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Mirrorless cameras are currently some of the most enticing and popular cameras available, for numerous reasons including their compact form factor, ability to utilize a great variety of lenses, and their increasingly high image and video quality. The mirrorless camera was born out of the idea of pairing the most well-liked aspects of both point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras and rendering an all-in-one solution that would appeal to the broadest range of photographers possible. Taking from the small size and intuitive operation of a point-and-shoot camera, mirrorless cameras are traditionally much more compact and portable than a comparable DSLR, yet they retain the interchangeable-lens design and manual-control scheme that appeals to more advanced users.
Mirrorless camera design stands at the forefront of camera technology at the moment, with many more advanced camera designs trending toward the removal of the mirror—for more flexibility in a contemporary image-making practice that is equally adept at recording still images and movies. Focusing capabilities on a mirrorless camera have also been critically noted, due to their inherent use of contrast-detection focusing for pinpoint accuracy across the entire image frame and with the ability to also employ phase-detection focusing methods easily to, again, combine some of the most treasured assets of a DSLR in a more compact body.
With the array of sensor sizes available, a diverse variety of body designs is also available, stemming from the most compact options all the way to battery-grip-incorporated, weather-sealed options designed for professional use.
Entry-level mirrorless cameras are most frequently a photographer’s first step into an interchangeable-lens system camera, often from either a point-and-shoot or even from film SLRs or entry-level DSLRs. These cameras feature the most compact body designs and typically utilize a rear monitor, versus an electronic viewfinder, as the means for image composing. These affordable options work to provide high imaging quality combined with a set of automated controls and creative modes that help the photographer to build up a cache of lenses for use on future camera bodies. Including Nikon’s 1 J and S cameras, Sony’s Alpha NEX-3 camera and their new DSLR-inspired Alpha A3000, the Pentax Q system, Fujifilm’s X-A1 and X-M1 mirrorless digital cameras, and the Olympus PEN E-PM and E-PL cameras, these cameras mesh together typically stylish appearance and a compact form factor as well as worthwhile image and video quality.
Intermediate mirrorless cameras, like intermediate DSLRs, are the mainstay and most common grade of mirrorless cameras, representing the greatest number of options available—and a typical landing place for photographers upgrading from a point-and-shoot, a first mirrorless camera, and converts coming from DSLRs to a new mirrorless system. Taking elements from the entry-level line, intermediate cameras still combine a smaller profile than a professional-grade camera and emphasize style in a camera’s appearance, but also enhance the feature set for more thorough manual-control options.
Intermediate-level mirrorless cameras are typically also the first range of mirrorless cameras to integrate an electronic eye-level viewfinder along with the traditional rear monitor. This added tool gives the photographer a choice of options for image composition and improves bright viewing capabilities. Cameras such as Sony’s NEX-6, Fujifilm’s X-E1, the Olympus E-P5 PEN, the Nikon 1 V2, and Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-GX7 are all prime examples of intermediate mirrorless cameras. Each of these features the highest-quality imaging capabilities mixed with electronic viewfinders and a range of both physical and menu-based controls to support both fully manual or fully automatic functionality.
Professional grade is the newest designation for mirrorless cameras, with recent technologies and build qualities rivaling those of some of the highest-end DSLRs. Cameras like the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 feature fully weather-sealed magnesium-alloy bodies, while the Fujifilm X-Pro1 has a classic rangefinder-inspired design, with a hybrid electronic and optical viewfinder and an APS-C-sized sensor. Also available are the new Sony a7 and a7R mirrorless digital cameras, which are the first autofocus-enabled full-frame mirrorless cameras. Setting themselves physically above their Micro Four Thirds and APS-C counterparts, these cameras make use of the previously DSLR-only full-frame image sensor size in order to garner even greater imaging detail and sensitivity while still remaining relatively compact. These top-drawer mirrorless cameras support creation of both still imagery and movies of high quality through both an intuitive and configurable design that supports their use in an extensive variety of conditions and situations.
Additionally, professional mirrorless cameras are most frequently compatible with the broadest range of accessories, including battery grips, remote triggers, underwater housings, and flash systems. With the capabilities of utilizing a full system of accessories, these cameras support a full system of tools to accomplish a range of image-making possibilities including sports and wildlife, commercial portraiture, and reportage with the same assurance as the more tried-and-true DSLRs that have until recently been the staple of professional imaging.
Aside from the imaging sensor, system choice, and grade of a camera, there is an array of options to look for when choosing between different mirrorless cameras to best fit one’s personal needs.
Mirrorless cameras, like DSLRs, have evolved via a systematic path that is based on both sensor size and lens mount. Some of the most common systems available include Micro Four Thirds, Fujifilm X, Sony NEX, Nikon 1, Samsung NX, Canon M, and Pentax Q. Each of these systems has a proprietary lens mount and an applicable sensor size.
Micro Four Thirds, distinctly, is a system that is jointly supported by both Panasonic and Olympus. This standard maintains a constant image sensor size of 17.3 x 13mm, which has been carried over from the Four Thirds standard of DSLRs, and uses the same lens mount regardless of brand. Both Olympus and Panasonic lenses, as well as other brands' Micro Four Thirds lenses, can be used on either brand’s camera body with the main distinction being that Olympus typically incorporates in-body image stabilization and Panasonic employs lens-based image stabilization.
Other mirrorless brands, including Fujifilm, Sony, Samsung, and Canon all use proprietary lens mounts along with full-frame or APS-C-sized sensors that are reminiscent of those used in many DSLRs. The advantage of these systems is that they are currently using the largest-sized sensor in a mirrorless camera to produce outstanding image detail, resolution, and clarity.
Finally, Nikon’s 1 series and Pentax Q camera utilize the smallest sensor size, 1” (CX format) and 1/1.7” or 1/2.3” respectively, to truly emphasize the compactness of a mirrorless camera system.
With their intertwined connection to the overall system, different sensor sizes offer different benefits, depending on one’s needs. Larger APS-C-sized sensors are most beneficial in light-gathering abilities, low-light sensitivity and quality, and overall detail. Micro Four Thirds sensors have been optimized to garner high image quality while preserving a compact form factor for the camera. Micro Four Thirds is also one of the most expansive mirrorless systems, and arguably provides the most freedom to pick and choose from different brands when building a comprehensive system. Smaller sensors provide an imaging quality representative of the highest-quality point-and-shoot cameras, but with the noted extra benefit of substantially greater control and the ability to utilize different lenses.
Of the greatest benefits availed by a mirrorless camera, and its mirrorless design, is the expansive number of lens options for all of the cameras. Since mirrorless cameras do not integrate a swinging mirror into their design, the flange focal distance—the distance from the lens mount to the sensor plane—is quite small, which allows for the mounting of any lens of a larger flange focal length to be used with a compatible adapter. This essentially means that almost any DSLR lens can be adapted for use on most mirrorless cameras while still maintaining infinity focus; a feat that is seldom possible with certain DSLR lens mounts, like the Nikon F mount. This enables the use of any older lenses one may already have from their DSLR or film SLR with a mirrorless camera body and also encourages one to attach rare, unique, or found lenses for more creative and specialized looks. The common drawback of using these non-system lenses is that autofocus is sometimes not supported and auto-exposure metering will most frequently only be supported in aperture-priority mode, with manual aperture selection becoming a necessity.
While the use of nearly any lens ever produced is certainly enticing, this is not to say that there is not a veritable plethora of high-quality optics designed specifically for use with mirrorless cameras. Even though mirrorless systems are relatively new, manufacturers' dedication to these camera lines has already resulted in a wide variety of lenses for each system. Ranging from Fujifilm’s fondness of high-quality prime, and recently, zoom lenses for their X-mount series, to Sony’s partnership with Zeiss, as well as their new Zeiss-designed full-frame compatible FE lenses, to the array of Micro Four Thirds lenses, including the high-quality Panasonic and Leica collaborative lenses designed for both Olympus and Panasonic cameras, mirrorless lenses are available in all focal lengths to suit individual needs.
As previously mentioned, autofocusing capabilities have been a strong point for mirrorless cameras from the beginning, due to their inherent use of a contrast-detection focusing method. This method is proven to be accurate and supports selecting of focus points across the entire image plane. Recently, however, many cameras have begun to also incorporate phase-detection points into their designs to reap the speed-oriented benefits akin to DSLRs. These hybrid-focusing systems can employ both focusing methods simultaneously for focusing in both a fast and precise manner with a greater range of selection and bias.
All mirrorless cameras feature a rear monitor to act as either one of, or the main tool, for live view monitoring, image playback, and menu navigation. Higher-end mirrorless cameras complement this large monitor through the incorporation of an eye-level viewfinder, typically an electronic viewfinder with the notable exception of the Fujifilm X-Pro1’s hybrid optical and electronic viewfinder.
Rear monitors can be compared by their diagonal size, most commonly 3.0”, and their resolution; higher resolution equates to a more detailed screen. Many monitor designs also feature tilting or articulating designs to better support working from both high and low angles to alleviate the need for crouching or guessing at compositions when shooting. Also, many monitors employ a touchscreen design to provide an intuitive way to navigate the camera controls and image playback, as well as supporting touch focus and exposure-release capabilities.
Eye-level viewfinders are also included in a range of mirrorless cameras and benefit the user by providing a more apt means for viewing in bright conditions and also serve to add an additional point of contact between photographer and camera for greater shooting stability. Like rear monitors, viewfinders can be compared by resolution, with the higher being a more detailed image, and also by their lag time, if noted. Since there is no mirror in a mirrorless camera, all viewfinders are electronic by nature and utilize the imaging sensor in order to produce a live view image. One can gain a real-time preview of exposure effects on the image as well as creative filters and other settings prior to making the exposure.
One of mirrorless cameras' strongest attributes is their ability to record full HD video in a more natural fashion than DSLRs simply due to their inherent design. Continuous, contrast-detection focusing is a mainstay feature that is employed to ensure focus on moving subjects, or when panning during shooting. Adjustment of exposure settings—shutter speed, ISO, and aperture—is also present with all mirrorless cameras, since there are no physical design limitations to overcome as there are with DSLRs.
Higher-end mirrorless digital cameras typically support full HD 1080i/p recording in multiple frame rates, with some supporting recording at different bit rates or codecs for more specialized video applications. Of note, certain Sony and Panasonic cameras support their high-quality AVCHD format, which is well suited to more intensive editing applications, while most of the cameras also support the MP4 or MOV formats that are better suited to direct Internet showcasing. Higher-end cameras often integrate external microphone jacks for improving audio quality, as well as an HDMI port for direct full-resolution playback to an HDTV or real-time monitoring on an external monitor.
More frequently than DSLRs, many mirrorless cameras have built-in Wi-Fi connectivity; some also facilitate GPS tagging of image files for geotagging. The advantages of having a camera with built-in wireless go beyond the simple sharing and transferring of files to mobile devices or personal computers; it often also avails remote camera control from linked mobile devices. Remote-control capabilities often allow the user to gain a live view image on his or her mobile device and also enable remote exposure adjustment and shutter-release capabilities.
One unique and particularly connected mirrorless camera is the Samsung Galaxy NX Mirrorless Digital Camera. Like its sister Galaxy point-and-shoot camera, this camera runs on the Android Jelly Bean operating system and, in addition to Wi-Fi connectivity, also supports 3G or 4G LTE mobile connectivity for sharing imagery without the need of a linked mobile device. Also unique about this camera is its lack of physical controls, in favor of an incredibly large 4.8” touchscreen LCD, making it more akin to a smartphone’s interface design.
One of the final considerations for many photographers will also be the type and number of dedicated accessories available for a camera, including dedicated flashes, remote controls, and battery grips. Accessories such as these accentuate the chosen camera by enhancing a specific function or enabling a certain technique to be achieved than would be possible otherwise. Dedicated strobes can pair well with a camera to provide automated TTL flash metering for more consistent results, a battery grip can effectively increase the potential amount of shooting time, and remote controls enable triggering and expanded control over how and when to release the shutter from a distance.
When comparing the large variety of available mirrorless cameras, one should prioritize the type of shooting he or she is looking to do most of the time. If image quality is of the utmost importance, full-frame or APS-C-sized sensors will theoretically offer the greatest potential in regard to sensitivity and detail, while Micro Four Thirds and smaller provide more flexibility and versatility in respect to the number of lenses they can support.
While compact in nature, there is still a range of steps regarding the physical size of the camera to consider, too. Smaller cameras, such as most of the entry-level and intermediate mirrorless cameras, are effective travel companions and allow either packing especially lightly or the bringing along of additional lenses and accessories that would be more burdensome with a larger-sized body. Higher-end mirrorless cameras, however, stand to act as one’s primary cameras and offer the most all-encompassing support for all types of shooting. They stand to go toe-to-toe with most DSLRs in terms of control and configurability, as well as the added benefit of using a greater array of off-camera accessories.
Depending on the camera from which the photographer is progressing, or complementing, a mirrorless camera can be chosen based on the merits most desired, or those that fill in the blanks missing from an existing setup. If working outdoors mostly, a weather-sealed body design might be the most important feature, whereas a photographer who is simply looking to upgrade from a point-and-shoot might be more interested in the most compact offering as a natural line of evolution. With cameras striking different points along the chart of desirable options, a hierarchal approach to deciding upon the most suitable camera should begin with the highest priority, and backed up with a line of additional features that stand to enhance an all-around imaging workflow.
While point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras have been relatively tried and true for years, the mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera is a newcomer to the digital camera scene, and as such, is experiencing the fastest growth and greatest popularity among other camera types. The fact that much attention is paid to and dedication given to these cameras is a testament to their balanced and pleasing combination of the most useful technologies from both existing forms of digital cameras.
Recently, much attention has been given to autofocus and video performance, with these two subjects receiving the most scrutiny over the fairly well-set, sensor-based variables available. Autofocus systems are something that can always be improved over time, and currently the use of both phase- and contrast-detection focusing is the foremost method for acquiring focus in the fastest and most accurate manner possible.
By nature, contrast-detection focusing is utilized in all mirrorless cameras due to the lack of a reflex mirror and dedicated focusing points. This system of focusing is based on the image sensor, which is why continuous focusing is available, as well as selectable points of focus across the screen. This focusing method, however, is inherently not quite as fast as phase-detection, which is natively employed by DSLRs. This technology uses small sensors, or focus points, that work to objectively determine the distance from the camera to the subject to set focus. These points are placed throughout the image frame to read information from all areas of the scene to more accurately determine the focusing distance if a subject is not always placed directly in the center of the frame. The inclusion of phase-detection points in certain mirrorless cameras benefits speed and the contrast-based system is available to ensure overall accuracy and continuity.
Heavily enhanced by an intelligent focusing system, the movie recording function of a mirrorless camera has seen constant and impressive growth over the years. Since mirrorless cameras function in a permanent “live view” state, video recording is more natural for these cameras and their smaller sensor size or lower resolution, and compared to DSLRs, do not heavily affect how full HD 1080p is rendered. It is true that a full-frame sensor will provide a different look and focus-control capabilities than a Micro Four Thirds camera; however, both cameras will still end up producing the same resolution and file quality of video. Contributing to the high video performance is the ability in select cameras to record using a choice of frame rates, formats, bit rates, and codecs, depending on the intended purpose of the recording. Manual exposure control is also afforded for most cameras during recording, and there are increasingly more that integrate both headphone and external microphone jacks to present these mirrorless cameras as all-around solutions for high-quality productions.