[Gear] The Mirrorless Camera: Pro Quality in Your Pocket

Mirrorless cameras are everywhere, now. By removing the standard mirror arrangement, manufacturers have been able to cram huge sensors similar to those in DSLRs into the same, tiny bodies as their point-and-shoot cousins. And if you Google "DSLR in your pocket," half of the images that come up are mirrorless cameras. But does this hold true? And is the mirrorless right for you?

Background:

I've said before (and I, by far, am not the first) that 2011 was the year of the mirrorless camera. However, anyone that knows just a bit about technology knows that first iterations are like practice runs; and practice makes perfect. This year, not only are even more manufacturers expected to release new and first-ever mirrorless cameras, but others will also be introducing improved models built upon first experiences (and perhaps mistakes). So if you haven't gotten one yet, but are still considering switching to or adding a mirrorless camera, what aspects should keep you waiting and what about today's might push you to make the jump?

Nikon, Pentax, Olympus, Fujifilm, Sony, and plenty of other manufacturers have their first mirrorless cameras out on the market already. So why are all the big players in on the mirrorless game?

Current Mirrorless Cameras on the Market -- Image credit: DP Review

What's the Hype?:

First, mirrorless cameras offer comparatively excellent image quality in a smaller, comparatively portable form factor. Naturally, this is because of the bigger sensor typical of the format. The larger a sensor, the better its ability to capture light. Also, depth of field decreases with larger sensors. This helps give great foreground-background separation (shallow depth of field) that makes portraits less snapshot-like. It's pleasing because, as any designer will tell you, contrast is king. A shallow depth of field creates contrast by forcing areas not pertinent to the image content into a blur, allowing focus itself to further establish the subject of a photograph.

Interchangeable lenses allow for better image quality, too, by offering larger apertures. And flexibility in lens choice gives avid users the power to direct perspective in a more controlled manner as those with advanced DSLRs.

Other features include split-second shutter response, eliminating the ever-annoying 'press and wait five seconds' that plague the average point-and-shoot camera. Now, just as with a DSLR, we can have instant reactions to capture what we see exactly when we see it. Missing shots is a non-issue.

The Catch:

However, all of these wonderful features come with slight compromises. And these features and compromises, after all, are what put these cameras in a class of their own between the point-and-shoots and DSLRs. The body itself is extremely compact and could easily slide in a pocket, but lenses do stick out a bit. And having multiple lenses means you'll need at least a few, loose pockets. So these aren't exactly pocket cameras.

Also, all the fancy lenses and larger sensors add to the expense of a full system. Compact cameras still beat out the mirrorless format on that front. And for the expense of a full mirrorless setup, some DSLRs with a kit lens could be had for the same price (or less).

I, myself, just recently bought my first compact camera (the Nikon AW100) and just had a chance to play around with a friend's Nikon 1 J1 mirrorless camera. I love how compact the AW100 is, but the best part is that I can drop it, dunk it, and chuck it at anyone who laughs at its impossible-to-miss orange color. Generally, I need the reliability, sturdiness, and ever-satisfying, real shutter sound of my Nikon D3 in comparison to the J1's fake, audio sound (since none of these cameras have a real shutter). And I don't mind carrying the 'extra' weight after shooting some of my 120 film equipment. But the J1 did pleasantly surprise me. Shutter response was quick, autofocus was much faster than any point-and-shoot that I've tried, and it didn't feel quite as awkward in my hands as a point-and-shoot does, even with its rather awkward pop-up flash that's really made to pop UP and OVER those lenses that you'd attach to it.

Comparison of the Nikon 1 J1 and the Nikon AW100 point-and-shoot

I haven't had experience, myself, with the Sony NEX cameras, but they seem to be the most popular, by far. Many articles that I've read herald the new NEX-7 mirrorless camera as a huge leap from its NEX-5 predecessor, especially with a few much-needed tweaks to the user interface, now updated with two programmable buttons. It fits comfortably in your hand and features one of the highest resolutions in its class (if not the highest) at 24MP, giving plenty of room to crop and still enlarge.

Sony NEX-7 mirrorless camera with zoom lens

Then again, there could be a real pro mirrorless in the midst: Fuji's already-announced X-Pro 1 mirrorless APS-C rangefinder camera is going to be showing up at people's doors soon. Current hands-on reviews say great things about the X-Pro 1 -- it even has a brand new sensor technology that allows for clearer pictures that many DSLRs can't even compete with. While these claims seem to be held up by reviewers, the X-Pro 1 has a price to match at $1699. Still thousands less than today's Leicas, this could be the world's first real professional mirrorless camera.

In the end, if you're looking for unrivaled control and don't mind the extra weight and bulk, a small (or even large) DSLR may be your answer. And then if multiple lenses and greater image quality sound great, but you know you'll never take it all with you if it can't fit in your girlfriend's clutch at the theatre later tomorrow night, you might want to opt for a compact. But for those in between, who never had a perfect answer, this may be it. It's not as rock solid as a DSLR, but for the image quality it provides, the mirrorless is a great stepping stone that might be more than just that. There's a reason it's in a class of its own -- the mirrorless is perfect for many. Either way, this is one type of camera that I'd highly recommend picking up in store at least once to make sure it's right for you. This is a new experience. There's nothing quite like it. So make sure it's one that you love.

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11 Comments

The bigger the sensor, the bigger the lens and with the Sony being an APS-C the lenses just feel too big for such a small camera. I honestly haven't handled the NEX-7 but the 3 and 5 just feel too unbalanced for me. 

The Nikon V1 was really nice. Fast and has a very bright viewfinder but I really desire more controls. Give me two wheels and more buttons. I want to be able to change things with out looking at the menu. I can shoot in manual with my DSLR and change my Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO on the fly with out taking my eyes off what I am shooting. I've gotten use to that and demand it for any camera that I am going to spend nearly a grand on.

I like my DSLR but I am looking at mirrorless systems. I think I'll have to wait a few more generations to get what I want. Maybe Fuji will release a new x100 with interchangeable lenses.

I feel very much the same way as you on the DSLR handling front. It's hard for me, too, to give up those controls -- impossible, in fact, in many cases. I find myself fumbling around all the time with point-and-shoots (and the like) while my friends make fun of me for knowing the ins and outs of the D3, but not being able to turn auto-flash off on the P+S. Sometimes it even makes me laugh, but it's mostly frustrating...

Tran-Shawn Yu's picture

.... you mean like the xpro-1?

The DoF decreases not increases with larger sensor ;)

Lee Morris's picture

This is always because of the way people word it. "Shallow DOF increases as the sensor gets larger"

Well, I am still learning English but i am positive about that. The Depth is becoming more shallow - decreases...   :P

You're all right. And of course, that's what I meant. So I changed it. :-)

Brian Worley's picture

I like the article but can't help thinking that

"Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Olympus, Fujifilm, Sony, and plenty of other manufacturers have their first mirrorless cameras out on the market already. "

Canon doesn't have mirrorless camera yet :)

Oops. Thanks :-) Don't know why I did that.

Love, love, love my EPL2, no, it can't do some of the stuff my 7d does but the portability and image quality makes it a winner in many situations