The rise of mirrorless cameras: Two of the best of 2018

by Peter Griffin / 21 December, 2018
xt3

FujiFilm’s XT-3. Photo/www.fujifilm.com

If you love nothing more than sitting in the bush capturing images of tui mid-flight or time-lapse videos of constellations in the night sky, you’ll have been spoilt for choice with new camera options in 2018.

The defining trend this year in cameras was the adoption by all of the big camera brands of “mirrorless” cameras, which are typically smaller and lighter than the digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLR) that have dominated the market for years.

The defining feature of a mirrorless camera is just as the name implies – there’s no mirror built into it to reflect what is being viewed through the camera lens up to the viewfinder pressed to your eye.

Instead, you are given an electronic viewfinder, a digital representation of the image you are capturing, sort of like the image you see on your smartphone screen when the camera on the back snaps a photo. Camera purists often still prefer the optical viewfinders of DSLRs, but it used to be the case that you sacrificed numerous features and quality in going mirrorless.

That’s no longer true. These are full-featured cameras that have less heft to them, a factor that can’t be underestimated. As an amateur snapper myself, I know for a fact that I’m more likely to take a camera along with me if it is easy to lug around.

There is one drawback with mirrorless cameras – they use more power to take a photo as that electronic viewfinder consumes power, so you’ll get fewer photos from a fully-charged battery, than with an equivalent DSLR.

But that’s a small price to pay that can be addressed with a spare battery or a battery grip that can clip onto your camera’s base.

Two cameras that have won rave reviews this year and which could be described as “mid-range to entry level pro respectively” (though the two can’t be directly compared) are FujiFilm’s XT-3 and Sony’s A7 III, which I’ve had the pleasure of road-testing.

A photo taken with the XT-3. Photo/Peter Griffin.

A photo taken with the XT-3. Photo/Peter Griffin.

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FujiFilm’s XT-3

This camera looks a little different from its predecessor the XT-2 and there’s no disappointment for me in that. Its sturdy magnesium alloy body is ever so slightly heavier than the XT-2’s but feels great in the hand and continues that slightly retro look that those nostalgic for late 70s-era camera design will love.

The XT-3 has not one but three manual dials on the top (ISO, shutter speed and exposure compensation) and another each on the front and back for good measure, unusual for a mirrorless, but allowing ultimate access to customised settings which can be indispensable when you are trying to make a quick adjustment on the move. As a digital menu fan, it has taken me a while to adjust to so much use of analogue settings, but it is far more efficient.

Physically, everything you need is there for connectivity: microphone input, headphone jack, flash shoe, USB-C and HDMI ports, two SD card slots and Wi-fi and Bluetooth connectivity.

The big improvements with the XT-3 include better autofocus capability, faster burst shooting and improved video capabilities, the latter of which addresses a weakness in the X line for FujiFilm compared to some of its rivals.

The electronic viewfinder is exquisite to look through, giving a crisp, accurate view of the world. Its resolution has increased to 3.69 million dots (2.36 million on the X-T2). The three-inch LCD screen on the camera’s rear is finally touchscreen, which works well for functions like setting focus points and using flick gesture to reach menu items, though it would be great if the screen could flip out and forward so you can see the real-time results of recording yourself delivering piece-to-camera shots.

The 26-megapixel X-Trans CMOS4 sensor is an upgrade from the 24MP version in the X-T2 and the X-Processor 4 is faster too. This is the first X-series censor to be a so-called back-illuminated sensor, which is supposed to capture more light and improve low light shooting.

It is hard to know how much of a boost this gives the X-T3 when shooting across ISO settings, but the results for me were impressive. A friend recently described FujiFilm’s X-series cameras as delivering “sharp” stills, something of a backhanded compliment, suggesting they lack a bit of the natural tone and atmosphere of other cameras.

The sharpness is what I like about the XT-3’s results, from the viewfinder through to the images that result, which in JPEG format are great for immediate use, though there is always the ability to play around with RAW images produced as well (and to shoot in both formats to different SD cards).

Autofocus is much more accurate and effective on the XT-3, thanks to the fact that more of the sensor is now dedicated to tracking movement and making sure you are in focus. It’s fast and intelligent and tracking subjects also seems to have improved. Face and eye recognition has been upgraded so the camera is quicker to detect and lock onto people in the shot.

Using the camera’s electronic shutter (which accompanies the manual camera shutter) you can shoot up to 60 JPEG or 35 RAW images at 30fps (up to 11fps with the mechanical shutter). That’s incredibly fast shooting. This camera continues to be excellent for action shots.

A pre-shot mode, not uncommon to cameras these days, will also help you avoid missing great photo opportunities by taking images with the camera’s electronic shutter when you have depressed the shutter button half-way.

When it comes to video, it really is quite remarkable what you can expect to get out of the XT-3 without it being a daunting experience.

The XT-3 allows you to shoot 4K video at up to 60 fps (frames per second) in 10-bit colour, straight to the SD card. That’s more than I’ll ever need and the 120fps super slow-mo function in full high-definition is unlikely to get much use.

FujiFilm’s various shooting modes, some of which aim to mimic film, continue to be well worth experimenting with.

With a slew of upgrades and new firmware releases adding tweaks all the time, such as a fancy high dynamic range function for shooting video, the XT-3 covers all the bases you’d want in a mid-range camera, when you pair it with one of FujiFilm’s quality lenses, such as the standard 18-55mm that I’ve been using.

There are a few omissions here that will frustrate some. There is no in-body image stabilisation with the XT-3 which is instead done in the lens. There are certain advantages to in-body image stabilisation which cover any lens fitted. But you’ll have to upgrade to FujiFilm’s HX-1 for that.

A bigger battery would be nice – you’ll get 300-400 shots on a single battery, which sounds like a lot but isn’t enough really when you are travelling. But ultimately, the XT-3 is probably the best in its class for a mid-range camera that delivers a great shooting experience for stills and videos.

Pros:
Boosted processor and sensor performance
Great body design tweaks
Exceptional video performance
Electronic viewfinder looks great

Cons:
No in-body image stabilisation
No reversible camera screen
Average battery life

Rating: 9/10

Price: $2,900 (body only) $3,550 (including 18-55mm lens)

The Sony A7 III. Photo/Getty.

The Sony A7 III. Photo/Getty.

Sony A7 III

Sony’s A7 III is in a slightly different league to the XT-3 because it has a full-size sensor common to DSLRs and bigger than the APS-C sensor in the XT-3. Sensor size is very important in the camera world as a larger sensor lets in more light and can offer more resolution, allowing for more detail, better colour accuracy and better performance for low light shooting.

For many photographers going mirrorless, full-size will be an entry level requirement. 

With the A7 III you get many of the features of Sony’s flagship A9 camera, such as its fast autofocus system, but at a much lower price.

The camera is solid and weighty in hand with the 24-70mm lens attached. The body quality of the Sony cameras has always impressed me and the same goes for the A7 III. If you like a good, pronounced grip for stability, you’ll get one here as well as a reasonably uncluttered layout with the three key settings dials aligned to the right of the viewfinder leaving the left shoulder bare. As a leftie, that suits me just fine.

I’ve always found the Sonys to have a higher learning curve than Canons or FujiFilm cameras when it comes to picking up the ins and outs of setting and navigating the menu and the same applied here. But once you’ve put the time in everything is at hand, though the rear LCD screen only supports touchscreen for choosing a focus point, not for tweaking settings and as with the XT-3, there’s no ability to flip the screen forward.

There is a range of ports available on the camera’s left side, though why Sony needs to hide them behind three separate doors I don’t know. Connectivity is well catered for here too, with Bluetooth, Wi-fi and NFC all supported for getting photos quickly to your phone or computer. The two SD slots are housed on the other side for easy access.

The electronic viewfinder hasn’t been upgraded – at 2.36 million dots it lags behind some others on the market in terms of sharpness. The A7 III offers in-camera, 5-axis stabilisation technology which is a great feature for eliminating camera shake, particularly in low-light shooting with long exposures. This also proves its worth when it comes to shooting video.

When it comes to image quality, the A7 III shows its pedigree as one of the leading mirrorless cameras in its class. You get excellent autofocus for fast-moving subjects (up to 10fps continuous shooting). For camera geeks, the A7 III offers 693 phase-detection AF points covering 93 percent of image area and 425 contrast AF points.

A photo taken with the Sony A7 III. Photo/Peter Griffin.

A photo taken with the Sony A7 III. Photo/Peter Griffin.

There’s impressive dynamic range (15 stops), particularly good, I found, when shooting at night. The latter is helped by a backside illuminated 24.2 megapixel Exmor R sensor. For camera geeks, the A7 III offers 399 phase-detection AF points covering 68 percent of image area and 425 contrast AF points.

While I like the sharpness of FujiFilm cameras and lenses, there’s a more natural, softer tone to the images from the A7 III straight out of the box which I loved. That’s where that full-frame sensor comes into play. There is so much power to work with here and most of it is beyond my ability to get the most out of. But even on standard, auto settings, it delivers great-looking photos almost every time.

The A7 III has won fans for its performance at both low and high ISO settings, the mark of a versatile, quality camera.

When it comes to video, you’ll get 8-bit 4K shooting at 30 fps to the internal SD card. This leaves the A7 III lagging behind other cameras, including the XT-3 when it comes to video. But Sony has another camera more geared towards videographers, the A7R III.

I’m not regularly shooting video, so the differences are lost on me really. But I got great results from the A7 III when it came to shooting video, with good colours and in-focus footage, though shooting video consumes vast amounts of memory, so you’ll need to invest in high-speed SD cards for that.

The A7 III has excellent battery capacity that should be good for up to 700 photos off a single charge.

This is a camera for serious amateurs and will accommodate the needs of certain pro shooters as well. It gives Sony the lead in entry level pro-grade mirrorless cameras and a great place to build from as the mirrorless revolution takes hold.

Pros:
Great autofocus and image quality
Exceptional battery life
Full-frame sensor

Cons:
Limited touch screen functions
Electronic viewfinder not so sharp
Lags on video features

Rating: 8/10

Price: $3,500 (body only) Vario-Tessar 24-70mm lens ($1,800)

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