Lack of lenses vs. lack of useful ones. Myth and reality of mirrorless camera systems

There are currently four different mirrorless camera systems available : Sony NEX, Fuji X, Samsung NX, and Panasonic/Olympus Micro Four Third (M4/3, in short). The first three mounts sport an APS-C sensor, similar in size to what you find in any DLSR camera, with performance equalling, and often besting, those bigger cameras. m4/3 hosts… a m4/3 sensor, that is half the size of APS-C, making it 1/4th of a Full Frame (FF) 24x36mm traditional SLR. Let’s make it clear, for such a huge size difference (0.25 vs 0.50 vs. 1), the m4/3 sensor delivers amazing IQ. In a well realized blind test, you and me might not be able to identify pictures coming from different sensor sizes.

But I totally disgress. What I meant to discuss in this post is the real, and perceived, lens availability for each system. Clearly, the best of the bunch, offering the biggest offering and most versatility, is precisely the m4/3 system. I haven’t bothered counting or searching the web for the specific number, but let’s say m4/3 is the mirrorless champion, by a fair margin. Moreover, those lenses are smallish, with a wide range of pricing, and many of them are very good, a few being of absolutely premium quality.

Next, the Fuji X system also boasts a fast growing, and quite drool provoking, lens line up. A bunch of fast lenses, an affordable and unmatched 2.8-4 18-55 zoom, some pancakes, some Macro. They are sorely missing a fast telezoom though. The Samsung NX also has a few excellent optics, nicely priced and of top notch quality, though, mostly due to Samsung’s poor marketing capabilities, it’s getting very little market share (and the one NX camera I briefly tried had me promptly packing it back in the box and with zero desire to ever try another one. Knowning my legendary camera lust, it says a lot). Then, we have the Sony NEX system, my favorite of the bunch, and the one I’ve been using the most. Just when the now defunct NEX family (the NEX moniker has just been put to rest by Sony itself earlier this month….) started getting a few additional lenses, Sony releases a new mirrorless system. TA DA ! This one is FULL FRAME ! Holy shit, will you say… Mirrorless FF, the holy grail of modern photogaphy. Well, maybe not. While I myself am terribly excited over this release and haven’t been able to fight the pre-order urge (I still hope I’ll find the strength to cancel said pre-order before the camera actually ships, lol), let’s say up front that the lenses announced with the camera are something of a cold shower.

First of all, there’s only a handful of them. Which is *not* an issue in itself (and the whole point of my reflexion). Truly, how many lenses do you really need ? Not that many. In my case, I could spend my entire photographic life shooting a 24-70/2.8, 50/1.8, and 70-200/2.8, either on APS-C or FF, for that matter. So I could be entirely content with a “line-up” consisting of three highly useful, fast and reasonably priced, lenses. Instead of which, what do we get ? A Zeiss 35/2.8. OK, 35 is too wide for me on FF, but I understand it’s an extremely versatile and useful focal length, that caters to the need of the hords of current “street” photography enthusiasts. Most moan about the not hugely fast aperture, but the lens is small enough, and given the high ISO performance of the A7/R bodies, it shouldn’t be too limiting. And don’t even start mentioning  DOF handling abilities, as 35mm isn’t going to get any much compression of the background anyway, and one stop won’t make a huge difference. So the main gripe I have with this lens is, too wide for me. Too expensive, too. That lens should be 400, 500€, tops. Instead of the 800 they’ll charge for it.

Much worse, the Zeiss 55/1.8. Aaaahh, me thinks, now that’s a focal length for the portraitist in me ! Issue number one, the lens is big. I mean, BIG. So is the price tag. 1100€ for a normal fast prime is just bloody ridiculous. It’s a luxury item with assorted performance ? Sure. That makes perfect sense. Now WHERE is the budget option !?!? Ah… there is none ? This is were things start looking a little less bright for the newly born A7/A7R. The former can already be preordered with a plasticky 28-70/3.5-5.6 (YAWN…) zoom, that cost about 500€, and 100 less when bundled with the cam. I’m not even looking at it, though it would probably make a useful option for someone considering an A7 as a casual, walkaround camera (much more affordable solutions come to mind in this departement, but some people just *need* to have the costly stuff). Later next year Sony will offer yet another Zeiss 24-70/4 lens, and this baby will be about 1300€ a pop [roll eyes]. By the time it’ll be released it’ll be about the price of an A7 body… Oh and yes, I know Canon, Nikon and Zeiss do have 1600€ normal zooms but please consider those are *2.8* !

Last child in the family, the G 70-200/4 zoom will also happen in 2014, and I haven’t even inquired about the price of that thing yet. I only need to know that I can find a tremendously fine Sigma 70-200/2.8 HSM Macro II in A mount for about 600€ (pre owned but minty and with remaining warranty) and Sony kindly gave me 30% off the LA-EA4 which costed me 244€ and will give me snappy AF on ALL A mount lenses.

So here not only does Sony lacks in quantity of offered lenses for its new cameras, but it’s also cruelly lacking the useful ones ! Or at least at useful prices…

The NEX family isn’t much better off. Yes we recently got a Zeiss 16-70/4 zoom. Yet another not so small, not so fast lens, that will leave you 1000€ lighter. Anyone ? Thanks, but no thanks, I’d rather use an adapted Sony 16-50/2.8, or even a Sigma 17-50/2.8 HSM. On the telephoto front, there is a slow and not so good 55-210 that has slowpoke autofocus in anything but bright light. So basically the NEX system doesn’t have any 2.8 zoom whatsoever, only one telephoto that’s sloooow on all accounts, and no short telephoto prime. Both kit zooms are slow and thoroughly uninspiring.

Now, let’s take a look at the m4/3 lens line up. Not a detailed look, mind you, because the sheer number of available optics is mind boggling. BUT, many of them double, triple, or even quadruple the same focal lengths and aperture ranges, as Panasonic and Olympus seem keen on doing the same lens a few times over, especially if it already exists in the “brother’s” line up. I have lost count of how many 14-42 models are available from both makers. Don’t bother researching them and get the Pana original 14-45 3.5-5.6 OIS, it’s not fast in aperture but boy what a versatile, sharp and useful lens ! If you look at *truly* useful lenses, m4/3 has a bunch of nice primes, namely the 14, 17, 20, 25, 45, 60 and 75 primes, plus three 2.8 zooms (each of which will need you to part with a kidney, though) and a few longer telezooms, some of which are well regarded (100-300). The must haves imho are PL25/1.4, Oly 45/1.8, Pana 14-45 and Oly 40-150, the two latter are being very cheap used, and way better than their price tag suggests.

So where does that leave me, as a future Sony A7 user, lens wise ? Well, I took the oath to NOT buy any of the four announced FE optics, at the rate they’re going for now. I can use my two E lenses (in FF mode, and crop 90% of the vignette away in post, leaving me with just enough for my taste and not having to add any, which I routinely do), use my A mount lenses with the LA-EA4 adapter (pre-ordered along with the camera) and finally, use my legacy lenses, which I still have a cherry picked bunch of. It seems reasonable to think that Sony really was in a rush to release those cameras before Xmas and be in “first to market” position with them, hence the “we’ll are about lenses later” attitude. Sony also knows a big proportion of the targeted market are manual focus lens users. So they thought they could get away with it. In the long run, only time will tell how successful that bet will turn out to be.

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About marla2008

Shutterbug. Shallow DOF nut. Mother of Child. Student of the Horse.
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24 Responses to Lack of lenses vs. lack of useful ones. Myth and reality of mirrorless camera systems

  1. Thanks for clarifying the current lens situation for all mirrorless. I am quite convinced that my next camera will probably be a mirrorless, so I am keeping a close eye of those.

  2. marla2008 says:

    Any idea what system you’ll go with ? What are your prerequisites for it ?

    • I am assuming that the mirrorless situation is going to be vastly different in 2-3 years (more FF?), so the system I would pick today might be very different from the one I would pick in 3 years. Prerequesite would probably be, first and foremost, to have at least a couple of nice fixed focal lenses at a decent price (something like 35mm and 50mm equivalent), decent AF, and good interface. In 3 years I will probably be sick about plastic bodies, so I might add something about construction quality too by then.

      • marla2008 says:

        Hmm, not sure I’m following you here, are you implying you’re going to wait three extra years to go mirrorless ? If so, yes, things will most likely be drastically different ! In three years probably CaNikon will be the last dinosaurs still offering a few mirror equipped models, the rest will have done with the mirror for good by then.

    • I will probably wait a few more years, yes, if only because my rebel is a still a great learning tool for a beginner like me, but also because the hobby budget will probably be decent again, after the kids enter the public school system (preschools are private here…and expensive).

      If money was not an issue right now, I would probably pick a canon 7D plus a nice, big fat zoom for birdwatching, plus a smallish mirrorless (EVF might not be necessary) with one or 2 fixed focal lenses for family pictures and digiscoping (at which the Nikon V1 is probably best, so that one is still a possibility).

  3. King T says:

    You’ve enumerated my exact dilemma with the Sony system!
    I was so frustrated at the offerings – no IBIS, no budget 85mm f/1.8 etc. that I almost took the plunge on starting to build a Nikon D610 system.
    Just these past two days there’s been an incredible sale of Tamron & Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 lenses here – the Tammie going for U.S.$1052.00 which is plain ridiculous.

    Luckily for me, when I got there today, it was sold out. Phew! What a relief to not have to spend gazillions building a new system. I was sorely tempted though……sigh….!

    OH, you left out the one other bugbear – reports of not focusing so well when the light levels drop to evening room levels. I’ll wait for the reviews on this one.

    I feel your pain 😉

  4. Consider the Voigtlander 35mm 1.4 Nokiton or 40mm 1.4 Nokton…small, FF, cheap….amazing!

  5. marla2008 says:

    will do, as my beloved PEN F 38 is only half frame…

  6. Anon says:

    I see this a lot, credit for even mentioning Samsung… but then you didn’t talk about the NX lenses at all. If you look around a bit, it’s almost like there’s a pact of silence regarding the NX line in a large part of photography. Yes the really serious folks (like DxOMark) cover it, and the consumer rags cover it, but if flies under the radar for DigitalRev (at least not since 3 years ago when they covered the NX10 and NX100), Matt Granger, and so many others. Even if they aren’t going to say something nice, it would be good to hear some sort of opinion out of them.

    • marla2008 says:

      Hi Anon and thanks for stopping by. Let’s discuss this a bit. As you know this is a personal, real life photo journal. I only discuss or comment on gear that I actually own, use, or at the least had a play with. I did write a post a while back, called “from NEX to NX, what difference does an E make”, or something close anyway. That was after I had briefly tried a NX200 with 18-55 lens, while pondering getting the yet to be released at the time NX300. I was, in all honestly, appalled by the output of the 20MP chip of the NX200. The noise was *everwhere* pretty much at ALL ISO settings. Plus, the 18-55 lens I had was obviously an escapee from Quality Control, it was total P.O.S. with wacky built, and lot of play in the rings, the worst plasticky feeling and not so hot optical output, either.
      So while I’m fully aware that NX is probably wildly underrated and the lenses in particular may be hidden gems, my very limited experience with the system was an almost completely negative one. Add to that the fact that my good friend Tracy had a faulty NX300, and that my favorite blogger Kirk Tuck’s whose portraits are usually jaw dropping, has taken months to finally tweak his NX cameras to deliver decent output (I was very underwhelmed with a great proportion of the NX pictures he illustrated his blog with, until only recently), and you’ll understand that I’m not all over the Samsung NX system Blame Samsung too.The QC of the brand seems awful, the first batches of NX300 were bug ridden. Marketing and communication are primitive, and they stubbornly refuse to do the only thing that could significantly change this picture : put a corner EVF (or any EVF, for that matter !) on the NX300 body. So, I’d say they have all the cards in hands to get out of this desert they’ve stranded themselves in.
      As a side note you’ll notice that I hardly ever mention the wildly popular Fuji X system either, other than to say it’s a bit overrated, over hyped, and that I was pretty underwhelmed with the XE-1 upon trying it. I do warmly recommend the X10, though.
      I hope this clarifies my position towards Samsung. The only one I tried was bad to the point of killing any further curiosity or lust for me (which takes a *lot* of a negative experience, trust me), the markerting is just totally lousy, and the output I’ve seen from a portrait master has left me (until he started using the 60 Macro) totaly cold. Maybe if Samsung went out of their way with an EVF equipped NX300 type body, AND added a couple of 2.8 zooms, I’d reconsider. Until then… Call me a Sony girl 😉

  7. iwanna7 says:

    I’m dying to get an LA-EA4 (also in France). Could you let us know how you managed to get it for 244 EUR? On Sony.fr it’s now 349 EUR and Fnac, Amazon etc. don’t even have it listed yet.

  8. marla2008 says:

    Good job !! Don’t thank me, I hold it from another fellow Sony user, he deserves the credit 🙂 You should have it any day, as mine was delivered this morning.

  9. padam says:

    The 24-70 is 1200 eur and the 70-200 will be about 1500 eur (but I think it will come down once it is available). The pricing on the zooms are Ok (not great at all) but I am skeptical about their optical quality. For instance the SEL1670Z is not regarded highly in terms of optical quality but even more than that, many samples suffer from centering issues and we might see the same with these which is not acceptable for the kind of price they are asking.
    Maybe it has something to do with the built-in OSS but the quality control is not there with these Zeiss-branded lenses.

    Can I order from amazon.fr even if I am not in France? The price and the fact that it works perfectly on the crop NEX bodies as well makes it really intriguing.

  10. marla2008 says:

    What is it you want to order, I’m sorry I didn’t get that. Where are you located ?

  11. padam says:

    You are right, sorry, I meant the LA-EA4 with the discount and I am located in Hungary.

  12. marla2008 says:

    Hmm, not sure they’d ship to you. Does it appear on the Hungarian Sony site ?? If so you could try the code there and see if it works ??

    • padam says:

      Yes I checked and it is France only 😦
      It doesn’t even show here and that’s because the new products get here at least a month later and also with at least 10% more than anywhere else, there is hardly any stock there are not much clearance sales like elsewhere. Needless to say I got my 5N+16+18-55 from the UK as well, sold the lenses quickly afterwards.

  13. marla2008 says:

    I bet there is going to be a bunch of those for sale shortly after the frenzy dies down and some of the early adopters realized the camera is not for them for whatever reason. If you want I can keep you posted and put you in touch with folks selling theirs for that price when that happens.

    • padam says:

      Yeah, probably makes more sense to collect lens which are not likely to loose value.
      One which would probably work really well is the Minolta 200 2.8 APO HS, there is one on ebay.fr as well, wonder how high it will go. It is one of the sharpest tele lenses ever made. So it would probably perform a lot better than the upcoming zoom, likely to focus faster as well and not that big or heavy either, only real downsides are the noise emissions and that there are no spare parts.

  14. marla2008 says:

    I think there might be one of those on the French Sony board I hang out at. I buy most of my stuff there, it’s a gold mine !! Very bad for my check balance, too !

  15. Dear Marla,
    I think you yourself found the solution: A7R or A7 + EA4 + Sigma 70-200 mm F2,8 + sony 16-35mm F2.8 za ssm + Sony 50mm F1.4 The three A-mount lenses alone would cost 3300 EUR, which I would think quite acceptable because of the high quality.
    All the Best and Thank You, MIki.

  16. marla2008 says:

    Well Miki what I actually have is the Sigma 24-70/2.8 HSM, and my 70-200/2.8 deal fell though, so for now I’m making do with a 90€ Minolta 70-210/4 “Beercan”. I will buy the Sigma zoom when I come across another interesting deal. I dont need wider than 24mm on FF, I’m NOT into wide focal lengths, but I also have a bunch of primes and manual lenses that I cherish. Once the A7 is here I will do a detail “what gear I own” post with both bodies, lenses, and how I split my glass drawer towards each body.

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