If there is one technology driving the convergence of stills and motion it is the mirrorless camera. The logical choice for someone starting out their photographic journey has always been the SLR or DSLR. These cameras have long been regarded as the tool of choice for enthusiasts and professionals alike. They are veritable workhorses and the perfect tool for learning the many technical aspects of photography.
Mirrorless cameras had a slow, somewhat shaky start. This was in part due to some long in the tooth photographers rejecting the possibilities of the new technologies incorporated into these cameras. Instead they concentrated on some of the negatives of the earlier production models. There were indeed some major drawbacks to earlier incarnations of the mirrorless camera but as with many new technologies, the manufacturers persevered. They ironed out the main issues to the point that today we have a viable alternative to the DSLR system, one that enthusiasts and professionals can and do use on a daily basis.
In recent years companies like Sony, Panasonic and this year Fuji have made mirrorless cameras serious video tools as well as stills cameras.
What is a Mirrorless Camera?
Put simply it is a interchangeable system camera that dispenses with the bulky, complex optical viewfinder of the DSLR. Instead the viewfinder is replaced, in most cases with an electronic version. This is similar to viewing the LCD screen but built inside the viewfinder itself. There are also some mirrorless cameras that use a hybrid system of a rangefinder optical viewfinder combined with an electronic viewfinder.
There are a few variations on sensor size, some using the micro 4/3rds format. A notable number now using the APS-C format sensors often found in DSLRs and indeed there are now full frame sensors in mirrorless cameras. The Sony A7 and Leica M Digital Rangefinder being the prime examples of this. Many of these camera now shoot 4K and indeed the new Panasonic GH5 can shoot 6K in short bursts.
This entire 4K short film was shot on a Panasonic G7
Where did they come from?
Genesis for the mirrorless camera was the Epsom R-D1, released back in 2004. This was a high end rangefinder camera that although well regarded failed to create a mirrorless niche. The same is true of the Leica M8, again another very expensive somewhat exclusive photographic tool. However, in late 2008, the Micro Four Thirds system was announced to the world. This sensor was an offshoot of the original Four Thirds system designed specifically for a mirrorless camera body. Panasonic, Ricoh, Samsung and Olympus all produced early mirrorless cameras based on this sensor. It was, perhaps the Olympus Pen E1-P, announced in mid 2009 that captured the attention of the photographic world. This was a retro styled camera loosely based around the original Olympus Pen half frame cameras of the 1960’s. The E1-P had no viewfinder at all, relying on a large, bright LCD screen on the back.
Of the big two, Nikon were first to the mirrorless party in 2011 with the Nikon 1 System. These cameras featured an electronic viewfinder but were not a commercial success. Canon came to the mirrorless scene in 2012 with the EOS M with similar results to Nikon.
Panasonic have led the charge to make these cameras hybrid stills and motion tools. Their original GH1 was a prime example of this and the GH family now rivals the Canon EOS series for it’s video capabilities. Sony and Fuji have both followed.
What are the Advantages of Mirrorless?
The first obvious advantage is the size and weight. The complex mechanisms of the DSLR are not needed in the the mirrorless system cameras. This means that the bodies can be significantly smaller and hence lighter even with a similar sized sensor. A secondary advantage to this is that the lenses can also be smaller. The upshot is that you can fit more equipment in a smaller camera bag and it will still be lighter.
Secondly despite their compact size, these cameras often have large sensors. This means that the image quality is on a par with equivalent DLSR cameras and in some cases surpasses it. It also means that on the larger sensor mirrorless cameras, the depth of field will be similar to DLSRs given the same aperture.
Mirrorless cameras are very discrete, making them the natural successor to the film rangefinder for street photography. Their compact size and near silent shutters make them the perfect choice for the next generation of Cartier Bressons.
Although there are some very expensive mirrorless cameras on the whole a good quality mirrorless system can work out cheaper than an equivalent DLSR based system.
The use of electronic viewfinders and high quality LCD screens has allowed manufacturers to easily adapt these cameras into powerful video tools as well.
And the Disadvantages
Despite the rapid advances in electronic viewfinders, they are still not to everyones taste. They can lag in low light, and to some to not give that feeling of being connected with your subject. Hybrid viewfinders fair better in this respect.
Although improving rapidly, there is still a gap in autofocus speeds between DSLRs and mirrorless systems. This is an important factor for people shooting action where the camera needs to lock and track a subject. This has improved dramatically in the last year or two though.
Lastly, DLSR systems still have a far wider choice of lenses and other peripherals. The choice of lenses is significantly greater for DSLR systems particularly for wide aperture professional standard lenses at the extreme wide angle end in the longer telephoto range.
Overall mirrorless cameras have grown from expensive, exclusive cameras ten years ago to become a serious rival to the DSLR. There are still some areas of photography where a mirrorless camera cannot rival a traditional DSLR. However there is a growing number of photographic niches where it can equal and even exceed them. The mirrorless revolution is happening and happening fast. That in turn is fuelling the convergence to stills to motion.