Consumer Electronics & Appliance News, Reviews & Information.

May 12

What are these “mirrorless” cameras anyways?

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Sony NEX5 digital camera

We can rebuild it. Better. Lighter. More versatile.

There’s a new camera on the rise.

Just as most of us have gotten used to the distinctions between a point-and-shoot digital camera, and a DSLR camera, a hybrid between the two — one that nearly defies standard classification — is starting to make its presence felt.

It’s the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera.

Drama aside, these thin, yet versatile cameras have just started to show up on most people’s radar. The questions most are asking though are, “what are they?” “what’s so special about them?” and “when will they be named something a little easier to say?”

Let’s see if we can’t find out the answer to at least two of those questions.

Through the looking glass

Sony NEX5S

Sony NEX5S digital camera

So what is this mirrorless interchangeable-lens digital camera thing?

The easiest way to think of these cameras, and really answer what they are, is to consider them a hybrid of point-and-shoot digital camera lightness, and DSLR shooting versatility.

While all the best digital camera manufacturers, including Nikon, Sony, Samsung, and Panasonic, are creating these types of cameras, all of them are making them in a slightly different way. What does remain constant about the designs are these:

Mirror-less design

There’s nothing reflecting light between the lens and the sensor. Because of this, there is:

No traditional viewfinder

Focusing and finding your shots is done entirely with the LCD screen (like on a point-and-shoot) rather than through a viewfinder

Beyond these two constants, and the thin design, each camera manufacturer tends to focus on different aspects, usually coinciding with whichever camera they’re most trying to emulate. Things like lens mounting, sensor size, and accessory mounting are available in as many different variations as there are manufacturers.

Focusing on what’s special

Nikon 1 J1

Nikon 1 J1 digital camera

Wouldn’t it just be simpler to buy a DSLR and a compact camera, and just carry whichever one was most appropriate with you? Why make the move to a hybrid camera at all?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to that question.

The pros of a mirrorless camera mostly come down to a compromise between size, versatility, and overall cost.  Getting one good camera, much less two, can become expensive, whether or not you’re dealing with some of the best digital cameras. Adding appropriate, good-quality lenses to the equation when dealing with a DSLR can even make it downright scary. A mirrorless camera allows you to combine some of those costs.

With the pancake-style lens (because it’s flat) that comes with most of the mirrorless digital cameras, they tend to be the size of most small point and shoot cameras, making them easy to carry in a small bag or your pocket (one of our resident camera experts would like me to disclaimer this by saying that you should never carry your camera in your pocket). Plus, carrying additional lenses and filters lets you more quickly adapt to changing situations or lighting, even if it is a bit bulkier than a standard camera.

For professional photographers, or enthusiastic amateurs, some of the more established camera brands, like Canon or Sony, allow you to mount lenses used for their standard DSLR to a mirrorless camera with an adapter. Nikon uses the same mounting hardware across their entire camera line, hybrid and DSLR. For these types of cameras, using a mirrorless camera as a lightweight companion camera makes a lot of sense, letting you mount a specialized (or generalized) lens for quick shots.

Unfortunately, there are also downsides. The lack of a mirror assembly, while great for size, means that a mirrorless digital camera suffers from “shutter” lag. This is because the LCD viewfinder has to keep sampling from the camera’s image sensor. When it goes to take a picture, the image sensor has to disengage from the viewfinder and process the image. While advances in reducing this lag time between button press and picture to milliseconds in some cases, it can still limit fast action shooting options that DSLRs traditionally excel at.

Constant use of the LCD screen as a viewfinder is also a downside, requiring more battery power than a mirrored assembly. However, more energy efficient LED and OLED viewfinders have helped in keeping batteries charged longer.

Panasonic DMCGX1X

Panasonic DMCGX1X digital camera

So, is a mirrorless camera the perfect camera? Not quite, but its versatility may make it the best digital camera for you. Depending on your shooting style, it can act as a great main camera, or as the perfect companion to a larger one.

As to the final question. I’m going to leave the definitive naming answer up to you. Take a second and let me know what you think they should be called.

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