Revolutions are tricky things. Sometimes they spring up overnight, transforming a landscape in unpredictable ways. Other times, though, they creep up on people, providing plenty of advanced notice but not always a lot of forethought.
The digital photography revolution happened suddenly, and it brought huge changes to the photographic landscape. Companies rose, companies fell (some of them to rise again), and in what felt like an instant, the long-established world of photography was changed forever.
The mirrorless revolution hasn’t been as swift, but there’s a new epoch coming nonetheless. In the face of Sony’s rising market share numbers, Nikon and Canon have announced (officially/unofficially) that their own mirrorless systems are en route. With the question changing from “will all the major manufacturers offer mirrorless cameras?” to “when will all the major manufacturers offer mirrorless cameras?” (with an answer, perhaps, by the time you read this), photography is about to enter a new era.
Will SLR-style cameras continue to be produced in the new era or will their production dwindle as did film cameras? Will photographers be able to move their legacy gear over to the new platforms or will everyone have to start from scratch? And what will the balance of power be like in an era where the difference between the three dominant players isn’t dependent on which technology is at the core of their systems?
Mirrorless On The March
When I started to write about mirrorless cameras, they were an interesting novelty. Compact size was the dominant benefit of shooting mirrorless, and many adopted early cameras for their portability, despite their relatively poor performance compared to DSLRs.
For a few years, journalists like myself had to explain the benefits of mirrorless cameras, or more accurately, their potential benefits, as camera systems were far from being on par with the performance of DSLRs.
In the last few years, the industry has watched as the various mirrorless systems—be it Micro Four Thirds or APS-C or full-frame—have steadily encroached upon and then overtaken that of most DSLRs. All of the players in the mirrorless market have pressed ahead with technological advances that not only push the envelope of photographic possibility but also redefine that envelope.
Want 20-frames-per-second capture? Easy-peasy. Want to capture 4K video with full AF? No problem. How about viewfinders with no blackout, continuous eye detect AF and continuous exposure, silent shooting, in-body image-stabilization…? Mirrorless has you covered.
This isn’t to say that DSLRs aren’t eminently capable cameras. Some of today’s DSLRs are easily the best cameras ever offered. The mechanical nature of their operation, however, limits their potential—there are physical barriers that are simply hard for DSLRs to overcome. DSLRs are incredibly honed, incredibly evolved machines, but at their core they’re still analog to some degree. While the images produced by DSLRs are digital, and while the sensors, memory, processors and various components are digital as well, the physical mirror in a DSLR, which flips up and down to make image capture possible, also bakes in specific laws of physics.
At this point, there isn’t much cause to debate whether or not mirrorless cameras will dominate the photographic market—Nikon and Canon hint-announcing that they’ll be offering mirrorless systems puts an end to that speculation game and instead sets a deadline.
After The War
At some point soon, Nikon and Canon will release professional-level mirrorless cameras, and the balance will change. Both companies have dipped their toes in the water with compact mirrorless systems, but these have more in common with the earliest mirrorless cameras than they do with their pro offerings.
The rest of the photographic world, with a few unique use cases, has already gone full mirrorless. Olympus, which started the mirrorless revolution, and partner Panasonic, have the all-mirrorless Micro Four Thirds market wrapped up. Fujifilm dominates in the professional APS-C arena and has launched a medium-format mirrorless system. Sony leads the full-frame mirrorless charge and has a strong presence in APS-C. Leica has its full-frame mirrorless body, and its whole range of rangefinders are, by definition, mirrorless. Hasselblad has even moved into the mirrorless space with its newer bodies, although it and rival PhaseOne both offer medium-format systems built around reflex capture.
When looked at this way, it makes the position of Nikon and Canon seem even more extreme—they alone develop and release DSLR cameras.
So let’s fast forward to a time when Nikon and Canon release mirrorless cameras (assuming that this hasn’t happened by the time you read this); what’s this world look like?
Both Nikon and Canon have a full lineup of DSLR bodies, from entry-level solutions through professional models. There’s virtually no chance that the entire line of existing camera models would be replaced with mirrorless models at the same time. It’s more likely that mirrorless systems will be released to supplement what’s already on the market, with new models arriving as DSLR models reach the end of their life.
But it’s also likely that DSLRs will continue to be produced for years to come. That’s because there are huge amounts of legacy gear in the DSLR world, and not everything will work well with mirrorless cameras.
While mirrorless cameras and DSLR cameras seem different only in the presence of a mirror, in reality there are some technological differences in the way lenses and other equipment functions in the two systems. One of the most significant differences is in the way that lenses focus, from a mechanical standpoint.
DSLR lenses have been around for a very long time, and during their lifespan, numerous different focus motor mechanisms have been employed as autofocusing has evolved and improved.
Mirrorless cameras, having come after many of these lens focusing systems were abandoned, have started off with (generally) more sophisticated focusing systems. (A good primer on this is available on the LensRentals site at lensrentals.com/blog/2016/04/a-look-at-electromagnetic-focusing.) The current mirrorless systems don’t have to worry about being able to efficiently drive older lens autofocus systems because manufacturers like Sony and Fujifilm and Olympus never made lenses with older systems.
This is the main reason that adapted lenses don’t perform as well as native lenses on mirrorless systems—the adapters can’t overcome the variety of non-native focusing motors, and the mirrorless cameras are optimized for their own native systems.
This is particularly important because when Canon and Nikon release mirrorless cameras, they have two choices in the way they can introduce them.
The first would be to simply remove the mirror in the camera and make a mirrorless version of their standard DSLR bodies, which can connect to their standard line of DSLR lenses. This would provide the largest compatibility with the decades of lenses available for the systems. It wouldn’t, however, provide for ideal focusing speed on older lenses; essentially, only the most modern of the company’s lenses, or ones designed for their mirrorless systems, would focus quickly, and the rest would focus with the same performance level of adapted lenses.
The second way to introduce new mirrorless bodies would be to release a brand-new line of lenses specifically designed for a new mirrorless camera. This would provide for the fastest focus, but it would put these companies in an odd position. With a full mirrorless-only lineup of lenses available on the various systems, would DSLR customers settle for just a handful of new lenses designed to maximize the performance of their systems?
Most likely, we’ll continue to see the development and release of DSLR bodies for the customer who wants to maintain use of their legacy glass and a new system gaining lens models running in parallel.
There are some other factors that could see DSLRs continue to be produced for some time, including the head start other companies have on their mirrorless development. Nikon and Canon had the best chance of catching their competitors before mirrorless AF and AE systems became so advanced, but companies—and particularly Sony—have poured a considerable sum of money into their sensor divisions, and the result has been some pretty advanced chip design. If Nikon and Canon’s initial mirrorless cameras aren’t on par with the competition’s systems, it’s likely that the DSLR lineups would continue to be developed to maintain competitive advantages over those competing systems.
In any case, the post-DSLR era is unlikely to be decided by the camera manufacturers and their plans as much as it’s to be decided by consumers. The tricky thing about technological change is that it alienates some customers by design. (See such minor changes as the iPhone dropping the headphone jack for an example of customer uproar.)
It’s likely that the switch to a largely mirrorless camera world will be tumultuous and the outcome as unpredictable—or more unpredictable—as the early days of the mirrorless revolution.