User Tools

Site Tools


photo:kl:mft_history2

a history of Micro Four Thirds part II - mirrorless cameras

THE CONCEPT

Announced September 25 2008 at Photokina

photokina2008.jpg

Mirrorless in the digital era is technically not new even by the time the Micro FourThirds platform was first announced at Photokina. In 2004 Leica brought out the first of its M-series digital bodies but this was merely a continuation of its rangefinder concept, which means the shutter resides in the lens. Later Ricoh launched the GXR System, which is also mirrorless but the concept itself is so unconventional and radically removed from mainstream acceptance.

Olympus’ announcement of the Micro FourThirds format places its impetus on not just a mirrorless design but with a focal plane shutter like a DSLR camera. And unlike Ricoh’s GXR, lenses are interchangeable without having to replace the sensor as a complete unitary package.

The definition of a mirrorless camera by Olympus/Panasonic

The following are simple principles that are fundamental to the mirrorless idea as espoused by Olympus and Panasonic:

A digital camera with interchangeable lens capability but without a reflex mirror

Compact cameras do not use a reflex mirror, which makes them compact, light and simple but their lenses are fixed and therefore not removable or interchangeable. DSLR cameras use reflex mirrors and their lenses are swappable but they are large, heavy and complicated to use. The idea of mirrorless is to marry the best of the two opposing worlds and to package them in a body that is more acceptable than ever before.

The centrality of the reflex mirror has been a standard feature of the Single-Lens Reflex camera format and it has been a mainstay since the early Fifties. This was a time when market popularity revolved around the rangefinder design. This means cameras that relied on a viewfinder that depended on a laterally-positioned coupled optical mechanism using mirrors that move according to the lens focusing ring. Because the view seen through the finder was not affected by the picture-taking lens, the effectiveness of the rangefinder was limited to how the former was designed to match the latter. This led to designers building into the rangefinder frame markings that represented the various different lenses that one could mount on to the camera. Not being lens-dependent also meant that the view was not corrected for composition errors (which become an issue at closer focusing distances), necessitating the inclusion of parallax correction markings as well. Furthermore the size of the viewfinder area would limit how many of these markings that could be included to cater for the different lenses available thus limiting the potential scale of the overall camera system.

When the reflex mirror box design arrived, it was to cater towards the medium-format cameras using the then-popular 120 roll film. There were essentially two different interpretations at that time. The TLR – or Twin-Lens Reflex – was a camera with two lenses with one on top of the other. The top lens was for viewing – the view was seen with the image seen past the lens and reflected up the waist-level finder. Usually a magnifier was available to help look more closely at the image. Because the bottom lens was the one that took the exposure, both lenses were of the same focal length so that when you saw with one was similar to what was captured in exposure by the other. For a TLR camera to feature interchangeable lens, both the lenses had to be changed as a paired set and because of the cost involved, the top lens is usually made not as bright as the picture-taking one.

penmockup.jpg

The original Micro FourThirds mock camera and lens design first shown at Photokina 2008 Image courtesy of Olympus Imaging Corporation

The other interpretation of the reflex mirror box design was called the SLR. Short for Single-Lens Reflex, it was first seen in medium-format box-configuration cameras with interchangeable features such as the lens, finder and film back. The lens featured a leaf shutter and therefore wasn’t the focal plane variety, meaning that during then, the lens itself not only provided selectable shutter speed settings but also required a shutter cable to be attached to it to operate. It was some years later that the shutter was positioned at the back of the mirror box. The medium-format SLR offered many benefits and chief amongst them was the ability to see the image through the lens. It meant that regardless of the lens used, the view seen was going to be the one captured on film in the act of exposure. However the problem with this design was that with the waist-level finder, the image was inverted. To correct for that, two things had to be available for the camera – firstly the finder had to be made interchangeable and secondly a prism finder had to be offered in its place. With a prism finder attached, the view was corrected so that when you move the camera from left to right, the view seen would move in the same direction. Very shortly the SLR design was extended to 35mm film cameras where in many cases, the prism finder was fixed – only very few high-end pro-grade cameras had them interchangeable. And with the SLR design in place, the 35mm camera market grew impressively because manufacturers could see the sense in developing more lenses for their cameras. Consumers also saw the logic in moving from medium-format to 35mm because the SLR design made them easier to use plus the cameras were smaller and lighter and also lenses and accessories were in abundance.

The competition grew with many manufacturers joining the market to offer their product lines.

Decades of the 35mm SLR camera dominance meant that the design principle stayed to become the de facto. With a few exceptions, cameras that offered versatility, scalability and freedom of choice were almost usually 35mm and SLR by design. The ‘Big Five’ dominated the market throughout the world and they were Olympus, Pentax, Minolta, Nikon and Canon. When the digital crossover arrived, the SLR design survived simply because it was a time-proven and –honoured principle. It was also the only way people at large are used to and they expected this to survive unchanged.

When Olympus announced a new concept and showed a concept camera in 2008 and a year later, introduced the Pen E-P1, the world was introduced to a system camera void of a reflex mirror in a not insignificant way. Also announced was the company’s intention to build a system around cameras like the Pen then and in the coming future.

A digital camera that is void of the optical path components

Other than the reflex mirror, which is part of the complex mirror box, it implies also the condenser, focusing screen, pentaprism (or penta mirrors) and the optical arrangement that forms the viewfinder. In other words the dispensation of the reflex mirror brought with it a host of major changes that also were removed at the same time. Without the mirror, the prism finder was unusable let alone obsolete and all the optical components in between were also rendered unnecessary. It was evident that without the prism finder to view through, a mirrorless camera will have to provide a view through the lens by way of the ubiquitous LCD panel at the back or a novel electronically-driven viewfinder. Of course one could resort to the use of an external optical finder that could be attached to an accessory shoe just like the old days. However it is inconceivable that any manufacturer would take this idea literally because that would mean a system with twenty different lenses would have to also offer the same number of matching optical finders. Besides an optical finder for use with a zoom lens would be complex not to mention very costly to purchase – the practicality of having to use a zoom lens and a matching finder would have been self-defeating in view of the inherent advantages of a mirrorless camera design.

Without the reflex mirror, flange distance from back of the lens to the sensor is far shorter

In other words when the lens is mounted on to the camera, its rear portion is physically closer to the picture-taking sensor. It’s like the lens is ‘buried’ deeper inside the camera body to the extent that from the outside, the lens not only looks but is shorter. With the lens so much closer to the sensor, the principle opens up new and exciting opportunities not only for Olympus but also the users of their mirrorless cameras.

The benefits of having a reduced flange distance

Compared to its older classic FourThirds siblings, the lens mount of the mirrorless Micro FourThirds cameras is smaller in diameter. It’s easy not to notice this because virtually everything about these cameras is scaled down. Therefore relative to its size, the lens mount does not appear to be small. However when any Micro FourThirds camera is placed side by side a FourThirds DSLR, the difference becomes immediately evident. Putting one in front of the other and looking at both cameras from the side, the body thickness is striking. Courtesy of the reflex mirror being removed, the camera is thinner but because the other optical components were also similarly omitted, it is also shorter.

The inherent benefits of the mirrorless format can also be found in the matching lenses. By closing up the distance between the sensor and the rear of the lens (called ‘flange distance’) and because the (lens) mount is much smaller in diameter, the resulting lenses can be made shorter and slimmer. Regardless of focal length, optical brightness or whether it’s a prime or zoom lens, the same benefits apply. One can see this very evidently with Olympus’ range of fast bright prime lenses such as the 12mm f2.0, 45mm f1.8 or the 75mm f1.8. Any of these three can be concealed within the closed palm of the hand and yet all of them are capable of stunning performance that has the potential to embarrass DSLR cameras that use larger sensors.

The reduced flange distance design also opens up opportunities for the mirrorless camera to be used with a far wider range of legacy lenses. Legacy lenses are those that were part of any 35mm film SLR camera system and since there are so many of them available that are easy to acquire on eBay or handed down by older family members, they are now not only rendered very useful but freed up for unimaginable creative use instead of being left lying around collecting cobwebs. Considering the thousands of varieties available by virtue of forty plus years of film SLR domination, the opportunities made available by Micro FourThirds means one can enjoy the use of extremely fast lenses very affordably. Lenses that were once considered pedestrian like the standard 50mm f1.8 or even a simple 135mm f2.8 telephoto lens can now be regarded as ‘little gems’ waiting to be more fully exploited.

Essentially reliant on contrast-detection autofocusing

Unlike the traditional DSLR design, a mirrorless camera does not have a reflex mirror to rely on for phase-detection autofocusing (PDAF) to operate. Simply put, without one in place, this becomes an enormously difficult problem to solve without resorting to the contrast-detection alternative. Furthermore without the ability to support PDAF, DSLR lenses are natively unsupportable without serious compromises to their operating efficiency. In most cases, that means their autofocusing will be far more sluggish. In some instances the performance is so unacceptable that such DSLR lenses, when mounted on to the mirrorless cameras (using a compatible adaptor), are considered next to ‘useless.’

The reason why this is so is because, DSLR lenses require a way to work in a mirrorless camera that does not feature a suitable AF sensor. This AF sensor is specifically designed for PDAF operations and by its very nature it resides behind the reflex mirror. Since this mirror is no longer there, this sensor cannot also exist. One way to build this capability into a mirrorless camera is to incorporate PDAF reading cells inside the picture-taking sensor. To do these, some of the sensor’s pixels will have to be sacrificed. Taking up their places are instead cells that are designed to operate the PDAF lenses. However this also means that the fundamental performance of the sensor will likely be compromised. In other words it’s not an entirely winnable proposition.

Without PDAF, mirrorless cameras must make full use of their image-capturing sensors to double up as an autofocusing sensor. As we now know, there is no problem at all for Micro FourThirds cameras to adopt the contrast-detection autofocusing (CDAF) method and then have it work ‘off the sensor.’

There are some serious benefits (and advantages) in actually using CDAF in deference to the time-honoured PDAF. Firstly the whole system is simpler. Requirements for PDAF are the added hardware that not only bulk up the innards of the camera but they also make production costlier. And if it’s cheaper to produce, it will also be less expensive for users to purchase. Secondly CDAF is actually more precise than PDAF. In fact all it takes is some concerted development effort to prove the point and surpass DSLR cameras when it comes to real-world performance.

The attractions/strengths of the mirrorless concept

Compact footprint

Although it sounds simple and ‘insignificant,’ the removal of the reflex mirror including all the necessary optical componentry, has resulted in a digital camera that is immediately more compact than the equivalent DSLR variety. In almost every physical dimension, the footprint of a mirrorless camera is smaller and that includes its weight.

em5vsnikond3100size.jpg

The Micro FourThirds Olympus E-M5 in physical comparison to the APS-C based Nikon D3100 with equivalent standard zoom lens fitted Image courtesy of www.camerasize.com

This advantage is visible when you have any Micro FourThirds camera lined up side by side a typical APS-C DSLR camera. The view from the front reveals one being dwarfed by the other. Height-wise, the one with the built-in optical prism finder casts a deep shadow over the other that doesn’t have one. Perhaps in width terms, the difference isn’t so obvious but it’s still evident courtesy of the smaller diameter lens mount. Side by side, the thinness of the mirrorless camera is very obvious even if it bears the bulk of an adjustable LCD panel. When it comes to weight savings, the mirrorless camera champions over the other, proving that the collective mass of optical parts that were extracted from within the body does account for a substantial advantage.

Lighter body weight

The mirrorless trend pioneered by Olympus let to other manufacturers following in its footsteps, proving beyond any shadow of doubt that this was no fluke – removing the reflex mirror and all its related parts does bring important benefits to the user. Chief amongst these are the tremendous weight savings.

mft_mirrorless.jpg

Removing the mirror box helps save substantial body weight Image courtesy of Olympus Imaging Corporation

People don’t quite appreciate this advantage until they begin to carry their bag of camera and lenses and other accessories to understand that something this ‘unimportant’ is truly and actually a rather big deal. This is especially so for those who feel the physical wear after miles of walking around with a heavy-laden bag.

Often talk surrounding the removal of the mirror is underwhelming mainly because most people understand this wrongly – it isn’t just the mirror that is omitted. The reflex mirror is only one part of a whole mechanism that is a complete assembly in its own right. Called the Mirror Box, it is an assembly of many mechanical parts that not only moves the reflex mirror up and down but also synchronises with the focal plane shutter system. In other words when the mirror flips up during an actual exposure, it also triggers the shutter curtain to move out of its way so that the sensor can capture the image. Conversely when the exposure is completed, the shutter closes and the mirror comes back down. The sensor switches off to round up the exposure. At the same time, the Mirror Box of a typical DSLR camera also houses the AF sensor that is normally embedded on its floor. Behind the main reflex mirror, there is likely a ‘secondary mirror’ often referred to also as a ‘piggyback’ mirror. This mirror is smaller and is hinged to the back of the reflex mirror so that the latter’s semi-translucence allows light to come through and reflects off the former for the AF sensor to read.

Another substantial weight saving source is the DLSR camera finder. For consumer-grade DSLR cameras, there is no prism to act as its finder but instead a series of five mirrors positioned to simulate the same optical path effect. Called a ‘penta mirror’ arrangement, they may not add up to anywhere near the same weight as a prism finder but they’re not exactly very light either when you put them together. Besides there is also the viewfinder assembly which consists of a series of complex optical pieces that enable the user to see clearly through the rear eyepiece. In the case of a proper prism finder, the glass bloc is large and solid in weight. For DSLR cameras that offer a large field of view, this also means that the viewfinder design uses larger optical elements, which again adds further to the overall weight.

Yet another area of weight loss is the lens mount. It may not be obvious but the traditional DSLR lens mount is not just large but because of the construction material used, it is also fairly heavy. In the case of Micro FourThirds, the smaller diameter of its lens mount reduces this weight factor quite significantly. Because the supporting lenses used by Micro FourThirds are also smaller and therefore less weighty, the lens mount itself does not have to be as beefed up as it is with the ubiquitous DSLR.

Overall smaller camera system

The physical advantages aren’t just with the camera body alone. While the biggest – and most important – changes are all found there, they also spread to the system and principally to the lenses. Because of the format, Micro FourThirds lenses can now be made much smaller in size and because of their more compact barrel dimensions, the optical elements inside can also be made similarly smaller. As optical glass can be quite heavy when used in lens groups, this translates into much improved weight.

mft_camerabagsizing.jpg

A comparison in system size between Micro FourThirds (left) and the APS-C based Canon DSLR system (right) in terms of camera bag usage Images courtesy of www.thinktankphoto.com

Consider Olympus’ fast and bright prime lenses. While an f2 prime lens for DSLR-type APS-C (or full frame) cameras are big in every sense of the word (and heavy), the same cannot be said of the M.Zuiko Digital 12mm f2.0. In fact the featherweight feature of lenses like the 45mm f1.8 and 75mm f1.8 are what made the Micro FourThirds a preferred format today. Even zoom lenses with prodigious focal length coverage are admirably small, very easy to handle and carry about.

When the camera and lenses are collectively smaller and lighter, the advantages come in two ways. Firstly one can carry more given a fixed size camera bag. So instead of one DSLR camera-and-lens combo, two additional lenses and an electronic flash, you may end up being able to carry one or two mirrorless bodies plus even more lenses and a flash to boot. Alternatively for the same number of bodies, lenses and flash, you may only need a smaller camera bag.

Equipment storage is one thing; taking your photo gear with you on a long walk or a few continuous hours of event coverage is quite another thing altogether. Those who use larger and heavier DSLR equipment will tell you backbreaking tales and visits to the chiropractor or physiotherapist. The advantages of a mirrorless system come home to roost when you realise how much more you can carry and not tire yourself or for that matter, how much less your equipment now weigh compared to the same albeit in the DSLR format.

Mechanically far less complex

The complete removal of the entire optical system within the camera has serious ramifications. As we’ve seen so far, the weight advantage is very pronounced without the mirror, prism finder and all the other optically-related parts. At the same time with lesser mechanical dependency, the camera becomes simpler in makeup and hence, potentially more reliable with a reduced likelihood of things going wrong or breaking down. Furthermore a mechanically simpler camera enhances confidence when it comes to a wider number of situational possibilities that one expects to want to cover.

Contrary to what some think, simpler engineering doesn’t necessarily mean a crude design. When unnecessary or redundant mechanical processes are taken out, there are fewer moving parts. In fact the fewer the moving parts, the better the design but of course, there is a limit. With mirrorless cameras, the most critical moving mechanism – the reflex mirror – is now a thing of the past and with it goes its delicate or fragile nature.

Advances in viewfinder technology now possible

The new VF-4 electronic viewfinder seen here with the Pen E-P5 Image courtesy of www.ephotozine.com

Many had lamented the ‘passing’ of the optical viewfinder, citing great loss. The key argument was that without the prism finder, the view becomes artificial because what one sees through the viewfinder isn’t any longer natural or real. Instead with an electronic viewfinder (EVF) in place, critics make a few claims of which unrealistic colours are one. Lowlight use was also frowned upon because an EVF would not be able to display shadow areas without noise specks or ill-defined details (as if an optical finder can). Furthermore, when panning or following a subject in motion, smearing effects would mar the EVF experience.

While any of these were valid points many years ago, they no longer apply in the same manner as described. In fact the improvements have been very convincing in recent times. This was seen when Olympus launched the VF-2, which uses Epson technology. User feedback was nothing short of excellent and when the OM-D E-M5 arrived in the market, public acceptance of the built-in EVF was more or less sealed.

Other than Olympus, mirrorless cameras belonging to other formats have featured different viewfinder technologies but all of them were meant to replace the optical version, which could not be usable as it were. Fujifilm deployed a hybrid approach that combined optical with electronics but it is our opinion that success was mixed at best. In many other cases till today, the EVF is missing meaning that one has to make do with only the rear LCD panel. This, in fact, is the case with Olympus’ range of Pen cameras.

While some critics may lambast the popularity of the EVF, we’re now seeing the kind of advancements that were not possible before. What optical viewfinders couldn’t deliver, the EVF allows the image to be overlayed with a comprehensive range of helpful information. The display info not only appears below or to the side of the frame but where required, they are used to pinpoint blown highlights or loss of shadow details right where they appear in the actual scene – something no optical viewfinder could ever do.

Another strong advantage of the EVF is that you get to see a live preview before the shot is taken. Fed directly from the sensor, what you see is really what you’ll get complete with your choice of white balance setting, exposure compensation and depth of field. Whether you decide to shoot in colour or monochrome, whether your picture mode is set to Natural or Vivid, whichever Creative Art filter you care to use or the choice of aspect ratio you adopt, the EVF shows them all. And of course you can use the EVF and not just the LCD panel when you’re shooting video – again not possible with an optical viewfinder because the reflex mirror would have to be flipped up thus blocking the optical passage.

Where the optical viewfinder meets severe limitations in the digital era, the EVF opens up future possibilities that are potentially endless. One day soon, it will be possible to have two simultaneous views of the same live scene with the two halves displaying the results of different settings. If that sounds exciting, there are even more to come.

Smaller and lighter lenses

mft_lenses.jpg

Image courtesy of www.thephoblographer.com

Not all mirrorless cameras are the same. For example, Sony, Fujifilm, Ricoh and Samsung – and of late, Canon – have chosen to stick to the APS-C sensors that are used in their DSLR cameras. Micro FourThirds also use the same sensor format as their donor FourThirds system but compared to APS-C, is smaller. Other mirrorless systems like Nikon 1 and Pentax Q resort to even smaller size sensors but they’re nowhere as popular and for good reasons. For all that, MicroFourThirds sits very comfortably as a happy medium, which for many it seems, is the ideal format.

There are two things at play here that give rise to Olympus’ compact and light lenses. Firstly by inheriting from its DSLR siblings the same sensor format, the 2X crop factor stays and secondly Micro FourThirds itself with its superior flange distance advantage provides for a smaller diameter lens mount. When we put these two together, the ability to design much smaller and lighter lenses becomes a reality.

With the 2X crop factor, lenses are half the focal length of full-frame (or 35mm film) cameras. In other words a 45mm lens for Micro FourThirds cameras is the equivalent of a 90mm telephoto lens in the world of 35mm film or digital full-frame DSLR cameras. Similarly the M.Zuiko Digital 75-300mm lens is actually a 150-600mm super-telephoto zoom lens and yet looking at its size, that really doesn’t come across in a visual sense. In reality, the 75-300mm lens probably looks more like a 28-80mm standard lens except it is slimmer again. These facts alone are significant enough when it comes to the size of the lenses and was a strong point for Olympus’ FourThirds DSLR camera system but in mirrorless guise, the advantage is far greater and much more beneficial to the user. If further conviction is ever needed, just try carrying all the lenses and camera bodies in your camera bag and carry it around for a field trip or a wedding event. This alone has been the reason for the massive migration from APS-C and full-frame DSLRs to Micro FourThirds.

Less intimidating

To some people, a small camera is a puny camera. That is to say it doesn’t look ‘serious’ enough, which is the same as saying that a professional camera for a professional photographer has to weigh like a ton of bricks and be large and imposing. It has to look the part as well with huge pipe-sized lenses to boot.

The situation with mirrorless cameras is an interesting one for equally as many. While some maintain that outward size is important (at least for appearance purposes), those who do the real grunt work are the ones who’s sighs of relief are the most palpable when it comes to lugging the equipment and using the gear. They’re the ones who tell the industry that size in the end does matter – but in ways that the mirrorless camera has the decided edge. That means it’s easier to wield around, more flexible and less tiring.

In particular mirrorless cameras have been very well received by those who are into street or travel photography as well as photojournalism. For these practitioners, amateurs and pros alike, weight and size are everything. Not just in terms of luggability and carrying efficiency but also when it comes to being visually unobtrusive. When people see less of the camera, they worry less. They don’t feel as intimidated and you’re not seen to be imposing your presence on to them. The camera therefore becomes part of you as a photographer but it doesn’t offer up a reason for people to fear you anymore.

Because mirrorless cameras are so much smaller, they also appear friendlier – certainly far more so than what can be said of the typical full-frame behemoth. Whether the people are or aren’t the focal point is sometimes immaterial especially in street photography when it’s the combined visual effect that you may be after. In such situations when the mirrorless camera is the tool, the lack of intimidation helps the photographer to produce a more natural surrounding and often the end result is far more pleasing.

Relative launch dates of mirrorless systems

While Micro FourThirds was the very first of its type to show its mirrorless hand to the world, one must contend with two other pieces of facts.

Firstly the Leica M, by technical default, is even earlier. Much earlier, in fact. If truth be known, the Leica M precedes Olympus’ efforts by almost eighty years simply because the M System was already in place during the film era although the digital interpretations only began in 2004. Even so it’s four years before Micro FourThirds was first announced at Photokina. However the Leica M System was never a child of any previous unions or technical interpretations. The M was as separate from the R series as a rangefinder was from an SLR camera. The two were distinct and one was never meant to be a predecessor of the other. In that sense the M System may technically be the first mirrorless camera but it was, all this while, a rangefinder camera. That cannot be said of the other mirrorless systems that emerged in the later years.

Secondly Micro FourThirds does not own the mirrorless landscape exclusively. It may be the most popular and most embraced but it isn’t the only system on offer. It didn’t take long before Samsung released its NX System a little over a year later with plenty of fanfare and brash optimistic claims. Of course Samsung wasn’t the only one. In fact two months before the Koreans came into the scene, Ricoh brought out the quirky GXR System that till today, has remained incredibly quirky; so quirky that it’s a wonder the company hasn’t pulled the plug on it given the dismal sales numbers.

In the four years after the inception of Micro FourThirds, at least eight new entrants appeared in the mirrorless landscape. Of the eight, six maintained the use of the larger APS-C sensor format and two resorted to sensors that were astonishingly tinier than Micro FourThirds itself.

The adoption of the DSLR-derived APS-C sensor meant that lenses would remain physically large and in the end, the overall design becomes as inelegant as dressing a gorilla up in a tuxedo – the body may be slim but the huge lens at the front makes the whole thing unbalanced and disproportionate. Still there are people who find that appealing. While Sony, Fujifilm, Samsung and Ricoh went the route of APS-C, Nikon chose a path less travelled and introduced their 1 System with a tiny sliver of a sensor. Yet it proved the correct response (at least for now) in the domestic Japanese market where it rocketed to top bestsellers in record time. Pentax followed suit with their Q System to recall good times with their Super-110 system camera during the film days. Unlike any other company, Pentax also chose to hedge their bets – other than going to the extreme small end with the Q, they have also hybridised their K System by introducing a mirrorless DSLR version. We don’t really know where this company is headed for it appears that they have somewhat lost the plot – there have been many online questions asked as to what all this means for Pentax. If only we knew.

March 2004 June 2004
System name M System name Q
Company Leica Camera AG Company Ricoh-Pentax
First model Leica M8 First model Pentax Q
October 2008 October 2011
System name Micro FourThirds System name 1
Company Olympus Imaging Corporation, Panasonic Corporation Company Nikon Corporation
First model Olympus PEN E-P1, Panasonic Lumix G1 First model Nikon V1, Nikon J1
November 2009 January 2012
System name GXR System name XF
Company Ricoh Company Fujifilm Corporation
First model Ricoh GXR First model Fujifilm X-Pro1
January 2010 February 2012
System name NX System name K
Company Samsung Company Ricoh-Pentax
First model Samsung NX10 First model ?
June 2010 October 2012
System name α Alpha NEX System name EOS M
Company Sony Corporation Company Canon Corporation
First model Sony NEX-1 First model Canon EOS M

While Micro FourThirds remains the most dominant in the mirrorless market, there are others

Fujifilm XF System

Image courtesy of Fujifilm Corporation

Fujifilm’s XF System is designed around the classic rangefinder look of which the earlier film-based Leica M is likely its source of inspiration. For those attracted by old-world looks, Fujifilm’s mirrorless range should be appealing. Earlier renditions were hampered by disappointing autofocusing performance but we believe Fujifilm will eventually clear up the issue with firmware updates. Subsequent models should show better performance in this regard.

With the larger APS-C sensor and the company’s impressive processor, image quality is expectedly excellent and if there were more lenses coming, this would become an even more competition option in the market. As it is, the XF System is likely to find homes with users who are not intent to grow their collection of lenses but place strong priority on its classical designed lines and a larger sensor.

With Fujifilm’s limited success on the DSLR front, the move to mirrorless heralds not only an exciting new opportunity but one that they can tap into with far greater promises of success at hand. Already a considerable swath of the market has been enamoured by Fujifilm’s XF cameras – their classical looks are primarily a strong reason to buy.

However we don’t see Fujifilm as a big player in the mirrorless market despite all the potential it appears to show. Part of this may be the fact that they do not have the ability to market themselves properly. In the end it’s all about lenses – if they don’t grow their range, they’re stuck with nowhere to go fast.

Launch date Lens Mount Sensor type Sensor crop factor
January 2012 Fujifilm X-mount APS-C; 22.3 x 14.9mm 1.5x crop
Lens mount diameter Rear flange focal dist. Leading features
17.7mm Lens-based IS, CDAF, hybrid viewfinder design
Current models Other models
X-Pro1, X-E1 and XF-1 (Finepix) X100, X-S1, X10, X20, X100S
Native lenses Prime (4): XF 14mm f2.8R, XF 18mm f2R, XF 35mm f1.4R, XF 60mm f2.4R Macro
Zoom (1): XF 18-55mm f2.8-4.0R LM OIS
Future lenses Prime (3): XF 27mm f2.8, XF 23mm f1.4 R, XF 56mm f1.2 R
Zoom (2): XF 55-200mm f3.5-4.8 R LM OIS, XF 10-24mm f4 R OIS
From Zeiss:: Planar T* 32mm f1.8, Distagon T* 12mm f2.8, Makro-Planar T* 50mm f2.8

Sony NEX system

Image courtesy of Sony Corporation

Second only to Micro FourThirds, Sony’s NEX system is the most popular and there are plenty of reasons why. Eschewing the classic looks, NEX is about modernity with a distinct tendency to look unusual. This is especially so when the wafer-thin looking bodies are matched to their huge APS-C lenses. As controversial or ungainly as their looks are, their sales success suggests that owners either don’t care about such issues or they love them to death.

Launched a year after Olympus brought out its first Pen, Sony has been building the NEX system progressively and in the past two years, they have amassed many camera models plus an inventory of fourteen lenses. More lenses and accessories are expected to come but the question tickling many of its online fans is how involved Carl Zeiss will be with their famous German optics. We don’t know but so far it doesn’t look too good.

So far the NEX system is able to match Micro FourThirds each step along the way. With every new camera and the lenses they keep launching, Sony is not far behind and yet they appear not to have the final sucker punch. There may be three possible reasons why.

Firstly they may be a great electronics giant. With innovations like Trinitron, Walkman, Discman and Playstation, this name has gravitas throughout the consumer world but as a premier camera manufacturer, they lack tradition, depth and understanding. At the most, they produce very good but not outright great products. They’re very usable but they’re not exceptional enough. This is the prime reason why Sony decided they needed a great name like Carl Zeiss to come and lend support.

Secondly we still don’t believe APS-C is the right platform for mirrorless cameras especially if compactness is a priority. Otherwise do what Pentax has done – stick with fully fleshed-out DSLR cameras but remove the reflex mirror. As Sony attempts to take on Olympus on their own turf, they won’t be able to get close enough with APS-C simply because the lenses cannot be made any smaller. So what we have in the end are Sony NEX bodies that look smart, fashionable even, wafer-thin but decidedly disproportionate, unbalanced, inelegant and hopelessly clumsy with a lens mounted.

Thirdly third-party accessory support base for the NEX cameras isn’t anywhere near as good as it is with Micro FourThirds and Olympus especially. While it’s still early days, the indications are basically that Sony will have to develop a broader range of accessories themselves if they are to close the gap and this means beyond lenses, electronic flash units and lens mount adaptors. In other words there needs to be accessories that enable their cameras to be more widely adaptable than just standard photography.

Yet despite all these, Sony’s fan support is huge; certainly huge enough not to allow such things to discourage them. These are users who adore their NEX cameras and swear by their image quality. They might be one-eyed – certainly no less so than those of other brands – but they are what Sony needs to move forward.

Launch date Lens Mount Sensor type Sensor crop factor
June 2010 Sony E-mount APS-C; 22.3 x 14.9mm 1.5x crop
Lens mount diameter Rear flange focal dist. Leading features
46.1mm 18.0mm Lens-based IS, CDAF, hybrid AF
Current models Other models Video models
NEX-3N, NEX-5R, NEX-6, NEX-7K, NEX-7 NEx-5N, NEX-5K, NEX-F3, NEX-C3, NEX-3 NEX-VG10, NEX-VG20
Native lenses Prime (7): Sony E 16mm f2.8 Pancake (24mm), Sony E 20mm f2.8, Sony Zeiss Sonnar T* 24mm f1.8 ZA (36mm), Sony E 30mm f3.5 Macro (45mm), Sony E 35mm f1.8 OSS (52.5mm), Sony E 50mm f1.8 OSS (75mm), Sony Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f1.4 ZA SSM
Zoom (7): Sony E 10-18mm f4 OSS (15-27mm), Sony E 16-50mm f3.5-5.6 OSS (24-75mm), Sony E 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 OSS (27-82.5mm), Sony E 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 (27-300mm), Sony E 55-210mm f4.5-6.3 OSS (82.5-315mm), Sony E 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 OSS LE (27-300mm), Sony E Power Zoom 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 OSS

Samsung NX system

Image courtesy of Samsung Corporation

Hot on Olympus’ trail was Samsung. Already smarting from their dismal failure with DSLR venture with Pentax, the Korean electronics giant was now hungry for some overdue success. Nothing stopped them from making plenty of claims as they expected great things to come from its new NX system. They saw the potential and they envisioned dominance of the market with outright leadership a strong reality. Perhaps they didn’t quite understand what it takes to make a great camera but nothing was stopping Samsung from believing they could do it.

Three years after their first NX camera was launched – the NX10 – Samsung has gone strangely quiet, a behaviour that may be linked to its new-found obscurity caused by a sudden influx of competition. With Sony and Fujifilm joining the mirrorless battle, the Koreans now face the threat of being crowded out. Still the NX system lens range has steadily increased, now numbering a dozen with a good mix of primes and zooms.

Momentum at Samsung has since dropped off fairly alarmingly. It appears that in recent times, the company has begun to shift its focus to its new range of compact cameras that share the same Galaxy name as its highly successful Android tablets and smartphones. The idea here was to emphasis device interconnectivity in the same way as what Sony tried to do (in vain) with their Memory Stick concept not too long ago. Although it may still be a little early to tell, it is becoming increasingly evident that Samsung’s original idea of muscling into the market at the expense of an absent Nikon and Canon had not worked.

Just as we wait to see what Zeiss’ involvement is with Sony’s NEX system, we’re thinking the same with Samsung’s relationship with Schneider-Kreuznach concerning their NX system. Schneider’s lenses can be seen with the Korean’s DSLR offerings but we’re still looking for traces of them repeating the collaboration with their mirrorless cameras. However we haven’t heard anything in the news to suggest that it will happen and with Samsung’s NX system appearing to stall, the chances don’t look good.

Launch date Lens Mount Sensor type Sensor crop factor
January 2010 Samsung NX-mount APS-C; 22.3 x 14.9mm 1.5x crop
Lens mount diameter Rear flange focal dist. Leading features
42mm 25.5mm Lens-based IS, CDAF
Current models
NX10, NX5, NX100, NX11, NX200, NX210, NX20, NX1000, NX300
Native lenses
Prime (4): 16mm f2.4 Pancake, 20mm f2.8 Pancake, 30mm f2 Pancake, 45mm f1.8, 45mm f1.8 2D/3D, 60mm f2.8 Macro ED OIS, 85mm f1.4 ED
Zoom (1): 12-24mm f4-5.6 ED, 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 OIS, 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 ED OIS, 20-50mm f3.5-5.6 ED, 50-200mm f4-5.6 OIS

Leica M System

Image courtesy of Leica Camera AG

In Leica’s M System, we’re looking at the oldest surviving line of cameras to bear the name. As the industry crossed the divide from film to digital, the ‘M’ continued albeit with important changes in technology to bring them up to date. Over a period of eighty years, Leica has brought out many different models and even as the digital era heralded the arrival of a sensor rather than film, one thing has stood the test of time – the company’s dispensation of autofocusing. Hence even in the new millennium, a digital Leica M camera still relies on manual focusing lenses. However so, the company has also ensured owners that older M lenses that serviced the film version rangefinders remain usable with the digital M models.

Where others are broadly catered by Tamron, Sigma and Tokina, third-party lens support for the M cameras are generally limited to Cosina under the Voigtländer or Nokton labels. Of course if you’re looking at owning a Leica M camera, the only justifiable thing to do is to use it with their own lenses. However when you do so, make sure your credit cards are cleared before you visit the camera store.

Launch date Lens Mount Sensor types Sensor crop factor Models
March 2004 Leica M-mount # 1: Full-frame; 35.8 x 23.9 mm full frame M9, M9P, M Monochrom, M-E, M
# 2: Half-frame; 27 x 18 mm 1.33x M8
# 3: APS-C; 23.7 x 15.6 mm 1.5x R-D1 (Epson)
Lens mount diameter Rear flange focal dist. Leading features
27.8mm No image stabiliser, no autofocus, rangefinder coupling only
Current models Other models
M8, M9, M9-P, M Monochrom, M-E, M R-D1, R-D1s, R-D1x, R-D1xG
Native lenses
Prime (24): Super-Elmar-M 18mm f3.8 ASPH, Summilux-M 21mm f4 ASPH, Elmarit-M 21mm f2.8 ASPH, Super-Elmar-M 21mm f3.4 ASPH, Elmarit-M 24mm f2.8 ASPH, Summilux-M 24mm f1.4 ASPH, Elmar-M 24mm f3.8 ASPH, Summicron-M 28mm f2 ASPH, Elmarit-M 28mm f2.8 ASPH, Elmarit S 30mm f2.8 ASPH, Summilux-M 35mm f1.4, Summicron-M 35mm f2 ASPH, Summarit-M 35mm f2.5, Summarit-M 50mm f2.5, Noctilux-M 50mm f0.95 ASPH, APO Summicron-M 50mm f1 ASPH, Summilux-M 50mm f1.4 ASPH, Summicron-M 50mm f2, APO Summicron-M 75mm f2 ASPH, Summarit-M 75mm f2.5, APO Summicron-M 90mm f2 ASPH, Summarit-M 90mm f2.5, Macro Elmar-M 90mm f4, APO Telyt-M 135mm f3.4 ASPH
“Zoom” (1): Tri-Elmar-M 16-18-21mm f4 ASPH

Ricoh GXR System

ricohgxr.jpg

Image courtesy of Ricoh Company, Ltd.

Shortly after Photokina saw the arrival of the Olympus Pen E-P1, Ricoh unveiled their new GXR System, complete with the most awkward example of eccentricity the industry has seen of late. Unlike anything else that resembled a camera, the Ricoh GXR (the camera model and system share the same name) has a ‘base’ and a range of different ‘sealed interchangeable units.’ The base doesn’t change but the ‘sealed interchangeable units’ do if you want to use a different lens. This is because each lens is packaged as a single assembly with a dedicated sensor. In other words when you use a different lens, a different sensor goes along with it whether or not you like it.

This way, the Ricoh GXR does not have a proper lens mount. You don’t simply change lenses the way you would with any system camera. This of course makes each lens a fairly costly – and reasonably complex – proposition. Rather than press and hold a button in while you twist the lens counter-clockwise to remove, the Ricoh GXR would require you to unlock the whole body and slide the ‘sealed interchangeable unit’ out. You’d probably have to do this fairly carefully.

While there is no doubt that marrying a lens to a particular sensor allows the former to take full advantage of the latter, it limits Ricoh to the number of lenses that it can make available to the user. Considering not many have bought into the system, there is no way to expect more such lenses to appear anyway. To someone looking for oddball ideas, the Ricoh GXR might be appealing but in reality, it doesn’t sell. And with no more than five lenses – as in five ‘sealed interchangeable units’ – available, that’s not exactly a very comprehensive camera system.

The five ‘sealed interchangeable units’ centre on the use of three different types of sensors that represent APS-C as well as 1/1.7 and 1/2.3 inch formats and in the mix, Ricoh has chosen to embrace both CMOS and CCD type sensor designs. One of these units also happens to support the use of Leica M lenses, believe it or not. While the GXR System is technically mirrorless, it is difficult to draw it parallel to the others and of course the biggest issue is the manner in which Ricoh has defined the lens in this case.

Call it what you will, if you’re ever looking to be completely different to anyone else, this one might suit you to a tee. Otherwise if you’re like many others, you’d probably prefer to steer a wide berth instead.

Launch date Lens Mount
November 2009 The GXR system does not have a fixed-standard lens mount but instead the design is based on the use of a range of different sealed interchangeable units, each of which features its own dedicated sensor and fixed or interchangeable lens mount
Module Sensor type Sensor crop factor features
A12 APS-C; 23.6 x 15.7 mm; 12.3MP CMOS sensor 1.5x crop 33mm (50mm) f2.5 macro lens, has lens shutter, CDAF and no IS;
A12 APS-C; 23.6 x 15.7 mm; 12.3MP CMOS sensor 1.5x crop 18.7mm (28mm) f2.5 lens in a Leica-M mount, has choice of focal plane or electronic shutter, CDAF and only manual focusing;
A16 APS-C type; 23.6 x 15.7 mm; 16.2MP CCD sensor 1.5x crop 16-57mm (24-85mm) f3.5-5.5 lens and lens shutter;
S10 1/1.7 inch type; 10MP CCD sensor 4.7x 5.1-15.3mm (24-72mm) f2.5-4.4VC lens, lens shutter, collapsible storage format, sensor-shift IS and CDAF;
P10 1/2.3 inch type; 10MP backlit CMOS sensor 5.7x 4.9-52.5mm (28-300mm) f3.5-5.6 VC lens, lens shutter and sensor-shift IS
Current models Other models
Ricoh GXR
Native lenses in modules
Prime (2): 28mm f2.5, 33mm (50mm) f2.5 Macro
Zoom (3): 4.9-52.5mm (28-300mm) f3.5-5.6 VC, 5.1-15.3mm (24-72mm) f2.5-4.4 VC, 24-85mm f3.5-5.5 * equivalent 35mm focal length in brackets

Pentax Q System

pentaxqpromo.jpg

Image courtesy of Pentax Ricoh Imaging Americas Corporation

Pentax’s fortunes had not been good since the industry embraced digital. In fact we’d go further than that and say that life after their SF-series AF-SLR film cameras was nothing but downhill. The once-proud company gave the world self-cocking shutter plus open-aperture TTL metering and in the guise of their Spotmatic range of cameras, set the Japanese market on fire. Over the many years prior to the new millennium, Pentax gave us some remarkable cameras, peaking with the amazing LX, not to mention dabbling in the rather larger 6×7 SLR camera as well.

The Pentax of the digital era is a different beast altogether. While their K-series DSLR cameras weren’t half bad, they hardly register a bump in the market, which explains how company ownership pinged and ponged around from Asahi to Hoya Corporation and now to Ricoh. It’s easy to see that along the way, the camera maker lost some of its zest for depth of design.

When Pentax decided to join the mirrorless crowd, they went looking for inspiration and found it in the Auto 110 camera system that they offered during the film days. Back in the days when ‘spy cameras’ were popular curiosities, Pentax designed the Auto 110 with full lens interchangeability, a small range of lenses to boot, a dedicated flash unit and even a motorised film winder. All of these were kitted out as a complete package and boxed together like a gift pack. The Auto 110 was truly pocketable but it eschewed the popular 35mm format. Instead it was designed around the 110 film cartridge, which made film loading a cinch but image quality could not possibly be as good as the 35mm medium.

And so in response to market leader Micro FourThirds, Pentax decided to sidestep the APS-C opposition and went to the reverse end of the market, offering the Q System that is based on the use of the tiny 1/2.3-inch sensor. What is interesting about this move is that a company had decided to use a smaller size sensor than the mainstream in exactly the manner that Olympus did when they launched the original FourThirds System back in 2003.

For the commensurate years thereafter, brickbats flew and every conceivable reason why FourThirds was bad was made known across the whole of the Internet. Still Olympus stuck to their guns but that obviously did not stop anyone from frothing and gnashing. Now we have Pentax doing the same and as we’ll see, so did Nikon. Yet this time the world said nothing. No brickbats. No frothing. No gnashing of teeth. Instead everyone went their way quietly. Was this because Olympus had already done enough wrongful suffering that today, nothing of this sort matters anymore?

Pentax’s 1/2.3-inch sensor produces a 5.5X crop factor. In comparison, FourThirds is ‘only’ 2X of the full 35mm film size. That makes the Q System 2.75X smaller than FourThirds (or Micro FourThirds). So if everyone thinks that the size of the FourThirds/Micro FourThirds sensor is unacceptable, you’d really have to wonder what they think of Pentax’s Q System then.

With currently two camera bodies in the Q system accompanying six lenses, it’s still early days but some signature quirkiness is evident. Notwithstanding strange design ideas, there are also equally strange lens names given. Unlike the conventional straightforward approach, Pentax chooses to identify their lenses by way of sequential numbers and names. This is in deference to the much easier-to-understand focal length identifier. Hence we have lenses like ‘Pentax 05 Toy Lens Telephoto,’ which will surely confound anyone unfamiliar with their nomenclature when Pentax 18mm f8 would have been far more logical and makes better sense. Unfortunately we don’t see a lot of redeeming factors with the Q System to salvage Pentax’s name. It’ll likely be just another system foundering somewhere between middle and outer space. The cameras and lenses are admittedly small but beyond that, there’s not a lot to recommend it. It’s unlikely there’ll be other third-party manufacturers flocking to make lenses to support the Q System. Similarly we don’t really see Pentax putting a lot of effort here as well.

Launch date Lens Mount Sensor type Sensor crop factor
June 2011 Pentax Q-mount 1/2.3”; 6.17 x 4.55mm 5.5x crop
Lens mount diameter Rear flange focal dist. Leading features
38.0mm 9.2mm Sensor-based IS, CDAF
Current models Other models
Q and Q10
Native lenses
Prime (4): Pentax 01 Standard Prime (9mm f1.9) [47mm], Pentax 03 Fisheye (3mm f5.6) [17.5mm], Pentax 04 Toy Lens Wide (6mm f7.1) [35mm], Pentax 05 Toy Lens Telephoto (18mm f8) [100mm]
Zoom (2): Pentax 02 Standard Zoom (5-15mm f2.8-4.5) [27.5-83mm], Pentax 06 Telephoto Zoom (15-45mm f2.8) [83-249mm]
* Equivalent 35mm film focal length in square brackets

Pentax K System

Image courtesy of Pentax Ricoh Imaging Americas Corporation

Pentax’s Q System isn’t the only direction the company has chosen to take. In one of the strangest moves for a camera manufacturer, they have a second line of mirrorless cameras – a feat no others have tried to do (so far) but we bet that this decision was spurred on by their new owners, Ricoh. Simply called the K System, these are DSLR cameras sans the reflex mirror.

The K System is actually not new. While it may not boast the same history as the Leica M, it has an illustrious enough background stretching back to the mid-Seventies. Back then Pentax had responded to Olympus’ OM-1 and OM-2 and began the K lens mount as an intended universal (and open) approach to the sharing of lenses. Inevitably it did work – many others goosestepped along with Pentax including Chinon, Miranda, Cosina and many more, including ironically, Ricoh. Arguably then, the K mount boasted the largest collection of interchangeable system lenses that could be used regardless of where the camera bodies came from.

Over the decades, the K mount has remained roughly the same in a physical sense but electrically, things have changed quite dramatically as cameras evolved from film SLR to film AF-SLR and then onwards to DSLR cameras. Today the K mount continues with Pentax’s K-series DSLR range but now we’re seeing yet another interpretation of the concept as Pentax launched the K-01 in February 2012. Called KAF2, the K-01’s lens mount is different again as it accommodates a new camera design that is void of its reflex mirror. Yet with the right adaptor, the use of earlier KAF lenses is possible.

So Pentax now has two lines of mirrorless system cameras in addition to its existing line of PDAF-based DSLRs. But because Pentax is now part of Ricoh, the parent company now has to do with three such product ranges if we include the latter’s GXR System. We’re not sure how this rationale works but it can’t be good for Ricoh’s big picture, which is why we suspect that at some point in the future, one of the three will be culled.

The mirrorless variant of the K System is of course devoid of PDAF. It uses CDAF just like any other mirrorless camera. It continues its preference for APS-C sensors and taking on the same DSLR form factor, it doesn’t appear to represent a big departure when it comes to size and weight. For that matter, you have nine lenses to choose from, which isn’t great and besides the offerings at this point are rather strange – no wide-angle primes or standard lenses but a hefty 459mm super-telephoto while the zoom lenses are basically all fast and bright, which won’t appeal to the average consumer. You have to wonder who makes the decisions for Pentax product designs.

Launch date Lens Mount Sensor type Sensor crop factor
February 2012 Pentax KAF2-mount APS-C; 23.6 x 18.8 mm 1.53x crop
Lens mount diameter Rear flange focal dist. Leading features
45.46mm Sensor-based IS, CDAF
Current models Other models
K-01
Native lenses
Prime (3): 40mm (61mm) f2.8 XS Pancake, 90mm (137mm) f2.8 Macro ED AW SR, 300mm (459mm) f4 ED (IF)
Zoom (3): 16-50mm (24-76mm) f2.8 ED AL (IF), 50-135mm (76-206mm) f2.8 ED (IF), 60-250mm (91-382mm) f4 ED (IF)
* Equivalent 35mm film focal length in square brackets
Latest Update

Despite being nominated as the Product Design winner at the 2012 Red Dot Design Awards, the K-01 was already discontinued by February 2013, hardly a year after its appearance. Touting direct access to all of its DSLR lenses (without needing any adaptors) via the retention of the same KA lens mount and having made a huge splash about its avant-garde Marc Newson design, the market will likely see it as a significant failure. Earlier talks about a replacement K-02 are likely not to materialise into anything substantial, meaning that this awkward mirrorless platform will simply end up amounting to nothing.

Nikon 1 System

Image courtesy of Nikon Corporation

Nikon’s late arrival in the mirrorless community was not only way overdue; it was also predictable. The company’s procrastination to join the fastest-growing market segment is a foreboding sign of how it sees this move as strategically difficult but necessary. It is not without pain that Nikon is here as it keeps looking over the shoulder at its precious APS-C DSLR products and what their new involvement may end up costing them. As we can also see, Nikon’s reluctance to compete on the level has resulted in a mirrorless system that is unusual in its makeup. You will notice that they have now abandoned their standard APS-C sensor format, which they made a lot of noise about not too long ago. Nikon and Canon both promoted its importance, suggesting that anything south of full-frame cannot be any smaller than APS-C. So what do we make of Nikon’s 1-inch sensor for its new 1 System? Are they being cynical or is there a hidden agenda somewhere? Or is it an admission that they were wrong with their APS-C claim?

At a crop factor of 2.7X, the Nikon 1 System’s chosen sensor format is smaller than FourThirds/Micro FourThirds. It might not be significantly smaller but it is nonetheless still smaller. More importantly there’s a lot of daylight separating its 1 System from its DX and FX format cameras and precisely that is how Nikon wants to position its product offerings in a bid to reduce if not avoid internal cannibalisation. The company’s single biggest worry is that their hugely lucrative APS-C cameras may be victimised by their move to join the mirrorless brigade. They knew very well that had they joined Sony in choosing the same size sensor for their mirrorless campaign, their DSLRs might suffer in the end. In other words Nikon knew that the world was gravitating towards smaller and lighter equipment and the shift was unavoidable no matter what DSLR cameras one might come up with these days.

No matter what, the Nikon 1 System was a very carefully thought out design. It has a surprisingly small sensor for a reason and we know that reason now. Yet they laboured hard to make it perform so that their fan base wouldn’t be disappointed. They might not expect overly big things from their 1 System but they certainly have to safeguard their reputation. To that end they have developed excellent image quality, very good autofocusing and a formidable set of specifications to boot. In a space of less than 1 ½ years, Nikon has amassed eight lenses with a strong leaning towards zooms in an attempt to bolster its practicality.

Nikon might not see their 1 System as catering towards pro user applications (for that, their DX/FX offerings remain their emphasis) but it likes to think that it is a nice complement for pros and serious users alike. The company is also at pains to shift the 1 System to appeal to those who may want far more out of their photography than the best that their Coolpix range can offer. Hence they view the mirrorless platform as nothing overly serious for them. And hence the concentration on lowly zoom lenses with modest brightness and slow optics.

The key to the 1 System, as Nikon puts it, is size married to very useful performance and to that end, they aren’t wrong. However the market is driven from the front by Micro FourThirds. Therefore it’s important to see where Olympus and Panasonic will take the mirrorless segment to. We believe that pro-grade aspirations are well within their sights and their aim will be to challenge the established DSLR segment eventually. If that is the goal, Nikon’s 1 System might be caught in a pincer action between its own APS-C DSLRs and Micro FourThirds pro system objectives, with nowhere fast to go. Time will tell whether they have hedged their bets a little too much.

Launch date Lens Mount Sensor type Sensor crop factor
October 2011 Nikon 1-mount 1” Nikon CX; 13.2 x 8.8mm 2.7x crop
Lens mount diameter Rear flange focal dist. Leading features
17.0mm Lens-based IS, hybrid PDAF/CDAF
Current models Other models
J1, V1, S1, J2 and V2
Native lenses
Prime (3): 1 Nikkor 10mm f2.8 (27mm), 1 Nikkor 18.5mm f1.8 (50mm), 1 Nikkor 32mm f1.2 (86mm)
Zoom (6): 1 Nikkor VR 6.7-13mm f3.5-5.6 (18-35mm), 1 Nikkor VR 10-30mm f3.5-5.6 (27-81mm), 1 Nikkor VR 10-100mm f4.5-5.6 (27-270mm), 1 Nikkor VR 10-100mm f4.5-5.6 PD-Zoom (27-270mm), 1 Nikkor 11-27.5mm f3.5-5.6 (29.7-74mm), 1 Nikkor VR 30-110mm f3.8-5.6 (80-300mm)
* Equivalent 35mm film focal length in brackets

Canon EOS M System

Image courtesy of Canon Corporation

If Nikon was dragging its feet, Canon was literally stalling for time for as long as they could get away with. But of course Canon had the same problem as Nikon except probably even more so since they are the outright market leaders. They sell more DSLR cameras and lenses than just about everybody else. Their marketing budgets throughout the world belittle everyone else’s efforts. And their visual presence is so predominant that everything solely depends on how well their DSLR cameras do on the sales front.

In very simple terms, Canon’s lifeline is its comprehensive range of successful APS-C DSLR cameras. There is virtually no market in the world where they do not do well. Therefore they have the most to lose with the oncoming threat of the mirrorless camera segment. The conundrum is easy to see – if they produce a competitive mirrorless model, they could well impact the competition as much as they will also adversely affect sales of their own DSLR cameras. The threat is so real that the company did not know how to handle their involvement one way or another and for three years, all the industry heard were rumours but nothing very concrete. In the meantime newer DSLR models were coming out steadily including the EOS 7D.

Being the very last to enter the mirrorless market however didn’t mean Canon came out with the best design or performance either. The EOS M is, in an understatement, a disappointment but it’s a start better than nothing. Still, for a company like Canon, much more was expected from them. On the other hand, knowing the predicament at the company, this may actually be understandable. Either way, Canon found themselves in a fix given that Micro FourThirds is doing increasingly better and the sales numbers were a good proof of that. It is obvious that the ‘M’ in EOS M is for Mirrorless. Three things are important to mention about Canon’s first mirrorless effort.

Firstly its autofocusing was not what people were expecting. Considering that their EOS DSLR cameras were excellent in this aspect, the M was punching way below its weight. And it doesn’t appear that firmware updates would address this issue. Secondly despite being the last to come out – and therefore having the most time to get things right – the M didn’t appear well conceived. Some suggest it was more like a souped-up PowerShot than an adaptation of the EOS 650D that many of its fans are at pains to illustrate – we couldn’t think of a worse insult. Thirdly the original two lenses that were launched with the EOS M remained the same two that are only offered today. In other words, since late 2012, there have not been any further additions.

None of these inspire confidence and to date, that’s how it looks for Canon. There are no statements from the company about its direction or roadmap. There is nothing concrete planned insofar as new lenses. The fact that no one knows exactly what to make of the EOS M is an understatement – the camera was underwhelming and the future is unclear. And it will remain unclear as long as Canon senses serious threats to its DSLR platform. It looks like the transition from DSLR to mirrorless for Canon isn’t going to happen smoothly. There is no doubt that eventually this will have to happen but for now, the company is in a state of self-denial. And until they work out how to bail themselves out safely and yet not seriously impact their balance sheet, their mirrorless efforts will simply pale into insignificance. It is perhaps unfortunate but the EOS M is reflective of the state that Canon has found itself in.

Launch date Lens Mount Sensor type Sensor crop factor
October 2012 Canon EF-M mount APS-C; 22.3 x 14.9mm 1.6x crop
Lens mount diameter Rear flange focal dist. Leading features
58.0mm 18.0mm Lens-based IS, hybrid PDAF/CDAF
Current models Other models
J1, V1, S1, J2 and V2
Native lenses
Prime (1): EF-M 22mm f2 Pancake STM
Zoom (1): EF-M 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 IS STM

Mirrorless emerging sales increasingly dominant since 2009

The early days of the mirrorless market segment were of course mired by criticisms mainly focusing on two issues. Because there weren’t as many lenses or accessories available then, mirrorless systems were lacking in depth but over time, this became less of a problem particularly with Micro FourThirds, which has grown far more impressively than others. The second issue was its initially uncompetitive performance brought on principally by autofocusing issues but now that CD-AF is increasingly maturing, this is no longer as big a problem.

2011 Camera Sales Figures Indicating Increasing Mirrorless Camera Domination (dark blue) Image courtesy of Camera & Imaging Products Association (CIPA)

Sales of mirrorless cameras has also shown public acceptance in many cases. Of all the markets in the world, Japan leads with impressive numbers that indicate clearly that sales of mirrorless cameras have now begun to outstrip DSLRs. Of the mirrorless cameras, Olympus leads but they are closely followed by Nikon’s 1-series as well as a brace of Sony and Panasonic cameras. Overall Micro FourThirds is the undisputed sales leader. For the remainder of the world markets, mirrorless sales may not be quite so outstanding but this sluggishness may be explained more by repressed economics than wide acceptance.

Across the Internet are numerous testimonies of DSLR owners changing camps to mirrorless and they do so in one of two common ways – they either buy into mirrorless as an alternative to the DSLR camera they own so that they have a choice depending on the situation or they make a complete changeover. Even in the former case, many inevitably sell off their DSLR kits after realising the distinct advantages to be had in physical terms while they come to terms with the almost insignificant differences in image quality. Of the manufacturers that suffer the most in either regard, Nikon and Canon are the most afflicted and this is most evident in so many of these cases that can be freely gleaned on the Internet.

Mirrorless camera competitiveness against DSLR

The ability of mirrorless cameras to compete against the DSLR must be put into perspective. While the DSLR camera concept has had a run of about twenty years, the mirrorless idea had come in from the cold and was just getting started in 2009. At the same time, don’t forget that DSLR is a digital carryover of the film-based SLR design and enjoys the benefit of similar lenses. In fact for Nikon and Canon, many of their legacy lenses were reusable although they were essentially designed for film rather than digital use.

Canon was the earliest of the Big Five to pounce on the opportunity to lead the DSLR market. Nikon came in a little behind despite Kodak showing the market what they could do with their D1 not too long ago. Over the years, Nikon was playing catch-up but nonetheless, the two formed an irrepressible juggernaut that led the market into the new millennium and beyond. Everywhere we looked it was either Canon or Nikon that was capturing the imagination of every wannabe and also every pro photographer throughout. Everyone else in the industry was basically playing second fiddle.

The onslaught mirrorless format has every chance of changing all that but of course it didn’t appear anywhere near that at the beginning. The fact was that unlike DSLRs, mirrorless cameras have had no precedence to build on. And so when the idea was first espoused in 2008, it was controversial. While the market was excited by the promise of smaller cameras with ‘big camera performance,’ the industry was largely holding back, not sure if the investment was going to pay off.

After all this movement was led by Olympus and supported by Panasonic. It was Olympus, the people who brought the essentially unsuccessful FourThirds to bear. If it were Nikon (or Canon), that would have been a completely different matter with possibly a dramatically different outcome. The industry was weary of Olympus being successful with what is largely a seismic shift of direction and if FourThirds was any indication, no one was holding his breath.

For Olympus, the stage was set for them to make right something that had gone so spectacularly wrong all these years. FourThirds was supposed to promote compactness. The company felt it was right but the technological delays meant they could not prove this point in all the years that they tried so hard. In the meantime the criticisms were getting harder to handle especially when the market dogma was strictly the domain of the leaders. In other words so long as everyone was speaking the language defined by Nikon and/or Canon, there would not be any respite for Olympus.

Still the company did a few things right even if FourThirds in general was facing non-stop flak. They produced the best out-of-camera JPEG colours regardless of format. And their lenses were consistently outstanding. From basic kits to the highest-quality uncompromising pro-grade lenses, Olympus got it right every time. Thirdly they continued to be innovative despite being heavily criticised for their poor handling of high-sensitivity noise issues. Features like in-body sensor cleaning, articulating LCD panel, pixel mapping, Art filters were all scoffed at by the industry but the market proved they deserved to be popular. Inevitably virtually everyone adopted these features with many calling them ‘their own’ despite the obvious credit going to Olympus. The early years from 2009 to 2011 were all part of the development period for Olympus.

Unlike any other company in the industry, Olympus’ problems were unique and seriously debilitating for they threaten to consume the entire organisation right from the outset. Notwithstanding the financial dire straits that were beginning to unveil themselves, the company’s FourThirds venture had begun to look more like a millstone. Everything in the DSLR area of their business was turning sour but they could not just jettison it – its user base could not be ignored without serious repercussions that could sink the company once and for all. So while Olympus had to move its mirrorless platform forward, they also had to do double-duty to sustain their existing FourThirds customers. At the same time they also had to invest effort in promoting the mirrorless idea across to the market, preparing them for a future that they had decided to tread. Combining the whole lot was an unenviable challenge not just for any camera company but a small one like Olympus.

The technology challenges were seriously uphill as well. The mirrorless platform faced enormous issues to do with autofocusing as well as the task of building a complete system right from scratch with no hope of borrowing lenses from anywhere else. Everything had to begin from square one – from developing a new autofocusing capability to designing new lenses and system accessories. Very little could be brought in from theirs or Panasonic’s DSLR-based resources without needing redevelopment.

And while they were at it, Olympus especially was under pressure not to make the same mistakes all over again. With FourThirds hanging over their heads, reminding them what went wrong, company engineers were at great pains to try to do things differently while they retained their inherent strengths. They knew that if they could straighten out their glaring past issues, their optical prowess and undisputed talent at colour reproduction could be put to excellent use this time.

Mirrorless camera development was of course not a matter for only Olympus (and Panasonic) to sort out. A few others were in it deep as well – companies like Sony, Samsung and Fujifilm, being the early adopters after Micro FourThirds were equally involved working on their own. There were plenty of issues to resolve and chief amongst them was autofocusing. Without PDAF (Phase-Detection Autofocus), reliance was directed to CDAF (Contrast-Detection Autofocus).

Although not new, CDAF was a lot less mature – not as much development work was given to this, which is why it was relatively uncompetitive. It wasn’t that PDAF was superior in every way (it surely isn’t); it was that industry had paid far more attention at it that it became the preferred standard. From that point onwards, the design of the DSLR was shaped by the necessity of incorporating PDAF. This fact was established long before the digital age arrived. Therefore for mirrorless development to proceed, work was cut out for everyone including Olympus to get its autofocusing performance up to scratch.

The DSLR concept benefitted from its film SLR genesis. That would be many decades of development and evolutionary improvements. PDAF was similarly so – starting from Minolta’s Maxxum 7000, the industry’s first commercially successful AF-SLR during the Eighties, it became the de facto standard. Both combined to become an imposing psychological barrier for mirrorless to overcome. What made this even harder for Olympus was that they saw and regarded Micro FourThirds not as an alternative to the DSLR but as the goal to replace the latter. Panasonic harbours more or less the same intention but it might be different for the others. Sony’s involvement in DSLR development appears to continue in much the same vein as Nikon and Canon. Samsung looks like tapering off. Pentax seems to be hedging their bets by going both ways and waiting to see where the market is headed.

Because of Olympus’ single-minded approach to mirrorless and Micro FourThirds, the pressure to match DSLR performance is higher than ever – certainly far more so than Nikon and Canon would ever give it credit for. Unlike Olympus, these two companies not only have far deeper pockets but their vested interests aren’t in mirrorless and so they depend less on this new format to pay their salaries.

go to next instalment in this series a history of Micro Four Thirds part III - the Micro FourThirds system

photo/kl/mft_history2.txt · Last modified: 2013/10/15 21:27 by gary1