Time To Lose The Mirror

When rangefinder cameras came along in the early part of the 20th century, they revolutionized photography. Designed to use 35mm movie film with its rugged film base and sprocket system for advancing frames, 35mm rangefinders ushered in a new era of compact, fast cameras that were mated with ultra-high-level optics. Ultimately, Leica became synonymous with rangefinders, but for much of the 20th century, the rangefinder design was a mainstay of the camera industry until the SLR superseded it.

Sony a7R

The traits that enabled rangefinders to overthrow handheld medium and large-format cameras in the 1930s were clear: small size, roll film, excellent compact optics, and fast and accurate focusing systems. Today, we’re on the verge of a similar sea change for some of the same reasons. The bulk of a 4×5 Speed Graphic camera was tolerated until a smaller, lighter, nimbler camera capable of delivering professional image quality arrived. The DSLR has been the professional’s tool of choice for a decade, but a new generation of mirrorless cameras are positioned to knock DSLRs off their perch.

Leica M Typ 240

In 2013, we ran an article about where mirrorless cameras fit into a professional photographer’s repertoire. At that time, the available models were well suited as compact backup cameras or dedicated motion-capture tools that wouldn’t add a lot of bulk to your kit, yet gave you a lot of versatility. Today, there are mirrorless options that are ready to step into the role of your primary camera.

Street Shooters

Adapters and manual-focus primes can transform a modern digital mirrorless camera into an ultra-compact street shooting outfit

Clockwise: Zeiss Planar T*1.4-50 ZE, Metabones Speed Booster, Novoflex Adapter

With a mirrorless digital camera, you aren’t limited to the lenses produced for that specific camera, or even that specific lens mount. Because of their short flange-back distances (the space between the lens mount and the image plane), mirrorless digital cameras can use just about any lens for which an adapter can be found. The lenses designed for the camera offer autofocusing and metering, but the ability to use other lenses tremendously expands the field of available optics.

Camera manufacturers often offer adapters that let you use their SLR lenses on their mirrorless cameras. Sony’s LA-EA4 adapter not only lets you use Sony A-Mount (and Konica Minolta Maxxum-mount) SLR lenses on Sony E-Mount mirrorless cameras—it also adds phase-detection AF. But a very popular trend is using third-party adapters to mount high-quality compact lenses, such as Leica M and Zeiss, on mirrorless cameras. These adapters disconnect camera-lens automation (they’re best used with manual exposure or aperture-priority AE), and contain no glass elements.

Novoflex offers quality adapters for a wide range of lenses and cameras, all of which permit focusing out to infinity. Metabones Speed Boosters are adapters that do contain glass elements, and along with letting you attach full-frame SLR lenses to APS-C and MFT mirrorless cameras, they act as "reverse teleconverters," reducing focal length and increasing lens speed.

Full Frame

Leica still makes 35mm rangefinder cameras (M7 with aperture-priority AE and fully mechanical MP, which can operate without a battery). But they also make full-frame M-series digital cameras, currently the M Typ 240 (with a 24-megapixel CMOS sensor), M-E (with an 18-megapixel CCD sensor) and M Monochrom (with an 18-megapixel monochrome CCD). All are quite compact compared to even entry-level full-frame DSLRs: The digital M cameras measure 5.5×3.1×1.7 inches (about 29 cubic inches), while the smallest full-frame DSLR measures 5.6×4.3×2.6 inches (about 62.5 cubic inches).

All Leica M bodies are designed specifically to work with the legendary Leica M-series rangefinder lenses (as are the sensors in the digital models), which currently number 22, from 16mm through 135mm. Add the optional Leica R-Adapter M, and you can use Leica R-series SLR lenses. The R-lenses are no longer in production, but are available on the used market; they extend the focal-length range from 15mm to 400mm. It’s best to use the optional Visoflex EVF2 electronic viewfinder with the R lenses, as the camera’s rangefinder was designed for focal lengths from 16-135mm. Of course, with the M Typ 240, you can also use the LCD monitor in live view mode.

Relative Format Sizes

Sony‘s a7 series mirrorless full-frame cameras are almost as small as the Leica Ms: 5.0×3.7×1.9 inches (about 35 cubic inches), with weights from 14.3 to 15.7 ounces. They come in three flavors. The a7, with a 24.3-megapixel Sony Exmor CMOS sensor, is the lowest-priced full-frame digital camera ($1,499). The a7R ($2,299), with a 36.4-megapixel Sony Exmor CMOS sensor and no AA filter, is geared for ultimate resolution. The newest a7 camera is the a7S ($2,499), which was unveiled just before the NAB show in April. It features a 12.2-megapixel Sony Exmor CMOS sensor, and it’s particularly suited to low-light work and motion capture, featuring direct pixel readout (no line skipping or pixel binning) and uncompressed 4:2:2 Full HD and 4K QFHD output via HDMI, but it’s also great for still photography in challenging conditions, with a dynamic range of 15.3 stops and ISO settings to 409600. All three a7 cameras feature built-in high-resolution OLED Tru-Finder electronic viewfinders and tilting 3.0-inch 921K-dot LCD monitors. The a7 series features more bells and whistles than the Leicas.

The a7 cameras take Sony FE lenses (full-frame E-Mount), of which there are currently five, none as fast or as wide as the Leica’s (the Zeiss Sonnar 55mm ƒ/1.8 is the fastest, the Vario-Tessar 24-70mm ƒ/4 zoom the widest), but they do take you longer than Leica’s M lenses—there’s a 70-200mm ƒ/4 with built-in optical stabilization (none of Leica’s lenses offer that). The a7 cameras will also mount Sony E (NEX) lenses, automatically cropping to APS-C format to avoid vignetting with these designed-for-APS-C optics. You can also use Sony A-mount DSLR and legacy Konica Minolta Maxxum lenses via the LA-EA3 or LA-EA4 adapter (the latter incorporates a phase-detection AF system), and pretty much any other lens for which you can find an adapter. Of course, using the adapter and SLR lenses increases overall system size.

Speed Characteristics Of Full-Frame Mirrorless Cameras

With the rangefinder Leicas, you can look through the viewfinder to compose at any time, even with the camera switched off. The Sonys, with their electronic finders, must be switched on and awake for you to be able to see through the viewfinder. Being complex computers at heart, all digital cameras take a moment to "boot up"—there’s a bit of a delay between bringing the camera to
your eye and being able to shoot—but most DSLRs are quicker to start up or wake from sleep mode. If this bothers you, avoid it by canceling the mirrorless camera’s sleep mode (and carrying extra batteries).

Speaking of batteries, when used in viewfinder mode (only the M Typ 240 has live view), the Leicas should be easier on batteries than the Sonys, which are in live view mode all the time, whether you’re using the eye-level EVF or the LCD monitor. Pro DSLRs, with their optical eye-level finders and large batteries, get a lot more shots per battery charge, because electronic viewfinders and live view eat up a lot of power.

Micro Four Thirds

The smaller format has a lot to offer, thanks to sophisticated cameras and high-tech optics

Micro Four Thirds sensors are smaller than APS-C sensors. This allows for smaller camera bodies, and especially for smaller lenses, because the lenses don’t have to cover such a large sensor area. Yet the MFT sensor is big enough that image quality—especially with recent MFT cameras—is competitive with many APS-C cameras. And where quality compact lenses designed for APS-C cameras are relatively few, a wide range exists for Micro Four Thirds. With MFT, you can put together a full-featured street-shooting system that’s much smaller than an APS-C system, yet give up little in terms of image quality.

Olympus’ top-of-the-line Micro Four Thirds model is the OM-D E-M1. It’s a full-featured camera featuring a 16.3-megapixel Live MOS sensor and a "mini-DSLR" form factor with high-resolution built-in eye-level electronic viewfinder. On-chip Dual Fast AF uses 81-point quick contrast-based AF with Micro Four Thirds lenses and 37-point phase-detection AF when a Four Thirds System lens is attached. A three-inch tilting touch-screen LCD monitor offers touch AF and manual focus peaking. Five-axis sensor-shift image stabilization is very effective, and you can shoot up to 10 fps (6.5 fps with AF) for up to 45 RAW or 95 JPEG images. Built-in Wi-Fi lets you operate your camera from your smartphone, geotag images using the smartphone’s GPS and send images to your smartphone wirelessly. The splashproof, dustproof and freezeproof OM-D EM-1 can also shoot 1080p and 720p video at 30 fps with stereo sound via built-in microphone. Dimensions: 5.0×3.7×2.5 inches, 15.6 ounces. Estimated street price: $1,299.

Panasonic’s top MFT model is the Lumix DMC-GH4. Like the E-M1, it features a 16-megapixel Live MOS sensor and a "mini-DSLR" form factor, with a built-in 2359K-dot OLED EVF complemented by a free-angle 1036K-dot OLED touch-screen monitor for easy odd-angle shooting. It can shoot up to 12 fps (7.5 fps with continuous AF), and up to 40 fps with electronic shutter. Normal ISO range is 200-25600. A rugged die-cast splashproof magnesium alloy body, a shutter tested to 200,000 cycles (with speeds from 60 seconds to 1⁄8000 and flash sync up to 1⁄250) and built-in Wi-Fi with NFC are further pluses. Dimensions: 5.2×3.7×3.3 inches, 16.9 ounces. Estimated street price: $1,699.

Size Characteristics Of Mirrorless Cameras

A full-frame DSLR is bulky, especially the pro models, but as mentioned earlier, even the entry-level ones are noticeably larger than the Leica M and Sony a7 cameras. Mirrorless lenses are smaller, too—despite both having to cover a full 35mm frame. Leica’s 35mm ƒ/1.4 measures 1.8×2.1 inches and weighs just 11.3 ounces, while Nikon’s AF-S 35mm ƒ/1.4G measures 3.3×3.5 inches and weighs 21.1 ounces.

Size Characteristics Of APS-C Mirrorless Cameras

APS-C mirrorless cameras are even smaller than the full-frame ones and still deliver solid image quality. The big deal here is the crop factor: a given focal length used on an APS-C camera frames like one that’s 50 percent longer on a full-frame camera. For example, an 18mm lens on an APS-C camera frames like a 27mm lens on a full-frame camera.

Fujifilm offers a series of APS-C mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras, all with 16-megapixel CMOS sensors. The X-T1 and X-E2 feature X-Trans II sensors, the X-Pro1 and X-M1 X-Trans sensors (all with a unique non-Bayer filter array that minimizes moiré and color aberrations, eliminating the need for a blurring AA filter), and the compact X-A1, a CMOS sensor with a Bayer array. The best choices for "digital rangefinder" work would be the X-T1 (if you like a "mini-DSLR" form factor) or the X-E2 (if you prefer a "flat" form factor). Both feature Fujifilm’s latest X-Trans CMOS II 16-megapixel APS-C image sensor, built-in high-definition eye-level electronic viewfinders and Fujifilm’s hybrid AF system. The X-T1 body ($1,299) measures 5.0×3.5×1.8 inches and weighs 13.7 ounces; the X-E2 ($999) measures 5.1×2.9×1.5 inches and weighs 10.6 ounces.

Fujifilm currently offers 11 X-mount lenses, from 10-24mm superwide zoom to 50-230 telephoto zoom, including fast primes from 14-60mm (equivalent to 21-90mm on a full-frame camera).

Samsung offers a number of NX-series mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras with 20.3-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensors: the DSLR-shaped NX30, NX20 and Galaxy NX, and the compact NX300, NX2000, NX1100 and NX 1000. All except the NX20 have built-in Wi-Fi for easy photo sharing. The best one for "digital rangefinder" type shooting is the NX30, with a built-in tilting 2359K-dot eye-level EVF and a 3.0-inch 1037K-dot swiveling touch screen AMOLED monitor (the NX20 is older technology, the Galaxy much larger, and the others don’t have built-in eye-level viewfinders). The NX30 ($999 with 18-55mm kit zoom) measures 5.0×3.8×1.6 inches and weighs 13.2 ounces.

Fourteen NX-mount lenses are currently available, from 10mm fish-eye and 12-24mm zoom to 50-200mm zoom. There’s also an adapter that mounts Pentax K-mount lenses, expanding the focal-length range at the long end.

Sony‘s APS-C mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras originally carried the NEX name, but recent models have switched to an "a" (Alpha) designation. Current models include the 24.3-megapixel a6000 and NEX-7, 20.1-megapixel a5000, and 16.1-megapixel NEX-6, NEX-5T and NEX-3N. The best one for "digital rangefinder" shooting is the a6000 ($599), which combines a 24.3-megapixel Sony Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor, eye-level 1440K-dot OLED EVF and tilting 3.0-inch 921K-dot LCD monitor in a 4.7×2.6×1.8-inch, 10.1-ounce body.

Sony offers 14 E-Mount lenses, from 10-18mm superwide zoom to 55-210mm tele zoom, plus ultrawide and fish-eye converters for the 16mm ƒ/2.8 wide-angle prime lens. The LA-EA3 and LA-EA4 adapters let you use Sony A-Mount DSLR lenses and legacy Konica Minolta Maxxum lenses on the NEX cameras, the latter providing phase-detection autofocusing. There are also many adapters available to mount a wide variety of lenses on NEX and a-series Sony APS-C mirrorless cameras.

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