On Size and Progress and the Mirrorless Camera

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  by Chris

Every so often, in the development of technological things, be they cameras or computers, telephones or even timepieces, there is an interesting  trend they all undergo: every so often, they experience a quantum leap in technology. After that quantum leap, they get iterated smaller, smaller, and smaller. Then, they leap some more, or perhaps suffer obsolescence. And so it is with cameras. When film replaced photographic plates, photography took a quantum leap. Quality drastically increased, as did portability. When color photography began, a whole new world opened up. A wonderful world of color opened up a wonderful world of processing woes; but, people could see color!  35mm film was a huge developmental milestone, in that it made things much more portable, and therefore usable. But what really changed the day was autofocus. Lenses became bulkier, and often made of cheaper materials. Then came the digital era. Just like the first cell phones were monsters, the first digital cameras were huge and clunky and really not much of a replacement for film… so some thought. Then, they got much better, and learned how to get smaller and smaller… and the mirrorless interchangable lens camera was gradually born.

An oft proposed question is: will mirrorless kill the SLR? My answer is: no. To me, it seems that mirrorless is a size iteration  more than a quantum leap. Their portability offers tremendous options for use. Having climbed Mount Elbert earlier this month, I feel mightily their call. For some fields of play, the mirrorless camera fits in naturally. Street photography especially comes to mind. They actually have been pushing mirrorless cameras in that field all along (rangefinders). But, in adventure photography (and other genres as well I won’t cover), the downsides of mirrorless begin to show: 1. battery consumption and 2. viewfinder lag.

High battery consumption in the wild is a bad thing. Especially when it is only about 30 degrees out and electricity is a long long way away. Stashing extra batteries means extra weight, which, to be usable, must be kept warm, which means carrying them in awkward ways. Unlike the good old days, when a digital camera runs out of power, it is time to go home. Stashing extra batteries also means extra price and extra space… Which begins to defeat the purpose of mirrorless in the first place.

Viewfinder lag is the critical sin of the mirrorless camera. Even a 20th second lag with birds makes the difference  between a keeper and a useless image. With an slr, one views the scene on ground glass as it actually is happening. On an OLED electronic viewfinder, a person sees what the computer thinks he should see. Dynamic range is greater through the viewfinder, allowing one to see the scene more clearly. In short, depressing the shutter button to capture an image only to see that the opportunity passed away in lag is depressing.

Is this to say that mirrorless cannot become better than it is? No. Mirrorless will iterate furiously. However, it will not defeat the mighty slr in its current form. I suspect, however, that probably in about twenty years something we cannot now possibly comprehend will eat the slr. However, the slr will never disappear. Viewfinder cameras are still here! And some even call for digital tlrs…

My conclusion: Mirrorless is more an iteration than a quantum leap.


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