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but for much of the 20th century, the rangefinder design was a mainstay of the camera industry until the SLR superseded it.
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.
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.
| Adapters and manual-focus primes can transform a modern digital mirrorless camera into an ultra-compact street shooting outfit
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.