Mirrorless, Mirrorless,… Wait, You’re Not Mirrorless!

As in any new paradigm, it takes a while before the dust settles and the majority recognizes it for what it is and understands its value. I am here speaking of “mirrorless DSLRs,” an oxymoron in term since a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera by its very definition contains a mirror (The “R” in SLR/DSLR stands for “Reflex” and refers to the mirror that reflects light coming through the lens up to the viewfinder, allowing the photographer to see what is coming through the lens). However, since Live View can fulfill the same function and in an even better way since the photographer now can not only see the light coming through the lens but also the light that falls on the image sensor, the usefulness of the mirror is relegated to a historical footnote, or will soon be.

So, what do we call these new DSLR-level digital cameras that have had their mirror removed? These “mirrorless DSLRs” are still looking for a proper name and a few have been put forward.

Single Lens Direct (SLD) is one. It keeps the SL part and replaces the R with a D to indicate that the light is not reflected anymore but is directly incident on the image sensor. Not bad, but it keeps the SL part, which is redundant today since all digital cameras are single lens cameras. In the early days of film cameras, we did need to differentiate a single lens camera from a twin lens camera. But not anymore.

EVIL is another acronym that has gained traction among photographers. It stands for Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens. It swaps SL for IL to differentiate these cameras that accept interchangeable lenses from those that do not. This is a very important differentiation and therefore fully justified. The EV part is however suspect. It wants to differentiate cameras that use an electronic viewfinder (EVF) from those that use an optical viewfinder (OVF). When the EVF was just starting to be used, that differentiation may have been important, but no more. Today, the quality of the EVF easily equals, and even surpasses, that of the OVF. As the quality and usefulness of the EVF continues to grow, manufacturers will not bother with OVFs anymore — and neither should photographers. In fact, the EVF allows us to see the image as it will be captured by the image sensor. Referring to a camera by the EVIL acronym may be cute but won’t fly with the public at large.

With the removal of the mirror, camera manufacturers found that, with certain adjustments and redesign, they can make the camera body much smaller. The camera still uses a large image sensor but gains a compact form, hence the rise of the “compact mirrorless” category. Notice that we are still talking of a DSLR-level camera that has its mirror removed. We are not talking of compact cameras that never had a mirror to start with. This term “mirrorless” as used to describe the DSLR-level cameras with no mirrors does not apply to the P&S and non-DSLR-level cameras.

But wait! Because the term “compact mirrorless” is fast gaining traction among the public, Marketing has started borrowing this increasingly popular term to refer to any digital camera that does not have a mirror. This is, of course, a pollution of the term (remember “digital zoom”). So, it is imperative that the photography community agrees on what to call a DSLR-level camera that does not need/have a mirror anymore.

As readers know, I am myself partial to Digital Interchangeable Lens cameras (D-I-L, with each letter spelled out). It’s short and sweet and clearly spells out that it’s digital (not only to differentiate it from film but also from future technology that will replace digital) and accepts interchangeable lenses. It’s understood that we are here referring to DSLR-level cameras with large sensors.

Medium format digital cameras don’t really have a problem: they can simply retain Medium format add Digital. Or, refer to them as M-I-L.

Likewise, we can have a third subcategory called C-I-L, referring for the compact models.

In all of this, it is important to remember that we are always refering to DSLR-level cameras, not simply to cameras that accept interchangeable lenses and are digital.

So, what will it be? Call it ZOP or XPQ for all I care, but call it something that will clearly (and interestingly) refer to those cameras. And let’s then fiercely protect that definition so it cannot be hijacked to mean whatever Marketing wants it to mean.