Fuji and Olympus: Will “mirrorless” finally become a true professional system alternative in 2012?

Everyone’s talking about mirrorless cameras in these days. In Japan, their market share in new camera sales is above 30% – albeit not rising further – and even in conservative Germany they currently take about 10% of all system camera sales. But until early 2012 mirrorless cameras and lenses were, let’s face it, pretty basic consumer stuff. Nothing wrong about that, sure: But their appeal remained very limited for serious amateur – let alone professional – photographers. One of the reasons was that the number of mirrorless cameras actually offering a viewfinder, and not only the back screen, was very small. But that electronic viewfinder is really a must for a versatile camera system. Some manufacturers introduced add-on viewfinders that are to be attached to the camera on the flash hot shoe or a dedicated attachment port. Well, it works, but still it’s not the same as a fully integrated viewfinder that simply makes for much better overall handling…

Sony NEX7

Sony NEX7 (image: Sony)

Now Sony was about to change things in mirrorless country with the Sony NEX-7 release in late 2011, going along with the two new 24/1.8 and 50/1.8 OSS lenses. If you only consider high-quality lenses, it’s a two-lens-only setup but it is one of the first mirrorless cameras that you really could call an entry in the “serious amateur” or even “professional” market segment. This body sports a very sophisticated electronic viewfinder and a flash hot shoe. Probably the 18-200 OSS super zoom lens is an interesting companion to these. The other readily available Sony NEX lenses remain somewhat dull in comparison to DSLR systems. it The NEX-7 was very comprehensively reviewed by Michael Reichmann here at luminous-landscape.com. Still, apart from the limited lens selection, it’s also not exactly cheap: The set with two quality lenses is about €2500. Pretty much money. The most disturbing fact about the NEX-7, however, is probably the sensor choice. A lot of folks realize that the overall image quality of its much lesser brother, the NEX-5N, actually is better in a lot of circumstances, namely high ISO and also when using high-quality manual-focus rangefinder lenses. Even when using an adapted quality lens as long as 35mm, the NEX-5N beats the NEX-7 hands-down. See this comparison with the Zeiss Biogon 35/2 on the two NEX cameras. Hmm. And features such as weather sealing, being a standard for somewhat upmarket DSLR cameras, are still unheard of in mirrorless country. Why?

Nikon V1

Nikon V1 (image: Nikon)

Sadly, the production of the NEX-7 was delayed for some time due to the terrible flood disaster that struck Thailand where the Sony production plants are located. Now, we are at the beginning of 2012. Nikon has brought us the Nikon 1 in two flavours, of which the Nikon V1 is the more sophisticated one. Yes it does offer a built in electronic viewfinder but it lacks a flash hot shoe. The single exiting feature about it is the autofocus system, apparently good enough for chasing flying birds – that’s a truly great achievement. Read this review by Thom Hogan for more information. Apart from the fast and accurate autofocus, the rest of the Nikon 1 sadly does not sound that exiting. I personally don’t see this becoming a true alternative to DSLR systems with their much bigger sensor sizes and resulting superior image quality. Yet it could be a good solution for some action and wildlife photography where the size of the camera gear does matter while speed cannot be compromised.

Olympus E-M5 with 12-50

Olympus E-M5 with 12-50 – the first fully weather sealed mirrorless setup!

Speaking of autofocus performance, Olympus already claimed offering the “fastest” autofocus in mirrorless cameras when they released the E-P3 in 2011. Sadly, it’s one of those mirrorless cameras without built-in viewfinder. But Olympus changed the game with the launch of the shiney new E-M5 in February 2012 with a built-in viewfinder, a tiltable rear screen and – wonders of wonders! – a weather sealed body. Like all other Olympus mirrorless bodies, but unlike any other, the E-M5 also offers in-body stabilisation so these four crucial features – electronic viewfinder, weather sealing, in-body stabiliser and standard flash shoe – do really make it stand out pretty much in the mirrorless world!

The first weather sealed Olympus mirrorless lens, in fact the first weather sealed lens for any mirrorless camera, is already introduced in form of the Olympus Zuiko 12-50/3.5-6.3. But there’s the problem, yes you read it correctly: f/6.3. It’s the slowest zoom lens ever, only a few super zoom lenses with 10+ zoom ratios match these silly aperture numbers. Compare this with the 14-54/2.8-3.5 and 12-60/2.8-4 lenses for the old Four Thirds DSLR system…. What are they thinking? Anyway, it’s the world’s first fully weather sealed entry in the mirrorless game, it offers both internal zoom and internal focusing which is very unique and highly desirable for any standard zoom lens. See the comprehensive 12-50/3.5-6.3 review by Robin Wong here.

The bundle with the E-M5 and 12-50/3.5-6.3 is introduced to the market at €1299. In fact, these prices seem very sensitive in contrast to some other mirrorless manufacturers, even despite the ridiculous maximum aperture! So let’s just hope they come up with some faster and even more high-quality lenses. A nice weather sealed 60/2.8 macro lens with true 1:1 close focus is apparently just around the corner, for example. This all could become a very, very nice and robust package for travel and reportage. Also, the styling of the E-M5 is very appealing. A treat for your eyes, as they say. On the downside, the Olympus has only a 13×17 mm sensor format, so you’re not going to get those superb razorblade-thin depth-of-field effects. But then, you really should have a full 24×36 mm sensor for that, shouldn’t you? Something the others don’t offer just as well.

FUJIFILM X-Pro1 with 18/2, 35/1.4 and 60/2.4 lenses

FUJIFILM X-Pro1 with 18/2, 35/1.4 and 60/2.4 lenses (image: Fujifilm)

Another most interesting entry, surely also a treat for your eyes, in the mirrorless world is the new Fuji X-Pro system. Fuji, well known for its somewhat unique, but always very high quality image sensor developments, finally introduces a complete digital camera system. They are well known to enthusiasts for camera systems as they do produce all the current Hasselblad medium format cameras as well as the now extinct, but still very nice analogue Hasselblad X-Pan series in 1998-2006. The new digital Fuji X-Pro 1 surely reminds one of that X-Pan in terms of overall design and ergonomics. It sports a 16 megapixel 16×24 mm sensor, in general somewhat similar to that of the Sony NEX-5N, but – keeping in line with Fuji’s sensor development heritage – with a unique image filter design and no anti-alias filter. The first user reports in the internet – such as Vlad Dodan’s hands-on review and another hands-on short review by Serban Mestecaneanu, both from Romania – indicate that the sensor quality might be really nice and probably the best of all mirrorless cameras to date. Then there is the unique viewfinder system that lets you choose between an optical and an electronic view. Also the lenses seem nice, with the possible exeption of the 18/2 wide-angle of which some rather mediocre image samples have been posted, seriously lacking corner sharpness and showing a lot of false colour on harsh contrast edges. The big question about the Fuji system, however, might be its autofocus performance. Surely it won’t be in the speed category of the current Olympus and Nikon cameras. But also let’s hope it will be accurate enough! The Fuji X-Pro is expected to be priced at €1590 for the body only with the lenses going for around €600 each. This means it’s the most expensive mirrorless camera of them all. Steve Huff came up with an interesting poll that probably indicates what potential customers do think of these prices.

Leica M9P

Leica M9P (image: Leica)

And then, there is still Leica, with the mother of all mirrorless camera systems, since 1954. The most current offering is the mighty Leica M9P – find some info about it here on Steve Huff’s blog – with a 19 megapixel CCD sensor. Its the only “mirrorless” camera with the classic 24×36 mm image size. Apart from that, the rangefinder system, as we all know, shines in some areas of reportage, street and landscape photography, while it is unsuitable for macro and longer telephoto lenses. Anyway, a bunch of very exiting lenses are availably in very good, superb and impeccable quality and price levels from Voigtländer/Cosina, Zeiss/Cosina and Leica itself. Even 1950s lenses tend to be of a somewhat better and more consistent quality than a lot of recent lenses for other mirrorless camera systems! Leica also is rumored to introduce an interesting new “system” camera, probably sporting an electronic viewfinder, in 2012, but even the sensor size of that one remains totally unclear at this point. Leica might seem very expensive in comparison to the others, but there’s always the possibility to look for a used Leica M8 and used lenses – this is the advantage of a system that has been around for almost 60 years. After all, the latest Fuji-built camera system, the Hasselblad X-Pan, merely lasted for 8 years.

As for myself, I find the idea of a digital Leica M camera more and more appealing. And for those areas that the Leica can’t cover, such as macro and tele, another mirrorless camera system could fit the bill very well – being much smaller than a traditional DSLR setup. Hmm…..

Mirrorless country is an exiting world, full of different ideas. But also full of stuff where you just can’t help wondering what the hell the manufacturers are thinking. I am very curious what 2012 will bring to the mirrorless camera world.

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