A Last Look in the Mirror

Cameras with reflex mirrors (SLRs) work very well, and have worked very well since the 1930’s when they started to enter the photographic mainstream. The concept, as applied to photography, was actually patented in 1861. In early large and medium-format SLRs the image was viewed on a ground-glass screen and the mirror was raised and lowered manually. 35mm SLRs with pentaprisms didn’t appear until the late 1940s. The flapping mirror has a long and illustrious history, but there is a sea change underway.

SLRs (now with a “D” for “Digital” in front: DSLRs) remain useful and are still favored by many professionals who need speed for sports and action, and who have a large investment in lenses. DSLRs will not disappear overnight. But mirrorless cameras with rapidly improving performance are encroaching on their territory at a breathtaking rate.

Until just recently Canon and Nikon, the two biggest players in the DSLR market, had made only restrained entries into the mirrorless market with small-sensor models (I’ll take a closer look at sensor sizes in a separate post). The Canon M-series interchangeable-lens mirrorless line with APS-C size (22.3 x 14.9 mm) sensors is actually doing quite well. Nikon’s attempt with the Nikon 1 series and its tiny 13.2 x 8.8 mm sensors did not go so well and the line has been discontinued. Both manufacturers continue to produce top-quality, in-demand DSLRs, and their reluctance to cannibalize their own markets is sort of understandable.

Other manufacturers have been much more proactive in the mirrorless arena. Fuji, Olympus, and Panasonic all have a strong following, mostly for their smaller (APS-C and Micro Four Thirds) sensor offerings. Then along comes Sony, a relative newcomer to the field, and in an astonishingly short period of time takes the market by storm with a series of full-frame (36 x 24 mm sensors, approx.) interchangeable-lens mirrorless models that offer outstanding still and movie imaging performance. There are clear advantages to larger sensors, and full-frame mirrorless just seems like a logical step.

It is useful to remember that although Sony is seen as the new kid on the block, they are a technological behemoth who have been making broadcast cameras since the early 1980s. Sony’s deep dive into consumer still cameras really only began with their acquisition of the Konica Minolta Inc. camera division in 2006, saving that company’s resources from oblivion and paving the way for the full-frame mirrorless revolution that is shaking up the entire camera industry today. Nicely done.

After remaining silent for what many consider to be way too long, and suffering the consequences, Nikon finally announced a lineup of full-frame mirrorless cameras and lenses on August 23, 2018. They are nice looking cameras with a few puzzling omissions, and will probably sell well when they start shipping in late September and November, but it is impossible not to notice that they bear a strong resemblance to Sony’s offerings in many ways. Kudos for making it out of the starting gate at last, and I’m looking forward to seeing what refinements arrive with updates and future generations.

So where is Canon? Now that Nikon have made the big leap, essentially validating Sony’s approach to the future of photography, they can’t be too far behind. Rumors of an imminent Canon announcement are already careening around the photography websites and forums. But we don’t know for sure, and will just have to wait and see. I think we can be sure that Canon will join the fray sooner than later, and will probably come barging in with some pretty strong technology. Competition is good for everybody, and when all the players are lined up at last things are likely to get very interesting.

And where does that leave the venerable DSLR? Although its days are probably numbered in the long term, the DSLR represents relatively mature technology that will remain a mainstay for many photographers for quite a while. If you currently shoot with a DSLR, there’s no need to worry about being left behind … yet. But if you’re just getting into photography, or are thinking of moving to a new system, I’d recommend taking a good look at the merits of mirrorless, as well as the direction photography is moving in general.

You’ve probably heard it before (possibly ad-nauseam), but it really is a great time to be doing photography.

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