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Step 2Mirrorless Systems Guide - 2015 Edition

Overview

Mirrorless cameras each fit in a system which determines its sensor-size and which lenses are available for it. For general information on mirrorless cameras, start with Step 1 of this mirrorless guide. In Step 2 - this page - all mirrorless systems are compared and described in detail.

MostWith the exception of Panasonic and Olympus which share one. camera manufacturers introduced their own mirrorless systems, or even two for some, and bootstrapped them by providing preferential compatibility with their existing system. This lets a mirrorless camera use lenses compatible with DSLRs from the same manufacturer with few limitations via a mount-adapterExcept for Pentax K and Sony SLT systems which use a DSLR mount and Fuji whose discontinued DSLRs use a Nikon F-mount..

Micro Four-Thirds

Micro Four-Thirds is the original mirrorless system. It was launched in 2008 jointly by Olympus and Panasonic. This head start, plus the fact that it is actively developed by two major digital camera manufacturers, make it the most developed among mirrorless systems.

Micro Four-Thirds is based on the Four-Thirds standard for DSLRs. The Micro part of the name refers to the flange distanceThe distance between the sensor and lens mount. and not the sensor-size. Both standards use 4:3 aspect-ratio sensors with a 2X focal-length multiplier. Physics puts them at a 2-stop disadvantage compared to full-frame and just over ½-stop compared to APS-C. The latest cameras from Olympus actually perform within this expectation.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3

Cameras

Both Panasonic and Olympus regularly introduce Micro Four-Thirds cameras and each of these two has four series of cameras, ranging from entry-level to professional weather-sealed models.

With one exception, all Micro Four-Thirds cameras exclusively employ a Contrast-Detect autofocus system. These were very slow when originally introduced. However, recent sensors with 240 Hz read-out are truly fast and extremely accurate. Unlike Phase-Detect autofocus, Contrast-Detect systems cannot have front or back-focus issues and AF micro-adjustments are unnecessary.

The most significant distinction between Olympus and Panasonic is their approach to stabilization. Only one Panasonic mirrorless
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX7
includes stabilization. The rest rely on stabilized lenses. Olympus cameras all feature built-in stabilization which is compatible with any lens, current or not. The efficacity of the system depends on the camera and higher-end models have better stabilization systems, including the only 5-axis stabilization which no DSLR offers.

Lenses

Micro Four-Thirds has an extensive set of lenses. Olympus and Panasonic produce most of these. Rectilinear lenses cover a 7 to 300mm focal-range. Lenses are small and light, making Micro Four-Thirds the second most compact mirrorless system.

There are light zooms, constant aperture zooms, small primes, very high-quality optics and macro lenses in the lineup. Panasonic and Olympus lenses may be used interchangeably on cameras of either brand.

Panasonic makes the only 3D lens, making Micro Four-Thirds the only 3D-capable mirrorless system. This lens projects two views of the scene which must be reconstructed into a 3D image using supplied software.

Panasonic 3D Lens

More third-party lenses are produced for Micro Four-Thirds cameras than any other system. Sigma, Tamron and Samyang all make such lenses, although the latter's are manual-focus only.

Micro Four-Thirds cameras are compatible with Four-Thirds lenses, including weather-sealed ones using the only weather-sealed mount-adapter in existence. All Four-Thirds lenses are fully functional when used on a Micro Four-Thirds camera with the right adapter.

Sony E-Mount

Sony introduced the NEX system in 2010, making it the second mirrorless system. As expected, it is the second most developed, behind Micro Four-Thirds. Still, two digital camera years make for a lot to catch up. Sony later renamed the lineup Alpha, using the same labelling as their A-mount system.

Sony NEX cameras were launched with an APS-C sensor having a 1.5X crop-factor, just like the majority of their discontinued DSLRs. Newer models now offer full-frame sensors. While the mount is physically the same, such cameras require new FE lenses which have full-frame coverage.

The Sony E-mount design is based on the A-mount inherited from Konica-Minolta. Sony provides a number of adapters to connect A-mount lenses to E-mount cameras, two of which divert one third of light towards a built-in Phase-Detect AF sensor. This allows A-mount lenses to be driven by the AF system they were intended for.

Sony Alpha NEX-5RSony Alpha NEX-6

Cameras

Sony offers several E-mount cameras, split along four lines with very similar feature sets but interfaces targeted at different levels of photographers. The two upper series use high-resolution EVFs with 2.4 megapixels that provide a crisp Exposure-Priority display. Dual and triple control-dials are present on these series as well. The lower series do not offer viewfinders and feature only a single control-dial.

While all Alpha mirrorless use Contrast-Detect autofocus, several models add on-sensor Phase-Detect assist-points to speed up autofocus. Sony designed their mirrorless cameras to be rather slim in the center while leaving a good grip. While they cannot claim to have the slimmest models, these cameras are rather compact.

Lenses

The E-mount lens lineup features lenses covering rectilinear focal-lengths from 10 to 240mm. The lineup includes an 18-200mm ultra-zoom for APS-C models and a 24-240mm ultra-zoom for full-frame ones. Sony's offerings are quite varied with bright primes, constant aperture-zooms and even a macro lens among them. Being newer, full-frame FE lenses are more limited but there is still a reasonable number of them.

Sony NEX Lenses

Alpha E-mount cameras almost exclusively rely on lens-based stabilization. Since A-mount lenses are never stabilized, there is no way to stabilize either Sony or Konica-Minolta lenses on an E-mount camera other than the Sony Alpha A7 II
Sony Alpha A7 II
, the only one right now to offer sensor-shift image-stabilization.

A number of E-mount lenses are available from third-party vendors. Sigma, Zeiss and Tamron all produce autofocus ones, while Samyang produces MF-only ones.

Sony A-Mount

Shortly after launching their NEX system, Sony, who was being criticized for not having video-capable DSLRs yet, unveiled two
Sony Alpha SLT-A55
additions
Sony Alpha SLT-A33
to the Alpha family. These cameras featured a semi-transparent mirror to divert light continuously to a Phase-Detect autofocus system and used a 1.5 megapixels EVF for eye-level shooting.

Sony SLT See-Thru View

This design adds the ability to measure focus and meter during exposure and video capture which allows for high-speed shooting with continuous autofocus beyond what is currently available on most cameras. Movie capture also gets Phase-Detect AF which is much less bothersome than the usual Contrast-Detect AF.

Sony sees this as the evolution of DSLRs and so their marketing department calls them SLT, for Single Lens Translucent. Only the mirror is not translucentA translucent mirror would not allow for a sharp image. Instead a semi-transparent pellicle mirror is used.! After a while, Sony simply started calling these DSLR cameras while keeping SLT as part of the model-name. Unlike other mirrorless systems, Sony's SLT cameras do not offer a saving in size since their bodies are not much smaller than similarly specified DSLRs.

Cameras

Sony SLT cameras use the Alpha mount acquired from Konica-Minolta. This mount allows for a full-frame image-circle, since it was used in the days of film, but the initial models used an APS-C sensor with a 1.5X crop-factor. The lineup now includes a full-frame model as well which requires lenses with the right coverage.

Sony A-mount cameras feature built-in stabilization which was actually invented by Konica-Minolta and acquired by Sony before being adapted by other manufacturers. This means that stabilization works with all lenses, even legacy ones.

Sony Alpha SLT-A99V

The lineup of SLT cameras offers four series. The top-of-the-line Sony Alpha SLT-A99V
Sony Alpha SLT-A99V
is the only full-frame in the lineup. Like the SLT-A77 II
Sony Alpha SLT-A77 II
mid-range offering, it is weather-sealed and features dual control-dials. Both entry-level series have had multiple cameras all with light-weight bodies having a single control-dial.

Sony has implemented an Exposure-Priority Live-View on all its SLT cameras which all offer a large LCD and high-resolution EVF, with up to 2.4 MP. An Eye-Start Sensor, also inherited from Konica-Minolta, automatically switches the between the EVF and LCD and is a pleasure to have.

Lenses

Considering the use of the original autofocus lens-mount, SLT cameras can accept a huge variety of lenses from Sony, Konica-Minolta and most third-party lens manufacturers. Sony makes rectilinear lenses covering 11 to 500mm. Additional coverage down to 8mm rectilinear or 4.5mm fisheye is provided by Sigma.

There are lenses currently in production for most purposes. This includes constant-aperture zooms, bright primes, ultra-zooms, super-telephoto lenses and a number of high-quality autofocus lenses by Carl Zeiss. The major gap is having almost no weather-sealed lenses which is understandable considering that two years ago, Sony did not have any weather-sealed Alpha-mount cameras.

Sony Alpha Lenses

Pentax K

Pentax introduced a K-mount mirrorless camera, the Pentax K-01
Pentax K-01
which has already been discontinued, two years ago. This is the same mount as they use on their DSLRs with a similar APS-C sensor having a 1.5X crop-factor. This therefore gives a negligible savings in bulk.

Cameras

Rather than aim for existing customers to upgrade from models they are already happy with, Pentax went for a completely different market with the launch of their K-01. Pentaxians were therefore shocked when they saw a camera not designed for practicality and ergonomics but rather for its unusual modern look.

Pentax K-01

The K-01 offers a paired-down feature set from Pentax entry-level DSLRs. It cannot be used at eye-level though since there is no EVF nor provision to add one. The body is neither weather-sealed nor freezeproof.

Lenses

The K-mount is one of the oldest mounts still in use. It is compatible with the entire legacy and current lineup of Pentax K-mount lenses, plus all K-mount lenses from third-party manufacturers. While Pentax has one of the smallest lineups among DSLR makers, this gives them the largest lens lineup among mirrorless cameras.

Pentax makes lenses from 10mm fisheye to 560mm rectilinear and most are designed with APS-C coverage. This makes them more compact than most other lenses designed for SLR cameras. Pentax is famous for its ultra-high quality Limited lenses and very slim pancake lenses. Sigma produces fisheye lenses down to 4.5 and rectilinear ones down to 8mm in Pentax K-mount.

Pentax K-01 and Lenses

Pentax Q

Pentax introduced the Q system shortly after being acquired by Ricoh. This mirrorless system is based around a new fully-electronic Q-mount. The first generation used a 1/2.3" sensor which has been upgraded to a slightly larger 1/1.7" one. These are the smallest sensor-sizes among mirrorless systems, similar to most ultra-compact or compact digital cameras.

Having the smallest sensor allows Pentax to make very small cameras and lenses. However, expectations on image quality are justifiably low. Knowing that too, Pentax designed the lens lineup accordingly with low-quality lenses aimed at people who are fond of that look. Needless to say, this is not really for everybody.

Cameras

Pentax Q7Pentax Q-S1

There is a single series of Q-mount cameras, consisting of the Q7
Pentax Q7
and the Q-S1
Pentax Q-S1
. Both of these offer built-in image-stabilization and a decent number of external controls to encourage experimentation. These cameras are positively tiny and not much bigger than a compact, even with an attached lens.

Lenses

There are a handful of Q-mount lenses, all made by Pentax. Given the niche market of the Q system, no third-party maker produces any compatible lenses. Pentax however does make a K-mount adapter. However, with a 5.6X crop-factor, K-mount lenses become mostly telephoto ones.

Rather than being specified with a difficult-to-understand focal-length, Q lenses are simply given numbered names such as 05 Toy Lens Telephoto
Pentax Q 05 Toy Lens Telephoto
. Lenses are mostly plastic and some labelled Toy to set expectations.

Nikon 1

Given the fast market-growth of mirrorless cameras, people highly anticipated the biggest two camera makers to join in. Nikon did so first as they unveiled the unique 1 system. Its CX format defines a 1" sensor with a 3:2 aspect-ratio and a 2.7X crop-factor.

The 2.7X crop-factor puts the Nikon 1 system right between compact cameras and Micro Four-Thirds in terms of image quality. This was certainly a deliberate choice, probably to avoid cannibalizing sales of Nikon's lucrative DSLR lineup. In other words, the CX format offers a notable advantage over typical fixed-lens cameras while not approaching the image quality of DSLRs.

At the same time, Nikon directly addressed the biggest criticism of mirrorless cameras at the time by being firstFuji pioneered this on fixed-lens cameras but has yet to use in on mirrorless ones. with a focal-plane Phase-Detect autofocus system. With the launch of their first two mirrorless cameras, Nikon claimed to have achieved the fastest autofocus speeds of any camera.

Cameras

Nikon produces a number of mirrorless cameras, split along 4 series. A built-in 1.5 megapixels EVF with Eye-Start sensor appears on the high-end series uses both an electronic and a mechanical shutter. Two entry-level series consist of cameras with an all-electronic shutter and differ mostly in terms of design. An intermediate waterproof mirrorless, the AW1 reviewed here
Nikon 1 AW1
, stands alone and is the only waterproof interchangeable lens digital camera ever made.

Nikon 1 V2

The electronic shutter available on all models lets these cameras shoot extremely quietly and fast. Continuous drive speeds up to 60 FPS are available at full-resolution or 15 FPS with continuous autofocus. Video capture up to 400 FPS is also possible at reduced resolutions.

The latest 1 V3
Nikon 1 V3
has the most direct controls with a proper mode-dial plus triple control-dials. Other 1-series cameras have full manual-controls too, they just take longer to use. Even so, the user-interface of Nikon 1 cameras is not designed for people who use manual-controls extensively.

Nikon 1 cameras are comparable in size to Micro Four-Thirds models and thus have no size advantage against competitors with larger sensors. The same is true of Nikon 1 lenses, discussed next. There is certainly room to make them smaller, so usability may be the issue.

Lenses

Nikon offers a growing number of 1-mount lenses. Most of those are variable aperture zooms with built-in image stabilization. The lineup includes four prime lenses and an ultra-zoom in mechanical and power-zoom versions.

All lenses are rectilinear and together they cover a 6.7 - 300mm range, equivalent to 18 - 810mm which is very impressive. There are no macro or other specialty lenses. Two lenses are waterproof to a depth of 10m, just like the Nikon 1 AW1. Only with those two lenses can the AW1 be used underwater, but it supports all other 1-series lenses for over-land use.

Nikon 1 Lenses

Nikon offers a mount adapter to use F-mount lenses with a 2.7X crop-factor. This adds coverage at the long end and allows for better normal-to-telephoto lenses to be used. Given how different the 1-system is from others, it is unsurprising that no third-party produces Nikon 1 lenses.

Fuji X

Fuji launched its first two mirrorless cameras in 2012, the X-Pro1
Fuji X-Pro1
in the first-half and the much-improved X-E1
Fuji X-E1
in the second. Having no DSLR legacy to protect, Fuji aimed its entire system at advanced users willing to pay for exclusive quality and handling.

The X-Pro1 introduced a unique sensor with a pseudo-randomized 6x6 grid of color-filters which is not prone to moire artifacts and hence needs no anti-alias filter. This X-Trans CMOS sensor, shared between the X-Pro1 and X-E1, has a 1.5X crop-factor and 16 megapixels. Fuji claims sharpness and noise which rivals traditional full-frame sensors.

This was eventually followed by an X-Trans CMOS II sensor which incorporates built-in Phase-Detect AF and is featured in the advanced X-E2
Fuji X-E2
and professional X-T1
Fuji X-T1
mirrorless. Meanwhile, Fuji added intermediate X-A & X-M series models using a traditional 16 megapixels Bayer-Pattern CMOS sensor.

Cameras

Fuji mirrorless cameras are designed for efficient control. The upper-range models have direct dials for shutter-speed and exposure-compensation, while the others still offer dual control-dials and a traditional mode-dial. Aperture control is usually provided by a traditional aperture-ring around the lens barrel. Some lighter-weight lenses though, lack such ring and fall back to using one of their control-dials.

Each model in the X-E and X-T series offers a superb extra-large built-in EVF with Eye-Start sensor. The X-Pro1 offers a unique hybrid viewfinder which switches between a 100% coverage EVF and bright-frame OVF, giving a completely different experience.

The flagship X-T1 reviewed here
Fuji X-T1
and X-T1 Graphite are both fully weather-sealed and freezeproof to -10C. These introduced a high-speed electronic-shutter mode reaching 1/32000s to freeze ultra-fast motion.

Fuji X-Pro1 Launch Lineup

Lenses

As a high-end system, Fuji launched with only three bright prime lenses and no zooms. Since then, they rapidly expanded their lens lineup with plenty of lenses covering the 10 to 230mm range withc rectilinear lenses. This includes a variety of lenses with bright zooms, lightweight variable-apertures ones, ultra-bright primes and a 1X macro lens.

Several zooms feature built-in image-stabilization which the camera bodies do not offer. A few of the zooms are also weatherproof. None of the prime lenses are stabilized or weather-sealed though.

Given its high-end offerings and lack of legacy lens-mount, Fuji provides a unique adapter to support Leica M-mount lenses. These obviously remain Manual-Focus only but the adapter can at least provide lens information to the camera. Not all M-mount lenses are supported, see Fuji for details.

Carl Zeiss produces autofocus prime lenses for in XF-mount. Samyang makes a number of XF-mount lenses too, including an 8mm fisheye, all MF-only though.

Canon M

The Canon M system uses a new EF-M mount which is a version of the EF-S mount used by Canon cropped-sensor DSLRs but with a much shorter flange distance. In theory this makes it sufficiently large to offer a full-frame sensor.

Cameras

Canon made the last entry into the mirrorless market with the incredibly compact EOS M based around an 18 megapixels APS-C sensor with 1.6X crop-factor, just like its latest Rebel. This one introduced a new system with Contrast-Detect autofocus assisted by on-sensor Phase-Detect sensors. Despite its APS-C sensor, the EOS M is one of the smallest and lightest mirrorless cameras. It takes on bulk in proportion to the attached lens.

Canon EOS M

The EOS M features a 3" touchscreen but no viewfinder and no provision to add one. There is a single control-dial low on the back and no mode-dial, making using its manual-controls rather cumbersome. For now, there is only one camera in the Canon M system.

Earlier this year, Canon unveiled the M3
Canon EOS M3
to the European and Asian markets. This new model adds more direct controls, including dual control-dials and a traditional mode-dial. It also provides the option for an optional 2.4 MP 0.48" EVF, allowing eye-level use for the first time with a Canon mirrorless camera.

Lenses

Canon unveiled exactly two lenses along with the EOS M. One has the same range and slow aperture as the ubiquitous kit-lens and the other is a 22mm F/2 lens. Both are very well constructed with a nice metal barrel and feature an STM motor which is better suited for Contrast-Detect autofocus and video recording than Canon USM motors. They latter added an ultra-wide 11-22mm and a 55-200mm telephoto lens, both stabilized and with variable maximum-apertures.

The EF-M mount is electronically compatible with EF and EF-S lenses. An adapter allows any Canon DSLR lens to be attached to an EF-M mount camera. Samyang and Tamron have joined as third-party makers of EF-M lenses. The former only offers Manual-Focus lenses, as usual.

Next

Proceed to Step 3, Mirrorless Camera Buying, for advice and considerations before buying a mirrorless.

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