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We're Going Mirrorless, Eventually

It's time to get my feet wet in the world of mirrorless cameras. Technically, this is not my first mirrorless camera, but it is my first mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, or MILC (sometimes called Compact System Cameras, CSCs). I've used a Sony RX-100 for several years. While it's a great pocket camera, it's not weather resistant, and the lens can't be changed.

So, I starting looking for something that is between the RX-100 and my DSLR. I wanted it to be relatively small, light, capture RAW files, offer interchangeable lenses, and be weather resistant. Mirrorless cameras generally fill most of those requirements, but weather resistance is not so common. This was one of the attractions of the Olympus OM-D cameras when they first appeared. The OM-D E-M5 Mark II introduction improved on the first version enough to make me bite. I ordered the E-M5 Mark II with the Olympus 12-40 f/2.8 Pro lens. Lightroom tells me that almost 90% of my images have been made with a 24-105 mm lens, so I think the 12-40 mm will be a good fit as a working lens. (The Micro Four Thirds crop factor is 2 times 35 mm full-frame.)

I've learned a lot, and I'm optimistic and excited about a mirrorless future.

Smoky Sunset
Sunset in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Near Clingman's Dome.

The good stuff

The camera is light and rugged, with one caveat I'll get to in a minute. It's not pocketable, but it is much more compact than my DSLR, a Canon 5D-II. That allow it to be with me more often than not.

There was a learning curve, but it's not a steep one. While the E-M5-II is highly customizable, the configuration right out of the box was completely functional for me. Some of the dials were in a slightly different location than the 5D-II, but they generally used the same fingers to perform similar functions. That's one thing that made it easy to pick up.

I really enjoy having the amount of information available in full-time live view. I've chosen to keep the histogram displayed as a default. That provides much more information about the correct exposure than the simulated "match needle" type meters in DSLRs. This has me shooting in program mode much of the time. It's easy to see when the exposure is clipped, and easy to adjust it for both exposure, and shifting the program in preference of shutter speed or aperture.

The first few days that I had the camera, I tested it against the 5D-II using the 24-105 lens. I was quite surprised to see that the Olympus was at least as sharp and clear as the Canon. There are probably several things contributing to that, but I think one of them is the lack of an antialiasing filter on the Olympus.

To be fair, I haven't yet printed a large Olympus image, so I can't comment on the comparative print quality, but I'm hopeful that prints will be comparable to the 5D-II as well.

The not-so-good stuff

The Olympus experience is not entirely a comfy bed of roses. There have been a couple of annoyances specific to Olympus, not mirrorless cameras in general.

In addition to shading the lens, the lens hood provides some protection against minor bumps. The Olympus lens hood is actually two parts: the mount and the hood which are held together with glue. I try to be careful, but occasionally the hood does take a small bump. One bump was all it took to break the bond on the lens hood. It was relatively easy to repair with Gorilla Glue or Superglue, but it shouldn't be necessary. My repair has been much more reliable than the factory bond.

Another annoyance is with the documentation. In several cases, key steps were omitted from the instructions for various procedures. It has been possible to figure out what I needed, and I've learned to navigate the camera for my purposes. But in some cases that was almost in spite of the manual. The E-M5-II documentation can be a little frustrating.

Excited speculation

The Micro Four Thirds sensor may be physically limited to 16 MP; it may not be able to be manufactured at higher resolutions. Olympus seems to be experimenting with a solution with the high resolution mode.

The E-M5 Mark II has a high resolution mode that uses the sensor shift capability to construct a higher resolution (and larger) image file. (How is this done?) Most of what I've read claims that a 40 MP file is created. This is true when shooting JPEGs. However, It's a much higher resolution when shooting RAW — 64 MP RAW images are created in RAW mode. Taking the required multiple exposures requires about a second, so movement within the scene shows up as artifacts in the image.

Here's where the speculation begins.

What if the capture time for the high resolution process could be shortened, significantly. Maybe capturing all of the base images in something near 1/250 of a second, or even 1/125 of a second instead of 1 second. That may involve shifting the sensor much more rapidly. It probably also requires better high ISO performance. Faster internal processors may be required. Some better image blending algorithms may address the movement artifacts. Maybe even some background processing capability to allow continuous shooting is needed. There are several hurdles to overcome, both with hardware and software. I'm not saying this will be easy, but it does seem possible. If it can be done, it may eliminate the movement artifacts seen today in the high resolution mode. This capability could allow Micro Four Thirds cameras to far exceed the 16 MP limitation of today, while remaining small, lightweight systems.

Final thoughts

My experiences so far with the Micro Four Thirds system, and with Olympus, has exceeded my expectations. I've come to believe, like many others, that mirrorless camera systems may be the way of the future. That's not to say that Micro Four Thirds will be the winner. There will likely be several formats that will be contenders. The Fujifilm X-T1's APS-C system looks interesting. And I would be thrilled if Canon produced a full-frame mirrorless camera body that would use my existing Canon lenses!

In my brief experience, I see many advantages to mirrorless cameras, including weight, customizability, and flexibility. The OM-D E-M5 II has many functions that will undoubtedly be useful periodically, but not used all the time. One that comes to mind is the built in intervalometer. Programmed features such as that are the kind of flexibility I'm thinking of. Like so many tools in our lives today, cameras are becoming another specialized computer. They will probably be limited only by our imagination.

Mirrorless and MFT references

Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera (Wikipedia) — An overview of MILC technology and cameras
Mirrolessons — Mirrorless systems tests, reviews and news
Mirroless Rumors — Mirrorless industry news, some speculation
Micro Four Thirds (Wikipedia) — Overview of the Micro Four Thirds systems and technologies.


Update (2015-06-19) "Opinion: The future of DSLR or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the ILC" is a very interesting take on how the future may be hybrid technologies. Good points.

Update (2015-06-25) "Mirrorless vs. DSLR in 2015: For which genres is the debate still relevant?" proposes that the technical differences are negligible, and now the choice is a matter of style.