Mirrorless Cameras

June 18, 2011

Many consumers are debating whether they should upgrade to a mirrorless camera or a digital SLR camera. In this article I want to explain about the disadvantages and advantages of those relatively new compact cameras with a larger sensor. I will explain it to you with an assumption that you don’t have a lot of technical knowledge about photography and the technology that surrounds it. I am sure that after you finish reading this guide, you will have better understanding about what Mirrorless cameras are and whether you should buy one of those cameras or not.

The term “Mirror-less” signifies that absence of a mirror inside a digital camera. In fact, all points-and-shoot cameras are mirrorless by design. Even so, the “mirrorless” term was actually given for cameras, which utilize a larger sensor than point-and-shoot cameras. Some people refer to those types of cameras as “Interchangeable Lens Compact Camera”, “Compact System Camera” (CSC), “Mirrorless interchangeable lens camera” (MILC), etc. Some are also referred to as an EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) camera, although they feature an electronic viewfinder that some mirrorless cameras do not. You should know that not all mirrorless cameras have interchangeable lenses. Some of them have fixed lenses, like the Sigma DP2.

Mirrorless word

So what is that “mirror” anyway?

The name who signifies the absence of a mirror actually tells a very interesting story. After all, why not give it a name about something the cameras do have, not about something they don’t have. That because those types of cameras inherits the capabilities and performance of digital SLR (Single-lens Reflex) cameras, the name suggests that they are like digital SLR cameras, but without the mirror. The mirror on digital SLR cameras is used to project the light that goes through the lens, towards the pentaprism and onto the optical viewfinder A pentaprism is a five-sided reflecting prism used to deviate the light by 90° towards the optical viewfinder The viewfinder is the part of the camera which people look through to compose their images.

The mirror is actually a moving part. It reflects the light towards the viewfinder so the photographer can compose the shot. When the photographers presses the shutter button, the mirror goes up and the light can reach the camera’s recording device, the sensor. The sensor contains light sensitive photo diodes that transmit the color data onto the image processor. The image processor translates this Raw data into a color image and saves it to your memory card. It’s not 100% accurate, but this is a brief overview of how we get the image.

So the only reason digital SLR cameras have that mirror is to allow photographers to see what the lens sees, compose the image and take the shot. Without the mirror, the light couldn’t be transferred to the optical viewfinder, and the photographer just couldn’t get a proper composition. This method was used since the first days of film SLR cameras. The mirror is also been utilized in modern digital SLR, because D-SLRs are based on the same flipping mirror technology that exists in film cameras. The only major change was that instead of a film we have a sensor.

Disadvantages of SLR Cameras?

I won’t cover all the cons here, but you should know that the mirror takes a quite large amount of space inside the body of the camera. Because of that, SLR cameras are larger and heavier compared to cameras that do not have a mirror. Furthermore, the mirror sits between the lens and the recording device, the CCD or film. Because the distance between the lens and the recording device is large compared to Mirror-less cameras, the lens’ elements are relatively larger. That means that larger lens elements are needed as the sensor is larger. That leads to bigger and heavier lenses, mostly due to the size and weight of the glass inside the lens.

Advantages of SLR Cameras?

There are many advantages, depends on the demands on your photography needs. In general digital SLR cameras enjoy the following advantages:

  • Better ergonomics, especially for large hands
  • An option to upgrade to a Full Frame camera
  • A large selection of lenses, including many fast primes
  • Better performance in terms of camera burst, cameras speed and operation
  • Professional accessories
  • Better high ISO performance
  • Through-the-lens (TTL) optical viewfinder
  • Stronger battery life
  • Phase detection Auto focus
  • Wider angle with ultra wide angle lenses
  • More shallow depth of field (Background blur)

The list is longer, although you can tell that most professionals choose to work with a DSLR camera because it serves them better.

For the hobbyist or casual photographer, most of those features belong to the “Nice-to-have” feature category. In fact, for a non-professional user, most of them can be easily given up.

The Target Audience

In order to understand why mirrorless cameras have become so popular, we need to understand the basic concept of what people like doing with their cameras. Sounds like a dumb question, but by answering this simple question, that what lead Panasonic and Olympus to come up with their Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds camera system. A system that will revolutionize the digital photography market.

So what most people are searching for in a camera?

  1. Compact in size
  2. Lightweight
  3. Optical Zoom
  4. High image quality
  5. Easy to use
  6. High resolution (megapixel)
  7. Cool design as a gadget

These are the most common features that many people want in their camera.  In the past, not every person had a camera. I’m talking about the film days.  A camera was a nice-to-have gadget, but not a must-have one. Today, it will be hard to find a person without a digital camera, whether it’s a mobile phone camera or a more advanced camera. The market has shifted considerably in the past 30 years.

Digital photography allows people to capture virtually unlimited photos and view them directly on the computer screen. No more massing around with film or going to the photo shop just to get those 36 images out of the box. The reality has changed dramatically.

Furthermore, as social community websites and photo sharing website emerged, more people drove into that photo-sharing madness. I didn’t even mention Facebook, Video sharing, etc. The digital photography era has changed the life of everyone and one of us.

The Advanced Hobbyist Photographer

Because people have become more knowledgeable about cameras and their capabilities, it created a market segment of new type of photographers. Enthusiast photographer whom understand the benefits of digital SLR, although part of them is enjoying the simplicity and the benefits of Point-and-Shoot cameras.  In the past, that group of people had only two choices: buy a P&S camera or get a DSLR camera.

Micro Four Thirds System is Born

Both Olympus and Kodak have spotted that new market segment earlier than any other company. They know that those people are searching a product that actually doesn’t exist. In that point in time, both Olympus and Kodak gave birth to the Four Thirds System (U.S. Patent 6,910,814). That was in 2003. In 2008 Olympus and Panasonic has introduced the Micro Four Thirds System.

Olympus E-P2 camera in black

The Olympus E-P2 Micro Four Thirds camera with M.Zuiko Digital 17mm F2.8 pancake lens

Four Thirds cameras are DSLR cameras with a smaller sensor than a DSLR camera. That leads to a design for more compact cameras and smaller interchangeable lenses.  Still those cameras had a mirror. It’s important to mention that the Four Thirds is an open standard, which means that any lens in the Four Thirds is compatible with any camera brand in this system.

The Micro Four Thirds is another evolution of the Four Thirds system. A smaller sensor, yet smaller and lighter interchangeable lens cameras. That was possible when the mirror removed from the camera design (aka. Mirror-less)

No Mirror equals Smaller Cameras (and Lenses)

By removing the mirror, camera manufacturers could actually come up with a camera that still has a large sensor but is significantly smaller and lighter than SLR cameras. Furthermore, because the distance between the lens and the sensor has been reduced. Smaller and light lenses could be created (for a lens with the same focal length and f-number). Everything sounds great, but now camera vendor had a problem. Without the mirror, the light can’t be projected onto an optical viewfinder.

This issue was resolved with the same technology that consumer digital cameras use. The camera will display the scene onto the back LCD of the camera (Live View). Another solution was to use an Electronic Viewfinder (EVL) where the sensor records the view through the lens and then transmits a minimized version of that view to a small electronic screen. That screen is the eye of the photographer is looking through to compose the image. This is the same technology that is used in digital camcorders.

Mirrorless cameras sit somewhere between DSLR cameras and point-and-shoot. They also serve as bridge cameras for people who aren’t ready yet for DSLR photography and feel more comfortable and less intimidated with those types of cameras.

Mirrorless Camera’s Systems

Both Panasonic and Olympus continue to develop new Micro Four Thirds cameras an enjoying the business partnership of various third party lens manufacturers like Leica, Voigtlander and Sigma that contribute their knowledge to manufacture lenses for the MFT system. Sony is also a very market share hungry company which brought the NEX cameras into the market.

Sony NEX cameras are also mirror-less cameras by design. Instead of utilizing a small 18 mm × 13.5 mm 4:3 aspect ratio sensor, NEX cameras have an APS-C size 3:2 sensor. This is a larger sensor that can be found on many semi-pro DSLR cameras.

Although a bigger sensor, still Sony could maintain a very compact design for the Sony α NEX cameras As I said before, the downsize of using a large sensor is that (in some cases) the lens will be larger. The MFT format enables Panasonic and Olympus to design more compact interchangeable lenses for the same lens in the Sony E-mount.

In the list of mirrorless cameras we can find names like: Sony (E mount), Panasonic, Olympus (MTF mount), Sigma, Leica (M mount), Ricoh (GXR) and Samsung (NX mount). We can expect to see more companies (ie. Nikon, Canon) joining this group of vendors by coming up with their own mirror-less cameras.

For example, Panasonic Lumix GF3 is a Mirrorless camera from Panasonic.

Mirrorless Cons and Pros

Mirrorless cameras give you several advantages over DSLR cameras,  but they are popular mainly because their compact size. Here is a list of a few of the advantages that Mirror-less cameras have over digital SLR cameras.

  • Compact
  • Lightweight
  • 2x Focal length Multiplier
  • More Sturdier (less moving parts)
  • More compact and cheaper interchangeable lenses

Some people asked me why do we need interchangeable lenses in a camera? – without digging into too many technical details, it’s all about flexibility and image quality. You can’t achieve everything in one lens. You can’t have a lens that is both super fast (ex. F1.4), has 1:1 Macro capabilities, it’s small and lightweight, weather sealed, has a 10-800mm zoom with Image stabilization.  For example, if you want a 1:1 macro lens, you will have to purchase a separate lens.  If you want a pancake fast prime lens, you will have to purchase one. Even with consumer Point-and-shoot cameras, you can’t have it all.

Mirrorless do have their drawbacks. They don’t have an optical TTL viewfinder. They have a slower contrast-based AF system and their image quality in high ISO is not as good as DSLR cameras.

Making a Decision

At the end of the day when it comes to picking a new camera, we can’t ignore the benefits of Mirror-less cameras.  I personally prefer a camera that I can take with me wherever I go instead of a camera that will stay at home in the bag. Mirrorless cameras still provide superior image quality, performance and flexibility when compared to point-and-shoot cameras. Although we can look at those types of cameras as Point-and-shoot, they are more advanced, have more room for growing as a photographer and provide the benefits of both P&S and DSLR cameras.

It’s up to you whether those types of cameras will fit your photography habits. I highly recommend checking considering a mirrorless camera as an option. You might find that a mirrorless camera is all that you ever need as a photographer.

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