All things modern.
Long ago when people wanted to take more creative* photographs they would go to a camera store and buy a very expensive DSLR. Today, even regular digital cameras are getting better and cheaper; equipped with large sensors and fast lenses meaning that you can be very creative with relatively inexpensive compact cameras. A few fine examples that come to mind are the Sony RX100, RX10, Panasonic LX100 and Canon G7X.
* I purposely use the word ‘creative’ and not ‘better’. If you take boring pictures with a cheap camera you will only take sharper yet still boring pictures with a DSLR.
All photos are taken from the respective manufactuer website.
But creativity is still limited because the fixed lenses make it difficult to specialise. Look specifically at the RX100 and RX10 cameras. These are both fixed lens cameras with exactly the same sensor but optimised for different situations: one for wide field of view, shallow depth of field, low-light and the other for its long zoom. So if you wanted to do both of these things, you would need to buy both cameras which would cost about £1300 in 2014 prices.
It is therefore still wise when looking to get creative with photography, to buy a camera which features interchangeable lenses. This way you only have to put out for the body once, and can change your lens to suit the situation. So we are back to the expensive DSLR right? Wrong! There is a new category of camera in the form of the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. These cameras are small and light while retaining all of the advantages of the SLR.
To explain how the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (MILC) developed, we need to go back to why cameras had mirrors in the first place. The SLR principle evolved back in the film days when rangefinders were the popular choice. The SLR design allowed better focus accuracy and metering due to the photographer being able to see through the lens. The light needed to be reflected to the eye by the mirror and only when the shutter was pressed would the mirror flip out of the way and expose the film. The SLR therefore quickly pushed the rangefinder camera out.
With a digital camera however, the sensor can be exposed all the time giving a live view through the lens of what is being taken. Only when the shutter is pressed does the shutter activate and then open again ready for framing the next picture. Electronic view finding has numerous advantages over optical from a framing and composing point of view even before we mention the bulk and weight of the extra optics required for an optical finder. Fewer optical components also mean that they can be made cheaper. This is exactly how point and shoot digital cameras have always been made. The only advancement really is the ability to swap the lenses out.
For these reasons, I would advise anyone just getting into creative photography to go with a mirrorless camera, even if some traditionalists prefer to stick with what they are familiar and even if the salesman in the camera shop tries to push DSLR marketing hype on you. Be aware that there are many cameras made to look like a DSLR just to milk the public perception that if you want to take good pictures, you must buy a big bulky camera and stick it against your eyeball. The MILC is the future of ILC photography.
MILCs are now offered by several manufacturers offering a range of models from cheap with average specifications to large and costly models suited for more specific requirements. If it is your first foray into ILC photography it is advisable to buy an affordable model with a kit lens and use it until you decide what kind of photos you enjoy taking. Use this information to then guide your upgrade. More expensive cameras cost more because they are more specialised and if you don’t know what you are buying it for, your pictures can actually come out worse!
One decision to be made is what sensor size you want. There are many arguments about why one size of sensor should be better than another and the internet seems to be full of misinformation. Crop sensor cameras are cheaper now, but the recent radical drop in full frame prices indicates that this may be the standard size for the future. This is an important decision because lenses are very expensive and lenses you buy for one sensor size would not necessarily work on another even if the physical mount is the same. So image quality arguments aside, if you can afford it, buying a full frame sensor camera now may save you money in the long term as lenses will not need to be changed when you upgrade the body. Buying full frame lenses and a crop sensor camera now with the intention of upgrading to a full frame body later on is not a perfect solution either as for the best quality with a crop sensor you really need to use lenses specifically for this sensor size. The relationship between sensor size and lens is very complicated.
On the other hand, one must consider physical size and weight of the camera system. While sensors and associated electronics are getting more advanced and smaller all the time, the physics of optics rely on physical dimensions. Therefore an identically specified lens will always be physically smaller when designed for a smaller sensor. If size and weight is therefore an issue, consider sticking with an APS-C or even micro 4/3 sensor.
The photo below illustrates the difference between lens sizes of two comparable lenses. On the left is an a6000 with a 16-70mm (24-105mm cropped) and on the right is an a7r with a 24-70mm lens. Look how much smaller the APS-C lens on the left is even though it covers a larger focal range and, if you believe internet reviews, is also much sharper.
Even more staggering is the comparison between similar lenses for full frame and much smaller micro 4/3 sensors. In the picture below we have the Sony A7r with a 55mm F1.8 lens on the left and an Olympus E-M1 on the right with a 25mm F1.8.
So what’s my advice? Depending on your budget, buy either a crop or full frame sensor MILC that comes with a kit lens. These kit lenses are virtually free with the body and are often of quite high quality. Use this combination for a while and make note of what zoom range and aperture settings you use most, even if you had the camera set on auto. You can then use this information to specialise in this area while holding on to your kit lens for more general photography, In time, you can also upgrade your camera body to one of the specialist bodies as well. This process may take weeks, months or years. By following this plan you stand to learn a lot about photography while spending the least amount of money and above all having a good time!
After lots of research, I bought a Sony ILC-5000 (a5000). There were numerous factors influencing this decision namely price, sensor performance, versatility and jpg image quality. This article is a good read for anyone trying to decide which camera is right for them although the conclusion is different, the thought process is the same. I decided on the a5000 because I placed a higher priority on the image quality provided by a 20 megapixel sensor and the advanced BIONZ X processor and a lower priority on things like fast autofocus, fast burst mode and the EVF. This is because I envisioned using classic manual lenses and take my time composing landscape and still life shots. Your requirements may be different