The best systems for walking around enjoying life and photography--simultaneously.

When we looked away for a moment the world shifted. A few years ago, when traveling, I would see people at events, at monuments and in the streets shooting photographs. Some were using point and shoot cameras and documenting their vacations to share with friends and relatives. The people who wanted to make serious photographs were toting along serious cameras. Big, heavy cameras. Canons, Nikons and more Canons. All with big, fast zoom lenses on the front. Now it all seems very anachronistic to walk around with a hulking DSLR. It's a trend time shift. 

Let's face facts. No one is getting paid to walk around and shoot in the streets. There's no market brimming with corporations sending out requests for state of the moment street photographs. This is something we do because we love it. But it's a dying trend. We've mined the shaft and plucked out the gold and now what were left with is the love of the exercise and its residual benefit, time spent outdoors looking and living. The reason working photographers buy cameras like the Nikon D800 (the new, defacto professional tool...) is to put them on a tripod and extract from them every square milliliter of excruciating details to bring to the service of their clients. It's what is expected when controlled imaging is commissioned and used in critical applications. But it's a level of technology that's actually detrimental to the practice of the kind of enjoyable, recreational photography we seem to pursue most often, and always for ourselves as the primary audience.

I speak from long experience. I've shot in the street with old Nikon F's and Leica M's as well as with Hasselblads and other medium format equipment. But my recent experiences with street photography in and around Boston and then back home in Austin have convinced me that we've achieved a plateau wherein the technology inside today's premium mirrorless cameras yields a practical quality which, by dint of operational fluidity, matches the level of image quality you'll attain from dragging around much bigger cameras and lenses.

It's all a matter of user relativity. In the grand old scheme it's impossible to argue that, all supporting practice being perfect, that current mirrorless cameras (APS-C and m4:3) are as potentially good as the current crop of full frame cameras. Square milimeter-age will always count. But when we take away tripods, studio flash systems and other accessories and we use both systems side by side to walk through a city for hours at a time the gap between technical superiority and on sensor equivalency starts to fall apart. The bigger cameras cause us to fatigue more quickly and that causes muscle tremors that degrade image quality. The increased blood flow means a stronger pulse and that also affects our ability to steady the whole rig. The smaller pixels in the higher res cameras like the Nikon D800 seem to require the highest platform stability in order to show best results. When a stable platform is degraded (with time, fatigue and other physical constraints) the ability of the more technologically advanced cameras is effectively degraded to the point where the smaller, and more agile format and body styles pretty much achieve actual quality parity.

When we shoot in the street we want good results but we also want to enjoy our time there. To do this it's important to find the optimum balance between the results your tools will give you in a hand held shooting scenario and the weight and bulk you are willing to accept. Almost every commercial, working photographer I know has accepted the binary gear paradigm. One system for ultimate, no holds barred, commercial image making and a totally different system for recreational use. We still want big, lush files, quick operation and a range of delicious lenses but we're no longer anxious to power lift our way to nice images. We're also learning that ultimate resolution or ultimate perceived sharpness aren't nearly as important, for most kinds of carry around photography as choosing the right subjects and being in the right place at the right time.

You can argue all you want but a smaller, lighter system goes a long way to extending your range both physically and emotionally. In the past, when we shot film, I did my commercial work with a range of mostly medium format (and some large format) cameras. But I never considered taking my four by five inch view camera out for an ambling stroll across town. It always had purpose on its side, not exploration. I supplemented those larger cameras with Leica M cameras and their much smaller lenses. In the early days of digital we used five pound Kodak/Nikon bodies which had short battery lives and very heavy batteries. We found various point and shoot digital cameras, like the Canon G series or the Olympus C-3030 type cameras to press into service for our portable, recreational rigs.

Now we don't have to make as big a compromise for portability. We can get relatively equivalent performance our of at least three different choices in the world of mirrorless when compared to traditional DSLR systems. In the case of the Nex 7 (I may be prejudiced...) we can also have a sensor that is better that most of the APS-C DSLR sensors, extant.

After having shot for three or four hours each day, in Austin and Boston, over the last seven days I can pretty much declare that, for me, the days of walking around with larger cameras have come to an end. There are three systems in the mirrorless category that I would use without reservation for the kind of fun work I normally undertake for my own enjoyment. I present them here.

If I were starting with a totally clean slate I would probably be seduced by the Fuji X-E1. The sensor seems to be state of the art for color and low noise and the lenses are reputed to be very sharp. The 18-55 kit lens is a 2.8 to f4.0 which, coupled with good high ISO performance, makes for a good all around package, right out of the box. Two things hold my back from trading in my Sony Nex stuff and taking the plunge: One is that I've just gotten to the point with my Sonys of understanding them completely. Knowing how to wring the best performance out of them in most situations. I'd be reticent to go through yet another learning curve.... and the second reason is that I'm using the Sony DSLT cameras professionally and with the LAEA-1 adapter I can use the lenses from the DSLT system to supplement the Nex lenses while retaining most of the operational features (wide open metering, all modes + exif).

On the other hand the Fujis, right out of the gate, seem to have a better selection of better native lenses... But then the Sony has a superior EVF, better autofocus and equal usability with legacy lenses. Between the three systems I'm talking about I think the real choices come down to lenses and how the camera feels in your own hands...

If we're looking at sheer acceptance the camera that most advanced photographers have chosen for a second system (and, for a large number, even a primary camera system) is the Olympus OMD.
The benefits are very straightforward: This particular camera may have the best image stabilization ever implemented in a still camera. It's amazingly good. Like science fiction. And unlike the in body stabilization of my bigger Sony cameras you get to see the calming effect of the IS in the view finder. The next benefit is the electronic viewfinder. While all three of the these camera systems give you EVF's the Olympus version seems the most graceful. By that I mean that people in general find it more comfortable to use. Easier to look into. 

While the Sony Nex 6 and 7 have higher spec'd EVFs the only thing that really matters is the actual user experience and even I'll admit that Olympus wins that contest. When you add in the wide range of really wonderful lenses that are already available for the system it's hard to argue against it. I've often said that if Olympus had beaten Sony to market with the OMD it would have been my first choice for a second system. With the 12mm, 25mm, 45mm and 75mm lenses for the Olympus system I would have a fine wide-to-telephoto system that still fits in a tiny bag.  And it would be a lens system that is made more remarkable by the relative speed of the lenses.

I am looking forward to seeing how Olympus will top the OMD. There are rumors of a more professional camera coming down the pike but if my anecdotal surveys of users are any indication it will take a lot to move current OMD shooters to another camera. There just aren't that many things people actively dislike about the current body. The one thing they might consider is a "big type" version for seniors. I do hear the occasional grousing about the size of the buttons....

I think the best value on the market right now would have to be the Sony Nex 6. It's got a good sized sensor (16 megapixels, APS-C size) that's been well proven in popular cameras like the Nikon D7000 and the Pentax K-5. It's a tiny camera, almost pocketable with the right lens on the front and it's been deeply discounted lately. While I like the eccentric dial design of the Nex 7 the 6 will appeal more to linear photo thinkers and people who have become used to dedicated dials for everything. I don't like the new 16-50mm lens as much as I like the old, much maligned 18-55mm kit lens.  If I were considering sticking my feet in the waters of mirrorless high performance cameras I'd start with the Nex-6 and the original black 18-55mm kit lens. It's a great package and used with some skill and knowledge, could be used for 90% of most photographers' work.

There is no right choice. All three of the systems have a lot to offer. If you don't do photography for a living you might find that one of the three systems above matches your needs more directly than the larger systems to which we've been consistently acculturated. As Apple showed us with the phone and Honda showed North America with cars, there is no shame in downsizing our tools in order to make them more usable.

One more thing. It's wise not to discount the power of symbolic sizes and shapes when considering a tool for a task that cries out for either discretion or collaboration. A smaller and lighter camera is often times perceived to be used only for fun and recreation and not for news, documentation and commercial gain. When people are confronted with big cameras and lenses they often are moved to believe that the photographer will be using the images he takes of them for his financial gain. They rightfully expect that if they are part of the amalgam that makes profit then they too should be rewarded. Especially if they perceive that they are giving up their rights of privacy. Very little of that stigma attaches to cameras with smaller profiles and less "professional" appearance. In fact, I'd say the user of the smaller cameras is more easily ignored, overlooked, discounted which, in the end gives them more access, and more intimacy. 

To be honest, at this point there's very little difference in the sensors between camera shapes (excluding the less than 1% who are using full frame sensor cameras) and most of us would be able to get the kinds of images we want out of either a big DSLR with big lenses or a smaller camera with equally good lenses (albeit half the size). Technology is allowing us the option of being in everyone's face and combining a program of aerobic weightlifting while shooting OR finding a new way of shooting that is sleeker, more agile and far more comfortable when used on the street or traveling around the world.

Of course, the usual disclaimers and caveats apply. If you have a nice camera of any size and no reason to shred your budget then no one is pushing you to rush out and change. If you shoot stuff on a tripod and need ultimate quality, professional project or not, then you are still a candidate for a very high resolution, traditional DSLR or DSLT equivalent. The camera itself, considered in a vacuum, won't make you a better shooter. But access, calm muscles, even breath and a lighter load might....  Just a thought after spending some quality time in the streets....


  1. Walking around NYC, I'm one of the only people with a mirrorless system. Most tourists seem to still be voting overwhelmingly with the big boys.

    For a novice or casual user, I probably would still recommend a DSLR. These mirrorless systems tend to fall down with low light +\-focusing issues, and taking indoor shots of family is probably one of the major reasons to buy a better camera, along with action shots of family...

    1. Dr. Nick, I think that tourists and people who buy cameras mostly to shoot their families are different from the kind of hobbyists that I have in mind. Judging from past responses from VSL readers I think a large number of them use their cameras in a kind of ongoing exploration of their visual worlds. While I saw many working photographers at SXSW they seemed liked over burdened pack animals compared to the artists I see working in the streets in SF, NYC and Austin.

      The transition will take time. Many students will be hanging on the the Canon Rebels and Nikon DXXXX cameras their parents bought them in school until they can afford to upgrade. But if Austin and the far east are leading indicators then for people who are "into" the "art" of found photography the smaller, mirrorless cameras appear to be a popular and growing path forward.

    2. Yes, the systems are remarkably lighter. I picked up a Panasonic G3 and I think 2 of these bodies put together might be lighter and take up less space than my Nikon D7000, never mind a D800. I can carry 4 lenses and a body and have room in a messenger bag for other stuff.

  2. Kirk, I totally fell in love with the XE-1 and am trying to save money to get on in the near future. I feel that for shooting birds etc in good light I maybe dont need a new D800 and for pretty much everything else I use focal lengths that any of the mirrorless crowd would make easier to use and have along. The XE1 (and the Xpro) seem to hit that gear lust effect the most. I like the Nex line and the OM-D as well, but feel for my massive hands they seem too minuscule. Maybe with a little more testing that might change. Totally would be more affordable at this point to get a Nex-6 and the two SIgmas. Room for a lot of thought.

  3. Been away a bit, Kirk, and thought I'd check in. I'm never disappointed; in a heartbeat I'd opened in new tabs no less than 9 articles to read at my leisure tonight. My favorite line out of this one:

    "This is something we do because we love it. But it's a dying trend. We've mined the shaft and plucked out the gold and now what were left with is the love of the exercise and its residual benefit, time spent outdoors looking and living."

    I don't know where you find the energy to both perform your professional assignments and also write such captivating pieces, but you're an inspiration.

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  5. Kirk,

    Another interesting read, and i agree a light non intimidating camera is essential for street photography. People don't like it if someone points a dslr with a tele photo at them, but walking around with a screw mount leica, gets a lot of positive comments. But my fav camera for street is a Rollei 35S.

    Have you ever used the Rollei 35?
    it's a dinkie little camera, with a very capable sonnar 40/2.8. It's one of those camera that is just fun to shoot with.

    1. I owned several variants. They were a lot of fun and the lenses on them were really good.

  6. Kirk, I know you get these questions all the time, so don't feel like you have to respond. At my age, eye sight, and the start of limited mobility, I'm looking to retire my DSLR kit. I want an "all-in-one" camera - just a camera with a good zoom lens. My question: Have you ever played with a bridge camera and written about your experience? I forgot, I'm just an old relic who likes to get out and snap a few.

    Thanks in advance,


    1. Jim, I've written about a few of them. The Sony R1 fits into this category but has been long discontinued. I like the long zoom, all in one cameras and my son made good use of the Canon SX30 and SX40 as video cameras for many school projects. To my mind the best ones are the ones with the bigger sensors like the Fuji SX-1 Here: http://www.amazon.com/Fujifilm-X-S1-Fuijinon-Telephoto-Ultra-Smooth/dp/B006T7QRN2/ref=sr_1_1?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1363474409&sr=1-1&keywords=fuji+sx-1

      They aren't ultra fast but it's nice to have everything in one package and, at least on the Canons, the image stabilization worked really well.

  7. My personal epiphany about mirrorless vs DSLR came about a year and a half ago. I'd had a Nikon system (D200, then D90) and had gotten into M43 as a take-with camera, since the Nikon kit was sitting in the closet most of the time due to weight. I then moved up to a GH2, and last Spring, I took the it and six (yes six) lenses to the annual local Tulip festival. All the gear fit into two small bags slung crossbody, and I spent four hours wandering around, snapping away, using all the lenses I had with me. I was SUCH a happy camper by the end of that day, and not tired whatsoever. If I had had the Nikon kit with me, I would have had a sore shoulder and back by the end of an hour, and would have wandered back to the car, grumpy shortly thereafter.

    The real bonus? One of my photos from that day won an annual photo contest for the event in the regional newspaper.

    So, I am not going back to DSLR land anytime soon.....

  8. The three mirrorless systems you picked good all good ones. I flirted with getting m43 cameras on a couple of occasions. As it turned out, however, I got into another mirrorless system, one you are very familiar with, largely as a fluke.

    A few months ago my family was about to go on vacation, and I didn't want to lug around my biggish, expensiveish DSLR. The Nikon V1 was (and still is) selling at fire-sale prices - so I picked one up, with a kit zoom lens. It has its quirks, but I love its small size. More importantly, I really like the images and video clips I've been able to get with it. The sensor and metering system and overall design have made it easy for me to get good results without too much fussing about - I was able to enjoy the vacation being a family member, not working as a family photographer. I'm not sure I could have said that if I had taken the DSLR.

    I appreciate the systems other people have been praising. As I've mentioned here before, there is a good selection of really good equipment out there for us to enjoy.

    1. I reviewed the V1 when it first came out and loved it. one of the best hybrid video/still mirrorless cameras around. We have so many good choices available to us now. It's hard to decide.

    2. I purchased the V1 after Kirk's review and I really do love it. I also now have a V2. My rationale for this system compared to the others:

      I use Nikon DSLRs for work (D3S and D800). I have the resolution and features of those cameras when needed. I don't necessarily need a APS-C sensor that is rivaling those bodies in image quality. I want a very small alternative with very small lenses.

      And the ability to shoot silently is huge. I'm still shocked that more manufacturers have not made this feature available.

      The image quality is very good. It's not my D3s but it is very good.

  9. I have a rule that I will not spend over $1K for a camera. The reasons are:

    1) The technology keeps improving.

    2) As you say, to take advantage of higher end equipment you have to make the camera the focus, I prefer to make life the focus and have the camera along for the ride.

    3) With the new cameras it is pretty easy to carry around 2 or 3 cameras and really capture what is going on. This is especially important for video.

    For important events, I will stick one camera on a tripod and have it do an unattended wide angle take. The second camera will use a zoom which I handhold and focus on the most interesting stuff. If my wife is along she will take the third camera and take stills. The end result is much better than I used to get in the past.

    Because I am not spending thousands of dollars on high end full frames I was easily able to justify a NEX 5, 5N, and 6 (I bought one a year for 3 years) and 1/2 a dozen lenses for them. I use all of it.

    My only regret with this approach is I would like the low light abilities of a full frame.

    1. I shot at ISO 1600 all week long and in reviewing the images have no sense of ISO disappointment.

    2. And that would compare to ISO 3200 for a FF since an NEX7 has 1.5 as much DOF which means 1 stop which means double the ISO at the same shuttertime.

      Greets, Ed.

  10. In Australia where I live, it is amazing to see how quickly these systems have been adopted. My wife got tired of her Nikon D7000 and with photography in general. She has now got an Olympus OMD Em-5 and loves it. It is like a new lease of life for her. She can use it all day without fatiguing and she loves the electronic viewfinder. It really is the way of the future


  11. Just want to say that this article exemplifies, at least in part, why your "gear" posts draw so much traffic. On the one hand, no doubt, there's the effect of Google - more people searching "Sony NEX review" than "thoughtful discussions of the photographic art."

    Bu there's also, for those of us who are interested in photography in many aspects, the indispensible fact that you're one of the few thoughtful voices about this stuff who doesn't seem to be shilling for a sponsor or defending of your own choices or just crapping all over everything (DPReview, I'm looking at you...). I read this and actually understand something about the choices and tradeoffs your discussing better than I did before reading, which is something in a web-wide-world full of people shouting back and forth at each other about how "any truly leet fauxtog must use a D800 for Max Quality" vs. "Will Crockett said something good about the GH3 therefore my Pen is the best camera ever and yours is obsolete."

  12. Thanks for the comparisons. I'd assumed you felt the Sony EVF with nearly double the pixel count and focus peaking pushed the Olympus product toward the heap marked obsolete. Major misunderstanding. If the majority of users find the EM5 viewfinder easiest to live with and you don't strongly disagree, that's significant.

    Describing the Olympus stabilization approach as the best ever implemented in a still camera is of particular interest. I've found the older in-body stabilization of the E-PL1 falling short of coping with my tendency to vibrate like a reed in the wind.

    Granted, the only proper way to compare all of these is to try them out. But Precision Camera and B&H are equally too far away --and the cost of renting each (with shipping) adds up to half the cost of finally making a purchase. Your impressions are greatly appreciated.

  13. Kirk, You spent your week in Boston shooting with a brace of NEX 7s, yet your recommendation here seems to favor the NEX 6. What gives?

    1. I often find that I make eccentric gear choices that are less comfortable for more literal, linear users. The Nex 6 is, all around, an easier camera to sink one's teeth into and it is a very good performer when it comes to IQ. I own both. I use them interchangeably. Most people think they need to pick one or the other. The Nex 6 has been discounted lately so it is the "better" deal.

    2. I currently have a NEX-5n and want to add another NEX system camera for an upcoming trip. I'm vacillating between the 6 and 7. My main question, I guess, is whether the 7's 24 MP sensor would be that significant an advantage over the 16 MP sensor of the NEX-6?

    3. The advantages of the 7 are these: best performance (resolution&sharpness) of any APS-C sensor at base ISO (100). Best dynamic range at base ISO. Ext. Microphone jack.

      The advantages of the 6 are these: Good noise characteristics at higher ISO's. Smaller, more manageable file sizes. Slightly easier control interface. Standard hot shoe configuration. More AF points.

      The finders and LCDs are the same.

      Both are great cameras. Depends on what your requirements are. I obviously like things about both of them. I prefer the 7 because I like to shoot some video and, when working seriously, I like the extra IQ at low ISOs.

  14. The OM-D is a solid game changer to me comming from an GF1 I upgraded last week and it feels like a stepping from a hot hatch into a Lamborghini, the GF1 is a capable camera, but the OM-D is a tool that puts so much power in such a little package that it looks like it was designed by Gandalf. Pure magic.

    Now one small advice.....buy DxO with it and work from RAW, you'll be suprised what an IQ you will achieve....as Ctein so nicely put it, on par with analogue medium format. And with the Pana kittlens 14-45 and the Oly 9-18 it shines. And all tha weighs in at less then a kilogram, and with good ISO up to 1600 and a DOF that is as large as a FF at twice the aperture (and this 4 times the ISO), and IBIS to match, who needs a tripod.

    Greets, Ed.

  15. Thanks for all the nice shares....:)


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