Mirrorless cameras may well be the future, but I'm not buying the hype that they're revolutionary. Not yet anyway.
I got an email the other day from a good friend who has made the switch to a mirrorless camera system where he linked me to a recent Bloomberg article and said, “See, we’ve gone mainstream media now. It’s only a matter of time before the revolution takes over the world.” Now, even though he wrote this with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, as I read the article I felt it was quite reflective and symptomatic of the hype surrounding mirrorless systems at the moment. And with Nikon set to release its much talked about full-frame mirrorless system next week, that hype is only going to get louder.
The key word to me in my friend’s email was “revolution.” A revolution can be described as a very important change in the way people do things. It’s used in the Bloomberg article and seems to be ubiquitously associated with mirrorless systems, almost akin to when we made the revolutionary change from film to digital many years ago. I don’t believe for a second that mirrorless systems are revolutionary simply because I don't believe they’ll change the way photographers do things. Nor will they represent some kind of seismic shift in the way that going from film to digital did. Going from film to digital was massive because it fundamentally changed the entire photographic process, from shooting out in the field to post-production.
Going From Film to Digital Was Revolutionary
Changing to a digital system meant you could store thousands of shots on a storage device such as an SD card and see immediate shots you’d captured on the back of your camera. That was revolutionary because it allowed you to become an instant editor and simply delete photos you didn’t like and take them again, perhaps from five different angles with five different exposure settings. That wasn’t possible in the film era, firstly because you had a limited number of exposures on film and also because you couldn’t see your immediate results or judge their quality in camera. You had to wait until you got them back from the developer.
Which brings us to the post-production phase. By going digital and storing everything on an SD card or similar, it removed the need to take your shots to a developer and meant you had total control over the editing process on the computer and the look you could achieve. On the other hand, with film, you were almost entirely reliant on the capabilities of a developer in the darkroom and typically had no control over any of the editing, colors, highlights, shadows and so forth. In the current digital age with software such as Photoshop, you can create pretty much any look you want based completely on your own preferences and editing skills. So going from film to digital was genuinely huge and revolutionary because it fundamentally changed the whole photographic process and permanently repositioned the way we approach photography.
But going from a DSLR with a mirror inside it to a camera without a mirror? That is not revolutionary in the sense it will shift the paradigm like the film to digital shift did. It is a mechanical modification that offers some benefits but doesn’t change the process at all. Mirrorless systems are still digital cameras. With both DSLRs and mirrorless systems you put a storage device like an SD card in your camera, you go out into the field or into your studio and you shoot. After each shot, you check the back of your camera and decide if it’s a keeper or not. If not, you trash it and take it again. Nothing different there.
Then when you get home, you still need to remove your storage device from your camera, slot it into your computer, open up your software of choice, select the photos you want to work on and then start editing. The whole process is exactly the same, whether you’re using a DSLR or mirrorless system. The only difference is that one camera has a mirror inside it and the other one doesn’t. Everything else is still the same, which means it’s nothing like the fundamental shift in the photographic process we had when we went from film to digital.
From Manual to Automatic Cars
To be honest, it kind of makes me think about the mechanical modifications in cars when they went from manual to automatic transmission. You can imagine the marketers at the time screaming “it has no clutch, you don’t need to change gears, you can just rest that left leg easily and relax. This will change your driving experience forever.” Sure, an automatic transmission made driving easier, and it was a big change, but it still didn’t revolutionize the fundamentals of driving. You still needed to open the door, sit in the driver’s seat, put the key in the ignition, turn the engine on, use the accelerator and brake, and understand road rules.
The fact that most models of cars today are available in both automatic and manual show that it didn’t change things that much. Indeed, I drive an automatic here in Japan and a manual when I’m back in Australia. And I think nothing of switching between the two. Some people like auto, while others prefer manual. You can get outstanding cars in each but fundamentally, automatic transmissions didn’t change the driving process that much. And for the time being at least, I think it’s pretty much the same with competing DSLRs like my Canon 5D Mark IV and the mirrorless Sony a7R III – both are outstanding cameras that are slightly different mechanically.
When words such as revolutionary are used, it’s hard not to get swept up in the hype and hyperbole surrounding it all, but I think we all need to take a step back for a moment and be a little more circumspect and analytical in our judgments. Mirrorless systems bring with them some definite advantages, while they also have their challenges. So if you’re just getting into photography and you’re wondering which you should start with between a DSLR and mirrorless system, I think you’re pretty good with either.
But if you’re a current owner of a DSLR and you’re pretty happy with your lot, then I don’t see any real need to make the switch to a mirrorless system just yet. And despite what marketers and fancy talkers may tell you, they certainly aren’t revolutionary. Not yet anyway.