The Latest State of Mirrorless

For eight years now I've been using mirrorless cameras, and pretty much testing most variations that have come to market. Indeed, I've published reviews of 44 different mirrorless cameras, and by my count have used 72 different models. Those cameras have been to Africa, South America, Europe, Japan, New Zealand, and on a host of other photographic journeys here in the US and elsewhere during my travels.

Each year for the past several I've tried to assess where the state of mirrorless cameras actually is, and it's time to do that once again, though I'm going to go about it a different way this time.

I'll be honest, it's getting darned difficult to make a thorough and useful assessment. First, we have so many players to consider. Second, we have so many variations on camera size/type. Third, every manufacturer has upped their game to the point where—for the majority of the people—the performance differences may not be meaningful any more.

So I'm going to start by echoing something I started writing about DSLRs back about 2004/2005: if you're having trouble getting great images out of any mirrorless camera that's sold these days, it's probably not the camera's fault. What I see more and more in the mirrorless world is the same thing that I saw in the first decade of DSLRs: the cameras got highly competent, but the casual user may not be getting optimal results from them.

So right up front I have to say: Know Thy Camera.

Olympus fans rag on me about my continued harping on the user interface of those Pens and OM-Ds. But this is about Know Thy Camera. It's just darned difficult to get to know the Oly cameras quickly and completely. And I'm not alone in that belief.

The good news is that Olympus hasn't really changed anything meaningful in the menus and nomenclature since day one. If you got into the Olympus Pen camp early on and use one of the Olympus m4/3 cameras often, you probably are to the point where you do know your camera, and thus don't see the issue.

I mention all this up front because one of the attributes of my shooting is that I rarely shoot continuously with any mirrorless camera (or system). About the longest I go is what happened in the last two months, when I was carrying only a Sony A9 and A7rII around most of the time. Today I've moved on to another system again.

Thus, one of the things I think I see as well as anyone in the mirrorless world is the "new user impact." A new user coming into any of the existing mirrorless systems has a learning curve. That curve is extraordinarily low for a Canon DSLR owner moving to an EOS M5, but it's ridiculously high for a Nikon DSLR shooter moving to an Olympus E-M1 Mark II.

So I'm going to start my analysis of where we stand at the end of 2017 with a new analysis: New User Learning Curve.

  • Canon — For previous Canon users of almost any model or type, the M system has a very low learning curve. That's especially true of the menus, but less so of the external controls, some of which are unique on the M5. For folk coming from other camera systems, the learning curve is modest; the organization, nomenclature, and controls present little challenge to someone already well versed in camera-speak. And in terms of converting raw images, an M image is much like any EOS image: there's little you're going to change in your workflow or processing.
  • Fujifilm — An interesting mix. Fujifilm's use of retro-style dials on most of their models certainly makes for low learning curves for the controls for anyone who grew up with cameras in the film era. Ditto the "film simulations." The menus are well organized, but some of the terminology needs to be learned as to what it actually means (400% dynamic range?). Still, I'd call the learning curve here modest at worst case. But that's not true when it comes to converting raw images. The use of the X-Trans layout by Fujifilm definitely means that you need to rethink your raw processing procedures and techniques if you're coming from a Bayer camera.
  • Leica — This sort of depends upon which Leica you're talking about. The M's are recognizably M's. If you came from a film-based M, the digital M's are a fairly low learning curve for you. If you've never used an M before, well, it's a whole new experience you're getting into, particularly with regards to focus and framing. The TL/SL models are interesting: Leica definitely set out to create a modern UI experience with those cameras, and for the most part succeeded. But those coming from any other digital camera will find that the simplicity and directness of the TL/SL models probably bothers them, at least initially.
  • Olympus — Here we go ;~). On the outside, the OM-D's and Pen-F are instantly recognizable as being a modern-retro design (unlike Fujifilm's more traditional retro). I really have no issues with the controls and physical aspects of the ergonomics, and believe that part of the Olympus system tends to be relatively low in learning curve, despite the fact that every model is a bit different and that the top model has so many external controls. But the E-M1 Mark II, for example, is a technological marvel that has far too much of its abilities masked by the menu system and nomenclature. Yes, you can assign lots of those buried features to the external controls. Good luck figuring that out without a long perusal of the manual or a helpful book. Don't get me wrong: there's high reward for laboring through the high learning curve here. But that's not everyone's cup of tea. Setting up an Olympus m4/3 camera for a new-to-Olympus owner has the highest learning curve of the mirrorless bunch, particularly if you're trying to figure out the camera's most advanced features.
  • Panasonic — By contrast, the Panasonic m4/3 cameras are far more approachable than the Olympus ones, and much more easily learned. That's despite too much Japlish jargon and weird abbreviations in the menus and descriptions that really need to be improved. This is changing a bit as Panasonic adds features and depth and nuance. The GH5, for instance, is probably just as complex in deciphering how to set it up optimally for 4K video shooting as the E-M1 Mark II is for figuring out how to do focus stacking or one of the other advanced still features. Still, for still shooters, I'd argue that the Panasonic is more approachable than the Olympus for a new user.
  • Sony — If you come from an early Sony mirrorless camera, you're going to be surprised that the control assumptions and interfaces have all changed. A6xxx and A7/A9 are not your old NEX (or even your newer one ;~). If you're coming from a DSLR then things in the current Sony lineup will look more familiar to you, but the organization and flow is all wrong in the menus. Expect a modest learning curve. Even coming from earlier Sony cameras (e.g. moving from an A7 to an A7R Mark III) you're going to find that Sony has been moving lots of things around and has changed their minds on plenty. Again, a modest learning curve until you've readjusted. Like Canon, though, the raw workflow and processing is not likely to be an issue, particularly if you've used any Sony or Nikon sensor-driven camera before. A Sony ARW processes much like a Nikon NEF.

Wait, no Nikon? Nope. I consider the Nikon 1 line dead and await to see what Nikon will do next in mirrorless. Samsung is also dead. The Hasselblad and Sigma offerings are too low volume and niche to consider in this discussion, IMHO.

Okay, all that said, where are we?

  • If you want a full frame mirrorless camera buy a Sony A7/A9 model. Or wait. Yes, I know Leica makes full frame cameras, but that's a bit like buying a Ferrari: great for your self-worth, I suppose, but not very practical to drive around town. Which A7/A9 model? Well, I've written many times during the last couple of years that the Nikon D810 and Sony A7RII have been the best all-around cameras you can buy, so A7RII. I expect for the next year or more I'll be writing D850 and A7RIII instead of D810 and A7RII, but I'm still in the process of reviewing both those new cameras. The A7RII/III still have some raw edges I wish Sony would fix, but that hasn't stopped me from using them frequently. I have no complaints about the image quality, lens availability, or even handling when used as an all-around, general purpose camera.
  • If you're a bit of an oddball (nerd) and don't mind some things you must study and master, consider the Fujifilm X or m4/3 systems. The Fujifilm X system really tends to appeal to the high enthusiast and professional crop sensor DSLR user base, particularly ones that came to DSLRs from film SLRs. Looking at an X kit spread out on the desk reminds me a lot of my old FM2n days. Fujifilm has the best set of crop sensor lenses of anyone, bar none (buzz, buzz). And those lenses tend to carry over that retro feel, too. Meanwhile, Olympus has built a tour de force of technology into and around their smaller sensor, and in ways that make the m4/3 system function well outside its weight class. Panasonic tends to a little more conservative and a bit behind Olympus in the technologies, but is also worth looking at. And like Fujifilm X, the m4/3 lens set is excellent. Indeed, this is something that gets overlooked by far too many: much of what a sensor resolves is dictated by what's in front of the sensor. Canon and Nikon, with their cheap "kit" lenses on their crop sensor cameras have walked into a door frame: lens quality matters.
  • If you're looking for a small mirrorless camera to serve as a compact, a Canon M might be the one. There are other choices here, such as the smaller Panasonic models (e.g. GX850), or the Sony A6xxx. But frankly, after trying them all, the most satisfying "compact camera" experiences I've had with mirrorless models are the Canon M5 and M6, particularly with the 22mm compact prime. Second choice, the 11-22mm zoom.
  • If you're starting out in sports, action, or adventure photography, get the Sony A9. Sony has several key advantages against the Canon 1DxII and Nikon D5 for someone just coming out of college trying to build their first sports system: a lower body price, a faster frame rate, and silent shooting.

What about Medium Format, you ask? Well, Medium Format has never been about "DSLR versus mirrorless." It's been about big sensor versus smaller one, and to a lesser degree, lens sets. Thing is, here in 2017 the sensor is going to be the same Sony 50mp sensor (true of the Fujifilm and Hasselblad mirrorless entrants, true of the Pentax DSLR entrant). So if you're really Jonesing for a big sensor, it's going to be the camera ergonomics and lens sets that should trigger your decision. The GFX 50S, 1XD, and 645D are all very, very different when it comes to those things. Pick which you're most comfortable with.

Finally, I'll admit that I'm a bit torn myself about which mirrorless system to concentrate on in my shooting. Oh, a few I've managed to decide against:

  • Fujifilm X — I generally like the cameras and lenses, generally don't like the X-Trans sensor (other than for monochrome work). As much as the Fujifilm crowd has fawned over the focus, it still isn't at the same level as Sony or the best DSLRs. Close, but not equivalent. Moreover, as I bundled up the X options I liked most, I found I was getting a bit on the heavy side while not having the telephoto options I really need. I made a decision early in the year to sell off most of my X system and just keep a couple of lenses so I could evaluate future X models.
  • Nikon 1 — This one was easy. Nikon went flatline on me. Moreover, they kept trying to make Nikon 1 not a miniature Nikon DSLR, to the point of making duplicate and incompatible accessories. There was a lot to like here, especially once the J series (but not V series) got to the 20mp Exmor-based sensor. The 6.7-13mm, 18.5mm, and 32mm f/1.2 lenses were gems, and the 70-300mm an absolute "friend of birders." At least birders in the sunshine. But Nikon never produced a road map of where things were headed, overpriced everything, made it all too incompatible with the rest of Nikon gear, and then just went into complete product extension flatline. Sorry, I'd like a pulse.
  • Leica — The M's: well, I never had much of an M lens collection (one or two) and I never really liked the rangefinder approach. So I've never done anything other than borrow M gear to test for short periods. The TL and SL have a lot to like, but my TL was buggier than any other mirrorless I've tested to date. And the TL lenses left me wanting. The SL lenses just are too massive for what I need mirrorless for.

Which, of course, leaves Canon, m4/3, and Sony. Even here I have some issues:

  • Canon EOS M — I need a new "buzz buzz*" term for Canon. Specifically for EOS M lenses. There's exactly two I can't live without (11-22mm f/4.5-5.6 and 22mm f/2). That's it. Which makes the M a bit of a one-trick pony for me. With the 22mm f/2 it's a great little walk-around 35mm equivalent camera. Great. Great enough that I'm not tempted by a GR or an X100F or another else that's appeared in that space. But then what?
    Note to Canon executives: You need a pancake 15mm and 50mm. You need one really great faster zoom. Minimum.
  • m4/3 — Both Olympus and Panasonic boggle my mind. Did you know we're approaching 30 Panasonic m4/3 bodies over 20 Olympus m4/3 bodies? If you do a search for m4/3 lenses on B&H you come up with 130 lenses. Personally, I can boil the Olympus line into three cameras I'd consider: Pen-F, E-M10 Mark III, and E-M1 Mark II. I'm not sure why they're wedging an E-M5 in between the two other OM-Ds or continuing the PL/PM/EP models. If they need a lower end, make a lower end Pen-F. Indeed, that's the lineup they should have: Pen-F Jr, Pen-F, E-M10, E-M1. Yes, I know all about price elasticity of demand and product line development and all that other stuff. But seriously, Olympus, spend more time on those four bodies and less time out in the weeds. Meanwhile, Panasonic's numbering scheme appears to every now and then be headed by someone on a drunken binge. Stop that. G, GH, GX and maybe either a GF or GM, all labeled concurrently, please (e.g. G9, GH9, GX9, and GM9 ;~). There's excess proliferation of bodies in both camps when both would be served better by flushing out some odds and ends that aren't really attracting users.
  • Sony — NEX is history. But so, it appears, is the A5xxx. Really? The crop sensor Sony line is now a series of three cameras each of which is a "stick more sensor tech in it" version of the former? I fail to see how this is a useful strategy. Things that were wrong with the A6000 are still wrong with the A6500 (and A6300 in between). And when all is said and done these cameras seem a lot more GameBoy than anything else on the market. Don't get me wrong, I like them, but...
    Note to Sony executives: You're making the same mistake Nikon made with DX, and Canon made with EF-S and is making with EF-M. Samsung made lenses for their NEX-clone that clearly bettered what you put out. You can put all the tech you want at the sensor, but it's the optics out front that are hurting your image quality, not the sensor. What I'd give for Samsung's 16mm f/2.4, 20mm f/2.8, 30mm f/2, 45mm f/1.8, 60mm f/2.8, and 85mm f/1.4 in a Sony E-mount. And no, your Sony 16mm, 20mm, 30mm don't even come close.

Okay, we're finally to the payoff.

What's Thom using?

Right now I'm having a bit of a crisis. The two mirrorless systems for which I can say I have a full, complete system are very different: Olympus m4/3 and Sony FE. But I really wonder if I need two.

I love the Olympus E-M1 Mark II—at least once I get my head back into it and re-master the menus—and the lenses are extraordinary. An E-M1 with the 7-14mm f/2.8, 12-40mm f/2.8, and 40-150mm f/2.8 is a really small 14-300mm kit with some great optics. When I'm in the "Olympus Groove" the E-M1 Mark II feels just right in my hand and the controls are natural (assuming I got them programmed right again ;~). And if I really wanted to go smaller, the Panasonic f/2.8 lenses would net me some more savings. Or I could go with those great Olympus primes and be real small. Every time I think of a 14-mile-in-one-day backwoods hike I think first and foremost about the Olympus m4/3 gear. Coupled with a small tripod and a pano head, there's nothing I can't do, yet I'm at a carry weight I can still handle now that I'm in my Medicare years. I'll labor a bit more with the raw conversions than I do with my full frame cameras, but I'm happy with the results.

I love the Sony A7R (currently II going on III)—at least if I've got the right lenses on it. First, as I noted above, the Sony raw files are as easy to work with as my Nikon DSLR raw files. And pretty close in absolute quality, enough to ignore most of the time. The IBIS is nice, the EVF is good (and getting better with the III). My problems are twofold. First, the A7 bodies just aren't all that comfortable in the hand, the controls are too small, and some are in the wrong place. When I said the Olympus feels just right, the Sony feels just wrong (note that the A9 improved that some, but the A9 isn't the camera I need here). I'm just not as comfortable shooting all day with the Sony A7 bodies as I am with my Nikon DSLRs or the Olympus E-M1 Mark II. Simple as that.

And then there's the lenses. The f/2.8 GM lenses are great. But they don't save me anything over the Nikon f/2.8 lenses, so it gives me no real reason to pick up the A7RII over the D810 (now D850). I'm holding out high hopes for the upcoming Sony 24-105mm f/4, because the current 24-70mm f/4 leaves a lot to be desired other than its size (and Nikon's DSLR version also leaves a lot to be desired, so the A7II gets a shot here with the right lens). I really need a smallish travel lens on this A7RII, and that just-announced 24-105mm f/4 is my next big hope. Yes, it's bigger and heavier than the 24-70mm f/4, but it's also lighter and smaller than the 24-70mm f/2.8. I'm hoping to find Goldilocks.

Because if I don't, I'm not sure why I'm using an A7RII(III).

Now I'm a bit of a special case. Right now I have pretty full sets of m4/3, Sony FE, and Nikon DSLR (DX/FX) gear to choose from. Which I choose for a job or a trip depends upon the strengths and weaknesses of each as it relates to said job or trip. And guess what that keeps coming back to?

You guessed it: lenses.

I don't need more megapixels. I don't need better pixels. I don't need more features. I don't need more frames per second. I don't need better autofocus (though I wouldn't complain if I got it). What I need is a complete system where the lenses perfectly complement the bodies and create an optimal kit for me to carry.

At present I can only say I have that with two systems: Olympus m4/3 and Nikon FX. To which I'd add that Fujifilm X users can get to that level, too, as long as they don't need much above 200mm.

Sony FE to me is a far trickier call. As I noted, the f/2.8 GM zooms basically force me to assess Sony FE against Canon EF and Nikon FX. The maturity of the ergonomics of the Canon and Nikon camera bodies then become a key deciding point. If Sony is going to insist that the A7 is distinguished by a small body, I need the lenses that complement that better, and I still need the ergonomics to take a step forward. The minute my gloves come out this winter, my Sony body heads into the closet.

Yes, I've been harsh on Sony in this article, but that's partly because they're so close to having something that really plays a new role.

*For the past decade I've used the term "buzz, buzz" to rag about Nikon's persistent problem of ignoring the DX lens set and not completing it in a useful fashion. It seems that all the top crop sensorcameravendors keep thinking that crop sensor is only about selling and providing convenience, so they tend to emphasizesuperzooms, kit lenses, and a few cheap options. They're worried that they'll cannibalize their own full frame sensor offerings. Yet I can clearly measure the leakage from Nikon DX to Fujifilm X, and I'll bet that if I surveyed those leakers carefully I'd find that "lens set" was at the top of the reasons they left Nikon DX. Better to cannibalize your own users than have someone else do it.

Canon (EF-S and EF-M) and Nikon (DX) and even Sony (E) seem to all think that it's all about theup-sell: "hey, if you want a complete lens set or better lenses then just buy (the way more expensive) EF, FX, FE." That's short-sighted, and it's enabled competitors to hold onto and increase market share in ILC, particularly m4/3 and Fujifilm X. The Canikony thinking about crop sensor lens sets is paternalistic and fundamentally wrong. There's no reason why you can't have a relatively complete DX lens set and a complete FX lens set that's even better. No reason.

text and images 2017Thom Hogan
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