5.20.2013

I think the writing is on the wall. The future is mirrorless. And that means optical viewfinders will go away.




The thing I like about beautiful women and photography is that beauty is camera neutral.
The image doesn't care what system we use. And in most cases neither does the sitter.

I've been reading rumors all over the web this week that point to Sony rolling out SLR style Alpha cameras next year with a few improvements over the current cameras, like the a58 and the a99. The biggest improvement and the most controversial one boils down to one thing. The mirror; translucent, pellicle, actual, virtual, etc., is going to go away. The maker of the world's highest quality imaging sensors for consumer cameras is going to go "all in" and pull the plug on the sliver of glass that is the "R" in SLR, or, single lens reflex.  And I'm predicting that when Sony pulls the plug on last century technology consumers will push Canon and Nikon, grudgingly, into the future.

You can scream and yell and leave all kinds of pseudo-scientific arguments about why you think I am wrong but I'd just tell you to follow the money. Samsung, Sony and Panasonic have been rolling out sensors that have phase detection auto focus elements embedded in the sensors along side the plain vanilla imaging picture elements (pixels). They're on generation three of the technology and the next rev, the one that will take Sony fully mirrorless is already being tested.

While Olympus took a hit from their existing customer base with the (non) announcement that they would be abandoning the whole reflex viewing system to go EVF and LCD they really didn't have much of a choice. They could see the writing on the wall and didn't have the bandwidth to juggle and market old tech while focusing on putting a bunch of consumer friendly new tech into the pipeline.

Sony may not have made the transition any less painful by ripping the bandaid off a feature at a time. Die hard DSLR fans were livid when Sony more or less let everyone know that the optical finder was being retired. And retired for good. When the a99 camera hit the market I think even the thickest headed optical die hard realized that his choice at this point boiled down to loving the industry's best EVF or tossing the whole mess and scampering off to some other marque. 

They'll be doubly pissed off when Canon and Nikon inevitably follow suit. The next step for Sony (and it's just engineering logic...) will be to remove the vestigial mirror altogether and move to a completely electronic transmission throughout the camera system. The only reason the "translucent" mirror is still required is to provide auto focus performance that equals the mirrored cameras from their competitors.

If (and I know it's a big leap of faith....) Sony is able to engineer a chip that really does allow their cameras to focus as fast as the competitors but doesn't require a secondary optical system to function then what would be the real beef from consumers. If the performance is the same would the objections be based strictly on philosophical grounds? Is there an implicit moral superiority that falls to the idea of the mirrored camera?

Of course not. It's a matter of tradition. Of convention. The comfort of the well known solution. If the sensors function transparently (in comparison to more conventional systems) then Sony will have made their cameras less expensive to build and they will have eliminated two more infrastructural systems; the mirror with it's alignment requirements and the secondary autofocus sensor in the mirror box.

Does this mean that all Sony DSLT lenses and DSLR lenses and Minolta lenses will be rendered obsolete? Of course not. There's no reason that Sony has to change the lens mount to sensor distance and no compelling reason to get ride of the lens mount. But there's no reason to think that they couldn't shorten the lens mount to sensor distance to the same depth as the Nex cameras while utilizing the shorter distance as they did with the VG-900  video camera which give it all the capability of using both the Nex and (with an adapter) the Alpha lenses with full compatibility.

Sony isn't doing this because they believe in some sort of design religion nor is there a manifest destiny that champions mirrorless. They are doing it because now is the moment in the world of technology when they can more cost effectively mimic the focusing system we've worked with for better than fifty year but by eliminating the mechanical parts and the expensive glass prisms they can offer a very similar user experience at a profound cost savings.

And while everyone over fifty may clench their teeth and curse progress most people who came to photography through digital will find the newer systems more recognizable and ultimately more usable for taking better images. Information is power. And the EVF provides the feedback loop and real time information to make better images.

Remember the first time you used a digital camera with a decent LCD on the back? It changed the way you shoot whether you want to admit it or not. It allowed you to instantly review your shot... which gave you the option of modifying your settings and trying again and again until you knew you got what you wanted in your photo session. And I doubt anyone would willingly give up the screen and go back to a camera that didn't have one even if it was still fully digital otherwise.

Well, to my mind the mirrorless cameras offer the same type of evolutionary forward jump in picture taking. You can ready the camera, the exposure, the color balance and even image styles and see them as they WILL be recorded before you push the shutter button. And once you experience shooting that way you will be as loathe to give up the new power of information just as you would not conceive of giving up the current screens.

It's all about the convergence of costs savings and technology. And that's a curve we've been working with since the dawn of digital.

If you are shooting Canon or Nikon right now I'm sure you think this whole line of reasoning is full of crap. But are any of you willing to bet real money on what the outcome will ultimately be five years from now?






















42 comments:

John Krumm said...

I will withhold judgement until I see the latest crop of viewfinder improvements, but the latest one from Olympus sounds very promising... http://torontowide.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/olympus-e-p5-pen-camera-first.html

And the most recent rumor at the 4/3 rumor mill has Olympus getting some pdaf Sony tech in exchange for some help with new Alpha lenses (perhaps larger versions of those zippy, quiest motors in the latest M4/3 lenses, I don't know).

André Balsa said...

Kirk,
I am shooting Nikon right now. A Nikon V1. That (as you know) has on-sensor phase detection, used in a hybrid PD/CD AF system. And it's (as you know) pretty fast, even compared to a DSLR. So my guess is that Nikon has already seen the writing on the wall, and sooner or later they'll migrate their high-end cameras to mirrorless. But since it's their strategic cash-cow business, they are just taking the whole thing very slowly.

Kirk Tuck said...

John, Happy to hear about the lens help. Sony needs to fill in some gaps...

Kirk Tuck said...

Nikon will re-market mirrorless as a step up in total performance. The V1 is wicked fast and a move in the right direction.

Phil Service said...

It's somewhat ironic that Nikon got this particular wagon rolling. There were plenty of things not to like about the V1, but the on-sensor PD AF wasn't one of them. In fact, Kirk, I bought and still use a V1 based partly on what you wrote about it. I think the AF issue has been fixed. Not so sure yet about the performance of the most recent EVFs. Certainly, the V1 EVF is not so swell.

Michael Ferron said...

I have an olympus EPL5. The image quality great and the little thing has fast AF. I really think the day of the dinosaur is nearing it's end. Not only mirrors but size as well. Shame Nikon and canon are not on the bandwagon.

Paul Glover said...

While I'm a film guy, I'll say that if I were shooting digitally I'd take mirrorless and a good EVF plus articulating screen in a heartbeat. Especially now that hybrid AF is proven to work really well.

I'm watching Sony with some interest here. My wife has some old Minolta AF lenses, I have Canon FD lenses and we really need a new "family" digital camera.

Unknown said...

For the majority of people you are probably correct, a system that shows them exactly what they are going to get is probably better. However- and this is where the rubber meets the road, for those people who don't want their experience to be converged to the mean, in other words, you go down the exploration path and its either a funnel or a mystery- I pick the mystery every time.

Inevitably digital makes you stop once you think you've got "it". Its a universal truth and I've heard it said countless times by people who even know better. Having the instant review did change how we worked, it made us arrive at something "good" quicker yes, but then caused us to abandon it after only scratching the surface. Then we move on to the next "good" idea.

Its a great way to teach yourself how to make "good" pictures but it tends to cut off those times where you are surprised, where the subject is transformed by the act of photographing it. For that you need film and the delay of seeing the result.

Optical viewfinders will go away because they are expensive and cameras themselves are on the wane compared to cel phones, and users recently have not had a good experience with them, ironically sony was the last to make a truly decent bright spacious viewfinder in its A900. Everything else has paled and certainly in comparison to truly old school viewfinders like the Hasselblad or Leica M series. My old Canon F1n was a joy.

Why we would want to look at yet another screen- they are in my-count them- taxi cab, elevator, phone, computer, supermarket checkout, gas station pump....I guess the world is just not pixellated enough to look at anymore....

Wally said...

A nikon D 7000 shooter who agrees with you and is waiting for Nikon to get off the stick

Craig said...

The Olympus E-P2 with the VF-2 EVF convinced me that I don't want an OVF anymore. The ability to preview exposure and to see clearly in low light is a big improvement. The downside is lower resolution (compared to an OVF) and a very slight delay between when an image enters the camera and when you see it in the viewfinder, but over time resolution will improve and the delay will get progressively shorter. In the long run, the EVF will win.

Ron Harris said...

I am in the 50+ group (by a half more) and with my current camera, a Fuji X-100, I have the choice of an optical or an electronic viewfinder. Except for close-in and semi-darkness my old eyes always prefer the optical viewfinder.

I appreciate that the electronics can shrink and the optics can't and that someday the electronic view finders will be good enough for even "old eyes." But I still expect that my next camera will be a Fuji XP-2 with an optical viewfinder. Hopefully my next-next camera will have a good enough electronic viewfinder to be able to dispense with the optical viewfinder and be smaller and lighter.

Vu Le, DDS said...

I believe in the power of the EVF, but we just aren't there yet.

I was teaching about 180 people over the weekend at my local photo club. I finally got to try out an A77 and even coming from the OM-D, the EVF is breathtakingly good. In a crowd of that size, in affluent Orange County, there was 1 NEX, 1 Samsung N20, and 1 Sony A77. Everything else was an SLR. Don't just believe my sample size, Thom Hogan's sansmirror posts show that EVF's are only getting about 10% penetration into the market in Asia, and even worse in the US.

It's going to take an EVF two generations ahead of what Sony has now, a full frame sensor, a universal lens mount, and a Canon or Nikon badge on the front. I don't see all four of those things coming together for at least 5 years.

ginsbu said...

I'm with you on mirrorless, but that doesn't mean we won't have OVFs, just no more SLR-type TTL OVFs. Brightline finders will still be an option for those that appreciate being able to see beyond the frame boundaries, or prefer composing with in focus and OOF elements of the scene in clear view. Sony, Nikon and Ricoh are all offering brightline finders for their new fixed lens cameras and, of course, Fuji has their hybrid VF. I hope we'll see renewed appreciation for the advantages of brightline finders now that ubiquitous EVFs/LCDs free us from their limitations.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kirk
Just a question regarding EVF, maybe a stupid one, as I am sure they are the future
When you are in the studio using strobes with manual mode on say f8-f11, 125th can you see anything, or does it compensate
for the low light levels.

Regards
Tony

Dr Nick said...

Meanwhile Nikon and Canon continue to beat the mirrorless companies and basically everyone else like a rented mule. They'll switch when they see the need, if ever.

Joseph Ferrari said...

It is unfortunate that mirrorless got off on the wrong foot. The camera makers believed that they could move the compact camera users to these systems with better image quality. So they produced bodies in pink, blue, etc.

Even today, they all have it wrong. Their designs are clinging to the past, instead of starting with a clean slate and bring out a capturing device that is designed for today's requirements.

Dave said...

Hell, with Google Glass even people will come with EVF's in about a year :)

For my stills photography I'm somewhat indifferent on EVF, but for combined shooting with video I see it as an essential tool. I don't know that EVF's of today are sufficient for precise focus pulling but it sure beats clapping what amounts to an over priced loupe on the back of your DSLR.

thequietphotographer said...

"And while everyone over fifty may clench their teeth and curse progress"...yes, I'm in the over 60 group :-( and even if I consider myself a person with an open mind, no prejudice against what is new I have sometimes to force myself in order to accept all the changing which happens around. But when i accept it for sure I see the benefits I can get. No doubts my next camera will be a mirrorless (probably fuji ex1). New technologies are around us. I can shoot film when I just like to enjoy the process, but when I need "the photo" digital helps a lot! It's a real interesting moment for us as photographers, I like it.
robert

Doug said...

Kirk: I've been using the Nikon V2 recently and am really liking it. I'm 55 years old and still miss my F3, but the ease with which I adjust shooting parameters with real time feedback on the V2 is delightful. The follow focus accuracy and speed is the equal of my D7000 in good light. And it weighs next to nothing. I'm traveling to Zambia, as I do every summer, and I can't wait to pack my camera, three lenses, an adapter and af-s telephoto in a small, light bag. And I will cover 28-810mm! Yes, there are limitations. But the benefits outweigh them, in my view.

Peter F. said...

Kirk, I use the OMD and NEX6, so have EVFs. Not only is the ability to preview and adjust while looking through the viewfinder a great gift... but I like being able to review the shot after it's made without taking the camera away from my eye. I find this invaluable when shooting butterflies and flowers where I don't want to lose my composition between shots (which would be the case if I drew the camera away from my eye to look at the result... which also may not even be easy on a bright day).

Peter F.

Dennis A. Mook said...

I've been a serious shooter for 44 years and have grown up n optical viewfinders. I currently shoot with a D800E and a D700. I purchased an Olympus EM-5 to assess its usability and image quality. I just returned from a 23 day, coast to coast & return, road trip and I found myself using the Olympus much more than I would have thought. Why? The EVF. While it is not yet ideal, it gives me the information I. The viewfinder (re: histogram) that I need to make the best exposure before I made it. I even had thoughts of going fully EVF in the future because of its advantages.

I believe any competent photographer can easily make the transition to EVF just as we had transitioned to new technology in the past.

As an aside, my trip took me through Austin the day the President was in town about 10 days ago. I was driving north on the interstate and was stopped downtown as the authorities closed it and, it seemed, every other major thoroughfare. It took me four and a half hours to get through town. I thought of the Roach Motel! You can get in but can't get out! LOL.

Matt James said...

I can't understand what all the fuss is about. Very happy with the EVF and articulated screens on my A55, A99 and OMD. The case for EVF/articulated screens is compelling, and one of the reasons I stayed with Sony/Minolta. Live histograms are great. Articulated screens are wonderful on tripods and telescope mounts. Any rational complaints probably a transitional issue as the quality continues to improve (already very good) and the benefits manifest.

Kirk Tuck said...

Hogan isn't counting the Sony Alpha cameras as mirrorless and they have the third position in the market. Your sample is more or less regional and anecdotal. Here in Austin just about every photographer I encounter has at least one mirrorless camera (while they may also have DSLR's) in the far east the numbers are much higher than in the US for mirrorless penetration and I suspect the numbers would have been higher in EMEA if the recession wasn't in the way...

Anonymous said...

For those who have used them--are hybrid viewfinders (like those seen on the X-Pro 1 and the X100S)a viable alternative to EVF-only cameras? Is it possible that hybrid finders could be an appealing compromise?

-Christopher

Kirk Tuck said...

You switch the viewing mode to "setting effect off" and the camera shows the same non inflected view that you would see through an OVF. The electronics strive to show an average brightness. The Alpha cameras meter wide open so the lens only stops down during the actual exposure. My finders are nice and bright when I work in the studio.

Kirk Tuck said...

Mirrorless is a big tent. Sony's cameras seem to me to be a clean slate. As to Nikon and Canon all you need to do is wait for the tipping point and everything will happen fast. Remember, Kodak thought they had two more decades of profitable film sales ahead of them at the turn of the century...

Kirk Tuck said...

Totally agree. Being able to accurately judge a taken image in bright sunlight is priceless.

Kirk Tuck said...

That day was especially nightmarish for Austin drivers. I spent an hour going about ten miles to get to a college board meeting. Sheer frustration. Don't these presidents know about helicopters?

Joseph Ferrari said...

Yes, Sony is close to a clean slate. I owned the NEX-5N and now own the 5R and 7. They need to improve stabilization and video quality. The 5R is my favorite in form factor, the 7 in image quality, but both are plagued by Sony's insistance on dumbing-down the video. I hope they change this philosophy on the NEX-FF.

In my view, the "tipping point" is the mirrorless hybrid sector. The blending of stills and motion will banish these relics to our past.

Anders C. Madsen said...

Not having tried the new Sony EVF's this was actually something I wondered about: Older EVF's would render a really bright scene as white on white with a lot of white and a few slightly darker tones sprinkeled here and there. Has this been improved to a point where you can use the EVF on e.g. a beach shoot in bright sunligth with no issues?

Also, how about high contrast scenes (sunlight and shadows) - can the EVF cope (probably by reducing the dynamic range) or will it blow out the whites and block the blacks? Think bride and groom in bright sunligt, street scenes with white walls and shadow areas - that kind of scenarios.

Anonymous said...

Michael Reichmann made an interesting observation a while back that he prefers OVFs to EVFs because EVF's limited dynamic range compromises his ability to see all the elements in the frame that would affect his composition - for example, interesting shadowed background details that block up in an EVF but that are passed through directly to the eye in an OVF. The EVF could include biomimetic DR compression, but it could not divine what the photog is thinking, which influences how the brain processes the scene. In this regard, the Fuji hybrid viewfinder is to him an acceptable compromise.

Sony is pushing boundaries bravely. As a Nikon shooter, I've waited for Nikon to fold the Series 1 hybrid PDAF system into their DSLRs, but it's obvious that there are serious technical impediments to this - we haven't seen an on-sensor PDAF that can focus at EV-1 like entry-level DSLRs can, for example. Perhaps Sony has solved this problem, and rearchitected its sensors to provide the high-bandwidth data paths at lower battery drain that currently possible, and has been able (perhaps though super-high pixel density) compensate for the IQ lost to the increased PDAF sensor area required to make this all work. If so, Nikon and Canon are in a world of hurt, with their lens line the major thing that keeps their customers in their camps.

Certainly it appears that Nikon doesn't feel that its AF technology is ready for prime time yet. Yet it needs something to keep the money flowing in while it perfects it - hence the D7100 overstuffed with almost all of the best features in Nikon's warehouse. However, it appears that Nikon and Canon mirrorless will show up first at the bottom of their lineup rather than across the board...the most receptive market segment, and the most profitable from the standpoint of reducing DSLR's inherently higher field service and customer support costs...

Kirk Tuck said...

I thought MIchael's screed on EVFs was disingenuous. The example he showed was a simulation and not a real "A-B" comparison. And it's interesting to note that the Nex-7 has been pretty consistently one of his favorite and most used recent cameras...

kaaterskill said...

i now use a NEX7 and a Nikon D7100. by controlling the D7100 with a wireless link (CamRanger) i can control almost everything from an Ipad Retina with the live view display that is very lush. i assume that in an all EVF world cameras will become modular. I'm surprised that Sony has such weak remote control compared to Canon or Nikon. Remote EVF lets me stick my camera on a long pole and allows me to make landscape pictures from what i consider a better POV.

Vu Le, DDS said...

Perhaps Austin is more enlightened than Orange County ;)

Kirk Tuck said...

Naw, the hipsters are just into being "different."

Allan said...

As a member of the over 50 generation (61 to be precise), I have been more than happy to use good EVFs (Olympus EVF clip-on with their E-PL1 and E-PM1, Sony A57). I wear trifocals, and need to be able to see the view without having to wiggle my eyeball all around town just to see the corners of the frame. I especially like that the Sony A57 EVF has two settings to allow for eyesight such as mine. In fact, I was glad to leave existing OVFs behind — my last one was an Olympus E300, but I handled and viewed a number of OVFs of various brands. You see, *my* standard for comparison among OVFs was the viewfinder of the Olympus OM series 35mm cameras, and I have not seen any non-"full frame" OVFs that came anywhere close.

I love being able to zoom in on the image and verify focus. I love being able to view highlight/shadow indications, or focus peaking. These are aids that truly work better for my eyesight. Yes, I look forward to continued progress for EVFs, but I would pick even their current generation over the squint down a drain pipe generation of APS-C OVFs.

Allan said...

As a member of the over 50 generation (61 to be precise), I have been more than happy to use good EVFs (Olympus EVF clip-on with their E-PL1 and E-PM1, Sony A57). I wear trifocals, and need to be able to see the view without having to wiggle my eyeball all around town just to see the corners of the frame. I especially like that the Sony A57 EVF has two settings to allow for eyesight such as mine. In fact, I was glad to leave existing OVFs behind — my last one was an Olympus E300, but I handled and viewed a number of OVFs of various brands. You see, *my* standard for comparison among OVFs was the viewfinder of the Olympus OM series 35mm cameras, and I have not seen any non-"full frame" OVFs that came anywhere close.

I love being able to zoom in on the image and verify focus. I love being able to view highlight/shadow indications, or focus peaking. These are aids that truly work better for my eyesight. Yes, I look forward to continued progress for EVFs, but I would pick even their current generation over the squint down a drain pipe generation of APS-C OVFs.

Ugo Baldassarre said...

the EVF is the future.

fotographx said...

I got a mirrorless camera a while back due to health reasons. I just couldn't carry around my Canon 5Dii and three lenses anymore. I got a Lumix GF3 and thought for a while that it was pretty good although at an ISO of over 800 the IQ wasn't where I wanted it. I've switched to A Sony 5R with an EVF and adapter for my Canon lenses. So far I'm liking the fact that I can see what I'm taking photos of again. It is really difficult to see the screen in the Arizona sun to do anything. The camera is much lighter than my 40D with battery extender and an 18-250 lens. I think eventually the mirrorless cameras will be picked up as a primary camera. I know already several 'Pros' that are using them for different work. I think the sensor on the NEX 5R gives me better images than my 40D at ISOs over 1000. I like also that the EVF also articulates. My approach to photography has changed since I started using mirrorless cameras. It would be nice if the price of the EVF wasn't as high as it is but that is just me wanting to get a good deal. I don't like having to pay almost half as much for a EVF as I paid for the camera. That's just my opinion.

David said...

Kirk, I think your spot on here.
The rumored Olympus E7 might also be the new OMD pro expected in September and its rumored to have the new Sony Sensor with phase detection. IF Sony is making it, its possible that Nikon might use it. Or the recent shift of Nikon into using Toshiba sensors might be that Nikon still wants to keep their head in the sand. Just keeping the future tech for their toy CX mount.

Barrett Brassfield said...

Hi Kirk, I've just picked up a Fuji X100S (from Precision Camera no less!) and have really been enjoying it's hybrid viewfinder. Depending on the context, it's nice to have the availability of a large optical alongside a high resolution electronic viewfinder in a compact mirrorless body. I'd like to see more hybrid finders in the future.

texascbx said...

I took a very low to the ground shot a while ago with my 77 and it was interesting to see the Canon folks talk about how they could take the same pic if they used a mirror so they could see what they were doing while its so easy with the 77 I take it for granted.