The future is mirrorless. But what does that mean? What will Nikon and Canon present? Does it even matter anymore?

This is not HDR. It's a Jpeg frame from a Fuji S5 camera
wedded to an 18-200mm Nikon zoom lens.
Shot at the Breakers Hotel in West Palm Beach, FLA.

For a number of years I've been writing about, and asking for electronic viewfinders in my cameras. I haven't changed my mind about that. The problem with discussing camera design trends is that  everyone seems to have different design preferences other than that particular parameter and, I think, this differing priority list muddied the water for where actual, operational features were involved. 

The first well implemented electronic finders (early days) were the accessory EVFs that were made for the Olympus EP-2 cameras. These devices were a revelation for me. When I used one and found it to be a nice tool for visualizing photographs I bought into the Olympus system and used those cameras and lenses for many imaging adventures. The two reasons I embraced the EP-2 camera system were the EVF and the fact that I could make use of a drawer filed with fun, eccentric, and sometimes quite good, Olympus Pen FT lenses. The fact that the cameras also had very nice color and tonality in their Jpeg files didn't hurt either. But always it was the EVF that was my tipping point.

There are a number of things/features about the cameras that were not part of my decision making calculus but which seem to have been embraced by certain segments of the gear-irati which I never considered and which I still consider to be separate from the basic function of good cameras. 

Many people glommed onto mirrorless cameras from Olympus and Sony (a6x00 series, Nex) because they were so small and compact. That's not something I ever cared about and it's not ever been a reason for me to select one camera over another. In many instances the smaller size works against the day-to-day utility of a camera. The control buttons have to be too small and placed too close together, the smaller cameras lack the overall mass/density that works to dampen vibrations and to help hold a camera steady. For many photographers there are few ways to comfortably hold cameras as they become smaller and smaller. Finger cramps are a new affliction for some as well. 

The mirrorless camera craze seemed to usher in the increased use of the back of camera LCD panel for composition and camera operation which is something I still resist (strongly) to this day. I understand the value of live view in critical studio situations but find its use in street photography and general photography detrimental to success in most parts of the process. 

While I love using EVFs I hate the fact that the relentless downsizing of camera bodies in the mirrorless space has taken away the space manufacturers have for camera batteries which made us ever more reliant on pockets full of spare batteries when heading out for a long day of shooting. One only has to look at the Sony RX-1 to see the end game of the ever diminishing power supply for a camera....

From a technical point of view I dislike the insistence on making the cameras ever more compact even when the compactness interferes with function. This was very apparent in many iterations of Sony cameras, expressed as overheating during video. On one hand Sony was working hard to provide users with fairly elegant video implementations only to cripple the cameras with tragic heat dissipation issues. Giving us interesting options with one hand and then breaking the same options with faulty engineering. (Kudos to Panasonic for always providing their flagships with great batteries while making them bigger with every generation to help mitigate heat issues in video...).

So now it appears that we're on the cusp of seeing what Canon's professional implementation of mirrorless cameras looks like and we're about to see if Nikon will screw up entirely in their pursuit of the same product sector or if they have learned their lessons from previous product lines (One Series). 

Here's the sad thing in my mind though, either manufacturer could have come up with a way to remove the moving mirror and pentaprism and replace those costly components with an EVF while maintaining their vast kingdoms of lenses and other accessories. No massive lens mount re-tooling required. Instead I think the vocal minority may have convinced the major cameras makers that size reduction is the critical marketing issue. That consumers want massive reductions in camera and lens size to move them to purchase. 

It may be true that amateur users are anxious for a camera that fits nicely in a trim purse or a pair of pants pockets I think the camera makers would simply be wrong when it comes to making products for professionals. 

The value I see in the Olympus (and Panasonic) cameras is not their small size because adding one of their professional zoom lenses instantly renders the size argument as moot. The value that Olympus delivers has to do with their insanely good image stabilization. The image stabilization and the EVFs are the two main reasons for pros to own Olympus EM cameras. 

The ability to make a great image stabilization system was predicated on having a smaller sensor which would have less mass and be easier to stop and start efficiently. For years they've been able to market this differentiating technical compromise = significantly better I.S. in exchange for the smaller size of the sensor and commiserate smaller size of the imaging pixels. 

While the smaller size of the sensors and the smaller lens mount allowed Olympus to make their camera bodies smaller it was a tangential aspect of the sensor and I.S. compromises. They could have put the same combination of features in a bigger body but chose not to. 

The Olympus cameras have proven to be popular but much less so (as proven by overall sales) than either Canon or Nikon's models in the same price ranges. In terms of image quality, given the use of a lens with good image stabilization on a Nikon or Canon, the bigger sensors in the APS-C mount cameras at entry level prices (under $500) can compete (just comparing overall imaging) with the flagship model of the Olympus or Panasonic camera lines. Canon and Nikon have shrunken the entry level cameras down to a point where they are nearly equivalent to many models in the mirrorless camera lines. 

My fear is that Canon and Nikon, more or less standing on the sidelines, will misinterpret what the market says they want (cameras like the Olympus EM series) thinking that size is everything and that I.S. performance, color tweaks, and great lenses are secondary or unimportant to consumers. 

If the Canon M series of mirrorless cameras is their future then I think it is a dim future for them and their customers. If Nikon pursues a similar course, changing and simplifying their lens mount, making cameras much smaller and harder to handle, filling out lens lines with slow lenses that are already diffraction limited wide open, supplying batteries with truncated run time and camera bodies that don't have space to vent heat then I think their very reason for existence will be diminished and we'll have entered a period where sufficiency of performance is overshadowed by tertiary convenience and easy portage.

Here's what I want to see in a Nikon mirrorless camera for professionals: A body that has ample room for physical control interfaces (I'll never forget my time with the Galaxy NX camera. It had very few physical controls coupled with a five inch touch screen. It was a handling disaster as one frantically raced through nested menus to find the one thing you wanted to change. Even more frustrating was when the always connected camera stopped shooting in order to download an Android software patch...). A body that's big enough to hold well and heavy enough to buffer small body movements of the user. A body that can hold a big enough battery to get through a day of still shooting or several hours of video shooting. A camera that keeps the Nikon lens mount (yes, legacy lenses are fun to use but the vast majority of professionals are using zooms and primes from the same system as their cameras). A camera that uses an EVF in place of moving mirrors and pentaprisms. 

One wag on the internet suggested that, with the recent introductions of the Nikon D850 and the Canon 5DmkIV, both with vastly improved live view performance, both models were already fully functioning mirrorless camera models. Give me an EVF and I'll agree. 

I hope whichever direction the big two go in that it doesn't destroy the things about a camera which are an evolution of over 100 years of design experimentation and consumer testing. Change the stuff that makes the images better but keep the stuff that makes handling a camera all day long possible. Oh hell. Just give me a Nikon D8x0 with a nice EVF and we're done.

But here's the thing I keep thinking; with the relentless push of advertising, photo sharing and communication being pushed to the web and then viewed on laptops, phones and tablets does any of this really matter anymore? Couldn't most of the imaging we see and use every day be produced by phones and GoPros? Does the camera type or shape really matter to anyone other than a generation of people who grew up with traditional camera and who are now either pushing to re-invent them or, on the other hand, resisting change as hard as the can? And to what purpose?

I have two systems. One is based around full frame, traditional DSLR cameras and the other around the mirrorless construct of the moment. Each is very useful. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. But the reality is that I could do most work for clients interchangeably. The process of choosing which system to use at any one time is based not on need but on desire, or mood. It's and interesting position to be in since there's no middle way in the inventory. 

I guess the success or failure of either Nikon or Canon's mirrorless, professional camera will be down to how well they fill out their lens line and how well balanced all of the compromises are going forward. We'll see what happens. I've got my comfortable chair and popcorn ready. 


Mike said...

I love your insights. I realized while reading this that one of the things I've wanted out of a new mirrorless Nikon is reduced weight, although I had thought that would bring a corresponding reduction in size. If composites or lightweight materials could be incorporated to save weight, I would be happier than if the camera were just made smaller. Great insights, Kirk.

Ray said...

Canon and Nikon would be SOooo foolish to give up on their old lens mounts. Most of us don't really care if there is a mirror inside, but once you get used to an EVF there is no going back.

I'm agreeing with Mike above that I want a camera that's lighter but not necessorly smaller. The happiest day of my totally hack, amateur, vacation photograper life was the day I sold my big fat DSLR and bought a Sony NEX-6. I'll never go back to a camera I can't cary all day without hurting myself.

Peter said...

The prime thing that attracted me to m4/3 WAS the size. Not just of the bodies but the lenses as well. Take the Oly 45mm 1.8, or the Oly 17mm 1.8: they are absolutely tiny – but put in an excellent performance. However, you are right that the bodies were actually too small for good ergonomics. The first Oly EM-5, was guilty of this in spite of the fact that it went well past any necessary technical requirements necessary to achieve excellent 13x19 prints. The Oly EM-1.2 now resolves these problems without falling into the true heavyweight range of your recent/old Nikons.

After reading your posts, I almost bought a pristine D700 the other day (the rationale was that I already own a set of Nikon lenses for use with F2, FM3a, and F100, so I 'should' get a DSLR to get more use out of them), but then I realized I would not be using it for travel (too big and heavy), not be using it for street (too conspicuous), or family outings (all of the above), it didn't do 'eye detect' autofocus, and would need to be AF tuned for my lenses. So I resisted! I was quite proud of myself! I think a second EM-1.2 would be a better (and more rational) purchase.

What will Nikon come up with? Who knows. As you mention, they don't exactly have a wonderful track record of reading their customer needs, so it could get ugly! If they came up with an absolutely wonderful mirrorless offering I would be tempted, but I'm not holding my breath.
Peter Wright.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kirk, please keep in mind that Cannon has already made one mount change when going from FD to digital. Nikon has to toss up the problem of their comparatively smaller sized mount (you can fit Nikon lenses onto other manufacturer bodies with adapters, but not the other way around). They may be forced to go the mount change route, to get the extra size modern digital mirrorless probably needs, and issue an adaptor for F mount to mount.
BTW, do you see any scenarios where OVF is preferable to EVF, even if that is a niche case?
Not THAT Ross Cameron

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Hi Ross Cameron, It will be interesting to see which way Nikon goes. I'm thinking right now that they'll screw up and take the "lens mount change" direction. I think it would be a grave mistake because it detaches generations of Nikon users from any loyalty to the brand. Without a future path there's no loyalty. I understand that other maker's lenses won't fit on Nikons without very complex adaptations but I also think that technology will allow Nikon to continue to make lenses for the existing mount with few other penalties.

As to benefits of OVFs? The one place where they are still more pleasant to use is when doing flash photographer under low light conditions. It's still mostly guess work but at least the finder doesn't slow down or get grainy as the light drops.

It's now mostly a preference thing. The EVFs are so good. But many OVFs are tiny tunnels connected to dark porroprism finders so the issue is...all blurry.

Gato said...

My vote is for a new mount plus adapter for existing lenses. This is something Sony got almost right from the very start. Now with PDAF on chip it should be much easier. A piece of cake for Canon with their electronic EOS mount, somewhat more difficult for Nikon if they want to support lenses with mechanical coupling and AF drive -- but Sony has shown it can be done.

I pretty much agree with what you say here, except I think there is a real market for a compact system, especially alongside a larger system.

A new mount with the shortest flange distance and largest throat opening practical would open up some new possibilities for compact and pancake lenses, at least in the wide to normal range, not to mention tilt-shift possibilities, and maybe even some new ideas in tele-extenders or macro equipment. It would also open the way for a very compact line based on a smaller chip which could still use the full line of lenses.

As to size, no reason they can't go both ways. Offer a very compact travel/street body and a larger heavy duty body. Add in a few compact and pancake lenses and everyone should be happy. Well, almost everyone.

And while we're on the subject of handling, why does a modern digital camera have to be shaped like a film-era SLR? Isn't it about time we saw cameras shaped for the human hand and wrist? I suppose that is too bold for Canon and too risky for Nikon, but someday it ought to happen.

Rick said...

Hi Kirk,

Do you suppose Nikon has waited too long? They have suffered recent financial problems and I have to wonder whether they have the resources to launch a "proper" mirrorless system, whatever that may be in 2018, while still tending to their core business. Canon can perhaps survive their continued odd mirrorless efforts but it seems Sony is simply gobbling up both companies' potential 135-format mirrorless market before our eyes. I'm not convinced there's room for all three.

It's amusing to ponder my Franken-m4/3 system, a curious gathering of 4/3 and m4/3 lenses plus bodies ranging from the minuscule GM5 to the pretty darn hefty E-M1ii. It keeps bringing smiles to my face and Oly & Panny can still surprise us with some neat advanced lenses, even if the combined flow of new gear is a mere trickle compared to five years ago. They're very cautious now.

Think it's safe to say the next worldwide recession will eliminate at least a couple camera makers. Hope I'm luckier than I was with Contax!

Bassman said...

Kirk, i agree with most of your points, and no longer own a DSLR. My E-M1 and E-M1.2 are the right size for me and about the same size as a lower-end Nikon with fewer features. But I disagree that putting “professional” zooms on the camera obviates the size advantage from the smaller sensor. The Panasonic 12-35 and 35-100 f/2.8 lenses are dramatically smaller than their FF or APC equivalents for the same FoV and f-stop. I can carry a Panasonic 100-400 lens for wildlife at 30 Oz., while the equivalent reach 800mm FF lens would weigh in at 10 lbs and costs $16,000, or the 200-500 weighs 4.6 lbs and only gets the same FoV on APC. In fact, I would argue that it is only the lens size and weight advantage that is significant - bodies are constrained by the size of the human hand.

Eric W said...

Kirk the other day you asked if there ever was a camera we regretted selling. I did not get a chance to reply, but for me it was my Pentax K5. What I enjoyed most about that camera was the balance between the body's ergonomics, and not too heavy not too light lens balance for their F2.8 and F4 lenses on APS-C was the Goldilocks of photography. Everything CanNikon was heavier, and everything else was frankly inferior for my hands. That said I do not miss the OVF, micro lens adjustments, and Pentax's horrible gen 1 SDM motors, and always too slow focusing. If Pentax had gone mirrorless with their current lens mount I would have stayed...and got a full frame for their 31/43/77 primes. This said I think what you demonstrated over the last few weeks of old camera purchases is if a photographer knows their craft and their audience requirements equipment up to ten years or more old will get the job done. The biggest advantage of newer cameras with bells and whistles is they make work easier for lower skilled individuals, or "may" speed up a workflow for professionals. We reached the era of sufficency for the vast majority of 1 second photo viewing. In a few years computational photography might even make what we discuss now mute points of discussion as well. Until then though...I'm gonna enjoy my tools and make a few more images.

rlh1138 said...

Very interesting and informative - even to a hobbyist like me. I remember when you first started talking about the advantages of EVFs - when others on the net were pooh poohing them. Your points made a lot of sense, and I ended up with an a6000 with which I've been totally happy. So.. always like to hear what your thinking about.

Also, I think you mean commensurate

Ray H.

Anonymous said...

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ODL Designs said...

Of course everyone has their own opinion on sufficiency and for others there is never "enough". However I have to agree that as most online viewing is now on cellphones (worldwide) and most print viewing is handheld, we are definately at the point where a 50mp FF camera for $5000 is overkill.

On the size front, I think the EM5 and EM5.2 solution was perfect, with an optional grip for when I wanted it, and a nice compact body with all the key controls I wanted for when I didnt.

Just my 2 cents.

David Maxwell said...

Hi Kirk, thank you for your detailed response to my comment yesterday. I am struggling with how to organize and archive a lot of images that aren't great or sentimental. Recently I resized a bunch and deleted the RAWs. I am with you about the process...I like landscape photography primarily, and for me just being out in nature and photographing is the main thing. I have lots of pictures from excursions that I have just transferred to my computer and never looked at again.

Anyways...about today's post. Even though it isn't technically mirrorless, it does have a EVF...the Sony a99ii. I remember when you shot with the a77 and seemed to really like it. Could you ever go back to the "chunky Sony's"? I personally love the traditional DSLR form factor. I just hate Sony's menus. I liked the EVF on my a65.

crduke said...

Ah! You want an EVF with lots of external controls. The Oly 8080WZ literally bristled with external controls. That would be my benchmark. Too bad that the early EVFs were less than useful...

Michael Matthews said...

Put a big EVF on the Nikon 3X00 series camera, throw away the mirror and the job is done. With that sensor there is no need for more. I was on the verge of detouring away from mirrorless and toward the small Nikon after seeing your 2012 portrait of Lou Lofton shot with the D3200. Then I picked one up and looked through the soda straw optical viewfinder. That idea died right there on the floor of Best Buy.

Eric Perlberg said...

Hi Kirk
Your post is written from the point of view of a professional photographer, I’m no expert but my sense is that professional photographers are not a growing market nor are they a market segment that will support financial growth for Nikon, Canon or any other large manufacturer. The growth market is the non professional mass market which seems to be of two groups; well healed serious amateurs and less well healed weekend wannabes. The rest are happy with their smartphones. That the camera companies try to appeal to these two mentioned groups with ads which show their cameras in exciting professional use situations is simply marketing. The number of people who are actually working for, say, National Geographic is small compared to the number of people who are landscape or travel “weekend warriors”. The number of people who are true fashion photogs is small compared to the number of people who “adopt the photographer pose” when photographing their girlfriends. The number of photographers doing professional sports photography compared too the number shooting their kids in little league is again small. I don’t think those in the latter groups in general really cares about backward compatibility of lenses or the size of buttons. They do care about their sore neck muscles and the specs of the camera their buddies buy. So I don’t think you’re wish for for a Nikon d8xx with an evf is the main issue for Nikon’s future products planning team. I think the next gen cameras will be planned with headline features but designed for lowering manufacturing costs and maximising profits.

Anders said...

Hi Kirk, I don't think the future is mirrorless, meaning that cameras with an OVF will cease to exist.

Mirrorless cameras have been on the market for around 10 years and they still haven't got a significant market share and I hardly see them anywhere at home or on holiday. Almost all the young and older people I see on holidays all over the world use DSLRs if not a mobile phone.

Why is that? First of all because of too high prices for a lot of electronic nonsense added to the mirrorless cameras, which I think almost nobody use. Secondly because a lot of people still prefer a good OVF over a TV-screen.

It will be interesting to see what Nikon comes up with and personally I hope the width and height will be similar to existing FF DSLRs, but with less depth. Also if they could provide a button to switch between EVF and OVF like the Fuji X100 it would be really great.

Anyway, I think the two systems (OVF and EVF based cameras) will live side by side also in the future.

Wally said...

Nikon Fantasy Nikon will make a great mirrorless camera solve the flange issue allowing for legacy lenses, great AtoD processing, Wonderful sensor fits in teh hand well, bigger battery and of course being Nikon

Wait for it

Wait for it

Will leave off Microphone and headset jacks for video...

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Wally. So Sad. But probably so true....

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thoughts Kirk,
I reckon Nikon got close to implementing the software/features needed to support mirrorless with the D850 (ignoring video). If one accepts Thom’s blogs, then to badly paraphrase, we’re all just waiting to see how management act when they stop contemplating the cost of their navel lint or wringing their hands long enough to draw straws to find out who has to put their cahoonas on the block, make the decision, and limp off to the window seat.
Not THAT Ross Cameron

Hardison said...

I bought the Sony A6000 mostly for the camera size and weight. I carry an extra battery in my pocket, so that is never an issue, but last time I volunteered to shoot some pictures, I carried a couple of flashes, a backdrop, a soft box and a couple of tripods, with a total weight of about 60 pounds.

The weight difference between the A6000 and the Nikon D7000 is about 1 pound.

Having said that, the A6000 is a good versatile camera, and does everything I need it to do. I could buy a newer camera with sharper lenses, but as you say, most people are viewing the pictures on social media with somewhere between 0.3 and 0.7 megapixels.

Russ said...

The future isn't mirrorless, rather it's the camera phone (ex., Google Pixel). We are seeing more HDR+ image processing, chip power, AI, and image stabilization. The only weak spots would be extreme wide angle or telephoto. Given that, it would be tough not to use the phone as your everyday walk around camera.

Anonymous said...

Understand the attraction of a full-bodied full frame mirrorless camera, with plenty of real estate for convenient dedicated controls.

But I also understand the real market demand for compact full frame cameras, and the market has understood this since the revolutionary announcement in 1971 of the Olympus OM1. Other manufacturers, including Nikon, Pentax, Canon, all quickly responded to the consumer acceptance of lightweight, compact, and what was described as "jewel-like" reflex models by introducing svelte EMs, FEs, MEs, and such.

The image end product of the F2s and F3s and FE2s was identical. No reason a Nikon can't address the same two segments. In fact, the compact segment will subsidize the existence of your larger segment, which otherwise would have an even higher unit price.

The danger will be when the manufacturer decides to arbitrarily de-content the smaller models, targeting them at a cheaper consumer, rather than simply an alternative consumer. If coming out with models to address both the larger and the compact segment, Nikon must ensure the same final image quality output is achievable from both.

Jason Hindle said...

I hate to say this but, in terms of size, I think Leica got it exactly right with their SL. It’s a body that has been designed from the ground up for large, professional glass. Looking at my Sony A7II, even the relatively small 24-70 f4 doesn’t feel well balanced (I prefer to use small primes with this camera).

Craig Yuill said...

I bought into a mirrorless system (Nikon 1) a few years ago because it proved to be a better, smaller, lighter hybrid photo/video device for travelling than other cameras I had at the time. I use it to shoot almost all of my video to this day, although I am keeping an eye on other systems.

Canon has what is arguably the best video AF system around (dual pixel). Nikon, according to rumours, is working on a similar video AF system for its cameras. I think what Canon and Nikon would bring to mirrorless cameras is greater overall adoption and their own innovations. I get the feeling that both Canon and Nikon will produce mirrorless cameras use their current SLR mount. Canon STM lenses and Nikon AF-P lenses have stepper motors that work well with mirrorless and live-view AF systems. Nikon might use a new mount for new APS-C and future FF cameras. There has been suggestions that the Nikon 1 CX mount could support near-APS-C sensor sizes. I look forward to seeing what Canon and Nikon will bring to the mirrorless table.

I do agree with Russ that smartphone cameras are the future for most people. But I doubt that dedicated cameras will disappear altogether. They are just too useful for specialized purposes. I cannot see how you could realistically shoot stage productions with an iPhone, unless there are some unexpected and amazing technologies created to add fast-telephoto capabilities to phone cameras.