Q: What would a French person call a large number of lenses?
A: À l'ensemble!
I'm a funny guy, me. I like me. That's why I'm going to kill me last. Never mind that the French word for lens is actually objectif. Never mind that. I admit that objectif is a good word. So is parasoleil, which is the French for lens hood. They're all good words, French is a good language, the women are attractive, it is a jolly place. Right, I'm warmed up. Begin. Over the last couple of years the big new thing in the world of digital photography has been the compact interchangeable-lens electronic viewfinder mirrorless compact neo-rangefinder compact camera or CILEVMCNRCC for short, which is pronounced exactly as you would expect, CI-LEV-MC-NRCC. They combine SLR-style image quality with small bodies and an interchangeable lens mount. They differ in the details.
The two most popular formats are Micro Four Thirds, which has been around for a while, and the relatively new Sony NEX, which is technically called Sony E-Mount but everybody calls it Sony NEX so there. They're both very good, with swings and roundabouts, ashes and diamonds, foe and friend. There are other formats, too, although they have had limited uptake. The Samsung NX is conceptually similar to Sony NEX, with an APS-C sensor, whereas the new Pentax Q and Nikon 1 systems are smaller - much smaller, in the case of the Pentax Q - and use a relatively titchy imaging chip.
Oldest of the lot is the Leica M system, which dates back to the 1950s and comprises a bunch of attractive bodies and super effective lenses, which are very expensive. It was brought into the digital age in 2004 with the Epson R-D1, a rangefinder body aimed at the untapped market of Leica fans who were also passionate about inkjet printers. I have no idea what was on Epson's mind when they launched the camera. It was based on a Cosina-Voigtlander body, and should really have been sold as a Voigtlander, but what do I know?
Leica eventually launched their own digital rangefinders, the APS-H M8, in 2007, although it was a bit of a disappointment. Leica fans weren't too pleased with the APS-H crop factor, and the camera had a weak infrared filter which led to unwanted colour casts. The full-frame Leica M9 of 2009 was, in contrast, a clever triumph of style and technical acumen.
Like all Leicas these are lusted-after by photographers, but actually bought and used by the Dominique Strauss-Kahns of this world. By the time you have £8,000 to spend on a hobby camera with one 50mm lens you are no longer one of us. You are one of them.
Micro Four Thirds bodies are made by Olympus and Panasonic, and are small and cute and generally built to a decent standard. They churn out nice sharp images that unfortunately aren't too great at higher ISOs. Olympus bodies have built-in image stabilisation; Panasonic bodies don't. The sensors tend to have a resolution of twelve megapixels, which is plenty. They have a 2x crop factor compared to 35mm, and a wide range of dedicated lenses, including the apparently lovely Panasonic 20mm f/1.7, which is the standard lens for tasteful people. Generally the lens range is very good, and they perform better at wider apertures, which counteracts the relatively poor high-ISO performance.
In the blue corner is the NEX system, which stuffs an APS-C sensor into a tiny slip of a body that appears to have emerged from the future. Mine is an NEX 3, the cheapest of the first wave; a second wave is being launched as we speak. As I write. Fourteen megapixels, very good high-ISO performance, surprisingly so for Sony. Flip-up screen.
The big fly in the ointment is the system, which is rotten. The bodies don't have a flash hot shoe, and so you have to rely on a teeny-tiny flash unit that awkwardly screws into a socket on top of the camera. There's one flash unit for the NEX system and it's rubbish. Weak, can't be tilted or swivelled. The tripod mount is unsupported by the body, and doesn't feel very safe. And the lens range is small and dull, although on the positive side they're well-built. There's a conceptually interesting but optically unexceptional 16mm f/2.8 pancake; three decent but uninspiring zooms; a 50mm f/1.8 and a 30mm f/3.5 macro, which might well be great (they're very new) but the specifications don't really stand out. No fast wide or normal primes, no fast telephotos, no good wides, and most glaringly no ultrawides of any variety. Micro Four Thirds owners have the Panasonic 7-14mm f/4, the Olympus 9-18mm f/4-5.6, and Panasonic's 8mm f/3.5 fisheye; the NEX system has nothing except for an add-on converter lens for the 16mm pancake.
In common with most compact cameras the NEXes are designed for landscape use; there's no vertical grip, no option for one. On the one hand, vertical handling isn't bad, because you grip the lens, but on the other hand it's still awkward, and it would be nice to have an accessory grip - or even just a small extension that screws onto the base - if only for the extra battery power.
But. The NEX can use almost every lens every made, with adapters, which is what prompted me to buy a cheap NEX 3 body (the model was recently discontinued). The Micro Four Thirds system is even more conducive to adaptation - the smaller sensor allows for the use of tiny C-mount 16mm cine camera lenses, and exotic medical optics and security lenses too - but I was turned off by the 2x crop factor. It turns your manual focus lens collection into a bunch of short telephotos, which is no doubt entertaining, but also monotonous. The Samyang 14mm f/2.8 in the photograph above would become a very large 28mm f/2.8; optically excellent, but unwieldy for what it is. On an NEX, with its 1.5x focal length multipler, it's a 21mm, which is still very wide. Not very, very wide, but wide enough for me. As the actress said to the Bishop.
Here's a Nikon 75-150mm f/3.5 Series E mounted on an NEX 3 with some macro rings, just to make it look even sillier. The adapters range in price from cheap, about £12 from the various Hong Kong and Chinese sellers on eBay, to a couple of hundred dollars for posh models from Rayqual et al. I have Nikon F-mount and Olympus OM adapters, and I will be using these in forthcoming posts rather than just photographing them. There appear to be adapters for all the major SLR ranges past and present, and most of the rangefinder mounts, including Leica and Contax/Kiev.
There's even a Canon EOS adapter, which has its own built-in aperture on account of the fact that EOS lenses have electronically-controlled apertures which the NEX can't control. No, really, look. Does it work? Dunno. I don't know. I just don't know. I really just don't know. I'm afraid that I really just don't know.
But, yes. Now I can try out the old Canon FD lenses, and Minolta SR lenses from the 1970s, and those cute Zorki / FED rangefinder lenses from the Soviet Union, all of which have gone up in price over the last few years on account of the big new thing in the world of digital photography, the compact interchangeable-lens mirrorless electronic viewfinder compact neo-rangefinder camera or CILMEVMNRC for short, which is pronounced exactly as you would expect, CILM-EV-MNRC. They combine SLR-style image quality with small bodies and an interchangeable lens mount. Details.
The two most popular formats are Micro Four Thirds, which has been around for a while, and the relatively new Sony NEX, which is technically called E-Mount but everybody calls it Sony NEX so there. They're both very good, with swings and roundabouts, hot ashes and trees, hot air and a cool breeze. Micro Four Thirds bodies are made by Olympus and Panasonic, and are small and well-made, with nice sharp images that aren't too great at higher ISOs. The sensors tend to have a resolution of twelve megapixels, which is plenty. They have a 2x crop factor compared to 35mm, and a wide range of dedicated lenses, including the apparently lovely Panasonic 20mm f/1.7, which is the standard lens for tasteful people.
Sorry, I came over all Monty Python there. But I didn't go all the way. The Pythons would have repeated the entire article all over again. But I never had the nerve.
To make the final cut.