More Thoughts on the State of Mirrorless

My views are changing a bit about mirrorless as time progresses. 

Back when I started using mirrorless cameras, it was as a supplement to my DSLRs. In particular, I began by using m4/3 cameras for the wide to moderate telephoto range while I was on safari, leaving my two DSLRs both with telephoto lenses (typically 70-200mm and 400mm at full frame focal lengths). 

The other thing that I was using mirrorless for was to reduce my pack weight when I was traipsing off deep into the wilds, well away from the front country. 

In both cases I tended to not be worried about low light. The safari work at the very edges of the day was about the only time I moved off of base ISO with those early mirrorless cameras, and even then I didn't move far.

No matter how you slice it, with all other things equal a smaller sensor definitely propagates random photon noise more than a larger sensor. One way we tended to try to mitigate that with m4/3 was to use faster lenses. Of course, now some of those faster lenses are getting fairly big, and we find we're back into the dynamics of size/weight balanced against results. 

To put that in context, an Olympus EM-1 Mark II with the 12-40mm f/2.8 clocks in at 825g (29.1 ounces) while a Sony A7rII with the 24-70mm f/4 clocks in at 1055g (37.2 ounces). The Sony will have more pixels (in normal shooting) and almost a stop better capability—despite the slower lens aperture—for not much change in weight. Meanwhile, a Sony A6500 with the 16-70mm f/4 would be reasonably equivalent to the Olympus and lighter at 761g (26.8 ounces). I don't think I ever expected m4/3 to get bracketed like that, and it's definitely affected my thinking.

Whereas early on in the mirrorless era there was a distinct difference between a highish-end mirrorless and any medium-to-high DSLR, what's happening now is that the lower end DSLRs are shedding weight while the mirrorless competitors are all fuzzing up comparisons by offering new and interesting choices. Our ILC choices are getting more confusing, not less.

As a result my commitment to m4/3 hasn't been unwavering. I'll say this: I still love the OM-D bodies and the Olympus glass (with a bit of Panasonic glass mixed in).  Olympus is making very high precision and performance gear, and because of the smaller sensor size, that tends to be reasonably compact and not heavy. The biggest pain of the Olympus system has been getting (and keeping) the camera set up the way I want it, coupled with prices that aren't exactly low. I also don't like the way Olympus leap-frogged models. For awhile, the E-M5 was a better camera than the E-M1, but now we're back to the inverse, but that will probably change again in the future. 

Meanwhile, we've had three other mirrorless competitors considerably up their game. As I noted in my recent review of the Canon EOS M5, that camera is basically a very small Canon DSLR in terms of function and performance. If I were a Canon DSLR shooter on safari, it would be a no brainer to use an M5 the way I've been using the Olympus OM-Ds, even given the lack of EOS M lens choice at the moment. 

Fujifilm has slowly built the X system into something that has to be considered, too. While a lot of sites and fans write about Fujifilm's (Kaizen) continuous improvement, I'm on record as saying it was necessary. The X-Pro1 lacked a lot of DSLR-like features and performance. To Fujifilm's credit, they've been back-filling the firmware of their X models ever since, but I see that more as necessary catch-up than something exceptional beyond what the established players already have. At this point, a Fujifilm X-T2 (review coming shortly) is a lot like a DSLR in features, controls, and performance. But it took Fujifilm a few years to get to that level. And then this year they began shipping the same thing in the largest sensor you'll find in a mirrorless camera (GFX). 

And then there's Sony with the E/FE siblings. Sony hasn't been trying to imitate DSLR controls and function. They seem to be trying to stick the technical kitchen sink into every new product, pushing boundaries on things that haven't been pushed before. Along the way, they slowly sidled into a menu/control/ergonomics that's some merger of old compact camera and new-age DSLR.

So where we are now is with a mirrorless market that has an incredible array of choices. Sensors of the primary choices range from m4/3 to APS to full frame to small medium format. And from 20mp to 50mp. Focus performance is no longer lethargic and unusable for moving subjects. Frame rates are DSLR-like or better. Lens choices have expanded in three of the systems to be reasonably full and diverse. We're near maturity of these mirrorless products, basically. 

So what do I think about each of the most talked about choices these days? Here's my thinking about the main contenders in a nutshell:

  • Canon EOS M — With the M5 Canon now has an answer for its DSLR users: you want a smaller, lighter version of what you've got with very little performance difference? Get an M5. The scenario where I started into mirrorless—cover the mid-range on safari with something small so I didn't have to change lenses on the DSLRs—is now adequately covered for a Canon shooter. Do you venture into Canon EOS M from scratch as your sole camera choice? Probably not. The lens set just isn't there. Do you venture into EOS M if you're a Canon DSLR user? Sure, as there's no real downside to that if you're looking at the EOS M as a take-everywhere supplement to what you've got. 
  • Fujifilm XF — The APS-sensor Fujifilm cameras still have that irritant that has bothered me from the beginning: getting great low level color detail out the X-Trans sensor requires changes to your workflow. Using Lightroom for everything is not the best of choices for a Fujifilm XF user as you're leaving some image quality on the table. And that undermines a lot of what there is to like about cameras such as the X-T2. Certainly if you like the out of camera JPEGs, no worries. And if you don't need fast telephoto choices beyond the 50-140mm f/2.8, ditto. The all-prime shooter tends to love the Fujifilm lens offerings, and they match up very well with the cameras and their capabilities. Fujifilm is a good choice for sole camera system as long as you're fine with X-Trans and aren't heavy into long telephoto use.
  • Olympus/Panasonic m4/3 — Very mature products with a mature lens set. I'd have to say that both companies are now close to extracting all we're going to get out of the m4/3 sensor short of there being a major technology breakthrough in sensors (which, of course, would benefit other systems, too; something like spillover electron count is going to be necessary to extract more dynamic range in m4/3, for instance). And that's really my one big issue with m4/3: it has limits. Limits that I do hit in my regular work. You may not. You can mitigate those limits somewhat by picking fast lenses, but then you're paying more and in many cases starting to pile on some of the weight you lost by picking m4/3. Still, m4/3 is very viable as a sole camera system as long as you don't need to press extremely high into the upper ISO values. If you can live in the base to ISO 1600 range, no worries at all. The further you press above that, the more you need to closely examine what the results will be before committing to m4/3. 
  • Sony E — These small cameras are now gee-whiz miracles. Sony has been throwing everything they know about technology into them while keeping the original smallness of the NEX system. But Sony is also not really fixing ergonomic issues or coming up with a fuller, better lens set. Pity. Because the E system is starting to become a head-scratcher, and for similar reasons that the crop sensor DSLRs did: neglect of the entire system, particularly a full and appropriate lens set. I'd say to someone contemplating Sony E: pay close attention to the lens set and make sure you can live with what exists today.
  • Sony FE — The A7 models definitely changed the dynamics in the mirrorless market. There isn't a better low-light mirrorless camera than the A7sII (especially if you also do video), nor a better high pixel count camera than the A7rII (the A7II is the jack of all trades in the middle). Unlike E, Sony has been filling out the FE line, and with some exceptionally good glass. We're still missing some really wide primes and the long telephoto exotics, but in the 24-200mm range Sony's offerings pretty much cover everything. But here's the thing: a full frame 70-200mm f/2.8 lens for the A7 series is the same size and weight as one for the Canon or Nikon full frame DSLRs. Note what I wrote about not fixing the ergonomic issues with Sony E: something similar is happening with the FE cameras, too. Too much emphasis on the gee-whiz stuff and not enough on the pedestrian how-you-handle-it stuff. Thus, I don't see the point of buying into the A7 models with the f/2.8 lenses over just getting a DSLR and its f/2.8 lenses: you'll get better handling and won't be noticeably bigger and heavier with the DSLR. I find myself using the A7rII with the f/4 zooms, which means I'm putting a bit of a compromise in front of an uncompromised sensor in order to keep the package smaller and lighter. 

So what's the conclusion? I can see some people gravitating towards any of those five systems, though the Canon EOS M, Fujifilm X, and Sony FE are the ones that seem to be growing fastest. The m4/3 owners seem to have already identified themselves, but don't seem to be growing much. Indeed, Olympus themselves admitted that most of the E-M1 Mark II sales were going to previous E-M users. That's not to underplay m4/3, but note what I wrote about limits, above. We're getting back towards where we were with early DSLRs, when Olympus 4/3 DSLRs were nice, but faded fast in competitiveness due mostly to smaller sensor choice. 

That said, in my personal order of preference at the moment, I tend towards:

  1. Sony FE
  2. Olympus m4/3
  3. Canon EOS M
  4. Fujifilm XF
  5. Sony E

The FE preference is all about the sensor/lens combinations and very little about the camera, which I tolerate. XF falls lower than you might have guessed because I just have issues with the workflow in getting everything I can out of the raw data. Moreover the Fujifilm raw data has some things baked into it I don't like. (Dispute that? Try reading this article on Fujifilm X-Trans versus Bayer; and that article doesn't speak to the workflow issues.)

But I could be happy with any of these five if that's all I was able to shoot with. 

Some of you are wondering about the mirrorless systems I didn't mention, so in fairness, I'll give you my summary for them, too:

  • Fujifilm GFX — A game changer for a few. All the goodness of the Fujifilm XF system with a small medium format Bayer-patten sensor. Thing is, the lens set is going to define this as a mid-range camera for some time, basically 24-90mm equivalent. If that's where all your shooting is, then you pretty much have to look at the GFX, even comparing it to DSLRs shooting in that range. The buy-in is expensive, though, basically in Leica territory (see below). But bravo to Fujifilm for showing that mirrorless can be much more than just a smaller DSLR replacement.
  • Hasselblad XCD — The jury is still out here. I haven't had much more than the chance to hold one and point it at random things for a few minutes so far, so can't really speak to how good it may or may not be. Like the Fujifilm GFX, it does make you think harder about the Leica offerings (see next). 
  • Leica M — The new M10 certainly chips away at a few shortcomings of the M system, but you're still playing in a fairly narrow field if you opt for an M. Basically the M performs best in the 24-85mm range due to the way the viewfinder works. You're paying a high price for a good product, but the product has limits. With the advent of Fujifilm GFX, the M now has an interesting competitor playing in the same game. Good thing Leica decided to shave some size off the M.
  • Leica TL — Like a small, distant star going nova. There was a small, bright flash as the T (then TL) came onto the market, then it seems to have disappeared. I liked what Leica was trying to do with this camera, but I don't think it ever fully delivered. I still get bug reports from people who have one, and the lens set hasn't exactly flourished. One has to wonder if Leica is trying to juggle too many balls.
  • Leica SL — This is a system I don't get. I guess it's supposed to take the place of the R series for digital, but I'm not sure why I'd want it. Beyond being expensive, your choices turn out just huge. With just the 50mm f/1.4 mounted on the camera you're almost four ounces above four pounds (1912g), yet you've only got a 24mp full frame camera with a normal lens. You've also paid over US$10,000 for the privilege. Seems to me that you're not getting anything significant—other than a collectible camera—beyond what you can get with a Sony A7II and a decent 50mm lens for it. And again, the Fujifilm GFX puts a whole 'nother play into this realm: for less money you'd get twice the pixels in a larger sensor and at less weight overall.
  • Nikon 1 — An interesting option early on in its history, as it had performance and features not found elsewhere in mirrorless. But Nikon has apparently abandoned the system as we're coming up on two years with no new products. The premise of small sensor size, and thus small camera didn't really go anywhere, and I'd say that's mostly Nikon's fault. They got pretty much everything wrong with the Nikon 1 rollout, and didn't fix that quickly or consistently. These days we have compact cameras with the same sensor and basic performance specs (e.g. RX100 Mark V) that have a better built-in lens than Nikon delivered in the interchangeable lens kits. I don't see how you buy a Nikon 1 system these days. There's no there currently there, and no no there about to be there that I can tell. 
  • Sigma sd — I'd say this: the only reason you buy a Sigma sd is because of the Foveon three-layer sensor. Which means that you're almost always shooting at base ISO and you don't mind a camera that's sluggish at best case. You also don't mind terrible software in your workflow if you're shooting raw (and you should be shooting raw if you want the best out of this sensor). Personally, I find Foveon image data to be a bit on the contrasty side, but at base ISO you certainly can't complain about edge acuity: it's clearly better than an equivalent Bayer-type sensor.

Sadly, it seems we've lost Ricoh/Pentax and Samsung in the mirrorless market, so those systems appear to be dead-ends and you absolutely need to be happy with what is available on the used market (and again, the Nikon 1 is trending that way). 

I'll continue to cover the full range of mirrorless products, but I felt that you needed to know some of my own personal thoughts on these systems and which I feel are truly usable/desirable at the moment. More reviews are coming soon, though I doubt I'll ever manage to keep up with the full onslaught of model proliferation. 

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