10.15.2013

Inflection point reached. The death watch for traditional DSLRs begins now.


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?

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26 comments:

Anonymous said...

NO! Give me back my RB67 and my soft focus lens. I'll do a vignette on the professional bellows shade. I'll make a big canvas print. And of course it will all have four point lighting (or more).....

Craig said...

I have to agree. Once you get used to a high-quality EVF and appreciate its ability to preview exposure, which no OVF can do, you don't want to go back. The SLR with pentaprism OVF was a great idea for its time, but in a digital context an EVF can do much more.

Claire said...

My current addiction to Sony NEX is pre-chimping related. Once you can do that, there is NO going back. I still need a DSLR to shoot action and having to the camera meter is driving me sick...

Corwin Black said...

I would be happy if both survived. But yes, I think end of dSLRs which was approaching by little bits over last 4 years since Panasonic G1, has reached its maximum with A7r and A7 and now will most likely really start to "end dSLRs".

Sony was first, I wonder who will be second (I wished Samsung was first, at least in something). And wonder who will have their "Kodak moment" and say "I think we dont need to invest in that, it will blow over."

Tho truth about dSLRs is that their OVFs never reached quality of OVFs in SLRs of bit older days.. (R9, Leicaflex SL2 anyone?)

Anonymous said...

I have the em5 and love it. I'm drooling over the new em1 and the new sony's (A7 and A7r) definitly got my attention

Michael

Anonymous said...

EVFs are it... especially the new OLED ones... As for the OVF, gaslight was really cool once too... then that new-fangled electricity came out

Ron Nabity said...

I am using my EM-5s more and more for commercial work, and the Canon DSLRs less. I love the EVF, but I've discovered one instance of concern. The other evening I was shooting a live stage performance with my EM-5s and noticed my right eye (the one using the EVF) was feeling pretty tired. I assume it was related to one eye viewing a very bright object in a dark setting. I had a passing thought of this being the early stages of vision damage, kind of like my hearing loss after all those years of listening to rock and roll music with headphones.

Have you noticed this (the weird eye feeling) when shooting stage performances for Zach Theater?

atmtx said...

Kirk, as you can imagine, I certainly agree with you. The impact of mirrorless cameras have been slower in the U.S. than I originally expected. But this change is inevitable for several different reasons, as you have outlined.

I also enjoy shooting off the back LCD (or EVF) more than the traditional optical view finder. The ability to "pre-chimp", for me, makes the process quicker and more enjoyable.

Anonymous said...

The only reason I keep my DSLR is for sports, pretty much everything else is shot with mirrorless or (gasp) film cameras. As soon as Fuji, Olympus, whoever comes out with a body that can nail focus on fast moving athletes and machines, along with an equivalent 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, I'll ditch the DSLR. We're close but not quite there yet.

Vu Le, DDS said...

@Ron, it's probably from your pupils not being able to dilate fully for the stage and constrict for the EVF in rapid succession. I also feel eyestrain faster on an EVF than an OVF. But being able to see your freshly shot image in the viewfinder is priceless. Bye bye post-chimping.

@Kirk: I think you're suffering from premature pontifcation. I think TOP's Michael Johnston is dead on: mirrorless, like Leica, is small in market share, large in mind share. The cognescenti and the enthusiasts love them, but at least in the US they make up a tiny fraction of a marketplace still dominated by Canon and Nikon SLR's. Joe Six Pack will still stumble into Best Buy and pick up a Rebel. Olympus and Sony can build a great camera, but they don't have the brand cache' or marketing smarts of Apple, let alone Canon.

You can make a much more compelling argument that cheap point and shoots are on deathwatch.

Kirk Tuck said...

Vu, point and shoots are already dead. Don't look too closely just at the U.S. market, we tend to be late adapters. The smart people are already shooting mirrorless and with EVF's just because the lower demographics of the U.S. haven't climbed on board does nothing to disqualify the validity of the thesis.

Anonymous said...

Joe Six Pack here and I have 2 mirrorless+EVF cams. But I still like the viewfinder in my dSLR.

Andrea Costa said...

Kirk, they WILL cave in. They always do, can't stand peer pressure.
And... the tought of using Leica glasses on a 135 camera at a fraction of the price... ahhhh...

Nigel said...

Spot on, apart from the bit about adapters. That's fine as far as it goes, but no one with any sense if going to be paying Leica prices for lenses intended only to sit on an adapter; adapters just aren't good enough:
http://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2013/09/there-is-no-free-lunch-episode-763-lens-adapters

Fine for reviving your old Takumars etc, if you want that look, but crazy to pay thousands of dollars for performance that won't come near even the cheaper native lenses.

Kirk Tuck said...

Thank goodness I don't have to believe everything I read on lenrentals (although Roger is fun..). I've test a bunch of adapters and lenses and most work very, very well. I'm currently using an inexpensive adapter on a Panasonic GH3 in order to use the old Olympus 60mm 1.5 and the results are very good. If Sony is making the adapters for the DSLT line of lenses I have a high degree of confidence that they'll work just fine on the new cameras.

I have one friend who has adapted a Leica 90mm APO Summicron to a Nex7 and the results are stunning.

John said...

I still love my OVF, but the writing is on the wall. I like the Olympus version of an EVF and when the A7 and A7r were announced, I felt drool on my chin. That said, when I saw the first impression video from the Camera Store I decided...not yet. But my...it's getting close. Very close. Nikon and Canon really need to step up!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if any camera maker has thought about an EVF for a medium format digital camera. I wish Pentax would make one for the 645 D and include constant view on the back. All the weight and cost savings would double on this format. Jerry Kircus

Vu Le, DDS said...

I will counter with a more narrow thesis: the Alpha SLR line and lens mount is on death watch. Sony's A3000 is a $400 through and through mirrorless in SLR's clothing, with an E-mount. On the other end of the lineup, the new A7 is E-mount, with phase detect either on sensor or via adapter to drive your alpha lenses. On paper, it should play great with the A-mount lenses. Sounds a lot like the Olympus E-M1's play: upgrade your mirrorless with phase detect AF to better support your legacy SLR mount, then use that as an excuse kill off your SLR line.

Vu Le, DDS said...

The main issues I've had with legacy glass on the OM-D were (lack of) flare resistance. Sharpness was more than acceptable, especially accounting for the age of PEN lenses.

What Sony has in it's favor are first part adapters, and sensors that are the same format as the original Leica M body. While every is still thinking of the infamous NEX7 magenta corner issue, we really won't know until people get their hands on it.

Kirk Tuck said...

I'll buy that. No problem.

Vu Le, DDS said...

I think what we have is a difference of semantics. I suspect "deathwatch" and "dead" to you mean what "irrelevant" and "declining" mean to me. Compacts, while declining, still sell in large numbers. The desktop PC would also fit many people's definition of "dead" because of their decline, but it's still a multi-billion dollar market. Film would be dead, too, then. Heck, the whole industry would be dead, because 2012 was a terrible sales year for almost all the camera companies except Canon.

To me, a product isn't dead until the manufacturer stops making them, and nobody steps up to replace them. By that standard, Polaroid is dead, but not the SLR.

Bold Photography said...

The new little Sony mirrorless Full Frame is an interesting entrant to disrupt markets...

Anonymous said...

Only if the price falls. I'm not sure the DSLR is dead until the top 2 makers stop producing them no signs of that so far

Kirk Tuck said...

FYI, $1699 is a major price drop. And it seems like the 24 megapixel Sony is a flat out bargain compared to all the other full frame cameras on the market. And, also FYI, a "deathwatch" doesn't mean something IS dead it means we're waiting around in anticipation of it dying. If you read the financial news you'll see that production of cameras from the two majors is dropping at the same time the world population enters it's final geometric increase. The markets are all there it's just that everyone is starting to move on from an old paradigm.

Robert Bruce said...

Less is more! I use my Yashica range finders more than my Maxxum 600Si and my Rollei R35S more than all combined. I do however, have to make space for my dad's Mamiya Press...

Steven Tillman said...

I think mirrorless cameras have a slower acceptance rate in the USA than the rest of the world. This is based on my own experience from what I've seen in China, Japan and other countries in the last year. At Odaiba in Tokyo, a popular place to shoot in Tokyo, I saw far more mirrorless cameras on tripods than I saw DSLRs. No surprise here, the USA was slower to adopt smaller automobiles when they arrived.