What follows is a less than serious, somewhat historically inaccurate and very much written to reflect my bias, account of the 'evolution of mirrorless cameras.' This somewhat grand purpose is in actual fact a retelling of my own history with the mirrorless concept. It is meant to be thought provoking though primarily entertaining. So please read it with a healthy dose of skepticism.
However I would point out that there is a 'serious bit' at the end of this article.
On September 12 2008, Panasonic announced the G1, a micro four thirds camera based on the 4/3 sensor in Olympus DSLR's. This was the first of what we now call Mirrorless Interchangeable lens cameras. Or E.V.I.L (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) Or CSC (Compact System Cameras) As you can see above, things have moved on from there. As well as Panasonic we now have Olympus, Sony, Fuji, Samsung, Nikon, Canon, Sigma, Kodak, Pentax, Ricoh and Leica offering products that fall under the Mirrorless umbrella.
Back in those early days, Mirrorless camera were very much the poor relation to DSLR's and many photographers still see them that way. Despite evidence to the contrary the perception was that the digital offspring of the 35mm Film SLR was superior in almost every way. Faster, more efficient, offering more options and therefore (and here's where the argument fell down) capable of taking 'better' pictures.
Amateur Photographer, the UK weekly magazine, tested that Panasonic G1 and compared it's image quality to a Nikon D3 and D700, the epitome of professional and enthusiast DSLR capability. Somewhat surprisingly they found at base ISO settings that the m4/3 camera had image quality that not only equalled the DSLR's but was actually slightly better. Shock! Horror! 'This can't be true' howled the CaNikon fan clubs. 'How can my big, heavy and expensive camera be only equal to, or even inferior to that little plastic upstart?' At the time I owned a D3, a D700 and a G1 so I was aware that this was the case.
But far from wanting to assert any kind of dogmatic superiority I thought to myself 'Hey, this is great. No more back breaking photographic excursions with a bag full of lenses. If this develops I can travel light and work fast and inconspicuously.' I wasn't the only one who thought this and eventually those who us who saw the potential of these cameras and the smaller lighter lenses they could accommodate, took to meeting up in secret corners of the internet and talking about our forbidden pleasures and sharing the heresy that we could could take pictures every bit as good as Nikon, Canon and other DSLR users. It was fun, it felt like a small elite club that had discovered a really important secret and it felt good to be part of something that might just change photography. Though it has to be said that many of us probably felt slightly ashamed by the fact that we were not 'manly' enough to tote around those massive macho outfits and hung on to our DSLR's just in case 'we saw the light.'
But then things got a bit strange.
The mirrorless manufacturers couldn't seem to make up their minds as to who exactly might buy these new cameras. To our undying shame, those of us who had by then become serious mirrorless fans had to suffer the indignity of being lumped together with upgrading point and shooters, people who were more concerned at getting their images on facebook and god help us women and teenagers!!!!! Canon even confirmed this by saying just that. And the manufacturers got silly. Mirrorless cameras got smaller and more 'colourful.' Sony entered the marketplace with something that looked like a bar of soap and Panasonic seemed to trying to make a camera even smaller than Ben Stiller's phone in Zoolander.
These were dark times. There we where thinking that because some of the cameras we used were (sort of) copies of old Leica rangefinders, we could actually consider ourselves cool. But, there's nothing cool about a pink camera!! Personally, I decided to embrace this and turned up with my nephews at weddings with three bright red Panasonic m4/3 cameras on which to shoot video and a few stills. I did however make sure that my younger relatives had the 'handbag cameras' and that I was only to be seen carrying two huge battery gripped Canon DSLR's.
And so this continued for a while. We had the Olympus Pens, Panasonic G series and Sony NEX. Samsung chipped in with a DSLR styled bridge camera lookalike, but nobody bought those (apart from me) so that didn't matter.
And then Fuji released this.
'Oh my God. It looks just like a Leica. Now THAT'S just what I need to retain my masculine photographic credibility. Got to have one of those.' And suddenly retro went mainstream. There was no longer any need to pull out our tiny plastic compact camera with the big sensor, grab the shot and get it back into our pocket ASAP. We could walk around carrying one of these with pride. Far from hiding it away we could flaunt it. Fuji even took their logo off the front so it COULD be mistaken for a Leica.
So now we had the Fuji X range as well as the Olympus Pens to establish some kind of retro, 'old school' serious photographer credibility. No longer would we have to endure those DSLR toting 'real men' (sorry 'real photographers!') completely ignoring our pathetic compact and bridge camera lookalikes. This was the age of what I called the 'lookaleica' and while we may not have had the funds to buy the real thing, this was a pretty good second best. (I should point out at this time that I'd actually bought a couple of Leicas by this time, an M8 and M9, though it has to be said that I was even even less inclined to show them off than my mirrorless cameras due to my fear of getting them stolen or damaged. I've never held on to a camera so tightly as I did my M9, which in many ways negated much of the pleasure of owning it. However I had no such inhibitions with my X100)
I was at first resistant to the X100's charms, but eventually succumbed. And there then followed the X-Pro 1, X-E1 and X-E2. And as Mirrorless / EVIL / CSC users we could all breathe a sigh of relief that we now had cameras whose looks reflected our intent and that served as a statement of our commitment to photography, while at the same time showing us to be the owners of cache retro styled products that said everything about OUR sense of style and taste.
And then Olympus gave us the Mirrorless DSLR!!
It even had a battery grip!! I was so impressed I wrote a 20 part review!
And this set the template for what we have at the 'serious' end of mirrorless these days. Now we can not only make the claims that out cameras are as good as DSLR's, we can carry around cameras that look just like DSLR's, complete in many cases with 'pro-spec' DSLR type lenses. And there is still that weight / size advantage, though in many cases it's a lot more marginal than it once was. The Fuji X-T1, Panasonic GH4, Olympus E-M1, Samsung NX1 and the Sony A7 FE range area all well-specified, serious, pro aspirational cameras that work well and can do anything that all but a very select group of top end DSLR's can do. And we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief that we don't have to look like like snapshooting amateurs any more.
THE SERIOUS BIT
I was always unconvinced that the main market for mirrorless / CSC / EVIL cameras was upgrading point and shooters. I always thought that serious committed photographers who were looking to downsize from their ever enlarging DSLR systems, constituted a market sector that was at the very least equal to those looking to 'move up.' Because to understand the benefits of what mirrorless interchangeable offers, it's almost a necessity to understand something about photography and using cameras in a variety of situations. Because as far as the 'low end' of the market is concerned, smartphones are in the process of demolishing any vestiges of the cheap compact camera market and as far as I'm concerned that's actually no bad thing. Some of them were truly awful. These days, like the Coolpix with it's zoom that gives a 2000mm equivalent, manufacturers have to come up with a headline grabbing feature to actually get anyone to notice what they are releasing in this sector.
Thinking back to my first 'serious' camera I had what I think is a fairly typical set of circumstances that contributed to me buying a Pentax ME Super film SLR. I'd heard of Nikon and Pentax but couldn't afford a Nikon. One of my friends who was into photography had the Pentax and recommended it, plus the Pentax + 50mm lens was on offer with a 135mm telephoto bundled with it at an attractive price. Now I wouldn't be surprised if scenarios like that aren't being repeated across the world on a daily basis. And I have to ask, how many people with a blossoming interest in photography truly know the difference between a DSLR and a mirrorless camera. More to the point, do they care? I'm convinced that people buy that first 'serious' camera because of two factors. Firstly and most importantly price and secondly brand recognition.
The fact that mirrorless cameras and lenses are made by companies who have little photographic tradition can disadvantage them in certain marketplaces and the fact that by far the most common non-smartphone cameras I see on my travels are budget Nikons and Canons, would seem to testify to that. I've written on many occasions that I don't see DSLR's disappearing anytime soon if at all, and while mirrorless cameras gain an ever higher market share, it's a really slow process. Maybe if Nikon and Canon went seriously into high profile and sophisticated mirrorless systems then that might change, but they show no signs of doing so, so it probably won't. The bottom line of all this may well be that mirrorless has found it's level.
I've always thought that mirrorless / CSC / EVIL cameras were more likely to be embraced by enthusiasts anyway. They have evolved to become beacons of technological advancement and the notion that these somewhat complicated cameras would be the first choice of upgrading point and shooters was clearly a mistake on the manufacturers part. The fact that they have now realised that their main focus should be on high end well specified systems aimed directly at for shorthand reasons I will call the enthusiast market is encouraging. Because I'm sure it's bigger than many assume it to be. It's certainly noisier and more likely to spend time on the photographic internet. You'd be forgiven for thinking that mirrorless already sold more than DSLR's by gauging the amount of chatter about the respective cameras. You only have to look at all the Fuji X stuff on the internet, which when you consider that Fuji have a 5% market share is amazing.
So, I think it's good that the pink pocketable mirrorless micro camera is now peripheral. And it is and will remain so because of the rise in smartphone use. And those front facing 'selfie' screens won't prolong sales much longer either. I'm sure that eventually that whole low-end small mirrorless market will disappear. Because how many of it's potential buyers really want to buy into a lens system for it? My suspicion is very few if hardly anybody at all. The future for mirrorless has to be the enthusiast / hobbyist / beginner with aspirations market, many of whom will come from smartphones sure, but who want something different to that, something with more possibilities and yes more gravitas to go along with their increasing aspirations and ambitions.
Add in a top end of more and more pro's, semi-pro's and aspiring pro's thinking 'Do I really have to carry this heavy, large DSLR system around to do what I want? It's uncomfortable, it's wearing me out and to be honest it's not a pleasurable experience. Can I really get the same results from something smaller and lighter?' And the answer for some will be yes, though for many it may still be 'No but I'll keep my eye on what develops.'
My thoughts are what they have always been. Mirrorless is where the innovation and the technological advances are happening and where they are likely to continue to happen. You may have noticed in some of the pictures above that the 55-135mm lens for my Leica T (Typ 701) has arrived and I'll be writing about it soon. And whether or not you're a Leica fan, there is no doubt that this Leica T system is, as I've often written somewhat surprisingly, right out there on the cutting edge. Almost total touchscreen control, minimalist styling with very few knobs and buttons, very high quality and large live view screen, sharp clear and bright EVF and software stabilisation for video without the need for lens IS or IBIS put this camera right at the forefront of camera design and engineering. It even looks radically different as well.
Will it take off? Are we looking at the future? Well, that's really difficult to say. It will take off if other manufacturers come up with something similar and get acceptance from the camera buying public. However, my point is that Leica have done all this within a mirrorless system, just as Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, Fuji and Samsung have introduced all of their technology driven innovations on mirrorless systems. And while Nikon and Canon (and indeed Pentax) DSLR's can still do the job of creating images very well, there has to come a time when it's not enough for the marketplace. Because technology gives us the opportunity to do things we couldn't before. Just as an example, taking stills from 4K video footage which Panasonic have introduced. It's now a firmware update in certain Nokia phones (not my 1020 unfortunately) and it's set to become standard in the next round of Microsoft (They are dropping the Nokia name apparently) phones. Now how many photographers are going to be saying. 'That's really useful. How come my camera doesn't do that?' With the continuing evolution of IBIS stabilisation and the really exciting possibility that the 40MP high-res. file creation of the Olympus OM-D E-M5 II could be available hand held, mirrorless continues to push the boundaries for us all.
And the situation is likely to be that despite all of this adventurous thinking and new technology, mirrorless is probably likely to retain the market share it has currently. It may rise to some degree, but for the most part these are not simple cameras and they offer things of benefit to mostly experienced photographers and those with the capacity to embrace (and understand) new technology. And I see that as keeping mirrorless / CSC / EVIL out there, if not on the cutting edge, at least on the leading edge of camera development.
The future we can contemplate with mirrorless cameras is as uncertain and exciting as it's always been. I'm fascinated that my small enclave of mirrorless enthusiasts has expanded to occupy a huge section of the photographic internet and in some cases dominate it. Mirrorless is clearly a section of the marketplace that engages and interests people. Sometimes this goes a little further than it should and seems to be at the expense of creating photographs, but there is no doubt that we all chatter about mirrorless interchangeable camera systems much more than we do about anything else. And the fact that the majority of the manufacturers have now heavily invested in them is testament to the fact that they aren't going away and are going to continue to be the most discussed cameras and lenses out there. People will still continue to buy Nikon and Canon products in large quantities and of course take great photographs with them, but those two giants of the camera industry will have to keep looking over their shoulders to see what's happening. Eventually, they will surely have to succumb and jump in with both feet, unlike the toe in the water approach they have currently. And if that does happen, though it may be quite a while yet, things could get REALLY interesting.