Friday, 8 August 2014

From the competition

Here is a summary of my take on the Micro Four Thirds competition.

Nikon 1


Nikon were quite late to the mirrorless party, with their Nikon 1 series. They took the rather bold step to use a fairly small sensor, the so called "1 inch sensor". Don't be fooled by the name. Just as the Four Thirds sensor is less than 4/3'' diagonally, the 1 inch sensor is less than 1'' diagonally.

This odd naming convention comes from the time when radio tubes were used for sensors: A 1'' sensor would be an radio tube with a 1'' diameter, while the actual imaging area would of course be much smaller than 1 inch.

Some speculate that Nikon chose to use a smaller sensor to protect their popular DSLR line. I think it was more due to a genuine desire to make the camera system small, which also differentiates it more from the DSLR cameras.





From the start, the Nikon 1 system left the market puzzled: Who is it for? Who would buy toy coloured camera kits with a poor ergonomy and a high price? To add to the confusion, Nikon did release high end lenses, like the Nikkor 32mm f/1.2 portrait lens. But with no enthusiast friendly camera layout, who would use them?

As it turns out, the Nikon 1 system has three strengths, in my opinion:

  1. Very good implementation of PDAF from the start. When I tested the first generation entry model Nikon 1 J1, I found that it had vastly better autofocus performance than the later and premium priced Lumix GM1.

    The PDAF technology implemented means that you get very good autofocus performance during video recording, and, probably more essentially, for moving subjects in AF-C mode. The Nikon 1 cameras can rival high end DSLRs in this area. This autofocus performance is the most important when using long lenses.

  2. Very fast framerates. The Nikon 1 cameras can take 60 frames per second in full resolution mode, and while saving the full RAW image. Of course, this only works in electronic shutter mode, but unlike the Panasonic Micro Four Thirds cameras, the E-shutter has a fast enough readout to avoid the rolling shutter issues.

    This makes the Nikon 1 cameras well suited for sports, for example, where you may want to take a 20 frame burst during a crucial moment, and then later pick the one you want to publish.

  3. The Nikkor CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 (my review) long tele zoom lens. With an impressive 810mm equivalent focal length, this is the smallest birder-friendly lens available currently.

    Combined with the very good PDAF AF-C performance, and the high frame rates possible, this lens makes the Nikon 1 system to a dream come true for anyone interested in photographing birds and wildlife, while wanting to keep the bulk of their gear down. The lens is also useful for spectator sports.

    There is also the Nikon 1 V3 camera, which adds "almost DSLR ergonomy" to the Nikon 1 system. Below it is seen to the left. with the new 70-300mm lens mounted, together with the Lumix GH4 and 100-300mm lens:



If you are not into any of these three areas, then I think you should not look further into the Nikon 1 system. There are other systems that are better suited, unless you are interested in the topics above.

Canon EOS M


Canon also have their mirrorless system. But so far, they only have a small handful of lenses available, and one first generation camera. The camera has very poor autofocus performance, and the ergonomy is sub optimal.

In the mean time, Canon have introduced the EOS 70D, with an innovative PDAF capable sensor. I was expecting that Canon would put this sensor in a mirrorless camera, which should solve their autofocus speed problems. However, this does not seem to happen yet.

With the lack of lenses, and the poor performance of the camera, I would say stay away from the Canon EOS M system.

Fujifilm X


Fujifilm have invested a lot in their mirrorless camera lineup, and they appear to be committed for the long run. They have a very clear niche: Enthusiasts who like the classic lineup of lenses, and retro styled cameras. The cameras and lenses are of a high quality. And even if they look old fashioned, they do employ recent innovations.




The Fujifilm system is for traditionalists who are not heavily into video.

Sony


While Fujifilm have been committed to one line of cameras, the opposite is true for Sony. They started off in the digital system camera with buying Minolta technology, and rebranding a lot of old lenses. Then they improved it with the SLT technology, to enhance the autofocus performance during live view and during video recording.

Just when everybody thought Sony had quit their SLT line of translucent mirror cameras, they remade their top line Sony SLT A77 with a SLT A77 II:



The camera looks and feels like the predecessor, but is updated in many ways: It gets the newest generation sensor, new image processor, and a better autofocus system.

And autofocus is just the key to understanding why this type of cameras exist: Even if the mirror is not used for the viewfinder, like other SLR cameras, it is still used for the traditional PDAF autofocus sensors. This allows the camera to use high precision PDAF autofocus during video recording, and for tracking moving objects. In this way, it is much better than mirrorless cameras, which are not good at tracking moving objects, or focusing during video recording.

However, this is still a transitional technology: Eventually mirrorless cameras will do this just as well, and the line of SLT cameras will disappear. Due to better image processing, a camera like the Lumix GH4 has taken a big leap in this area, and we can still expect further improvements.

Beyond innovations in DSLR cameras, Sony have also launched a mirrorless line of cameras. First, they made a line of NEX branded cameras with an APS-C sized sensor. The first generation were quite strange, but the cameras have since become more normal looking. In 2013, this line was rebranded, with the removal of the "NEX" name. The cameras are now just called "Alpha", like the other system cameras from Sony.

Some interpreted the removal of the "NEX" name as a discontinuation of the APS-C mirrorless cameras. But this is not true, Sony have since made the quite interesting Sony A6000. This camera is reasonably priced, and packs a lot of features. It is probably the first mirrorless camera from Sony which utilizes PDAF technology to provide a really useful autofocus for moving subjects.


The Sony A6000 comes in a kit with the Sony PZ 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6. I have tested the lens and compared it with the Lumix X PZ 14-42mm. My conclusion is that they are both so-so, with some quirks. So from the kit, I would say that the lens is probably the weakest link.

And the big news from Sony is of course the venture into full frame mirrorless with the Sony A7 cameras. They use the same E-mount as the previously NEX branded mirrorless cameras. However, to use the full sensor, you need the full frame capable FE branded lenses, e.g., Sony FE 35mm f/2.8 and Sony FE 55mm f/1.8.

There are three cameras to choose from: Sony A7 is the basic model, with 24MP. It uses PDAF technology for faster autofocus.

Sony A7R is a 34MP camera, with does not include PDAF. This is less of an action camera, and is more intended for those who prioritize a high resolution. It could be used by, e.g., landscape photographers.

Finally, Sony A7S is a camera with exceptionally high sensitivity, the ISO goes all the way up to 409.600. This is at the expense of the resolution, there which is only rated at 12MP. This camera can also record 4K video, but only with an external video recording unit connected to the HDMI output.

Sony is not as focused on one line as the other manufacturers. While they have a decent list of lenses for their APS-C mirrorless cameras, it is unclear if they will continue to enhance it, or proceed with full frame lenses for the top end of their portfolio.

This leaves the lower end users with a dilemma: Should they invest in an APS-C sensor camera, not knowing if Sony will continue to develop interesting lenses for it? As I see it now, Sony is mostly interesting for those who want to have a full frame camera.

Samsung NX and Mini NX


Samsung were early entrants into the mirrorless market, with their NX line of cameras back in 2010. However, the design has one flaw: The flange focal distance (register distance) is too long, at 25.5mm, just barely shorter than the classic Leica M system.

The long register distance means that the cameras need to be larger, but that is not all. It also means that the lenses, especially the wide angle lenses, have to be larger. A short register distance makes wide angle lens design easier, they don't need a large retrofocal design. With a long register distance, you don't get this advantage.

Samsung were quite good at launching a lot of lenses quickly. However, some of them were based on older DSLR optical designs, and were fairly large.

Samsung is now trying to fix all these problems by launching yet another mirrorless camera system, the Mini NX. It has a much shorter register distance. Also, the new camera system has a 1" sensor, like the ones in the Nikon 1 cameras and the Sony RX100 III. This sensor has a size which is about 1/3 of the APS-C sensor sitting in their first NX system.

The first camera out is the Samsung NX mini, and two lenses: 9mm f/3.5 pancake (corresponding to a 24mm wide angle lens), and the 9-27mm f/3.5-5.6 collapsible standard zoom lens.


The camera is styled in the now trendy smooth style, without any grip on the front. Even with the flip up LCD screen, it is still the thinnest and lightest interchangeable lens mirrorless system available.

These cameras look like they will be popular with fashion conscious South Korean people. But they don't appear very ergonomic in daily use. I do like the compact and wide pancake prime, though. Such a compact 24mm equivalent prime would be good to have also in Micro Four Thirds. The closest we come now is the Lumix G 12-32mm f/3.5-5.6 (my review).

Conclusion


Looking back in time, it is now around ten years ago that digital system cameras became fairly common. Cameras like the Canon EOS 300D (Digital Rebel, 2003), and the Nikon D70 (2004) made this possible, by offering affordable and well performing system cameras to a wider audience. Further, the cameras could use existing lenses from earlier film based cameras, that many already had lying around.

What followed was a period when having a large size camera was trendy. A large camera looked professional, and that was a look often favoured by the consumers. Around the same time, we got the "thin DoF craze", where it became trendy to use large aperture lenses, e.g., relatively inexpensive 50mm f/1.4 normals lenses, for a very selective focus effect.

Times are changing now, and we are seeing more and more that camera news is all about size: Small sized quality cameras has become trendy.

With the vast Micro Four Thirds lens lineup, I think that the M4/3 system still has a strong position in the market.

But the Nikon 1 system is interesting for those into sports, birds and wildlife, while the Fujifilm X is a good choice for those who like retro styled cameras, and classic prime lens layouts.

Sony have jump started the full frame era for mirrorless cameras with the Sony A7 cameras. However, again the lenses become fairly large, negating the advantage of mirrorless in the first place.

Ten years back, DSLRs were basically quite similar. Most used an APS-C sized sensor, they relied on legacy lens mounts, and had the same features. It is fascinating to see the diversity now: Large differences in sensor sizes, register distances, features and looks.

Sensor sizes


Here is an overview of the relative sensor sizes (from Wikipedia):


Sony A7 uses the "35mm full frame", while the other Sony mirrorless cameras, e.g., Sony A6000 use APS-C.

Samsung is using both APS-C (NX mount) and 1'' (Mini NX). Micro Four Thirds uses the Four Thirds sensor size, which is size wise between the APS-C and 1'' sensor sizes. Finally, the rather odd Pentax Q cameras use the 1/1.7'' sensor size, but the first generation used the even smaller 1/2.3'' sensor.

6 comments:

  1. How come Samsung managed to produce a small 16mm f2.4 pancake lense with the long flange to sensor distance?

    What about Pentax Q (too small sensor to be competition?)

    ReplyDelete
  2. And what do you think of Sony mirrorless? Is it not competition to MFT?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You can read about Sony above now. :-)

      Delete
  3. This is truly a wonderful era of camera design. The options seem so . . . rich and complete! As much as I like my E-M10, I must admit I find the Nikon V series very attractive.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I think Nikon 1 actually has some merit. I have been using it due to the very impressive AF-C performance, in combination with the new Nikon 70-300mm CX lens. This is a very powerful and small package for bird photography.

      Delete