The OVF versus EVF arguments are really more about nearly everyone trying to toss out multiple babies with multiple basins of bathwater...

DPReview tossed out some topical clickbait today about the death of the DSLR which was occasioned, I believe, by discussions they had with camera makers at a trade show in Japan. According the their various discussions the market for cameras seems to have reached a tipping point and the trends point to a rise in the acceptance of mirrorless cameras at the expense of traditional mirror bangers. Lots of people weighed in but most them seem side-tracked by tangential images that have little to do with the relative features and benefits of both types of cameras.

I believe that there are only two fundamental reasons why the mirror-free cameras will eventually become the more numerous and popular of the camera types and these two reasons have nothing to do with the presumptions of the general camera buyers.

First, I think the market is not driven by the camera buyers, as we often believe, but by the camera makers themselves. The camera makers, from Canon to Olympus, are ready for a wholesale change to mirrorless cameras because each camera requires many fewer parts and many less manufacturing adjustments in order to function within workable tolerances. If camera makers can maintain pricing within market segments while replacing higher cost DSLRs with lower costs mirror-free cameras they win on manufacturing savings alone. Canon and Nikon have always known this was the case but wanted to wait and see if the buying audiences could be willingly dragged in the same direction that the makers' accountant deemed more profitable.

As a sub-feature of manufacturing it is also easier to make smaller and lighter zooms and wide angle lenses if the flange to sensor distance can be reduced sharply (as in the design of most mirror-free, cameras). Being able to offer good quality (optical quality) lenses which are less costly to make (and ship) but which fulfill the same niches as more expensive to make lenses for traditional DSLR cameras is another profit plus for the makers.

There is something similar afoot in cars. Electric engines have far fewer parts than combustion engines and require orders of magnitude less maintenance as well. The result should be less manufacturing complexity and far fewer recalls and expenses. A plus for car buyers but a huge plus for car makers. (Note that the battery side of the equation is different from the issues involved in engines... don't argue the whole car...).

So, Canon and Nikon let Olympus, Panasonic and Sony work out most of the kinks of creating mirror free, interchangeable lens cameras and are now poised to step in and grab the lion's share of the profits. That's just the way it typically goes.  But it's important to understand that the simplification of the basic camera is a much bigger win for the makers than it is for the consumer who might have been quite happy with the older technologies. Mirrorless is not necessarily the way forward in cameras but probably seemed to Panasonic and Olympus, and more recently Sony, to be a way of using manufacturing costs efficiencies as a disruptor to the overall camera market. A way of dislodging the iron grip of the two comfortable leaders in the business.

The second fundamental reason people are moving from OVFs to EVFs is that being able to see in advance exactly (more or less) what you will see after you push the shutter makes iterative learning in the photographic arts much easier for people with little previous education in image making. Look at the little "TV" and turn the dials until you get exactly what you want!" Early acceptance of EVFs worked for people interested in video but at the time the video performance of mirrorless cameras was no great shakes (Panasonic GH series excepted). Perhaps that's why initial sales floundered.
Now that an EVF is for all intents and purpose the equal of the optical finders in most consumer DSLR cameras there is less and less reason for users to have a preference for traditional technologies and a somewhat more pressing case for always on live view. 

To serious amateurs and professionals the EVF offers a number of benefits but most of them are in the field of helping pre-visualize a final shot or in taking advantage of elimination mirror slap, and its attendant lowering of image sharpness, from lowering sharpness.

To hear the unwashed masses tell it these reasons are minor and the big differences between traditional cameras and the newer, mirrorless ILC cameras is all about the size and weight of the cameras. They could not be more wrong.

If that was all people cared about then mirrorless cameras would have died on the vine within a few years of their introduction into the markets, skewered on the sharpened pikes of many generations of cellphones.

Most people who buy stand alone cameras in addition to smart phones have, as their primary intent, the desire to take better images, and to take images that have characteristics that set the final images apart from what a typical user can get from a cellphone. Not just better high ISO/noise performance but also enhanced focal length ranges and better control over the results of depth of field decisions.

One can not help but notice that some popular mirrorless cameras (The Panasonic GH4, GH5, GH5S, G9, G8, the Olympus OMD EM-2 and others)  have grown in size and weight but have also grown in greater consumer acceptance during the same time frame. I also see many of the more serious mirrorless cameras, like the models I listed, being used frequently with battery grips to actually enhance the camera's handling performance by increasing its overall size. At the same time you've probably noticed that Canon and Nikon's very capable entry level DSLRs have shrunk down to the point where they compete, on physical volume, with most mirrorless offerings.

And while these smaller DSLRs are, in terms of overall image quality, very, very good you don't see many professionals and serious hobbyists rushing to dump their much bigger "professional" cameras in order to embrace the benefits of the single metric of size. Diminutive is not all it's cracked up to be.

It would be folly for camera makers to listen too earnestly to a vocal few who have determined that small size is the compelling reason for the market's embrace of mirrorless cameras. Reflexively making cameras smaller and smaller, without mindful regard for "haptics" and performance is the epitome of tossing the baby out with the bathwater.

All the Nikon and Canon have to do to overwhelm and re-dominate the market is to repudiate the trend towards tiny and instead replace expensive optical viewfinders with state of the art EVFs in the models that work well today. The Nikon D850 has been in high demand and short supply since its inception. Transition that picky market segment by creating a twin product that uses an EVF instead of a moving mirror and prism. The same across the entire line. Let buyers vote with their credit cards.
I'd vote for a D850evf over a plain D850 any day of the week.

The Canon advanced amateur line could be overhauled in the same way. In either the Nikon or the Canon camp or both they could retain their lens mounts if they wanted since it's my belief that the desire or demand to be able to use all sorts of legacy lenses is, frankly, much overblown on the web.
I'd conjecture that most users, especially in the younger audience segments, are generally less interested in using old, crusty manual focus lenses that we remember from out initiations in photography than we avid practitioners of a certain age profess to be.

A Canon 5Dmk1V or a Nikon D750, fitted with an EVF would become a better video tool, a more practical educational took and still, with PD focus on chip, be able to handle traditional DSLR strengths like continuous AF for sports.

Canon and Nikon benefit by being able to offer more things people seem to want, such as faster frame rates, more finder overlays, continuous live view while holding onto their embedded audiences by dint of those audiences' lens investments. They can attack previous mirrorless competitors head on, with the same features and performance options while still offering a vastly bigger selection of dedicated lenses which are optimized for their mount and their systems.

Canon and Nikon could also benefit by having their most advanced models available in two styles; with and without EVFs. The OVF version would become deluxe and limited edition tools of a certain percentage of users, continuing the halo effect enjoyed by both in the sports arena with very little downside.

Sure, a Sony, Olympus or Panasonic camera might let you use a Nikon 43-86mm zoom on the front of it but...would you really want to?

Nikon should have learned the hard way with their first mirrorless foray (V series) that tiny isn't necessarily the first feature most serious users demand. In fact, for sheer handling something like the Panasonic GH5 is the smallest camera that still feels reasonable comfortable and well laid out to me...

I think we're counting down the months until we see the vision laid out for us by Nikon and Canon for the replacement of their cameras in the $1000-$6000 price range. I'm hoping they don't base their market research on the whims and unicorn chases over in the forums on the world's most contentious camera website. I'd hate to see un-holdably tiny camera bodies and a raft of equally tiny and bland little lenses as the offerings for the future.

Big and bold is good. With electronic viewfinders it could be even better. And all that legacy glass....

What do you think the camera future holds? I hope I'm able to buy stuff that's big enough to wrap my hands around. I'm tired of the miniaturization compulsion disorder amongst some users. Let's not sacrifice good ergonomics just to add some mostly useless features.


Jeff said...

hi Kirk
You've convinced me that as a hobbyist whatever modern camera I now have is more than enough. If I really want to try for better IQ you showed me that I can look for something like a used D700 or 5D. So I'm not planning on buying one of the new cameras, but I am looking forward to reading your take on them. -Jeff

Craig said...

Good point about manufacturing. The camera makers benefit in a number of ways; simpler manufacturing but also an opportunity to introduce a new lens mount and sell people more lenses. Sure, you can use a 30-year-old Canon EF lens on your EOS-M camera, but many consumers will be attracted to new lenses (hopefully smaller, lighter, and with even better IQ) specifically designed for the mirrorless system.

I agree with you on camera size size. A camera needs to be big enough to hold comfortably without being too bulky. For me, I find the Fuji X cameras just about right, but that may be because they're closer to the size, weight, and ergonomics of classic 35mm film cameras than other digital cameras. I find the Micro Four Thirds cameras to be smaller than I would prefer, but still quite usable.

The legacy lens argument has always been kind of interesting. It matters for people who have a collection of old lenses and still want to use them; not so much for anyone else. I suspect that limits its applicability to a pretty small minority of people (of whom I happen to be one). The claims in this area have always tended to be somewhat exaggerated; it has never really been true that today's Nikon DSLRs can use "any lens made since 1977" (much less since 1959). It is more true at the high end of the DSLR line, but lower-end cameras that lack the old body-based AF motor and the AI follower don't do that well with old glass. Amusingly, many Canon DSLRs actually fare better with old manual-focus Nikkor lenses (via a cheap lens mount adapter) than many Nikons do.

rexdeaver said...

I think all traditional camera makers are in a losing race against Samsung phones and GoPro cameras. I think the pros not too far down the road will be looking at add-ons for their phones...lenses, etc....for their real work. They may have a DSLR or mirrorless body back home for their own enjoyment, but the demands of the working photographer/hybrid photographer will demand instant image making, editing and sharing. I don't particularly *like* that prediction, but I do believe it is accurate.

typingtalker said...

It has been said about Microsoft Office that nobody uses more than 10% of its features but everyone uses a different 10%. The same is true of modern high performance (pro and pro-sumer) cameras. Hold up your hand if you are familiar with and use all the focus methods that Canon uses 41 pages of user manual to describe.

If the single feature you need is not in the product, the other 3,000 features aren't worth much. Or anything.

I use both DSLR and EVF cameras and for me the tiny delay between switching the camera on and seeing an image (and then a focused image) in the EVF is too long in some cases. In other cases, the size and weight of my DSLR camera and lens combination outweighs (!) the EVF delay. But not always.

The comparison between EVF cameras and EV cars is apt. EVF cameras are better than DSLRs in all ways but VF delay. EV cars are better than IC cars in every way except range and places to plug them in. The weaknesses will be overcome in both markets and when they are we will be driving to our photo and video jobs in our EVs and shooting with our EVF Nikons and Canons and Sonys.

One more thing ... Buying (with a trade-in) a new upgraded body (from a 5D MkIII to a 5D MkIV for example) is cheap compared to buying a new Sony AND a bag of lenses even with a trade in. Some financial friction there.

It will be fun to watch.

David said...

I switched to mirrorless for the weight saving, which was substantial and a great benefit on international travel. The thing that is often ignored though, is that it was really a switch from a "full frame" Canon to a Fujifilm APS-C. It's the lenses that are lighter.
I got an improvement in image quality and weight, but maybe lost a little on dynamic range. I like looking at a TV screen but my partner hates it. "Better" is often a two way street.
Here's the thing. The latest offering from Fuji is bigger and built like a brick compared to my X-T2. Not my cup of tea, but there's no reason Sony and the rest may not follow suit.
What does the future hold? As always, we don't know, but the present is pretty good.

Nigel said...

I agree with much of that - but there are those of us who also value the smaller cameras alongside their chunkier siblings. The GH5 is a great camera, but with a lightweight normal prime, the GX7 is still just about the perfect form factor for me (despite its relatively crappy EVF and stabilisation). but then again, I don’t do it for a living.
In any event, the beauty of mirrorless is the designers are not limited to one particular form.

Wally said...

I agree that smaller while nice on the back carrying around is not that ergonomic when shooting. I have a Nikon 1 V1 and a Panny GX7 both great for convenience and also bad for "hand" fatigue. Much as I don't like to admit Bigger is more comfortable unless you shoot without a sizable EVF and go straight to something like a Sony RX100 1-5

Anonymous said...

An interesting post as always from the best photo-related site of all. This EVF/OVF talk lines up with my hobbyist zuikonian bet-hedging approach. 2 years ago, i dumped my Oly E3, ZD 2.8-3.5 lenses and adapted OMs over frustration with weak DR/high ISO and other blog-induced feelings of camera inadequacy. This fall i snapped out of it (sorry), realized i missed taking pictures, and grabbed an old D300 and 18-70 for $230 (!) thinking the Nikon grass is greener. Short learning curve due to similarities in Oly and Nikon set up other than occasional clockwise/counterclockwise confusion. Ordered a used 300 f4 AFS for birding/nature but cancelled based on anticipated neck pain from carrying down the trail and no VR. Got an EM-5, MMF3, and 50-200 SWD that weigh the same as D300+18-70, has IS, 16MP, and 4x reach, but leaves much to be desired in the AF department. Plus a $35 FT 14-42 ED when i want ultralight. EVF has many more pros than cons. EM-1 will come soon enough to give FT glass PDAF and provide proper grip. Might eventually buy an actual MFT lens. May get a bargain Nikon 300 AF that will give fast AF DX 450 f6 equiv no VR or 600 f8 Oly MF + IBIS. Or any number of value Ai, AiS, AF, AFD gems to go either way. Maybe a D700 to share the MBD10 and give high ISO landscape w 20 2.8. Endless combinations of size, weight, angle of view, ISO, DR, battery life, focus, DOF, VF, native/adapted, handheld/tripod, etc. all with high quality products, med-large viewfinders, and incremental used gear acquisition. Following you and the few other level-headed sages on the web has taught me there is no single right answer. I always wondered if i chose wisely with the OM-1 over the Nikkormat in 19776. Now i know either was right - and these days both is better. I can keep making images if 10 years of predicted Oly demise ever materializes or Nikon whiffs on their first mirrorless at bats or churns out a goofball non-F mount. I will have a next move no matter what...

Phil Service said...

I agree with you about size. I have a Nikon V2 (had a V1). Many nice things about it, but way too small for easy handling. My Sony A6500 is better, but still too small for my average size man hands.

What I am most interested to see when Canon and Nikon finally reveal their rumored "advanced" FF or APS-C mirrorless cameras is whether they go with a new mount. You mention some advantages of the shorter flange distance possible with mirrorless. Many would scream about abandoning all the folks who have F and EF mount lenses. But I ask, what would Steve (Jobs) do? You know he wouldn't be a prisoner to the past. Introduce a new mount if it means you can make better, smaller, lighter, less expensive lenses; and bundle an adapter so that folks can use existing lenses without loss of functionality.

David said...

I think your spot on. Anyone that argues on size simply has to look at cellphones. The first bricks were huge. They became smaller and smaller. The Samsung galaxy s1 or fascinate was tinny. This was my first smartphone. But after it every model after was larger and the very large note series is very popular.
People want things that work and are comfortable to use.
This however maybe a turning point for Nikon. If they are not careful it could be the end. Canon, even though I don't like their cameras will be fine. They have sensor developed, brand recognition and pro support program. Nikon, I think will still have DSLR models with ovf, just as they still make the film F6 model.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the considered views Kirk, I always enjoy a different perspective on such topics.
Re your point about lens size (4th para, “As a sub-feature...”), while I agree that it is possible to build smaller zooms/wides, due to different technical constraints, I don’t know if the promise has been realised. Sony and Olympus still make some stonking big zooms with large apertures, compared to body size. But then there is a general upwards trend in zoom/wide lens size & weight for all brands anyway, as more elements are added to complex groupings. However the primes are a very different story.
For my pure anecdotal evidence of 1, I shoot Nikon D600 with AI/S primes & zooms, due to size, weight, & used cost. Suits my needs as a hobbyist who likes multi-day bushwalks carrying my own tent, sleeping bag, food, stove etc. It means I don’t carry the huge f2.8 zooms, and there is an IQ trade-off. But there is still a huge market for MF Nikkors, and not just for use on Nikon bodies.

Yoram Nevo said...

I understand that for working professionals the EVF and no-mirror has many advantages and almost no disadvantage. But as a hobbyist I like very much to view the world through the OVF (I would ideally prefer even no glass on the way).
So I hope, after the inevitable switch of the industry to mirror-free cameras, Nikon would continue making some models with OVF.

Nigel said...

Panny GX7 both great for convenience and also bad for "hand" fatigue...

That rather neatly illustrates the point that different forms suit different people - I can comfortably carry the GX7 for hours.

EdPledger said...

Having gotten into digital with the Sony NEX, almost entirely to use a set of Zeiss lenses from my Contax cameras, I have gone from tiny and inconvenient (with no EVF) to gradually larger and more DSLR-like. When going to m4/3, I immediately added the battery grip to my EM5ii to get the size and ergonomics, not so much to add more battery life (plus, held in portrait orientation, just so much better). With E-mount and m4/3 bodies I used all sorts of crusty old legacy lenses acquired early in retirement. Still shoot B&W film with some of those cameras, so lugging a Nikkormat keeps memories fresh about weight. More recently I have added an old Nikon DSLR and I do not find its size to be onerous, although I would take an m4/3 or Fuji XE2 for a stroll in Montreal or Austin for casual street photos. So, I agree, the size issue does not argue too forcefully for Canikon FF to abandon their current lens mount, flange distance situation. But, the Nikon mount in particular has gotten complex over the years in the effort to keep extant lenses useable. So, I expect Nikon to do what you suggest, for one line of cameras. Eviscerate the mirror box and incorporate a really, really good EVF in a mirrorless body essentially with the same ergonomics as a D800 or 850. But to also introduce a new mount system, with greater diameter, better electronics and shorter flange distance, for a new line of cameras that can take Nikon forward with new lens and body designs. Put those at a lower price point to start and pull the rug from under Sony et al. But who knows....many a slip between cup and lip.

Neopavlik said...

I’m waiting for Nikon’s fx Mirrorfree; I want eye autofocus with my screwdrive 105dc 180mm2.8 and 300mm 2.8. Better video focus would be nice too.