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Date: 21/10/2014 | By: Mathieu

Are mirrorless systems becoming too big for their own good? – An analysis of recent announcements

new sony e mount lenses 2015

Are mirrorless systems becoming too big for their own good? – An analysis of recent announcements

Following my recent comparison between the Lumix 35-10mm f/2.8 and the new Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8, I wanted to write a more in-depth and general analysis about the new lenses showcased at Photokina by the different mirrorless camera brands. The one aspect that each has in common is an increase in size and weight, something that seems to have triggered different reactions, many of which I’ve come across by reading comments on the web and on our website.

Is this increase in size a natural evolution of mirrorless systems or an unexpected change of direction?

What makes a system lighter?

Before analysing each brand, I would like to respond to certain discussions I often read on the web. Let’s start with DSLRs. It is a fact that overall, a DSLR is heavier than an MILC. If we take for example the recent Nikon D750, which is one of the lightest professional/high-end enthusiast full frame cameras, its weight is about 750g. In contrast, the OM-D E-M1 weighs about 440g, the Fuji X-T1 about 390g and the Sony A7 around 450g. The heaviest MILC, excluding the Leica M camera, is the Samsung NX1 (550g). The same conclusions can be proportionally applied to entry level cameras and lenses.

As a rebuttal, I would now like to present a different reasoning that involves the whole kit and not just the individual parts.

The weight and size of the system you use, whatever it is, is also related to how you use it.

If you use your DSLR without a battery grip and mainly with prime lenses, you can indeed improve the portability of the system. Four years ago, I decided to limit myself to the D700 and the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 for my summer holidays and I had no issue carrying it around with me everywhere. The bottom line is that DSLR systems can be portable but you have to accept compromises to make it so: no extra accessories that aren’t essential, and prime lenses over zoom lenses. Another option of course could be a good f/3.5-5.6 zoom if you are not obsessed with fast apertures. I’ve seen more than one professional photographer carry around two DSLR bodies with one wide angle prime and one telephoto prime lens. It can work for some but not necessarily for everyone.

With MILCs, you have more freedom to carry around different lenses and still have a reasonably light system inside your bag. Indeed some body/prime lens combos are simply unbeatable in terms of size and weight (think of an Olympus E-M10 with the 45mm f/1.8). To say that an oversized lens doesn’t suit CSCs almost seems like a natural conclusion.

However, I’d like to demonstrate a different point of view, and I want to do it practically.

Kata R-102
Photo credit:Kata R-102 by Khedara ආරියරත්න 蒋龙


What happens if I compare a backpack full of cameras and lenses?

For this example, my reference will be a Nikon DSLR kit that suits the needs of both enthusiasts and professional photographers. In my Nikon bag I have:

The total weight of my Nikon bag is of 3595g not including the actual bag, batteries and other small accessories. Of course there are various combinations but I decided to choose the best compromise between performance and weight. Do keep in mind that this bag could be heavier if for example I replaced the 70-200mm f/4 with the 2.8 equivalent (add 690g to the total amount). I will also exclude high-end DSLRs that have a built-in vertical grip like the Nikon D4s since there isn’t an equivalent CSC with this kind of design.

I am going to compare this bag with an ideal equivalent selection of bodies and lenses for each MILC system. I will mainly talk about weight not only for practical reasons, but also to avoid making this article too cumbersome to read with lots of numbers to memorise and compare. Of course a lighter lens will most likely be smaller as well, except perhaps in the case of some prime lenses that can be really close in terms of size.


Olympus and Panasonic MFT system

A comparable MFT kit could be:

The Olympus bag weighs 1935g which is lighter by approximately 1.6kg than the Nikon Bag. If I replace the 35-100mm 2.8 with the new M.Zuiko 40-150mm f/2.8, the bag would be 400g more for a total of 2335g, still 1.2kg less than the Nikon bag.

DMC-GH4, 1/50, f/ 28/10, ISO 250

Another big advantage here is the size of each lens. I could easily fit the first combination in a Lowepro Messenger 150 shoulder bag. With the 40-150mm f/2.8, I would need a slightly bigger bag but it would still be smaller than the one I would have to buy for my Nikon kit. Of course in a real world situation, the bag size is also related to how many extra accessories you want to carry with you, including a tablet or laptop computer.

Fujifilm X system (APS-C)

Let’s see a comparable kit from the Fujifilm X system:

The total weight is 2128g, which is 1.4kg lighter than the Nikon package. If I replace the 55-200mm with the new XF 50-140mm f/2.8 (995g), the total amount would be of 2543g, approximately 1kg less than the Nikon package.

X-T1, 1/60, f/ 28/10, ISO 1000

This is an interesting example because the Fuji 50-140mm f/2.8 is almost identical to the Nikkor 70-200mm f/4 as far as the length (2.6mm difference) and diameter (4mm difference) are concerned. The Fujinon lens actually is heavier by 145g.

Now I am sure that a big debate could start right here: should I compare this lens with the Nikkor f/2.8 lens or to the f/4 lens?

For me, aperture is not just a question of depth of field, so I would be fine comparing it to the Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8. In this case, the Fujinon lens would have a clear advantage (smaller and lighter by 545g). But for the sake of being fair towards the DSLR system and to avoid scientific nitpicking, I chose the f/4 version for the Nikon bag. Again, with the faster zoom lens, the Nikon kit would be heavier.

Samsung NX system (APS-C)

With Samsung, I could create the following kit:

DMC-GH4, 1/100, f/ 56/10, ISO 400

The total weight is of 2374g, here again lighter by 1.2kg. Samsung currently doesn’t have a constant aperture wide angle zoom lens nor a 50mm equivalent lens (except a pancake version) so I chose the smaller 12-24mm and the 45mm f/1.8. After all you won’t find the exact same lenses for each system so it is a question of adaptation as well. I could have replaced the 12-24mm with the more professional 16-50mm f/2-2.8 which is a bigger and heavier lens (+414g). The logic I applied to Fujifilm and its telephoto lens could also be applied to the Samsung and its 50-150mm as well. Actually, the latter combined with the NX1 becomes the largest and heaviest combo out of all high-end MILCs paired with a professional telephoto zoom lens.

Sony E-mount system (APS-C/full frame)

An equivalent kit for the Sony mirrorless system would be composed of:

ILCE-7S, 1/100, f/ 4/1, ISO 200

Total weight of the bag is 2609 kg. Now the Sony example is interesting because it might be the mirrorless system that represents the limit when it comes to the ratio of compactness/performance. Sony did a great job with the bodies, as they are truly compact and portable, especially with a small lens like the FE 35mm f/2.8. But the upcoming lenses to be released next year show that compactness is not always possible when you place performance first. The best example is the Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 that was shown as a mockup version at Photokina. It is huge and I am pretty sure that its size can match the Nikkor or Sigma ART 35mm f/1.4 lenses.

In this case, the absence of the mirror isn’t an advantage anymore and only the size of the camera makes it a lighter combo but perhaps more unbalanced. The same consideration goes for the 90mm Macro. Of course these are just early thoughts and mockups might not represent the final version of this lenses.

A question of professional demands

It is clear that most new lenses announced by Olympus, Fujifilm, Samsung and Sony have something in common: they are designed to meet professional needs. Each zoom features a constant aperture of 2.8 or 4 and their build makes it clear that they are premium high-quality lenses.

Professional demands can be harder to please. Brands know that it isn’t enough for these lenses to be sufficient–they must be perfect from both a performance and quality point of view. Personally I am not surprised that they are bigger than the usual lenses we like to see mounted on our CSCs. If we look throughout history at the different systems, a high quality zoom lens with a constant aperture or a high quality prime with a very fast aperture always ended up being bigger and heavier than the cheaper/slower version. There are tons of example I can think of. Moreover, a bigger lens is not necessarily a bad thing for a professional photographer, and no matter which way you look at it, the various telephoto lenses from Olympus, Fujifilm or Samsung are smaller and lighter than the DSLR equivalents.

Conclusion: a natural evolution

E-M10, 1/200, f/ 28/10, ISO 400

I am sure that not everyone will agree with me but I personally think that bigger lenses hitting the mirrorless market is normal. It is a question of professional demands, of users who prioritise performance and image quality. It is also related to the laws of physics. Certainly there are some examples that show you can have both portability and performance, but if it were really that easy to make small, high-quality lenses, it would be the norm rather than the exception.

I think that rather than comparing individual lenses, it is more interesting to compare systems. I showed you above that each of the MILC bags are lighter than the Nikon bag by an average of 1kg at least. And that is considering that I chose a Nikon bag that represents a mix of portability and performance. I could have composed a kit that gave priority to quality but it would have been even heavier compared to the high quality equivalent lenses on the Olympus, Fujifilm or Sony systems.

Of course there are systems that have more advantages than others–the Micro Four Thirds system for instance is simply the best you can get when it comes to reducing size and weight.

I know that some of you will bring up the depth of field argument again but to me it doesn’t work for the simple reason that one doesn’t choose a lens based on how it compares to the full-frame equivalent but according to the system he or she uses. All lenses for the MFT system will have a 2-stop slower equivalent depth-of-field in comparison to a full frame system, but that doesn’t make a lens like the 75mm f/1.8 lens any less effective.

It is a matter of comparing the best lenses within each system.

If you are a MFT shooter, you will choose the 40-150mm f/2.8 because it is a 2.8 lens. The same with the 70-200mm f/2.8 if you are a full frame DSLR shooter. This conclusion might be less scientific, but it reflects in my humble opinion formed from practical experience out in the field.

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About the author: Mathieu Gasquet

Mathieu Gasquet is a professional photographer with French and Italian origins. Besides running his own video and photography studio 3Dit Lab, he is also the official photographer for the National Cinema Museum in Turin. You can follow him on Google+, Twitter or Facebook!

  • Mathieu

    I agree, there is not advantages or disadvantages. It’s just different and you just learn how to make the best out of it 😉

  • Mathieu

    It is expensive I agree. But if you shoot portraits everyday it might be a good investment.

  • HF

    I have the D610 in front of me with 50/1.8 and 85/1.8, as well as the XT1 with both your lenses. As I attach the grip to the Fuji to make it handle nicer, the weight difference is negligible for me. Only when using the 70-200/2.8 it starts to get heavy, but Fuji doesn’t have an equivalent lens. The new 50-140 is equivalent to Nikons 70-200/4, which is lighter. My 18-35 wide angle lens is great and leighter than Fujis 10-24 (a little less AOV, on the other hand). So is there really such a big difference? If you use equivalent lenses the difference boils down to the body weight difference.

  • HF

    The 42.5 is too expensive, in my opinion.

  • Andrea P

    As a sony shooter now (A6000 and A7) I wish Tamron made the 17-50 2.8 in e-mount (for the A6000). It is not a small lens, but when I look at photos taken with my old D90 I often wonder which prime lens I used; then I check exif :-0

    I let go of my Nikon D600 (at a loss) because of size, but especially the disappointment with the oil/dust issue from the shutter scraping the cheap plastic elements inside. The new shutter seemed to have fixed it (somewhat) but introduced heavy recoil so that it was difficult to take sharp pictures at 1/125 and impossible below with a 50mm 1.8 lens.

    With the A6000 I can hand-hold as low as 1/15th without stabilization. I can do 1/30th on the A7. I did not go for the A7r due to both cost and the shutter vibration issue (no electronic first curtain).

    With the A7, I feel I’am back to shooting my old Nikon FM2n, and it feels great.

  • Mathieu

    The E-M1/42,5mm holds its own 😉

  • Mathieu

    Because I think it is more interesting to have a full frame reference in the mirrorless cameras examples. And there aren’t many Sony lenses designed for APS-C that are equivalent to the others. Also the difference in size between the a6000 and the a7 is not huge. Also Sony seems to concentrate on new lenses for the full frame system mainly, and of course they can be used on the APS-C cameras as well.

  • Michael

    Why are you comparing to sony’s full frame and not their APS-C system based on the a6000 and the corresponding lenses. The difference would be a lot closer to Olympus’ MFT and Fuji’s systems on weight alone, while on others such as AF speed, burst speed, IQ, etc. it would also be close if not exceed them.

  • Albert

    Have a look at this post titled “Micro Four Thirds vs Medium Format”

  • Albert

    Have a look at this post titled “Micro Four Thirds vs Medium Format”

  • nam

    Personally, I don’t like current big lenses/small bodies trend. As Sony A7 owner I’d like to see more reasonably fast AF primes,than newly released behemoths. Something like 4/15, 2/24 (2/28 is good step, but I’d prefer 24mm FL), 2/35, 2.8/85, which all can be close to FE 1.8/55 in terms of size.

    But I agree that physics is limit here and if ML companies wants to compete with Canon or Nikon or even Sony A-mount lens range, there is no other way than release fast and big tele primes and big fast zooms. The lighter kit is unfortunately compromised in terms of ergonomics and battery life then.

  • HF

    Generally I agree with having a lighter system. But the difference is a lot smaller, if I use equivalent lenses. So the only proper comparison is with the Sony kit at the end, in my opinion, because the other kits provide lenses with different DOF and total light gathering. The Sony kit shows, that the saving are less in the lenses (especially when looking at upcoming ones), but with the bodies, mainly. However, another advantage in my opinion is with manual focusing lenses, as these are smaller and lighter and are easier used on mirrorless.

  • HF

    Usually I choose a lens based on AOV and DOF. If I shoot having the same AOV and f-stop + shutter speed, I have less noise, but shallower DOF when comparing FF to m43, for example. Medium format is too expensive for me and it’s difficult to get excellent lenses making use of it. Read Ming Thein’s comparison of the D810 to the new Pentax, for example. For me there is no reason to go after medium format as the best FF cameras are extremely close already (A7r, D810). The new Sony with 50+ MP should even further close the gap.

  • HF

    You can, but most of the time this means not getting the subject separation you get from FF or the low noise. If you can live with that, you sure have a smaller system.

  • Mathieu

    M4/3 and Medium format, not a bad combination at all!
    I agree that the “full frame” terms are not really precise and more a marketing name than everything else. Apparently during Photokina, there was a conference hosted by Tipa about this topic.

  • Mathieu

    De temps en temps c’est utile de rappeler ce que l’on connait déjà 😉

  • Mk.82

    35mm is even today the Small Format. It has not changed at all.

    But some people like to claim that 35mm is “Full Frame” as they need to defend 35mm blindly.

    135 film could be used on different cameras, the frame size depended the camera you used, not by the film. Just like with 120 film, that you could use it with Medium Format cameras taking 6×4.5, 6×6 or 6×7 frames, the 135 roll was used to take a either 36×24 or 18×24 frame. That mean the camera was either a “Full-Frame” or it was “Half-Frame” as the camera that exposed 18×24 size frame used only half of the negative, giving twice as many frames from same roll than Full-Frame model. So Full-Frame got 24 or 36 frames from standard 135 rolls, while Half-Frame camera got from same rolls 48 or 72 frames. The development const was identical, as chemicals were swapped by the how long negatives were needed to be developed, not by frame amounts. So you always paid either 24 or 36 frame roll prices but you could get twice as many frames.
    And quality really was not worse for even professional use, the lens quality was the main problem as always.

    And who would guess next thing?

    The Half-Frame frame size is identical to APS-C sensor (1.5x).
    That is the sensor size that first professional DSLR cameras used because the manufacturing technology to get larger sensors didn’t exist. So journalists and other professionals who moved to digital cameras from film, were forced to learn to do format ratio conversion for their lenses, that they could use on DSLR. So 50mm offered same angle of view as 75mm and 135mm offered same angle of view as 200mm would give and so on.

    Then the technology improved and meant Canon and Nikon was about to present their first 35mm DSLR and then they needed a new punch line to get professionals to buy the new expensive body. It was the marketing “Full-Frame”. No longer you had that Half-Frame body but you could now invest serious money and get the “Full-Frame” and enjoy from your lenses as you enjoyed on the SLR. It was “Full-Frame” baby!

    And boy did that marketing propaganda hit like million volts, the joy that you got to use whole lens imagine circle as you paid to use on SLR time. Thank you Canon and Nikon bringing the “Full-Frame”.

    And as everyone should know already, APS-C, m4/3 or 35mm are all as much “Full-Frame” as are any other format. They all use the full sensor size, there isn’t “Half-Frame” on digital cameras. There isn’t one film size that is used and camera commands what proportion of that film is being used.

    Sure we can take a 35mm camera and set it to 1.5x crop mode so we can use the lenses designed for APS-C cameras, but that doesn’t make the camera suddenly “Half-Frame” camera, nor it is “Full-Frame” camera.

    And some people still pretend to claim that the sensor size affects to amount of light it gathers, hence getting one (or two!) stops less light and that’s why have worse noise.
    Well guess what, buy a 35mm DSLR/DSLM and use “Full-Frame” lens on it. Take the photo from tripod and mark up the exposure values. Now go to camera settings and enable the “Crop-mode” and take a another shot. You still get exactly the same exposure, depth of field and noise. Nothing changes on those. Only thing what changes is the angle of view is now narrower. So if you composed person so you cut just above the head and below chin before enabling Crop-mode, now you have composition where frame is cut from forehead and lips.

    If you overlay the photos, you get exactly same quality in noise, sharpness and same depth of field etc. You just had narrower angle of view. That is what happens when sensor size is changed, nothing else. What you do to get back the same framing, it is the one that changes things.

    Today we have 6×7 Digital Medium Format (DMF) cameras again. It toke years to get DMF cameras to come up because sensor technology processing wasn’t there so we could get high quality working sensors without dead pixels or slow readouts etc.

    Again the 35mm DSLR/DLSM are the “Small Format” cameras. And owners of those are feeling threatened because now they are again the useless group who doesn’t have big money to get highest professional tools. So the years they spent being douchebags toward APS-C and 4/3 camera owners, they are feeling how it felt to be under their own stupidity.

    And hard does they do try to pretend that the 35mm vs DMF is negligible by quality or depth of field etc. But guess what, the format factor between 35mm and DMF (6×4.5) is little over 2x. That is more than 4/3 sensor is to 35mm.

    If you are pro, and you are after highest image quality, you have money to get to DMF and you don’t even look back to 35mm. If you need then a portable high quality camera to accompany you, you don’t get 35mm but you get m4/3. Then you have two systems, a m4/3 and medium format. The m4/3 offers light all day around system with higher image quality than needed for large printing (up to 75x100cm) and then you have medium format camera that gives you resolution and depth of field that is little over twice better what m4/3 offers.

    The m4/3 system is now on 16Mpix. To get a improved resolution, we can’t double the megapixels, we need to quadruple it. We should need to get 64Mpix sensor to get two lines instead one line. PIxels can’t have half-lines, so getting 1.5x improvement to resolution when going from 16Mpix to 36Mpix, is simply not enough. But getting a Digital Medium Format camera that offers 80Mpix, well that is the thing. You see the difference and to that 36Mpix Digital Small Format is nothing when you compare those two to m4/3.

    So get m4/3 and get Digital Medium Format and you have best tools ever for sport, landscape, portraiture, holiday, journalism etc.

  • fred kelder

    Tant d’efforts pour des conclusions connues d’avance, ça force le respect.

  • Albert

    With a Minox kit the scale will be complete. 😉

  • Albert

    Yes a huge mirror!

    Here is the kit:

    Pentax 645Z body 1550g
    Pentax 645D body 1480g
    PENTAX FA 645 33-55mm f/4.5 585g
    PENTAX FA 645 80-160mm f/4.5 1010g
    PENTAX FA 645 75mm f/2.8 215g
    Flash AF540FGZ II 350g

    The total weight of a Pentax bag is 5190g

  • Mathieu

    Because it has a “mirror” :) But certainly it could fit in a comparison related to DSLRs and medium format cameras.

  • Albert

    Why don’t add a Pentax 645z kit to the comparison? Remember that the 35mm, now “Full Frame”, format has been considered the small/portable format in the film era.

  • Alan Paone

    I guess it’s just an odd industrial design then, even for Sony!

  • breztech

    I sold my Nikon D600 for the Fuji X-T1 and love it. I think the 56mm f/1.2 or the 35mm f1.4 are perfect (for me) for 99% of all usage. The weight is less than half of what I used to have.

  • Mathieu

    They are designed for mirrorless but in the case of the Distagon, one of the Sony manager we interviewed at Photokina clearly explained the design to me. The demand was for a fast and top quality 35mm AF lens. So if the 35mm 2.8 is designed to be compact, the 35mm f/1.4 will be designed to be a top performer.

  • Mathieu

    The next step will be the olympus 300mm f/4. Let’s hope that Panasonic brings something as well 😉

  • Mathieu

    That’s true and this is also the main reason why the new Zeiss Loxia left me with a very positive impression.

  • Henrik Fessler

    Back from my APS-C days i was shedding off roughly 2kg when switching to MFT gear:
    In the meantime i switched again to the mirrorless full frame stuff, but i can still keep it light and compact by using manual primes (I really like the Voigtlander manual SLII lenses, they’re light and compact and extremely fun to take photos with it) … if you’re willing to take the path of manual lenses, you can put together a really compact system, that not only goes for system cameras only 😉 .

  • Alan Paone

    It’s also interesting to me that both those new, larger sony primes look like they’ve got a spacer on the back (kind of like rokinon’s lenses that work on both mirrorless and DSLR Mounts). I wonder if they’re new designs for mirrorless or if they’re adapted from tried & true DSLR designs.

  • Alan Paone

    As much as they’re relatively big and heavy, I’m glad the big 2.8 zooms are coming to 4/3 and fuji X. I love using my x100s or my 35/1.4 on a small camera and those options *aren’t going away*. Sometimes you just need a big, fast, versatile zoom and I’m glad I have the option of mounting one on my normally tiny XT1 instead of needing a bigger, heavier DSLR as a second camera and system.

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