Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Mirrorless Camera

dpreview is shutting down their user articles section. This is something I wrote September 29, 2011

The Name

It's a new camera type. We could and have called this class of camera the Interchangeable Lens Camera - Mirrorless (ILC-M) and we could call the other well known type of camera DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex). Whatever we call these things, the names come from common useage, from popular perceptions. There is no science to these names, there's no right or wrong to these names, they evolve and happen.

The Preamble

Prior to these ILC-M, the commonly and popularly known type was and is the DSLR. During the days of film, there was the SLR and when digital came about, these became known as the DSLR. A story for another day.

For a long time (well the phrase is relative), people asked why there was still a mirror (the R means Reflex Mirror) inside the camera. Why not dispense with it and simply keep the idea of a camera where you could take the lens off the body and replace it with another lens. It was a matter of time before one of the companies jumped into this and made one that worked.

What motivated the design of this type of camera? Why didn't Canon and Nikon, the two largest companies in terms of market share, make this type of camera first? My answer is that they have the "don't rock the boat" attitude - they have healthy lines of DSLR, good income, good sales, why rock the boat?

So it was left to the companies that weren't making headway in DSLR sales. Companies like Olympus, Sony, Samsung, Ricoh, Pentax. They had a chance of making a product that would have less competition, that would not be dominated by the big market share of Canon and Nikon. So they did.

What are the current design aims?

Most of the companies making these cameras would aim for the following in the ILC-M they make

  1. A quick return of investment to prove that the product can viably sustain itself against the traditional types of camera - the DSLR, the Bridge/Ultrazoom and the Compact.
  2. Don't go overboard in R&D Costs otherwise the product would not be able to pay for itself.
  3. An interest to make the camera small. If the camera were big, as big as a DSLR, then the DSLR would be more attractive as a purchase.
  4. Take care not to rob sales from their existing Ultrazoom on one end and their DSLRs on the other end. This varies depending on the brand - Olympus and Panasonic did not have much to lose, Nikon would.
  5. Take advantage of more electronics and less of mechanical - optical assembly. In modern manufacturing, electronics is easy to improve, mechanicals are always expensive to assemble.
  6. Make the camera better for HDTV - DSLRs are clumsy in the mechanism for movie shooting, a camera that does not have a flipping mirror (moving parts) is easier and cheaper to make for movie shooting. And in this world, there is not clear demarcation between shooting stills and shooting movies in the minds of the man-in-the-street. Their iPhone does both.
  7. It would be hard to convince the pros who use DSLRs to switch to another class of camera, one that is still a ways to go in performance improvements. So firstly, aim at the easier customers - those who are growing up from their camera phone, from their Compacts.

So, what do you get on the market?

  1. A camera that has an lens that you can take off and swap.
  2. A camera that is smaller than a DSLR but bigger than a Compact.
  3. A camera that has a bigger sensor than a Compact or an Ultrazoom - this gives benefits in better high ISO performance, potentially shallower Depth of Field visuals than the Compact or Ultrazoom.
  4. A camera that is not conservative because it is a new type of camera, and the class is quickly evolving in technology. This means a classic DSLR from Canon or Nikon would conservatively retain more value in the lenses you purchase.
  5. To keep the camera small, the camera may have no in built viewfinder or in-built external hotshoe. If both are present then body gains weight and bulk.
  6. Because some of these cameras don't have a built-in viewfinder or even have no way of attaching an external one, holding the camera up to the eye and bracing the lens with your arms against your body is not possible. This affects the successful use of long telephoto lenses.
  7. Because the whole package is designed to be small, you may not find a bright, big, fast focussing tele lens for this type of camera.
  8. A camera that has smaller batteries and relies a lot on the LCD panel on the back and/or the Electronic Viewfinder  - this means you should always have more than one battery for a day's shooting.

As you can guess, if you are very conservative, this is not the camera for you. If on the other hand, you are the type to Seize The Day, this is as good as any camera to enjoy for the moment.

"Is there only one Mirrorless? Can I fit a lens from this brand to the other?"

There are several different brands of ILC-M. They are not interchangeable.

  1. The Micro Four Thirds is a closed standard agreed upon by Panasonic and Olympus.
  2. The Sony NEX (E-Mount) series of bodies.
  3. There are the Samsung models
  4. There is the Nikon 1 series
  5. There is the Ricoh model.
  • Several third party lens companies make manual focus lenses with custom mounts to fit some of these cameras. 
  • Several companies sells low cost, manual mechanical adapters that will take an old legacy manual everything lens or a modern manual everything lens and fit them onto some of these cameras.

"Will Mirrorless take over from DSLRs?"

Who knows? If anyone knew, especially the camera companies, they would bet the whole house on them.

"Should I buy a Mirrorless or DSLR, I know they are different but...."

Yes, that question gets asked often. Here are my perspectives:

  1. You CAN'T have BOTH your cake and eat it. You can't have conservatism in holding price value and combine that with a higher risk / faster depreciating model like an ILC-M
  2. Cameras are about compromises. A compromise means you can't have everything in the one camera.
  3. Buy a smaller ILC-M if you like a handier less conspicuous cam for general carrying around everywhere or nearly everywhere. Buy a DSLR if you want the works - a camera that can fit long lens and that you can hold with less handshake, that you can use for sports with reliably flast Auto Focus. Buy both if you can scrounge enough money or permission from your spouse.

And no, we can't make up your mind for you. And no, we can't magically take away the agony of decision and take bits from each camera type, combine them into one with all the plus features and none of the negatives.

Further Links

Navigate to:

Mirrorless in Forum Discussions

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