Mirrorless musings

“So waddaya takin’ pictures of?”
As the preposition dangles, the chills run down my spine.
Despite my best efforts to enjoy a quiet morning in the woods, the big camera and lens on the tall tripod has drawn in another gawker, like a moth to a flame.
I politely tell him I like the look of the trees, or something like that. Not that he really heard my response, as he goes on to tell me about how he wants to take up photography some day, and how he has a brother-in-law who’s a “professional photographer” and has “lots of cameras”. And then he quizzes why I’m using a Nikon because his brother-in-law said Canon is the best….”
I wish I could disappear.
That perhaps explains why camera design is at a bit of a crossroads these days. For a decade now, the Digital SLR has been top of the food chain, photography wise, as film cameras faded from prominence. It’s been obvious to all, that if you were truly serious about photography, you needed a DSLR.
The latest challenger to that absurd notion is the mirrorless camera concept. Take away that clattery moving mirror inside the camera and go naked – just a lens in front of a sensor, with the screen on the back to guide the way (or maybe a tiny TV screen finder when you can’t see the screen in bright surroundings), but if you can make it small and discreet enough, you just might get quality photos from something stealthy – and less likely to get unwanted attention.
Technically, the Epson R-D1 from my previous posting was the first “mirrorless” camera with interchangeable lenses. But as simply a digital version of the tried and true rangefinder, it isn’t quite the same thing. Rangefinders are difficult to make, and have a limited range of lenses by nature. No, a mirrorless camera can deliver an image with just about anything optical mounted in front.
Mirrorless, of course, is a horrible name, describing more what the camera lacks, rather than what it does. Other rather poor monickers include MILC (mirrorless interchangeable lens camera), EVIL (electronic viewfinder, interchangeable lens), or CSC (compact system camera). None seem right.
The first salvo in the mirrorless battle came from Olympus, I believe, when they launched their nifty, retro-styled “Pen” cameras – re-inventing the flagging fortunes of their “four-thirds” sized sensor by putting it into a truly smaller package, without the mirror.
I admit to being intrigued, although I had to ask myself “what’s it for?” A question I still haven’t properly answered.
Samsung and Sony brought out mirrorless bodies with the larger APS-C (1.5x crop) sensors, but like the Olympus, the few I saw in use were wedded to various adapters, so vintage manual focus SLR lenses could be fitted. Putting even a 50mm lens on a Micro 4/3 body, or a Sony Nex seemed clumsy and self-defeating. After all, why buy a compact body only to bulk it back up?
Still, the owners looked like they were having fun.
And as for myself, having had to say goodbye to the fun of the Epson R-D1, knowing I’d never justify a collection of M-mount lenses for it, I needed something novel and interesting to get me through a harsh winter.
I noticed that Pentax had some “demo” K-01 bodies on clearance. Now that was interesting. I’d seen but one K-01 some months before and decided I did like the idea – even if I knew I could never justify bringing any in for store stock. It was too “unique” a concept for the Windsor market to embrace – especially at nearly $900 with lens.
Still, I had the chance to delve into the mirrorless compact world – and I had my choice of colour.
If you aren’t familiar with the K-01, don’t be hard on yourself. Its chunky shape, and industrial design cues didn’t endear it to the retro-leaning mirrorless fans out there.
But I have to say I did get where Pentax was going with the K-01. They evidently didn’t want to release a new range of lenses for a skinny compact body – especially when many mirrorless users out there are adding adapters and using vintage lenses anyway. So Pentax just built the camera around a full-sized, full depth K-mount, and all their existing lenses fit and were ready to go. Vintage K-mount lenses worked too, somewhat. And even ancient M-42 screw mount optics can thread into an officially sanctioned adapter.
A bonus of the chunkier body was allowing room for a full-sized DSLR battery (same one the K5 and K3 Pentaxes use).
But you have to acknowledge the K-01 was trying to swim against the current. If mirrorless was about jewel-like overcoat-pocked sized cameras with 1960’s styling, the K-01 wasn’t that.
Its styling reminds me of a French Lip chronograph watch from the early ’70s. Purposeful, well-made, and in-your-face eccentric. I do like it.
So I ordered one in white and black. I drive a white car with black trim. My dog is white with black spots. My vintage Seiko 6138 has the “panda” white dial with black sub-dials. So why not?
Much was made of the lego-like red and green buttons that adorn the top of the K-01 (again, Lip chronograph). Frankly, I’d have made them even bigger and more obvious. But I do love the mode dial and input wheel – blocks of solid aluminum. When you get an industrial designer involved in a project, they refuse to skimp on materials.
Then there was the attraction of indulging in Pentax’s line of “pancake” prime lenses. The camera shipped with the ultra-tiny 40mm f2.8 XS – apparently the world’s thinnest interchangeable lens. I tried a 16-45mm zoom, but found it unwieldy. If I wanted big, I’d use my SLR. But I picked up a 21mm f3.2 Limited to suit it better. In case you’ve never seen one up close, one of the Limited series features is all-metal construction, from the lens cap to the mount. Take that, Canon and Nikon.
I also added a 50mm f2.0 manual focus K-A lens, and a Ricoh XR 135mm 2.8, which tested out to be nice and sharp on the K-01. A bonus, of course, is that all lenses can take advantage of the built-in sensor-shift stabilizer. If I get around to having fun with my old 50mm 1.4 SMCT screw mount, it too will be stabilized.
I forgot to mention that after the demise of my mini-DV camcorder, I figured the Pentax would also be fun for high-def video, especially since you can run it fully manually, and also plug in a microphone.
Then just as I was starting to find ways to take the Pentax seriously, I tried out a Sony Nex 5n – also a mirrorless based on the 16mp sensor. Opening raw files from each, you could tweak them side by side to make them look identical. The Pentax advantage was in the prime lenses, which were noticeably sharper than the 18-55mm kit lens the Sony came with.
The Sony was tiny by comparison, and was able to be stuffed into my jacket pocket. The screen also tilts on the Sony, which proved handy. But the menus and instructions for the Sony were admittedly dismal – designed by someone who doesn’t understand cameras or photography, apparently. The Nex 5n could also accept a screw in electronic finder in place of the flash, but I didn’t have one to try.
I did enjoy the manual focus on the Sony (after I finally found it in the menu system). Touching the focus ring immediately brought up a magnified box with focus peaking making it easy to see best focus. Then touching the shutter button got you back to a full-frame view. It’s easier to use than describe.
The K-01 works similarly, except you have to poke the centre control button to magnify. If you haven’t seen “focus peaking” in action, you should try it. Despite decent autofocus, I find manual focusing these mirrorless cameras is more fun. And yes, the Pentax menus and controls are excellent and sensible.
So, (drum roll please) is this the future of photography, and the beginning of the end of the traditional DSLR?
Well, despite a loud and aggressive minority extolling the virtues of the mirrorless concept, the fact is they haven’t set the world on fire, sales wise. The K-01 is no more, and doesn’t appear to have a successor on the horizon. Canon fans have already seen the EOS M come and go from the North American market – although newer versions limp on in Asia, apparently. Nikon has the One series, built around a sensor even smaller than Micro 4/3, but appeal remains limited, despite some interesting specs. Pentax also has their Q series, built around a very small sensor indeed, but I have a hard time imagining a market for it, outside those who ride the Tokyo subway.
Having ditched DSLRs altogether, Olympus is committed to the mirrorless concept now, as is Panasonic. And Fuji have some very interesting cameras, partly because they are also so very pretty.
So mirrorless is everywhere, and yet nowhere. Because at the end of the day, I can’t really see anyone preferring one to take photos of their kid’s soccer games …. or trying to get a good shot of those nesting eagles. And there’s no way a pro photographer at the sidelines of the Olympic games will be using anything other than a DLSR for some time to come.
No, mirrorless is a lot of fun for the “urban hipster”. Taking the place of the Canonet rangefinder, or the Rolleiflex TLR, the ability to shoot quietly, even at waist level at odd angles is quite cool, especially when you don’t need or want a telephoto lens.
I’m going to continue having fun with the K-01. I remain amazed that the camera and four lenses all fits into a tiny shoulder bag, and there’s still room for an external microphone and the battery charger.
There’s no denying that when the rubber meets the road, the DSLR, full-frame or otherwise, is the better instrument for action with tele lenses, or for carefully watching for that perfect facial expression on the optical focusing screen.
But if the mirrorless concept is about using a camera in a different way, to take different photos than you might take with your DSLR – and have fun while doing so – then it’s not hard to see the attraction.
And if they attract fewer gawkers, so much the better.

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~ by windsorphotooutfitters on June 14, 2014.

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