Edit: Added Sept 8: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-09-07/canon-clinging-to-mirrors-means-opportunity-for-sony-cameras.html One more opinion.
And so it starts. I posted an article on Friday about my belief that EVFs will soon become a standard feature in DSLRs. A number of people wrote to say that they had used an evf in the distant past and disliked the image lag caused by slow refresh cycles and movement. Especially in low light. They dismissed the new tech out of hand. And they are silly to do so. All that's required to banish image lag in an electronic viewfinder is to increase the image sample rate and the writing rate to the finder. A faster processor than the one shoe horned into a 2003 point and shoot superzoom camera isn't that hard to find these days. And believe me, the marketers at Sony, Olympus, Canon and Nikon know how important this next step in "look and feel" is to the successful marketing of the new class of cameras.
But while EVFs are the revolution the mirrorless implementation is the wave of the future for nearly all cameras coming down the pike. By eliminating the mirror entirely all cameras are simplified and made more reliable. I think the a77 is really neato but the camera that will be a game changer for Sony, if they get their lens line up in place, will be the Nex-7. An APS-C sensor implementation in a tiny body with a beautiful finder and all the bells and whistles. It's a total cross over camera. Small and light enough to fit in the pocket of every metro-sexual's Dolce jacket and soccer mom's King Ranch purse but with the kind of sensor performance we've come to expect from top of the line traditional cameras. What's not to like?
People with special niches to service might not adapt to this camera but there's a reality to the market. And that reality says that of camera buyers less than 1% are real professionals who earn the bulk of their living shooting with cameras. That leaves 99% of buyers free to buy whatever the hell they want without the pretension of having to buy cameras that are built out of Swiss magic steel for treks across deserts and through the Antarctic in the dead of winter. I visit the Canon pro forums and I hear the constant drumbeat that says, "I need a weather sealed pro camera for shooting in the Monsoons..." but the reality is that most people have enough sense to get out of the rain. And most shots for money are in controlled environments where the subject's comfort is paramount. Sure, there are guys shooting on the edge of volcanos and on inflatables in the Bering Strait but they are the tiny, tiny minority. For everyone else a reasonably robust camera with a great lens and really good image processing is about the sum of their needs.
I've watched as the Olympus and Panasonic companies have renewed their efforts to remain relevant by introducing great new technologies like the mirrorless m4/3rds cameras and I own three of them myself. But I'm afraid that they're about to be steamrollered by the new big three: Sony, Canon and Nikon. My sense is that the Nex-7 will outperform the m4/3 cameras for resolution and even noise but the big news will come next year (or later this year) when the other big two unleash bold new designs in the mirrorless APS-C space that make the Fuji-100's retro look appear lame and crippled. Nikon will likely harken back to the SP rangefinder days and those were spectacular days for rangefinder camera body and lens design.
Canon will come out with the least aesthetically challenging version but the most operationally friendly version and then we'll see where the market share ends up. If Sony doesn't capitalize on the their introductions quickly and in force they will have made the invitational camera that gets early adopters frothing at the mouth only to see Canon and Nikon swoop in with seemingly more mature products to snap up the great bulk of buyers who cling more to the middle of the acquisition curve. And that's where ALL the REAL money is. Bleeding edge is exciting and new. Ergonomic and economical is where the cash lives.
So where does this leave Olympus? My knee jerk reaction is to say that they will be made irrelevant by dint of specifications. Afterall, that's how the great unwashed seem to buy cameras. But in truth I think a realization is soaking down thru the topsoil to the roots of the market and that realization is that, really, just like the guys at Olympus said last year, "Twelve megapixels is more than enough for the majority of camera buyers." The new way to view is on the iPad (which is already starting to kill off traditional prints sales at an ever more accelerating pace) and anything over 6 megapixels is largely overkill for that. But where Olympus still has an edge is in pure design. The Pen EP-3 and its recent predecessor, the EP-2, are two of the most beautiful camera designs of the last ten years. They are elegant. And the image quality from both is good. They stand a chance if they get their advertising put on straight, stay aways from graphs and numbers and start positioning their cameras as artistic tools rather than mini computers with glass grafted onto the front.
Where does this leave photographers? Well, you have thousands of professionals looking for a new niche and doing incredibly stupid things like trying to build careers around the use of iPhones as cameras. Just about any mirrorless camera will become a step-up instrument for them and their followers as they rediscover the limitations of trying to make ALL of your art in post processing (and there's a reason that most campaigns are NOT being done with the latest iteration of the Holga). One group of professional photographers will hold on to what they know: Big, weather sealed camera bodies with mirrors and big honking lenses. They'll resist change but will line up to buy whatever mirrorless camera ends up as the defacto "cool guy" camera for evenings out without the fully loaded Domke bag. You know? Like on a date. With a woman. The new generation of mirrorless cameras will take the place of the middle ground cult cameras like the Canon G10 and the Panasonic LX-5, as supplements to the "big iron" of the macho, over 40's crowd.
The younger photographers will see the mirrorless cameras for what they are, a new way of doing photography that's smaller, lighter, cheaper and as good as the stuff that came before. And many woman photographers, who seem to care much more about the final images and much less about technical specifications will try them out, find them good and convenient, and will go out and make art with them.
In a few years the idea of dragging around a couple of Nikon D3's or Canon 1D's will seem about as cool as driving a minivan. And not a cool minivan either. Think mid-90's Chrysler...... because the new generation of fast glass for the smaller cameras will have arrived. Along with high ISO performance and fewer backstrains. In five years the mirrorless, evf, mini camera revolution will be complete. With Nikon, Canon and then Sony in the lead.
And where will I be? Well......I've had the mirrorless stuff and used it to good effect since the day the Pens came out but I just bought another Hasselblad 500 C/M yesterday so I'll be damned if I know where I'm positioned. It's all fun. And there's room for every kind of photographer and photography. But I'm pretty clear about the 95% of people who will venture out to buy cameras in the next few years and it's not going to be about Canon Rebels or Nikon D3x's.
The Nex and it's future competitors. That's the future. Even for pros.
Fun books for photographers: http://www.amazon.com/Kirk-Tuck/e/B002ECIS24/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1