Don't Believe the Hype: Mirrorless Systems are not Revolutionary, Yet

Don't Believe the Hype: Mirrorless Systems are not Revolutionary, Yet

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. 

Key Takeaway

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.  

Log in or register to post comments

174 Comments

Michael Jin's picture

Going from rangefinders and TLR's to SLR's was revolutionary because you could finally see the precise framing of your lens without parallax error. Going from film to digital was revolutionary because it was a complete shift in the medium.

Going from DSLR to mirrorless is revolutionary because the EVF lets you view your exact exposure and depth of field in real time as you take a photo vs. having to learn to meter properly and hit a switch to preview DoF (not necessarily super accurate representation), opens up the world of completely silent shooting, and enables features such as Eye-AF and focus peaking that simply aren't possible with a mirror in the way. Yes, you could theoretically do this through Live View on a DSLR, but that's not a very sensible way to shoot when you're out and about. The shorter registration distances possible without a mirror also open up the world for adapting all sorts of lenses.

So no, it's not a revolution in terms of the medium since a digital file is still a digital file, but it is a revolution in terms of the user experience no different from the jump between rangefinders and TLR's to SLR cameras. To consider it anything but a legitimate paradigm shift in the world of photography is to be in denial. Yes, there will always be DSLR shooters just as there are still people who shoot film, buy Leica rangefinders, shoot TLR's, and practice wet plate collodion, but the DSLR will be phased out over the coming years as the dominant choice for professional photographers simply because there's nothing that a DSLR can do that a mirrorless theoretically can't while there are plenty of things that a mirrorless camera can do that a DSLR can't even in theory.

There is absolutely NOTHING, ANYONE can do with a mirrorless camera that can't be done with a mirrored camera. The mirror may require more skill and/or experience but without those, the majority of your photos will suck anyway!

Jonathan Brady's picture

Jesus, Sam. Who pissed in your corn flakes today? Every day...
Also, you're wrong.

Well, now that you've said I'm wrong, I guess I am. smh

Michael Jin's picture

Silent shooting with your eye to the viewfinder? Yeah... Previewing live exposure with your eye to the viewfinder? Yup. Seeing a live histogram through your viewfinder? That, too. Focus peaking with your eye to the viewfinder? Check. Reviewing images without taking your eye off the viewfinder? Yup. Adapting DSLR lenses from literally every DSLR system out there? That, too.

Yeah, I guess that's "nothing".

As for your argument that you can get the same results, I don't disagree with you, which is why I pointed out the rangefinder vs. SLR comparison. Both might shoot on 35mm film and a skilled user of both systems will get the same results, but it's a paradigm shift from one system to the other in user experience.

It's ridiculous how defensive people get about DSLR technology whenever the discussion of mirrorless comes up. Did you guys think that progress in camera technology would end with our current DSLR's or something? One day we'll all be back having the same discussion about how mirrorless cameras with flat sensors is outdated or something... or how having a viewfinder as opposed to an image wirelessly transmitted to a contact lens is outdated. It's the same nonsense over and over.

You do realize there have been DSLRs with electronic viewfinders, right?

Michael Jin's picture

I did not know this. Which DSLR's have EVF's?

Sony's A99 and it's other SLT pals are "dslr form factor" and have EVFs.

Michael Jin's picture

Was covered in another post. DSLT are not DSLR. It just shares the shape, but the "R" part of DSLR is "reflex" and by definition, you don't get that without viewing optically through a mirror. So no, there is no DSLR that I know of that has an EVF.

The results are what I was talking about. Everything you mentioned is immaterial to the end result.

Michael Jin's picture

That can be debated. Do you believe that the technology afforded to you by the device in your hands and the comfort of using it is immaterial to the end result? By that argument, you could say that there's not difference between using an SLR or a box camera so long as they're using the same lens because you can theoretically get the same result on both.

The capabilities of the camera will affect the manner in which you use the camera and the manner in which you use the camera most certainly has an affect on the end result so it's not "immaterial" at all. If you have to shoot completely silently, do you think that there's going to be no difference between being able to hold the camera to your eye vs. holding it in front of your and using the back of your screen for live view? You're going to get more shake doing the latter, which will affect the end result.

I'm saying, the difference between modern DSLRs and MILCs (you know... the subject of the article) are minor relative to the ability to use the device in my hands and don't even get me started on comfort. The most unergonomic DSLR is way better *for me* than any mirrorless camera. They don't have to be. We'll see what Nikon and Canon come out with.

Michael Jin's picture

Well if you're saying you'd rather quit photography altogether rather than use a mirrorless camera, then it seems to me that it's not "minor relative to the ability to use the device in [your] hands" at all. Apparently, you seem to have some sort of vendetta against mirrorless cameras and I have no real understanding as to where it's coming from.

Mind you, I don't even own a mirrorless camera other than my cellphone, but I find your vitriol over this pretty irrational.

Minor in the sense of an ability to get the picture you're after. I have nothing against mirrorless cameras. I just don't like people telling me I "really should" try MILCs because they're better and "the future". While your comment doesn't do that, it comes close. I'm old and set in my ways but I'll lay down and die when I'm good and ready and not before! :-)

Michael Jin's picture

Well, I think people should try things on principle just to open your horizons, but I don't think you're obligated to like anything. We all have our own preferences and quirks. For instance, I still prefer to drive a gasoline fueled car over a hybrid or electric car. I'll try them out once in a while, but it would probably take quite a bit (and some massive infrastructure improvements) for me to switch to an electric vehicle even despite the many benefits that they offer.

You don't have to like progress, but what you're essentially doing is refusing to acknowledge it as actual progress. I can be just fine with my gas powered car while also acknowledging that the electric car will do 0-60 faster, run much more quietly, open up room in the cabin that would otherwise have been taken up by the drive train, etc. The end result is exactly the same. Both cars will get me from Point A to Point B, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a revolution or paradigm shift between those two technologies.

I'm pretty sure there's a difference between "progress" and "revolutionary" but I'll consult my dictionary and get back to you. ;-)

Michael Jin's picture

Well, what would be "revolutionary" to you?

I don't need a revolution so it doesn't matter. I suppose the ability to adjust focus and DOF in post but I think we've already gone too far in the ability to fix things in post. It encourages lazy shooting and, while that doesn't really matter concerning technical matters, it has a way of affecting intentional shooting. The subject is way more important than any eventual photo of it.

If you read the last sentence of his post you'll see he is not claiming what you protest.

I was too pissed off to get that far but I still disagree. Sure, the shooting experience is different with a mirrorless but better or worse is subjective. I would give up photography rather than be forced to use most of the "advances" of mirrorless.

Michael Jin's picture

So don't buy a mirrorless camera. There are still people shooting with 8x10 monorail cameras or doing dagguerrotypes and doing just fine for themselves. They're happy. There are people running around with Nikon F5 and rolls of 35mm film and are just fine. There are people who are still using the original Canon 5D and don't have any problems whatsoever.

That you're personally satisfied with the status quo doesn't mean that progress isn't, in fact, actual progress. It simply means that you don't see the need for it just like my grandmother doesn't see the need for an iPhone or my parents don't see the need for wireless headsets. A lot of progress comes in simple quality of life improvements to the user experience.

We're not talking about technology. We're talking about if a particular technology (MILC) is revolutionary or not. It's not.

Michael Jin's picture

I guess it depends on what you consider to be revolutionary. For me, as I stated, I believe that the SLR was a revolution over the TLR and rangefinder. This is because the technology of the SLR provided a revolution in the user experience—precisely previewing framing—over those previous systems. Similarly, mirrorless cameras are technology that provide similar benefits that revolutionize the user experience.

Out of curiosity, what would define a revolution in camera technology for you?

At this point? I can't imagine anything that would be revolutionary. Every single photographic challenge I face is based on me. I just need to be a better photographer. And really, and this is just me, generally speaking, if technology can make up for some rectifiable deficiency in me, it would piss me off. How can you take any kind of pride or satisfaction in that? It's kinda like when people say, 'That's a great photo. You must have a really good camera.' That doesn't piss you off? It almost makes me want to switch to a pin hole camera. Almost. ;-)

Leon Kolenda's picture

I agree 100% on this Sam! I just got that statement the other day showing some people a Fall Calendar I put together, " Wow what kind of camera do you use" ! I should have said my phone!

Jonathan Brady's picture

Wow. You'd give up photography if you were forced to use a mirrorless, huh? That's completely irrational and incredibly pathetic. You need to reevaluate life from top to bottom, man.

That depends on why I do it. I go full-on Zen when I take pictures. That depends entirely on the use of an OVF, among other things. If I don't enjoy it, I won't do it. If you feel differently, maybe you should re-evaluate life.
As an analogy, I enjoy sex with my wife. If my only alternative were sex with a different woman or sex with a blow-up doll or sex with a man, I would give it up. If you feel differently, that's your thing.

Michael Jin's picture

When I want to go "full-on Zen", I pull out my FM2n and a roll of HP5+. Different strokes for different folks.

Then you *do* understand. I visited your site and you seem like a Zen photographer to me! :-)

Michael Jin's picture

I do and I don't own a mirrorless camera. I don't close myself off to the possibility because there are some moments where I wish I could shoot my D850 silently without being in Live View or use some of my older lenses with focus peaking on my D850, but the EVF experience would probably have to improve from where it is currently for me to consider it as it still feels strange to me—probably because I've very aware that I'm staring at a tiny screen. The possibilities of MILC's does excite me, although the current crop have not given me enough reason to consider switching.

Either way, I do imagine that one way or the other, the D850 will likely be my last DSLR because I'm feeling like regardless of what Nikon says, the R&D is going to be going into their mirrorless cameras and the DSLR is going to go the way of Sony's A-mount cameras. They'll be there with a few hardcore loyalists, but the company won't really be paying much attention to them.

More comments