Everybody’s very excited about the Canon EOS M, the ubiquitous Japanese camera maker’s entry into the compact system camera, or mirrorless, market.
Most amateurs who lug around a DSLR do so for reasons of quality. Now, thanks to the Sony NEX range and other mirrorless cameras that sport an APS-C sized sensor, they believe they can have that quality without the burden of an SLR with big lenses. Which is true, to an extent. The extent of your focal length.
Have you ever noticed how these magical cameras are launched with either short-range kit zooms or pancake prime lenses? There’s a reason for that. Physics.
Nixing the mirror means you can have a smaller and lighter camera. But if you want DSLR quality you’re still gonna have to project a good image onto the entire sensor. A shorter flangeback distance can give you a smaller lens in the short to medium focal lengths, but sooner or later you’re gonna want something longer. That’s when you have to put something like the giant Sony 55-210mm e-mount on your tiny NEX-7 body. Suddenly your kit isn’t looking much smaller than that Nikon D5100 which costs less than half the price! Look at it. It’s HUGE. That’s a £280 lens with a variable aperture. Imagine how big a fixed f2.8 lens would be.
That’s why you never see a telephoto lens on the marketing images for a mirrorless camera. It’s all pretty pancakes and standard zooms, most of which fail to maintain quality and sharpness across the entire frame. With quality almost always comes size and weight. That’s why Sony’s 24mm e-mount Zeiss lens, at £850, is bigger and heavier than the 18-55 e-mount kit zoom. It’s a great lens, but Sony will struggle to produce that level of quality at longer focal lengths without making the lens unwieldy on the tiny NEX cameras. (Notice how they have bulked up the design for the F3?)
If you want a genuinely smaller kit (and the exception might be Leica but who can afford it), you need to bite the bullet and embrace a smaller sensor. Olympus and Panasonic benefit from smaller lenses due to the smaller and squarer micro four thirds sensor. However, even at that size the telephoto zooms aren’t small.
Nikon have come up with a truly portable system in the Nikon 1 – it’s 30-110mm zoom gives an 81-297mm equivalent reach in a lens that is genuniely tiny and feather light. The sacrifice is megapixels and high ISO performance – a sacrifice most of us have been unwilling to make, even if it comes with the added benefit of blazing speed (60fps). The main problem with this system is it’s pitched at a new market, and Nikon don’t seem interested in making pro-grade wide-aperture glass, even though it could be genuinely compact.
My point is you can’t really have your cake and eat it too. Dropping the mirror will get you a smaller camera, but the size and weight of your kit will be very much about the lenses. If you’re trading down from a full-frame SLR, the benefits might be clearer due to crop-sensor lenses being so much smaller. However, if you want quality glass and a camera body that can handle it, keep the humble SLR in mind. You might even save some money in the process.
Personally, I want smaller. Genuinely smaller. And yes, I’m willing to sacrifice some quality to get it. Let’s see whether Photokina has anything to tempt me.