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.