The mirrorless wars have started. Troops are lining up on the borders of each principality involved in response to the bullets already flying. Here are some of the headlines:
What’s the fuss all about? What is a mirrorless camera? What is a DSLR for that matter?
In the world of photography, the most coveted instruments are Interchangeable Lens Cameras, known generally as ILCs. The most common type, for which the greatest range of lenses and other accessories exist, are the digital Single Lens Reflex cameras, or DSLRs. The design of these is based on the 1936 German made Exakta film camera, featuring a mirror that reflects the incoming image from the lens into a prism that corrects the image to be right-side-up for the viewfinder. This concept was essentially the same as the large format and roll film SLR’s of the early 1900’s, which made negatives from 3x5 inches to 5x7 inches, and those were designed after the camera obscura drawing aids of the 1700’s. I guess you could say the principle has been around a while.
The film SLR became the dominant professional camera in the 1960’s with both 35mm and larger film size cameras taking over portrait, wedding, event, commercial and news photography. When digital technology came along, the vast majority of photographers still wanted the flexibility and quality of the SLR so it was natural for digital SLRs or DSLRs, to assume the leadership role. After all, their systems already existed (by this time narrowed to Nikon and Canon for professional use) with complete ranges of lenses from very wide angle (you’ve got the whole world in your lens) to very narrow angle telephoto lenses (your eye is on the sparrow).
Then it occurred to someone that the mirror and prism arrangement was obsolete. Always a bulky and noisy affair, prone to shaking the camera at inopportune times, the mirror of the SLR was the first thing to go in some of the new designs. In 2010, for instance, Sony introduced the interchangeable lens NEX 3 and NEX 5 cameras, built around an APS-C sized sensor. This were some of the first mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras, and their effect on the market was profound. The end of 2013 saw Sony up their game with the larger “full-frame” sensor A-7 & A-7R cameras, and every year since that time bringing forth a new and improved A-7 series camera along with additional lenses.
Fujifilm jumped onto the mirrorless bandwagon with their X-Pro 1 in early 2012, and like the NEX series from Sony, it featured an APS-C sized sensor. Fujifilm followed up with many more models using their X-series lenses, but unlike Sony, dedicated themselves to giving their new system a complete roster of large aperture prime lenses and a complete series of the zoom focal lengths sought by professional photographers. Fujifilm also appealed to the classic look of cameras of the 1960’s by putting marked shutter speed dials on their new cameras and aperture rings on most of their lenses. Fuji, like Sony, has been adding models to their camera line-up every year, and have expanded their lens offerings as well.
The other contenders in the mirrorless ILC market are Panasonic, through their Lumix brand, and Olympus. Both of these manufacturers settled on the 4/3 sensor size, 60% the area of APS-C, which is, in its turn, 43% of the area of the 35mm “full frame” sensor. and both of these manufacturers, like Sony and Fujifilm, make only mirrorless cameras. There are a bewildering number of camera options from these two companies (Panasonic and Olympus) and a healthy array of lenses, both zoom and wide-aperture prime lenses, all of which will fit both brands, thanks to their shared lens mount.
Canon, Nikon and Pentax are the only camera companies still manufacturing DSLR cameras and of these three, Canon and Nikon have been nervously dipping their toes into the icy waters of the mirrorless IL sea for the last 6 years, but are only just now taking the plunge (God knows what Pentax is doing).
Canon, supposed to be the industry leader, brought out an elegant little ILC called the EOS-M in 2012, built around their own APS-C sensor, and have introduced new models almost every year since, but it still lacks love from Mama Canon in that it has virtually no lenses in its lineup and no roadmap for its future.
Nikon’s new mirrorless camera is news because they have beaten Canon to the punch and because they previously introduced a mirrorless system that failed. The assumption in the market is that professional and advanced amateur photographers, who are thought to be the primary influencers of the purchasing habits of the general public, will want to use only “full frame” 35mm cameras of which this new Nikon is one. The system that failed was the notorious Nikon 1 of late 2011, a debacle that dragged on until the official announcement in July of this year that it was discontinued. It never managed to become a real system or to achieve much market penetration, lacking a comprehensive series of lenses and a well-defined place in the Nikon ecosystem. Its sensor area was 55% that of the 4/3 and 14% that of the full frame 35mm.
So what does this have to do with you? For those unused to the hyperbole and hysteria normal to writers with strong opinions, it can certainly seem as if something momentous and vaguely threatening has just happened. Relax, folks; we’re only talking about tools here. And that is the key point to remember. All of these cameras are just tools. Their raison d’être is to do a job for you and that job is to capture an image. That’s all they exist for. They may (or may not) do a better job of focusing than you can, and they can assist you in improving your exposures, as well as capturing a particular moment, but they cannot think for you. None of these cameras, no matter how much they ease the process of photography, will make you a good photographer. And that is a key point to remember.
So, sit tight and be non-aligned. The dust will soon settle and you will be free to decide for yourself if any of these new systems are for you.
P. S. if you really want a mirrorless camera, you could make your own.