Anyone for a glass of MILC?

This time last year, I decided to sell my Canon DSLR outfit. It wasn’t perhaps the smartest move I’ve ever made, having built up a nice kit comprising 40D body, 17-85 and 70-300 USM lenses, the ubiquitous 50mm prime and a 430EX flashgun, all housed in a LowePro rucksack. However, having been eyeing up the Panasonic GH1 for some time, it looked like I could get at least the same image quality but in a much smaller package, and as a father of two young children, being able to shoot high-definition video was a real bonus. I was sold, and I wasn’t the only one showing interest in this new ‘mirrorless’ format.

I do occasionally miss my ‘big camera’, but having lived with my decision for the past 9 months or so, it turns out that the GH1 is in fact a pretty special bit of kit. There’s no denying it’s far from perfect, but at the time there was simply nothing like it on the market – interchangeable lenses, comparatively compact body, excellent EVF and video-optimised silent 10x zoom kit lens. It was (and still is) a fantastic ‘hybrid’ camera, great for shooting both stills and video. I was happy to forgive the relatively slow speed of the kit lens, the black-out during burst shooting, and occasional shadow banding at the highest ISO settings. Why? Because I was getting pseudo-DSLR image quality and bags of versatility in a compact, take anywhere package.

With its micro four thirds sensor the GH1 isn’t technically a DSLR as it has no mirror, instead it is a member of a new and recently evolved breed of ‘mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras’ (MILC), developed to appease those consumers looking for the enhanced image quality provided by a large sensor and the flexibility of interchangeable lens design. There are other cameras that fall into the same MILC category, notably the Olympus PEN range (also micro four thirds), and the Samsung NX and Sony NEX ranges, both of which use marginally larger APS-C sensors.

Having personally bought into the micro four thirds system, it’s encouraging to see third party lens development despite the relative youth of the format – the fast Voigtlander Nokton 25mm f/0.95 and the quirky Lensbaby Composer for example, whilst the Panasonic roadmap looks rosy too with a much needed fast zoom on the horizon (hopefully). The current line-up of system lenses from Panasonic covers most bases, from wide-angle to telephoto and macro, and the nature of the mirrorless design means that in all cases the kit is significantly more compact.

For me though, one of the major advantages to the MILC format, is that the removal of the mirror box makes adapting older SLR lenses a simple case of buying the correct lens mount adaptor. I have enjoyed bargain hunting some older glass to complement my GH1 kit adding a very nice macro lens – Tamron SP 90mm f/2.5 macro – and a few standard primes – Canon FD 50mm f/1.8 and 135 f/2.8. My favourite old lens is my Canon FD 70-210 f/4 which has a macro feature at 70mm, produces wonderfully crisp and contrasty images, and gives me an equivalent focal length of 420mm (in 35mm terms), all for the princely sum of £10!

As of yet, adapted lenses have no electronic connection to the camera, so setting the aperture has to be done manually, and of course there’s no autofocus. Some might miss such modern luxuries but I have to admit, shooting dare I say it the “old fashioned” way can be a real joy. Until I got my GH1 and bargain lenses, I’d never manually focused anything. Slowing down the process makes for a more engaging, rewarding experience, and forces you to think about what you’re photographing in a totally different way. The scatter-gun approach with rapid-fire 8fps and 3D tracking autofocus isn’t the only way to take pictures, and I have managed to capture birds-in-flight with the 70-210mm FD.

Now that the GH2 has been released, all my niggles with the GH1 appear to have been rectified. Although I remain unconvinced about the touch screen, notable improvements from a photography perspective include the increased resolution, improved high-ISO latitude, smoother EVF, no-blackout burst shooting and custom settings on the mode dial, whilst from a videography perspective things have been taken up a notch too. Evolution is a wonderful thing, but despite the improvements I won’t be upgrading just yet – partly because I can’t afford it but more importantly, because I don’t need to and I don’t think I’ve got the best out of the GH1 yet.

At the end of the day, there is no ‘perfect camera’, but on paper the MILC format surely isn’t that far off the mark – the cameras are versatile, compact, and capable of producing high quality images. From a marketing perspective, the format would seem to fit upgrading point-and-shooters, enthusiast DSLR users keen to reduce the size and weight of their kit and possibly even more professional photographers either as a backup or ‘back-pocket’ solution.

So why is it that as of yet the two biggest camera manufacturers on the planet have yet to serve us their MILC? I may have bought a GH1, but I know if there had been a compact Canon mirrorless option available at the time, one with great stills performance, impressive low-light capability and proper autofocus during video, I’d have probably picked that over the Panasonic. I might even have looked at a Nikon. Whilst the current Panasonic GH2 is arguably the best hybrid on the market, if you’re primarily shooting stills, you’ll more likely be better of with a proper DSLR for the same cost (or even less), assuming of course you’re prepared to sacrifice size and weight.

Rumours are currently afoot that Nikon might be about to announce something, and if they do surely Canon won’t be that far behind them? I find it very hard to believe that they both haven’t already got systems ready to bring to market, and hope that when they do, we will see some true innovation. Perhaps they are trying to engineer the perfect MILC solution and bring something game-changing to the market – full-frame sensors perhaps; the fastest auto-focus on the planet; or maybe a professional weather-sealed body? Global shutter?

Whatever they do, given their respective heritage in the field, Nikon and Canon ought to be able to deliver some very tasty MILC indeed. Anyone feeling thirsty?

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4 thoughts on “Anyone for a glass of MILC?”

  1. Nice write up Alisdair, and it echos my experience perfectly. I agree and feel that while I haven’t sold off my dSLR kits yet, I have been fully satiated from a purely photographic place with the micro 4/3 set up. I think that it can certainly be a capable replacement, but to me it is the perfect compliment to a heavier, higher end dSLR set up. I can’t justify getting rid of my bigger, full framers and high end lenses as it offers a different set of tools for different applications, but my m4/3 camera is my day to day, with me all the time camera. I also went the way of the compact GF1 to replace my compact/pocket camera which at the time was the wonderful LX3 and I’ve not once missed it. I just love the overall size reduction and system compatibility with third party lenses. Absolutely spectacular.

    Great article!

    Cheers,

    Tyson

    1. Thanks Tyson!

      I really don’t understand what’s taking Canon/Nikon so long to get into this segment. Although I really enjoy my GH1, at heart I’m probably a Canon man and wish I had a 5DmkII and some L glass, but I also know that if I did, I wouldn’t carry that around with me all the time – that’s where the G-series formula is a real winner.

      For me though, Canon could obliterate the competition with a new mirrorless “60Dm” body, EF-m (mirrorless mount) 18-135 IS USM f/3.5-5.6 & 100-300 IS USM f/4-5.6 lenses, and an EF-m/EF (or EF-m/EF-S) mount adaptor for those who have existing glass collections…… sounds good to me, and it will be interesting to see if the Nikon rumours are true too. Interesting times indeed 😉

  2. Good piece Alisdair on noticing this huge leap in photography, but to me loosing the mirror is a half step. lets remove the shutter while we are re-engineering. The burden moves towards excellent sensors, and the highest quality of software and maths, but is this not inevitable? Was scraping a needle along a plastic groove the only way to produce sound ? It may feel a lot less like a ‘real’ camera, but camera body costs will drop substantially without the precision mechanicals.

    I almost bagged a GF1 at last years Focus, but at the time it was to replace my G9. Used mainly for walkabout grabshots, I now use the iPhone 4 for that. While not controllable or adaptable, the apps provide a lot of fun in image making and sharing. The GF2 was a step backwards to consumer oriented touchscreen nonsense, no buttons! (and no apps).

    Some photography cooks best at slow speed eg. Landscapes. In one visit you may not take a singe shot, whereas at Weddings thousands are necessary. On Landscapes I often shift everything to manual, mount camera on tripod and look for the light, composition and story. My hit rate is very low, but its more rewarding when you bag one. Catch David Ward’s excellent books on landscapes.

    Panasonic, Samsung, Olympus and Sony(/Nikon) created this new flourishing marketplace, so it can’t be long until others join.

    ~ John

    1. Thanks John! I agree about the shutter, and quite honestly don’t know why the inevitable hasn’t happened yet – it’s surely only a matter of time before we see fully electronic shutters? Maybe that’s what Nikon and/or Canon have up their sleeves…

      Doubtless Panasonic believe that the GF2 is an improvement over the GF1, but everything I’ve read contradicts that – the GF2 just doesn’t seem to be the “photographers” camera that its predecessor was. Perhaps that doesn’t matter? Perhaps Panasonic have an even better enthusiasts model waiting in the wings? More likely they’re happy to shift appeal in the GF-series to the upgrading point-and-shooter, although that would make me question where so-called “premium compacts” fit into this whole marketing equation?

      Sometimes I see the MILC format as an uncomfortable piggy-in-the-middle. It can only ride it’s unique selling point (it’s size) for so long, especially with ‘budget’ DSLR offerings becoming increasingly stiff competition. I just hope when Nikon and Canon finally enter this segment, they shake things up a bit!

      Oh, and I think everything tastes better when it’s cooked slowly – even photography 😉

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