Mirrorless Cameras Continue to Change the Photographic Landscape

Posted Feb. 9th, 2012 by Daniel J. Cox

As I’ve been saying for quite some time now the mirrorless camera revolution is a freight train that will be impossible to stop. A new survey out of Japan, the leading country of all great new ideas in photographic tools, shows that mirrorless cameras are now selling better than all DSLR’s, and the Micro 4/3s cameras are leading the mirrorless charge.

Micro 4/3s Mirrorless cameras outselling DSLR’s in Japan

I just returned from our second year leading photo tours to Costa Rica and there was one other person beside myself that had a version of the  Micro 4/3s system. Our group had several ongoing discussions regarding the changes we’re all beginning to see regarding more and more people turning to smaller and smaller cameras. Through those discussions I came up with a theory I would like to share with you.

Charlotte with her Olympus EPL-3 and Rosalis with her Nikon Coolpix 7100 having fun with their downsized systems. Here they are all smiles, but when the monkeys started swinging through the trees their smiles faded fast.

As many of you know, I’ve earned my living as a natural history photographer for many, many years. When I was 21 years old I bought my first Nikon 300mm F/2.8 lens. It was a beast, but based on the exquisite detail it produced in the transparency film I was shooting, I felt as an aspiring professional I needed to have that lens to make a living. It was somewhere around six pounds but the weight was worth it due to the sharper glass, the lower light situations I could shoot in and the fact that it was easier to MANUALLY focus due to a brighter image the large, front element allowed through the viewfinder. All of these benefits were worth the tremendous weight of the lens alone, but to make it work I had to add a Nikon F2AS body with motor drive. Combine it all and you had very close to a ten pound package sitting atop a tripod and a head that was an additional ten pounds.  With all that weight it was essential to wrap the tripod legs in foam padding to keep from developing groves in my shoulders when I hiked for miles searching for pictures.

That's me with my second or third version of the the Nikkor 300mm F/2.8 with Emperor penguins in Antarctica.

As my career progressed I eventually bought the ultimate king of optical beasts, a Nikkor 600mm F/4. Talk about additional weight. On my second trip to Kenya in 1992, I had a LowePro Super Trekker that contained a 600mm F/4, 300mm F2.8, 80-200mm F/2.8 and several smaller zooms. Add to that three camera bodies and the whole pack weighed nearly 65 pounds! I remember carrying that through the airports as carry on luggage along with a small duffel with 600 rolls of 35mm film that weighed an additional 40 pounds. After that trip I vowed to never carry that much weight again if at all possible. 2003 came along and Nikon released their 200-400mm AFS zoom. The minute I could buy one I did and when that happened, I sold both my 600mm F/4 and 300mm 2.8. It reduced the size and weight of my camera pack by about 40% and I was on my way to downsizing.

Steve is feeling the pain on our recent trip to Costa Rica but he swears he was still having fun.

My reason for sharing all of this is to highlight what professional photographers are willing to put up with to make sure they have the best equipment possible to capture their images. Big heavy lenses, unfortunately, have always been essential in my quest to capture unique imagery of animals at the times they are most active, early morning and late evening. However, things are beginning to change and this is where my theory comes in as to why mirrorless, lighter lenses and cameras are starting to do so well.

My Theory Unveiled
Camera manufacturers have done a great job over the last ten years, convincing the masses to start shooting serious equipment. I’ve experienced this first hand by way of the folks we take to Alaska, Kenya, Costa Rica, Galapagos and other wildlife destinations around the world. Many people who travel with us actually have more equipment than I do including 300mm F/2.8’s, 600mm F/4’s, 500mm F/4’s and big zooms such as the Nikon’s 200-400.  These casual shooters, that are photographing just for fun, have the desire to produce professional quality. They’ve done their homework and know that a 600 F/4 is the ultimate bird lens that serious pro shooters use to capture spectacular imagery. So homework done, many go out and buy the same lens I lugged around for mamy years to help me make my living. However, there is one big difference that isn’t taken into consideration when they fork over the nearly $10,000 to get that lens. That difference is they’re doing their photography for fun and I was doing mine for a paycheck.

Above is the new Olympus OM-D EM-5 Which may be a turning point in the field of Micro 4/3s world as far as speedy AF and frame rates are concerned.

As a professional I had to carry that lens. It was just part of the job. It was NEVER fun but it helped me get the images that made me a living. I was willing to accept the pain to make sure my family and I could eat. But isn’t that what all of us do when we’re trying to build a career? Almost everybody that is driven is willing to do things that aren’t always fun. You do things you wouldn’t necessarily do in other circumstances. So now that there are so many people shooting images for FUN, they are coming to realize, carrying all that damn weight doesn’t fit the pleasure description they thought they were signing up for. With sore shoulders and aching backs driving their research, I’m starting to  see lots of people trying to figure out how to get great images with smaller, lighter equipment. And it’s that desire that’s  forcing the likes of Panasonic and Olympus to offer alternatives that fit that bill.

Unfortunately, no mirrorless camera options have caught the likes of Nikon or Canon when it comes to fast moving subjects. The smaller mirrorless cameras work fine for landscapes, event shooting and general family photos, but when it comes to photographing a running cheetah there is still no comparison between traditional DSLR’s and the new mirrorless cameras. That will change however and I’m predicting sooner rather than later. When it does I hope Nikon is solidly in the game. They should be since they have a mirrorless camera themselves that has amazing technology that would benefit shooters of all shapes and sizes. I would love to see a D5 with the guts, brains  and weight of a Nikon V1 and the sensor technology of the new Nikon D4. Drop me a line here on the blog if you have any thoughts you  want to share.

Add Your Voice!
There are 15 comments on this post…
  1. jim heywoodOn Mar. 2nd, 2012

    Is there any advantage to using a TIFF file to edit vs a JPEG? I think the Silkypix will export a tiff.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn Mar. 3rd, 2012


      Yes, exporting and working on that versus a JPEG would be a better idea if you really need to do major changes or adjustments.

  2. jim heywoodOn Mar. 1st, 2012

    So I finally figured out how to get back to you. My question about this camera and the system in general is about the RAW file it produces. Is there any conversion that will allow RAW or its equivalent to be imported into Aperture.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn Mar. 1st, 2012

      Here’s what I’ve been doing until Apple gets Aperture up to speed with GX1 RAW. When shooting the GX1 I shoot in both RAW and JPEG. In Aperture I set the JPEG as Master. You do that by opening Aperture>Photos tab at top of screen, drop down gives you an option towards the bottom “Set JPEG as Master”. This gives you the ability to see all the images from the GX1. Downside to this option is no ability to work with the RAW, in Aperture, until we get the Aperture update. You could take the RAW into the Silkypix Software that Panasonic provides but you will see it is less than ideal. This issue is my biggest complaint against Aperture, otherwise I love it. Thanks for the question and help me spread the word.

  3. Michael FurtmanOn Feb. 12th, 2012

    Like I said, you may well be right! So who’s going to buy all my uses SLR equipment? 😉

  4. Michael FurtmanOn Feb. 12th, 2012

    I can tell you’re really hyped on this stuff, Dan! Time will tell if you’re right. But I will point out that my Canon 300 f/2.8 weighs a pound and half less than the Olympus 300 (and the new version, more than two pounds less). On my 7D’s APSc sensor, that’s a 420mm equivalent, and with the 1.4x extender, a 588mm equivalent, and still far lighter (though a stop slower than the Olympus). Guess I’m just a doubting Thomas!

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn Feb. 12th, 2012

      Mike, I bet in five years none of us will be shooting cameras with mirrors in them. Lenses may be the same but even that would be a huge step in the right direction. If you saw the quality of these Micro 4/3’s cameras you would be inspired too. Sony is already heading in this direction with the amazing A77 As far as your Canon combination is concerned, 1 stop is a huge factor in size and weight. To shrug it off as “though a stop slower” is not taking into consideration the size and weight factor one stop adds. Not to mention, that the Olympus lenses are several years old and you’re comparing the newest Canon optics which are using current day state of the art materials that are lighter weight. Give Olympus and Panasonic another year and encouragement through sales of these systems and they most certainly will be matching materials Canon is using. Panasonic is a HUGE company and make no mistake about it they’re making inroads faster than anyone would have imagined. It’s great for those of us who have carried too much weight around for far too long. I can’t wait for Nikon and Canon to join this movement. Just my two cents.

  5. Michael FurtmanOn Feb. 12th, 2012

    Dan, very interesting article. Do you think that the camera makers will invest in producing truly professional quality lenses for these mirror less cameras? That seems to be the one factor you left out of your explanation why we carry those big lenses. There are lighter smaller 500 mm lenses out there. But they don’t have the needed image quality. I wonder if we’ll see pro lenses in this new format?

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn Feb. 12th, 2012


      The lenses are on their way. Panasonic recently just announced the Micro 4/3’s equivalent of the 24-70mm and the 70-200mm lenses. Unconfirmed is the rumor that they will be at least F/2.8 and very possibly F/2.0. Both are half the size of Canon and Nikon equivalents. I recently purchased the Panasonic 7-14mm F/4 which is 14-24mm full frame equivalent. It’s not an F/2.8 but it is a superb lens. It looks like a mini Nikon 14-24F/2.8 at about one third the weight. Admittedly, Nikon’s is a bit sharper and virtually without equal in zooms and many say even fixed focal length versions but Panasonic and Olympus are just getting started. Olympus has a beautiful 24mm F/2.0 that is being heralded as superb. If you do further research, Olympus makes several profession lenses but are much smaller and lighter than Canon and Nikon equivalents. Take for example the Zuiko 90-250mm F/2.8 (that’s 180-500 equivalent) It’s one stop faster than Nikon’s amazing 200-400mm F/4 and about the same weight, but a full stop brighter. Another example is Olympus’ 300mm F/2.8 (600mm equivalent). It weighs in at just a bit more than half of the Nikon 600mm F/4 and once again one full stop brighter.

      I hope the links I’ve provided above work properly. I can’t see them in my responses. Thanks for staying in touch Mike. Hope all is well.

  6. Tom GreyOn Feb. 11th, 2012

    I’m one of those people in photography for the fun, though as a retired guy I’m doing it full time. But my targets are birds, and so I’m condemned to sore shoulders (and, at age 70, knees, feet…) as the cost of my kind of fun. To me, light weight means the forthcoming Canon 600 lens, which will weigh a mere 9 lbs or so, the same as the current 500. Compared to the glass burden, the weight difference between my 1D Mark 4 and a micro 4/3 camera is small change. Not that I wouldn’t love a shoulder-saving miracle, but physics (optics) and biology (the shyness of wild birds) seem to stand in the way.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn Feb. 11th, 2012

      Tom, we’ll see the big lenses come down in size for the for the lighter cameras. It’s all coming fast.

  7. Doug BrayOn Feb. 10th, 2012

    Hi Dan,

    I think you are right about the value of these cameras. We are in Snowbird Utah this week and I am skiing with the Lumix GX-1 in my parka pocket. I would never ski with a DSLR. The Lumix has most of the advanced features of my D300S and D700 without the size and weight. It allows me to get great pictures with would otherwise not be taken.

    Debra and I look forward to seeing you and Tanya in India.


    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn Feb. 10th, 2012

      Doug, you lucky bum. Hope the skinning is better in Utah than it is here in Montana. I couldn’t have said it better regarding the GX1 and the fact that it is with you and ready for great image capture. Have fun and look forward to seeing you two soon.

  8. Fred KurtzOn Feb. 9th, 2012


    One day after arriving home from the wonderful Costa Rica trip, I purchased the Panasonic GX1 mirrorless camera with the X 14-42 lens from F11 in Bozeman (very nice people by the way). So I now have joined the mirroless band wagon. In addition I also ordered the Nikon R1 macro flash system from F11….and from Eddie Baurer, the large duffle bag. So hopefully this completes the “Dan Recommended Purchase List” that I get from every trip with you. For those who have never been to Costa Rica, please join Dan and Tanya in 2014. You will not be dissappointed.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn Feb. 9th, 2012

      Fred, you won’t be disappointed in any of the gear you recently purchased. I’m loving the GX1, the Nikon Macro lighting system is the best being made and the Eddie Bauer duffel is the greatest value for price and features I’ve ever found. It was great having you and Kathy in Costa Rica with us. Be all and keep up the great photography. You’re doing great work.

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