Introduction to Mirrorless Cameras for Underwater Photography
A Focus on Micro Four Thirds Cameras
By Scott Gietler
Panasonic GF2 Micro Four Thirds camera
What is a mirrorless camera?
- High-end compact alternative – mirrorless cameras are marketed as an alternative to high-end compact cameras, and are designed for amateur photographers. “Great image quality in a small size”.
- Live View – these cameras have live view like a compact camera, not an optical viewfinder like a dSLR
- No Mirror – the lack of an internal mirror allows the camera bodies to be a smaller size. FYI –the mirror in a dSLR, in conjunction with a pentaprism, reflects the image through the optical viewfinder. The mirror flips out of the way when a photo is taken.
- Interchangeable lenses – unlike compact cameras, mirrorless cameras support different lenses
Mirrorless camera features & benefits
- Larger Sensor - the sensor size of a mirrorless camera is much larger than a compact camera, resulting in more dynamic range, and less noise when using high ISOs. Greater depth of field than a dSLR at the same aperture
- Contrast detection for focusing. These cameras focus more like a compact than like a dSLR, which uses the quicker phase-detection
- Smaller lens size – lenses specifically designed for mirrorless cameras are often much smaller than equivalent dSLR lenses
- HD Video with autofocus – the video from these cameras is quite nice
- Kit lens with small zoom range. Some high-end compacts will give you a much larger zoom range for telephoto, because it is easier to make lenses with a large focal range for compact cameras
- Lens mounts are available for many different “old” lenses, although they may not autofocus
Olympus E-PL2 Micro Four Thirds camera
Micro Four Thirds Cameras
The Olympus E-PL2, E-PL3, E-PM1, E-PL5, OM-D E-M3, Panasonic GX1, GF2 & GH2 are called Micro Four Thirds cameras.
What is a micro four thirds camera?
Most (but not all) mirrorless cameras are micro four thirds cameras. The name refers to the a standard created by Olympus and Panasonic, and also to the dimensions of the sensor in the cameras. You can read more here.
These cameras are becoming a popular niche in underwater photography. All share the same size Micro Four Thirds sensor, and have the same lens mount. This means that a lens for the E-PL2 can be used on the GF2/GH2, and vice-versa.
The sensor size is 6-9 times the size of a compact sensor, but half the size of a cropped sensor dSLR. Olympus dSLR cameras like the E520 and E5 share the same sensor, but a different lens mount than a Micro Four Thirds camera. Sensor size is 18mm x 13.5mm; 4x3 aspect ratio.
Some popular micro four thirds cameras:
- Olympus E-PL2 – 12 megapixels, $499. Popular choice in the US for a mirrorless camera.
- Olympus E-PL1 – great value, $399. Almost the same as the E-PL2.
- Olympus E-PL3 - 12 megapixels, $799. Replaces the E-PL2, with a new sensor and faster auto-focusing
- Olympus E-PL5 - 16 megapixels, $699, same sensor as the OM-D E-M5
- Olympus E-PM1 - 12 megapixels, $599. Less expensive version of the E-PL3
- Olympus OM-D E-M5- 16 megapixels, $999 for body only. High-end choice.
- Panasonic GX1 - 16 megapixels, $699. Great high-end choice.
- Panasonic GF2 – 12 megapixels, $699. Smallest mirrorless 4/3rds camera out there. Touch screen controls instead of dials.
- Panasonic GF1 – top pick by Thom Hogan, http://www.bythom.com/compactmirrorless.htm but hard to find.
- Panasonic GH2 – 16 megapixels, $1,499; has the best hi-def video quality of mirrorless cameras, best image IQ, very fast auto-focus. Larger sensor size.
Mirrorless Camera Underwater Housings
- Olympus: By far the most popular underwater housings are the Olympus housings for the E-PL1, E-Pl2, E-PL3, E-PM1, considered a great value
- 10-bar: Makes mid-range housings for the E-PL1, GF-1, GF-2 and GH-1
- Recsea makes top of the line housings for the E-PL1, GF-1, GF2, GH-1, NEX-5, NEX-5N, NEX-7 and GH-2
- Nauticam makes housings for almost all of the mirrorless camera models, including the new Olympus OM-D E-M5
- Aquatica, Acquapazzamake NEX-5 & NEX-5N housings, all considered good quality
Where to Buy
You can call the staff at Bluewater Photo for more advice on mirrorless cameras and mirrorless camera housings.
Part II - Mirrorless camera Lens Selection
Lens selection is very important when looking at mirrorless cameras, please read out guide to the best micro four thirds lenses for underwater photography. A guide to the best Sony NEX lenses will be coming soon.