The Future of Mirrorless

A couple of years ago, it was pretty easy to recommend a camera to someone who wants to take photography a bit more seriously. They want better pictures, want to get professional quality results, are willing to upgrade their camera and even to learn a bit about photography.

The recommendation back then would have been a simple, “Get an entry-level Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera.” The DSLR has a bigger image sensor than most compact point-and-shoot cameras and would give better image quality, especially in low light (where, for example, most parents take pictures of their children). Phase detection autofocus would drastically increase performance. Better quality optics would guarantee sharper and more detailed pictures. It was a winning proposition.

Today, a DSLR is not the only way to go if you want to upgrade your photography.

This is because you can now get the same DSLR-level image quality and performance in a much smaller, lighter and easier-to-use camera.

It is a true saying that the best camera is the one you have with you. When you head out of the door, which camera do you grab on the way out? Chances are, it is not the DSLR, but the more compact camera that gets picked.

And yes, for some of you, an iPhone may be all you need. But as soon as you hit into the limitations of the iPhone (and other smartphone) camera and start to shop for (ridiculous) accessories to attach to your smartphone, you should know it is time to upgrade.

To what?

To the compact mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. Panasonic, Olympus, Fujifilm, Samsung, Nikon, Sony and Canon all make great large sensor compact mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. [Rumors are that Sony is readying a full frame mirrorless — yes, no mirror, not even a translucent one, in it.]

What is a “mirrorless interchangeable lens camera?”

It is a DSLR-level camera that, instead of using the traditional mirror, does away with the mirror and uses the sensor itself paired with very high resolution EVF and LCD to allow the photographer to see exactly what is coming through the lens. It produces DSLR-level image quality, exhibits DSLR-level performance and accepts interchangeable lenses.

Think of it this way:

  • Start with a DSLR. So, you are getting DSLR-level image quality and performance to start out with.
  • Remove the mirror box and viewfinder pentaprism/pentamirror. Why? Because they are now redundant since the main raison-d’être of the mirror is to reflect (and hence the “reflex” of “Digital Single Lens Reflex“) the light coming through the lens into the viewfinder prism which would, through a series of reflections, present the image right side up to the photographer peering through the optical viewfinder. Replace them with incredibly high resolution LCDs and electronic viewfinders that can show us not only what is coming through the lens, but also what is actually hitting the image sensor, what the camera is going to save — and what our image would actually look like with exposure compensation, white balance and other filter effect applied.
  • Optimize it. With the bulky mirror and viewfinder prism removed, the camera can at last be made much slimmer, smaller and lighter. So, what do we call a DSLR that has had its mirror removed? It’s still what it was before: a Digital, Single, Lens, but the Reflex part is gone and to indicate that’s what has happened, we’ll instead replace the Reflex with Mirrorless. And hence we have the DSLM — Digital Single Lens Mirrorless — aka the “mirrorless” interchangeable lens camera (because it is important to specify that we are here talking of DSLR-level cameras that accept interchangeable lenses). Of course, once we remove the mirror box and the viewfinder prism, we also lose the fast Phase Detect AF sensor (which sits either in the mirror box or viewfinder compartment) and need to find a worthy replacement. So, we optimize the Contrast Detect AF until it is as fast and as good as what we used to get on a DSLR. Or, we go with a novel sensor that incorporates both Phase Detect and Contrast Detect AF. We add NFC, touch screen tiltable LCD,… we optimize, we innovate.

The resulting camera is every bit as performing and capable as the DSLR, except that it has replaced many of the antiquated mechanical technology with state-of-the-art digital technology. It is the equal — and some may even argue that, in some respects, it has started to surpass — the DSLR.

It is not correct to say that because a camera does not have a mirror, then it is automatically “mirrorless.” Using that literal definition, all non-DSLR cameras would be “mirrorless.” Consider that the term “mirrorless” was specifically coined to differentiate a new group of DSLR-level cameras from the DSLRs, which have mirrors. So, mirrorless here refers to a specific group of DSLR-level digital cameras that give DSLR-level image quality and performance, but which do not need a mirror to allow the photographer to see exactly what is coming through the lens. A mirrorless interchangeable lens camera uses, of necessity, a large sensor to give DLSR-level image quality, and it accepts interchangeable lenses. Manufacturers love to confuse us by calling their non-DSLR-level cameras mirrorless. They might be an interchageable lens camera but they are not mirrorless if they do not give DSLR-level image quality and performance.

So, if you are a photographer who is starting to take your photography seriously, which camera should you upgrade to?

  • A DSLR. It’s currently still the best camera you can buy. DSLRs have also been around for ages and there are all kinds of lenses and accessories for every specific purpose you can think of. And, due to the growing popularity of the mirrorless, prices of DSLRs continue to fall, so bargains abound.
  • A DSLM or aka, mirrorless interchangeable lens camera. Currently, it can give you DSLR-level image quality and performance in a more compact and light package. And it’s continuously evolving and growing and will eventually get better than the DSLR.

So, what is the future of mirrorless?