Mirrorless: The Next Big Thing?

From the humblest cell phone camera to the priciest medium format digital, the pixel-based imaging sensor is at the heart of all digital photography.
From the humblest cell phone camera to the priciest medium format digital, the pixel-based imaging sensor is at the heart of all digital photography.
Four photographers with DSLR cameras shoot next to me last night at the Ada Cougar Activity Center.
Four photographers with DSLR cameras shoot next to me last night at the Ada Cougar Activity Center.

I have been adding more photographers to my social media list lately, hopefully to inspire my work, but also in an effort to distance myself from the young white girl latte scene. One of those photographers posted a link on Petapixel about long-time photojournalist David Burnett’s recent switch from Digital Single Lens Reflex (DLSR) to mirrorless.

First of all, despite its apparent surge in popularity, when most people hear this news, they ask, “What’s mirrorless?” In simplest terms, mirrorless cameras are interchangeable lens digital cameras that use their sensors as viewfinders, reading data instantly and showing it to us on the back of the camera or in an electronic viewfinder, eliminating the need for a mirror to redirect light into an optical viewfinder. No mirror = mirrorless.

Name that Product!
I find this choice of name to describe an entire class of photographic tool to be flawed: it’s named after what is isn’t. It’s like saying my car is dieseless, which it is, but that doesn’t describe anything about the car. I can rattle off a couple of better names (for example Direct-to-Sensor (DTS), but my impression is the name, like it or not, is here to stay.

In some important ways, these cameras are a fusion of the DLSR with the bridge/crossover/point-and-shot cameras we’ve had for years, which use the electronic viewfinder, but with a fixed lens. Smartphones use the same viewfinding scheme.

Tina Davis works with her Sony A6000 mirrorless camera last night. I tried it for a few seconds and found it had potential, though it didn't focus quite as fast as my Nikons.
Tina Davis works with her Sony A6000 mirrorless camera last night. I tried it for a few seconds and found it had potential, though it didn’t focus quite as fast as my Nikons.

The reason we have so many DSLRs instead of mirrorless is that electronic viewfinder technology has, until the last few years, lacked instantaneous feedback. There was a lag between the scene and the viewfinder; even a small lag can result in a completely missed photo. With a consumer point-and-shoot, lag wasn’t an issue because those kinds of cameras weren’t tasked with shooting action of any kind, so a little lag matched the photography.

Electronic viewfinder technology has caught up, and these viewfinders are virtually instantaneous.

A lot of web authors assert that mirrorless is taking over, but so far, I don’t see it in the field or in the classroom. Of the dozens or hundreds of photographers I know, only a few like Tina Davis and Doug Hoke seem to be shooting mirrorless every day. I had good talks with both of them about their mirrorless experience and both seem to love everything about them.

Bonus Time!
A surprise bonus of mirrorless is that because the distance from the lens to the sensor is much shorter, it allows many more lenses to be used with an adaptor. Beautiful optical glass that went idle at the end of the film era can have new life breathed into it on these cameras.

When I first wrote about mirrorless in 2011, those cameras of that era typically had micro 4/3 sensors, which were roughly half the size of a 35mm film frame, and in that infancy had some growing pains. Today, however, we are seeing surprisingly fast, capable mirrorless cameras with 36x24mm sensors, or in the case of Fuji and Hasselblad, 44x33mm sensors. Coupled with better viewfinder technology and faster hardware in the cameras, I am ready to retract at least some of what I said seven years ago about mirrorless, and proclaim that its era is, or is about to be, at hand.

Behind the lens in the DSLR camera is a mirror that flips out of the way to let light shine onto the sensor. It was inherited from the film SLR, and may be on its way to extinction.
Behind the lens in the DSLR camera is a mirror that flips out of the way to let light shine onto the sensor. It was inherited from the film SLR, and may be on its way to extinction.
0

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.