End of Year Mirrorless Status

We’re in the end-of-year buying season, so perhaps it’s a good time to reflect on what happened this year in mirrorless and where we are:

  • Samsung left the market. Any NX camera you happen upon is an orphan left behind by its parent. Adopt at your own risk.
  • Nikon sure seems to have left the market. The only thing that’s new for 2016 is, well, nothing. The J5 appeared in Spring 2015. Nikon’s still giving minor lip service to Nikon 1, but the line is feeling like the parents left them. Again, adopt at your own risk.
  • Leica essentially updated a camera by adding an L to its name. I suspect Leica will have a lot more going on in 2017, but for this year it was all about bug squashing, getting promised lenses to market, and a most lame update from T to TL.
  • Sony apparently was winded and took an A7 breather.  The good news, though, is that we got the A6300 and A6500, both highly competent APS-sensor mirrorless cameras. A7 updates will have to wait until 2017. 

We did have a few more active camera makers in mirrorless:

  • Canon showed up in the active column with the EOS M5. Coupled with now global support for the EOS M lenses and cameras, it seems that Canon is now entirely serious about mirrorless. Adding the EVF and a top APS-sensor to the EOS M line certainly caused the other competitors to sit up and notice as Canon raced to the number two market share in mirrorless.
  • Fujifilm pushed to 24mp. The X-Pro2 and X-T2 are high-end updates to already well-received cameras. Lots to talk about here, lots of excellent product to consider. We even got an X-E2s—again, a camera update that consists mostly of a letter—an X-A3, and soon an X-A10. So plenty of choices for a Fujifilm user looking to upgrade or supplement. And don’t forget the big surprise though-not-yet-shipping medium format addition in the GXF. Very active year for Fujifilm.
  • Olympus also pushed, but to 20mp. While the P-late (PL-8) was a disappointment, the Pen-F and OM-D E-M1 Mark II are both exciting cameras in different ways. And Olympus seems all-in on seriously good lenses.
  • Panasonic was more active than I expected, with the GX80/85, G80/85, and the announced-but-not-shipping GH5. It seems that Panasonic is back to thinking they need a full line of mirrorless body choices again. There was a time in 2015 where they looked to be backing away from that. Better still, Panasonic is embracing in-body stabilization now and seems to be back to thinking about new lenses.

The year has also seen some key new entrants:

  • Sigma surprised by launching and shipping the sd Quattro, though they only announced the still-missing sd Quattro H. Perhaps to make up for Samsung, here we have a new mount entrant (Sigma) in the mirrorless race, though a bit of an odd duck in terms of camera.
  • Hasselblad jumped into the market, too, with another medium format entry, the X1D-50C. That addition, by the way, gave mirrorless users an incredible array of sensor sizes to consider: 1”, m4/3, APS-C, full frame, and now small Medium Format. That’s compared to DSLRs, where we really only have APS and full frame (plus the Leica S and Pentax 645 in small MF).

So what’s the big takeaway from the year? Iteration is pushing the active players’ cameras higher and higher in capability. The bar is getting raised and arguably closer to DSLRs. But medium format as a new mirrorless format is probably the big surprise and most important takeaway this year. In essence, all new ILC designs are mirrorless cameras now. In the Canikon DSLR world everything’s just an update.

As we close out the year, here are my choices for various categories of photography using mirrorless cameras:

  1. Best Quality Travel Kit — Sony A7r Mark II with the f/4 zoom set. This is a reasonable compromise between size and quality. The full frame 42mp state-of-the-art sensor pushes the quality one way (higher) and the f/4 zooms pull it back some the other (lower). But the result is exceedingly good overall, enough for most people seeking quality. Supplement with a prime or two if you wish, but don’t get carried away, as full frame lenses are just going to be bigger than smaller sensor counterparts, and for true travel kits, smaller and lighter is better.
  2. Small Travel Kit — Still pretty much the same as I suggested months ago. A few small changes have occurred: the Fujifilm and Panasonic lenses are currently on sale, which impacts the pricing a bit; Sony introduced an A6500 that pushes their solution a bit higher in performance. But that A6500 is more money, too. Thus, I’m going to stick by what I wrote. 
  3. Highest Possible Quality — The new Medium Format options (Hasselblad and Fujifilm) are just starting to become available, and they set a really high bar at the pixel level. You’re not going to have much in the way of lens options, though. The Sony A7r Mark II with various Zeiss lenses (Zeiss/Sony, Batis, Loxia) isn’t a bad alternative choice instead. Nothing else gets up to that same level.
  4. Best JPEG Shooters — This is a contentious category, because you first have to say what it is you value in JPEG image quality. The usual answers are Fujifilm X and Olympus m4/3, pretty much any model. But both companies do a lot of pixel manipulation in their JPEGs. Hue shifts, contrast boosts, saturation changes, and more. I’ll say this, Fujifilm’s JPEGs look somewhat like their films did: pleasing but exaggerated. There’s something that Fujifilm sees that worked with a large number of people, and they’re still designing to that in the digital age. Olympus also is in this same category, but falls slightly behind Fujifilm for one reason: sensor size and how that pushes Olympus to block up the darks slightly and add noise reduction that takes away a bit of acuity. Honorable mention: Leica SL, and the old Ricoh GXR. 
  5. Best Sports Shooters — [buckles on helmet, buttons up Kevlar vest] All the gushing in the world over the Fujifilm X-T2 and Sony A6500 doesn’t make them the match of a Nikon D500 (or Canon 7DII), let alone the full frame pro models. As you get into the telephoto focal length range, the differences do start to show up, and clearly. That said, the X-T2 and A6500 are the two best mirrorless cameras for continuous focus performance to date. With the right lenses and subjects, yes, they seem a bit like DSLRs. (disclosure: the Olympus E-M1 Mark II hasn’t been made available to me yet.) 
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