Now 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.
The 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.
I 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.
Now 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.
I 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).
Okay, 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.
I 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!