Developed as a compromise between the efficient size of compacts and the quality and compositional freedoms of a DSLR, a brand-new breed of camera has appeared over the last year or so. Sometimes affectionately dubbed “EVIL” as an acronym for Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens, these cameras have eliminated the mirror box of the traditional SLR design while keeping the swappable lens systems. The latest models in this class also have the large sensors of modern DSLRs. Currently, there are a handful of available models. The smaller sensor of the Micro Four Thirds System makes it particularly ideal for this type of design, and both Olympus (the Pen series—the E-P1, E-P2 and E-PL1) and Panasonic (the G1, GH1, G2, G10 and GF1) offer these “hybrid” cameras. In May, Sony introduced the Alpha NEX-5 and NEX-3 with APS-C-sized sensors. Samsung has the NX10, as well, which is also APS-C.
Myth: If It’s Not A DSLR, It’s Not A Serious Camera
Many of the exterior designs are just as stylish as classic Leicas and rangefinders, and the rhetoric of the camera manufacturers is that these cameras offer the higher image quality of great glass and big sensors at a size that can fit in your pocket. So what’s not to love? First, the revolutionary design of these systems also requires a new lens mount (E-mount). So you can affix previous lenses from the above companies, although you have to do it through an adapter, which means often losing autofocus capabilities (though not always). This makes them possible backup cameras for photographers already invested in a set of lenses. Of course as pro backups, they won’t be “pocket-sized,” because large high-end lenses often can be bigger than the camera itself.
Since the cameras are so new, there aren’t a lot of focal lengths available as of yet, either. Though these lenses work with the autofocus capabilities of the cameras, all of the current mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras use contrast-based autofocus, which is slower and less accurate at tracking than the more sophisticated system of phase detection. Unfortunately, by sacrificing the mirror system of a DSLR, you also lose phase detection, which currently requires an AF mirror.
By extracting the mirror and pentaprism, the body is made more compact and includes fewer parts, which also saves on the total cost of the camera. In exchange, photographers lose the optical viewfinder, instead settling on composition through the Live View LCD screen or, in some cases, through an electronic viewfinder (though optional optical viewfinders are available for some of these cameras, as well).
Also, these new cameras all exhibit some degree of shutter lag in most shooting modes, which is a deal-breaker for a working pro. The amount of lag varies and it’s improving, but we believe that any shutter lag is unacceptable.
For these reasons and more, both Canon and Nikon have yet to enter this market, though the “hybrid” cameras have drawn a great deal of attention, and available cameras have been selling well. Clearly, these cameras are still in the nascent stage of their development, and the “EVIL” nomenclature may not stick, as they’re challenging the conventional thinking behind camera construction. They’re showing us that we’re not restricted to a system inherited from film cameras.
Another reason pros will want to pay attention to mirrorless cameras is because many of them make solid backups to a DSLR body and can shoot HD video. If you’re a Sony Alpha shooter, by using a lens adapter, you can mount all of your Alpha A-mount lenses on an NEX-5 (autofocus capability will be lost). If you’re an Olympus E-system shooter, you can use all of your Zuiko lenses on a Pen camera.
We’re certainly not suggesting that you should abandon your DSLRs, but it makes sense to keep up with this technology and to see where these small cameras might fit a niche in your shooting style.