Breaking the mirror

I've bought my first Nikon DSLR in 2000, when I decided to get serious about photography. “Getting serious” meant to start spending reasonable money for reasonably good equipment and then practice to be up to the equipment quality. At the moment I'm writing this post, I can say I had a Nikon F80, FG, D100, D70, D200, D7000, D5000 and D5100; a number of Nikkor primes (24mm through 180mm, ƒ/1.8 through ƒ/2.8), a long tele (300 ƒ/4) and a couple of high quality zooms (12-24mm ƒ/4 and 18-70mm ƒ/3.5-4.5 - the latter is a kit lens, but of an unusual good quality and sharpness). Last but not least, a Samyang fisheye.

L'automne sur le Col de l'Échelle.

Nikon D5100 + Nikkor 18-70mm ƒ/3.5-4.5G ED DX AF-S @ 27 mm, 1/200 sec @ ƒ/8, -1.00 EV, ISO 280, hand-held.

Generally speaking, this equipment exceeds my current capabilities most of the time, with the partial exception of the 18-70mm which is less sharp than the primes in its range, but really effective when travelling. But there are some problems, that I've been aware of since a few time, and now getting more evident:

  • Too much weight. I'm 43, I've started suffering from moderate back pain (with some bad days) and I'm aware that it will slowly get worse while ageing. The heaviest combination is for birding: the D7000, the AF-S 300 ƒ/4 and possibly a teleconverter; most of the times a tripod. Some pain here must be tolerated, because birds are a subject requiring some sacrifice. But even the most effective combination for landscapes and travels, the D5100 and the AF-S 18-70mm, is 950g; 1045g if I put the wider 12-24mm. It started to be too much, even after moving to a strap that better distributes the weight to the shoulders rather than the neck.
  • Nikon somewhat sucks. Since when the digital bodies were introduced Nikon has been lagging behind other brands such as Canon. Consider lens stabilisation for instance: basically, I own no lens with it, and not because I hadn't the money. It's because there are no lenses with the focal I need that provide this feature (with a single exception, the AF-S 16-85mm VR that could replace the 18-70; but unfortunately it's heavier). This lacking feature is sensible for long teles, obviously, where there's basically nothing for the serious amateur. The original Nikkor 80-400mm VR had poor optics and autofocusing; the newest one is expensive and not as sharp as the 300 ƒ/4. There are exceptional professional lenses, starting from the AF-S 200-400mm ƒ/4, but they are way too expensive. There have been rumours about an AF-S 300 ƒ/4 VR since a couple of years, but they never turned into reality. On the other hand, for instance, Canon had the very popular EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM. Stabilisation is closely related to the weight problem, as it would allow to operate without the tripod in a good number of scenarios.

Now, there's the mirrorless thing running since some years. From an engineering point of view, going mirrorless is an obvious and unavoidable thing: in fact, the mirror gives no advantages, but a lot of troubles: weight, noise, vibrations, mechanical points of failure, etc... It seems that electronic viewfinders are good enough and their technological maturity is near to make the mirror avoidable in a few years. Out of the many kinds of mirrorless bodies around, reduced weight is a constant: that's why I started looking at that segment, for the first time concretely thinking of a possible brand switch - a thing that, for many reasons, can't happen all of a sudden, but requires a certain time for evaluating and getting into acquaintance.

Saint-Apollinaire.

Nikon D7000 + Nikkor 18-70mm ƒ/3.5-4.5G ED DX AF-S @ 55 mm, 1/320 sec @ ƒ/11, -1.00 EV, ISO 500, hand-held.

The problem is quality. If I switch, I don't want any reduction of quality (indeed, I'd like to check whether by spending a few more money I can even increase the quality of my equipment). Roughly speaking, my idea until a short time ago was that some brands offered good sensors (e.g. APS-C, same as my Nikon bodies), but lacked in good quality lenses; Sony α / NEX is an example. Other brands offered a good choice of lenses, but having smaller sensors weren't good enough for pixel quality; Micro Four Thirds for example. There's a third camp, Fujifilm: good sensors, very good lenses according to many reviews, but a limited choice and not the zoom focals I need. What about Nikon mirrorless? Well, they decided to go with that tiny CX sensor, in my perspective they are not targetting serious amateurs. In any case it's a different lens system - for what matters, you can eventually mount Nikon-F lenses on virtually any mirrorless camera body.

In the first camp, things have started to change this year, with more Sony lenses, but in particular with more Zeiss products that should be top-of-the-line. In the second camp the Olympus OM-D EM-5 has reduced the gap and the OM-D EM-1 has probably filled it. So I collected a good bunch of information, with the idea to pick a product line and start some playing in the field. I'm only considering the landscape scenario (wide angles and short teles), as I'm aware that all the mirrorless systems are lacking (and will lack for some time) any good long tele, comparable in quality to my 300 ƒ/4.

At the beginning I was pretty convinced that m4/3 was the better system: two brands of compatible camera bodies and a decent choice of lenses. A few basic maths on weights were a real surprise:

Nikon D5100 Nikkor 12-24mm ƒ/4G DX AF-S 1045g
Olympus E-M1 Lumix G Vario 7-14mm ƒ/4 797g
Olympus E-M5 Lumix G Vario 7-14mm ƒ/4 725g
Sony NEX-6 Sony E 4/10-18mm OS 568g
Nikon D5100 Nikkor 18-70mm ƒ/3.5-4.5G ED DX AF-S 950g
Olympus E-M1 Zuiko 12-60mm ƒ/2.8-4 1072g
Olympus E-M5 Zuiko 12-60mm ƒ/2.8-4 1000g
Sony NEX-6
Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* E 16-70mm ƒ/4 651g

All the m4/3 combinations with the moderate wide-to-tele lens are heavier than my current combo (not saying that they are also quite expensive - yes, as expensive as the Zeiss). Some lighter lenses have been excluded from the competition because they collected bad reviews. On the other hand, Sony produces really light camera bodies, and lenses are lighter too. Weigh is my first concern... so, this is the way to try. The availability of a Zeiss zoom, recently announced, in the 16-70mm range, basically the same of my current landscape workhorse, made quite a difference (even though after reading some initial reviews I'm careful about its effective quality).

La Clarée à Névache.

Nikon D5100 + Nikkor 18-70mm ƒ/3.5-4.5G ED DX AF-S @ 44 mm, 1/200 sec @ ƒ/8, -1.00 EV, ISO 180, hand-held.

Trying on the field is now unavoidable, because while the web is a mine of resources for reviews, unfortunately it's also filled with things written by incompetent people. I've read a number of lens reviews where the “excellent” and “stellar” words were used for pieces of equipment that are known to be mediocre; in many cases people pretend to demonstrate the sharpness of a lens by posting photos in “web” resolution. This lack of awareness of quality is one of the consequences of the popularisation of photography by means of things such as Flickr and camera-phones... On the other hand, sites as DxOmark are pretty useful and numbers have the advantage to facilitate comparisons beyond the ambiguity of natural language, but you can't reduce the evaluation of a lens to a mere bunch of physical measurements.

I wrote a few lines to Thom Hogan asking for advice: in my opinion he's one of the most competent and reliable reviewers around as he's both a photographer and an engineer, so he sees all the aspects of the problem. In short, he answered that it can be dangerous to start building a Sony mirrorless arsenal now, because the lens offerings are immature - in other words, things might be very different in one year or two. Given this precious advice, I'm not thinking of rebuilding an arsenal with a mirrorless brand yet; instead, I just want to put my hands on some equipment for some time. Renting the equipment would be probably a good idea, but unfortunately in Italy it's not as easy and cheap as elsewhere; furthermore, I think I'll need at least some weeks for the experience to be meaningful, and I can't take photos every day; renting would cost too much in the end. So I decided to buy something, limiting the expense, preparing to sell it back in case things aren't good. Sony not only looks like the better system for what I can see today, but it's also the system that can be decently approached at a lower price, so I've ordered a NEX-6 and a Sigma prime 30mm F2.8 DN A.

As soon as I'll have something to show, I'll post here.