Monday, January 12, 2015

My 2014 Mirrorless Journey with Panasonic, Olympus, Sony and Fuji

2014 was without a doubt a very fun year. I was fortunate enough to acquire different mirrorless cameras through trades, which my group of friends like to call "Trade Up Tuesdays", and a bit of luck with great used deals. Although I have been a fan of mirrorless cameras since the beginning, I will be the first to admit that they do not come without limitations. Several times during the year, friends have come to me for camera buying advice. While I am inclined to recommend a m43 camera or some of the newer Sony Alpha crop sensor bodies, I always ask what their budget and their intended use is. If anyone tells me they want to eventually shoot sports, weddings/events or wildlife on a full time basis, then I can't help but recommend a DSLR from Canon or Nikon. For anything else, whether it be street, travel or portraiture work I'm betting my money on mirrorless cameras. 

You might be wondering why I love these mirrorless cameras so much and it really boils down to 4 simple aspects:
  1. Weight - these cameras are so light weight, you won't mind bringing them anywhere. Even with an additional battery grip and the heaviest lens, these things are feathers compared to their DSLR "equivalent"
  2. The EVF (Electronic View Finder) - some love it and some hate it.  As for me, I simply can't live without it. I would rather see what the sensor is picking up rather than looking through the lens. 
  3. Adapting Vintage/Manual Focus Only Glass -  I have held the opinion since using the Panasonic GF-1 that mirrorless cameras offer the best user experience for adapting old and new manual lenses. From focus peaking to the fine focusing aids, these cameras have brought new life to what I believe was a niche photographic tool.
  4. Autofocus Accuracy - because the AF system is sensor based, you don't need to worry about back/front focusing or fine tuning each lens, especially fast primes, by doing micro adjustments. It goes without saying that the continuous AF has a long ways to go (I rarely ever use this except for video), but the single AF can be incredibly fast and incredibly accurate.
While most higher end DSLRs are fully capable of covering all types of photographic genres, I personally don't find them enjoyable to use (your mileage will most definitely vary). As for me, I can't live without the aforementioned perks and use each of my mirrorless gear for varying situations. Instead of trying to convince you how these are better or worse than their mirrored brethren, I decided to go the Zack Arias route and explain how each fit in my workflow.  

Olympus OMD E-M1

The Olympus OMD is my main workhorse. On many occasions I have been asked which out of all my cameras I would keep if I could only choose one and my answer is always the OMD E-M1. While it does not have the highest image quality, it does so many things perfectly in my eyes and has the highest usability factor.

Favorite Len(s): Olympus 75mm f/1.8, Olympus 12-40mm Pro f/2.8, Panasonic 7-14mm f/4

Intended Use: Events, Studio Portraits & Headshots, Product Photography, Concert

Favorite Features: The E-M1 has the best single AF out of all the cameras I have used. This camera can lock focus with ease in low light and is the primary reason why this is my preferred camera for events. The face detect is extremely quick/accurate and is the most used feature whenever I do headshots. The high flash sync of 1/320 is incredibly handy if you want to over power ambient light. Ergonomically speaking, the E-M1 in my opinion is one of the best, if not the best, I have ever used. The touch to focus and/or shutter release was perfectly implemented and useful when handing the camera over to others. Need I mention the in body image stabilization and the new tethered shooting function. There's just so much to like about the E-M1 and I have gushed over this camera over several posts. 

Olympus Pen E-P5

The Olympus Pen E-P5 was in my gear bag for a little under 6 months. I originally purchased the camera as a back up/secondary body to the OMD. It shared a lot of similar features to the E-M1 like the two control dials, the flash sync speed of 1/320 and 5 axis in-body image stabilization. If there was one thing I think Olympus dropped the ball on it would have to be the fact they did not integrate a rangefinder style EVF. Speaking strictly for myself, I would have sacrificed the pop-up flash for the view finder. Although the E-P5 was traded in to acquire the A7, I remember really enjoying it.

Favorite Len(s): Olympus 45mm f/1.8, Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4, Panasonic 20mm f/1.7

Area of work: Secondary body for Events and Travel   

Favorite Features: In many ways the E-P5 is just like the OMD in a smaller package, so I won't repeat myself. I wouldn't use the E-P5 as a my primary body, but as a travel companion it takes the prize. The form factor, size and weight are the selling points for me.

Panasonic Lumix GX1

The Panasonic GX1 is a relatively old micro four thirds camera that I acquired through Trade Up Tuesday =). It's interesting to note that this camera sold for a premium when it was announced (I recall approximately $800 - $1,000) and I was able to acquire this body by trading an old, legacy Olympus lens. Not bad if you ask me. This camera is just a breeze to use and is one of my fiancée's favorite cameras to use. Full disclosure, I haven't had much field time with this camera so it's hard to speak to both its strengths and weaknesses. 

Favorite Len(s): Sigma 30mm f/2.8*

Intended Use: Travel and fiancée's camera

Favorite FeaturesBased purely on aesthetics, I love how tiny and pocket-able the body is especially when you pair it with the Panasonic 14mm prime lens. *During our trip to Disneyworld, the GX1 and the Sigma 30mm f/2.8 lens were permanently around Heather's neck and the only lens we've used. Both the E-P5 and the E-M1 will surpass it in features and can easily run circles around this camera, but Heather seems to like the snappy single AF, the intuitive menus and the user friendly operation. If you are on a tight budget and want a good introduction to micro four thirds cameras, you really can't beat the GX1 with its going rate of ~$120 used on Ebay. However, if you are like me and need an electronic view finder, I'd say save up a little more and get the recently discontinued GX7.

Sony Alpha A7

The Sony Alpha A7. The first mirrorless, automatic AF, full frame camera that really shook up the photography world. Quite frankly, Sony is growing to be one of my favorite companies because they are truly willing to take risks. The A7 series, in my eyes, was a shot across the bow of Canon and Nikon's ship. It's not a perfect camera and I'll be the first to criticize it for its weaknesses, but boy does it scream innovation. This was the first camera marketed as an "open source" system, in which its greatest strength is that it can adapt almost any legacy glass. Some may argue this was a ploy to divert attention from the fact it has a limited number of native lenses, but speaking only for myself it has brought new life to my arsenal of vintage gear and I believe has made most of them viable creative and professional tools.

Favorite Len(s): Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8, FE 70-200mm f/4 G, Olympus OM 24mm f/2.8, Olympus OM 50mm f/1.4 and the Takumar M42 mount 105mm f/2.8

Intended Use: Product photography, on-location portrait and engagement work.

Favorite Features: Out of all my mirrorless cameras, I find the Sony A7 does the best job resolving images with adapted legacy glass. I no longer have to think about the crop factor or depth of field equivalence. A 50mm is a 50mm and f/1.4 is f/1.4. By virtue of having a full frame sensor, I enjoy having that shallower depth of field which I find is something my engagement and portrait clients seem to prefer. Comparatively, I find the RAW files have richer colors and far more latitude to recover details from shadows and highlights. I am not surprised it is clinically sharp given its high ranking on DxO's website (11th best sensor to date).

From an ergonomic standpoint, I am rather fond of the A7 body. Sony's design team evidently created it to be used with the EVF in placing its shutter above the body as opposed to forward the body like the E-M1. Try composing with the back of the screen and you'll find your wrist contorting in a strange fashion to actuate the shutter. But bring it to your eye, it all starts to feel right in my book. Like the E-M1, I customized the A7 so that I can change the ISO, shutter speed, aperture and focus points without taking my eye away from the view finder. This is a huge plus and in some ways slightly better implemented than my venerable OMD with the scroll wheel assigned to ISO. The battery grip is also a welcomed addition when mounting heavier lenses. While the E-M1 has a better feel, I much prefer having two batteries in the vertical grip as opposed to having a battery in both the body and grip. The design feels far more secure and doesn't wiggle like the Olympus HLD-7.

Overall, it's a good first generation full-frame mirrorless camera with a lot of room to improve. The implementation of the in-body 5 axis image stabilization and auto focus improvements in the A7 mark II is an exciting move in the right direction. 

Fujifilm X-T1


The Fuji X-T1 is a conundrum to me. In many ways it falls perfectly in the middle of the micro four thirds cameras and the Sony Alpha A7. The APSC sensor is larger than my OMD but smaller than the A7. The auto focus in both low and decent light will lock on noticeably faster than Sony's full frame camera, but will not hold a candle to the E-M1. In other ways, the X-T1 offers a far different photographic experience with its retro-modern design that I find difficulty articulating why I enjoy using. This camera ranks incredibly low on the "Need" scale, but quickly shoots up the "Want" and "Fun-to-use" ladder. 

Favorite Len(s): FujiFilm 56mm f/1.2, Olympus OM 50mm f/1.4 and the Voigtlander 40mm f/1.4

Intended Use: I am still trying to figure out my intended use for having the X-T1, but it is fully capable of doing Product Photography, Portraits, Headshots and possibly Events. With the 56mm lens, it fills my need for an 85mm equivalent prime. 

Favorite Features: I joined the Fuji camp in November with only two manual lens adapters in my gear bag, the Olympus OM and the Fuji M mount. There aren't enough superlatives in the dictionary to express how fun it was to use manual lenses on this camera. The EVF size/quality and focus aids are simply incredible and are the contributing factors for my raving opinion. Nothing could improve the experience more besides having in body image stabilization but I suspect Fuji will be joining the party soon enough.

Shortly after purchasing the camera for an incredible price, I found out Fuji would be releasing firmware 3.0 which was touted to be ground breaking and it is. It's difficult to compare the X-T1 with pre 3.0 firmware and post 3.0 because I acquired a native lens for it late in December. With that being said, there are a lot of standout improvements had they not fixed would have driven me mad like the face detect feature. I have read reports that you cannot move focus points if face detect is on - that's just silly and I'm glad it's done away with. However, the real stand out feature for me would have to be the complete silent mode. Being able to take photographs without making an audible sound would have been instrumental during my studio shoot at Chapman University for the final taping of We're Alive. I was told not to take pictures during the actual recording as the mics were sensitive enough to pick up the sound of the shutter. I would have loved taking shots of the actors emoting and really getting into character. Fuji's 56mm f/1.2 lens, while not necessarily loud, makes enough noise auto focusing that it would not have been useful but I always have the option to manually focus or adapt. 

From the small amount of time I have had with the body, I am honestly very happy with the experience. Although part of me feels like I am still in the honeymoon stage of the relationship, I am confident my opinion will not change much. Time will certainly tell. 

Conclusion

Having been with in the mirrorless world since the Panasanic GF-1, I have seen these cameras evolve dramatically. They are no longer relegated to the my back-up or travel camera status. Whether you are Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, Fuji or even Samsung, these companies are producing photographic equipment that are viable professional tools. The DSLR is not dead or anywhere near their deathbed. Canon and Nikon will be the king of the hill for the foreseeable future but even they are aware there is a growing paradigm shift. It would behoove them to adapt, expand or think about ways they join the mirrorless camp before their competition pulls too far away from them. Consumers and professionals alike are seeing the benefits of smaller cameras but some are still clutching to their DSLRs for very good reason. A lot of these emerging companies have been addressing their system limitations, including some of my personal gripes, namely first party support. Hopefully 2015 will be the year where we see partial or full professional support for the working mirrorless photographer. For now I am just excited to see the growth and proliferation of really neat technology. It is an exciting time to be a photographer.

So say we all,
Dino

PS - the blog title is a little wink to one of my new favorite websites dedicated to mirrorless cameras. Give Eric Cote a hello over at www.mirrorlessjourney.com