Will the Electronic Shutter Ever Truly Replace the Mechanical Shutter?

This week, I acquired a shiny new Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, which surpasses all cameras in its class when it comes to speed. This is thanks to the advanced silent electronic shutter mode. And this got me thinking, will there come a day when the electronic shutter will ever fully replace the mechanical shutter? And do we want it to?

Benefits

There are clear benefits to using an electronic shutter over a mechanical one, mainly speed and silence. The EM-1 Mark II captures 20-megapixel raw image files at up to a lightning-fast 60 fps when using the electronic shutter and 18 fps in Continuous Auto Focus mode. Mechanical shutters top out at around 1/8000 s for high-speed capture, but the electronic shutter in the E-M1 Mark II can reach 1/32,000 s. The sharpness of your images will also be increased by the lack of vibrations made inside the camera from the mechanical shutter. And since there is no moving shutter, there is no sound. Perfect for when you need to go into super stealth mode with your photography.

Limitations

Technology still has a way to go before the electronic shutter can outperform the traditional mechanical shutter on all fronts, with the main issues being the rolling shutter effect and lack of sync with a flash. Some image sensor manufacturers for video, like Blackmagic, have adopted an electronic global shutter in their cameras, while stills sensor manufacturers believe this is where the answer lies to enhance their performance. Darin Pebble, Senior Marketing Manager of Imaging at Panasonic, explained to Photo District News the problems with this, but also goes on to predict the future of the electronic shutter:

“Low-light shooting (high ISO) is greatly impacted due to the space required at each pixel site for the electronics required to ‘flash’ the entire sensor at the same time... (yet) the advent of a practical global shutter could very well bring about the end of the traditional mechanical shutter, further slimming the size of some cameras.”

The Magic of the Mechanical Shutter

Whilst it may sound like I am championing the potential demise of the mechanical shutter, there is one huge drawback to the electronic shutter. The tactile response of a mechanical shutter is something I fell in love with the very first time I picked up a “proper” camera. Like the kickback of a revolver, the feeling of a mechanical shutter is one of trustworthiness and contentment.

In six weeks I will be utilizing the E-M1 Mark II’s stupendous electronic shutter on safari in South Africa. I’m encouraged by the great leaps in sensor technology that manufacturers like Olympus are adopting into their stills cameras, especially when certain situations demand extreme performance. There may be a day when advances will render the mechanical shutter obsolete, but for the sake of all the romantics out there, please don’t let us lose the magic of the mechanical shutter.

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18 Comments

Bryan Gateb's picture

IMO, Only Global CMOS can replace a mechanical shutter. I Skipped the GFX this cycle because 1/125th sync won't work for me (HSS, ND filter, etc, sure -- but it's not optimal); Instead i picked up an H6D to use until the next generation GFX comes out with (hopefully) Global CMOS. Then I can ditch leaf shutters and the hassy.

Spy Black's picture

The distortion issue is a big one. I do street photography with a Panasonic GM5, and the camera is pretty useless above 1/500-1000. Still works for what I do with it, but that distortion is death.

Agreed.
I would note that the article did not mention the fact that the e-shutter will not freeze action.

I do look forward to the advances that do allow a GS with flash sync up to maximum speed.
We will then argue the merits of the evenness of the exposure over the frame at very short exposures.

An electronic only shutter camera should extend the life of the camera beyond dramatically since there would be nothing mechanical to wear down.

Anonymous's picture

Is that really a problem? I've never had an issue but I'm certainly not the most prolific photographer out there.

Sure. Mechanical shutters are rated for just so many activations. Considering how many photos people can now take with digital, it's now much more of an issue, especially if you plan on keeping a camera long term.

Anonymous's picture

But how often does anyone suffer from it? Again, because of digital, I would think most people upgrade before it would be a problem. I usually upgrade about every three years. It's just that I've rarely heard of anyone having to replace one, not that I'm paying much attention. :-)

I've heard of plenty of professionals having to have shutters replaced. I also think the digital market has reached a point where more photographers are going to be unwilling to upgrade to newer cameras. For example, I don't see sensor tech going any further from here unless some radically new tech comes along. Better sensor technology is usually the main incentive to upgrade. I think we have hit a sensor plateau.

>>I've heard of plenty of professionals having to have shutters replaced.<<

Firstly, your faith in gossip is not the same as actual evidence.

Secondly, the cost of shutter replacement is tiny. A pro camera's shutter is usually good for around 200K shots and the replacement cost is around $500. It's a deductible and one of the smallest costs of doing in business. It really isn't something any sane person would consider.

If you are a serious amateur or professional photographer you would know that mechanical shutters have a finite lifespan. During the film era it was only the most active professionals that would use their cameras so much that shutter replacements were needed. The cost of using film assured that the vast majority of photographers would never wear out their shutters.

Today with digital, where there is no immediate cost to taking and developing an image, it is very easy to wear out mechanical shutters.

I have met people and have read people saying they have had shutters replaced in their cameras. That's not gossip. That is people saying themselves that they have done so.

Evidence? The word you are looking for is proof. What I said is evidence. I didn't ask them for copies of receipts.

Objectively speaking, $500 to replace a shutter is not "tiny" for say a $2000 camera, and not everyone that visits this site is a working and well earning photographer. If technology can eliminate the need for a mechanical shutter, then that is obviously and objectively a good thing.

Phil Newton's picture

Pretty much most mechanical actuation is slowly being phased out, although that's a bit of a generalisation. I think it's almost the next step in design is for something mechanical to be electronically replicated.
Mechanical part doing a job perfectly well? Great! Let's create an electronic way to do it!

And electronic way can also reduce costs and drastically increase reliability, while increasing sharpness and battery life.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I think it most likely will but not until EVFs are indistinguishable from an optical viewfinder. Personally, thats what keeps me away from mirrorless still. EVF has come a long way but it still isn't perfect, there is still a slight delay. Personally I find that really disorienting and difficult work with. Once EVFs hit a point where their resolution and refresh is so fast a human couldn't tell the difference between them and a DSLR viewfinder is the day I feel that mechanical shutters will be obsolete.

Fritz John Asuro's picture

I guess Sony actually tried to resolve that with their translucent technology (not sure though, forgot if it's EVF or OVF) back then. But since Sony's DSLRs wasn't really that famous, they didn't proceed to improve it anymore.

You can have a hybrid also. Not like Sony with translucent mirror but just regular mirror as in any DSLR but not the shutter. Although the problem will be in syncing and moving mirror for exposures as short as 1/32.000 for example. But it would work normally as it does now for 1/8000.

Josh Leavitt's picture

Cost-effective global e-shutters are on the horizon. Canon recently announced they had developed a 2/3" global shutter sensor, and I fully expect that same tech to be featured in the 90D and 5D Mk5. But Panasonic has also announced a global e-shutter solution, and their partnership with Fujifilm to develop a new organic CMOS sensor to use the technology will likely come to market by 2019. So, will electronic shutter truly replace mechanical shutter? Yes, and only in a matter of years by the current rate of R&D. It will be a huge benefit to everyone when it happens as well; longer battery life, smaller/lighter camera bodies, and more usable images due to less vibrations.

I love the concept of the electronic shutter, but two things have always got in my way when I've tried using it: image distortion (very noticeable when shooting people at high speeds) and light banding (for many types of common artificial lighting). If a global shutter can resolve those two, sign me up!

Andrew Moore's picture

The banding only happens on sony cameras in silent shutter mode and if you play with the shutter speed it stops?? I have never had it when silent shutter mode is off. My understanding is its a mhz thing rather than a read time thing.... could be wrong there. Might be a Olympus issue but my friend who uses them has not had this happen. The speed issue .... I have had nothing at all like you mention shooting high-level football (Soccer) or snowboarding... nothing at all..? Might do with F1 cars but I don't shoot that..... unfortunately. The IBIS in fact gives me more of a safety net when moving myself against my 5dmkiii and this effect you talk about when waving the camera i can not even recreate it with my Sony's, just tried. Is it an Olympus thing? In fact after having both mech and mirrorless cams for over 4 years now (mech for many before that) this is the first I have heard of this. I am genuinely interested if it does happen so I can make sure I avoid if possible. For me, there are way more pro's to mirrorless.... EVF being a complete game changer..... but there are cons, batteries are much smaller and therefore do not last as long due to all the tech being used.... not a show stopper just would rather slightly better, its physics. Focus is slightly slower .... for me it has never been an issue as I shoot weddings, people and some sports that are not mega fas, they are more than fast enough for that. In fact the ability to lock on track across the entire sensors adds an extra ability. The start up speeds could be better and thats just silly as it must be a firmware fix. The single biggest con was the lens choice but that has not been addressed in a BIG way and i can't keep up with options now available. I do like the mech shutter feel but I have grown to love the Sony sound now as well. I switched because I got fed up with the big 2 giving me overpriced cameras that were designed to shoot a nat's ass flying at a 100mph in a dessert where I had only one battery in the pouring rain in a body that just did not need to be that big....... I don't shoot that. They then made me spend a fortune on their cinema options to get simple video features that other brands were giving us as standard. They are starting to evolve but its taken 4 + years and they have lost their dominance now. I will always love my 5dmk iii but I hardly use t now, thats not because its a bad camera but because, for me the Sony is better, not for everyone but for me it is. As always its not the camera but the person taking the picture and each to their own if it works for you and you are making money or enjoyment....then use it.