Tag Archives: mirrorless

Why I left Nikon and went Mirrorless

This is a post in two parts, and conceptually this is Part 2. Stay tuned for Part 1, How Nikon could be the Next Kodak (if they aren’t careful).

A few years back I was feeling particularly hemmed in by the classic DSLR experience. I was happy with the images from my Nikon D300, but not happy with the “eye to the finder” mode of shooting. Among the reasons is that I am a former Rolleiflex TLR user, and waist-level viewing is very pleasurable. It is less “in your face”, it gives a more natural eyepoint on some subjects, and it doesn’t involve blocking your face with a camera body. I also shoot a lot of live music and event photos, and shooting overhead is better when you can look up and see a real-time preview.

Some DSLR’s have live-view and an articulating display. I thought I had it figured out with a D3200. It was a very affordable way to hang a newer and more friendly body off of my existing DX glass. It was also light, had decent live view, a decent LCD display, shot HD video. The other side of the coin is that I was still lugging a heavy kit (17-55DX, 70-300VR DX, and a 35mm f/1.8 normal lens). The body was a little lighter, but not enough to make a day walking around the city any easier.

As I perused the camera landscape I saw that Olympus and Panasonic were making cameras with a newly spec’d “Micro Four Thirds” standard. As well, these cameras depend entirely on the sensor to provide the preview. Some have an electronic viewfinder (EVF), and all have a nice bright display (most articulate for waist level and overhead viewing at a minimum). Good glass was available, and the cameras were well received by the finicky photographic press. I took a walk over to my local Brick and Mortar (Camera Bar in Hartford, CT) and checked out the cameras in-person.

Rant on.

I did the right thing and bought my camera, a Olympus E-M10, from Camera Bar. I have been known to browse in person and buy on-line, but not for purchases where I have picked their brains and gotten some good non-pushy advice. YMMV, but I’m happy I did that. I’ve bought other cameras and accessories there, and will continued to do so. Good folks deserve my business.

Rant off.

The point of all this is that Nikon just announced that the DL, their anticipated entry into the mirrorless game, is being scrapped (the weak-selling 1-Series is not a factor here). I think they made the right move but for the wrong reason. What they should do (IMO, selfishly) is design a mirrorless camera that accepts their DX-mount lenses, which are affordable and often excellent, and ditch the swing-up mirror. A swing-up mirror is an anachronism in a camera for anything other than a few specialized pursuits. Of course it made sense at the birth of the DSLR. These cameras were built using existing 35mm film bodies and had digitals sensors swapped in where the film plane/pressure-plate had been. It allowed the big SLR makers to leverage their investment in SLR technology. Sensor technology was in its infancy, so asking the sensor to stay on all the time, as well as provide output to multiple displays, was a bridge too far.

For all the advances in DSLR technology, and those cameras continue to be excellent performers for both stills and video, what exactly is the mirror doing in a camera like a Nikon D7000 Or a Canon 5DMKII? My feeling is that it is truly vestigial and an annoyance for most users. These cameras have sensors that are clearly capable of running full tilt all day. Why have a mechanical swing-up mirror? Or more specifically: Why have a mechanical swing-up mirror in every level and every price range? (If you think Canon has fared any better in catching up with mirrorless tech… read THIS)

One of the advantages of the mirrorless generation is that they can use a shorter focal distance (the distance from the lens flange to the film plane), allowing a shallower and smaller camera body. But there is another advantage is the lack of a mirror mechanism. Entry-level gear like the Nikon D3200 I experimented with have a mirror mech with an expected MTBF of 50-100,000 actuations. Most could probably outlast that by a bunch, but then again most entry-level cameras will never see that many shutter presses. A professional or prosumer camera might be good for 150k actuations. Still, that’s a lot. But I’m not sure it is ever anything other than a noisy inconvenience in a consumer camera.

So that is where a company like Nikon, an also-ran in the story of mirrorless cameras, could really clean up and deliver something better than they currently provide without actually developing a new camera system and without the question of “do we throw yet another freakin’ lens mount into the alphabet soup that is modern photography equipment?”. Nikon should transition to a Mirrorless DX camera to supplant/continue the already good/great 3xxx series. Hell, you could reflex the light path 90-degrees with a fixed mirror/prism and gain a shallower body while still using the DX flange distance… just sayin’….

I wish I could have thrown in on an upgrade to my D300 and gone on loving the Nikon DX experience. But now that I have a few years of mirrorless under my belt, and my Nikon gear has languished (actually being passed on to my nephew) I can say with confidence that I am not ever going back. I could end up moving to Sony or Fujifilm and their excellent mirrorless products, or I could upgrade my E-M10 when the time is right, or maybe another Micro 4/3 body like Panasonic/Lumix… But no. Not going back.

I’ll speculate in Part 1, the prequel, about how things could really go sideways for Nikon if they screw this up and decide that they can be the torchbearer for traditional SLR technology.

P

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RIP ISO?

Digital cameras have become ubiquitous, to the point where it is almost impossible to be somewhere out of reach of someone’s camera. It has reached the point where Panasonic has announced a cellular phone with a 1″ sensor camera (actually, a camera with a GSM chipset), replete with Zeiss optics. Whether that appeals to you or not it is a sign of the widespread commodification of technology that was only available in specialized camera gear just a few years ago.

With that backdrop it has become truly rare to see an advance that changes your mind about where the technology will be in two years from now. For me, that happened when I watched this video:

Nice video, yes. But it was shot on a Sony A7s mirrorless camera, with a full moon as its only light source. Yes, f/1.4 optics and dizzying ISO numbers are employed. The author states that the bulk of the video, apart from the opening two scenes were shot at 1/30th, f/1.4, ISO 12,800 (I’m assuming that 1/30th is based on 30fps video). That is “bonkers” as we say in my neck of the woods.

Sony release their own video showing a dawn campfire scene, with similar dropping of jaws:

“Bonkers” aside, it points to a benchmark for the next generation of sensors that will be in cameras like my Oly E-M10, and not just in a $2500 USD Sony body. Not that $2500 is astronomical money. You would spend much more on the pro offerings from Nikon or Canon, and the good folks at Leica will gladly take 8,000 Tricky Dick Fun Bucks in exchange for a bare M8 body. None of those cameras will do what the A7s does in this video. The implications of this kind of high-ISO performance: Setting Auto ISO with an upper limit of 12,800 and actually using it, not paying a brutal price in terms of noise and digital “grain”, and not needing a shutter speed that would make Edward Weston weak in the knees… That is where this video points.

And as nerdly as that idea is, it has real implications for those of us who shoot primarily in available light. I might shoot with flash once a year. Maybe not even once a year. So rarely, in fact, that I started practicing with a flash for no reason other than I didn’t want to completely forget how to use one. It has implications for me personally as I shake down my E-M10 and compare images to both the geyser of images on the internet taken with similar mirrorless systems, and my archive of images taken with my Nikon D300.

Every camera system is a web of trade-offs. Your parameters are physical size, resolution, focus speed, max shutter speed, low light performance and other dynamic range considerations, firmware/processing/raw specs, and overall ergonomics. I’m sure there are more but those are the big ones that come to mind. Accessory issues like lens selection, flash system, compatibility with legacy lenses… those also play a part. But if you shoot in low light and want to be able to use normal shutter speeds without suffering with noisy images, then you really care about dynamic range and noise, and as long as you get a few good lenses you can call it a day.

So there it is. Sony, the company known for horrible user interfaces, worse software, and even worse tech choices (minidisc, beta-max…) kicks sand in the face of the cool kids over at Nikon, Canon, and Leica. Sure, those guys all use some of Sony’s sensors. But they don’t have this kind of performance. I give them  a huge amount of credit, maybe enough to put their camera on my wish list (I still have PTSD from some earlier Sony purchases).