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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Michael Jin's picture

You don't think that your vision is different seeing the exact exposure and depth of field vs. seeing the scene optically? I suppose it's a matter of precision and, in the end, a matter of semantics.

Kirk Darling's picture

I see DSLR photographers go mirrorless and I see them taking the same kinds of images they were taking before. I started shooting with TLRs and rangefinders.

The TLR had a fixed "normal" lens.

The rangefinder had three lenses that coupled to its focusing system--in 35mm I was limited in focal lengths from 35mm to 90mm.

When I bought my first SLR, the first thing I did was buy a 400mm telephoto (it wasn't really "telephoto" constructions--it was a long-focus lens that was actually 400mm long).

Then I bought a 28mm lens.

Those two lenses--not available for my rangefinder--brought entirely different visions to my eye. I could actually get a close-up of a football reception (although learning to follow-focus manually was a whole new skill in itself).

That was a revolution. It wasn't making the same kinds of images easier, it was making totally different images that weren't possible before.

Michael Jin's picture

The Mamiya C330 is a TLR and did not have a "fixed normal lens". It was an interchangeable lens system so there was at least one TLR where your statement doesn't hold true.

Rangefinders also have 28mm lenses and external viewfinders to frame the image. I know several people that use 28mm lenses on their Leicas just fine so I'm not sure how you can attribute that vision exclusively to the SLR.

As far as telephoto, I would agree with you since that's one of the benefits of seeing your exact framing through a mirror. So your revolution in all of this was essentially the introduction to telephoto lenses.

in regard to making totally different images that weren't possible before, I would argue that the ability to be shoot completely silently certainly makes available images that might not have been possible before as does the damn near nightv ision of the A7S series, allowing you to see things and compose images in levels of darkness that you couldn't before.

Yes, most photographers that purchase mirrorless cameras are doing the same things with them that they were doing with their DSLR's, but there are photographers also using the benefits to gain access to places and situations where before they would have been denied due to the sound of their shutter or the lights emitted by their lamps. You say that the SLR revolutionized your vision, but I still see plenty of people shooting the same exact type of street photography with an SLR that others were shooting with a rangefinder so how does that revolution apply to them? Is it the fault of the technology that people just do the same shit over and over when other possibilities exist?

You want a real revolution? How about a person with absolutely no photographic training being able to switch their camera to manual and, with 15 minutes of instruction, learn how to turn the dials to take the photos that they want to take and repeatedly nail the exact results that they want repeatedly with a day of practice? Is that something that was possible before? It is with an EVF.

The revolution of mirrorless technology is not just these things, but also the increasing democratization of photography and the further removal of technical barriers between you and the image that you envision creating. DSLR's took that revolution one step of the way by accelerating the feedback loop, removing skills such as developing film or working in a wet darkroom, and making photography more affordable as a whole. MILC's will take it to another level entirely by accelerating the feedback loop to real-time as well as removing the need to learn a lot of technical knowledge that we current photographers take for granted (you don't need to know anything technical about aperture or DoF when you see the image on the EVF changing before your eyes as you turn a dial), but might have taken us years to learn.

I think a lot of old heads are just threatened by the idea of a new wave of photographers creating work on the level that it took them years to learn without much effort. It's the same old heads in the film days that bitched about how DSLR's made photography too easy as if there was some virtue to being forced to "pay your dues" by wasting tons of film and years in the darkroom learning to be a competent photographer. I know because I lived through it and had to hear plenty of that nonsense working in a photo lab before nearly all of them went out of business. Did the DSLR "revolutionize" our vision or what was possible in photography? I would argue that it's only relatively recently that DSLR's with ultra high ISO capabilities started taking images that weren't possible on film (which you could also scan and work with digitally). What I see with this whole DSLR/Mirrorless argument is just a re-hash of the same exact thing. It's ridiculous.

Get over yourselves. The world is changing and technology is is eventually going to make all of our skills obsolete whether it's photographers or doctors. There's no point being bitter about it. Wave the DSLR flag and shoot with a DSLR until the day you die for all I care. Nobody's going to force you to pick up a mirrorless camera or anything else. Just don't pretend that progress isn't progress because it's getting really sad at this point. Anyway, I'm done with this argument because it's not even an argument. We're debating whether something is a "revolution" when clearly there's no consensus for what would constitute a "revolution" in photography.

Kirk Darling's picture

I had a Mamiya TLR, used it for weddings and portraits in the late 70s. It was huge and heavy. Yes, it could interchange a few lenses...a few lenses, very clunkily (like "sit down and spend a minute"), and with the larger lenses, parallax was a huge problem, with clunky workarounds like a moving indicator on the screen and a "Paramender" on tripod. Yuk.

Rangefinders could have wider lenses, but as you say they needed external viewers that did not show what the image would actually look like. There is a world of difference between looking through a viewfinder that merely shows you framing and a viewfinder that shows you accurate wide-angle perspective, particularly at angles wide enough that the slightest difference in angle makes a huge difference in the image.

Those workarounds were just not acceptable when the SLR became a viable tool, and those of us who were there then knew what made that happen: The instant-return mirror.

It really wasn't just "SLR"--that was developed back in the 1930s. It was the instant-return mirror that made the SLR a tool for more than macro photographers.

So you are moving the goalpost to "democratization?" Well, of course that's been going on since George Eastman's original "Brownie" did away with photographers having to mix their own emulsions and do their own processing. Now that was a revolution.

Michael Jin's picture

I'm not moving goal posts at all. MILC has multiple benefits and if you're going to evaluate its effect on the world of photography, I think that you have to take in every facet of it. Yes, the SLR was a revolution. Yes, the Brownie was a revolution. That doesn't mean that MILC's don't represent their own revolution. You seem to be suggesting that because this revolution is not as revolutionary as some others, it shouldn't be considered a revolution at all. I disagree.

As for those that are arguing that it's "evolutionary" as opposed to "revolutionary", we're just arguing semantics at that point. After the initial breakthrough and discovery, every other advance can be considered "evolutionary".

Kirk Darling's picture

It's not just semantics. Or rather, it IS semantics--go look up "semantics." The semantics of the issue are important.

The 35mm SLR with instant-return mirror was revolutionary--it fundamentally changed the way photographers performed our art.

Improvements to the SLR were evolutionary: Metering, then TTL metering, auto-exposure, even auto-focusing. We could argue that all those were "democratizing" steps in that they did make the technical aspects of photography easier for more casual users, but none of them changed how photographers viewed or performed their art.

The important revolution was seeing through the taking lens. That was a whole new way to see the image.

Michael Jin's picture

The semantics of the issue really aren't important nor is the click-bait issue of whether or not this is a "revolution" or not. You're assigning your own arbitrary definition of what criteria must be met to consider this a "revolution" as am I. Just drop it already...

So is this Revolution Number 9? "I've got blisters on my fingers!"

Michael Jin's picture

Apparently nothing is a revolution. It's all just evolution. You know what would be a real revolution? People seeing new technology and being like "COOL! Someone else might really enjoy that even if it's completely useless to me!" rather than being crabby assholes about it...

Yeah. Along with, "COOL! I can really use this and if someone else can't, I won't insist they try it or tell them they'll be forced to use it eventually and I won't tell them it's a lot better than what they like." Yeah. In a perfect world....
I have one more period than you. I know an ellipsis only has three but mine is cooler than yours and someday you'll be forced to use four periods, too! ;-)

Oh! You're good! :-)

Michael Jin's picture

I'm way too sober for this. LOL!

Nicolas KIEFFER's picture

The revolution you praise and hope is not coming from MILC but from smartphone cameras !

Even if MILC camera will get all the bell and whistles promised by computaional photography, 99% of the masses will never get that clunky big camera as their smartphone is already in their pocket and gives far enough result for their uses.

Wait until smartphone will gain access to 'longer focal lens' systems and that MILC will get zero interest anymore...

but from a shareholder and manufacturer PoV, making simplier and cheaper to manufacture cameras sold at the same price as dSLR is a nice way to get higher cash flow. Just need to make customers believe it is the must have and tadaa.
I would even not be surprised if MILC camera manufacturer will change their lens mount after a few years explaining they can give you better lenses and you can still use an adapter to get old ones working on the new device.

In the meantime, VR and AR video flows will render dSLR, MILC, rangefinder and other flat 2d files as useless as the masses will be amazed by 3d/volumetric 'pictures/holograms'.

Michael Jin's picture

Smartphone cameras and video camera are mirrorless camera so the technology is no different from MILC's.

Nicolas KIEFFER's picture

You exactly say it : MILC, moviecam and smartphone are from the same breed.

but MILC are just the missing link between moviecam and smartphones. And it will have to disappear.

Bill Peppas's picture

Most of your "points" for Mirrorless are mostly attractions for noobs.
For example, live Exposure preview.... go back to photography 101 class.

Michael Jin's picture

I'm pretty sure that people back in the day were similarly saying that built-in light meters were mostly attraction for noobs. Go learn the Sunny 16 rule.

/eyeroll

Bill Peppas's picture

Oh you've hurt my feelings.
But for your own sake, I'm going to use the sunny 16 rule ( simply to decrease my camera's perceived sharpness and image quality ) so you can live on and brag about the benefits ( sooooo huge :D ) of the mirrorless cameras.

I'm sorry kid, you're too passionate and GAS on mirrorless, I'm not going to bother anymore.
You convinced us.
Mirrorless is clearly the very best.
And you are the master photographer.

We all bow to you.

Michael Jin's picture

Dude, I don't even know what you're talking about. How exactly does the Sunny 16 Rule decrease your camera's "perceived sharpness and image quality" again? Please go ahead and explain it to a "kid" like me because what you just said makes absolutely zero sense. If you're experiencing a decrease in perceived sharpness or image quality by using Sunny 16, you're doing it wrong.

For the record, I never told you or anyone else to go out and buy a mirrorless camera. I've been pretty adamant about the fact that while mirrorless does offer definite benefits, if you're capable of producing the work you need on the gear you have, then there's no real reason to switch immediately. Eventually, you'll probably want to just because camera companies are going to be investing less into DSLR and more into Mirrorless, but then again, you could always be like the Sony A-Mount diehards that will refuse to admit that their system of choice is realistically dead.

It's people like you that are being complete luddites and fighting the progress of technology just because you happen to be satisfied with what you have. What exactly does your criticism of mirrorless technology and claiming that the benefits are "mostly attraction for noobs" add to the discussion—especially when it's a patent falsehood as many professional photographers have switched over for the benefits to themselves as well.

There are situations where it will help and situation where it won't. If you're working with strobe lights in a studio exclusively, it probably won't make a difference one way or another whether you use a mirrorless camera or a DSLR.

Anyway, yes, I am looking forward to Nikon's mirrorless offerings because I'd love to effectively focus with my AI-S lenses since the D850 doesn't offer a split prism focusing screen. I think most photographers have some sort of GAS. I've also got a Rolleiflex 2.8F and a Mamiya RZ67 on my wishlist, too.

I don't know why you're so butt hurt, but go put some vaseline on it or something, kid.

Bill Peppas's picture

You must be a bloody arrogant and uneducated noob then.

Do you really know what the sunny 16 rule is ?

Set your aperture to F/16...

Do you know the word DIFFRACTION ?

I guess not.

So before you go on pretending to be the know it all and the evangelist of mirrorless, learn that as you close your aperture more than f/8 ( actually it usually starts even earlier ) you lose sharpness ( and sometimes not just sharpness ) because of diffraction.

Now keep on making a fool of yourself.

Michael Jin's picture

So if I told you that the correct exposure for a particular scene was 1/250 second at f/16 at ISO 200, are you telling me that you don't know how to adjust the settings from that point to change your aperture to f/2.8 or f/4 or f/8 and maintain proper exposure there, buddy?

Who's the "noob" here, again? Yeah... Keep making yourself look stupid, kid. It's actually pretty amusing. Maybe you need to go learn the exposure triangle before touching Sunny 16.

Seriously, though... You're a joke, man. Just stop. It's almost sad at this point.

As far as my perceived arrogance, it's how I cope with my low self-esteem. Don't take it personally. After all, I'm just a random person on the internet you'll never meet anyway. :)

Bill Peppas's picture

Whatever floats your boat my man.

People say, put your money where your mouth is.
Photographers say, show me your portfolio and I'll tell you who and where you are.

I love your gallery ( laughs ).

Keep on busting our balls regarding how superior mirrorless cameras are, while we go out there and shoot awesome photos with our crappy DSLRs.

If only you put 5% of your "efforts" here into photography, you could've acquired some useful skills...

Michael Jin's picture

You realize you're talking to a person that shoots DSLR, film SLR, TLR, rangefinders, toy cameras, and box cameras , right? Ok, then. /eyeroll

BTW I noticed that you didn't respond to the Sunny 16 thing. Did you have that "Oh crap." moment where it dawned on you? LOL

Don't worry, it happens to all of us. As far as useful skills, it seems that you haven't even developed the skill to think critically about the exposure triangle so I'll take my limited skills over yours.

Bill Peppas's picture

I'm sorry I don't respond to photography 101 issues like yours...
The exposure triangle to me is like breathing... it occurs naturally...

Michael Jin's picture

That's why you went on about DIFFRACTION when talking about the Sunny 16 Rule as if it meant that you couldn't switch your camera off f/16. Right. Maybe you should breathe a bit less and think a bit more sometimes—especially when you're posting.

Anyway, as I said. Have a nice life.

Michael Jin's picture

Seriously, though. You claim, "Show me your portfolio and I'll tell you who and where you are." so why don't you tell me what your portfolio says about who you are?

Undoubtedly you take some beautiful photos, but I don't get an ounce of personality or purpose from them despite the fact that I'm sure they'll impress people hanging on a wall or posted onto websites.

I generally don't show people my photography because I do it for my own personal therapeutic reasons. Sure, I make income from it, but I wouldn't consider myself a professional photographer by any means. I do it because it relaxes me and simply put, I have absolutely zero interest in taking images like yours or many others that I see on photographic sites. So what could someone like you tell me about who I am or where I am from looking at my portfolio when you know nothing about me or my personal motives?

What you actually mean is "Show me your photography so we can settle this in some manner other than words since I can't stand on the principles of my own arguments. Because the person with prettier photos must clearly be right in any debate pertaining to photography." It's your way of deflecting attention from the fact that you know that your claim that mirrorless is mostly an attraction for noobs is hyberbolic bullshit and since making that claim, you've repeatedly made yourself look like an ass.

Anyway, good luck to you and have a happy life. You take much prettier pictures than me. I won't deny that. That having been said, looking at your photos, I can't say that I know you any better than I knew you through your words. You're still a random nobody, just like me.

Ed Sanford's picture

I've been noticing very carefully that press photographers (those covering the President and congress) and sports photographers covering NFL, MLB are not using mirrorless.... care to hazard to guess why????

Michael Jin's picture

A number of reasons I would imagine. Until fairly recently, MILC manufacturers didn't have glass that was very good for sports photography. Until fairly recently, MILC autofocus really wasn't that good. Until fairly recently, MILC's had garbage for battery life. Until fairly recently there was no full frame MILC with decent weathersealing and now that there are (the Canon and Nikon), those cameras don't have decent native glass to cover sports or do photojournalism. Until fairly recently, the only full-frame MILC game in town was Sony who didn't have the established brand loyalty among photographers of Canon and Nikon. Sony also, in addition to poor weathersealing, don't built very durable cameras, which is a must for photojournalists and sports photographers. Canon and Nikon's introductions have changed the arguments about ergonomics, weathersealing, and durability so once they get comfortable in the MILC market, I would expect more of a shift.

Also, people doing press and sports photography are professionals and professionals are generally not the type to experiment or try new things. They find something that works and they can depend on and they will use that until they absolutely HAVE to change because their livelihoods (at least for photojournalists and sports photographers) doesn't depend on quality so much as reliability. They're not going to swap out every generation for an extra stop of dynamic range or a few extra FPS of burst speed.

So combine the fact that MILC's have largely sucked for professional photojournalism work until fairly recently (like.. literally the latest generation of MILC's) and the ones that don't suck in some ways still suck in others (Sony is great at the tech and now lens line-up, but sucks with ergonomics and weathersealing while Canon and Nikon have great ergonomics and weathersealing, but fall behind on tech and native lenses), combine that fact with the fact that photojournalists in particular are an extremely conservative bunch that is slow to change (there are PJ's still using the 5DmkII) and it's really not all that surprising that you're not going to suddenly see an explosion of MILC's covering events. It's not as if all of these people are suddenly going to divest themselves of thousands of dollars worth of gear and all of their muscle memory when they're currently just fine as they are.

Professional photographers are generally a very bad indicator when it comes to market direction because they're usually the very last group to change. Want evidence of this? Look at the film to digital transition. It was only WAY after DSLR's came to the market that it got widespread adoption from professionals. Frankly, I would even argue that it was more of a generational change brought on by younger photographers that weren't as heavily invested in film gear than it was the established professionals that loved their film that caused the actual shift.

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