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Scottyent Jun 22, 2012 8:14 AM

Help me understand mirrorless
Hey all....well in the hunt to find an affordable entry level DSLR, I have finally stumbled upon mirrorless compact cameras. I am having a hard time getting my head around exactly where they fit on the quality spectrum. I mean...some people say they will replace DSLRs, and that they can produce as good of quality as entry level DSLR cameas. However, it seems they are also pretty new, and there isn't really a completely developed system that is the clear winner as of now.

As far as quality, does it fall somewhere in the 'bridge' camera range? Does it really reach DSLR levels?

They still need a lens system, but are they able to be interchanged with any body, regardless of brand?

I found the Olympus E-PL1:

which is much cheaper than purchasing lets say a Canon Rebel T1i.

Is the image quality good enough that it is worth investing in? Do you guys think that mirrorless will overtake DSLRs in the very near future?

Scottyent Jun 22, 2012 8:21 AM

this one also looks great, even better!

ramcewan Jun 22, 2012 9:07 AM

Scottyent - Mirror-less cameras (with the exception of the Nikon 1 series) use DSLR sensors, either a four thirds sensor as in the case of the micro four thirds cameras from Olympus and Panasonic, or APS-C sensors in the case of Sony and Samsung. The IQ from these cameras is therefore the same as entry level DSLRs.

The main difference between a DSLR and a mirror-less camera is the lack of a physical mirror to support an optical view finder. DSLRs have this mirror system which means when you look through the viewfinder you are looking through the lens, when you take a picture the mirror flips up and the sensor is exposed. This is basically the way film SLRs worked and is just a digital version of the design. A mirror-less camera has no such moving mirror, instead you look through an electronic viewfinder, the display of which is usually shown on a LCD screen on the camera (although top end cameras include a second electronic viewfinder and Pen cameras support an add on one).

Not having a mirror allows the camera to be made smaller while retaining image quality.

The downside is that auto-focus, especially continuous autofocus is not as good on mirror-less cameras, because of the way autofocus is implemented on these cameras.

Like buying a DSLR when you buy a mirror-less camera you are buying into a system. Some systems are more developed than others and some share lenses. Samsung and Sony both have their own lens mount, and therefore can only be used with Samsung and Sony lenses. Olympus Pen series and now the OM-D series use a mount called micro four thirds (MFT) which is also used by Panasonic, this makes lenses interchangeable between the two. Further additional third party lenses are being made for micro four thirds and Sony. MFT has the most developed dedicated lens line at this time.

On those two choices:

The Olympus E-PL1 is a older camera now, still good but the improvements in screen quality in the later Olympus Pen cameras is worth the extra money (look at the E-PM1 or the E-PL2).

The Samsung is a great deal but you will be limited in lens choices. They also don't have the image quality of the other camera makers.

TCav Jun 22, 2012 9:15 AM

There are two components of a camera that are essential to making an image:
  • The Lens
  • The Sensor
Everything else is to help you get the image.

Bigger sensors help in ways that smaller sensors can't:
  • All other things being equal, larger sensors produce less image noise
  • All other things being equal, larger sensors produce more shallow depths of field
The range, quality and capability of the lenses available for a body should determine which body you should get. It's easier to make good lenses for smaller sensors, but the difference between a 4/3 sensor and an APS-C sensor doesn't help much there.

One of the nice things about Mirrorelss cameras is that the distance from the lens mount to the image sensor is smaller. A problem with adapting a lens made with one mount to a body with another mount has always been overcoming the differences in that distance. Since, in mirrorless cameras, that distance is much smaller than is typical, many different lenses can be adapted to mirrorless bodies. While that solves the problem of focus, it doesn't do anything to adapt a lens with one autofocus mechanism to a body with another, so that will almost always require manual focus. In addition rarely does anything to support the autoexposure system of a lens to the autofocus system of a different body. So, unless you've already got some really spectacular old lenses, you shouldn't select a mirrorless camera with the intention of getting lenses that you'll need to adapt to it.

So, as is so often the case, you should select an interchangeable lens camera based on the lenses that are available for it natively.

One last difference between mirrorless cameras and dSLRs is the autofocus systems used. The mirrors in dSLRs don't just reflect light from the lightpath to the viewfinder, they also reflect light to the phase detect autofocus system. Phase detect AF systems are more accurate and precise than the contrast detection AF systems that mirrorless cameras (in fact, all other cameras) use, especially for fast moving subjects.

So, while mirrorless cameras are much more capable than lesser cameras, there are things that dSLRs are better suited for. If any of those are the kinds of things you're interested in, you shouldn't consider mirrorless cameras.

Scottyent Jun 22, 2012 9:38 AM

Thanks for the replies! That was really thorough (especially ramcewan!) and I now believe I understand the mirrorless solution. One thing I really dislike about it is the lack of a viewfinder. I find that really disconcerting, it must feel extremely weird getting ready to take a great shot, but holding the camera in front of your face and looking at the screen!

As I understand, the Samsung would be a bad choice due to lens availability. Seems not to be a camera family to buy into due to the lack of lenses and overall quality of them.

I think all this has served to put me back on looking at DSLRs and possibly bridge cameras. If I had plenty of money (or really, just enough money), I would buy a Canon T1i as a beginner, and move on. However, the fact that I really want to spend my money on the best possible option has me evaluating every option, and it is pretty exhausting! There is certainly a plus or minus to everything, and the money fluctuates greatly based on lenses that you want etc. As a base, I think I would prefer the Canon T1i body and collect maybe one or two extra lenses over the next few years, but tight money right now makes that a less appealing option than it shuold.

Thanks again everyone, still waiting at least a month before making the purchase!

TCav Jun 22, 2012 9:44 AM

What do you want to shoot?

Scottyent Jun 22, 2012 9:57 AM

Well, I would use it around town, while traveling, portraits and landscapes and whatever else strikes me as worth photographing! I want it to be able to have great shots of everywhere I travel, and the people I travel with, but also to take it out on photography only runs where I just search for the right picture and try to get creative as possible. To give you a good idea, here is a few pics that my friend just posted up of our recent trip. I took a lot of pictures with his Pentax, and that is what originally lit my fire for getting my own. He edited them afterwards, but for all I know some of those photos are mine. Anyway, I loved shooting that type of landscape and scenery, but I also want to take photos of people in my life to have fantastic portraits to look back on later!

TCav Jun 22, 2012 10:40 AM

First, since your friend already has a Pentax, there's a lot to be said for getting one too. You can share lenses and accessories, and you have a source when you have a problem.

Second, there's nothing in what you say you want to shoot that would suggest to me that you should have one model over another or one brand over another. If you're comfortable with your friend's Pentax, that's probably as much as you can ask for.

Scottyent Jun 22, 2012 10:59 AM

Yeah, that certainly seems like a reasonable thing to do. I guess I will wait until I'm back in the states in a few months, and peruse lots of camera shops (driving from NY to Florida and back, so I assume I will have a lot of opportunity), and see if I can find a good used Pentax!

Thanks for the advice TCav

ramcewan Jun 22, 2012 11:57 AM

Scottyent - I agree with TCav's assessment. If you have a friend who already has a system and would be willing to loan lenses accessories to you that makes a big difference.

That said I don't see anything in what you want to shoot that precludes you from going mirror-less. As TCav pointed out (and I mentioned in passing) the mirror-less autofocus system is not as good as that on a DSLR for action photos. Otherwise though there is alot to be said for the size and feel of mirror-less especially for travel.

On the view finder, many people, myself included, use an Olympus VF-2 electronic view finder with our cameras to give us the option of holding it up to our eyes, it is also helpful in bright light when even the best LCDs fail. Some of the Panasonic cameras have one built in as well.

Also agree with TCav that a big advantage of mirror-less is the ability to use adapted legacy 35mm manual focus lenses. I find it is a great way to get a whole bunch of quality lenses at a fraction of what a modern lens would cost and experiment with different focal lengths either not available natively on mirror less or just plain more than I want to spend. It's not something I usually mention to new comers looking to choose a system though.

Finally I will recommend that since you are going to be in NY you plan a few hours in NYC to go to the B&H superstore to check cameras out.

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