Nearly four years ago I wrote an article that was very unpopular with "serious" photographers. In it I talked about the new EVF's and I predicted that in a few short years most cameras would ship with EVFs while traditional optical viewfinders would exist only on specialty cameras aimed at people with big wallets and a high resistance to change. When I look out over the landscape of photographers and consider the choices they are making with their gear purchases I can see that I was a little premature but I also see that the inertia is right there and the change is accelerating.
I have exactly one camera with an OVF, the Sony a850. It's a sterling example of a last century concept for a this century digital solution. It's big, heavy, solid and ponderous. And it makes good images. No better than an a99 but good images all the same. When I look at the rest of my stuff I find EVFs in everything but the Samsung NX 300. That camera is available only with a rear LCD. Also something I never dreamed I would own. Much less use. But everything changes.
I speak about the inflection point because a number of industry announcements (and nearly announced rumors) make me believe that, going forward, it's all going to little TV screens in our finders. And down market it will all be little flat panel TVs on the backs of cameras. Really, really good TVs. You may hate this trend. You may be one of those who "will give up his D4 when you pry his cold, dead hands off the camera," but I predict that you will eventually cave as well.
The first announcement (oddly enough) was about the crappiest Sony camera I can ever remember handling. It's the a3000. But it's an important camera because it showcases the concept that will bring mirrorless imaging with EVF to the masses. It has the popular form factor and Sony is able to supply the camera with a very decent zoom lens and quite a good sensor at an astonishingly low price. How? By eliminating the moving mirror, the pentaprism optical finder and the attendant mechanical complexity. The EVF is the worst I've ever seen but it will hardly matter as the iPhone and now the Galaxy phones have trained an entire generation of entry level photographers to compose and shoot on the rear screens of their cameras. Sony is, in effect, supplying a picture machine that can compete with Canon and Nikon APS-C cameras (in the parameter of image quality) in a body style that evokes the public's idea of serious photographic camera at the first totally affordable price point for the masses in the history of digital imaging. They are the first mover in this market. And the changes and compromises will flow uphill.
But the a3000 also sent a signal rippling through to the Sony DSLT faithful: To wit, going forward we are pouring all of our R&D funds into the Nex lens mount. This new configuration will be our corporate standard bearer. How do we intuit this? Well, there should be an announcement in a few days showcasing a new Sony camera model that makes their strategy clear. The web is redolent with rumors about the new Sony a7 camera. Photos of the product are flying across not only the rumor sites but also the reputable sites. The camera will (according to all accounts) to a mirror less, interchangeable lens camera that features a 24 megapixel, full frame (135) sensor. The designs shown seem to echo the overall design of Olympus's newest "pro" camera and that points to a very high quality EVF with a very fast refresh time. Once this hits the market and we see how well the adapters work with the traditional mirrored Sony cameras there will be no reason for Sony to keep two lines of competing cameras in inventory.
The focus on one mount gives them a number of advantages, including (given the short back focus distance of the Nex mount) the ability to use the legacy lenses from just about any traditional DSLR system from any maker. Just add the right adapter and go. You may (or may not) lose some automation but you open up an enormous range of specialized gear for what will be a nearly universal platform.
If you are so inclined you can pick and choose from the best optics from every current maker to use on the new Sonys. Perhaps you have a hankering for a Nikon 14-24mm or a Canon 17mm tilt shift lens. With an adapter you can take advantage of both. And, if the sensor is as tremendous as many people presume it will be can you imagine the cold chill that's going through the halls of Leica's camera designer facility? Leica lenses on a state of the art, full frame chip camera for a fraction of the previous tariff. When and if the a7 and its rumored higher pixel count version hit the market the dealers in Leica glass will have a wild celebration, as will a rash of serious photographers. And it will all be done without mirrors and without optical finders.....Perhaps Leica will roll with the tide or they may just become a "lens only" company...
In one sense it's the holy grail for hobbyists. It's the chance to bounce from lens system to lens system with near reckless abandon. And when an improved sensor becomes available NONE of the investment in glass is impacted. In fact most of it can be cross ventilated to the Fuji or M4:3 systems if better choices arise there.
Let's move on an consider a few more tidbits of change. I asked all my professional movie maker and video production friends about which digital still camera is the best video camera. Some mentioned the ubiquity of the Canon 5D3 but to a person they all said that the Panasonic GH3 has, hands down, the best looking video of all the hybrid cameras. The caveat that keeps Canon 5D3's in place is their ability to handle lower light levels with less noise. But the reality is that for just under $1,000 the GH3 provides the best video imaging of the still camera class. And that includes $5000 Nikon D4's and the Canon 1DX. What makes it great? Well, for one thing the engineers at Panasonic got the codec for video just right. But they also added microphone and headphone jacks and full audio control. But the coolest thing is that the EVF and the mirrorless design work to give you more flexibility than ANY of the bigger, more expensive, traditional cameras. You can use the EVF in full sun without the need for extra (and bulky) loupes. And the camera can focus, quickly, while in operation. Plus it's small and light enough to carry around all day. The confluence of advantages offered up by the mirrorless design and the EVF moved that camera into contention. The finesse of the video stream made it ascendent.
The two hot cameras of the last year? The ones that caught everyone's attention? Oh yes, those would also be mirrorless cameras with EVFs. The Olympus OMD EM5 has been wildly popular. Not in terms of overall sales to the masses but in the affection of and uptake by very serious hobbyists and professionals who no longer wish to keep a chiropractor on staff. The image stabilization is legendary and the EVF in this camera has converted more people to the pleasures of electronic viewing than anything else.
The second hot camera? That would be the Fuji x100s. A runaway hit. Drooled over by no less than Zach Arias, David Hobby and countless other professionals. What's not to like? A great processor in a fake Leica body, coupled with a great lens and, of course, an EVF and hybrid optical viewfinder. Of course it's mirror less. Why would it need a mirror? But it's not just the x100s that is making for happy Fuji fans. Fuji hedged their bets by releasing the Pro-1X first. It has a combination optical and electronic finder. Now they've launched several other bodies that retain the sensor users loved but with simplified bodies offering just EVF's. And they are selling well. Fuji's secret for success is simple: mirrorless cameras are cheaper to build so, if sold at the same (or higher) prices than competitive DSLRs their margins will be higher. The chips are good and the lenses are even better. What's not to love?
What will this year's hot camera be for the cognoscenti ? (Not for the Target/Walmart/Costco shoppers). All signs point to a battle royale between the Olympus OMD E-M1 and the Sony a7. And that's funny because they seem to both be variations of the same basic body style. Not that funny given the cooperation between the two companies.
What will the drivers be? The smaller size, the lower weight, the incredibly good EVFs, the ability to use millions and millions of lenses, the choice of a new sensor size in the mirrorless space, the new performance of on-chip AF sensors, and a new style of imaging that's less about the mythology of how "pros used to shoot" and the reality of how people shoot today. We are so much less concerned about capturing super fast action and so much more concerning about documenting our lives. Different tools. Different ways of seeing.
Finally, I think the evolution will continue, rapidly. I never thought I'd compose and shoot primarily with the screen on the back of a camera (although I certainly did back in the days of view cameras). I've been vocal in my dislike for the "hipster hold" for cameras (also known as the stinky baby diaper hold) but I've found myself quite happy using the enormous rear screen on the back of the Samsung Galaxy NX camera. Especially in the studio and on locations where we control the light. Again, the camera is equipped with an EVF (which I guess is the new credential for "professional") and is mirrorless.
If Sony, Panasonic, Olympus, Fuji and Samsung all make only EVF driven mirrorless cameras---and they are a preferred choice by the coolest photographers---can a real "tipping point" in the industry be far behind? I don't think so. The phones will train the next generation to eschew traditional camera paradigms because of their ponderous affect and their complexity. People love composing with a live view and not a truncated live view with focus issues. That love of live composing coupled with a desire to compose on a screen will be the drivers of a whole new camera paradigm. And, of course, the efficiency of pre-chimping(tm)....
The days of the dedicated professional loaded like a llama with an arsenal of heavy, expensive, ponderous gear are coming to a close. People want their adventures in image making to be smooth, compact and easy. Even the serious people who are trying to squeeze out the finest images possible will be convinced by a the rich profusion of choices coming at us in the next year. Remember how quickly people adapted to smart phones? The product cycles are shrinking and the products are evolving. The days of the flapping, frantic mirror and the "dumb" viewfinder are quickly coming to an end....
Now, what do I do with this big Sony stuff?