They are small and light, have amazing image quality, fast autofocus, good weatherproofing, increasing range of lenses and don’t break the bank. If that sounds like the ideal recipe for a professional camera, then it’s surely time for every working pro to take a serious look at mirrorless wonder cameras. While there have been a glut of expensive new CSC – like the Leica SL at over £5000 body only or £2500 for a Sony A7R Mark II, they are a bit of a major investment for a pro or keen enthusiast who fancies dipping a toe in the mirrorless water. There are alternatives that may not be as new, but can work amazingly well.
While mirrorless cameras, or Compact System Cameras (CSC) as some call them, have been big hits with enthusiast amateurs, they have also been catching on slowly with some pros, too. Especially since many of the manufacturers, such as Olympus and Fuji, have upped their game with regard to what pro users want and have developed cameras and new lenses to satisfy that demand. But is it all hype, or are mirrorless cameras really up to the job of being suitable for a working pro? I took three high-end models from Olympus, Fuji and Panasonic to find out. The Olympus and Panasonic have already been updates so are available at a cut price now. One, I own, is the Fuji X-Pro1 that is still current but on sale for a snip.
Of course, all three are smaller and more compact than a regular DSLR. That’s mainly because there is no mirror and prism inside, or room for the mirror to swing out of the way every time the shutter is triggered. This means the cameras can be more compact and also much quieter, too. Ideal for weddings or photojournalism. And with no moving mirror to get in the way, the frame rate and autofocus can be blazing fast in certain circumatsances. It also means the lenses can be smaller, and certainly for wideangles can offer a less compromised design than lenses for DSLRs where there has to be quite a large distance from the rear element to the sensor where the mirror box is. So far so good.
However, this also means there is no through-the-lens viewing like you’d get in a DSLR and remains the single biggest issue for pros in using these cameras. On lower-end CSC, viewing is by the rear screen only. And holding a camera at arms’ length to see a screen is not an ideal way to give the camera stability it needs – especially at lower shutter speeds. However, these three high-spec cameras all have eyepiece viewfinders so you can cradle the camera against your face in a more conventional style. On the Panasonic GX7, the rear screen articulates so you can use it at high or low level and the eyepiece also moves so you can hold the camera lower, too. That’s great to encourage you to go for lower or even higher viewpoints. The Olympus OM-D EM-1 also has an articulating screen, too, but fixed eyepiece. The Fuji’s screen is fixed, but it does have another trick up its sleeve in that there is an optical eyepiece that transforms into an electronic viewfinder with the flick of a lever. So using the optical finder, it’s very much like a rangefinder of old as you can see around the frame outside the image area. But flick it to EVF and you are looking at a screen image, which can also show the shot you’ve taken as soon as you’ve shot it. So you don’t have to remove your eyes from the finder.
All these electronic viewfinders are remarkably good once you get used to them. They can even be used to gauge your exposure before you hit the shutter button, too. But they can be problematic if you use them this way, if you are using flash manually, for example in a studio. As you set your aperture and sync speed manually, the screen is virtually black as the modelling lights are comparatively much dimmer than the flash. You can alter this, but it’s an added bit of complexity that means you diving into menus and custom settings.
The other, and far more troublesome use, is if you are trying to capture fast action. The screens on all three cameras have a small lag when you put them to your eye which DSLRs obviously don’t. If you are shooting a model on location or a wedding line-up, for example, it’s not much of an issue. Although it does mean some candid moments can be missed if you’re not ready. But for shooting something fast-moving like sport, it feels very slow.
In fact, the only camera of these three that’s of any use for fast action is the Olympus with its blazing fast 10fps frame rate and super-speedy autofocus. But it’s in the viewfinder that it lets itself down. Shooting fast sports like motocross, the camera is slow to activate its EVF then slow to lock on focus. Worse still, shooting continuously it is slow to react when you hit the shutter button then annoyingly shows you one of the pics you’ve shot in the screen while you are still shooting. Even an Olympus tech advisor couldn’t stop it doing it – as its predecessor E-M5 also did when I tested it. Perhaps a firmware upgrade might sort it in future. The result was a much lower hit rate of sharp shots, the peak of the action missed and even the subject half cropped out of the shot as the EVF kicked in while the shutter was still held down. So it is possible to get some good sports shots with an advanced, fast CSC like the Olympus, but it’s far more difficult than with a DSLR. Despite fast AF and frame rates, action is definitely the CSC’s achilles’ heel and is still the realm of the DSLR.
In fact, it is at the extreme ends of the photo spectrum that the CSCs still do fall down. As I’ve mentioned, action photography for example. Not only is an EVF not suitable, there simply is not the range of lenses for DSLRs like Canon or Nikon. Although the crop factory means CSC lenses can be significantly smaller, there are still no equivalents of the 300mm f/2.8 or 400mm f/2.8 telephotos yet – the staple of most pro sports photographers. Most of the lenses available for CSCs are zooms with modest maximum apertures, which means higher ISOs are required to get high shutter speeds. This can be OK if your client can live with the degradation of image quality. But it means there is no way of using very wide apertures to get a shallow depth of field effect so beloved of sports shooters. Sports pros also like to use remote cameras, too, firing them wirelessly via Pocket Wizard radios. Again, this is not an area where CSCs can compete as the cables and technology hasn’t caught up. Same story for advanced wireless TTL off-camera flash using Pocket Wizard TTL technology, for example. Wifi apps just don’t cut it for serious work.
Unavailablity of tilt and shift lenses also means that CSCs aren’t ideal for very technical photographers who want to control depth of field and converging verticals using lens movements. That’s mainly architectural photographers or people who shoot products in the studio. And it also means advanced landscape shooters who use lens tilt to not only get the right depth of field but ensure their lenses are working in the sweet spot of apertures for maximum image quality rather than risking diffraction at narrower apertures. CSCs may be ideal for sticking in a backpack and hiking for great landscape shots, but if the images aren’t of optimum quality then to some, they are of little use.
Of course, having smaller than full frame sensors means that overall image quality can’t match up to top-end pro cameras like the Nikon D810 or Canon EOS 5D MkIII, especially when the light levels drop. The CSCs are remarkably good, but not up to the level of performance of the best DSLRs.
So if CNC’s aren’t ideal for sports, architecture, products, studio, high ISO or ultimate image quality, what are they good at? Just about everything else!
Their huge boon is their compact size, which brings in a huge raft of benefits. The first is that you can carry a camera and whole range of lenses in a much smaller bag. This makes you far less conspicuous than digging out a huge DLSR with mammoth lens on it. People just react differently to small cameras and are far less threatened by them. For street photography and candids, they work well. And your osteopath will thank you, too.
In use, the CSC’s smaller size means that they are not really as ergonomically friendly as pro DSLRs which tend to have a button for all major variables, before you have to dive into the menus. However, the three cameras I tested are all much more pro-friendly than consumer-level CSCs many may have tried. That’s especially true of the Olympus which has been designed around the needs of the pro with a lockable PASM function dial along with two dials, operated by your thumb and forefinger, to change many parameters like shutter speed or aperture. And if you add on the optional battery grip, it not only gives more battery power but a really nice vertical grip and matching pair of adjustment wheels, too.
Like the Fuji, the Olympus doesn’t have a dedicated ISO button but this can be programmed into one of the Function buttons. Lack of a dedicated and clearly-labelled ISO button is still a niggle, though. But all three cameras are logical to use, although a few quirks may have you heading for the owner’s manual at first.
The smaller size is also down to a smaller sensor. In the case of the Olympus and Panasonic, this is a Micro Four Thirds sensor which is a quarter the area of a full-frame DSLR. So the crop factor is 2x – in other words a 25mm lens on these MFT cameras works like a “standard” 50mm on full frame. The Fuji is a larger body and lens, as it uses a larger APS-C size sensor which means a 35mm is equivalent of “standard”.
The crop sensor means that depth of field is different between MFT, APS-C and full frame sizes, too, as to get the same angle of view you would use different lenses. Smaller sensors aren’t usually great for shallow depth of field, but Olympus and Fuji have solved this with an ever-increasing range of fast prime lenses. They are small and sharp, and deliver a lovely bokeh that many modern available-light photographers desire. Of course, with the Panasonic being a MFT mount you can also use Olympus lenses on it with the benefit of Panasonic’s in-camera image stabilisation meaning every lens is stabilised.
Smaller sensors tend not to compare well with larger sensors when it comes to performance at high ISO levels, and in this case all three CSCs do fall short of full-frame cameras – but not by much.
In my test of different ISO levels in a night scene, noise was controlled very well. The Olympus was neck and neck with the Panasonic at lower ISO but was much better at higher ISOs. But neither were a match for the Fuji which was in a class of its own, and easily rivalled the very best APS-C DSLRs for noise.
And in a studio set-up at base ISO, the Fuji was incredible, too. It actually wasn’t that far behind a Nikon D810 which is truly amazing. The Olympus also fared well, potentially because both cameras have no high-pass, anti-aliasing filter. This gives very sharp images at the risk of false colours, but we found little evidence of that. There was some purple fringing on the Fuji when used with excessive backlighting, but it was corrected in post processing.
For the majority of pro photography, a CSC can make sense. Although not exactly cheap, a whole system of a handful of carefully chosen prime lenses and a zoom would end up significantly cheaper and far lighter than a DSLR set up. The image quality is surprisingly good, especially if you keep to low or medium ISO settings and, if you are using a zoom, middle apertures. So aimed with a basic off-camera flash kit of some small flashguns and a radio remote, a CSC can be a fantastic tool – as is proven by some top pros using them on shoots regularly.
If you undertand their limitations and that they are not direct replacements for DSLRs in every circumstance, then there is a lot to like about high-end CSC cameras, even not the latest cutting-edge ones. They are not expensive, there’s an increasing number of lenses available and they are small, light and unthreatening. Add in features like Wifi connectivity and HD video and they can be ideal cameras for a pro, maybe in addition to a DSLR set-up rather than totally replacing it.
But that depends on what you’re shooting. If you are a travel or reportage photographer, even a natural light portrait photographer or use off-camera flash for lots of light, then perhaps a CSC could be your sole kit. They’re great for candids, second shooters at weddings and just having with you at all times.
Of course, the Fuji is the biggest and heaviest, with its retro Leica-like look and rangefinder handling. And it has the best image quality. The Olympus is the most like a DSLR, with nicer ergonomics, faster speed and a wider choice of very nice Zuiko lenses. And the Panasonic is the smallest and most like a compact, although one that packs a mighty punch with great image quality – at a much lower price. And you can fit any MFT lenses to it.
If you’ve waited for years for digital compacts to really get close to DSLR levels of quality before buying a second camera, then that time is here.
Street price: £419 with 14-42mm lens
Sensor: 16MP Live MOS sensor
Controls: Front and rear control dials
Viewfinder: Flip-up, 1024 x 768 pixel (2.3M dot equivalent) electronic viewfinder
Screen: 3-inch tilting LCD
Video: 1080HD at 60p/60i/24p
Connectivity: Built-in Wifi
Stabilisation: Built in
Shutter speeds: 1/8000 second max shutter speed, 1/320th flash sync
Flash: Built-in, pop-up
Body weight: 402g
Olympus OM-D E-M1
Price: £970 with 12-50mm lens
Sensor: 16MP MOS Four Thirds with no low-pass filter
Controls: Twin control dials front and rear with ‘2×2’ dual-mode option
Viewfinder: 2.36M-dot LCD, 0.74x magnification, eye sensor
Screen: 1.04M-dot 3″ LCD touchscreen display – tilts 80° upwards and 50° downwards
Video: 1080HD at 60p/ 720HD at 60 and 30p
Connectivity: Built-in Wifi
Stabilisation: Built in
Shutter speeds: 1/4000 sec max shutter speed, 1/250 sec flash sync
Flash: Separate, fits on hotshoe
Body weight: 425g
Fuji X-Pro 1
Price: £600 with 18 and 27mm lens
Sensor: 16MP APS-C X-Trans CMOS sensor with no low-pass filter
Controls: Twin control dials, top and rear
Viewfinder: Hybrid with focal length-based magnification in optical mode
Screen: 3.0 inch 1,230,000 dot RGBW rear LCD
Video: 1080HD at 24p
Shutter speeds: 1/4000sec max shutter speed, 1/250sec flash sync
Body weight: 450g