Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras

Camera-01Now that I have been shooting with the NEX cameras for about a year, I thought it would be a good time to review what that has been like and talk a bit about compact mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (no really good name like DSLR has stuck with these cameras). I was just at the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) Summit in Jacksonville and ran into questions about these little cameras, too.

While I am shooting Sony NEX cameras, there are other excellent brands of these types of cameras, especially Fujifilm, Olympus and Panasonic. The NEX and Fujifilm cameras use the APS-C format; Olympus and Panasonic share the Micro Four Thirds format and lens mounts. All are extremely compact because they don’t have the mirror of a DSLR. That means lenses can be smaller and there are some other things that aren’t needed as well. Even the most expensive of this type of camera is fairly inexpensive compared to more expensive DSLRs, in part because there is not as much involved in making one. Theoretically, this could make them more reliable, too (no moving parts for a mirror or syncing the mirror to the shutter), though I have not seen any real comparison in this area.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville, FloridaThe great thing about these types of cameras is their very small size and weight, yet there is zero compromise in image quality. These cameras really do deliver excellent images that match or beat the larger, traditional DSLR. They won’t match the high ISO capabilities of a 35mm full-frame camera, but they do extremely well, even with high ISOs. It amazes me that we can now easily beat the quality of high-speed color films of just a few years ago with nearly any quality digital camera.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville, FloridaMerritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville, FloridaI know that size and weight are becoming increasingly important to us baby boomers as we get older. My travel kit includes two NEX cameras, lenses from wide to telephoto, plus other accessories like batteries, yet it weighs less than 15 pounds and the backpack is small (the $5 is for scale). I put it into a rolling suitcase for travel, a suitcase that is still small enough to easily fit in the overhead bins. I like being able to roll my gear through the airport but then I don’t have to carry a bag with the extra weight of wheels in the field. Also, now my suitcase does not look like camera gear, so is less of a target for thieves. And I don’t feel I am giving up anything for my photography.

Bag-01Now that said, there are some things I have to tell you about working with these cameras. First, they are not all the same in design and layout – that does not make them better or worse, simply different so they better fit the different needs of individuals. Some people have complained about the way you set controls on the NEX cameras. That is like a person using an automatic transmission telling someone else a stick shift is too hard and a bad design. Of course, it is all in what we get used to. After using the NEX cameras for a year, I am quite comfortable with the controls and can work them quickly and easily.

Second, these cameras have no optical viewfinder. You can use the LCD or an electronic viewfinder or EVF. Now the first time you use an EVF, it may throw you. An optical viewfinder shows you the world in front of you as your eyes see it. An EVF shows only what the sensor is seeing. No matter how “good” the tiny monitor is for the EVF, it can only display what the sensor is seeing.

That is not necessarily bad. In fact, one of the problems we all face is recognizing the difference between what we see of the world and what the camera can see because of its limitations. The optical viewfinder can give a seductive view that can fool us into thinking we are getting something that the camera actually cannot capture. The EVF gives a more accurate representation of what the camera can actually capture, from brightness and tonalities to white balance. I find that a good thing, though there is no question that higher-pixel-number EVFs will help.

FL-lichen-01I do find the LCD can give a better indication of color and tonal range than my EVF (though other cameras may do better). That can be an issue in really bright light, so an EVF is important. However, I have been experimenting with a black cloth that I attach around the camera to create a dark space around the LCD. I am not all that excited about the magnifier hoods (they add extra bulk and there is something about the view that doesn’t quite resonate with me).

I just went to a fabric store and bought a square of black fabric plus some velcro. I went with a pretty lightweight fabric – to be honest, I think a heavier fabric would work better because it would have some body. Still, this dark cloth gives an amazing view of the LCD. I used to shoot a 4x5 view camera years ago, and with such cameras, you always used a dark cloth like this. I now feel like I am shooting a miniature view camera, and the image is upright (it is upside down with a view camera).

I do get questions about batteries. I always carry three batteries (an old habit), yet I have never had to use all three in a day. At most it might be a battery and a “half.” The biggest drain for batteries comes from shooting video, but that is true for any camera shooting video. If I am not shooting video, I really don’t notice any difference in battery usage compared to when I was shooting my Canon EOS 60D (I am sure I am using more power, but it doesn’t seem to be a big deal).

Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Delrey Beach, FloridaOkay, some specifics about my experience with the NEX cameras. I have a 5n and an F3k – I like both of them. I love the tilting LCD, though I wish it swiveled to make it easier for vertical shooting. I have an accessory EVF (neither camera comes with one) that fits either camera and is very helpful in certain situations, especially close-ups in brighter light and  bird photography. For landscapes early and late in the day and close-ups then as well, I prefer the LCD. I love being able to magnify the image to allow for really excellent manual focusing that is better than anything with an optical viewfinder. I also love not having a mirror because images are often sharper at slower shutter speeds compared to mirrored lenses because there is no mirror (a good reason to use Live View if your camera has it).

I have several Sony NEX lenses that are extremely compact. They work very well with autofocus, but not so well with manual focus. In fact, I have quit using them with manual focus. They use an electronic manual focus that is a pain to use. My favorite lens right now is actually a Sony Alpha mount lens, the Zeiss 16-80mm zoom. This is a range I love, the equivalent of 24-120mm for a 35mm camera. I have a Sony Alpha mount to NEX e-mount adapter that works very well, though it does not support autofocus. That really isn’t a big deal to me. The lens is bigger than the NEX lenses, but it is not bad, and I love the contrast and sharpness. I also use a Tamron 90mm macro in the Sony Alpha mount with that adapter – this is a compact, small macro that works quite well.

I sprung for the expensive Metabones adapter to allow me to use my old Canon lenses on the NEX cameras. I love my Sigma 120-400mm zoom and use it with the NEX cameras for wildlife photography. I also use a Tokina 10-16mm fisheye that has a Canon mount that is marvelous for extremely close, wide-angle shots. Canon lenses require a rather sophisticated adapter in order for them to work properly with full range of f-stop use. I am using these lenses on manual.

The other lenses I have are a Nikkor 200mm f/4 and Nikkor 300mm f/4 with appropriate adapters. These are older lenses I got used from KEH.com for hardly any money and they are wonderful! In fact, they are practically brand new. These are manual focus only, no AF, and since the manual focus was a key part of their design, the manual focus is a true pleasure to use. I use these lenses with extension tubes to make them quite effective (and very sharp) telephoto “macro” lenses.

Of course, I don’t carry all of this gear with me. I have no desire to carry everything. Some of the gear is used for specialized purposes. For example, I only carry the Sigma 120-400mm if I am doing wildlife shooting (it is the heaviest lens by far). For my trip to Florida, for example, I took my Tokina fisheye, the Zeiss 16-80mm, the NEX 50mm f/1.8 (for really shallow focus effects), the Sigma 120-400mm and NEX extension tubes. I put them all into a ThinkTank StreetWalker bag. If I were going to do a lot of insect shooting and just some wildlife work, I would replace the Sigma with either the 200mm or 300mm Nikkors, which are considerably smaller and lighter.

Big Talbot Island, FloridaI do wish Sony had a more extensive set of lenses. The Micro Four Thirds system has a really extensive set of lenses because you can choose from Olympus, Panasonic and Leica lenses, and they all fit all of the cameras. If I were going to a mirrorless camera today, I personally would have a hard time between the NEX system and the Panasonic Lumix because of the Panasonic GH3 (which was not available when I got into the NEX system). It does a number of things for video that I would like to have, plus I really do like the range of lenses available from Olympus to Leica, and of course, Panasonic. However, as you can tell, you can get adapters for practically any lens mount to adapt the lenses to the NEX camera, and that is a huge benefit.

It is so funny now that other cameras and accompanying lenses seem so huge to me! I did have a funny thing happen to me when I was shooting at Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach (a superb place for water bird photography). A gentleman came up to me curious about my set up. He was puzzled seeing such a small camera attached to a relatively large lens (the Sigma 120-400mm). I explained a little, though I am not sure he understood the concept of the mirrorless cameras.

Hopefully this gives you an idea of the capabilities of this type of camera. I would have a hard time going back to even an APS-C size DSLR, and a 35mm full-frame DSLR looks like a heavy weight that would surely drag me down!

About Rob Sheppard

I am proud of the work I have done as a photographer, author, naturalist and nature photographer, editor and videographer. I love the natural world, and that can be a native bee in my native plants garden as much as a visit to a national park. I am a husband of a beautiful and smart wife, a father to my outstanding son and daughter, and one who lived in Minnesota most of my life, but now loves the variety and very long growing season of Southern California. I have written and photographed a lot of books and magazine articles but what is most important to me about them is knowing that I have helped people become better photographers and gain a better connection to nature. I work to help people connect with photography and nature through speaking and as a workshop leader, too. All of this has gained me a Fellow award with the North American Nature Photography Association. Many people knew me as the long-time editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine and I am still connected with them as a contributing editor. A short list of some of the books I have done: Landscape Photography: From Snapshot to Great Shot, Magic of Digital Landscape Photography, The Magic of Digital Nature Photography, National Geographic Field Guide to Digital Photography, The Power of Black-and-White in Nature Photography and Reports from the Field (an iBook). My website is at www.robsheppardphoto.com; my blogs are at www.natureandphotography.com and www.mirrorlessnature.com.
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37 Responses to Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras

  1. Rob Mutch says:

    Thanks Rob. This is the first time I'v heard a pro nature photographer give their 'real-world' view on these mirror-less cameras. Interesting...food for thought. :o)

  2. Annette says:

    Hi Rob
    Thanks for interesting article. I use the Olympus OM-D with the 12-50 tele and macro lens. I am loving it. The quality and clarity of macro with photographing bees on flowers are supurb. I'm still experimenting with using my SLR Olympus 300 lens with the OM-D. It's quite a challenge specially bird photography.

  3. dale risney says:

    Thanks Rob...it helps reading your expertise with the Nex mirrorless camera.....my Sony Nex-5n is my go to camera and I love its pano mode. I sent for entension tube attachment for macro work but could use some help as to what lens and adapters it works best with.
    Wishing you lots of great light
    Dale

  4. Buzz Parker says:

    Great info.I am a member of the Greatest Generation and my backpack with my Canon 60D and lenses is getting to be a heavyweight! I have been looking at these smaller cameras but still can't give up the DSLR. Waiting for improvements, but at my age I can't wait too long!! I have followed your work and writings for many years and have been able to learn a lot. Thanks for the information regarding these cameras.

  5. Hugh Nourse says:

    As you know, last year I wanted to go lighter. At the time I was using Olympus E-3. Instead of the Sony NEX systems, I opted for the Olympus OMD EM-5, and have not regretted the decision. It is mirrorless, and many lenses are available for it, including the lenses for the E-3, and the Panosonic and Leica lenses too. My system is really light and includes the Olympus 60mm f 2.8 macro lens, the Olympus 12-50mm f3.5-6.3 zoom lens, and the Olympus 17mm f1.8, and the twin LED macro lights. So far, I have been getting as good a quality as with my DSLRs (Nikons and Olympus). I personally like the LED and EVF. To me they tell you what you are going to get. For macro images, the magnified manual focus is easy to use, and is allowing me better control over those images. My back really likes the switch.

  6. Steve Kendall says:

    I bought the Olympus OM-D last year and I agree that these smaller cameras are really much better than most people think. I absolutely love the articulating screen and to be able to use it as a touch screen is huge especially when your camera is low to the ground. The image quality is fantastic and more features than you could possibly use.

    P.S. Thanks for the lesson on WB at the JAX Zoo last weekend.

  7. Kim Piddington says:

    Rob

    Thank you for a down the line review of this camera setup, I was told you where the bloke to go to for a 'real-world' view on gear.
    For me you have answered all my quetions on this outfit bar one, Ive been looking for two mini outfits for a project that started as joke about a camera on a stick but has really grown from there, one camera setup I have already with the Replay XD1080 & now I feel the Sony NEX-5 will be the other outfit !!

    Once again thank you for a honest review :)

    Kim

  8. Very interesting article on your experiences with the Sony NEX system, Rob. As I mentioned to you I splashed out on a Sony NEX 7 (becoming convinced in my ponderings by your articles on the Sony NEX 5) but found it far from 'intuitive' as the blurb says - just too many options for a manual and aperture priority man! I am getting used to the electronic viewfinder and have improved the rendering by setting to portrait mode and dialling in some reduction of contrast!

    I have finally got my home-built adapter with extension variable in tiny increments (I'll send you an email) for wide-angle macro and extensive field tests show it works best with particular lenses (15mm Sigma diagonal fisheye) whereas the 10-20mm starts to misbehave with heavy colour fringing: as usual I am pushing too far. Where I love this camera is for macro with the focus peaking and enlarged image on the LCD screen. It is easy to couple it to a microscope and to an ancient Zeiss Tessovar - the built-in image intensifier means you can alway see what is there: what a change. I have found the cheaper Kiwifotos adapters work fine (I have Nikon, Canon FD, Olympus OM)... tiny adjustment to screws needed once or twice.

    The resolution of the sensor is breathtaking with a pixel-density that exceeds the D800: I notice the comments from fellow golden-agers who still think we can shift 25kg packs up mountains (plus a heavy tripod!) ...backs are grateful!

    Finally, I have a Sigma 19mm f/2.8 EX DN purpose made for the Sony NE and it is very sharp with a great close-focus...

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      Thanks for sharing, Paul! What is a Zeiss Tessovar? That is a lens I don't know. When I first started shooting with the NEX, I did find that the controls were challenging, but I think it is mainly because we are not used to them. Now I find them quick and easy to use. I feel that the Sony folks have done a good job in how they handle the menu based controls, especially with a touch screen, but there is a slight learning curve simply because it is not what we were used to for so many years. I have to try setting to Portrait mode for viewing.

      • Buongiorno Rob,

        The Tessovar was always a bit of a holy grail for me after working on a project with Peter Parks, the Oscar-winning maestro who was a creative force behind the legendary Oxford Scientific Films. I wrote a blog about it a couple of years ago http://www.pixiq.com/article/the-zeiss-tessovar-a-macro-legend.
        It is basically a series of lenses on a turret with a zoom body massively built and not portable. It gives extraordinary depth of field (the aperture goes from about f'/32 wide open to F/128) and it is not easy to focus. With the Sony NEX the built in boost from the viewfinder plus focus peaking makes it easier to use. Of course with image stacking I get get something just as good with a $60 Nikon microscope lens on a bellows! If you spent a lot of your earlier years in labs like me then it is fun but idiosyncratic.

        I owe you a big thank you for posting on the NEX system - I saw a friend Matteo Perilli using a Lumix in southern Italy three years ago leaping about a hillside a getting stunning images...I lumbered like Shrek on a bad day. Lighten up was the answer. Kim, I don't think you will regret this one bit - another source of adapters and guys who are artists with a lathe at making bits to order is SRB (http://www.srb-griturn.com) whom I have used for years on projects.

        Paul

  9. Rich Bahl says:

    Thanks for the great blog post. I recently purchased a Lumix G5 plus a couple of lenses. I'm not fully accustomed to the camera yet but the image quality seems to be approaching that of my EOS 7D. Depressing from a dollars and cents point of view. If there were an adapter that would allow the use of EOS lenses with full f-stop capability and image stabilization I'd move to mirrorless entirely. Maybe someday soon...

    P.S. your book on color printing was a great help.

  10. Steve says:

    These photos prove once again it's not what camera you use but how you use it. I find myself more and more using my lighter than NEX , G11 for everything and save the EOS 40D for when I can't get close and a longer lens is needed.

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      I do have a Metabones adapter to use my Canon lenses with the NEX cameras and the adapter is great. Not cheap, but it allows me to use some lenses I have without getting new ones.

  11. Kim Piddington says:

    Well thats it, with Paul putting his two bobs worth in one this camera system Im sold ........................
    Putting my order in for a Sony NEX-5 today ! :)

  12. Thanks for this informative post, Rob. For the same reasons as you cite, I've been thinking that if/when I were ever to have to replace my Nikon D90, I would seriously consider one of these mirrorless cameras, especially if Nikon were to have good ones available--though on the other hand, I'm also a Canon user having had a G11 and now a G15 as supplementary cameras. You say your travel kit contains two of the NEX cameras. May I ask why two?

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      I suspect that Nikon will be coming out with something in the not too distant future because they just announced an APS-C size "pocket" camera with a fixed lens. That seems to me a step in that direction. I am not impressed with the Canon mirrorless system, at least so far. All of these mirrorless cameras do accept adapters that will allow you to use Nikon lenses.

      I have never been comfortable with just one camera since a long time ago! Back in the days of film, it was helpful to always have a backup, especially when you were shooting on assignment. Though I have not had a digital camera fail me in the field, I have friends where that has happened, especially under extreme conditions such as rain in Costa Rica. These cameras are small and light, plus relatively inexpensive, so having two is pretty easy.

      I also will sometimes put a telephoto on one lens and a wide-angle on the other, especially under conditions that I don't want to change lenses. There are times where it is just easier to shoot with such a set up than constantly changing lenses. And the small size of the camera makes this actually fun!

      Rob

  13. ayi says:

    Hi Rob.. I am planning to buy a Sony NEX cam.. and because of your aticle.. I am now more convinced to get one.. thanks!! More power!

  14. Joseph Henry says:

    Within the next year I so I hope switch from my Canon 5DIII to a mirrorless system that has not compromise in image quality to be able to print to 17"x25" compared to my current 5DIII with Canon 70-200F4, 24-105 and 45mm & 90mm tilt shift lens. Are the practical options to use tilt shift lenses with any of the high end mirrorless cameras? Other than potentially tilt shift limitations are there any other limitations relative to highest quality landscape photography.

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      I don't see any problems creating a high-quality 17x25-inch print with any of the small mirrorless cameras out now with 16MP and up. For now, you would have to use an adapter to use a tilt-shift lens, but it is possible.

      Rob

  15. Rick Furnival says:

    Really enjoyed your article - it is reassuring that the direction my wife and I are going to reduce weight is the correct direction.
    I recently sold my Nikon D-700 to move to a mirrorless camera. My wife purchased the NEX 6, my leaning has been the Fuji E-X1 as I think the glass is the best?
    I also looked at NEX 7 and Olympus OM-D.
    Again great article.
    Thanks

  16. Anthony Di Novella says:

    On the subject of equipment ,i want to upgrade my Nikon d80 to a Nikon with video
    live view and swivel lcd ,but the model i like lacks depth -field prevew ,that i
    consider a great feature.I need your advice if is worth getting the swevel lcd and sacrifice the D-F-P.
    Anthony

  17. Stephen Sharp says:

    Thanks Rob, a really nice review of the mirrorless technology for a novice to grasp!

  18. Heather says:

    “Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras | Nature and Photography” was in fact truly entertaining and insightful!
    Within todays universe that is hard to deliver. Thanks,
    Horace

  19. David says:

    Rob,
    I enjoyed reading your comments and have a couple of questions regarding cameras. I want to get more into landscapes and wildlife photography. I know that every photog. has their own opinion on what equipment to buy but I'd like to get your take. I just got a Panasonic G5. It has a 14-42 (28-84) 3.5-5.6 lens which is not very fast. It does though have stabilization. I am thinking of selling it and getting better lenses. Do you have any thoughts on what I might look at?
    Also the camera came with a cheap strap and I am looking for some sort of alternative. I don't like those slings where the camera is bouncing all over the place or neck/shoulder straps that make you ache. I also don't like those pouches that you can fit an elephant in. I'd like something that protects the camera while I'm climbing but at the same time is easy to get to.
    Thanks

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      Those are not so simple questions! A lot depends on your personal "biases" which are important. A camera is a very personal thing. It has to fit you. For me, the Panasonic GH3 fits me perfectly, but it won't fit everyone else. Your G5 is a very fine little camera. There are some fast lenses available for it, including the Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 lens which I love. Panasonic and Olympus both make fast lenses that fit your camera (all micro four thirds, MFT, cameras use the same lens mount), plus Sigma is making some for the format as well.

      Camera straps – now that is a tough subject! We all approach them so differently. Often I don't use a strap because it gets in the way, and simply use a small bag. I do like straps that quickly clip and unclip from the camera. Right now, the strap I like is the M-Sling Camera strap.

      Rob

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