It was the year that Osama Bin Laden was killed, Barack Obama was President, the Space Shuttle was retired, and "Game of Thrones" was premiered. Meanwhile 2011 turned out to be one of the most pivotal years in camera history, putting us on the path to where we are today. Here's what happened.
If Austin Powers was summarizing what camera manufacturers were doing in 2011, he'd say:
Yeah baby, mirrorless.
It might seem that the whole world is bowled over by mirrorless at the moment, and for some photographers, they haven't known anything else. But back in 2011, it was a different world. Yes, Olympus and Panasonic had gained ground on other manufacturers with the launch of the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) system in 2009, which was essentially a reboot of Olympus' 2003 Four Thirds joint-venture with Kodak, minus the mirror box. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 brought mirrorless to the masses with a relatively svelte body sporting a minuscule 19.25 mm flange distance.
Was every other manufacturer caught off-guard by this release? It seems highly likely, as it wasn't until 2010 that the next manufacturer released a mirrorless camera in the form of Sony's NEX-3. Removing the mirror box seems so obvious retrospectively, with Olympus' MFT system able to make the greatest relative weight gains. However, if mirrorless was the way forward, how should the form factor develop? Sony saw potential in the prosumer market and targeted APS-C through its E-mount. Nikon and Canon didn't want to cannibalize DSLR sales, so saw mirrorless as supplementary, with Nikon releasing the 1 system in 2011, followed by Canon's EOS-M in 2012. Pentax was also an early innovator, releasing not one, but two mirrorless systems in the form of the Q in 2011 and K-01 in 2012. Fuji finally pivoted its entire camera strategy, having been retrofitting Nikon camera bodies for the past decade and engineered the highly successful X-series in 2012, with Leica playing catchup in the form of the T (Typ701) in 2014. It's also worth remembering that Sony's a7 arrived in November 2013.
It was a remarkable period of time in the camera market — the gold rush of mirrorless required manufacturers to develop entire systems from scratch, which meant new lens mounts and lineups. So, what happened in 2011?
Sony was already ahead of the game, releasing its first mirrorless camera in 2010 (the APS-C NEX-3) hot on the heels of Olympus and Panasonic. Why were they so fast out of the gates? Having acquired Minolta in 2006, they had released a steady stream of A-mount DSLRs. Was a new APS-C in development anyway? Had they foreseen the magic of mirrorless, or were they simply able to pivot more rapidly than anyone else? Regardless of their speed, 2011 was about filling out their product lines, and this they did in the form of NEX C3, 5N, and 7. While the 16 MP C3 and 5N were both capable cameras, the 24 MP NEX-7 was the best of the three (later becoming the 6000 series), a top-end MILC that won plaudits for its offerings.
It may be lost among the mirrorless hyperbole of the time, but 2010 was also the year Sony released its first SLT, which was the first digital camera to integrate a pellicle (semi-transparent) mirror. While used in photography since 1938, Sony introduced its DSLT range that enabled continuous phase detection AF and fast shooting speeds. The 35, 65, and 77 filled out the range in 2011. The A77 was the flagship, a 24 MP model that was praised for its EVF and 12 fps shooting speed.
Meanwhile, Nikon's one system arrived to moderate fanfare, but what was the form factor? Nikon went with a CX sensor, which is code for small (2.7x crop factor), measuring a meager 13.2x8.8 mm, although with an impressive 17 mm flange distance and 39.5 mm throat diameter allowing designers considerable scope for innovative lens designs. The first cameras off the production line were the 10 MP V1 and J1. Intended for beginners upgrading from a compact camera but not wanting a DSLR, they were far from top-end products, although were innovative in their use of a combined phase and contrast AF system that claimed to have the fastest AF shooting speed (10 fps at launch) along with the fastest continuous shooting at 60 fps. The system was also praised for image quality. The problem? There wasn't much of a market for it, and although there were plenty of people that loved the system, Nikon killed it off in 2018.
After the V1, Nikon released almost nothing on the DSLR front other than the entry-level D5100 with a perfectly competent 16 MP DX sensor, offering full HD video. However, it was hardly earth-shattering, with the D4 and D800 double-punch about to come the following year (ready for the London Olympics), accompanied by Canon's 5D Mark III and 1D X. Canon's mirrorless system wouldn't arrive until 2012 (the EOS M), so 2011 saw it release the entry-level 1100D and 18 MP mid-range 600D. This was thoroughly underwhelming for stills cameras; however, it launched the Cinema EOS System with the C300 late in the year as part of a vaulted entry into the movie business, a major commercial landmark.
Meanwhile, the Micro-Four Thirds (MFT) consortium filled out their ranges. Olympus introduced the PEN P3, PL2, PL3, and PM1, bringing the tally to seven cameras. The P3 was the flagship, a 12 MP offering that introduced a touchscreen LCD. Panasonic launched the G3, GF2, and GF3. The G3 entered towards the top of the line, sporting a 16 MP sensor, fast AF, and HD video.
Pentax was also early into mirrorless, releasing its first in the form of the Q in 2011 that featured a 12 MP 1/2.3" IBIS sensor (5.6x crop factor), making it the smallest MILC at the time and truly minuscule. While some lampooned the idea of a "mirrorless compact camera," it did have an exceptional feature set including raw images, ND filter, interval shooting, distortion correction, in-camera filters, HDR, and Full HD video. However, it was hampered from day one with a high retail price and mediocre image quality. This was not the form factor the market was looking for — an expensive mistake from Pentax.
Finally, the left-field entry on this list is the Samsung NX200. It's easy to forget that Samsung was in the mirrorless market from the beginning, releasing its first camera in January 2010. This high resolving 20 MP APS-C offering was its fifth camera, featuring HD video, 30 fps burst mode, and panorama shooting. It was well-received.
As ever, global news continued to break, and this kept photographers busy. For a long and lingering look through 2011, take a peek at The Atlantic's retrospective for the US, while PA Images provide a well-rounded view of the UK.
World Press Photo for 2011 went to South African Jodi Bieber for her haunting image of child bride Bibi Aisha who was disfigured for fleeing her Taliban husband before being rescued by Women for Afghan Women. Her punishment was to have her nose and ears sliced off. It is haunting for all it says about the society in which she lived, a world in which we all inhabit.
The Pulitzer for Feature Photography went to Barbara Davidson of the LA Times for her work on the victims of gang violence in Los Angeles County. Shot in black and white, it covers the effects of gang violence and, in particular, homicides. The work is visceral and immediate. Davidson is a witness to the people portrayed and was clearly an intimate part of the scene (behind the camera).
The final image is from the Time 100 Most Influential Images of All Time, titled "Situation Room." This is iconic for two reasons: firstly, it records a pivot point in history when US forces raided Osama Bin Laden's Pakistan compound, and secondly, it's different for not showing the actual event, but those watching it unfold. The Wikipedia page is worth a visit, because it identifies (and hyperlinks to) each of the individuals. Other than the redacted satellite image sitting on the laptop, the only subjects are the people themselves. Look at them: who are they, what did they do, how are they dressed, and what are the expressions? These are important points in history, these are our leaders; however, it is less often that we get their unmasked reactions to momentous private occasions.
Why Was 2011 the Bonfire of the Mirrorless?
The footnote to this remarkable period of camera development is actually that it was funded by the compact camera. Digital was cheap, and everyone wanted one with sales peaking in 2010 at 120 million units. Was mirrorless the inevitable evolution of the compact camera, rather than a redefinition of the DSLR? Were the dramatic and divergent hardware developments from different camera manufacturers a commercial response to capture those compact sales and increasing disposable income? Seen in this light, the Pentax Q, Nikon 1, and Canon EOS M were logical developments. Two factors caused a course reset: the 2008 crash and the smartphone. The financial crash dramatically contracted the global economy with spending on luxury goods curtailed; however, it was the emergence of the smartphone that was the elephant in the room. The year 2007 is notable for two reasons: the iPhone was released, and smartphone cameras outsold the rest of the camera industry. The industry pivot to high-end mirrorless began.