Mirrorless Roundup 2011
While most Mirrorless models on the market fit into very similar categories to the ones that have developed for DSLRs, the class is young enough that there are manufacturers exploring niches and experimenting with what they think people will want from a Mirrorless camera.
The Nikon 1 system is the most obvious example of this. In many respects, the Nikon 1 cameras seem to fit firmly in the 'Beginners'' category (and we very nearly included them in there). However, there are a couple of key differences - the 1 system incorporates DSLR-style phase-detection autofocus, in an attempt to offer a camera that can continuously refocus in a way that Mirrorless cameras tend not to be very good at. In fact, the company is confidently comparing the AF speed on the 1 system to its flagship, multi-thousand dollar D3S pro-grade sports DSLR.
The system is also built around a sensor much smaller than any of the other Mirrorless models we've covered up until this point, which potentially means smaller cameras and smaller, faster lenses, but at the cost of control over depth-of-field and, in principle, lower image quality in low-light settings.
Pentax has also gone down the smaller sensor route with its 'Q' camera. And by 'smaller' we mean the tiny sensors used in mainstream compact cameras. It's a good sensor by compact camera standards, however, and Pentax has made clear, in its inclusion of in-camera filters and the provision of a range of 'Toy' lenses, that the Q is meant to be about fun and creativity, rather than absolute image quality.
Ricoh, meanwhile, has created the GXR system - a series of interchangeable lens+sensor modules. These wouldn't quite fit in this roundup, which covers Mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, but the appearance of the Mount A12 module, that allows M-mount lenses to be used with the system, gets it in on a technicality.
The final niche covered here is the one occupied by the Panasonic DMC-GH2 - that of the stills/video hybrid. Panasonic was very quick to realize that Mirrorless cameras were particularly well-suited to video shooting, with the result that the GH2 has been designed with video in mind as much as stills.
Nikon 1 V1/J1
J1 67%, V1 69%
Having spent many months shooting with the J1 and V1, we've written an in-depth review that tries to get to the heart of what Nikon has got right and wrong with its 1 system cameras. It's worth reading our full review to understand the bigger picture but, overall we have concerns about how well suited they are to their intended audience.
The autofocus system is very impressive in good light and the system may well prove to be the ideal Mirrorless camera for people wanting to shoot their kids playing sports (a big market very poorly served with existing products). At present, the 1 System cameras are the only ones able to perform continuous AF in a way that's competitive with DSLRs, and that makes them uniquely well-suited to moving subjects (among Mirrorless cameras). However, this performance isn't maintained when the light starts to fall and the 1 System cameras can struggle in indoor settings.
The camera is designed to offer a strictly 'point and shoot' experience with its 'Smart Photo Selector' mode, which shoots up to 20 frames in a 1 second burst, then saves up to 5 of the best. The results are pretty good but you do lose control over exactly when the photos are taken. Take it out of 'SPS' and the camera, even it its 'Auto Scene Selection' or Program modes requires much more manual intervention than we'd expect for a camera aimed at beginners. It regularly chooses shutter speeds so slow that they guarantee motion-blur in your photos.
The image quality is also impressive, with the V1 able to compete on equal terms with the 12MP Micro Four Thirds cameras, despite their sensors being around twice the size. However, neither the bodies nor lenses are significantly smaller than the Micro Four Thirds cameras and the price is significantly higher. If you want to or are willing to take any significant control over what the camera does, we think there may be better cheaper options (both Mirrorless and DSLR) for many types of shooting.
|Nikon 1 V1 Samples Gallery|
Pentax has gone down a very different route with the Q - creating a Mirrorless camera based around a 1/2.33" backlit CMOS sensor that appears in a handful of higher-end compact cameras. The company has tried to emphasize the lo-fi and creative aspects of the camera coming, as standard, with a 49mm equivalent prime lens, offering a couple of fun 'Toy' lenses and bringing the camera's wide range of configurable image processing effects to the fore.
However, although the sensor is very good by compact camera standards, it is hopelessly outclassed in this company. The Q is a beautifully built camera with a feature-set to rival one of the company's DSLRs, it's also the only one here to really count as pocketable, but even that advantage slips away if you fit the zoom lens to the front. The Q's cost looks very high, since you can buy a Mirrorless camera with much higher image quality for the same money, or a more compact camera with similar image quality (such as Nikon's P300) for the cost of the Q's zoom lens. At which point you're left with the question: 'what price, fun?'
|Pentax Q Samples Gallery|
Ricoh GXR Mount A12
Ricoh's GXR system is a little hard to categories - in that it offers a selection of combined sensor-and-lens modules that slot into a common body. These modules are based around three difference sensor sizes and a collection of zooms and primes. In addition, the company offers the 'A12 Mount' module, which places a Leica M-mount in front of the elderly but still rather likeable 12MP APS-C Sony CMOS sensor. To a degree its the module that makes most sense of the GXR system in that it opens it up to a vast range of lenses (albeit with a narrower field-of-view than most of them were designed for, since most M lenses are designed for 35mm film).
The cost of buying both body and module starts to make it a little uncompetitive, but if you have a collection of M-mount lenses or the money to amass one, then it's one of the better ways to make use of them. The build quality is very high and the user interface among the very best for the photographer really wanting to engage with the camera. One of the more eccentric options in this roundup, perhaps, but not without charm.
|Ricoh GXR A12 Mount Samples Gallery|
79% + Silver Award
For a long time the Panasonic DMC-GH2 has been one of the most capable video shooting cameras on the market. It hasn't received quite the acclaim of Canon's EOS 5D Mark II DSLR but it's substantially cheaper and considerably smaller. This, combined with the ability to mount almost any lens ever made, via adapters, has made it a popular camera for semi-pro video shooting. Its video specifications (1080i60, 30p or 24p at bitrates of around 24Mbps), are no longer quite as cutting-edge as they were at its launch in September 2010, but it's still a very capable camera with a lot of movie-specific options to help optimize both the visuals and audio footage that it captures.
That said, the GH2 isn't a dedicated movie camera - it's also a very capable stills camera in its own right (using the most sophisticated Four Thirds sensor so far). If you're as interested in shooting movie footage as you are in stills and you fancy the shallower depth-of-field that a large sensor offers, the GH2 is well worth considering.
|Panasonic DMC-GH2 Samples Gallery|
The Mirrorless sector may be relatively young but it's already starting to offer some pretty mature products. There are still manufacturers such as Canon and Fujifilm that have yet to show their hands but, even as it stands, there are plenty of impressive products that we've really enjoyed shooting with. The Nikon 1 cameras are the only ones to make a convincing stab at continuous autofocus but that's about the only significant weakness of Mirrorless as a concept - most of the rough edges of the first generation models have now been smoothed off. And, of course, Mirrorless cameras can offer features such as touch-screen focus positioning and face detection that DSLRs simply can't match - and all without the need for focus fine-tuning.
We're not about to proclaim the DSLR to be dead, but it faces more and more interesting competition by the day. And, if you don't feel one of these models suits your needs, you may still benefit from the DSLR makers having to react to the rise of the Mirrorless camera.