Story and Photography by Paul Burwell
You can’t go too far in today’s world of photography without hearing something about new “mirrorless” cameras. With all the hoopla, you’d think this was a recent ground-breaking invention finally released to the masses. The truth is a bit different, but there’s a lot to like about these new mirrorless digital cameras.
In truth, mirrorless cameras have been around since photography was invented and their digital counterparts showed up with the advent of digital photography. The point-and-shoot that got you started in digital photography? That’s a mirrorless camera. The camera built into your smart phone? That’s a mirrorless camera. What’s new with mirrorless cameras is they’re now available with interchangeable lenses, and that’s what’s moving these cameras into the hands of serious amateur and professional photographers.
It wasn’t until the SLR (Single Lens Reflex) cameras came along that mirrors became part of the picture at all. In fact, it’s the mirror of an SLR or digital SLR (DSLR) that provides the reflex part of the name. In these types of cameras, the light from the scene you’re viewing through the viewfinder of the camera gets to you through this convoluted path:
1) The light comes into your lens, through the lens and into the camera’s mirror box.
2) The light bounces off a mirror placed at an angle to the upper portion of the camera in front of the viewfinder.
3) Once the light is in the viewfinder, it bounces around something called either a pentamirror or pentaprism until the light finally exits the viewfinder and enters the pupil of your eye.
The mirror helping the light get into the viewfinder just happens to be in the way of the sensor (and before there were sensors, the film). So to make an image on a traditional DSLR type of camera, the mirror has to move up out of the way so that the light can get from the lens and onto the sensor at the back of the camera body. And it’s this moving of the mirror up and down that makes most of the noise you hear from your DSLR camera when you make images.
On a mirrorless camera, not surprisingly, the mirror is absent, and the light travels straight through the lens and onto the sensor. On mirrorless cameras, what you usually see through the viewfinder is a digitized (converted from analog to digital) version of the light coming through the lens. So these cameras are said to have electronic viewfinders while the traditional DSLR type of cameras have optical (non-digitized) viewfinders.
The electronic viewfinder of the mirrorless cameras has its advantages. The display you see in the viewfinder is computer generated and the camera can overlay extra information on top of the image to help you make better images. The camera can remind you of the modes you’ve selected, show you your current settings and even overlay a live histogram over top of the image to help you make a better exposure.
I teach a lot of photography classes each year. I’m recommending more and more, for the students who ask for camera purchase advice, to start off with a modern digital mirrorless camera that takes interchangeable lenses. These cameras offer all the regular features of the DSLRs that have been around for a while, but also have extra features that are invaluable to someone wanting to learn photography. Having a live histogram that instantly tells you if your picture is going to be well exposed (assuming you know how to read a histogram) is invaluable. Additionally, most of these mirrorless cameras can show you in real time what the differences to exposure and white balance will actually do to the resulting image.
Probably the biggest reason these new interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras are reaching a critical level of popularity is because of their size and weight. Where traditional digital SLR cameras generally have a larger, heavier form-factor, the popular mirrorless options tend to be a lot easier to carry around and use throughout a day without making your shoulders and back sore.
Prior to working on this article, and since the 1970s, I’ve been primarily using SLR and DSLR types of cameras. And so to fully immerse myself into the world of mirrorless cameras I obtained mirrorless cameras from four different manufacturers. I tested the Olympus OM-D E-M1, Fujifilm X-T1, Panasonic DMC-GH4 and Samsung NX1, each with a variety of different lenses.
From the start of my comparison of these four different cameras, I was very impressed. All of these cameras are engineered exceptionally well and are ready for serious and even professional use. As with all cameras, they have their different quirks and benefits, but I would use them all for professional photography.
To read the comparison’s Paul discovered please purchase the Summer/Fall 2015 issue, or to never miss an issue of OPC please subscribe today!