Which Mirrorless System?


It’s that time of year. More cameras are bought in the Christmas run-up than any other time of year, and pretty much everything that’s going to be available this season has been announced and is shipping.

I’ve got a few recommendations, and as usual, they’re going to be a bit different than “just buy model X”. 

First Time Mirrorless Buyer

If you’re just now looking at mirrorless, there’s a lot to think about. I can think of a few reasons to consider mirrorless if you’re coming from something else (typically a DSLR):

  • Smaller, lighter
  • More innovative approaches/features
  • DSLR system not delivering what you need (e.g. DX wide angle lenses)
  • You overbought and just need “good enough,” not “absolute best

I have clear favorites that address each of these items, but I really have a favorite if you put all of those things together: m4/3, particularly the Olympus OM-D models. One could even argue that the E-M1 and E-M5II are even far better than “good enough,” though they aren’t quite “absolute best.”  

That said, the OM-D’s have some things that might give you pause, particularly a menu system that causes many of us headaches. The OM-D’s clearly have been designed by engineers. Lots of options—some of which don’t appear on any other cameras—but terminology and accessibility that becomes a real issue for some. My primary advice to first time OM-D purchasers is this: stick with it. Start simple and get the camera set up for basic shooting and work with that for awhile before you attempt to dig through everything the camera can do.

Another approach would be the Panasonic GX-8, or maybe the GM5. The Panasonic menu system is more approachable and understandable, though still not perfect. You’ll miss a few of those unique features of the latest OM-Ds, and the out-of-camera-JPEGs aren’t as impressive from the Panasonii as from the Olympii. Still, both are smallish/light camera choices that deliver on the other points I noted. Why not a GH4? Due for replacement in spring 2016. 

What about the rest of the players?

  • Canon EOS M — If you’ve got a Canon DSLR and lenses, maybe. But the M’s all feel a bit behind the state-of-the-art, and Canon’s off-again, on-again approach to the M doesn’t truly engender trust in where the M is headed. 
  • Fujifilm X — A close second to the m4/3 bodies. But the X’s, particularly the X-T1 and X-T10 play less to the smaller/lighter theme and more towards the “absolute best” theme. I think you buy into X for the image quality and straight-forward, DSLR-like approach. But then, why not a DSLR?
  • Leica SL/T — Simply put, you’re paying more for something that just doesn’t quite feel “all there” yet. 
  • Nikon 1 — Small and light, for sure. But the Nikon 1’s fail on the second and third bullets, and are most definitely going to put you in the “good enough” camp. Like Canon, it’s unclear what Nikon really wants to do with the Nikon 1 system. That’s in stark contrast to m4/3 and X and E/FE. 
  • Pentax — The Q system is the epitome of small and light. But I have a hard time distinguishing between it and the high-end, large sensor compacts. I’d rather have some of those compacts.
  • Samsung — The NX1 and the best lenses are DSLR-sized. Then there’s the problem that Canon and Nikon have: where’s Samsung going with NX?
  • Sony — The E models haven’t been updated in quite some time, which is disturbing but hopefully remedied soon. The FE models are among the best mirrorless cameras you can buy, though lenses are going to make that small/light thing seem elusive, especially as we eventually get f/2.8 zooms. Lens availability is slowly catching up to needs, but isn’t there yet.

Caution: DSLRs are mature products that are tough to beat, both in price and performance. Frankly, Canon and Nikon made bad decisions in not building out their EF-S and DX lens lines, otherwise I’m not sure we’d even be talking about replacing a DSLR system with a mirrorless system. Why? Go to your store and pick up a Nikon D5500, for example. For the APS/DX sensor size, it’s competitively small and light with the Fujifilm offerings, for example. Focus performance is state-of-the-art. Features are complete and well managed/approachable. It’s really in that third bullet about lenses that the Canon and Nikon DSLR offerings at the lower end (EF-S and DX) start to fail. 

Existing Mirrorless Owner

Simple answer: don’t switch. Wait. 

Let’s approach this by vendor:

  • Canon — If you’re an existing EOS M user, then you’re happy to see Canon playing fully on the worldwide stage again (the US didn’t originally get the EOS M3 and one of the lenses). Still, I’m not sure there’s a compelling reason to be quick to update. Wait to see what the EOS M4 looks like and what new lenses Canon offers in 2016. Then decide whether to stick with the EOS M system or switch.
  • Fujifilm — You’re waiting for the 24mp generation, basically. Sure, pick up any lenses you need that you don’t have, but in terms of bodies, I’d wait. The X-Pro2 is not far off, and the X-T2 won’t be too far behind that.
  • Leica — I’m not quite sure what to say to you folk. You paid an awful lot for your camera and lens(es). In practice, I’ve found the Leica models lately to be “glitchy,” in need of some serious firmware updates and even some UI rethink. The SL doesn’t seem to suggest that Leica will address that any time soon, as we’ve gotten yet another variant in their mirrorless trio. Advice to Leica: pick a horse and groom it better. Advice to Leica owner: you bought it, you own it.
  • Nikon — We’ve gone from dirt simple metal cameras that could hammer nails into wood (literally) to something more akin to modern compact camera designs, with plastic parts and quirky UIs. The lens set is all over the board (810mm equivalent? ;~). The J1 to J5 and V1 to V3 progression seem more like experimentation than a clear product goal being honed. Maybe a J6 and V4 will tell us where Nikon is going, maybe not. Either way, wait.
  • Olympus — The OM-D models are leapfrogging one another, so if you’ve got an older one, it might be worth picking up a newer one for the features/performance gains. The Pens are getting a complete rethink, though, so if you’ve got one of those, wait.
  • Panasonic — If the GX-8 doesn’t cut it for you, wait. We’re expecting a GH5 at NAB 2016, and a GM6 sometime in 2016 as well. Even on the lens side, you might want to wait a bit to see what’s happening with IS in the lenses at Olympus, and how Panasonic deals with that.
  • Pentax — Q, Q7, QS1, Q10, can you tell them apart? I don’t hold out high hopes for whatever the next Q is. Probably 1” sensor and yet another reset of the mount. But this really seems like reinventing the wheel, only in slightly different tire sizes.
  • Samsung — The rumors about Samsung’s possible discontinuation of cameras are troubling, despite Samsung’s reassurances that they’re incorrect. Things have very definitely slowed down, though. I’d want to know why before putting more money into the system.
  • Sony — If you’re an E-mounter, the next APS models should be arriving in early 2016, so wait. Hopefully more lenses will show up, too. If you’re an FE-mounter, all three A7 models are now very nicely updated, so you either have what you want available, or you’ll be waiting a much longer while to get something new that caters to your needs. Spend your time on getting the right lens set in the interim, if so.

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