Mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras shoot for consumers and pro photographers

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      When Derek Bell bought his first mirrorless camera, he knew what he was looking for.

      “I wanted a high-quality image as good as, or as near possible as good as, a full-size single-lens reflex digital camera—and I also own those—without carrying the weight and the bulk,” he told the Georgia Straight in a telephone interview.

      Bell has been taking pictures since he studied photography at Vancouver’s Point Grey secondary school. He was such a photo enthusiast that he became a regular customer at his local camera store, Kerrisdale Cameras. When he graduated in 1968, Bell said, he had “made such a pest out of myself that they hired me and I’m still here”.

      Now managing Kerrisdale Cameras’ West Vancouver location, Bell is familiar with the growing category of mirrorless cameras. The name given to these types of cameras varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, but the standard classification is mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera, or MILC. Mirrorless cameras, such as the Olympus PEN, are smaller than the professional-level digital single-lens reflex cameras, or DSLRs, but are bigger than point-and-shoot cameras. Until recently, point-and-shoots were the only digital cameras focused on the consumer market.

      The new category is called “mirrorless” because, in order to maintain a smaller body size, these cameras lack the mirror-based optical viewfinders that are standard on DSLR cameras. However, mirrorless cameras promise higher image quality and other advantages of larger DSLR cameras, such as interchangeable lenses, while avoiding some of the cost and bulk of the professional-grade devices.

      The most recent entrant to this category is Nikon, with its Nikon 1 series of cameras. There are two models available: the J1 (one-lens kits start at $649.95) and the more advanced V1 (kits start at $899.95).

      “What we did was strip away the complexity and the size and bulk of the DSLR, but we maintain the picture quality, the agility, the quick responsiveness of an SLR, and packaged it in the Nikon 1,” Hiro Okumura, the strategic planning and marketing director for Nikon Canada, told the Straight by phone.

      Companies like Nikon are hoping these mid-range cameras find two distinct markets. The first is people like Bell, dedicated photo enthusiasts or professional photographers who are looking for a smaller camera for when they don’t want to carry around their bulkier DSLR but who aren’t willing to give up the manual controls and picture quality that they’re used to.

      “A lot of the pros I know that I’ve shot with in the past have all moved to a mirrorless camera as a sort of toy camera to use,” Jonathan Lee, head instructor at Vancouver’s Focal Point photography school, told the Straight by phone. “Not necessarily for serious work, but if push comes to shove they could use that image and get a high-resolution result from it.”

      The other category of potential customers that Nikon sees for its 1 series is consumers who are looking to make the move up from a point-and-shoot camera to something that produces better pictures. Until recently, people who were falling in love with photography thanks to their exposure to a compact camera only had the larger DSLRs to look at. Nikon and other manufacturers now hope they might consider a mirrorless camera.

      “For regular consumers who are taking a step from a compact point-and-shoot camera, they’re intimidated by the size and the complexity of the DSLR, and we feel that the Nikon 1 system gives them that nice balance of advanced performance with a smaller body and more importantly a smaller lens,” Okumura said. Indeed, to emphasize the consumer orientation of the Nikon 1, the company has released the camera in multiple colours, including pink.

      There is the danger, though, that by trying to bridge the gap between consumer and professional models, mirrorless cameras could end up not really appealing to anyone.

      Amateur photographer Richard Tran bought a Sony NEX-5 nearly a year ago. “It was a compact body that accepted other branded lenses easily, meaning I could put any old lenses on including Minolta, Konica, old Nikons, and old Canons, and that appealed to me a lot,” Tran, who lives in Burnaby, told the Straight by phone.

      However, the downsides began to outweigh the size savings as he became more interested in automotive photography. A contributor to the car-photography blog Art of Stance, Tran found that the NEX-5 was just not working for him.

      “I have to use a lot of dynamic lighting, off-camera flash, and stuff like that, and the NEX doesn’t really accept it that well,” he said. “It’s workable, but you have to do a lot of little tweaks that the camera is not built for.”

      Mirrorless cameras remain a middle ground worth checking out for both amateurs and professionals. Lee suggests potential buyers head into a store and get their hands on the cameras before making any decisions. “Try them all out, get them all in your hands, because the feel and the balance is quite different,” Lee said.