Saturday, May 30, 2015

Mirrorless, What else is missing?

My useless advises for the choice of a photographic equipment!

I could highlight many citations about gear playing ‘second fiddle’ in the  photographic creative process, and close my sentence by mentioning Cartier Bresson, the ‘Leica ’ man or Anselm Adams with its brownie camera; these people, however, lived in another century and, even today, millions of meaningful pictures are regularly shot with a smartphone. However, just writing that the material is unimportant would make my reflection to short, maybe even shortsighted.

Yes, material matters, but not in the way marketing people want us to believe it.

Images ‘work’ through emotions, not through technical prowess; a flawless realization does not convey a message, but might increase its impact. This does not imply that only the latest, most expensive, ‘zoomiest’ or fastest can produce good shoots, most modern gear do this.

At the digital age’s beginning, some expensive SLR cameras were stick yards for professional material. The evolution in camera electronics was fast and, now-a-days, modern digital gears surpass their film brothers, while legacy optics are often unable to fully exploit modern forty or fifty megapixel sensors. Digital SLRs have reached an amazing level for a reasonable price.

The new kid on the block

Argentic film cameras embarked few electronics, the important framing process was done through different means, from a metal wire, to a double lens (Rolleiflex), a rangefinder (the Leica choice) or through the reflection of a ‘flapping mirror’ (the Exakta choice).

The digital boxes add small TV like displays, used as viewfinder and to display computerized information. These screens take the image directly from the sensor, allowing to get rid of the optical finder and, most significantly, of the mirror. They are the new gear generation called: “mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras” (MILC).

Far from being gadgets, this equipment aim to be serious challengers to the best DSLR of established brands; a seemingly unrealistic task, but is it really?

Image quality (IQ) is an important photographer’s concern and the good news is that mirrors do not contribute or degrade picture quality. They are only used for framing. So what is the fuss about? Why should less be more?

Without a mirror, the camera’s construction is simplified, the size can be smaller, the lens flange is shorter, making the glasses themselves smaller. Globally the advantages are size, weight and, linked to this, a lower price.

This seems great, but there is a catch, a gap between both systems which, however, is closing down more and more every day.

Electronic displays do not have the same responsiveness as optical viewfinder, who have no delay at all. Focusing systems (were) slower, and, compared with a long established SLR and DSLR equipment environment, the new kids provided limited choices in terms on lenses and accessories. 

For me, one of the most nerving point, of the new environment, is the battery’s sudden death, after a relative limited shooting cession. All these drawbacks are not definitively system inherent. While DSLR cameras have reached a maturity level, developments are ongoing for their challengers.

The shorter flange (lens to sensor distance), allows to produce adapters for legacy lenses or other DSLR system accessories, an advantage of the mirrorless system.

Fuji X-T1 with Leica, Nikkor and Zeiss Distagon lenses:

Other differences are framing difficulties, particularly in dark environments or in bright light, through an electronic viewfinder. This weakness is slightly compensated by the ability to detect subject’s faces (and even eyes in the latest systems). Of course, by using “liveview”, the DSLR can do this also, but it is (still) slow and, for me, cumbersome.

As the new system is in development, sensor choices are, for the time being, limited; most are APS-C size or smaller with few full size options. This is also changing, and might not be too important in most cases.

It's about the person

Some arguments, advantages or flows, are perceived differently between individuals. Here we enter the waste and important field of subjectivity. When is the size too small, the weight too light, the form too tiny? Reduced dimensions are not always ergonomic and the balance between body and lens is important for shooting comfort.

The placement of commands, on small bodies, can also be cumbersome to manipulate, particularly in difficult shooting situations. The difference in weight and size is not always relevant;  without a mirror, my Fuji X-T1 is even slightly heavier than my Nikon D5500 DSLR body, which is only marginally bulkier.

A photographer's background, his physical and psychological upbringings, are decisive in evaluating a system which is used by a determined person, in a particular shooting environment. Technical specifications might not provide answers and give clues about the right gear for a particular person, satisfying his needs and preferences.

At my horizon, I do not see mirrorless as a disruptive technology, killing the DSLR system. I still like to hold a medium weight “reflex” (Nikon D750) with its characteristic and appealing “clack” noise; but silent and lightweight modern boxes also have a place in my bag.

Finally, as stated, my considerations might be useless, as the technical differences between both systems are melting down and the subjectivity factor, the personal habits and expectations of the photographer, remain the decisive aspects of choice for a modern photographic equipment.

Another type of mirrorless, the Fuji X100T (in front of its big sister Leica M2):

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