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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Ed Sanford's picture

Wow! I find all of your reasoning impeccable. In fact, you actually settled my internal turmoil. I have a Canon 5DSR and a 5dmkii plus a host of lenses. Based on your comments, I am going to delay indefinitely a purchase of MILC. I only stopped shooting film in 2012. I am happy with my DSLRs. There really is no compelling reason to change now. Thanks

michaeljin's picture

If what you're doing is working for you, then there's really no reason to change unless you have a particular desire to.

The only crappy thing about waiting is that your gear will depreciate in terms of sale or trade-in value, but if you're a professional, it's probably much more valuable for you to be able to work reliably, efficiently, and confidently today than to worry about what your gear might sell for 5-10 years down the line.

For me, I was caught in an awkward moment where I was getting ready to make some big purchases and all of this DSLR vs. MILC insanity went down. If I already owned all the lenses that I needed or wanted, I'd still have a D850 in my hands, no question about it. To go out and spend $2000+ on a 70-200mm for a DSLR lens TODAY, however.... Given what's going on in the industry, it's a tough ask. :/

Ed Sanford's picture

What makes me "hold my head" is that in the last two years, I purchased some really good (expensive) glass. To your point, it is already depreciating. I just have a hard time justifying a complete new system. I am considering buying a Sony A7R III and 24-80mm lens as a "walking around system" for travel and handheld shooting et. al. When I really do serious work, I am on a tripod with my 5DSR. So of the new things one can do really doesn't apply. The basic Sony setup is still over $5,000. One thing I've learned in more than 30 years is that it is the 6 inches behind the camera that makes the pictures. I think that will influence my decision.

michaeljin's picture

Yeah... it was a real hit that I took buying my 105mm f/1.4E brand new and seeing the trade-in value. Honestly, I'm still not entirely sure I made the right decision with the trade-in, as frankly speaking, I just had much more fun shooting with my D850. It was just something inexplicable about it that made it a true joy to use and I do miss it. The Sony A7RIII just doesn't feel the same nor does it give me the same inspiration to go out and make images that the Nikon did. Maybe it's the EVF or the discomfort of the ergonomics... I don't know. It seems completely illogical in many ways because from a technical standpoint, it's opened up a lot more abilities than the D850 had, but I guess it's just evidence that specs written on a sheet don't encompass the entirety of the experience. Obviously this is my own personal experience and there are plenty of others who have been rejuvenated by the switch.

Shoot with the gear that inspires you and don't get too mired in all of the drama.

David Pavlich's picture

A well thought out article.

dale clark's picture

"evolutionary" may be a better term.

John Dawson's picture

Agreed, but micro or macro? ;-)

Richard Twigg's picture

Indeed. Ansel Adams would take a better picture than *any* of us with an 8X10 view camera that takes 15 minutes just to set up.

Iain Stanley's picture

Would he? His genius was arguably in the dark room

Richard Twigg's picture

OK. I invite anyone to post a better picture of what Adams did. I'll wait.

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....

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

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.

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

user-156929'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

Jan Kruize's picture

When youre a studio shooter this EVF is just a piece of worthless crap. Those EVF's aren't as good as a mirror. And when your meter your light that histogram is completely worthless. Long live the DSLR.

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.

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.

Jan Kruize's picture

Wow.... it sees what you gonna make with two studio flashes one with a softbox and one with a beautydish..... sony is a miracle....

Richard Twigg's picture

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

Not at all what I said, but nice try.

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