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?