Word of the Day: EVIL Cameras and Four Thirds Cameras

Sony EVIL

Sony NEX-3, an EVIL Design

EVIL – Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens. Also known as a hybrid camera. The EVIL system is a digital camera that’s at a point somewhere between compact point and shoot cameras and full-featured DSLRs. It has interchangeable lenses and uses an LCD for previewing the picture. (LATER: Another name that’s popping up for these systems is MILC: Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras.)

The new Sony NEX-3 has me thinking about EVIL cameras again. And while I’m thinking about it I decided to write about it. In the process I did a little research and learned a bit more.

(That’s one reason I blog, by the way. Writing about something forces me to research it, organize my thoughts, and form an opinion. Then I get feedback from you. It’s a good system.)

A Brief History of pre-EVIL Cameras

Some cameras, such as rangefinders, use two lenses. One lens captures the image while the the photographer looks through a second lens – the viewfinder – to compose the picture. What you see in the viewfinder isn’t what you get – the camera is seeing the shot from a slightly different angle (the parallax problem) and if there are any filters on the lens you can’t see their effect in the viewfinder at all.

Enter the Single-Lens Reflex (SLR) camera. The light from the lens strikes an angled mirror and reflects up into the viewfinder tower. A prism or mirror routes the image back through the viewfinder eyepiece. Your eye sees exactly what the lens is seeing without any delay and without color shifts or fuzziness caused by an LCD screen. When you press the shutter release the mirror flips up and out of the way, the shutter opens, and the light from the lens exposes the images.

Enter EVIL

EVILs eliminate the mirror and viewfinder tower, which makes them thinner and lighter than DSLRs. I suspect most will have fewer features than a DSLR and will be easier to use, making them more appealing to beginning and intermediate users.

In place of the mirror and optical viewfinder tower EVIL cameras use an electronic viewfinder (the EV in EVIL) or rear LCD, like a point and shoot. While it makes for a compact design, it’s bad in almost every other way. LCDs aren’t as sharp or as color accurate  as good quality optics. What’s on the LCDs tends to lag the actual image, which never happens with optics. The LCD also tends to run down the battery.

Likewise, autofocus speed and accuracy suffers. DSLRs use phase detection autofocus, which gives better results than the contrast detection autofocus of most point and shoot and EVIL cameras, particularly under low light. You read nonsense about EVILs replacing DSLRs, but this factor alone will keep DSLRs in play for many people, such as sports photographers.

SLRs have been around for eight decades. There’s no risk in buying a DSLR. There’s a slight risk that the EVIL market will turn out to be a short-lived fad, sort of like the APS intermediate film fiasco. In fact, with the variety of mutually-incompatible EVIL systems out there it’s a sure bet that some of them will fail in the marketplace. Caveat emptor.

Sensors

Comparison of sensor sizes.

Comparison of sensor sizes. 1/1.6" and smaller are point and shoots. APS-C and larger are DSLRs.

Sensors are the digital equivalent of film. They’re silicon chips that convert light into electrical signals that can be formed into an image. Larger sensors tend to have improved image quality and better low-light performance.

(The sensor size has nothing to do with the number of megapixels, by the way. Chip makers keep finding ways to fit more and more megapixels onto the same-sized sensors. Anyway, megapixels are not a measure of image quality.)

EVIL sensors are much larger than point and shoots, but usually not as large as DSLR sensors. (The Sony uses a DSLR-sized APS-C sensor and is an exception.) If you want the best image quality, you’ll still want a DSLR.

Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds (MFT)

Four Thirds is a particular design spec by Kodak and Olympus for reduced-size DSLRs. Other manufacturers can join the consortium; Panasonic and Leica now produce Four Thirds cameras.

Panasonic and Olympus downsized the design further by creating the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) system. It uses the same sensor size as Four Thirds, but it’s a pure EVIL design without a mirror or viewfinder tower. Micro Four Thirds uses a smaller lens mount and smaller lenses than Four Thirds, thought it can use Four Thirds lenses via an adapter. And really, Micro Four Thirds sounds so much consumer-friendly than EVIL, dunnit?

Lenses

Like a DSLR, EVIL cameras have lens mounts for interchangeable lenses (the IL in EVIL) rather than a permanently-attached lens. You can buy lenses purpose-built for a particular EVIL format. Those lenses can be much smaller and lighter than traditional DSLR lenses because they’re designed to cover a smaller sensor and they sit closer to that sensor.

You may also be able to use your existing lenses, if they’re compatible with that mount. So for instance that Sony NEX-3 above can use Sony Alpha DSLR lenses using an adapter, but autofocus won’t work, which is a major disappointment for Sony DSLR owners. In many cases you can make all sorts of lenses work with an adapter, but you will have to set focus and/or exposure manually. That robs the lens interchangeability of its charm for all but the lion-hearted. Manual focusing isn’t easy and I’d imagine manual focusing with an LCD would be very unpleasant.

Bear in mind, too, that if you’ve got a tiny little camera and you hang a big honkin’ lens off the front the result is going to be more comical than practical. DSLRs work well with big lenses because you hold them close to your body with the camera next to your face. With an EVIL most people will default to the point and shoot stance, holding the camera out at arms length, a posture which is not conducive to good pictures with a large lens.  Handling is generally not considered a strong point of EVIL cameras and the ergonomics of that Sony in particular look awful.

That In-between Format

Panasonic GF1

Panasonic GF1

At my kids’ soccer games I see more parents using DSLRs than point and shoots. There are certainly plenty of people looking for something better than their point and shoot – a camera that’s more responsive, offers better photo quality, and works better in low light.

EVILs might make more sense for these users than point and shoots or DSLRs, if they can afford them. The Olympus Pen E-PL1 is $550. The Panasonic GF1 is $750. The Sony NEX-3 is in between. Meanwhile an entry-level DSLR from Nikon or Canon can be had for $5-700. (All prices include a zoom lens.) EVIL might indeed repeat APS history: “APS SLR cameras were too expensive for the high end amateur market when they first appeared, and professional photographers stuck with 35 mm cameras, which offered greater image quality and resolution.”

There’s also the oddity that most EVIL systems – including the Sony, Olympus and Panasonic mentioned here – lack built-in flash. You have to buy and carry a separate flash and mount it when needed. All point and shoots and most consumer-oriented DSLRs have built-in flash, so this is just a bizarre omission.

Is EVIL For You?

You’ll have to decide that for yourself, but I’m pretty sure it’s not for me. As a Southern Baptist preacher would say I have rejected EEEEEEEEE-VIL.

I strongly believe that I’ll get more good pictures if I have a camera handy. For that reason my first camera was a pocket-sized point and shoot. When that proved to be unsatisfactory I moved to a superzoom that was still pocketable. Then I moved to a DSLR. At first blush an EVIL seems like a more convenient camera that I’m more likely to take with me, but I don’t think it is.

My attitude towards EVIL cameras is simple. My old Panasonic FZ5 12x superzoom will fit in the pocket of my Columbia pants. An EVIL with my smallest DSLR lens won’t. If I have to carry the camera in a bag or on a neckstrap I might as well carry my DSLR and get even better pictures. Too, now that I’ve laid out the cash for a DSLR and a set of lenses I really can’t afford to drop a couple thou on an EVIL camera and lens system as a second platform, all for a small savings in weight.

Granted, I have a Nikon D40, which is one of the smallest and lightest DSLRs. An EVIL camera may be more attractive if you have a larger DSLR and/or more discretionary income than me to spend on photography, or if you’ve got no investment in a DSLR system.

Believe it or not, what I really want now is a better camera in my cell phone. That way I’ll always have a camera with me for impromptu picture-taking and picture-uploading. I can bring along a DSLR for when I’m planning to take pictures and want the best quality. Meanwhile, I like keeping a camera in the car at all times in case opportunity knocks. I think for me that’s a better go-anywhere approach than a slightly-downsized and heavily-compromised EVIL system.

More information

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2 Responses to Word of the Day: EVIL Cameras and Four Thirds Cameras

  1. Arnold Akman says:

    I have been readin many review on DSLR and also on NEX-5. I was between 550D and NEX-5 for the last couple weeks. However, this article has a good point that helped me to make up my mind. What’s the point having a NEX-5 (if you are buying for its size) if you have to carry it in a bag anyway. Because its true the camera body is small however the lenses are still big and you wont be able to carry in your pocket. I think NEX-5 is a good start towards a compact APC sensor camera however I wont be buying this generation of it.

  2. Umashankar says:

    Thanks Les, for the link. You have done extensive research here and the conclusion is simply logical. The evil cameras fail on their basic premise of reduced size when you account for the lenses and other vital attachments, say, the bulbous viewfinder in case of the Olympus Pen. The photography magazine I subscribe to has an advertisement for Sony ‘NEX’ series spread across 10 pages, this month. At one place it says “Its tiny size and friendly appearance will ensure that your subjects are very comfortable around you”. Diagonally across there is an image of the wonder machine screwed to a seven inch long lens, hood and all, weighing probably more than two pounds, set on a tripod. Not to forget, the evil thing is damn expensive too! In short, the evil format has been yanked out of the lab smoking green and an entry level DSLR like Nikon D3100 represents much more mature technology apart from being petite.