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From DSLR to mirrorless… and back again

The rumor mill slows down after every Nikon announcement (D810). I have scheduled several guest posts in the next few weeks. Things will get interesting again in mid-August when Nikon will start making their Photokina announcements. Today’s guest post “From DSLR to mirrorless… and back again” is written by Roger Irwin:

When I decided to try out a mirrorless camera I broke my two golden rules of selecting a camera. That was a big mistake, and as a result I’m now going back to a DSLR for a while, but oddly the reasons have little to do with mirrorless technology per se.

In fact after two months with a mirrorless camera I’m more than ever convinced that mirrorless is the future, the big issue for me is when that future begins.

But let’s get back to the present, and my two golden rules.

Now I don’t buy cameras all that often, but as an enthusiastic hobbyist with years of activity in clubs and forums I’m often asked for advice, especially from people thinking of taking the plunge into system cameras for the first time.

When faced with the all two often scenario of potential purchasers pixel pooping sample photos and comparing fractions of an EV on DXOmark my general approach is to try and pull things back to basic issues. I suggest they consider most of all two fundamental issues:

  1.  What lenses will you be using? Never consider the purchase of a camera body first and the lenses as an afterthought. Think about what you intend to do with the camera and decide on camera + lens combinations.
  2.  Once you have potential camera and lens combinations, try them out before you buy. How comfortable are they? How easy and practical would it be to do the things you plan to do.

Ok, that’s the advice I give, just a pity I didn’t follow it myself!

A few months ago my kit bag got stolen along with my DSLR and the 3 lenses I use the most. Fortunately I was insured, and so hey, great, I had a nice blank cheque to change my kit.

But I was immediately plunged into a crisis… does it make sense to invest in new DSLR kit when it’s about to be made obsolete by mirrorless systems? It’s a question that tormented me for several days before I decided on a compromise.

I decided to ‘try out’ mirrorless, but instead of wading in and buying the whole she bang I decided to start off with a second hand NEX-6 and a Nikon adapter (not all my lenses were in that kitbag). I also got a cheap wide angle prime so I could try the autofocus and experience the wide angle advantage of non-reflex cameras!

Now I can say a lot of positive things about the mirrorless system; It’s great to have the histogram in the viewfinder and get so much instant feedback without chimping. Being able to review photos in the viewfinder is a great boon in bright light. It’s easy to get sharp focus, and focus peaking is superb for evaluating DOF. Shooting from live view is fast. The camera is small and light. Wide angle lens have so little distortion. These are all common characteristics of mirrorless cameras, and I love them.

So, onto the problems. Now if I’d followed my own rule number two I would have at least tried using the camera before buying it, and I would have found some issues. Small is nice, but too small isn’t, you need to be able to get your hands round the camera! I found that the NEX 6 worked OK with the small prime, but with anything bigger on the front things quickly became uncomfortable and difficult to use.

Another thing I would have discovered is just how different the NEX 6 controls are to a typical DSLR, and how badly thought out they are. Some things were just awkward, like having to click to activate EV comp and then click a button again after changing it. Other things were impossible.

When shooting landscapes I would typically have the camera on a tripod and will shoot in manual, changing the shutter speed for multiple exposures. Pretty normal, but on a NEX-6 if you have the camera in manual you change the shutter speed by rotating the rear dial (there is no way to change this). Unfortunately this rear dial also serves as a 4 way function cursor. It’s not easy to rotate the dial, but if you press more than lightly then you invoke another function, such as EV comp, and immediately start changing it by turning the dial. You end up trying to ‘stroke’ the dial round by the edges.

This is perhaps the worst example of how the NEX interface is simply not designed for the enthusiast shooter, there are other examples. In mitigation you can download apps that will be pump your photos direct to Facebook; this speaks volumes about the intended audience for the camera.

Of course all this underlines the importance of rule number 2, but it doesn’t say anything bad about mirrorless itself. In fact it just left me thinking ‘this is great apart from the controls….when are Nikon going to bring out a mirrorless!’.

Seriously, despite the awful controls I was so impressed with the mirrorless advantages that I considered putting up with them for a while until a decent mirrorless with Nikon controls inevitably appeared.

But when weighing up the option of keeping the camera for a while I ran into another problem.

Ah yes, rule number 1! What lens would I use with the camera?

Now if this had been a DSLR, the first lens in my list would have been a constant f2.8 standard zoom. A very popular type of lens. Nikon, Canon and Pentax have professional grade options for APS-C. Sigma, Tokina and Tamron all offer more economical versions. Tamron in fact have two flavors, with and without OS. And oh, yes, SONY also make one, but for their DSLR’s, not for the NEX.

And it’s here you really run into a wall. Mirrorless cameras make wide angle lenses more efficient, but you can’t really take much advantage of that if the type of lens you want is not on the market!

The best we can manage on the NEX is a constant f/4, at twice the price of the third party lenses. There are adapters for Sony DSLR lenses. You can have the one that doesn’t do autofocus (not exactly what you want for event shooting), or you can get the big expensive autofocus one which essentially inserts a translucent mirror between lens and camera. An add on mirror for your mirrorless.

No, whatever way I looked at it, I just could not build the system I wanted with the NEX system, I should have realized this at the outset following my own Rule number 1.

But of course I ‘m relating problems to a specific system, in some cases a specific camera. What about other mirrorless systems, how would they have faired  if I had applied my 2 golden rules?

Micro Four Thirds has a wealthy set of lenses, except that you are giving away 1 more stop in terms of DOF, and the f2.8 lenses all tend to be pretty pricey, so you’re really back at square one in DOF terms. But if you don’t exploit DOF then they have a wealth of lenses. I have tried an OM-5 with a superzoom and it is quite comfortable, but I still found I was pressing with my fingers, rather than being able to ‘hang’ the camera on my hand, and I know that leads to fatigue.

The OM-5 controls seemed quite logical to me as well, I only used it briefly but we got on fine  ! But I DO like using DOF for isolation, so for me it’s a non starter.

I’ve also tried a Fuji X2. This has very traditional controls, love it. But I tried it with a pancake lens and I noticed that the camera has a limited grip, this would almost certainly be tricky to use with larger lenses. There is of course an SLR like model now, so perhaps that would be better with larger lenses….assuming you had them!

Because yes, also Fuji have limited options when it comes to lenses. More options than Sony, but not as good as MFT. Unlike Sony, however, there is no upgrade path to FF, as the Fuji mount will not support it.

At the end of the day I began to realize that mirrorless is still very much in it’s infancy, and that the most developed system (Micro Four Thirds) was one that got underway years ago.

I was left pining for a mirrorless Nikon DSLR and if anybody from Nikon is reading this, this is what it should be like (IMHO):

  1.  Not too small, minimum should be like a D5300 with a slimmer body, don’t cut down the controls!
  2.  Keep the same controls and menu systems you have on your DSLR’s.
  3.  Sell it with an adapter that allows Nikon F lenses to be used without compromises (you do of course have phase detectors on the sensor).

But of course being realistic I know that even if such a camera is launched at Photokina, it’s going to be a couple of years at least before we have an established system at regular prices, and perhaps even longer.

So in the meantime I’ll just watch from the bleachers, with an ordinary vanilla DSLR!

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