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.  

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174 Comments

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Leon Kolenda's picture

I agree on this, I will wait until Nikon's second or third ICLMC body is released before you could pry my D850 from my hands. It's going to take a serious revolutionary part of technology to make me change, not just convenience.

For me, Revolutionary would be a sensor where ISO and Sensor Noise are things of the past.
Thus eliminating the Exposure triangle, to just two exposure factors. Now that would be revolutionary

Brent Rivers's picture

Removing the mirror allows for real time information. Focusing engine improvements, and as AI comes online, we'll see the ability to shoot from the hip. If that's not revolutionary, I'm not sure what is. Ok ok, I get it, you'd like to take an hour and a half lugging gear up the side of a mountain, getting that RRS tripod setup just right, dialing in, ND filter here, trigger there, and OMG, you got yourself an incredible landscape. Meanwhile, 50 images were posted and are being sold because Dude Photographer shot them handheld and uploaded on the fly. It's the user experience, and time to publish. Time. To. Publish. And the camera wasn't on his face, it was in his hands down by his feet. Mirrorless isn't necessarily revolutionary, but given the overnight advances Sony has made with focusing engines, it's headed in that direction. And we didn't even talk about video..Nikon better hope they have a focusing algorithm better than Canon's and Sony's, or it's worthless.

I’m not sure how to respond to this.....”50 images were posted and are being sold coz dude photographer shot them handheld and uploaded on the fly”

Are you saying that mirrorless systems now entirely remove the need for any post-processing? So Photoshop, Lightroom, On1 etc will become obsolete and for yesterday’s man because of mirrorless systems? Wow.....

And really? I’m losing money in sales coz I lost a few hours due to editing?

So you’re saying that mirrorless systems create the exact, perfect final edit every photographer of every genre wants IN CAMERA?

That is one big claim....I hope it comes to fruition but I’m not holding my breath. All my friends using mirrorless systems are still using post just as much as ever.....

Han Seoul-Oh's picture

it greatly depends on your perspective. surely there are some film shooters who don't think digital is revolutionary, and in fact, believe it's detrimental to photography as an art by letting people "spray and pray" rather than take measured shots.

but after reading this whole chain, it's clear you're losing perspective.

one more time: perspective. it depends on each person's.

and finally, fighting on the internet is like the special olympics: even if you win you're still retarded. step away from the keyboard, go take a walk or something.

Michael Jin's picture

I'm at work being a bad worker. What's y'all's excuse? :P

BTW, that's also going to be my excuse for being a gigantic POS for the next few hours.

user-156929's picture

Something can be revolutionary without being a positive thing. Digital was revolutionary and I'm just as sure some folks didn't see it as a good thing. My saying ML isn't revolutionary isn't based on bias but, genuine fact! Autofocus came way closer to being revolutionary than ML could ever claim to be but it never gets mentioned in these conversations. That's not perspective...it's an objective fact.

Like Michael, I enjoy fighting on the internet. It's fun! :-)

That last paragraph is a really horrible, unaccaptable thing to say in any context. Please take it out.

I agree wholeheartedly on the need for perspective and open-mindedness from all sides.

Dave Melges's picture

Absolute hogwash. The idea that you can take any picture with a DSLR that you can take with a mirrorless is absolute hogwash.

Sure, if you have unlimited time to shoot/review, yes, you can. But that's not how most photography works.

Having continuous feedback on your decisions, from exposure and color and composition, as you FLUIDLY make changes, speeds up the creative process which is important in two ways.

One, you often get very creative shots in a fraction of a second, when taking several seconds would have cost you the shot. And two, and more importantly, you activate you INSTINCT for style and composition without having to go through a clumsy and tedious subroutine.

If you've never learned the proper way to shoot a mirrorless, which is DIFFERENT from how you shoot a DSLR, if you're never practiced that and honed that and become proficient at that...you simply have no clue how much more damage you can do without that mirror blocking your view.

Add to that, the smartest way to shoot a DSLR is most often in priority, for fluid shooting....we're often bullied into manual, but that's just using the exact same meter to do the exact same thing only SLOWER.....the opposite is true with a mirrorless, NOW, manual is the better choice, and creative interpretations of the scene are fluid and continuous instead of trying to make creative interpretations of a clunky light meter that only tells you a tiny fraction of the story.

The difference between a beginner mirrorless shooter and a beginner DSLR shooter is not much
The difference between a GOOD mirrorless shooter and good DSLR shooter is frackin' HUGE.

"The difference between a GOOD mirrorless shooter and good DSLR shooter is frackin' HUGE" Please elaborate, I do not see how it is possible to get the data for this.

user-156929's picture

Believe it or not, I understand your points. Maybe I'm biased by shooting for about 40 years so I don't really spend any time getting it right. I don't even check exposure on the LCD. The only time I use it is with manual focus lenses when critical focus is important (I'm kinda old) and when using the tilt function with PC lenses.
So, I'm gonna go with the difference between beginner ML and DSLR shooters being mild, with the ML beginner having the advantage of seeing the exposure before taking the picture. The difference between GOOD ML vs GOOD DSLR shooters being variable, depending on the type of photography and how you define GOOD (all caps) ;-). We'll have to wait to see what the difference is between experienced ML vs DSLR shooters because they've just not been around long enough to know. I'm guessing it'll be NIL.

A word on creativity. While I understand, and agree to some extent, about the benefits of pre-shot feedback, another and competing principle is, working slower makes you more intentional. There's no reason a photographer can't slow himself down for the creative segment of our program ;-) but a slower process, throughout, encourages it. This, again, depends a lot on your subject. Models don't appreciate a methodical approach nearly as much as a landscape does. ;-)

Is it really revolutionary? You can also preview exposure and dof on dslrs using live view. Can you preview exposure using flash? The only advantage mirrorless have is adapting lenses from other systems.

Michael Jin's picture

If you're running around previewing exposure and DOF using live view, you're not shooting with your camera to your your eye, which is going to cause instability if you're handholding. So yes, it is revolutionary from a user experience standpoint. In the end, it's really the EVF that's the revolution, but the EVF doesn't exist with a mirror in the way.

No, you can't currently preview exposure using flash, but nobody claimed that you could and it's not like DSLR's can do it either so that's a moot point. Frankly speaking, however, using AI and TTL flash, it's entirely possible to use technology similar to what Apple is doing to generate such a preview as long as you have a method of making a flash system that will speak to the camera about location, angle, etc. and a camera that generates a 3D depth map. So in theory, such a system could be developed for mirrorless.

Yes.. there are DSLRs with an EVF, So yes, an EVF can exist with a mirror in the way

Michael Jin's picture

Surely you don't mean those atrocious things that you stick on your hotshoe and use an HDMI cable for... Which DSLR comes with an EVF?

No, I am talking about actual DSLRs with evf, such as the Sony a68. We have the tech to make them, there just wasn't much demand.

Michael Jin's picture

That camera is a DSLT, not a DSLR. By definition, if you're not viewing the image through the reflection of a mirror, it is not a "reflex" camera.

There is nothing keeping that mirror design from being used in a DSLR.

Michael Jin's picture

Yes, there is. The fact that the mirror doesn't move and the existence of an EVF means that you're not viewing the image through an optical path. Without the direct optical path reflecting off the mirror, it is not a "reflex" camera (the "R" in DSLR). What you're talking about is the DSLR form factor—not the technology.

Please, what can a mirrorless do in theory that a DSLR can't in theory. I mean I can tell you one thing a mirrorless can't do and that is have an optical though the lens viewfinder, but can't think of a single thing that could not be implemented in a DSLR if there was demand for it.

Michael Jin's picture

Have an EVF—at least not without an accessory to use in mirror-lock up mode.

But seriously? How about use the same exact lens system for both bulky professional cameras and pocketable compact cameras? What about implementing real-time AI or AR technology the likes of which our smartphones are developing? Allow for greater options in lens design due to the shorter registration distance?

Douglas Turney's picture

Revolutionary because of true silent shooting? I don't think so. Most cameras today have a quiet mode that while not silent are good enough. Plus how many people really need silent shooting? Where are all the articles and comments about how loud cameras are and how it is impacting everyone's ability to capture photos? There aren't. Yes I'm sure wedding photographers will like it but that is a subset of the photography community. How many people would spend 1000's of dollars today if their camera company said they could buy an update to make their camera silent? Not many and they would scream that the company is charging them 1,000's of dollars to do it

The view finder feature is nice. It is one thing that has me interested but again at a cost of 1000's of dollars I don't see running out to spend this kind of money to get this feature. When I go to update my gear as I do from time to time then I'll consider it. But to dump my gear and spend all that money for that feature, I don't think so. Again think about if you could get that in an update to your current gear for 1.000's of dollars, would you do it?

If anyone has some D500's, D5's, D850's, 300mm f/2.8, a 600mm or other Nikon gear you want to sell so you have some money for the new mirrorless, let me help you by taking that gear off your hands.

Michael Jin's picture

LOL "Quiet Mode"... Good enough for what? I never even bother with quiet mode on my D850 because it's still loud enough to hear during a church service that's not exactly quiet.

As for how many people really need silent shooting? It would be nice if everyone at every press conference ever could shoot completely silently. It's nice to not hear CLACK CLACK CLACK during a church service or wedding ceremony. If you're shooting BTS shots on a movie set or in a recording studio, it's nice to not hear a flapping mirror or shutter. The same goes for people shooting classical music, theater, etc. I'm sure photojournalists in sensitive locations would enjoy not giving their position away every time they took a photo, too. How about event photographers shooting during a speech? Street photographers trying to capture candid moments? Just situations I could think of in my head where I would prefer the ability to shoot completely silently vs. having the sound of a shutter and mirror box. And if you have the choice between shooting silently or not, why on early would you choose the latter assuming all other things were equal?

As far as the cost, you're probably going to be spending thousands of dollars either way, whether it's on a DSLR or a mirrorless camera so what's the difference? Currently I'm planning to wait until my D850 dies, but I guess I'll see what the Z7 looks like. If it's pretty much a mirrorless D850, I'm probably on board right away because why the hell not? Especially if they release a good adapter that provides native performance for my existing lenses... I don't imagine that this will actually be the case, though, since first gen products always seem to have some sort of issue, but who knows? We'll see.

Kirk Darling's picture

You realize shooting weddings, movie sets, and on the street didn't just start with mirrorless cameras, right? You realize we've been making those pictures with DSLRs for more than half a century, right?

Michael Jin's picture

Yes I do. I also realize that a manufacturer of premium sound blimps that allowed for such shooting just went out of business basically stating that they weren't needed anymore because of mirrorless cameras.

I also realize that just because something was done a certain way out of NECESSITY for "more than half a century" doesn't mean that there's no room for improvement. I can't picture a whole lot of circumstances where having a shutter sound is superior to not having one while I can imagine a lot of circumstances where silence would be preferred over a shutter sound.

We were also shooting just fine on wet plates for decades before the introduction of roll film and we were shooting roll film just fine for decades before the introduction of digital photography. By your logic, why don't we all just go back to making calotypes?

Absolute speculation on my part here but I genuinely wait with interest at how this “silent shooting” issue will play out.

I was living in Korea 20 years ago when they introduced legislation that all camera phones had to make a clicking/shutter sound when they took a photo. The US followed suit. It’s still strictly enforced here in Japan.

Will the same happen if “less than stellar” characters start using silent mirrorless systems to shoot photos of unsuspecting subjects in public places.....?

Michael Jin's picture

My cellphone camera doesn't make a clicking sound when I take a photo... Seems like the legislation didn't pass at least here in the USA and "less than stellar" characters have been shooting photos of unsuspecting subjects in public places since cellphones had cameras.

Very true. At least in Korea and Japan, the idea was to give victims some kind of warning or awareness as to what was going on......I wonder if there will be different legislation across borders......

Japan is pathologically obsessed and incredibly strict on privacy laws. On creating them, enforcing them and penalising those who flout them. Can only wait and see I guess. No big deal, I’m just curious that’s all, having lived here for 15 years and knowing the mindset....

Very well written Michael - highly informative, balanced and educational. That being said, I respectfully hold my position that the advantages you’ve listed, whilst no doubt beneficial and helpful to photographers, are not revolutionary in the true sense of the word.

EyeAF - helpful but nothing I haven’t been able to achieve for years with my DSLR

Live Histogram through viewfinder - again convenient but I can see the Histogram now with one button push....

I won’t go through every point but you get the drift. I agree with all of the points you make but to me they are mechanical advancements that improve the iser experience. They are not revolutionary in that they turn the entire photographic process on its head and completely redefine the way we do things.

Thanks for your thoughtful input.

Kirk Darling's picture

None of those mirrorless differences offer a different photographic vision. As the author suggested, it's like an automobile going from manual to automatic--same road, same destination, 90 percent the same driving experience.

From rangefinder to SLR: The vision was different, the pictures were different. From TLR to SLR: The vision was different, the pictures were different.

There were whole genres of photography easily possible with SLRs that were simply impossible with rangefinders and TLRs. That's what "revolution" means.

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