with gushy praise for things like the 32mm f/1.2 (85mm equivalent). Yes, excellent lens. Too pricey for the system. Doesn’t solve my problem.
  • Meanwhile, the Pentax Q has the controls right, but it just is trying to make a sensor that even serious compacts don’t tend to use any more pull more weight than it can. The Q system is pretty limited in terms of lenses, too. There’s just not enough there to push me into wanting one. 
  • Samsung, on the other hand, arguably came as close as anyone in building a DSLR-like mirrorless system. State of the art everywhere from sensor to video capabilities. Only it didn’t sell, and now we all believe Samsung is headed for the exit door. I’m not going to bet on something that looks like it’s being abandoned by its maker. 

I told you it would be brutal and ugly. 

Remember, I’m trying to keep at the top of the pro game in my photography. Even for the more casual camera I carry around with me to fill a gap instead of a lens for the big DSLR—for example my use of an m4/3 camera with a mid-range zoom for non-telephoto shots when I’m carrying two DSLR with lens bazookas on safari—I want performance. I want a camera that’s going to get me as close to what I get with my pro DSLR bodies as possible, but I want it smaller, lighter, with excellent controls and performance. Nikon and Pentax are okay on the smaller/lighter thing, but different aspects of the control and performance leave something to be desired. Meanwhile, the Leicas and the Samsung NX-1 are as big and heavy as one of my smaller DSLRs. Oops. 

Moving on: we still have that basic conundrum that I need to solve. You just saw it a bit in the last paragraph: small/light versus performance. There’s no doubt in my mind, for example, that the Sony A7 sensors are at the top of the performance game. The AF system on the Mark II models has matured into something quite usable, too. So I’m going to pick Sony A7’s, right? 

No. 

I keep a Sony A7 bag packed these days. But I think of it as my "light-duty" DSLR bag, with the emphasis on light. A couple of A7 bodies with the three f/4 lenses packs smaller and lighter than the same with my DSLRs, but produces big time DSLR quality. So I use my A7 kit over my DSLR kit specifically when I need the combination of those two things. But as a supplement to my DSLR kit, it makes less sense. Remember, that’s how I got into mirrorless and what I’m basing this article’s premise on: supplement to DSLR kits. Just an A7 body and mid-range zoom lens puts me well over two pounds. 

I’m also going to dismiss Sony APS (E-mount), despite the very good A6000 (now A6300) body. Why? Lenses, that’s why. Not the lenses I need or want to produce a highly capable small/light camera with top performance.

The astute among you know that I’ve now narrowed things down to Canon, Fujifilm, and m4/3. So which one would be my pick today if I were making the same decision I did in 2009?

  • I really want to like the Canon EOS M line. More so than the Nikon -1-to-Nikon-DSLR relationship, the Canon EOS M seems much more a smaller sibling of the EOS DSLR line, and that’s really what I'm looking for, a smaller sibling to what I’ve got. On the other hand, Canon keeps making the same camera, only with slight variations, and we don’t really have much in the way of lenses. In particular, I’ve got basically one choice in what would be the key optic for me, and that’s the kit lens. Focus performance isn’t up there with state-of-the-art, either. So, close but no cigar.
  • I really like the Fujifilm X line. To Fujifilm’s credit, they exited the DSLR market and then returned years later with a smaller, better, and quickly morphing mirrorless variation that has a lot of photographic wisdom in it and performs much like a DSLR. Where I get stuck with the Fujifilm system as an add-on to my DSLR gear is that, with the lens I want on the body I want, I’m back to a two-and-a-half pound weight round my neck; might as well carry the A7. And I can get to that same size/weight with a smaller DSLR. Sure, I could just pick one of the small primes and one of the smaller bodies, but then I’m wondering why I wouldn’t just use a Sony RX1, or Sony A6300, or maybe a Ricoh GR? 
  • So we get to what I chose in 2009. You guessed it, it’s probably what I would choose in 2016: m4/3. As a supplement to my DSLR kit, I can give up a bit of performance—mostly low light performance—to get a small, light combination to take on safari with me (or to sporting events, etc.). What small, light combination is that?  Probably the Olympus OM-D E-M10II (390g) with Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 lens (305g). But I can come up with smaller and lighter variations that don’t give up a lot. Still at 24.5 ounces (695g), with the combination I just mentioned I’ve got a pretty darned competent mid-range that might even fit into my larger jacket pockets. That’s about as big and heavy as I want to go with a supplemental camera, but at that boundary I’ve got something that shoots incredibly well. 

I hear the grumbling. I can see hundreds of you firing up your email clients to send me a Trump-like burn. The swearing level worldwide went up a bit as you read this article. I get it. But do you? 

The premise here was not repeat not to tell you what the best mirrorless camera you can get today is. It wasn’t even to tell you what mirrorless camera you should get (which most of you should notice isn’t the same thing as the previous sentence). I’m not talking best here. I’m simply walking you through the logic I’d be using if I were making the same decision here in 2016 that I went through in 2009. I have some very specific demands and needs, and I’m trying to apply what I know about the products in the market today to see if I need to make a different decision. 

As it turns out, I probably don’t. 

Indeed, going through the exercise makes me realize that there really isn’t a situation where I’d use my Nikon J5 over the Sony RX100. Almost no situation where I’d use my V3 over an m4/3 camera. There really isn’t a situation where I’d use the Fujifilm X-T1 over my smaller DSLRs. But there are situations where I’d tend to use my Sony A7’s over my Nikon DSLRs. 

I’m one to put my money where my mouth is. I’m in the midst of reducing my kits of many of the mirrorless systems down to a known good lens I can test any new cameras with, and not much more. I’d rather own things I’m using regularly than things that mostly sit on my gear shelf. 

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