Mirrorless Compact System Cameras Take Center Stage

Mirrorless Compact System Cameras Take Center Stage


The current generation of mirrorless interchangeable-lens compact cameras, or compact system cameras (CSCs), provides the full DSLR shooting experience and then some. And they come in smaller, lighter packages that appeal to a wider variety of consumers than ever before.

Some competitors have dismissed Samsung’s recent “Ditch the DSLR” program as a clever marketing ploy. However, a number of leading industry experts have predicted that mirrorless CSCs will eventually supplant DSLRs, which are inherently larger, heavier and more complex, for all but high-end professionals. The basic reason behind this transformation has been significant technological advances in two key components: the electronic viewfinder (EVF) and the autofocus (AF) system.

Today’s top mirrorless compact models boast high-resolution EVFs with incredibly rapid refresh rates that provide a brilliant high-magnification viewing image that rivals that of optical viewfinders (OVFs). And they have the advantage of allowing users to preview the captured image (with exposure corrections and custom settings) in real time. Because of their elevated refresh rates, they also provide continuous viewing without “smearing” when viewing fast-moving subjects, the bane of older generation EVFs.

Hybrid AF systems that combine the advantages of fast, decisive on-sensor phase-detection AF with the precision of contrast-detection AF have also taken the autofocus performance of mirrorless cameras to a level surpassing that of most DSLRs. The advantages of hybrid CDAF/PDAF systems include not only faster, more decisive AF, but also the ability to provide continuous AF and focus tracking before and during the exposure—a crucial factor when shooting still images at high burst rates or when capturing HD video without visible or audible “hunting.”

At their best, mirrorless system cameras combine the advantages of both DSLRs and point-and-shoots cameras. They provide lens interchangeability, ultrahigh image quality and the entire high-end feature array of middle and upper tier DSLRs in smaller, lighter, handier bodies. They have fewer moving parts, shutter-release noise and vibration are minimal thanks to the elimination of the moving mirror, and they have a shorter flange back distance that’s especially beneficial when designing high-performance wide-angle lenses. This also allows users to mount their existing DSLR lenses and a wide variety of third-party optics, including legacy rangefinder lenses. Not surprisingly, as the popularity of mirrorless has increased over the past two years or so, camera makers and independent lens manufacturers have expanded their lens offerings, thus increasing the creative optical options available to consumers, and marketing opportunities for dealers.

The mirrorless camera market continues to be technologically driven. Many of the latest high-end models offer higher res sensors, enhanced image-processing software for greater responsiveness, faster burst rates, 4K video capture, Wi-Fi connectivity, multiaxial in-body image stabilization, and enhanced viewing options, such as high-res tilt/swing and touch-screen LCDs and OLED EVFs.

Indeed, entry-level and middle-tier CSCs have also benefited from the technological advances. The result is an array of enticing models offering features that have migrated down from higher end models, often with simplified user interfaces and at very competitive prices. It’s like a reprise of the great DSLR evolution without the flipping mirror, but this time is has the potential of encompassing a wider user base!

To keep you on track of this category, here’s a concise rundown on the latest top-of-the-line mirrorless compact system cameras offered by the leading manufacturers.

Sony Alpha a7II. This brand-new addition to the Alpha a7 line of high-performance, full-frame cameras is the first to feature sensor-shifting 5-axis SteadyShot Inside image stabilization, providing a claimed 4.5 stops of antishake compensation for pitch, yaw, horizontal and vertical shift, and roll. This is a big plus when shooting Full HD 1080p video at 60p, 30p and 24p using the high-bit-rate XAVC S format, or handheld stills in low light. The a7II employs a 24.3MP Exmor CMOS sensor coupled to an advanced Bionz X processor. It uses an enhanced “Fast Hybrid AF” system with 117 phase-detection and 25 contrast-detection points, claimed to provide superior focus tracking and a 5-fps, full-res burst rate with continuous AF and AE.

Other key features include: a 3.0-inch, 1,228.8K-dot tilting LCD monitor; a 0.5-inch, 2.36M-dot XGA OLED EVF; customizable color and gamma controls, including the same S-Log2 gamma curve on high-end Sony cinema cameras for increased dynamic range; built-in Wi-Fi with NFC; an ergonomic grip, shutter release and controls; and magnesium alloy body construction. $1,700. sony.com

Olympus OM-D E-M1.
The much-admired flagship of the Olympus Micro Four Thirds system has the same downsized classic DSLR look as the landmark EM-5. But its real-world performance was notably enhanced thanks to an upgraded 16.3MP High-Speed Live MOS image sensor coupled to a TruePic VII processor that provides increased responsiveness, enhanced image quality and improved performance at high sensitivity settings up to ISO 25,600.

It has a large, wide-view, high magnification, 2.36K-dot, eye-level EVF providing a 100% view, a 3.0-inch, 1,037K-dot, tilting touch-screen OLED monitor, and a 5-axis sensor-shift image stabilization system engineered to deliver shake-free images when shooting stills or 1,920×1,080 Full HD video handheld. It can shoot full-res bursts with AF at up to 10 fps and has built-in wireless connectivity that links to iOS and Android devices using an intuitive QR code connect system. The E-M1 offers an enhanced, customizable multifunction control array similar to that in high-end pro DSLRs. All this is built into a rugged dustproof, weatherproof magnesium alloy body. $1,399.99. olympusamerica.com

Nikon 1 V3. This third generation Nikon 1 mirrorless compact system camera based on the 13.2×8.8mm CX format is clearly aimed at attracting serious shooters. While somewhat longer (4.4 inches) and taller (2.6 inches) than previous Nikon 1 cameras, it’s solid and elegant, with rounded-end styling that pays homage to the classic rangefinder cameras of yore. Its CMOS sensor is now 18.4MP (up from 14.2MP in the V2), and perhaps even more important, it has an upgraded Expeed 4A image processor. The latter helps to deliver such notable advantages as improved overall speed and responsiveness, better high ISO performance and ISO settings to 12,800, movie e-VR stabilization for smooth video capture, Full HD 1080p video recording at 60 fps (120 slo-mo fps at 720p), and a full-res 20-fps burst rate for 40 frames with full-time AF.

It also sports a 3.0-inch, 1,037K-dot tilting, touch-screen LCD and has built-in Wi-Fi connectivity. Its upgraded hybrid AF system employs an array of 105 phase-detection and 171 contrast-detection AF points designed to enhance AF speed and accuracy in any light. The standard Nikon 1 VR kit includes an eye-level EVF and a second larger grip with a third function button. With Nikkor VR 10–30mm f/3.5–5.6 PD-Zoom lens, $1,199.95. nikonusa.com

Leica T. This attractively minimalist camera from Leica is beautifully made and gorgeously finished (in traditional black or striking white), as you would expect. It lacks the usual array of buttons and dials, being controlled entirely via the big 3.7-inch, 1.3M-dot TFT LCD touch screen. It incorporates a 16.5MP APS-C CMOS sensor, an advanced contrast-based AF system, and it can capture Full HD 1080p video at 30 fps or shoot continuous, full-res images at 5 fps. Its robust body is built on a solid unibody design, precision machined from a solid billet of aluminum. It also features: a powerful built-in flash; 16GB of internal memory; Wi-Fi connectivity for easy sharing and remote operation using the free Leica T app for iOS; and a downloadable copy of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

Among the chief attractions of this camera are the legendary Leica lenses specifically designed for it. Currently, there are four. $1,849. us.leica-camera.com

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4. This brilliant, upgraded top-of-the-line Micro Four Thirds camera provides the full DSLR shooting experience along with 4K 4,096×2,160 video capture at 24 fps, QFHD 4K 3,840×2,160 capture at 30/24p and Full HD at up to 60p. It features a 16.05MP Live MOS sensor coupled to a cutting-edge 4-CPU Venus engine image processor, which enables the GH4 to achieve a full-res burst rate up to an impressive 40 fps.

It also features: a 2,359K-dot live view OLED EVF; a 3.0-inch, 1,036K-dot OLED touch-screen monitor; and a high-speed, 49-point AF system. Like its predecessor the GH3, it also provides full area and pinpoint AF, auto HDR for still photos, electronic front and rear shutters, a built-in level, built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, and 40%, 48% and 89% slow motion video modes. A revised ergonomic button layout improves operational speed and convenience. And all these features are housed in a tough, lightweight, weather-sealed magnesium alloy body. $1,499. panasonic.com

Samsung NX1. Samsung’s sleek, new NX-mount CSC offers a combination of understated DSLR styling plus an impressive enthusiast-aimed feature set that should delight pros and serious shooters seeking high performance and value. It provides a 28.2MP APS-C-format CMOS sensor coupled to an advanced DRIMe V processor, a 3.0-inch, 1,036K-dot AMOLED tilt/touch-screen monitor and an ultra-high-res 2,360K-dot XGA OLED EVF.

The biggest news of all: it can capture 4K 4,096×2,160 at 24p, 3,840×2,160 at 30p, as well as Full HD and HD video, and it has a full-res burst rate of 15 fps complete with autofocus. The NX1 also features: an ISO range of 100–51,200; a new hybrid AF system that combines phase-detection and contrast-detection AF using 205 phase-detection AF points; dual-channel Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity along with Bluetooth 3.0 to connect with smartphones and other devices; and a USB 3.0 port. $1,499.99. samsung.com

Fujifilm X-T1. This rugged, minimalist model is the flagship of Fujifilm’s impressive X series. It features a proprietary 16.3MP APS-C X-Trans CMOS II sensor, claimed to deliver superior image quality and lower noise than conventional sensors. The sensor is coupled to an advanced EXR II processor built to deliver a continuous burst rate up to 8 fps and Full HD 1080p video capture at 60 fps. The X-T1 also provides a 0.5-inch, 2,360K-dot, 0.77x high-res OLED EVF and a tilting 3.0-inch 1,040K-dot LCD monitor. Its intelligent hybrid AF combines contrast- and phase-detection sensors in a 49-point matrix for enhanced AF performance, and it has a focus peaking display for precise focus assessment and enhanced manual focus capability.

Other key features include: built-in Wi-Fi connectivity for easy sharing and remote operation via coupled devices; ISO 100–51,200 settings; electronic and mechanical shutter with speeds to 1/4,000 sec; and a weather-resistant body. The camera comes with a shoe-mount Fujifilm EF-X8 flash unit. $1,299.

The new Graphite Silver version of the X-T1 has an elegant silver finish and an electronic shutter providing a faster speed of 1/32,000. It can be set in 1/3-EV increments when using the latest Fujinon XF23mm f/1.4 R or XF56mm f/1.2 lenses. $1,499. fujifilmusa.com