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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173 Comments
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Iain Stanley's picture

Define “better”. There’s a million shades of grey in how we look at and interpret pictures....

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Not really, I think AA felt there were 10 zones. Not a milllion....

Paolo Bugnone's picture

Implying an 8x10 camera is inferior to today's fullframe, which definitely isn't xD

Richard Twigg's picture

Darn right! :)

michaeljin's picture

I highly doubt that world will ever come. Without the gear, all we would have to talk about is photographs and who wants to talk about that?

Mr Hogwallop's picture

"a world where photography is about the photos" That would a different forum than this one. :)

Douglas Turney's picture

Nail, head, contact made. You nailed it with this article. Mirrorless may turn out to be the future but it is evolutionary at best at this time. The rush to DSLR from SLR wasn't just about the camera but all the additional things you could do with the output from that type of camera. So far the only advantages I see for mirrorless are the view finder and smaller form but even those are not big reasons to rush out and change my entire equipment lineup. View finder is nice for high contrast lighting situations to see what I'm losing in the shadow or highlights. Other than that I'm fine with my experience and the camera's meter. Size, well it's really my lenses that are driving size and weight. Give me smaller lighter lenses!! Give me a 300mm f/2.8 that isn't a beast to carry all day.

I like progress and new items but I honestly haven't seen the benefits yet that are worth the cost financially to ditch my current equipment for this new equipment. Perhaps if these cameras become great for video I can see it becoming more revolutionary as video is becoming more and more important.

Iain Stanley's picture

If Canon/Nikon etc offered a free exchange for a new mirrorless system then sure, we’d all have a look. But when you’re being asked to reinvest $1,000s all over again.....yeah, nah

Ian Goss's picture

Who cares?

michaeljin's picture

Many people, apparently.

Nick K's picture

Eye AF is revolutionary in my opinion (and AF accuracy in general). This is something that wasn't previously available.

Deleted Account's picture

I don't have any trouble getting eyes in focus. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Iain Stanley's picture

As Sam said, have you ever had trouble getting focus on your subject’s eyes before? Sure eyeAF might be convenient, but hardly revolutionary

Richard Twigg's picture

I had the same thoughts. And I guess no one that spouts about seeing the picture before you take it ever uses flash?

michaeljin's picture

It doesn't help with flash, but that's neither here nor there since it's not like a DSLR has any advantage in that arena so that's just a straight tie. That having been said, there are plenty of people using continuous light instead of strobes and in that scenario, the EVF advantage would certainly apply even though an experienced photographer ought to still be able to meter any scene properly.

Dave F's picture

What's apparently true here is that people who spout about EVFs being worthless with a flash have never used one. Can't speak for every camera, but Sony's EVF compensates when a flash or trigger is attached and turned on. It boosts the EVF so you can see without having to actually trigger the flash.

Next ignorant comment please.

Richard Twigg's picture

It's ok Jan. We're all ignorant.

Dave F's picture

Not at all what I said, but nice try.

Charles Nolasco's picture

That is some super AI in those sony camera to simulate multiple light sources. You don’t even need lighting equipment anymore! :)

Dave F's picture

Did I say "Simulate multiple light sources"? I said it boosts the EVF so you can see, which was a response to the original (false) claim that an EVF is worthless in a studio that would otherwise be quite dim without the strobes going off. All these comments are doing is further proving my point that people criticize without actual experience in the matter.

So, like I said, Next ignorant comment please.

michaeljin's picture

Reading a histogram is way faster than spot metering your highlights, spot metering your shadows, calculating the dynamic range of your scene vs. the dynamic range of you camera, blah blah blah. Just saying... Then again, I'm not a studio shooter.

And if you think that a histogram is worthless, then you are either a luddite or don't know how to use a histogram since it's essentially a hyper accurate light meter. Like... metering light is EXACTLY what a histogram does, except it does it across the spectrum and shows you in real time the distribution of your tones not only in light value but also potentially your individual color channels. How is this worthless compared to a single reading of any type or EV number?

Richard Twigg's picture

If you use flash a lot, like studio shooters do, it's all moot without a flash meter. And do we really need to name call over this? (Luddites?? Really?)

michaeljin's picture

Lots of studio shooters also use continuous light. And yes, if you think that a histogram is worthless, then I would say that you're either a luddite that can't appreciate the benefit of technology or you're ill informed about the implications of the technology. A light meter is not going to tell you if you're clipping the red channel specifically. A histogram can. To call a histogram worthless is to say that having more accurate information about your light readings is worthless. That's asinine.

So yes, I will name call just like I would name call if you were a military "expert" who argued that little blips on a WWII-era radar was superior to an advanced system that could give you that same exact information while also identifying the make and model of every single plane heading toward you. That's just stupid at that point.

Richard Twigg's picture

I don't recall calling a histogram worthless.

michaeljin's picture

If you read the post where I initially addressed that (the one where I made the "luddite" comment), you'll see that it was not directed toward you, but to Jan Kruize.

Richard Twigg's picture

And I don't use continuous light. We call them "squints" for a reason.

michaeljin's picture

I'm sure you don't, otherwise you'd not have brought it up. Apparently many do because supposedly tiny pupils to iris ratios are all the rage these days... I personally use strobes when I use lights so I get where you're coming from.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Squints? Well I guess I did learn something from this thread.

michaeljin's picture

If my Pentax Digital Spotmeter gave me a histogram readout, I'd be pretty happy... Just sayin'. More information is rarely a bad thing.

michaeljin's picture

I think nice cameras for amateurs and pros. I would not be surprised if photographers covering events were soon required to be able to shoot silently now that it's becoming more widely available.

michaeljin's picture

Does it work with your eye to the viewfinder, or is it like the D850 where you have to be in Live Mode and staring at the back of your screen? I don't shoot Canon, so I'm not informed about this, but I'm not sure how they would have a silent mode that doesn't require using Live View on a DSLR and we both know that using Live View off a tripod compromises your stability.

michaeljin's picture

"You can hardly hear it" is different from "SILENT". And yes, there are situations where that makes a difference. It's a bit like the difference between not having a cold and having just a hint of a cold. It won't make a difference in 99% of cases, but they're not going to want you near a person with a compromised immune system if you have the latter. Also, I don't know about Canon's "Silent Mode", but if it's anything like Nikon's Quiet Mode, it probably feels rather awkward to shoot with because of the slight lag you feel between actuation and actual shutter release. Then again, as I said, I don't shoot Canon so I don't know. I've been in situations where you could hear the leaf shutter on a Mamiya 7 from across the room, though, so something "really quiet" is not quiet enough.

Yes, I know the difference between direct metering and reflective metering. Funny story: your camera captures reflected light so which do you think is more useful in the vast majority of scenarios? Yes, every light meter thinks you're metering middle grey. That's what the zone system is there for so I'm not sure where you're going with that. As for a histogram: Yeah.. completely worthless since it does NOTHING that a light meter doesn't do... /eyeroll (see attached photo and notice the graphs of the individual color channels). Does your Sekonic (or whatever brand you happen to use) give you information about each color channel separately? No? Yeah, I thought not. Don't worry, my Pentax Digital Spotmeter doesn't either. Again, doesn't make a difference in most scenarios, but it's good information to have regardless because there are situations where it will.

And I don't know where you think I'm "highly recommending" Sony. I don't own a Sony nor do I have any foreseeable plans to. This is about MILC technology and it applies to Fuji, Olympus, Panasonic, Nikon, Canon, etc. regardless of mount or form factor. Sony is not the only name in the game and I actually tend to recommend Fuji over Sony to most people that ask me simply because I don't think that most people need a full frame camera and I think Fuji has a better APS-C system overall.

Anyway, it's pretty clear that you know what you're doing and you know what applies to your own personal work, but how about not making judgments about technology that clearly doesn't apply to you, but might be important to others? What's quiet enough to you might not be quiet enough for someone else. What's enough information for you might not be enough information for someone else. Everyone has different use cases so maybe it'd be nice to be cognizant that there's an entire world of photography that doesn't revolve around what you happen to do.

More technology and better technology is always a good thing for creators as a whole. Nobody's forcing you to use any of it and it's not like the introduction of it is taking anything away from you, either.

michaeljin's picture

Well those people are idiots. There's definitely a revolution in technology happening but it doesn't seem mean that we're going to lose the ability to take great photos with the equipment we've been using for decades.

It just means that there's new stuff. The benefits might be meaningful to some people, but not others.

Nicolas KIEFFER's picture

the revolution you are praising sostrong is that one : videocamera are getting excellent photographic skills.
But in the meantime, photographic only sensors have disappeared because a photocamera have to serve as a moviecam in order to be praised and bought by customers and youtubers/influencers.

MILC are just a bridge between both world. If it ever happens before the VR/AR revolution, you can even bet thoses MILC will store the whole day long movie stream and an algorythm will pick out the best standard pictures the AI can serve, as the AI learned it through instagram/flickr.

michaeljin's picture

"photographic only sensors have disappeared"

What do you mean by this?

Nicolas KIEFFER's picture

All sensors found in latest digital camera have to serve as a video camera too, even latest dSLR. So everything from the start is designed to be able to stream of 60fps video.
The sensor is not thought to be a photographic device in first place, but already thought to serve a video purpose asked by the market. How many users in dpreview, petapixel or fstopper would not laught at a Canon or Nikon releasing a dSLR unable to make a 60fps FHD movie ?

Try just to consider the fact a photographic only sensor, geared for 5-10fps could be with nowadays silicon advancment.
Even a new material suitable for better photographic sensor could not emerge until this technology is able to pull out a video stream for that EVF thing or making movie snaps... Get the point or not ?
Just to add a point : slower paced photographic workflow should give photo sensor an edge (could be in resolution, quantum efficiency, capacitor, real RGB photosite, really innovative color filter instead of that old BAYER design, etc...).

I know many think photo sensors do not suffer from being designed to stream video flux, whereas it is plain evident both world have different constraints. Just an example : a photosite have to be designed to be read en flushed faster in a video sensor than in a photosensor. And tricks to make big/large high density sensor fast enough to serve video are only tricks and imply sub design that desserve the still image capture capabilities of the sensor. Why do 8k cinecams cost tons of money whereas photocameras already boast far more pixels than cinecams for years ??? heat, fast enough readout, global shutter/rolling shutter, etc...
All those problems to be solved for a wanabee cinesensor cost money, R&D, time for far different purposes than photographic only needs. And it is a manufacturer PoV, like SONY early 2000's vision, to merge both world and make people use moviecam as photocamera.

Christian Lainesse's picture

I love Eye Autofocus. Which non-revolutionary cameras have it?

Deleted Account's picture

I love chocolate. It must be revolutionary! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

David Penner's picture

Not just the eye autofocus but also the coverage of focus points. Watch a DSLR shooter taking portraits. They pretty much need to focus and reframe all the time. With something like that a7iii they can pretty much have the model right at the edge of the frame and still nail focus.

Iain Stanley's picture

I can’t think of a time when I’ve ever wanted my subject on the very edge of the frame.....

Dave F's picture

Based on the article as well as the comments, it seems to me that this is a topic in search of a problem in order to justify its existence.

Can you take a good picture with a DSLR? Yes.
Can you take a good picture with a mirrorless? Yes.
Do mirrorless cameras have features that DSLR’s don’t? YES.

Now, does it matter in the least if somebody does or does not consider them revolutionary?

NO.

Bottom line:

Semantics aren’t responsible for good pictures.

In the words of Clint Eastwood, “Shut up and shoot”.

K Thnx.

Deleted Account's picture

Are people who tell you, "You need to switch to mirrorless", "You will switch to mirrorless", "You need to use Sigma lenses", "You should switch to Fuji/Sony/Nikon/Canon" etc... annoying? YES!!!

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