Mirrorless Camera News and Commentary

News and commentary about the mirrorless camera world (latest on top). Hover or tap on News/Views in the menu bar above to see the full list of recent articles as well as folders containing all older ones dating back to 2011.

Panasonic Officially Launches GH5

Panasonic today at CES took the wraps off the GH5, which was previously disclosed as being in development at Photokina 2016. 

bythom panasonic gh5

One curiousity. The Panasonic press conference lasted <tk> minutes. The GH5 took all of two minutes of that. Before we got to the camera, Panasonic had to talk about batteries, autos, convection ovens, Technics audio products, Denver, Disney, and more (yes, Denver and Disney). 

"Every single feature in [the GH5] was added after listening to customer feedback." 

The new GH5 is similar externally to the GH4, with a few tweaks. This allows the use of most GH4 accessories, such as cages, with the GH5. That said, you can see external differences if you look: the internal flash is now gone (though the body is now better weather sealed); the record video button has grown in size and taken a prominent spot up top behind the shutter release; there’s a joystick to control autofocus point; and some distinct shape and position differences are clearly evident. The body is now freezeproof (14°F) as well as splash and dustproof.

Internally is where you’ll find most of the changes. 

Not only do we have a new 20mp sensor, but the sensor now has 5-axis image stabilization behind it. As you might expect, there's 5Ghz Wi-Fi, with Bluetooth 4.2 LE connectivity. Interestingly, the GH5 is the first ILC camera I know of with a USB-C (3.1) port. The autofocus system is still depth-from-defocus (DFD), but with 225 areas now, with response to -4EV. The big change some will object to is the removal of the internal flash.

Video is where the GH4 shined, and it's where the GH5 shines, too. The 4K capabilities of the camera have been expanded to shoot 60P (though at 4:2:0 8-bit). The big news is that the GH5 can record 30P 4K at 4:2:2 10-bit internally onto an SD card. Or 180 fps at 4:2:0 8-bit and 1080P. That's one heck of a lot of data, and arguably the best spec we've seen from a still-camera-doing-video. It appears that not everything is done yet in firmware, though. Several of the highest end capabilities appear to need a firmware update in the near future to be active.

Thankfully Panasonic has moved on from the ugly and cumbersome DMW-YAGH Interface Unit. Instead we get a less expensive XLR audio interface unit that clips into the hot shoe. That's a little awkward, in that you'll be using up your only mount point for the XLR interface, and any microphone or radio receiver you use starts to get a little problematic in terms of where you'll mount it. Thus, you should probably be thinking "cage" if you're really going to start upgrading the camera with external units.

I'm sure you'll hear about 18mp stills at 30 fps, but this is a special burst shooting setting that relies on the video stream, and has limits on how it buffers. There's also 8mp stills at 30 or 60 fps. But normally, the camera is restricted to 12 fps shooting stills. Note that autofocus is limited to 9 fps.

Panasonic is walking that fine line between keeping the things that made/make a product great and giving it new and longer life into the future with the GH5. For the most part, they seem to have succeeded. No unnecessary reshaping the body, moving communication ports to new locations, and the other things that would have gotten the existing GH4 crowd worked up. I suppose a few will lament the passing of the internal flash, but it doesn’t strike me that many GH4 users were using that feature, let alone relying upon it. I’m a firm believer that light sources shouldn’t be small, low-powered, and anchored near the camera/subject axis anyway. 

The real question is whether the GH5 moved the internal video capabilities far enough to get the GH4 crowd to spring US$<tk> for the update. Without running a GH5 through its paces in production video, I’m not sure I can answer this question, or even predict the answer. It does seem like Panasonic has been paying attention to the details that the professional video crowd looks closely at, though. 

Thus, I suspect that those using the GH4 as a primary video camera will be impressed by the new version and think strongly about updating. Those using a GH4 as a B-roll camera might have a slightly different evaluation, however. It would really depend upon what their main camera was, whether the B-roll camera was mounted or handheld, and whether the GH5’s 4:2:2 internal recording matches up better with what they primarily shoot with.

Along with the GH5, Panasonic also introduced the GF9, the camera that sits pretty much at the opposite spectrum as the GH5 (e.g. low consumer versus high pro). <tk>

In addition, Panasonic launched four new versions of current lenses: 12-35mm f/2.8, 35-100mm f/2.8, 45-200mm f/4-5.6, and 100-300mm f/4-5.6. These updates were all minor, to the point of no real visual differences externally. A new lens, the 12-60mm f/2.8-4 was also launched.

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Nikon's Mirrorless Options

Given that Nikon attacked GoPro in the action camera market and also tried to attack the high-end compact market with DLs before they tripped over their own toes, it's only a matter of time before Nikon opens up a new defense in the mirrorless realm. The simple matter of truth is this: Nikon is a camera company (over 60% of their revenues and even more of their profits). Not competing in the healthiest of the camera markets is suicide.

So what are Nikon's options? I identify five basic approaches Nikon could take:

  1. Stay the course. The "course" being Nikon 1 and the CX mount. The problem here is that the Nikon DLs basically already steal the 1" thunder. The only thing that Nikon can do with CX is make new Nikon 1 models that are as good and compatible with DSLRs as the DLs are, but have interchangeable lenses. Only one problem with that: the interchangeable lenses Nikon currently offers in CX aren't as good as the lenses built into the DLs (or other 1" compacts from Canon, Panasonic, and Sony). You end up with the problem that a compact camera performs better than an ILC, is more compact, and in the case of Nikon's previous Nikon 1 pricing, costs less.

    While a lot of folk believe that a Nikon J6 is just around the corner, this would be a terrible signal by Nikon. Basically they'd be giving the Nikon 1 owners one last gasp via purchasing a DL-type body for their already-owned lenses. Yet for the same price (probably) those same folk could just get the body and a better lens by buying a DL (and keep their existing Nikon 1 to use with their existing lenses). I fail to see how such a Nikon 1 extension plan would work. It just has no legs.

  2. Improve the course. Keep the CX mount but put a larger sensor in the new Nikon 1 bodies (or are they then Nikon 2's ;~). It's unclear how big a sensor the existing CX lenses might be able to support, but there's always the old DX/FX type of auto-cropping that could be done, coupled with new lenses for the new sensor size. 

    The question has always been what size sensor could Nikon fit into the CX mount. Certainly m4/3, but I think DX (APS-C) is a size too far. Nikon's not likely to join the m4/3 group, as the Nikon mantra has been "proprietary all the way." So anyone thinking that Nikon would go this route would be believing that a new sensor size is coming. I find that difficult to believe, frankly. That would make Nikon the only user of said sensor, which has cost implications. I just don't see this happening.

  3. Deprove the course. Build a DX entry mirrorless system, ala what Canon has done with EOS M. This is trickier than it at first looks, as Canon themselves discovered through their experimentation. You can make a smaller DSLR (witness the Canon SL1), so why is a largish mirrorless camera that uses similar sized, but different, lenses the answer? 

    One reason, basically: cost and manufacturing implications. If you want to build US$500 ILC cameras moving forward, you really need to be building them with fewer parts—and silicon-based parts that derive cost benefits from volume—plus fewer manufacturing process and alignment steps. The lowest end Nikon DSLR has over 2000 parts, the original Nikon mirrorless, the J1/V1, less than 300. The lowest DSLR has multiple alignment steps, the mirrorless cameras basically one. 

    This course has two sub-routes to it: (a) use the existing DX mount; or (b) create a new mount (and offer a DX/FX adapter). Canon chose (b) for the EOS M, but I'm not sure that's necessarily the correct choice. As I've noted before, you could build lenses in the future that use Nikon's existing mount but which use the empty space vacated by the mirror to keep their size down (that works fine for DX, not so much for FX). 

  4. Choose Sony's course. Build a new FX mirrorless system. Based upon my email and surveys, a lot of you reading this think that's the correct route. I don't. First, there's the signal it sends ("DSLR is dead"). That's a hugely dangerous signal for Nikon to ever consider sending, as DSLRs represent such a huge percentage of their sales and profits (at one time, over half). The only way this works is if the mirrorless cameras are better than the DSLRs (and clearly better than Sony's mirrorless entries), and a full set of lenses is available. Yeah, you just realized why it won't happen.

  5. Find a new course. This is Nikon's 100th anniversary and Nikon started as a different kind of camera maker. So why not start again? In particular I'm thinking of a Nikon S inspired system that uses an optical rangefinder and shoots for staying small and classic. That means more of a Df type control design, a small set of new primes (28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm minimum), and a still-camera-only focus (again Df-like). Sensor could be DX or FX, though I think most of the Nikon loyalists would all vote for FX over DX. 

My best guess is that Nikon will attempt 3b. First, there's the fact that Canon chose that route, and Canon is Nikon's primary competitor. But it's also the least risky path for Nikon's already existing products. After announcing a 3b type mirrorless system, Nikon could even then pop out a J6 (course 1) to placate their small existing mirrorless base, coupled with having a CX mount adapter for the new mirrorless system. A J6 at that juncture no longer becomes a terrible signal if there's a clear future Nikon mirrorless path and Nikon is perceived as giving CX users some way to stay active or move up (much like FX did with DX). 

Personally, my temptation would be to try 5, and at the same time take as much size and weight out the DX DSLRs as I could (the older Canon SL1 approach). Why? Because I think that Nikon actually hurts themselves by spending too much time studying what Canon is doing and responding. That almost invariably insures that Nikon will be #2.

Then again, retaining #2 may be all Nikon aspires to now. After all, the other alternative is to fade to #3 behind Sony and end up significantly downsizing the entire Nikon company in the process. 

As I've written on dslrbodies.com, I'm somewhat doubtful that Nikon will tell us which mirrorless course they've taken in 2017. Nikon is a company with many fires burning that all have to be dealt with, and I think 2017 is more dedicated to putting out fires in their existing lines than it is in starting new ones.

You might say that Nikon 1 (CX) is one of those fires that need to be attended to. But it's probably the smallest fire that the Tokyo Brigade is dealing with right now. I'm not expecting Nikon to get around to that fire in 2017. Indeed, I'd argue that it's more important to get their choice right than it is to rush to the market.

What I Want From Mirrorless in 2017

You might have noticed that I took the separate "still missing from..." commentary for each system out of the Article section and consolidated it into a single article, Missing Items in Each System.

This is a good point to assess what it is we really want from each mirrorless system in a more general way rather than call out specific products and features. We're almost 10 years into the mirrorless era after all, so it's a good time to get out of the weeds, move to higher ground, and survey what we really wish for in the future.

So here's my wish list for each mirrorless camera brand in 2017:

  • Canon — Now that Canon has indicated that they're all in with the EOS M—a couple of years ago it looked more like a regional experiment—what we want from them moving forward is simple: to really be all in. That means a full line of bodies and a full line of lenses, minimum. But it also means that Canon has to more clearly tell us how they see EOS M as different than EF-S (crop sensor DSLR), and how it's different from the mirrorless competitors. The fear is that Canon sees EOS M solely as a gateway drug to DSLRs, and thus holds something back in the mirrorless line. If that's going to be the case, we need to know what it is they're going to hold back. 
  • Fujifilm — The 20mp X-Trans bodies are their best effort, but then along comes a 50mp Bayer medium format and more low end Bayer models. I'm of the opinion that Fujifilm has a lot more explaining to do about X-Trans, and it could start by making sure that every converter program in the world is optimized for the different filtration pattern, complete with Fujifilm's spectral shifts. In other words, I—and you—need to see Fujifilm work harder to make sure that whatever tangible gain there is by switching from the traditional pattern is held throughout the workflow, no matter what the workflow. As most of you know, I'm a little bit of a skeptic of the X-Trans story. That's especially true since Fujifilm had previous unique sensor designs in the past that they eventually discarded. There was a lot of false marketing hype with X-Trans when it appeared ("no moire"), but the truth of the matter is this: all sensor filtrations that spread color rendering across the sensing area—as opposed to Sigma/Foveon's spreading it through the depth of the sensing area—produce artifacts. I see it encumbent on Fujifilm to make sure that those artifacts are minimized no matter what software I use. Things are better than they were when the X-Pro1 first appeared with X-Trans, but they're not perfect.
  • Nikon — What's the plan? Nikon never really gave us one—the only mirrorless company never to have a lens road map—and now the silence out of Tokyo is deafoning, to use the cliche. No new cameras, no new lenses, compact cameras that look like they were forged on Nikon 1 models, and not a single peep out of management. So what we need from Nikon is simple: communication. Clear communication. Communication of their intentions for mirrorless moving forward. Because at the moment, they're not moving.
  • Olympus — Send in an ergonomics and UX expert, stat. It's not so much the controls and buttons are bad, it's that the whole gestalt of the Olympus UX (user experience) wreaks of geek engineer sweat and jargon. I think I was the first to write that the Olympus menu system gave me a headache every time I had to set up a new camera. That was seven years ago. Recently, another experienced photography blogger, Lloyd Chambers, wrote about setting up the E-M1 Mark II "Plan on spending at least an hour messing around just to make it work properly and having your brain and eyes fried after trying to grok it all." So it's not just my brain that hurts trying to get Olympus gear set for use. Users have been making excuses about this for years saying "well it's fine once I get it set properly." No, it's not fine, and sometimes the cameras refuse to stay set properly. But the real issue is that it's just a turn-off to the photography crowd Olympus wants to sell to. How are the sales doing? Down after being flat for awhile. I have to think the unapproachability of the cameras has something to do with that.
  • Panasonic — 26 cameras in eight years. Personally, I'd love a simpler Panasonic lineup that had a bit more thought in terms of clear differentiation. Of course, some of the problem is that Panasonic doesn't have any clear marketing. Quick, what's the difference between no extra letter after the G and ones that add an H, F, X, and M? And really, G80, G81, and G85 to differentiate models for different regions? Nikon eventually failed at that (and still is with serial number differentiation that makes them unable to shift inventories globally). Overall, my biggest wish for Panasonic in 2017 is that they get their distribution and marketing sorted out.
  • Ricoh/Pentax — Hello? Anyone still there? Both sides of the company had early mirrorless entires. The K and GXR are gone, the Q is so small I can't see it. So Ricoh/Pentax gets the same wish as for Nikon: what's the plan?
  • Sigma sd — Let's just admit up front that Sigma is marching to a different drummer. In fact, it might not even be a drum they're marching to. Still, there's something amiss here. If you're going to rely on a sensor that's really only excellent in bright light, it seems that the camera ought to be designed for a type of shooting that benefits from that. The sd bodies feel awkward and sluggish. They're not optimized for landscape shooting (which benefits from the sensor), nor studio (ditto), nor for anything that I can see. The feature set seems a little random ("what we've been able to implement so far") and you get the impression that you've bought a DeLoreon, best case. 
  • Sony E — Lenses, lenses, lenses. 
  • Sony FE — As much as the Mark II designs fixed many problems with the original A7 models, I've still got a fairly long list of things I'd like addressed. Many of them are UX things, so it would be nice to see releases in 2017 that don't get 100% stuck in how much technology they can add to the cameras, but that make the cameras better balanced tools.

When Will Mirrorless Replace DSLRs?

You've seen endless variations of this question, and it's related to the question I wrote about last week. Everyone seems to want to know what the DSLR Sell By Date is. 

Surprise: the question has two sub-answers that are needed before we get to the final answer.

The first sub-answer is that mirrorless has already replaced DSLRs for some people. Well, not quite "replaced." Let's say supplemented, as in mirrorless is now a legitimate alternative to DSLRs for a number of uses. That's certainly true for casual shooting, static types of photography such as landscapes, travel photography, portraits, street photography, and even some photojournalism and event photography. 

The primary ingredient that allowed mirrorless to be considered over DSLRs in these situations tends to center around size and weight. Most mirrorless cameras simply create smaller and lighter shooting kits than DSLRs, so as the user base aged and also got tired of carrying big, heavy bags of gear, they started considering the mirrorless alternatives. 

What they found in 2009 is a lot different than what they find today. In 2009 there likely wasn't a fast refresh and high dot count EVF, the focus system tended to meander to the focus point, the feature sets weren't complete, and the controls tended to be based on compact cameras and designed for the Japanese definition of beginners. Plus, there weren't many lenses available. Today we have fast and high resolution EVFs, fast focus systems, full feature sets, the controls are better designed and implemented, and several of the providers now have full (m4/3) or fairly full (Fujifilm X, Sony FE) lens sets. 

In other words, mirrorless has achieved a level of parity with DSLRs on a number of fronts, while being less behind on others. Whether you consider mirrorless cameras as appropriate for your shooting depends upon whether parity was reached in the things you value. Or perhaps close-enough-to-parity but you value the smaller, lighter aspect.

But the second sub-answer is that mirrorless hasn't replaced DSLRs and hasn't yet fully reached parity with them, either. The primary types of photographer that tends to believe that answer is almost always either shooting sports or wildlife. In both these uses, it is lenses plus focus performance while tracking subjects that tend to come up short on the mirrorless side. 

Yes, I know that the m4/3 world now has a very fast-focusing E-M1 Mark II plus a full set of lenses out to 300mm f/4 (600mm equivalent). But the truth of the matter is this: motion tracking results in continuous shooting still don't match those of the best DSLRs; you pay a penalty that you can't quite overcome for sports with the smaller sensor; and it's really only m4/3 that comes close to giving you useful long lens choice in mirrorless at the moment. 

m4/3, Fujifilm X, and Sony FE come the closest to matching the full frame pro DSLRs for fast, erratic motion in low light, but each has missing pieces and none quite nail a motion sequence as reliably as the Canon 1DxII and Nikon D5, for instance. In particular, the big issues for each of the mirrorless contenders—smaller issues are present too—are:

  • m4/3 isn't a great low light choice
  • Fujifilm X is missing lenses
  • Sony FE hasn't reached focus speed/hit rate parity

Okay, so those are the sub-answers. What's the real answer?

Simple: interchangeable lens cameras (ILC) come in a wide range of forms. They differ in sensor size, lens mount, performance aspects, and yes, whether or not they have an optical path with a mirror (DSLR) or not (mirrorless). 

There is no "sell by" date for DSLRs. I suspect that due to the large user base with substantive lens sets already purchased, DSLRs will continue to be around for quite some time, probably as long as mirrorless cameras are. Personally, I'm surprised that Canon and Nikon didn't drop size and weight faster out of their DSLR lineups, nor shore up their crop sensor lens lineups. Not doing that gave the other camera companies pursuing mirrorless essentially seven years to reach parity on other things, and now Canikon, particularly Nikon, finds itself with another competitive fight on their hands to maintain market share. 

One of the reasons why I started the sansmirror site six years ago was that I saw this parity in ILC cameras coming. Both design approaches have their pluses and minuses, and I think both will coexist for some time to come. 

If a mirrorless camera is a better choice for you, great, that's what this site (sansmirror) is for. If a DSLR camera is a better choice for you, great, that's what dslrbodies.com is for. I shoot with both types because there are some tasks I find one better suited for than the other, simple as that. I don't see this as a "one side wins" contest, I see it as "we all win." 

That said, remember that both mirrorless and DSLR cameras are part of systems. Systems are more than just camera bodies. Indeed, they're more than just one size camera body. Canon—and to a lesser degree Fujifilm and Sony—seems to get this, and Canon is the only company that currently has a mirrorless and DSLR system that's aligned fairly well and easily allows its user base to crossover as they see fit. I can only expect that to get better over time. 

Bottom line: buy what you need. Don't get hung up on the mirrorless/DSLR debate, as you'll still be debating that five (and more) years from now if you do. 

A Few More Words on Mirrorless

My recent article on why mirrorless cameras are needed provoked a few emails I need to respond to, and in addition to doing so privately I thought it worthwhile to add a couple of thoughts to my previous article.

In particular, a number of folk wanted to add two things to my arguments as to why mirrorless cameras are attracting users. Those are: (1) sensor-based IS; and (2) silent shutters.

I’ll admit I’m a bit apathetic when it comes to IS. My belief is that stabilization should be turned off unless there’s something that absolutely dictates that it be turned on. This is not what most consumers do. Instead, they tend to rely upon the crutch of IS so that they can shoot more casually and without a lot of shot discipline. 

IS is not a wonder drug. It doesn’t cure the disease, it masks the symptoms. That appears to be enough for many to gravitate to it. 

What does this have to do with mirrorless systems? Well, the argument coming into my In Box is that only mirrorless systems have sensor-based IS. That’s not true. Recent Pentax DSLRs have sensor-based IS, so you can’t make the claim that this is a “mirrorless advantage.” That Canon and Nikon have not built DSLRs with sensor-based IS to date doesn’t mean that DSLRs can’t add this, as Pentax has shown. If sensor-based IS were the real reason people were buying mirrorless cameras, we would have seen a significant shift towards Pentax in the DSLR world, and we haven’t. Indeed, if it were the real reason why mirrorless cameras were being bought, Canon and Nikon would simply come up with their DSLR implementations. 

Silent shutter is more a valid argument for mirrorless, but ultimately could fail for similar reasons. Some DSLRs now have incredibly quiet Live View modes, and they could move to electronic shutters and become completely quiet, too. That said, it’s simple to implement electronic shutters on mirrorless cameras because the shutter is by default open all the time, so quite a few mirrorless makers have added this function if the sensor they use supports it, including Nikon. 

As I noted with real-time histograms, the DSLR duopoly has not given us features that they could provide, but the mirrorless makers have gone ahead and implemented them. The real question I’m trying to answer is what has provoked the fact that a little over a quarter of ILC sales are now mirrorless. For the most part, I’ll stick with my answer, though the two things mentioned above are add-ons that re-inforce the rest of the points I made. 

Simply put, the mirrorless camera designers had to be more creative and proactive in order to win any support at all. We’re now in a very strange place where a DSLR with more image quality and many more traditional features sells for less than a mirrorless camera with less image quality, but is smaller and lighter and has a number of newer features. 

In particular, it’s the crop sensor DSLRs that are most impacted by mirrorless. Some might argue that the Sony A7 models impacted full frame DSLRs in some way, but frankly, the numbers don’t seem to reflect this much. To a large degree, the A7 models basically just sucked up the old Sony Alpha DSLR market share. 

No, it’s in the smaller-than-full frame arena that mirrorless has been having its best success, and in my surveys seems to be coming mostly at the expense of Canon EF-S and Nikon DX. To sum up, the things that Canon and Nikon are defending against now are:

  • Smaller and lighter. This really shows up with the m4/3 and the Sony A6xxx models. Far less so with the A7 models once the user discovers how big the best lenses are for it.
  • Full lens sets. This is particularly an m4/3 strength, but Fujifilm is not far behind considering that they’re a sole practitioner against multiple ones. Sony would be wise to fix the E lens set, stat.
  • What you see is what you (might) get. The EVF brings feedback to the real time level compared to DSLRs. This was the primary focus of my previous article.
  • Feature pioneering. This is where sensor-based IS and silent shutters get added to the list of things like real-time histograms. But note the word “pioneer.” That’s because many of the things that fit into this category are not restricted to mirrorless; they could be applied to DSLRs designs, too (as could the first two bullets, above). 

As tends to always happen in mature markets, the -opolists—in this case Canon and Nikon—get lazy and are slow to make changes that would preclude competitors from carving out niches around the main market. The good news is that gave us a lot of very interesting products that have unique abilities and traits (mirrorless cameras). The bad news is that at some point Canon and Nikon wake up and simply move in and suppress the competitors’ success by implementing the same things.

To some degree, Canon is already on the move. The EOS M5 shows that they’re beginning to implement some of the above things. I don’t think they understand why the various mirrorless makers have carved out small slices of the ILC market, though. Canon seems not likely to build a full lens set, nor is it moving very fast towards implementing pioneering features. 

Nikon, on the other hand, came in blazing to the mirrorless market, but with a very small, very expensive gun (and you could get a pink one!). Now they’re out of the market licking their wounds. How they come back will be interesting to watch (and like Arnold Swarzenegger, they will be back).

There is No Best

2016 will be the first year that I don’t proclaim any “best of year” awards for mirrorless cameras. 

Why? Well, in doing my year-end research I became convinced that virtually every product introduced in 2016 was getting a “best of year” award from someone. Obviously, the word “best” has no meaning when the environment in which it is used anoints everything with the “best” monicker. 

Seriously. In one day alone I found that the top 50 photography Web sites I follow had given an award of some kind connoting best-of-year to 14 different competing products. You can only conclude that 13 Web sites are wrong—maybe 14 ;~)—or that such awards no longer have any useful meaning.

I like to produce things that have meaning. So this year I’m going to do something different. For each mirrorless mount I’m going to call out the product introduced during the year that I felt made the biggest difference in moving users of that mount forward. 

  • Canon EOS M — This one is easy: the EOS M5. First, there weren’t a lot of introductions from Canon to contemplate. Second, the M5 steps the EOS M forward in many useful ways: built-in EVF, solid autofocus performance, and a well-thought out control system that puts most things you want to change into a direct control. What we now have from Canon is a cut-down version of one of their DSLRs, making it a camera that is highly competitive in the current mirrorless world. One small problem: the M5 is overpriced when compared to Canon's low-end DSLRs, meaning you’re really paying for smaller/lighter.
  • Fujifilm X — Another relatively easy one: the X-T2. The X-Pro2 would likely get a few folk’s vote, but the X-T2 is clearly Fujifilm’s best all-around camera and the one that pushed the mount bar the furthest. However, before everyone gets all excited, I’d also point out that my feeling is that the X-T2 is mostly a broad incremental change, not a substantive change. Yes, we get 24mp instead of 16mp. Yes, the focus system seems improved as do the ways to control it. Yes, there are other small changes that make the X-T2 better than an X-T1. Yes, we’ve finally gotten usable video. But all of this really only simply makes a good camera (X-T1) better. Quite a few writers are gushing over the X-T2 as if it leaped over tall buildings with a single bound. As my upcoming review of the camera will point out, Fujifilm still has quite a few odds and ends that still need iteration; Superman’s wardrobe still has some button problems. But yes, the bar moved forward, and the X-T2 is the Fujifilm product that pushed the bar the furthest this year.
  • Leica M, TL/SL — Nothing. For a home game Photokina year, Leica seemed a little subdued. I would say that no new camera or lens moved the bar for them in 2016 (yes, they did introduce some, including a new TL and a new SL lens).
  • Nikon 1 (CX) — Nothing. As in “big fat goose-egg.” In fact, had the DLs shipped, I would have written that the bar moved backwards for Nikon in 2016, as there’s nothing a J5 can do that a DL can’t other than take interchangeable lenses, and there are many things a DL can do that the J5 can’t. So half of this year’s “Sat on Their Butts” award will go to Nikon, cheeks down. (Oh, and by the way, Leica’s Andreas Kaufmann calling out Nikon at Photokina for becoming irrelevant and headed for doom: he gets my “Call Out Someone Else So You Don’t Look So Lame” award for 2016.) 
  • Olympus m4/3 — This was by far the most difficult mount for which to call out one product over another. We have the Pen-F and E-M1 Mark II as significant new cameras, plus the 12-100mm f/4, 25mm f/1.2, and 300mm f/4 PRO as significant new lenses to put on them. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to turn in this paper incomplete, as I’ve not yet shot with the E-M1 Mark II or 12-100mm f/4 due to their very late-in-the-year shipments. I suspect those are the two products that really moved Olympus forward. Which one wins I don’t know yet.
  • Panasonic m4/3 — While there are three new “8G” bodies to consider for 2016, I really didn’t feel any of these cameras moved the mount forward. All are nice cameras in their own way, but all are also mildish iterations to existing products. I can’t say that any of them moved the mount forward much, and certainly not as much as the E-M1 Mark II did. So that leaves the 100-400mm f/4-6.3 lens. To me, this really became the travel-friendly long telephoto to carry for m4/3, and it’s a very nice addition to the already considerable lens set Olympus and Panasonic have produced. 
  • Ricoh/Pentax — Not in the house. Not in the city. Not in the county. Not in the state. Not in the country. Not on the planet. So nothing moved them forward in mirrorless this year. Instead, they share the “Sat on Their Butts” award with Nikon.
  • Sony E — I’m separating the two variations of Sony mirrorless, because what moves each sensor size forward is different this year. The A6500 is the clear shaker and mover for 2016 in the APS size for Sony, with the A6300 getting an honorable mention. But I fear that next year there will be no movement at all. Let’s hope I’m wrong and that some new E lenses show up.
  • Sony FE — In the full frame version the mount moved primarily with the addition of the 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses. Unfortunately, that also moved FE to basically the same size/weight lenses as the DSLRs, leaving only the smaller-than-DSLR A7 bodies to net you any substantive gain. Doh!

If you’re keeping track, basically the crop sensor mirrorless cameras were what moved forward overall (Canon, Fujifilm, Olympus, Sony). It was a crop sensor year, apparently. With the two MF mirrorless cameras actually pushed to 2017 delivery and Sony’s curious FE body inactivity in 2016, I suspect it will be big sensor cameras that move forward the most in 2017. 

Why Are Mirrorless Cameras Necessary?

Here's a question I get in a variety of ways: why do we need mirrorless cameras?

Sometimes it's not a question, but an assertion. That assertion is often hugely broad, as in "mirrorless is the future of interchangeable lens cameras."

Pretty much every variation of the question or assertion I receive has at its root an assumption that mirrorless cameras are different than DSLRs in some meaningful way. 

I’ve done a lot of thinking about this question in the last seven years. A lot. I’ve also challenged those making the assertion to explain how they got to their conclusion while also trying to ascertain why others were asking the question. 

So let’s first start with the thing that’s the same about mirrorless cameras and DSLRs: they both allow you to change lenses. They’re interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs). At the heart of any question or assertion is that fact: we’re talking about ILCs.

Early on in the mirrorless history (2009), the mirrorless competitors were essentially overwhelmed by the legacy lens sets of the DSLR makers. Back at the start of mirrorless, just the Canon and Nikon SLR/DSLR lenses in circulation alone was over 75 million units, and both companies had 60+ lenses in their current catalog. All while mirrorless was really starting from zero in both categories. 

That’s one reason why you saw so much “use an adapter” talk early on in mirrorless, even if it meant losing automated functions (exposure and focus). If there was an advantage to mirrorless, it wasn’t lenses early on. 

So that’s where we really have to start our discussion of the question/assertion: why would anyone have even thought to start down the mirrorless road?

Well, from the manufacturer standpoint, look at the ones that entered mirrorless early and aggressively: the Seven Dwarves as I called them (Fujifilm, Leica, Olympus, Panasonic, Ricoh, Samsung, Sony). Fujifilm and Sony are actually two of the later entrants in mirrorless, but not before they had first beat their heads against Canon and Nikon trying to make DSLRs. 

So the camera makers thought that mirrorless was a chance to create a “different” product that the Duopoly didn’t have, the classic Ries and Trout “create a new market” suggestion for #3 and lower players. 

What was different about the early mirrorless cameras? Remember the early Olympus marketing and ads for the E-P1? That camera was supposed to be the new social and blogging tool for the next generation; literally a new kind of “pen”. 

That marketing campaign went nowhere, mainly because the connection to the Internet was abysmal and workflow no different than using a DSLR (or even compact camera) back in 2009/2010. What saved Olympus as a mirrorless provider was dogged persistence coupled with the fact that the cameras and lenses they produced were small compared to most common DSLRs, yet competent. That plus the fact that they kept having fire sales on older models as they quickly iterated, making it easy enough for many to sample the product.

Next we went through a period when mirrorless cameras were about size and weight gains compared to DSLRs, and partly because of that their attractiveness to new audiences, particularly women and the Asian markets. I’m not sure that worked out differently. Some people bought into mirrorless because it seemed smaller and lighter, but many were doing so because mirrorless cameras kept selling at reasonable prices in fire sales. You don’t see a lot of fire red and pink cameras out there today, yet that was what was being pushed by camera marketing departments for several years.

So far we have “smaller and lighter.” And maybe “cheaper” if bought on sale. That “cheaper” part, by the way, is one of the reasons why I’ve written for some time that eventually most of the ILC market will head towards mirrorless: there are fewer parts, and especially few mechanical parts in a mirrorless camera compared to a DSLR. In theory, you can build mirrorless cameras with more automation, fewer alignment procedures, and with far fewer parts. Nikon themselves proved that with the Nikon J1 and V1 back in 2011. No digital camera I know of outside of some cheap compact cameras has been made with fewer parts than the 183 in the J1; by comparison, most DSLRs have thousands of parts. (Yet Nikon decided to hand paint every logo on the J1 ;~).

But is there anything else? Yes, I’ve come to the conclusion there is, and it’s the same reason that DSLRs took over from SLRs: solving a user problem. Or at least appearing to.

I’ve been challenging everyone that claims that a mirrorless camera does something their DSLR doesn’t for some time now, and then listening carefully to their answers. The data is now strongly pointed in the same direction, so I’m comfortable that I understand what’s happening. 

As usual, it’s a workflow thing ;~). It’s a workflow thing rooted in a user problem.

Let me first explain one reason why DSLRs just skyrocketed away from SLRs so quickly: feedback. 

The classic user problem for a film SLR user was this: they’d go out and shoot and have no idea if they had captured what they wanted. They’d drop their film off, and pick it back up an hour or a day or a week later and then look at the results. Dang! Didn’t get that right. 

What wasn’t right? Typically exposure or focus or use of shutter speed (not stopping action or having visible camera shake). The problem, of course, is if this happened on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation or event, you could never redo the photo you missed. Worse: unless you had made a record of what you did (e.g. aperture and shutter speed), there wasn’t any way to learn how you failed.

An awful lot of film SLRs got tried by people—especially after they added autofocus—but then those SLRs went into the closet forever when people got frustrated with them (hey Tokyo, that sentence should rivet your attention, because you have the same type of problem today, but let’s move on…).

DSLRs solved the user problem I describe by closing the feedback loop. Take the shot, look at the LCD to see if you got it right. If not, change something and try again until it is what you want. Even though the LCD was often small and dim and didn’t have very many pixels, you could still see the basics well enough to make sure you got a shot you liked. Sure, you may still have missed a moment that won’t recur, but a lot of the mass consumer photography is static and posed and easily recreated in a second (or third, or nth) pass. 

One thing I noticed at the start of the century in working with students, both amateur and professional, is that skill sets improved rapidly and dramatically when they switched from film SLR to DSLR. People that never understood exposure and couldn’t master it now did. Shooters that were having handling problems could experiment and figure out how to correct them on the spot. Focus was more carefully evaluated and tweaked, and depth of field suddenly became easier to see and control (SLRs stopped down lenses to show you DOF preview, but the view was very dim on a not-so-great screen). 

In the last few years I’ve seen the opposite: lack of progress in students, both amateur and professional. Why? Because the camera controls and options and interdependencies are getting more intricate and nuanced, and nothing’s improved to help them master those things. Menus are deep, broad, and dense with lots of poorly worded options. Focus modes have proliferated into so many choices, most of which are unsatisfactorily undocumented. Heaven help you if you want to beam your images directly from the camera to Twitter (the Nikon D5 even has a full computer server in it to handle an Ethernet connection, but you’d better be an IT pro if you want to even begin to configure it for use). 

So, let’s get back to that workflow thing that’s behind a lot of folk preferring mirrorless to DSLRs: mirrorless closes the feedback loop further. In particular, I get a lot of answers that talk about the “real time histogram” (more on that in a moment), and the more what-you-see-is-what-you’re-getting viewfinder. In theory, no longer do you have to take a shot, evaluate it on the LCD, change a setting and reshoot. No, good mirrorless cameras let you see your “results” as you’re shooting. Sort of.

Which brings me back to the “real time histogram.” It’s not accurate. Why? Because it’s not made from the data pixels of your shot, it’s made from the data stream to the EVF, which is not only a subset of the data, but is manipulated in various ways. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II owners are starting to discover this, as the various EVF modes you can set will change the in-viewfinder histogram! 

Still, I’ve heard this statement from enough mirrorless users now that I have to accept it as something that is compelling them: the instant feedback of a well-designed EVF is better to them than the shoot-then-evaluate feedback of the optical viewfinder DSLRs.

Of course, there’s no reason why Canon and Nikon can’t put histograms in DSLR viewfinders (both companies have overlay technologies that could do this). They simply don’t understand their customer base enough to understand that this is an unmet demand. But then again, they’ve never even understood that there’s been at least a 17-year demand for raw histograms, among other things ;~). 

Circling back to where I began: many (if not most) of those that assert that mirrorless is the future are pointing to features of the mirrorless cameras that the DSLRs aren’t duplicating (or can’t duplicate in a few cases). And most of those things center on user problems. “What’s my picture going to look like?” Most good mirrorless cameras are showing you that even before you shoot. “Is my exposure correct?” Most good mirrorless cameras will give you a lie that you accept (or have at learned to judge well) in the viewfinder ;~). DSLRs can’t do those things for those users.

Coupled with smaller and lighter, these things all start to add up well enough that there’s absolutely a subset of photo enthusiasts that would pick mirrorless over DSLR. As other features of mirrorless—focus speed and accuracy in subject tracking, in particular—get closer to DSLR levels, the mirrorless cameras look more and more interesting to long-term SLR/DSLR users. 


2016 News/Views

2015 News/Views

2014 News/Views

text and images © 2017 Thom Hogan
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