If you’ve been following technology advances in camera equipment, I’m sure you’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about the new mirrorless cameras.
But are they really the answer?
The first mirrorless digital camera was introduced in 2004, but they’ve really only come into their own in the last couple of years. With the recent success of the Sony NEX, Olympus PEN and Fuji mirrorless lines, many photographers have been reversing their “bigger is better” mentality and embracing the size, weight, and design benefits that compact professional cameras have to offer.
Although the technology itself is quite new, the public hunger for lightweight but versatile equipment is anything but.
In essence, the mirrorless system is simply a digital version of the rangefinder camera which predates the popular SLR. The rangefinder was the style of the very first 35mm camera ever made – the Leica I, originally designed in 1913. In fact, the early days of film photography mirror (excuse the pun) the progression we are seeing now, one hundred years later, in the still-early days of digital.
Before the Leica, all that was available were either huge, boxy view cameras (you know, the kind with the accordion-looking lens and the black curtain) or the small but ultra-simple Brownie cameras that Kodak introduced around the turn of the century. Similarly, our generation has until now been limited to either the hefty DSLR or the miniature compact camera, with little choice in between aside from slightly smaller or larger versions of either.
But where there is demand, there is innovation, and in both eras the rangefinder was developed to bridge the gap. This style of camera took off in the 1920s and effectively defined most of the 20th century – a pattern we are seeing repeat with the new mirrorless trend.
The reasons for this are simple and many. The first and most obvious difference is right in the name: mirrorless. This refers to the mechanics inside the camera. On an SLR, there is a small mirror behind the lens that reflects the light up and through the viewfinder, allowing you to see your scene through the very lens you’ll be shooting it with. When a picture is taken, the mirror snaps up, exposing the image sensor behind it.
By removing this mirror, and all the parts required to move it, engineers are able to shrink the overall size of the camera by nearly 50%, simplifying the design and making it more lightweight, portable, steady, and discreet.
100 years ago this came with a big trade-off. Instead of using a through-the-lens viewfinder, you had to frame your shot in a little window in the top of the camera which may or may not include a mechanism to help you focus (this mechanism is where the term “rangefinder” comes from). The problem with this is that the perspectives seen from the lens and the viewfinder are not identical, so it was nearly impossible to frame your shot very precisely. The viewfinder was more of a rough estimate of how the picture would look.
With the advent of digital LCD screens, though, mirrorless cameras no longer have this limitation. And now, some mirrorless cameras come with an electronic viewfinder so you’re not even limited by the LCD screen. The image you see on the back of the camera or through the electronic viewfinder is actually being read off the image sensor itself, so you can focus and preview it exactly as it will be shot, with greater accuracy than even an SLR viewfinder.
With the rangefinder’s key drawback completely diminished, its benefits are free to take over. The compact size and weight make it easy to carry around, even with a few extra lenses and accessories. And because it has fewer moving parts it is much less susceptible to camera shake, making it perform better under low light without the need for a tripod.
Originally, the rangefinder style became popular among photojournalists (particularly war photographers) who were so active during the tumultuous early century. Their active lifestyle demanded equipment that was flexible, but also durable and easy to carry around. The same is true now of our increasingly mobile world, only this demand has expanded beyond professionals to everyday consumers.
But size isn’t everything. We’ve had small, compact digital cameras for a long time – even smaller than these. But they lack the control and image quality you get with mirrorless. Image sensors in point-and-shoot cameras are a fraction of the size found in mirrorless and SLR cameras, so they can never achieve the same image quality, even at high resolutions. Their lenses are fixed and usually not very good, they can’t be switched for specialty lenses when needed, and the manual exposure controls, if accessible at all, are not usually easy to use.
By contrast, mirrorless cameras have an ever-widening array of interchangeable lenses, including ones geared for low light, extreme distance, and unique effects. If the mirrorless systems have one flaw, it’s that there isn’t nearly as much choice in this area as there is in the SLR market. However, that is only a problem of the systems’ infancy, as more lenses and other accessories are being introduced all the time from a variety of manufacturers, including highly respected names such as Carl Zeiss, Voigtlander, and Leica (the very same brand that introduced that first rangefinder in 1913).
Today you can wield as much creative control with a mirrorless camera as you can with a DSLR, in a smaller package and at a smaller price.
The merits of mirrorless cameras are attracting more and more photographers, professional and consumer alike, and there’s little standing in the way of their market domination. Even if you’re not ready to relinquish your DSLR all together, you may find a mirrorless handy for those occasions when you don’t want to carry the weight of a DSLR. That’s how I got going with mirrorless, but since I’ve been using it I find I only take out my DSLR for special circumstances and I use my mirrorless almost exclusively.
If history is any indicator, mirrorless cameras are here to stay for the long haul, and will only continue to improve as time goes on.
Coming up soon on the blog, I’ll have a full review of the mirrorless camera I chose, the Sony NEX6. I’ll reveal why I chose it over other brands, and over the NEX7, and I’ll have lots of photos to show you the image quality possible with these little but powerful cameras.