Online Photography Courses: Mirror-less on the Wall


Magic mirrors which could see the future may exist only in fairy tales, but if they existed today, a question all D-SLR users and serio...

Magic mirrors which could see the future may exist only in fairy tales, but if they existed today, a question all D-SLR users and serious photographers would like to ask is: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, what is the future of the D-SLR?” The SLR camera (Picture 1) – which was the workhorse of many serious photographers, and which ruled supreme for about half a century – seems to be getting some competition from a new technology that does not use a mirror. We will see in this article how this new technology is different from D-SLRs, what are its pros and cons compared to D-SLRs, the present market scenario, future trends, and some points that you should keep in mind if you want to invest your hard-earned money in this technology.

As one pundit said, the first step in acquiring knowledge is to use the right nomenclature. Unfortunately, the “mirror-less” cameras are being called by a number of names. Here is a list:
  • Interchangeable Lens Cameras (ILC)
  • Interchangeable Lens Compact Cameras (ILCC)
  • Compact System Camera (CSC)
  • Mirror-less Interchangeable Lens Cameras
  • Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens (EVIL) Camera
  • Digital Single Mirror-less (DSLM -used by Panasonic)
 And so on! While all are correct, I will be using the name CSC as this is the most popular. First let us see how a CSC operates (Picture 2). Compared to the complexity of a D-SLR, a CSC is very simple in construction. There is no mirror or prism and the light simply passes through the lens and falls on the sensor. There is no optical viewfinder. The image that is recorded by the sensor is shown on the LCD monitor on the back of the camera and this will serve as a viewfinder. If you don’t like holding the camera at arm’s length when photographing (like me), many CSCs also allow you to optionally attach an electronic (eye level) viewfinder (also called an EVF). Most high-end CSCs, however, come with an EVF built-in, apart from the usual LCD monitor. You have seen that the shutter in a D-SLR is normally kept closed. However, in a CSC the image that is shown before capture is read from the sensor. So, if the shutter is closed blocking the light, no image can be seen. CSCs employ an interesting trick to overcome this. The shutter in a CSC is kept normally open (hence it is shown as a dotted line in Picture 2). When you press the shutter release, the shutter closes and opens again restoring the view. This, plus the electronics in the camera, helps capture an image.

 From the description of a CSC, you might have noticed the strong resemblance of a CSC to a digital P&S camera. Alternatively, you can look at a CSC as a P&S camera with interchangeable lenses and a bigger sensor! Note that due to the absence of a mirror, the distance between the lens mount (also called “flange”, Picture 3) and the sensor, called the flange distance (Picture 2), is considerably less than in a D-SLR (Picture 1). A short flange distance improves the optical performance of a lens. It also has some other useful ramifications as you will see soon.

Now that you have seen the main characteristics of a CSC, you might be interested in knowing the commercial offerings from various manufacturers. Table 1 summarizes this.

Note (1): Focal lengths mentioned are equivalent to full frame. This has been done to make comparisons easy.
Note (2): The Micro Four Thirds Format, also called M4/3 and abbreviated as MFT, traces its origins to the short lived 4/3 format. The MFT format, in fact, kicked off the CSC revolution. It is the only “open” CSC format. “Open” means that the lens mount, interface details, etc. are available, enabling any manufacturer to develop camera bodies and lenses that are fully compatible and interchangeable. This also allows manufacturers to avoid the costly and risky reverse engineering process. The result is that you get products from different manufacturers that integrate well and function smoothly together.
At present, Olympus and Panasonic produce MFT camera bodies and lenses. Kodak might follow. MFT compatible lenses are also produced by Sigma, Tamron and Tokina. Apart from these, highly reputed manufacturers such as Leica and Voigtlander also produce premium grade lenses for MFT. The latter produces three of the fastest lenses available, with apertures of f/0.95. Another venerable lens manufacturer, Schneider, will also join the fray in 2014. Lenses up to 600mm focal length (after taking the 2X crop factor into account) are available, thus giving great reach in a very compact package.

Another unique feature of MFT systems, as the name itself indicates, is that the aspect ratio of the image is 4:3 rather than 3:2. The latter is used by all D-SLRs and other CSCs. The logic
behind this is that this aspect ratio is closer to the standard print sizes like 8”X10”, 10”X12”, etc. This means that you don’t waste any pixels by cropping. Another unique feature of MFT bodies (though not all) is the In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS) feature that gives you image stabilization with any lens.

Lens Adapters: You have seen that CSCs have comparatively small flange distances (Pictures 2 and 3). Due to this it is possible to mount D-SLR (and even your older film SLR lenses) on CSCs
with a lens adapter (Picture 4), which is nothing but a hollow tube. One side mounts on the CSC and on the other side you can install a lens from a different system. Adapters are available
in two types – dedicated and non-dedicated.

Dedicated Adapters: These are supplied by the respective CSC camera manufacturers. These allow you to use D-SLR lenses on your CSC. For example, Nikon D-SLR lenses can be used on Nikon System 1 CSCs with a dedicated adapter supplied by Nikon. Dedicated adapters are expensive but support most of the automation, including autofocus, full auto exposure (all modes), image stabilization (if the lens supports it), etc. These usually have some electronics built into them. Non-dedicated Adapters: These are much simpler than dedicated adapters and hence cost very little. For example, you can have a Nikon F mount to MFT adapter, which allows the use all of Nikon F mount lenses on your MFT mount CSC. Likewise you can have a Canon FD to E Mount
adapter that allows you to mount Canon FD lenses on a Sony NEX CSC. Note that these adapters are not interchangeable. You need to buy a separate one for every combination – one each for the given CSC and mount. Hence, you need to specify both ends of an adapter when you buy one. Remember though that they will have some limitations. First, only manual focus is supported, even if the lens is autofocus type. Fortunately, most CSCs provide some focussing aides (like a magnifier or focus peaking) to help nail down the focus.

However, interestingly, even if the lens was designed for the earlier non-auto exposure SLRs, you can still get automatic exposure (usually only aperture priority) even when you use non-dedicated adapters. Metered manual exposure mode will also work. You also need to stop down the aperture when you use these adapters but this will not result in dark viewfinder images since the image gets boosted, as you will read shortly. Now, here is the bonus - your old lenses will get stabilized if your CSC has the IBIS feature!

Once again, due to the smaller sensor and lesser flange distance, adapters are available that give you tilt or shift (or even both) functions (Picture 5). Thus, you can get a feature that would cost you a huge amount otherwise (if you buy a dedicated tilt/shift lens). So, you can put all those old, beautifully made lenses that were gathering dust to good use with these inexpensive adapters. You can even buy some old lenses at throw away prices. As a bonus, you will get features like exposure automation, stabilization and tilt/shift features that were not originally available with your old lens. Now, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t teach your old dog (lens) some new tricks!

So far what you have read just about covers all the salient aspects of a CSC; but how does a CSC compare with a D-SLR? Let us look at this aspect in detail, feature by feature.

Viewfinder: The way you view the image to be captured is of course the most fundamental difference between a D-SLR and a CSC. Instead of the image formed with the help of optics (mirror
and prism), the image you see (either on the monitor or an EVF) in a CSC is generated electronically. Hence, it lacks the crispness of a D-SLR viewfinder image due to the lesser resolution.
However, being electronic, the signal can be boosted, and hence it will give you a better image in low light, though it may be bit noisy (grainy). There is also what is called a “lag”. That is, if you quickly pan or move the camera, the image in a CSC may take a fraction to update itself. This is due to the delay in the processing of signals. This may not be perceptible in all but the most extreme cases, as advances in electronics have reduced this to a great extent. Further improvements can be expected too.

 One great advantage of an electronic image is that you can overlay a great amount of information. A useful result of this is the live histogram (possible in some D-SLRs but only in Live View
mode). With this you can see the histogram (Picture 6) before capturing and give any needed exposure compensation rather than guessing it after you take the picture.

Battery life: Since the LCD monitor (or the EVF) has to be on to view the scene (even before you take a picture), the battery consumption is higher with CSCs. This, along with lesser capacity batteries that are needed to keep the overall size small, means that the battery life is lower than in a typical D-SLR – something like 400 images for a CSC vs. 900 for a D-SLR (per charge). If you are a heavy shooter and want to use a CSC, it is better you keep a charged spare battery on hand.

Size, weight and sound: Due to the mirror, its mechanism, prism, etc., D-SLRs are large and heavy (Picture 7). They also make a fairly loud noise due to the mirror slap. Hence, they are not very discreet. If your photography demands stealth, CSCs are the way to go since they are very small and quiet! There is a caveat here though. Some of the CSCs use the same APS-C sized sensors as D-SLRs, and these lenses, though smaller than D-SLR lenses, are still large. So, if you are going for a CSC for its compact size, make sure you check the total size (camera + lens + EVF if you need one) before you take a decision.

Lens choice: D-SLRs evolved from 35mm film SLRs and (most) lenses originally made for 35mm SLRs could be used straight away on D-SLRs (from the same manufacturer, of course). Most serious photographers would have made a heavy investment in lenses and thus this feature came in very handy and preserved the investment to a great extent. Lenses designed specifically to support the D-SLRs which have the smaller APS-C sensor have been introduced, but surprisingly, most of them are zoom lenses. Today, there are very few normal, and virtually no wide-angle prime (fixed focal length), lenses specifically designed for the APS-C DSLRs!

CSCs started from scratch, and hence all the lenses have been designed anew specifically for them. These are generally smaller and lighter (Picture 7). Several high quality prime lenses
are available, along with extremely compact “pancake” lenses. The latter make some of the CSC systems as small as P&S cameras. One negative point though: most CSCs (barring MFT) also don’t have any lenses beyond 300mm. As already explained, you can also use your D-SLR lenses and many other low cost old lenses with the help of adapters.

System Support: As with lenses, D-SLRs inherited a rich legacy of hundreds of accessories (flashes, cables, remote controls, etc.), many of which could be used straight away on D-SLRs. CSCs belong to a new breed without predecessors, and so they simply cannot match the D-SLRs in this aspect. The immense popularity of D-SLRs has spawned a large group of third party  manufacturers who make cheaper but compatible accessories. This is one area where CSCs simply cannot rival D-SLRs currently. However, the situation is changing as CSCs gain popularity.

Image Quality: CSCs with APS-C sensors virtually match the performance of the D-SLRs with the same sized sensors. The same is true with low light performance too. Of the other two CSC formats available, the MFT has very high level of image quality - good for anything up to 20” X 25” enlargements. However, the upper “usable” ISO limit is about 6400, though you can definitely expect this to improve in the future. The Nikon 1 uses a still smaller senor compared to MFT, with correspondingly inferior low light performance, but this is a specialized camera, as you will see shortly. Of course, none of the CSCs can match the image quality of full-frame D-SLRs at this point in time - or at least until full-frame CSCs make an appearance.

Video: Video implementation in a D-SLR is bit clumsy due to the mirror, its associated extra baggage and a shutter that is designed to be kept normally closed. On the other hand, CSCs are
ideally suited for video recording as they don’t have unnecessary hardware, and sensors are also optimized for continuous Live View operation. It is no surprise then that some of the best
video cameras today are CSCs!

Frame Rate: This is measured in FPS (frames per second) and is a measure of how many images a camera can record in one second. The higher the rate is, the better it is for capturing action (sports, flying birds, etc.) D-SLRs with moving mirrors and large shutters have some inherent issues with high frame rates. However, CSCs without these encumbrances can give much higher frame rates. It is quite common even for a moderately priced CSC to give up to 9 FPS, while this is possible only with really high end D-SLRs, costing a bomb. The problem with (almost all) CSCs is that they cannot focus continuously (see next section for more details). So, these high frame rates are only possible with autofocus locked at the very first frame.

Autofocus (AF): D-SLRs implement AF using the “phase detect” principle. For this they use a separate phase detect sensor. This AF sensor is positioned under the mirror in D-SLRs. AF using phase detect is faster and more positive (less hunting). CSCs use an AF principle called “contrast detect” and the AF function is carried out by the imaging sensor itself. While many earlier CSCs were absolutely pedestrian in AF speed, modern CSCs are extremely fast, even while using contrast detect. However, contrast detect is inherently poor in focus tracking and hence does not do a good job of focussing on moving subjects. The solution to this is to implement phase detect sensors on the main sensor itself. While this technology is not yet wide-spread, the one implementation that is worth mentioning is on Nikon 1 Model V2 which can do an astonishing 15 FPS with full AF and auto exposure. Right now no D-SLR can match this! You can definitely expect more CSCs in future to use this technology.

Price: While some of the CSC top-end models are just as expensive as mid-level D-SLRs, there are several lower specified models that are cheaper. Lenses are cheaper too, when you take into account the equivalent focal lengths.

A modified approach to CSC: There is one alternative approach possible. Here, the mirror and prism are eliminated from a D-SLR (like any CSC) and replaced with a phase detect equipped imaging sensor and an electronic viewfinder. Rest will remain unchanged. Such a system would be more bulky than a typical CSC, but can use the same D-SLR lenses without any adapter. You can expect a few implementations of this type soon.

This article has explained to you every aspect of CSCs in detail to make your decision making easy. To summarize, at present, D-SLRs are best suited for high speed photography like sports, wild life, etc. CSCs being small, discrete and quiet, are best for travel, candid and street photography. Some of the CSCs (with a pancake lens) are no bigger than a typical P&S camera, with vastly superior image quality equaling that of a D-SLR. Plus, you get the versatility of interchangeable lenses. CSC camera sales took off with a bang but have slowed a little of late,
along with general slowing down of sales of all types of cameras. There are predictions that one day all D-SLRs will be replaced by CSCs - either using dedicated lenses or using the same DSLR lenses (see previous paragraph). What will really happen though, only a magic mirror can tell for sure! So, should you go for a CSC? That is really for you to decide in the end.

However, we at believe that we have given you all the information needed to help you make a good decision. A new technology like CSC changes almost daily. We made our best attempt to keep
the information up to date and it is correct as we went to press.

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Photography Workshop: Online Photography Courses: Mirror-less on the Wall
Online Photography Courses: Mirror-less on the Wall
Photography Workshop
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