Putting the mirrorless camera hype into perspective

An overview of the next wave of digital cameras...and an important fact to remember

You want to know the most unusual thing about the hottest trend in the photography gear world lately? It’s not about what is being added to cameras…but rather what is taken away.

While they’ve had their share of buzz for a while, I have never heard so much talk about mirrorless cameras than this year. So what makes a mirrorless camera different from the DSLRs we know and lug around, anyway?

If you’ve never stared into the body of a camera, SLR cameras contain a mirror that reflects the image into an optical viewfinder, allowing a photographer to directly see what’s through the lens. As the very name itself implies, mirrorless cameras simply omit the mirror, instead transmitting the composition directly off the sensor into an electronic viewfinder.

Removing the mirrorbox allows camera bodies to be (potentially) smaller and more lightweight. Unlike an optical viewfinder, the electronic viewfinder can display useful information on screen such as a live histogram and exposure preview. Many mirrorless cameras can use an electronic shutter to allow for silent shooting without any moving parts (vibration).

With a shorter flange distance to the sensor, mirrorless cameras can actually use other brands of lenses through the use of a lens adapter. This opens up a whole new world with vintage lenses, as many trustworthy classics can be had quite quite cheaply. Yet another perk of mirrorless cameras is focus-peaking in the electronic viewfinder, which highlights the area of focus making the use of manual focus lenses much easier.

Despite the recent hype, mirrorless cameras aren’t anything new. Sony has had a considerable head start in this field with their NEX and Alpha line of cameras, having had plenty of time to hone the technology. I’ve had a chance to use the Sony A7R III briefly, and have to say it does feel like the camera of the future.

Fuji has carved out a nice little niche for themselves with their APS-C mirrorless line of cameras, winning both hobbyists and professional photographers over for their small size, ease of use and professional features typically found in more expensive DSLRs (such as dual memory card slots). I appreciate the Fuji cameras for their smaller size and throwback design to classic 35mm cameras.

The reason that mirrorless cameras have gotten so much attention lately is that Canon and Nikon have finally gotten the memo and is ready to go “all-in,” both rumored all year to be releasing full-frame mirrorless cameras of their own.

Now this is neither company’s first attempt at mirrorless cameras, but their past efforts were safe, half-hearted approaches that seemingly held back to avoid cannibalizing their DSLR sales.

Nikon has already shown their hand, recently announcing their full-frame Z series line of full-frame mirrorless cameras with a redesigned mount (the first from Nikon since 1959). As always, Canon has stayed notoriously tight-lipped on their plans but (as of this writing) is expected to announce something soon. (Or not. No wait…maybe they will after all…unless they choose not to.) (Update 9/2018: The Canon EOS R has been announced.)

While Nikon and Canon are incredibly late to the party, that may not necessarily be a bad thing. There are lots of photographers with heavy investments into their ecosystem of lens, likely waiting to see what the two companies will do. (It’s far more practical to upgrade a single camera body rather than sell off and rebuy an entire lens collection).

While older lenses require a adapter to be used on these new mounts, Nikon and Canon engineers know their lens and hypothetically their own adapters are expected to much better with their own glass than reversed-engineered / Frankensteined third-party adapters. (It’s too early to tell if that will be the case right now.)

So where do I stand with mirrorless cameras? The technology is extremely compelling, no doubt. Sooner or later, I see myself investing in one to use as a second body…perhaps even replacing my current Canon 5D Mark III camera entirely. But I’m not in a rush to do so, either.

Countless writers on photography blogs will write articles about “why this” and “why that,” speculating from thin air on who will win the mirrorless wars. Windbags in forums and comments sections will continue to pointlessly debate. The talking gear-heads on YouTube like the fro guy and married couple will put out videos regurgitating and overanalyzing specs anyone can gleam from a press release.

With all that noise, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the hype. And I don’t blame anyone, mirrorless cameras are exciting. But before you pull out your credit card in front of an order screen, I’d like you to remember one thing that puts all this circus into perspective.

It doesn’t matter what the technology is, whether the body shoots film or pixels, made of wood or magnesium alloy…or an engineer took out a mirror. In the end, there is one fact that every single camera shares in common.

They ALL take pictures.

Patrick Shannon

About Patrick Shannon

A creative professional, photographer and design+technology advocate based in St. Louis, I have worked with a number of businesses, agencies and clients on design, production and marketing for everyday brands. In my spare time, I enjoy woodworking and am still attempting to build a life-sized replica of Optimus Prime out of wood.