The end is nigh (or bring out your dead)

last week the camera industry reached a turning point.

Was it a momentous as pre canned 35mm film or auto focus being used for the first time? Maybe, but it is efinately as momentous as the introduction of the mirrored SLR 60 odd years ago.

It is the beginning of the end of the mirrored SLR.

Big statement? No not really, only common sense.

The mirror in the SLR camera was a huge leap forward for the film camera. For the first time, the photographer could frame accurately, using the same view the film had, with the intimacy and immediacy of right way up and “real” looking viewing, not a funny little off-set window or back to front-upside down, ground glass view all of the other cameras forced on us.

The PENTAprism and refleX mirror (see what I did there?) was indeed a great idea. Thanks to these developments cameras became both more likeable and more practical. The thing we need to remember is the mirror was a need of the film era. You cannot see through film, so you have to see around it. This need has changed.

All was not perfect though as the mirror forced a series of compromises;

  1. What you see is not necessarily what you get. Only well travelled old hands could accurately guess exposure compensation and motion blurring through years of experience. The rest of us had to be saved by good labs, tolerant (not always) films, luck or just had to get used to binning our mistakes.

    The what-you-see-is-what-you-get, live time view mirrorless cameras offer is obviously the preferred way of viewing the world photographically. Why would you look that logical and creative gift horse in the mouth?

  2. Lens design was compromised. The fact is a lens maker is happier if the light path to the sensor/film plane is unobstructed and the distance from lens formula to said image plane is of their choosing. Shoving an unwanted inch of mirror into that space forced a rethink of many lens designs (although long lenses became doable).

    It is no coincidence that the crop of super fast (f0.95 or f1) lenses dating back to the 60’s with Leica, Contax, Canon and other mirrorless range finder camera makers, nearly disappeared until resurfacing again in the last 6 years with the advent of, again, in a new form, mirrorless cameras. The new Canon “R” is I think a safe, pedestrian camera entry, but have a look at their first of it’s type full frame f2 zoom and improved f1 prime lenses. The same goes for Nikon’s “Z” cameras and “S” lenses with their pending 0.95 offering.

  3. Form Factor and operation. The mirror is a fragile, hard to make, noisy and vibration prone bit of mechanical wizardry. My enemy through my early years was mirror vibration. Most serious high resolution photographers got around this by using cameras that had no mirror, suffering from all of the other issues these forced on them instead.

    Mirrorless cameras can be smaller, less fragile, cheaper to build and more design flexible. They can be specifically designed to task and the introduction of electronic shutters has led to a “next level” quality expectation (See; Sony A7r mk1 compared to the mk3 shutter vibration issues).

  4. Lens calibration, always denied by the manufacturers until the digital age gave us the tools to prove what we suspected, has always been a minor to major issue for many. Forcing a camera to use one light path light for focus, but a different (direct) light path to take the image adds a huge variable into the mix. Last week I spent a morning with a client’s two full frame DSLR cameras and pro lens, trying to get to the bottom of some genuinely limiting focussing issues. The culprit turned out to be a zoom lens that needed -10 micron adjustment on one camera and a little less on the other! Add to this the very real likelihood that a lens could be fine at one focussing distance and off at another and you have a recipe for frustration. This was one factor that drove me out of SLR’s.

    A camera that focusses off it’s sensor, be it mirrorless or an SLR in live view cannot be out of calibration. The image on the sensor simply is or is not in focus regardless of camera or lens manufacturing tolerances.

  5. Focussing. After 30 years, manual focussing was at a pretty high stage of technical development. Bright, clear and accurate laser matte or split screens (My F1n with laser mat screen-perfection).

    Then auto focus arrived and manual focus had to take a back seat, as over the next 20 or so years AF went from unfairly dominant to actually tenable. I think we lost something there and the industry was as much at fault as we the users. Lenses dropped or down graded the MF ring (just look at Canons first 13 “ugly duckling” EOS lenses). SLR screens also became “AF calibrated”, making them near useless for manual focus with fast lenses, unless you could fit an optional MF screen, often at the expense of AF performance!

    Focussing cannot read minds, but our slavish adherence to AF and it’s short comings has made many (some, most?) photographers “framing lazy”. For some, it is just easier to accept what the camera could find easily than fight it. If you take a look at a lot of older photographers work, they use the whole frame instinctively. One of the first things we address when teaching is focus control. In the early courses the simple statement “now focus on the tree in the foreground” was often met by “what if my camera likes the bigger tree behind?” and don’t get me started on the difficulties of shooting through something.

    Canon offered the eye control idea and thumb toggle controls became ever more useful, but nothing (except maybe a more mature eye control technology?) could choose your preferred point of focus nearly as well as you could want.

    Live view or mirrorless cameras (MLV) offer a variety of focussing options that are getting us ever closer to true “intuitive” focussing. Subject face/eye detection so sensitive you can specify which eye, touch focus-and-shoot and live-touch screen focus are just a few ideas that have been developed over a surprisingly short time. MLV focussing has gone from compact camera speeds to fastest available in only a few short camera generations and the technical possibilities, unlike phase detection based mirror focus, are virtually unlimited. Just look at the focus point and processor upgrade the Fuji XT3 has over the very capable and relatively new XT2, then go back a few years to the X100!

    Eye focus (your eye not the subject’s), subject selective or even non DOF limited focussing are all likely as processors and sensor technology get ever better.

    Even manual focus (irony warning!) is back with a vengeance.

  6. Video. Simply not possible with a mirror down, so a mirrorless necessity rather than a benefit.

There is no doubt that Canon and Nikon entering the fray has legitimised the mirrorless movement, making it a road map to the future rather than just a philosophical argument between a school of hungry sharks and a pair of bloated, slow to change whales. Further evidence of this is the urgency they have both shown to gain legitimacy with full and solid release schedules and a brutal cutting out of their previous efforts (who would want to turn up dressed as the EOS M1 or Nikon V series at the “mirrorless is now” party).

The early adopters have a generational edge and have carved out good names for themselves making the camera market vibrant and alive again rather than a bland and slow moving two horse race. I adopted mirrorless over five years ago and accepted at that time the limitations that meant (I tried 4 brands, sticking with the only one that met my needs at the time), but what I gained still out weighed the negatives.

I think we are now at the stage where any serious shooter needs to think hard before they jump into a multi thousand dollar DSLR system and those that are committed should look hard at both paths when next purchasing.

Lets see if the future proves me wrong.