Mirrorless hype is over?

My mirrorless Canon EOS M50, with a 50 mm EF lens, and a “speed booster” style mount Viltrox adapter.

It has been interesting to follow how since last year, there has been several articles published that discuss the “mirrorless camera hype”, and put forward various kinds of criticism of either this technology, or related camera industry strategies. One repeated criticism is rooted to the fact that many professional (and enthusiast) photographers still find a typical DSLR camera body to work better for their needs than a mirrorless one. There are at least three main differences: a mirrorless interchangeable camera body is typically smaller than a DSLR, the battery life is weaker, and the image from an electronic viewfinder and/or LCD back screen offers a less realistic image than a traditional optical viewfinder in a (D)SLR camera.

The industry critiques appear to be focused on worries that as the digital camera market as a whole is going down, the big companies like Canon and Nikon are directing their product development resources for putting out mirrorless camera bodies with new lens mounts, and new lenses for these systems, rather than evolving their existing product lines in DSLR markets. Many seem to think that this is bad business sense, since large populations of professionals and photography enthusiasts are deeply invested in these more traditional ecosystems, and lack of progress in them means that there is not enough incentive to upgrade and invest, for all of those who remain in those parts of the market.

There might be some truth in both lines of argumentation – yet, they are also not the whole story. It is true that Sony, with their α7, α7R and α7S lines of cameras have stolen much of the momentum that could had been strong for Canon and Nikon, if they would had invested into mirrorless technologies earlier. Currently, the full frame systems like Canon EOS R, or Nikon Z6 & Z7, are apparently not selling very strongly. In early May of this year, for example, it was publicised how Sony α7 III sold more units in Japan at least than the Canon and Nikon full frame mirrorless systems combined (see: https://www.dpreview.com/news/3587145682/sony-a7-iii-sales-beat-combined-efforts-of-canon-and-nikon-in-japan ). Some are ready to declare Canon and Nikon’s efforts as dead on arrival, but both companies have claimed to be strategically committed into their new mirrorless systems, developing and launching lenses that are necessary for their future growth. Overall though, both Canon and Nikon are producing and selling much more digital cameras than Sony, even while their sales numbers have been declining (in Japan at least, Fujifilm was interestingly the big winner in year-over-year analysis; see: https://www.canonrumors.com/latest-sales-data-shows-canon-maintains-big-marketshare-lead-in-japan-for-the-year/ ).

From a photographer perspective, the first mentioned concerns might be the more crucial than the business ones, though. Are mirrorless cameras actually worse than comparable DSLR cameras?

There is the curious quality when you move from a large (D)SLR body into using a typical mirrorless: the small camera can feel a bit like a toy, the handling is different, and using the electronic viewfinder and LCD screen can produce flashbacks of compact, point-and-shoot cameras of earlier years. In terms of pure image quality and feature sets, the mirrorless cameras are already equals to DSLRs, and in some areas have arguably moved already beyond most of them. There are multiple reasons for this, and the primary relates to the intimate link there is between the light sensor, image processor and viewfinder in mirrorless cameras. As a photographer you are not looking at a reflection of light coming from the lens through an alternative route into the optical viewfinder – you are looking at the image that is produced from the actual, real-time data that the sensor and image processor are “seeing”. The mechanical construction of mirrorless cameras can be made simpler, and when the mirror is removed, the entire lens system can be moved closer to the image sensor – something that is technically called shorter flange distance. This should allow engineers to design lenses for mirrorless systems that have a large aperture and fast focusing capabilities (you can check out a video, where a Nikon lens engineer explains how this works here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxT17A40d50 ). The physical dimensions of the camera body in itself can be made small or large, as desired. Nikon Z series cameras are rather sizable, with a conventional “pro camera” style grip (handle); my Canon EOS M50 is diminutive, from the other extreme.

I think that the development of cameras with ever more stronger processors and their machine learning and algorithm-based novel capabilities will push the general direction of photography technology towards various mirrorless systems. Said that, I completely understand the benefits of more traditional DSLRs and why they might feel superior for many photographers at the moment. There has been some rumours (in the Canon space at least, which I am personally mostly following) that new DSLR camera bodies will be released into the upper-enthusiast APS-C / semi-professional DSLR category (search e.g. for “EOS 90D” rumours), so I think that DSLR cameras are by no means dead. There are many ways in which the latest camera technologies can be implemented into mirror-bodies, as well as into the mirrorless ones. The big strategic question of course is that how many different mount and lens ecosystems can be maintained and developed simultaneously. If some of the current mounts will stop getting lenses in the near future, there is at least a market for adapter manufacturers.

Life with Photography: Then and Now

I have kept a diary, too, but I think that the best record of life and times comes from the photographs taken over the years. Much of the last century (pre-2000s) photos of mine are collected in traditional photo albums: I used to love the craft of making photo collages, cutting and combining pieces of photographs, written text and various found materials, such as travel tickets or brochure pieces into travel photo albums. Some albums were more experimental: in pre-digital times it was difficult to know if a shot was technically successful or not, and as I have always mostly worked in colour rather than black-and-white, I used to order the film rolls developed and every frame printed, without seeing the final outcomes. With some out-of-focus, blurred or plain random, accidental shots included into every film spool, I had plenty of materials to build collages that were focused on play with colour, dynamics of composition or some visual motif. This was fun stuff, and while one certainly can do this (and more) e.g. with Photoshop with the digital photos, there is something in cutting and combining physical photos that is not the same as a digital collage.

The first camera of my own was Chinon CE-4, a budget-class Japanese film camera from the turn of 1970s/1980s. It served me well over many years, and with it’s manual and “semi-automatic” (Aperture Priority) exposure system and support for easy double exposures.

Chinon CE-4 (credit:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/pwiwe/463041799/in/pool-camerawiki/ ).

I started transitioning to digital photography first by scanning paper photos and slides into digital versions that could then be used for editing and publishing. Probably among my earliest actual digital cameras was HP PhotoSmart 318, a cheap and almost toy-like device with 2.4-megapixel resolution, 8 MB internal flash memory (plus supported CompactFlash cards), a fixed f/2.8 lens and TTL contrast detection autofocus. I think I was shooting occasionally with this camera already in 2001, at least.

Few years after that I started to use digital photography a bit more in travels at least. I remember getting my first Canon cameras for this purpose. I owned at least a Canon Digital IXUS v3 – this I was using at least already in the first DiGRA conference in Utrecht, in November 2003. Even while still clearly a “point-and-shoot” style (compact) camera, this Canon one was based on metal construction and the photos it produced were a clear step up above the plastic HP device. I started to convert into a believer: the future was in digital photography.

Canon Digital IXUS v3 (credit:
https://fi.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiedosto:Canon_Digital_Ixus_V3.jpg ).

After some saving, I finally invested into my first digital “system camera” (DSLR) in 2005. I remember taking photos in the warm Midsummer night that year with the new Canon EOS 350D, and how magical it felt. The 8.0-megapixel CMOS image sensor and DIGIC II signal processing and control unit (a single-chip system), coupled with some decent Canon lenses meant that it was possible to experiment with multiple shooting modes and get finely-detailed and nuanced night and nature photos with it. This was also time when I both built my own (HTML based) online and offline “digital photo albums”, but also joined the first digital photo community services, such as Flickr.

Canon EOS 550D (credit:
https://www.canon.fi/for_home/product_finder/cameras/digital_slr/eos_550d/ ).

It was five years later, when I again upgraded my Canon system, this time into EOS 550D (“Rebel T2i” in the US, “Kiss X4” in Japan). This again meant considerable leap both in the image quality and also in features that relate both to the speed, “intelligence” and convenience of shooting photos, as well as to the processing options that are available in-camera. The optical characteristics of cameras as such have not radically changed, and there are people who consider some vintage Zeiss, Nikkor or Leica camera lenses as works of art. The benefits of 550D over 350D for me were mostly related to the higher resolution sensor (18.0-megapixel this time) and the ways in which DIGIC 4 processor reduced noise, provided much higher speeds, and even 1080p video (with live view and external microphone input).

Today, in 2019, I am still taking Canon EOS 550D with me in any event or travel where I want to get the best quality photographs. This is mostly due to the lenses than the actual camera body, though. My two current smartphones – Huawei Mate 20 Pro and iPhone 8 Plus – both have cameras that come with both arguably better sensors and much more capable processors than this aging, entry-level “system camera”. iPhone has dual 12.0-megapixel sensors (f/1.8, 28mm/wide, with optical image stabilization; f/2.8, 57mm/telephoto) that both are accompanied by PDAF (a fast autofocus technology based on Phase Detection). The optics in Huawei are developed in collaboration with Leica and come as a seamless combination of three (!) cameras: the first has a very large 40.0-megapixel sensor (f/1.8, 27mm/wide), the second one has 20.0-megapixels (f/2.2, 16mm/ultrawide), and the third 8.0-megapixels (f/2.4, 80mm/telephoto). It is possible to use both optical and digital zoom capabilities in Huawei, make use of efficient optical image stabilization, plus a hybrid technology involving phase detection as well as laser autofocus (a tiny laser transmitter sends a beam into the subject, and with the received information the processor is capable of calculating and adjusting for the correct focus). Huawei also utilizes advanced AI algorithms and its powerful Kirin 980 processor (with two “Neural Processing Units, NPUs) to optimize the camera settings, and apply quickly some in-camera postprocessing to produce “desirable” outcomes. According to available information, Huawei Mate 20 Pro can process and recognize “4,500 images per minute and is able to differentiate between 5,000 different kinds of objects and 1,500 different photography scenarios across 25 categories” (whatever those are).

Huawei Mate 20 Pro, with it’s three cameras (credit: Frans Mäyrä).

But with all that computing power today’s smartphones are not capable (not yet, at least) to outplay the pure optical benefits available to system cameras. This is not so crucial when documenting a birthday party, for example, as the lenses in smartphones are perfectly capable for short distance and wide-angle situations. Proper portraits are somewhat borderline case today: a high-quality system camera lens is capable to “separate” the person from the background and blur the background (create the beautiful “bokeh” effect). But the powerful smartphones like iPhone and Huawei mentioned above come effectively with an AI-assisted Photoshop built into them, and can therefore detect the key object, separate it, and blur the background with algorithms. The results can be rather good (good enough, for many users and use cases), but at the same time it must be said that when a professional photographer aims for something that can be enlarged, printed out full-page in a magazine, or otherwise used in a demanding context, a good lens attached into a system camera will prevail. This relates to basic optical laws: the aperture (hole, where the light comes in) can be much larger in such camera lenses, providing more information for the image sensor, the focal length longer – and the sensor itself can also be much larger, meaning that e.g. fast-moving objects (sports, animal photography) and low-light conditions will benefit. With several small lenses and sensors, the future “smart cameras” can probably provide an ever-improving challenge to more traditional photography equipment, combining, processing data and filling-in such information that is derived from machine learning, but a good lens coupled with a system camera can help creating unique pictures in more traditional manner. Both are needed, and both have a future in photography cultures, I think.

The main everyday benefit of e.g. Huawei Mate 20 Pro vs old-school DSLR such as Canon EOS 550D is the portability. Few people go to school or work with a DSLR hanging in their neck, but a pocket-size camera can always travel with you – and be available when that unique situation, light condition or a rare bird/butterfly presents itself. With the camera technologies improving, the system cameras are also getting smaller and lighter, though. Many professionals still prefer rather large and heavy camera bodies, as the big “grip” and solid buttons/controls provide better ergonomics, and the heavy body is also a proper counterbalance for large and heavy telephoto lenses that many serious nature or sports photographers need for their work, for example. Said that, I am currently thinking that my next system camera will no longer probably be based on the traditional SLR (Single-Lens Reflex) architecture – which, btw, is already over three hundred years old, if the first reflex mirror “camera obscura” systems are taken into an account. The mirrorless interchangeable lens camera systems are maintaining the component-based architecture of body+lenses, but eliminate the moving mirror and reflective prisms of SLR systems, and use electronic viewfinders instead.

I have still my homework to do regarding the differences in how various mirrorless systems are being implemented, but it also looks to my eye that there has been a rather rapid period of technical R&D in this area recently, with Sony in particular leading the way, but the big camera manufacturers like Canon and Nikon now following, releasing their own mirrorless solutions. There is not yet quite as much variety to choose for amateur, small-budget photographers such as myself, with many initial models released into the upper, serious-enthusiast/professionals price range of multiple-thousands. But I’d guess that the sensible budget models will also follow, next, and I am interested to see if it is possible to move into a new decade with a light, yet powerful system that would combine some of the best aspects from the history of photography with the opportunities opened by the new computing technologies.

Sony a6000, a small mirrorless system camera body announced in 2014 (credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sony_α6000#/media/File:Sony_Alpha_ILCE-6000_APS-C-frame_camera_no_body_cap-Crop.jpeg).