Saturday, 31 August 2013

Mirrorless camera systems

Back in 2008, Panasonic launched the first consumer mirrorless system camera with the Panasonic G1. Since this time, a lot of competitors have introduced their systems. I take a look at the competition, to summarize what they are all about.

Sony NEX, E-mount

Headline comments: Small cameras, large lenses.

Crop factor: 1.5x

The first Sony NEX cameras introduced were truly strange: No built in flash, a minimum of buttons, no touch screen interface, a non standard flash connector. The cameras were slim, but also had a fairly poor grip and ergonomics. Later, a camera like the Sony NEX-6 appeared to take the system in a more traditional direction, with a proper flash shoe, better grip, built in flash, and even a built in EVF on the side, to give it a range finder appearance. The Sony NEX-6 looks and feels more like a normal camera.

Sony NEX-6

The Sony NEX lenses have often been criticized for having poor optical performance. This especially goes for the initial lenses, like the Sony NEX 16mm f/2.8 wide prime lens. Later lenses tend to get better reviews, like the compact Sony NEX 20mm f/2.8.

Just like Panasonic, Sony have released a compact pancake standard zoom lens. I have compared them here, and I think that the Sony lens does pretty well. It is often bundled with entry level cameras, making them very tempting packages: A compact large sensor mirrorless camera with a versatile zoom lens at a low price point.

In terms of technology level, the latest cameras in the higher price range employ on-sensor PDAF, currently the buzz word in this area. Phase Difference Autofocus (PDAF) is intended to improve the autofocus performance during video recording, and with moving subject. However, the real world benefit of the PDAF system employed by Sony appears to be undecided.

Due to the recent cooperation between Sony and Olympus, it is expected that future cameras will include in body image stabilization (IBIS), making them even more attractive.

Who is it for? If you like the clean lines of the slim cameras, but can live with having zoom lenses that are a tad bit large. Some of the prime lenses are quite compact, though. There is an adapter for using Sony Alpha DSLR lenses on Sony NEX cameras, for those with a cache of legacy lenses.

Nikon 1

Headline comments: Some high end lenses, cameras lack pro ergonomics, what do Nikon want with the system?

Crop factor: 2.7x

When introduced, it is fair to say that the Nikon 1 system got a mixed reception. The cameras and lenses looked toy-like, coming in a number of colours, pink included. Also, the sensor is unusually small for an interchangeable lens system, with a crop factor of 2.7. That makes a quarter of the sensor area of 1.5 crop formats, like Sony NEX.

The cameras have evolved into two distinct lines: One compact camera without an EVF, like the Nikon J3, and the slightly larger Nikon V2 that includes an EVF, a proper grip, and more control buttons and wheels. Still, the camera is far from what the serious amateur or professional would require in terms of ergonomics.

At the same time, beyond the usual basic kit zoom lenses, Nikon have released some really interesting lenses which are up to a high standard. For example, there is the Nikon 10-100mm f/4.5-5.6 VR superzoom lens, which includes power zoom, the only 10x zoom lens with a power zoom available for any interchangeable lens mirrorless system. Also, the Nikon 32mm f/1.2 portrait lens, the fastest autofocus lens for any mirrorless system at this time. These lenses are also quite expensive, matching the premium specifications.

Nikon 1 32mm f/1.2 portrait lens

Technology-wise, the cameras feature a hybrid CDAF and PDAF focus system, which does indeed provide a rather good performance for moving targets and video recording. Also, the Nikon V2 camera features a quite interesting 60 fps shooting mode, for up to 40 consecutive frames at full 14MP resolution, using the electronic shutter mode.

There is a strange difference between the cameras, which appear quite simple and not up to what a professional would expect, and some of the lenses, which have professional specifications and price tags. And Sony makes the Sony RX100 II, with the same sensor size, but a higher pixels count at 20MP, and a more attractive zoom specification at 10-37mm f/1.8-4.9. As this camera is even more compact than the most compact Nikon 1 camera, with a kit zoom lens, I'm sure a lot of people would rather go for the Sony compact camera.

Who is it for? This is unclear to me, and appears to be unclear even for Nikon.

Fujifilm X

Headline comments: Innovative technology with a retro look.

Crop factor: 1.5x

Fujifilm had a big hit with the retro styled Fujifilm X100 rangefinder-like camera. After this success, they introduced a mirrorless camera line with the same styling and philosophy.

While the cameras look traditional, they have some interesting, innovative features. The Fujifilm X-Pro1 has a hybrid electronic/optical viewfinder, unique for mirrorless cameras.

Fujifilm X-Pro1 and Fujinon 35mm f/1.4

The retro feel goes beyond the styling, there are also old style shutter speed and exposure compensation dials. And the prime lenses have aperture rings with 1/3 stop click stops. However, the aperture rings don't mechanically control the aperture. The aperture is controlled electronically, just like most other mirrorless camera lenses. Just like the focus rings: They control the electronic focus motor through a focus by wire system. So while the camera and lenses appear old fashioned and mechanical, the camera is in fact electronically controlled, like the rest of the bunch.

Who is it for? Traditionalists who like a classic rangefinder camera layout and prime lens lineup.

Canon EOS M

Headline comments: Why?

Crop factor: 1.6x

Canon have also launched their mirrorless system, the EOS M. So far, there are only two lenses available to the general public, with a third wide angle zoom only available in some markets. The camera is rather uninteresting, with only a fixed LCD screen as a viewfinder. And the focus speed is quite poor.

Canon EOS M with the 22mm f/2 pancake lens, and 18-55mm kit zoom lens

Still, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Canon have introduced the EOS 70D, with a brand new sensor featuring an innovative PDAF system. It does work very well, giving the camera extraordinarily good autofocus capability during live view and during video recording. There is just a matter of time before this sensor makes its way into the Canon EOS M line, providing superior focus speed.

Who is it for? I cannot imagine anyone buying this system now, except for die hard Canon fans.

Samsung NX

Headline comments: Gimmicky features, large lenses.

Crop factor: 1.5x

For a mirrorless camera system, the Samsung NX has an unusually large register distance at 25.5mm. In my opinion, the cameras appear a bit immature.

To make the system more interesting, they have launched what I would call gimmick products, for example the Samsung 45mm f/1.8 2D/3D lens, capable of recording 3D images and videos by alternating between masking the left and right parts of the aperture. Since the 3D stereo base is very small, I don't think the lens will be very useful for 3D work.

Samsung 45mm f/1.8 2D/3D lens

Also, Samsung has an Android operating system enabled Samsung Galaxy NX camera, featuring a big smart phone like touch screen.

Who is it for? I would guess it is popular among South Korean Samsung fans.


I think that the Nikon 1 system has the potential of being interesting for people into sports photography, with the quite successful CDAF/PDAF hybrid focus system, capable of following moving subjects, and the Nikon V2 capable of capturing full resolution images at a staggering 60FPS.

Sony has some great bargains in the lower end of their lineup, for example the Sony NEX-3N and 16-50mm power zoom lens at a reasonable price. The Sony NEX-6 is a very feature packed camera at a reasonable price, and with an easy to like control layout.

Fujifilm will remain popular among traditionalists, who like the retro rangefinder styling of the Fujifilm X-Pro1, combined with the classic lineup of prime lenses.

Here is a summary of some premium mirrorless cameras and their headline features:

CameraCrop factorTilt LCDEVFIBISPDAFFlashCompactFocus peakingPrice
Lumix GX72xYesYesYesNoYesYesYes$900
Olympus E-M52xYesYesYesNoNoMediumNo$900
Olympus E-M12xYesYesYesYesNoMediumYes$1400
Olympus E-P52xYesOptionalYesNoYesYesYes$950
Lumix GH32xYesYesNoNoYesNoNo$1100
Lumix G62xYesYesNoNoYesMediumYes$750
Sony NEX-61.5xYesYesNoYesYesYesYes$650
Sony A71xYesYesNoYesYesNoYes$1700
Sony A7R1xYesYesNoNoYesNoYes$2300
Fujifilm X-Pro11.5xNoYesNoYesNoNoYes$1200
Fujifilm X-E11.5xNoYesNoNoYesYesYes$800
Fujifilm X-E21.5xNoYesNoYesYesYesYes$1000
Canon EOS M1.6xNoNoNoNoNoYesNo$300
Nikon 1 V22.7xNoYesNoYesYesYesNo$800

The big news in the table above is the Olympus OM-D E-M1, expected to be announced in September 2013. It will be the new pro Olympus camera, featuring Sony on-sensor PDAF technology, capable of good autofocus speed also for legacy Four Thirds lenses. Unfortunately, though, the PDAF system is not used during video recording.


  1. Thanks for the comparison chart. That said, I have a GH3, and love it, but with its lower price and focus peaking, what do you think about adding the Lumix G6 to your list?

    1. Yes, why not? I also added the Olympus OM-D E-M1, to be announced in September.