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Why your next camera may well be a Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Hybrid

Hybrids need a harder look

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m talking about hybrids again.

Or “mirrorless, interchangeable lens cameras.” Or, “compact system cameras.” Pick your catchphrase.

Whatever you want to call them, they’re here to stay. They cover the waterfront in terms of features and specialties, and while they don’t command the North American market at this time, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll be researching them in the near to medium term if you have any enthusiasm for cameras or photography. And if you choose not to, you’ll be doing yourself a disservice.

A fast evolution rate

The Nikon 1 J3 comes in a variety of colors

The Nikon 1 J3 comes in a variety of colors

From the exuberant, almost toy-like colors of the Nikon 1 Series, to the streamlined, big-sensor tech of the Sony Alpha NEX family, this segment of the market is now experiencing the fastest evolutionary growth spurt in photography today. And what used to be the domain of point-and-shoot step-ups and entry-level enthusiast cameras is now becoming fertile ground for the next generation of hobbyist and professional photographers.

Camera manufacturers are out to prove that this category is not the land of DSLR wannabees. They’ve got their own feel and look, and even a few features their bigger brethren might not have, like full-time live view while shooting video.

Sony%20Alpha%20NEX-5N%20with%20transparents%20lens%20illustrationThe Sony NEX series of cameras offer a light pathway unobstructed by mirrors

Are mirrors necessary?

People are beginning to ask just why cameras need a mirror anymore. They soak up light and take up space, and the primary reason for their existence — to reroute light for optical viewfinders and internal sensors— has been blunted by advances made in electronic viewfinder technology. And if you remove a mirror from a camera’s optical path, your design options increase. That space can now be put to better use — or dispensed with entirely in the interest of a smaller footprint.

This flexibility has led designers to make interesting choices. The Sony NEX camera bodies, for example, are quite slim and compact. But because they feature a large APS-C size sensor, they can look pretty interesting with a zoom lens attached. The bigger sensor forces the lenses to be larger too. Add their adaptor for Sony Alpha lenses into the mix, and the camera is effectively dwarfed by what’s attached on the front end.

The "Cross-over" camera

Panasonic%20LUMIX%20DMC-GH2The Olympus OM-D E-M5 offers impressive image quality and a great lens selection.

The Nikon 1 has taken a different tack — smaller sensor, smaller lenses. And Panasonic and Olympus have a huge range of offerings that work with the large family of lenses available for the Micro Four Thirds format. Some of their cameras are more compact-inspired, and some are distinctly DSLR-like. But all of the cameras we’ve mentioned feature more portability than your standard DSLR body plus lens. If these cameras were cars, the DSLR would be your full-size SUV, and the hybrids would be in the “cross-over” class — the “Subaru Outback” of cameras, perhaps.

Who are the players?

I’ve talked about the Nikon 1 Series at length in the past year. The well-regarded Sony NEX-5N and NEX-7, last summer’s hotness, have now been followed up by the excellent Wi-Fi® capable NEX-5R and NEX-6 models.

Canon, meantime has stuck a toe in the water with its EOS-M model, which draws its feature set from the popular EOS Rebel T4i. Panasonic continues to refine its wide-ranging, but maturing M43 product line. And then, there’s Fujifilm.

Retro captures the buyers' imagination

Fujifilm%20X-100The Fujifilm X-100 captured imaginations in 2011 with retro looks and modern features

Fuji hit the jackpot with the introduction of their X100 camera in 2011. While it didn’t feature an interchangeable lens mounting, it had a great, fast fixed 35mm equivalent f/2 lens, married to a classic rangefinder-style mirrorless body. Sporting a large, APS-C sensor and a unique hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder, the combination of retro styling, top quality imaging components, and innovative construction captured the imagination of a great many enthusiasts.

The camera quickly sold out days after it was introduced. They followed up that introduction with the smaller-sensor, zoom-lens X10, another fine camera with the same style pedigree, and shortly thereafter, Fujifilm announced the X-PRO1 and three wide-aperture prime lenses for its new “X-Mount” standard. Now, they've added to the line with more lenses and the well-received X-E1.

The Fujifilm X-E1 combines classic looks and cutting-edge technology

The Fujifilm X-E1 combines classic looks and cutting-edge technology.

The category matures and broadens

New features are coming into play for the hybrid sector. Many of these camera families are developing a versatile stable of lenses, and more will be introduced in the coming months. Wi-Fi is on the verge of becoming a standard offering for new products coming online. Full-frame sensor sizes will probably be explored by mainstream manufacturers for the mirrorless market before long.

DSLRs are by no means dead. They're still a vibrant segment of the market with innovations aplenty. They have lots of advantages and the lens families are well-established. But hybrids aren’t just for the curious point-and-shooters wanting to advance a level or two. They’ve put on their big-boy pants and they’re looking for top talent to help strut their stuff.

So when it comes time to research your next camera, do yourself a favor: click on that button that says “Hybrids.” There’s a bunch of goodness waiting for you, and it’s getting better fast.

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