Many photographers—even seasoned pros who once revered their large pro DSLRs with all the bells and whistles and huge, fast zooms—are starting to take notice of the trend toward smaller, simpler, interchangeable-lens systems sparked by mirrorless cameras, and are downsizing their systems for much of their work. Not all subjects can be covered effectively with a smaller system, but many, if not most subjects, can.
For many years, compact cameras were sleek and small, made to be pocketable, but with small sensors and slow, built-in zoom lenses that weren’t very good for much more than snapshots. The growing trend at the moment is to fit a larger sensor into a camera that’s relatively diminutive, while still allowing room for buttons for dedicated functions, as well as keeping it large enough to be handled comfortably.
The most interesting part of this trend, however, is the retro-styling aspect. Camera designers have one eye to the past while designing these cameras for the future, and it has really caught on. Some dismiss this as "hipster" form-over-function aesthetic snobbery, but the truth is, these iconic designs are coming back because they actually function very well. They’re compact, yet comfortable.
Let’s take a look at some of the options available, and the strengths and weaknesses of each.
The real rangefinder digital camera is about as close to the experience of shooting a film camera as you can get. This realm is dominated by one company: Leica. Introduced in 2007, the 10-megapixel APS-H-sensor Leica M8 had quite a few bugs, but was still a success. Leica built upon that success with a much improved 18-megapixel, full-frame CCD-sensor M9, which is carried on (slightly modified) into the current line as the M-E, and they have since released their flagship model, the 24-megapixel, CMOS-sensor, full-frame Leica M (Typ 240), as well as the unprecedented black-and-white-only camera based on the M9, the Leica M Monochrom.
The Leica M-series digital rangefinder cameras are for all practical purposes fully manual. There’s no autofocus, and the aperture is set manually on the lens. The cameras do have an aperture-priority auto setting, which uses a center-weighted meter to select the shutter speed, but that’s about the most automation you’ll find for exposure settings.
The main drawback to the digital M series is the price. The M (Typ 240) camera is about $7,000 (add $1,000 for the M Monochrom), and the cheapest current camera, the M-E, comes in at $5,400. Leica lenses are expensive, as well, ranging from $1,650 to $10,000 new. Fortunately, you can find a few somewhat less expensive older lenses in the used market, and some good third-party Voigtländer and Zeiss lenses, too.
The main advantage of going with a Leica system is that it’s an investment. The lenses are expensive, but they hold their value. Being digital, the cameras themselves hold their value for less time, but longer than a typical digital camera does.
The hybrid rangefinder camera is an invention of Fujifilm, first introduced with the revolutionary X100 camera. The styling of the camera is 100% vintage, but these cameras represent cutting-edge technology. It’s a brilliant fusion of optical and electronic viewfinder (EVF). The cameras feature an optical viewfinder that has electronic shooting information overlaid on it, including traditional-looking "bright lines" that outline how much of the frame is captured. A flip of a switch turns on the EVF, allowing you to see exactly what the sensor sees with the addition of the shooting info.
Currently, the hybrid market consists of only two cameras, the Fujifilm X100S and X-Pro1. The main difference between these cameras is that the X100S is a fixed-lens camera, while the X-Pro1 is an interchangeable-lens camera that can be used with Fujifilm’s X-series lenses.
Sony recently broke new ground by adding full-frame sensors to relatively small mirrorless cameras. The newest cameras to Sony’s arsenal are the a7 and a7R. On the outside, the a7 and a7R have the same retro look, but on the inside the differences lie. The a7R features a 36-megapixel sensor, no low-pass filter and contrast-detect autofocus; the a7 sports a 24-megapixel sensor with a low-pass filter.
Fujifilm’s newest camera, the X-E2, is an update to the highly regarded X-E1, which is basically the X-Pro1 without the hybrid finder. The X-E2 takes the form factor of the X-Pro1 and adds some of the X100 technological advances such as on-sensor phase-detection AF for faster, more accurate focusing. The X-E2 also takes Fujifilm’s line of X-mount lenses, as well as just about any other type of lenses with adapters. The little sister to the X-E2 is the X-M1, which omits the viewfinder and adds a tilt-screen LCD for composition. Fujifilm’s newest camera, the X-T1, is closer in form to a DSLR than a rangefinder, but retains the the features of the XE-2 with a larger centralized EVF and a few different dials and knobs for quick access to exposure settings. It’s also weather sealed — a first for any of the Fuji X cameras.
The Olympus PEN E-P5 has a vintage rangefinder look that borrows from the styling of Olympus PEN F 35mm cameras produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but has thoroughly modern features like built-in Wi-Fi. There’s no built-in viewfinder, but an optional EVF can be mounted to the hot-shoe.
So far the only company to jump on the retro-style bandwagon with a DSLR is Nikon with the Df, which combines the guts of their full-frame D4 inside a smaller, film-camera-style body. The premise behind this camera is to make a classically styled design with top-of-the-line current technology and fuse them into one relatively small professional-grade camera body. The main exposure setting controls are placed right on top of the camera where they’re immediately and easily accessible.
Another great feature is that the Df is the first Nikon DSLR that’s fully compatible with pre-AI Nikkor lenses, which opens a new life for some old, but excellent glass that can’t be used on most Nikon pro DSLRs. This camera is for those who want the retro styling and controls, but still need the strengths of a DSLR system, such as proven, consistent AF, a TTL optical viewfinder, weather-sealing and a strong build, as well as the compatibility with the lenses in their existing Nikon system.