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Fujifilm's X-Pro 1, an affordable digital rangefinder with superb image quality (and a fun retro look). (Photograph by Tyler Metcalfe)

2014: The Year of the Mirrorless Camera

At the dawn of digital photography, professional cameras maintained the look and bulk of the 35mm film cameras that photographers had been using for a generation.

But, because digital sensors were expensive to make, these cameras were equipped with a sensor that was approximately a third smaller than the 24×36 mm dimension of the 35mm film that was widely used at the time. These smaller sensors were not a terrible handicap, but they did require photographers to recalculate their lens coverage. While this proved to be an onus for wide-angle lens users, the change was a boon for telephoto lovers.

As a result, all lenses became more “telephoto” to compensate. Pro photographers  who wanted their “full frame” back anxiously awaited the day when advanced technology would provide them with the Holy Grail of cameras.

Eventually Canon came to the rescue with an affordable full-frame option, the 5D. Nikon followed with the D700. Though these were not the first full-frame cameras, they were the first that came in a reasonable size at a relatively affordable cost. Consequently, most photographers working on assignment for Traveler magazine use variants of these two full-frame cameras (with fast zoom lenses), a set up that prepares them for almost any photographic problem they may encounter in the field.

The problem with that setup is the weight and expense of the gear. Without getting into a discussion about physics, larger is better when it comes to sensors on digital cameras. Most pocket point-and-shoots have sensors that are much smaller–about the size of your pinkie fingernail. Though small-sensor cameras are convenient and less expensive, those things come at the cost of lower image quality (especially in low light), which can be a deal breaker for discerning photographers.

Parallel to the development of the full-frame camera, Olympus and Panasonic  partnered up, operating on the idea that medium-size sensors might bridge the gap, providing the excellent image quality pro photographers were looking for, developed a sensor and lens package that was marketed with the moniker 4/3. They hoped that designing lenses and cameras tailored for these smaller sensors would yield significant advantages over putting smaller sensors into older model 35mm cameras. The goal was to create smaller cameras while maintaining great image quality.

At first it didn’t seem like they had succeeded. Though the good 4/3, medium-chip, cameras were better than their point-and-shoot counterparts, they weren’t appreciably smaller than models with comparably reduced chips. They also lagged behind their big brothers when it came to light sensitivity.

Panasonic and Olympus kept working toward their goal, further refining their cameras into what is now called micro 4/3. The sensor is the same size, but they got rid of the reflex-viewing mirror box that allowed photographer see through the camera (replacing it, at least initially, by an LCD screen on the back).

Now here was a development that really changed the equation.

Going “mirrorless” allows the manufacturers to make the cameras much smaller. And, as second-generation models arrive on the scene, the sensors perform very well at higher ISO settings.

But habit being habit, most serious photographers still liked to hold their cameras up to their eye. Though the first auxiliary electronic viewfinders added were irritating to use (and prevented these cameras from really taking off), they’re now so much improved that the resulting package is just what many of us are looking for: Small, lightweight cameras with second-to-none image quality.

Now that Fujifilm and Sony have joined Olympus and Panasonic with similar options that have now matured into full featured, small cameras that don’t have to apologize for their performance, I would like to declare 2014 as the year of the mirrorless camera.

Check out my picks for the best bets to suit any kind of photographer–from pros, to travelers who simply want great digital reminders of their epic trip to Patagonia.

Dan Westergren is director of photography for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @dwestergren and on Instagram @danwestergren.

Do you have something you want to ask Dan about travel photography? He’ll be answering reader questions periodically on the blog, so be sure to leave a comment!