Up until about two years ago, most digital cameras came in two broad categories:
- Point and shoots (P&S), which were small, often pocket sized, had a single zoom lens that was not changeable, poor image quality, and really awful ergonomics, particularly if you wanted to control settings like aperture manually.
- Digital single lens reflexes (DSLR), which were large and heavy, could use a whole family of interchangeable lenses, had good, and sometimes great, image quality and good ergonomics.
Broadly speaking, happy snappy tourists used the former and serious photographers, amateur or professional, the latter.
But then came mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras with relatively large sensors, and the ideal cruiser camera was born, at least for me.
Suddenly I had a camera that was only a little bigger than a point and shoot that met my selection criteria without even breaking a sweat.
And that in turn has made me a better photographer, simply because I have a camera with me more often and so I’m taking more photographs in more situations than before. It’s that simple.
How Much Smaller?
People often miss the size advantage of mirrorless cameras because they only compare the body size to the smallest of the DSLRs, but that’s not where the killer advantage lies. When camera designers got rid of the mirror box they were able to move the back of the lens closer to the sensor and that in turn allowed them to design lenses of the same effective focal length, for a given sensor size, that are a fraction of the size of those for DSLRs.
For example, the picture that opens this post shows my 100-400 mm image stabilized telephoto for my DSLR next to my lens with almost exactly the same capabilities for my mirrorless system.
(OK, you experts, I’m fudging a bit, in that the big lens is for a full frame camera and APS DSLR lenses are smaller. But there are smaller mirrorless lenses with the same focal length too, so it’s a fair comparison.)
Bottom line, my mirrorless system can give me everything in my requirements at less than one quarter of the weight and size of my DSLR system.
This means that I can carry my mirrorless wherever I go, either the full system in a small fanny pack, or a body and two lenses in my coat or pants pockets, rather than the full backpack that my DSLR system requires.
Not only that, but think about the storage difference on a cruising boat where space is always at a premium: part of one small locker for the mirrorless, as against the entire foot of a quarter-berth that is given over to my DSLR system on Morgan’s Cloud.
Disadvantages of Mirrorless
There really is only one disadvantage of mirrorless cameras: no optical through-the-lens viewfinder. But wait, almost all these cameras have electronic view finders (EVF), either built in or as add-ons that mount on the external flash shoe. Yes, they take a bit of getting used to, but they are really no impediment to taking good photographs. In fact EVFs even have some advantages since they:
- Show the full field of view that will be captured. Most DSLRs (except very expensive professional ones) only show 90 to 95 percent of what will be captured.
- Can be set to show a histogram to fine tune exposure.
- Can be set to show a quick view of the shot you just made. (Particularly useful for making sure that you did not over expose and blow the highlights, which is death to most photographs.)
I’m going to make some specific model recommendations in a moment, but my key recommendation for any cruiser that wants to make photographs, rather than snapshots, is to buy a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, regardless of whether or not you settle on the ones I recommend.
Having said that, if you just want a pocket camera that will do a good job but have no interest in changing lenses, then I still recommend the Olympus XZ-1. You can even get an add-on electronic view finder.
And The Winner(s) Are
Drum roll, may I have the envelop please…
For the buyer that values compact size over all else and wants to be able to carry the camera in a pocket, the Panasonic LUMIX® GX1with the kit 14-42 mm (28-84 mm equivalent) Premium X Series Power Zoom Lens and the add-on external electronic view finder.
Why I Like The Panasonics
- A large selection of purpose-built-for-system lenses from three different manufacturers: Panasonic, Olympus and Leica.
- The best ergonomics in the mirrorless class. (In my opinion—these things are very subjective.)
- Availability of the only collapsible interchangeable zoom lens that will make either camera truly pocketable and renders the GX1 little bigger than a good point and shoot.
If I were starting out with this class of camera, I would probably choose the G3K for its fully articulated back screen and integrated EVF over its slightly (when you add an EVF) smaller sibling. Also, the G3K is substantially less expensive, even though it has the same sensor.
However, since I already have a GH1 (a predecessor to the G3K) I’m salivating over the GX1 as a replacement for my current pocket camera, the Olympus XZ-1, since it will give me a much larger sensor, and therefore better image quality and low light performance, with very little size increase.
I’m really excited about having two of these Panasonic mirrorless bodies because:
- They share lenses.
- When street shooting, I can carry both bodies fitted with fast prime lenses, one normal, one long. This is about as close as someone without a significant personal fortune can get to the Leica range-finder street shooting gestalt. (To do the same with two Leica M9s would cost you well over US$25,000.)
- When doing general travel photography, I can carry both bodies with zooms attached and cover wide angle to telephoto without changing a lens, or wrecking my aging back.
- Since both bodies are made by the same company and have roughly the same interface, it will be much easier for me to get my chops (really fast and competent) with them, rather than switching back and forth between a Panasonic and an Olympus, as I do now.
By the way, if you care (I don’t), both cameras are very capable video cameras as well.
- If you don’t have a good camera now, a mirrorless is the place to start. If you get really keen, you can always add a DSLR later, but I’m guessing that less than ten percent of cruisers actually need a DSLR.
- If you have a DSLR and have thought to yourself, let’s say, ten times this year, “wow, what a great shot, pity I didn’t have my camera with me”, you need a mirrorless.
And Don’t Forget
Great photographs are like great golf swings: the secret is above the grip. Read on through this book for help with that.