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....