Considering several articles I have written in the last few months, one would be forgiven for thinking that I dislike the concept of the mirrorless camera (see this and this). Not so! In fact, I even own a Fujifilm XT-1 and have dabbled with and continue to occasionally shoot with a now rather banged up Sony NEX-5n. There are valid reasons why the current crop of mirrorless lens don’t actually replace the DSLRs used by so many professional photographers the world over. These photographers will eventually be forced to shift over to mirrorless, but the transition is not going to be as fast as one would think.
Putting fan hysteria and the armchair critics and proponents of mirrorless systems aside for the moment, let’s consider the state of digital photographic equipment at the moment.
- 49,5 million lenses for the 35mm format were shipped between 2009 and 2018 (link to the report) (This is only the 35mm format lenses - I did not take into account the crop frame lenses that have been produced for the various camera brands - taking these into account 208 million lenses were shipped between 2009 and 2018).
- In the same period 126 million DSLRs were shipped (link to the report).
That is a lot of DSLR equipment out there! Surely, not even the most optimistic of marketing strategists is going to expect all of this equipment to be replaced by mirrorless equipment in a few years? The average hobbyist photographer takes several years to amass their photographic equipment. Professionals are no different. In fact, the professional is more likely to hold onto their equipment as it first has to pay for itself (dozens of times over) before it can be replaced. I know of photographers still using Nikon D700s, D3s and Canon ID Mkiis as their bread and butter cameras. If these photographers are prepared to hold onto 8 year old cameras, why would someone with a D850 or 5DMkiv suddenly replace them with a Nikon Z7 or Canon R? Certainly, one reads about dozens of photographers who take the time to write about their experiences in forums like DPReview, Petapixel and FStoppers. These are only the tip of the iceberg though. The vast majority of hobbyist and professional photographer are still using - and likely to continue using for a while yet - DSLR cameras.
The volume of DSLRs out there and in use is a fact. That it is going to take some time for mirrorless cameras to take over from DSLRs is also a fact. The market reality alone means that the transition will not be quick. In fact I suspect it will be a slower transition than that from film to digital at the end of the 90s and into the early 2000s. However, the eventual shift over is as inevitable as the shift from bulky twins-lens reflex cameras to the more accurate single-lens reflex cameras was.
From the manufacturer’s point of view mirrorless cameras are:
- Cheaper to manufacture due to the loss of the complex mirrorbox and the myriad moving parts that were required in the optical framing system.
- Simpler to design and refine as much of the metering and focusing is now being passed across to the sensor itself rather than dedicated autofocus and metering modules (which themselves are costly and finicky to get right…hell, even the shutter can be supplanted by a digital shutter as opposed to what we call a global mechanical shutter).
- Opens up sales possibilities due to the new mounts and changes in flange and sensor plane distance. If you look at the CIPA shipping numbers for lenses between 2004 and 2012 you will notice a precipitous climb from 1.8 million crop frame sensor lenses (think Nikon’s DX and Canon’s EF-S lenses along with a smattering of lenses for then Minolta, Olympus and Pentax) to a staggering 23.8 million shipped lenses in 2012 (these were all smaller than 35mm format lenses, so this does not include the FF lenses that were shipped at the same time). The cynical are not wrong when they say that Canon and Nikon are targeting new lens sales in their future projections. In fact, Nikon are probably being quite bullish with their lens forecasts for the next two years as they are hoping to make the Z line (actually S line lenses) a profit engine for the company.
What are the real advantages of mirrorless for the photographer?
This is actually quite a tough one to answer without ruffling the feathers of some die-hard fans. On top of this, photographers who have already bought into mirrorless are going to defend their decision to the hilt, as are photographers who have decided to eschew mirrorless in favour of DSLRs. We’re back to the pointless debate that we had over which is better, film or digital. Except this time there is no inherent difference in the image quality between mirrorless and DSLR systems since they use the same sensor tech. So, the benefits are:
- Easier to manually focus. This is one of those lesser spoken advantages. Landscape photographers and manual focus shooters are going to enjoy the advantages of an electronic viewfinder. Although, you still get these advantages on Live View with a DSLR. Not quite the slam dunk that mirrorless promises, but definitely something that holds a benefit.
- Smaller form factor. Mirrorless does provide a smaller form factor by the simple fact that there is no mirror box. This is not the same as a smaller system though. The lenses, if they are made at f2.8 and larger are still enormous…in fact they are bigger and heavier than the DSLR equivalents. However, there is the promise of small and light from the third party manufactures who are filling in with manual focus lenses and moderate apertures. This is exciting for travel photographers and those who don’t need autofocus.
- More accurate metering. As the focus and metering is driven to the sensor, we actually get more accurate metering as well as focusing (at least for non-tracking focusing - for the moment DSLRs hold their edge in track focusing moving objects).
- A world of lenses is available to mirrorless shooters thanks to the addition of various mount adapters. Additionally, some of the better mount adapters now tilt and shift movements to older lenses.
The disadvantages of mirrorless are:
- Nothing will change the fact that mirrorless cameras use electronic viewfinders. There are things that EVFs excel at and things that they simply can never do. For many it is a matter of taste and preference. Night photography is actually easier with an optical viewfinder. Exposure preview is not possible with a optical viewfinder. Pros and Cons.
- Mirrorless cameras are power hungry. This is something that has improved and will continue to. However, nothing can change the fact that a mirrorless requires power just to be able to compose whereas a DSLR does not. As batteries improve this will become less of a problem. Even now, it should not be considered be considered a deal breaker in my opinion.
That’s really it. There aren’t many serious disadvantages to going mirrorless in the long run. Right now there is obviously a dearth of native mount lenses if you go for Nikon, Canon or Panasonic (Sony have a head start and as well as strong offerings from third party manufacturers). There is no real need to rush into it though as the image quality does not give any gain over the DSLRs we are already shooting with.
And My Eventual Transition
It’s a fait accompli that I will have to transition to mirrorless eventually. It’s where the manufacturers are going after all. I’m in no rush though and will likely only consider it when my D850 falls apart…which is rather far in the future I suspect. However, there is one enticing aspect to mirrorless that does pique my interest. It’s the same reason I bought a Fujifilm XT-1 several years ago. Coupled to the right small moderate aperture lenses, mirrorless finally brings us back to my dream camera: a digital version of the Nikon FM, Olympus OM1 or Pentax ME Super. Small, light and unobtrusive. The perfect travel photographers companion in other words. At the moment the three big guns are duking it out with over sized autofocus fast zooms. When they finally click that there is a need for tiny moderate aperture pancake lenses, then we will at least be able to see the miniaturisation that mirrorless promises. Fujifilm got, which is why they have developed such a cult following (the Fujifilm XT-2/XT-3 and a set of prime lenses is my go-to recommendation for photographers looking for a travel kit).
The future is full of promise. Just don’t spoil your current idyll chasing it too soon.