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From DSLR to mirrorless… and back again

Nikon-1-V3-mirrorless-camera
The rumor mill slows down after every Nikon announcement (D810). I have scheduled several guest posts in the next few weeks. Things will get interesting again in mid-August when Nikon will start making their Photokina announcements. Today's guest post "From DSLR to mirrorless... and back again" is written by Roger Irwin:

When I decided to try out a mirrorless camera I broke my two golden rules of selecting a camera. That was a big mistake, and as a result I'm now going back to a DSLR for a while, but oddly the reasons have little to do with mirrorless technology per se.

In fact after two months with a mirrorless camera I'm more than ever convinced that mirrorless is the future, the big issue for me is when that future begins.

But let's get back to the present, and my two golden rules.

Now I don't buy cameras all that often, but as an enthusiastic hobbyist with years of activity in clubs and forums I'm often asked for advice, especially from people thinking of taking the plunge into system cameras for the first time.

When faced with the all two often scenario of potential purchasers pixel pooping sample photos and comparing fractions of an EV on DXOmark my general approach is to try and pull things back to basic issues. I suggest they consider most of all two fundamental issues:

  1.  What lenses will you be using? Never consider the purchase of a camera body first and the lenses as an afterthought. Think about what you intend to do with the camera and decide on camera + lens combinations.
  2.  Once you have potential camera and lens combinations, try them out before you buy. How comfortable are they? How easy and practical would it be to do the things you plan to do.

Ok, that's the advice I give, just a pity I didn't follow it myself!

A few months ago my kit bag got stolen along with my DSLR and the 3 lenses I use the most. Fortunately I was insured, and so hey, great, I had a nice blank cheque to change my kit.

But I was immediately plunged into a crisis... does it make sense to invest in new DSLR kit when it's about to be made obsolete by mirrorless systems? It's a question that tormented me for several days before I decided on a compromise.

I decided to 'try out' mirrorless, but instead of wading in and buying the whole she bang I decided to start off with a second hand NEX-6 and a Nikon adapter (not all my lenses were in that kitbag). I also got a cheap wide angle prime so I could try the autofocus and experience the wide angle advantage of non-reflex cameras!

Now I can say a lot of positive things about the mirrorless system; It's great to have the histogram in the viewfinder and get so much instant feedback without chimping. Being able to review photos in the viewfinder is a great boon in bright light. It's easy to get sharp focus, and focus peaking is superb for evaluating DOF. Shooting from live view is fast. The camera is small and light. Wide angle lens have so little distortion. These are all common characteristics of mirrorless cameras, and I love them.

So, onto the problems. Now if I'd followed my own rule number two I would have at least tried using the camera before buying it, and I would have found some issues. Small is nice, but too small isn't, you need to be able to get your hands round the camera! I found that the NEX 6 worked OK with the small prime, but with anything bigger on the front things quickly became uncomfortable and difficult to use.

Another thing I would have discovered is just how different the NEX 6 controls are to a typical DSLR, and how badly thought out they are. Some things were just awkward, like having to click to activate EV comp and then click a button again after changing it. Other things were impossible.

When shooting landscapes I would typically have the camera on a tripod and will shoot in manual, changing the shutter speed for multiple exposures. Pretty normal, but on a NEX-6 if you have the camera in manual you change the shutter speed by rotating the rear dial (there is no way to change this). Unfortunately this rear dial also serves as a 4 way function cursor. It's not easy to rotate the dial, but if you press more than lightly then you invoke another function, such as EV comp, and immediately start changing it by turning the dial. You end up trying to 'stroke' the dial round by the edges.

This is perhaps the worst example of how the NEX interface is simply not designed for the enthusiast shooter, there are other examples. In mitigation you can download apps that will be pump your photos direct to Facebook; this speaks volumes about the intended audience for the camera.

Of course all this underlines the importance of rule number 2, but it doesn't say anything bad about mirrorless itself. In fact it just left me thinking 'this is great apart from the controls....when are Nikon going to bring out a mirrorless!'.

Seriously, despite the awful controls I was so impressed with the mirrorless advantages that I considered putting up with them for a while until a decent mirrorless with Nikon controls inevitably appeared.

But when weighing up the option of keeping the camera for a while I ran into another problem.

Ah yes, rule number 1! What lens would I use with the camera?

Now if this had been a DSLR, the first lens in my list would have been a constant f2.8 standard zoom. A very popular type of lens. Nikon, Canon and Pentax have professional grade options for APS-C. Sigma, Tokina and Tamron all offer more economical versions. Tamron in fact have two flavors, with and without OS. And oh, yes, SONY also make one, but for their DSLR's, not for the NEX.

And it's here you really run into a wall. Mirrorless cameras make wide angle lenses more efficient, but you can't really take much advantage of that if the type of lens you want is not on the market!

The best we can manage on the NEX is a constant f/4, at twice the price of the third party lenses. There are adapters for Sony DSLR lenses. You can have the one that doesn't do autofocus (not exactly what you want for event shooting), or you can get the big expensive autofocus one which essentially inserts a translucent mirror between lens and camera. An add on mirror for your mirrorless.

No, whatever way I looked at it, I just could not build the system I wanted with the NEX system, I should have realized this at the outset following my own Rule number 1.

But of course I 'm relating problems to a specific system, in some cases a specific camera. What about other mirrorless systems, how would they have faired  if I had applied my 2 golden rules?

Micro Four Thirds has a wealthy set of lenses, except that you are giving away 1 more stop in terms of DOF, and the f2.8 lenses all tend to be pretty pricey, so you're really back at square one in DOF terms. But if you don't exploit DOF then they have a wealth of lenses. I have tried an OM-5 with a superzoom and it is quite comfortable, but I still found I was pressing with my fingers, rather than being able to 'hang' the camera on my hand, and I know that leads to fatigue.

The OM-5 controls seemed quite logical to me as well, I only used it briefly but we got on fine  ! But I DO like using DOF for isolation, so for me it's a non starter.

I've also tried a Fuji X2. This has very traditional controls, love it. But I tried it with a pancake lens and I noticed that the camera has a limited grip, this would almost certainly be tricky to use with larger lenses. There is of course an SLR like model now, so perhaps that would be better with larger lenses....assuming you had them!

Because yes, also Fuji have limited options when it comes to lenses. More options than Sony, but not as good as MFT. Unlike Sony, however, there is no upgrade path to FF, as the Fuji mount will not support it.

At the end of the day I began to realize that mirrorless is still very much in it's infancy, and that the most developed system (Micro Four Thirds) was one that got underway years ago.

I was left pining for a mirrorless Nikon DSLR and if anybody from Nikon is reading this, this is what it should be like (IMHO):

  1.  Not too small, minimum should be like a D5300 with a slimmer body, don't cut down the controls!
  2.  Keep the same controls and menu systems you have on your DSLR's.
  3.  Sell it with an adapter that allows Nikon F lenses to be used without compromises (you do of course have phase detectors on the sensor).

But of course being realistic I know that even if such a camera is launched at Photokina, it's going to be a couple of years at least before we have an established system at regular prices, and perhaps even longer.

So in the meantime I'll just watch from the bleachers, with an ordinary vanilla DSLR!

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  • Anton PupkIn

    So what are wide angle lenses for Nex, that Nikon doesn’t have?

  • Pahrump Nevada

    Is the V3 shutter lag & flash lag fast enough for editorial assignment work?

  • DouglasGottlieb

    Interesting article, and an experience that mirrors my own, right down to buying Sony NEX and having serious regrets. But the author seems unaware that Nikon DOES have a mirrorless system, and the Nikon 1 v3 seems to have a lot going for it, despite the price, and might be the very best camera in the world for certain very specific use cases. Low light, high ISO situations and anyone with a strong preference for razor thin DoF should probably look elsewhere (the 1.2 portrait lens won’t beat a Canon 85L 1.2, but it still looks pretty promising). And the v3’s amazing focus tracking (aided by added DoF) and remarkable 20 fps RAW burst shooting challenges the best DSLRs. Until you have to write to card. But still… If the Nikon 1 v3 was priced to match the high performance, enthusiast Olympus EM10, it would be sensation, despite the EM10’s bigger sensor. I don’t own a Nikon 1 v3 but am intrigued by it, but the price really seems like Nikon almost doesn’t want a mirrorless to succeed.

    Like Roger, I was drawn to mirrorless for the size, the style, but had not yet reached his same RULES conclusion: rent before you buy!!! I got the top of the line NEX, the NEX7 a few months after its release. The reviews were stellar — this was to be a “hybrid photography” (photo + video) dream machine, by most counts. And for several months, I loved shooting short video clips. Then, well after the return period, I tried shooting a clip that exceeded 8 minutes. That’s when the sensor overheated and the camera shut down. A little freaked out, I tried again. Every time, the camera fails after 8 minutes of shooting video. Not one review ever mentioned this, but a quick Google revealed that it was a widespread issue without a solution.

    Other irritants started cropping up, like Sony’s non-standard hotshoe making it hard to branch out into off camera flash without purchasing an expensive adapter (less expensive, third party versions did not work). The promised lens lineup never materialized and the few good ones that did were really pricey. I thought one of the mirrorless advantages was smaller, less complex design that translated to less expensive, but high quality optics. Not for the Sony.

    But the real deal breaker for me was the shooting experience. The NEX7 had the worst, most convoluted menu system I’ve ever seen. And I hated the physical controls. And it seemed as if every NEX camera had different buttons and dials, so you could not build up muscle memory if I ever wanted to buy a second, non 7 body.

    All of this coincided with the dawning recognition in me that I really prioritize an enjoyable user experience. Mirrorless cameras might not be as big and powerful as DSLRs, but that was okay. They were here to be FUN. And the Sony was not fun. For me, it was totally devoid of fun. It had great specs, a ton of megapixels, a comfortable grip, a left side EVF, and rave reviews. But no fun. So I sold the lot, which include a handful of lenses, accessories and the camera, and took the loss.

    I had initially written off M43 owing to reading about the “smaller sensor” and how “hard to get shallow depth of field” it would be. But then I discovered some key lenses: Olympus’ 75mm (150 field of view) 1.8, their remarkably affordable (45mm 1.8, which looks like a 90mm portrait lens), and was blown away. There were even more exotic lenses from Voigtlander: a trio of primes with maximum apertures of f/0.95!!! A google image search for portraits using any of these lenses blew away my DoF reservations. And I purchased the weather sealed, wonderfully ergonomic, pro spec’d Olympus EM1.

    I never thought that I would enjoy an EVF — it would be something I would tolerate while pining for my optical view finder. Not so. Today’s EVFs are high resolution, fast refreshing, and let you see your image BEFORE you click. You’re “chimping” in the viewfinder — seeing your exact exposure, white balance and 100 field of view as you work. I no longer want an OVF!!!

    Olympus and Panasonic both make cameras and lenses in the M43 standard. As a result, not only are there a slew of lenses for the platform, but the widest variety of body styles and price points of any line. Prefer a larger, more ergonomic DSLR style camera? There’s Olympus’ EM1, Panasonic’s GH4, GH3, and G6 cameras. A slightly smaller DSLR? The EM10 is exactly that. Drawn to the rangefinder stylings of a vintage Leica (or modern Fuji?). The Panasonic GX7 or Olympus EP5 deliver. Want small? The Pen EPL and EPM cameras are shirt pocketable. And then there’s the GM1 — an interchange lens camera body smaller than many compact cameras. And all of these recent M43 cameras have blindingly fast autofocus, one area that has held the otherwise stunning Fuji cameras back (that’s changing with the XT1). Olympus’ 5 axis image stabilization allows you to hand hold a slow shutter speeds, making up some of the low light, high ISO ground lost to APSC and FF sensor cameras. That amazing system, paired with lightweight bodies and much, much, much lighter and smaller lenses closes the gap even more.

    My short, unhappy time with the Sony NEX7 almost soured me on mirrorless, but I’m so glad that I tried M43 before running back to my DSLR. These cameras deliver the fun I want, AND all of the quality I need.

    I can’t recommend them strongly enough. But as we’ve both discovered: try before you buy!

    • Roger Irwin

      It certainly seems that you did find the same problems with the NEX…just not designed by photographers, or maybe they brought in a load of ‘ergonomics consultants’ and formed a ‘focus group’….

      I certainly found it retrograde going back to OVF, I’m also convinced of a mirrorless future. As far as I can see m43 is the only mature mirrorless system out there with lenses to suit all requirements, but I’m prepared to wait a bit and see how it evolves before plunging in. It will be interesting to see what announcements are made a Photokina.

      I’m convinced that Nikon will eventually use the hybrid focus technology of the 1 system in an F mount mirrorless

  • Patrick Lam

    A great article as I have similar experience swapping from a D90 to a NEX 5N, really liked the smaller body and lighter weight of the NEX but missed the handling of D90. The interesting thing for me was how adding a EVF (built on the NEX 6) to the 5N adds to the shooting experience.

    I could also appreciate the comment about the wide selection of lens, whether one already has an existing collection or otherwise. Interestingly Nikon chose to design and produce the Nikon 1 (which has the option of the FT1 F mount adapter), instead something with a DX or FX sensor.

    Roger’s wish for a mirrorless Nikon DSLR can’t be that far off, just look at the COOLPIX A! It will be a challenge though, or at least it will involve some compromises. I just can’t see how any manufacturer is going to be able to fit all the wonderful DSLR controls into such a camera.

    • Roger Irwin

      You know I would be more than happy with a Pentax ME Super ‘D’ with slim LCD stuck on the back :D

      You don’t need lot’s of buttons to fix the control issues, it just the way you organize them. I have a compact camera, an Olympus C770UZ, which is easier to control with even less, just a mode dial and 4 button cursor. With the mode dial in aperture priority, the left and right buttons change apertures, up and down do EV comp. In manual exposures,the up and down do the shutter speed instead. Not as good as my F801, which has just one wheel and a few buttons, but better than the NEX which features mode dial, control wheel and a 4 way cursor+wheel!

      • Patrick Lam

        Yes, it can be very distracting playing with the dials and missing good photos in the process.
        What I was trying say before was how consistent the controls are across the Nikon DSLR range, and how easy it is to move from one model to another.
        One of the nice things I liked about digital SLR is the availability of post processing options in camera, it is nice to be able to play with the image on the big LCD screen using the controls.

  • samsunguser

    I beg to disagree. I believe that Nikon knows what is best for us and we should be humble enough to accept that we should part with our money in a good humoured and respectful manner. The D810 is surely designed with the casual user in mind and as such represents the ideal instrument for use for photography or for other frivolous past-times. I believe that the high quality of its external exoskeleton will favour its use in all kinds of pool sports such as synchronous swimming and water-polo. As such, the lack of laser lighting systems surely represent a flaw in the basal design process, which I believe was led by famous American designer and singer Alf Rodenstock. We should be grateful for the good construction and high quality materials that were chosen from a catalogue that I found in a train compartment last weekend. Thank you

  • Ron Hendriks

    So basicly you would like a Pentax K-01 but with a nikon mount. The great thing about the K-01 is that it is big, but does fit nicely in your hands and holds the K-mount. Does need some improvements on a technical point.
    Small mirrorless systems are nice for kit-lenses. Big work needs a tool that helps you do a job.

  • Bengt Nyman

    I had a similar experience. Migrating from Canon to Nikon I decided to try a mirrorless camera for my second body. When I shoot seriously my first body usually carries a 35 mm prime and my second a 70-200 mm zoom. I looked at the V series, but I ended up buying an Olympus OMD EM1 with an Olympus 75 (=150mm) prime lens.

    Controls aside, what made me realize that this camera was not for me was the total time between refocused shots. As long as you do not need to refocus, the camera is plenty fast. However, if you want to refocus between each shot the return of the EVF was annoyingly slow.

    I was reasonably impressed with the EM1 image quality even though the images seemed thin, or watery, compared to my D800E. Not to speak of the greatly reduced cropping margin due to the lower resolution. I managed to return the EM1 for a spot on the waiting list for a D810.

    Since I have decided to give up zooms I complemented the 810 body with a new copy of the very old Nikkor 200mm f/4, available only by special order.

    I almost hesitate to share this, because the images from the D810 with the 200 f/4 are the best I have ever seen.

  • Bord81

    More and more people are waiting for a large-sensor, high performance mirrorless with F-mount… Maybe the D300s replacement will be one of a kind? :))

    • Roger Irwin

      A camera that never arrives can be everything you want it to be…and more :D

  • man

    I’m a Canon person and find this post spot on. Just can’t beat the DOF and sharpness one gets with a 70-200 f/2,8 on a FF body.

    My first mirror less was a Panasonic GF1 with 14-45 lens. I’ve tried them all since then. I’ve rented the more recent ones like A7/A6000 and X-T1. There getting better. Right now Fuji seems to be best.

    It’s just for fun for me, I’m no pro.
    Sometimes it’s the journey, not the destination.

  • MLWadester

    These are all issues based on an idiot author who did no research and bases his entire understanding on the mirrorless segment based on one model specifically and a nitpicky generalization of the others. Remind me not to read this site anymore. What a joke.

  • jlw518

    I went mirrorless 3 1/2 years ago, without planning to….I had been using a D200 and then a D90, but wanted a high IQ second body that was really portable as my daily take-with camera. I ended up with an Olympus EPL1. That camera had some significant flaws, but it produced beautiful output in reasonable light, and I found my Nikon gear just sat in its bag after getting it. 9 months later I sold all the Nikon gear, and went full M43. I ended up with quite a complete M43 system ( had a GH2 and then the EM1 and a bunch of very nice lenses). However, as I worked more on my images over time, the lure of FF became increasingly present.
    This Spring I started looking at FF cameras, and realized that no matter how great the output of the D800 or the D600, they simply would not suit either my shooting style or my hand size, and if I got one it would end up sitting in its bag again (I have very small hands), plus I really would miss the EVF (it’s hard to go back to an OVF once you get spoiled by how useful the EVF live view is). So, I looked at the Sony A7, and ended up getting one. I bought one native lens and got the LAEA4 adapter to use A-mount lenses (which actually work quite well). I bought a Minolta 50mm macro and a 50mm f1.7 normal lens, and a Sony 70-300mm, and the results I’ve been getting from those and the native 24-70mm are very good. I’ve also got a few adapted legacy manual lenses (some Yashica MLs and Nikons) which I am quite fond of, and because of the focus magnification and peaking, it is quite easy to use them also.

    Now, if Nikon had had an equivalent camera to the A7, I would have given heavy weight to my consideration of it, simply because the lens selection would be much more comprehensive (assuming they made a mirrorless that could work on their F-mount lenses without a big adapter….). I would still consider one in the future, too, if Sony does not get their native lenses built out for this series (they are a bit pokey in their lens releases, historically).
    The A7 functionality is much better than the NEX-6’s, and I have it set up to have all the button and dial controls exactly as I like them. Sony has been paying attention to its users after all, and incorporated a lot of corrections to past NEX errors into these bodies, so judging mirrorless overall by that one camera is perhaps too much of an extrapolation…
    Of course, if you do BIF or fast action tracking, DSLRs are still going to have the edge, but I don’t, so that was not a particular factor in my buying decision. IF Nikon can develop a mirrorless that DOES have excellent tracking, they will really capture an important part of both the mirrorless and DSLR user audience, and really have a leg up on the competition (at least for the present).
    Moral of the story: If you can put up with some idiosyncracies, it is possible to get a mirrorless camera now that will allow you to set it up exactly the way you want, and get output that is truly excellent. If you want a more mature system, though, it’s going to be a while before everything shakes out, either with Nikon or Canon entering the fray, or Sony getting its lens lineup together. I chose to continue with mirrorless rather than go back to a DSLR when I went to FF as my primary camera, though, as DSLRs feel clunky, huge, and backward to me now after using mirrorless for all these years.

  • Mark – Shotkit

    Great article and refreshing to hear someone tell this side of the story. I think mirrorless cameras are awesome but in no way a replacement for DSLRs…yet. The image quality is on par perhaps, but apart from the size, I really can’t see many concrete benefits of a mirrorless vs a DSLR for shooting weddings, which is what I do.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • KawikaNui

    Your mistake wasn’t so much breaking your own rules, as it was getting a NEX camera. Sony controls and menus can be very poor regardless of size (A77ii comes to mind). If you don’t get a camera with several programmable Fn buttons and at least a couple of Custom dial positions, you are asking for trouble in the field. Also, Sony has very few native NEX / E-mount lenses. (One reason I didn’t get the a6000.)
    For size, a site like camerasize.com will let you see exactly what you’re going be dealing with, compared to what you have. (I used this to get the GX7 instead of the GM5, and I’m glad I did).
    Do the research, look at the images online, read the reviews (if reviewers call the camera “fiddly” or complain about the menus, it’s a good indication), download the manual and find out what has to be done to get results.
    I have shot Pentax and Panasonic (with occasional disappointing forays into Sony) for years. There’s no store where I can get a hands-on experience, and I can’t afford to rent. I have been richly rewarded (K-r, K-5, GH3, GX7, even the FZ150).

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