11 July 2010

The Invasion of EVIL Cameras

Not evil as in Dr. Evil evil, but EVIL as in Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens cameras. Also known as mirrorless or Micro Four Thirds (m4/3) system cameras. Yes, confusing. I'll stick with mirrorless system camera. Here's a picture . . .

Olympus E-PL1

. . . and a short explanation. In the beginning camera makers just converted film SLRs into digital cameras by placing an imaging sensor at the film plane and sticking an LCD on the back for reviewing pictures. These DLSRs largely retained the size and bulk of film SLRs because they use the same mirror and viewfinder systems. Having a traditional viewfinder is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is not necessary at all, and it comes with serious downsides. In addition to the bulk, the mirror blocks the sensor and prevents the use of the LCD for framing pictures, as you can on compacts. Many people prefer LCD framing, especially eyeglass wearers like myself. DSLR makers have tried to find workarounds for this problem, but so far all their solutions have been half-measures. The only way to enable compact-style LCD framing with an SLR is to remove the SLR components, i.e., the reflex mirror and viewfinder. Hence a mirrorless system (meaning, interchangeable lens) camera.

DSLR vs. Mirrorless System Camera

With the mirror removed, you also require less backspace between lens and sensor, which means you can use smaller lenses. All together you end up with a camera about the size of a large compact, but with all the lens-swapping advantages of an SLR. These smaller cameras were first introduced to the mass market by Olympus and Panasonic last year, but they do not use DSLR-sized imaging sensors. Their Micro Four Thirds sensors are about 30-40% smaller than the APS-C-sized sensors used in most DSLRs. (Sony's new NEX-series mirrorless system cameras and a few other models do use APS-C sensors.) Still, the image quality of even these m4/3 sensors is much closer to DSLR quality than to compact quality. They are, for many serious amateurs, viable alternatives to much bulkier DSLRs.

Until now, these mirrorless system cameras have been more expensive than entry-level DSLRs. The early adopter premium. But the new Olympus E-PL1 has come in just over $500 street, which is about where DSLRs start. Not bad at all.

Considering these cameras have only been out a year, and that no models have been introduced by Canon and Nikon, the dominant DSLR makers, it is an astonishing figure that this past month in Japan, 32.5% of all system cameras sold were mirrorless (here). Seven of the top twenty system cameras are mirrorless, all from Panasonic and Olympic. That makes these cameras both watershed designs and commercial successes. This will drive costs down and you'll see a lot of them swinging from tourist shoulders by next summer.

So where is Canon and Nikon? Nikon has just indicated that they may introduce a mirrorless model "anytime" this year or next. Canon has been completely mum. Both have dominant lines of DSLRs that they will not want to cannibalize, and you just can't throw one of these mirrorless systems together. They are not just cameras, after all, but entire systems. There may also be some truth to one reviewer's observation of the new Sonys: "As with Samsung and Panasonic, Sony's background is electronics (rather than cameras), so the incentive to move away from the optically complex DSLR design to one based more around electronic displays makes sense." Canon and Nikon are in the opposite position.

I'm excited for the future of these models because they are poised to replace an all-but-dead segment that a lot of us miss: the pro compact. DSLRs are big, noisy and conspicuous. These mirrorless cameras can almost be palmed, stealthy as a Leica rangefinder, but still produce DSLR-class images. And they are soooo sexy. As soon as they drop below $400, I may just have to trade blood for cash at the local plasma bank for a few months.

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