Smartphones and Mirrorless Cameras

In a previous article I discussed the idea that mirrorless cameras still haven't achieved certain things that DSLR owners / users take for granted. Here, I will offer an opinion that the ever increasing capability of the cameras fitted to smartphones is also showing up mirrorless cameras as the 'under achievers' of the camera marketplace. 

Lets get one thing clear first. I use and have used an awful lot of mirrorless cameras, both in the accurate sense, I.e. Cameras without SLR type mirrors and in the colloquial sense, I.e. Micro four thirds, Sony NEX, Alpha and FE cameras and Fuji X etc. I have been shooting with them for years and earning my living with them. But lately, I've been becoming increasingly frustrated with the genre after using DSLR's a lot of the time again and my ever increasing enthusiasm for smartphone cameras. And for me I am in fact seeing them as becoming neither one thing or the other. Some kind of flawed compromise that has failed to deliver on their early promise and which, in many cases don't even live up to the inflated claims of their manufacturers and / or owners. So exactly what was I hoping to see by now.?

I think small yet classy was what I was hoping for. Some kind of Leica inspired interchangeable lens cameras that would be small and light and deliver excellent quality. And after flirting with ultra small cameras that unfortunately delivered diminishing returns, I think that has mostly been achieved. But with this partial success had come the repetition of flawed design and marketing.. Over complicated menu and knob / button / dial implementation, poor battery life and the promotion of gimmicks as useful photographic features, when in fact they are nothing of the sort and of course high prices and exaggerated claims.

An example of this is Panasonic's promotion of the 4K photo and post focus functions. Initially I was quite impressed with this, but unfortunately the results are actually quite poor. Over processed, excessively noise reduced and somewhat 'detail free' images. Useful for the web maybe, but for little else. And then there is 4K itself. Sure it looks good, but often because of the crop factor that is applied, the difficulties in actually viewing it and certainly editing it, the usefulness is beginning to look overrated to me. Plus when I finally got round to testing out the video capability of my Canon 5Ds, which blew me away, I'm seriously wondering why I would ever actually need it. Yes I have a PC that can edit it, yes I now have fibre optic broadband so I can upload it, but all of my video output is destined for the web and there even 1080 HD is too much for those who view web content increasingly on their phones and / or tablets. So pretty much overkill.

If I do want 4K, I have to say that the output from my Microsoft Lumia 959 XL is also pretty stunning, as are the stills that camera phone produces, so there is a case to be made that mirrorless is 'under threat' from above and below. In terms of camera phones the lack of zooms (with one exception) and interchangeable lenses is one area where mirrorless still has an advantage. But while my 950 XL is no competitor for the Leica Q or Sony RX1 models, personally I prefer it any day to the Fuji X100 series. I like the colour, the contrast and the overall look of the files compared to what the X Trans sensor produces.

Now this is obviously personal and for a lot of people the current mirrorless offer works. Not everybody is as bothered as me about battery life and cramped control layouts. And there is no doubt that many if the lenses available for the m4/3 and Fuji X systems are impressive. But as people get into the more specialist optics, I suspect that many will still choose the DSLR route. Let's take the two new new telephoto lenses from Panasonic and Olympus. The 100-400mm zoom and 300mm f/4. Sure these are somewhat less bulky than 35mm sized equivalents, but they are still big, heavy and expensive. And it remains to be seen just how many wildlife and sports photographers jump ship from Canon and Nikon to use these. But as is obvious by the increasing use of smartphone cameras, this is pretty much irrelevant for the majority of people who shoot pictures. 

Because lets not forget that smartphones, social media and the style of photography those create go together. Very few people are interested in lugging around huge lenses to photograph the beak of a sparrow from hundreds of yards away, most of the picture taking population are much more concerned with taking and posting those dreadful selfies. And the rather undignified attempts of mirrorless manufacturers to cater for this are somewhat embarrassing to behold. It won't work anyway, since the necessity to transfer the images to a phone make it obvious that people will just use their phones instead. And I really feel that mirrorless manufacturers are on a hiding to nothing if they try to chase this market. What has to happen is that mirrorless has to offer something that smartphones or DSLR's don't to ensure any kind of future.  

The Olympus air has possibilities, as does the Sony RX 100 series and the upcoming Panasonic TZ 101 and cameras like these, with their impressive zoom lenses and small footprint strike me as a way to go. But there is a very real danger that mirrorless, aside from the enthusiast market, offers more that the smartphone customer might want and less then the DSLR customer feels they need. So ultimately are they destined to be the 'neither fish nor fowl' middle ground compromise camera that get eventually squeezed out? Well maybe, but I'd like to think not.

Because there is a niche that can be successfully occupied and because there is a manufacturer who, to my mind, understands where mirrorless needs to go and that is Leica. Leicas are photographer and image quality centred, they get the basics right (which of course they should having been at this a while) and with the Leica T (Typ 701) they have what I consider to be a genuinely innovative approach to the mirrorless camera. And it hasn't been that successful I know, but the attitude of Leica owners, the price and the serious misunderstanding and prejudice of most of those who reviewed it were all contributory factors to that. Because, odd though it may be for me to write this, Leica are probably the wrong company to have released it. Unfortunately they have been typecast as the pinnacle of luxury retro and a totally different minimalist camera with all the controls in a touchscreen menu was obviously way too radical for Leica's core audience and for everybody else as well it seems. But it's still a groundbreaking camera and one I believe will be regarded as ahead of it's time. And it's true significance isn't for the 'fauxtographers' who unfortunately populate the photographic internet, but for those brought up on smartphones who are discovering photography as their means of expression. 

And Leica have continued this radical approach with the 2nd. T mount camera, the SL. And they have come up with the first truly professionally orientated mirrorless camera as well. Again, it's virtues have failed to convince those who will never embrace anything that the 'herd' doesn't deem worthy, but again it's a camera that takes the best of the DSLR and the best of smartphones and combines them in a forward looking, modern camera that gives photographers the basics they need and offers a different way of working. And I guess the company that invented the 35mm camera is a leader rather than a follower, even though it's taking the naturally conservative leisure photographer a while to catch up. And one of the reasons I like cameras like this and smartphones is that they are breaking the rules and offering up something different. 

Photography is after all, a creative pursuit, even though by looking at much of what the photographic internet serves up, you'd be forgiven for questioning that assertion. And this 'conservatism'  and 'camera club mentality' is unfortunately generated and perpetuated by much of what passes for photographic commentary on the review sites, blogs and forums. Too often, the people who write and comment on these are reluctant and unable to see beyond the status quo, either out of stupidity, lack of imagination or financial self-interest. There are way too many shop assistants and photographers who can't make a living from their photography out there perpetuating myths, feeding their audience's fanboy prejudices and without an original idea in their heads, recycling what has gone before. My hope is that the 'smartphone aesthetic' will seep that away, but my belief is that we may have to endure the cliched thinking for a while yet. 

And unfortunately, the world of mirrorless cameras is where that lack of creativity and the endless repetition of photographic cliches still resides, which is a shame because I had high hopes for what mirrorless might have achieved. But it seems that true innovation in the photographic marketplace has skipped a format and will come from smartphones (and more importantly smartphone users) instead. As yet this innovation is not sorted out and there are many things that need to be improved, but come it surely must. Because that 'smartphone aesthetic' is creating a new breed of photographer, unemcumbered by the baggage of the past and the rigidity of hobbyist thinking. Difficult as it may be to believe, there are people who take photographs who are more concerned with that than bragging about the gear they own and it remains to be seen which will become the dominant force in the marketplace. And this will always be hampered by the fact that the truly creative will as usual be outnumbered by the journeymen. 

But my hope is that via this dialectic something genuinely helpful to serious photographers, in terms of gear, will emerge. And one day instead of having a shelf of gear to satisfy my creative needs it can be whittled down to something more manageable and less expensive. But then maybe nobody else wants what I want and things will carry on pretty much as they do now. If I truly believed that to be the case I'd probably close down this blog immediately and I hope (maybe against hope) that the cliches will go away and the uniformed generalities of those who recycle the past over and over again will slowly fade into darkness. But I am prepared to concede that this may never happen and I will continue to have to make do with what's available. Because even if my dreams of gear that reflects my curiosity and desire to experiment never materialises, my image creation will be a embodiment of those ideals. And whether or not I'm successful in that, I leave for others to decide. Because whatever the outcome, I'd be a fool not to attempt it.