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.