The future of compact cameras and the takeover of mirrorless systems

2008 was an amazing year for photography evolution, all because a little underdog in the photography industry said, “Do we even need mirrors in cameras anymore?” And so the Panasonic G1 was born, the first in what would become the newest form of camera to hit the consumer market. But what impact does it really have on the rest of the market? Is this the new wave of the future or just another way to take a picture? In this article I’m going to explore the pros and cons of a mirrorless camera, and share my personal insights into whether or not the compact camera is ready for extinction, if not a serious reduction in its sales.

Now chances are if you’re here at this site you probably have some interest in photography, but just for a moment let’s talk about what a mirrorless camera is for those who may not be in the know. For many decades now most professional/semi-professional cameras were SLR, of course there were many other types: compacts, medium formats, twin-lens reflex, half frames, etc, but for the average consumer/hobbiest it was all about the SLR’s. SLR of course stands for Single Lens Reflex, basically meaning you are looking through a series of mirrors and prisms to look through your single lens (as opposed to the twin-lens reflex cameras that existed before the SLR). The advantage with mirrors is you can look through your lens and see what you’re gonna get with pretty close accuracy. With the birth of digital photography SLR’s pretty much stayed the same as they always have, and as technology became better and cheaper to produce we started seeing Liveview displays. So now because we can see on the back of the camera what the picture is going to look like we can say goodbye to the chunk mirror system and start producing cameras that are smaller in size and lighter in weight.

Most compact cameras are mirrorless too (with the exception of waterproof cameras that bend light 90^ to hit a sensor in the body as opposed to going directly to the sensor), the major disadvantage with compact cameras include smaller lenses, much smaller sensors, and mechanical lenses that are quite prone to breaking. Now these are pretty decent for joe and jill schmoe who are not photographers and wouldn’t even know about better quality cameras and what they do, but now that Mirrorless System Camera (MSC) are about the same size as a compact camera why not go to something that won’t disappoint? One could argue cost is the biggest reason, but at the point of writing this article my camera shop has several MSC prices at $399 cnd! I have compact cameras that are more expensive than that….

MSC/SLR myth: They are more complicated to use than an average compact camera.
Fact: Not at all! People get turned off by the size and apparent complication of these types of cameras but really nothing is different, these cameras still work in the exact same way as a compact camera, but they do it to more control and precision. The only major difference is manually rotating a lens for zoom (if applicable), but other than that you can leave it on an automatic mode and let the camera do everything.

So what is the biggest advantage with going to a MSC vs a compact camera? Quality… it’s all about the quality. Most mirrorless cameras, such as the ones offered by Panasonic, Olympus, and Sony have sensors as large as a cropped sensor SLR if not a little smaller. Other companies chose to go with smaller sensors, closer to compact cameras, companies like Nikon and Pentax. In general the larger the sensor the better the quality you will get in your photographs, but of course not all sensors are created equal and that could be an essay in it’s own. But for now let’s just say at the time of writing this the larger sensor MSC’s are out performing the smaller ones, the Pentax Q1 has an amazing small size and decent quality, but the Nikon is not quite as small and seems to suffer a lot from jpeg artifacts. Alternatives from the other three mentioned companies are leaps and bounds over these two in quality, especially the Sony’s which currently have the largest sensors. Lens quality is another big factor in quality, if not the biggest, and again could warrant another article on it’s own, but for now I would like to make mention that any prospective buyer into an MSC doesn’t need to buy several lenses, they can just buy one that suits their needs and leave it on all the time.

Advantages of a SLR vs a MSC:
Mirrors still do in fact work better for professionals for several reasons, a few of which include lower battery consumption, very minimal shutter lag, no wear on the sensor, pictures produce lower noise due to the fact the sensor isn’t getting arm from use, and of course viewfinders are still king in bright sunlight. These are all things a professional or serious hobbiest must have in their cameras, but the average consumer looking for a good photo probably wouldn’t even notice these features.

Advantages of an MSC vs a SLR:
I’m just going to go ahead and list them off: Size, better image quality than a compact camera, ability to change lens if you drop the camera and break it (as opposed to a compact), generally cheaper than and SLR due to the less parts and consequently less parts that can fail, %100 image coverage (some SLR viewfinders will only show you (95-99% of your image), some SLR’s require a different focusing screen to work with certain lenses whereas MSC’s do not, and perhaps the most important feature: the ability to adapt almost every lens in the world to fit the camera and use! This last one is huge, it is for this reason alone that MSC’s have really taken off in Asia and to a degree North America…. Shortly after the release of the Panasonic G1 word got out that you can take these stupidly fast prime cine lenses (movie camera lenses) and adapt them to this system where as most SLR’s cannot adapt them properly. Suddenly lenses that were selling for $5 at flea markets were going for $1200 on ebay! I read an article that showed a Tokyo Camera show that year talking about hoe many of the attendants there had a G1 strapped around their neck and each one had some weird obscure lens attached to it. Compare that to my Canon 5DmkII, if I wanted to adapt some of the world’s best lenses, ie Leica M series, to my camera I am out of luck…. A Leica M camera’s sensor is so close to the lens, much like a MSC, that even if I found an adapter to mount it the lens is still too far away from the sensor because of the mirror. It goes without shock that the first lenses to be adapter to the Panasonic cameras were Leica lenses….

Given all these reasons I will not be surprised if you see half the current market of compact cameras disappear real soon and see more MSC cameras sell. It’s been my personal goal to spread the word about these cameras at my work because it gives my customers the chance to get much better looking photos without sacrificing much from their compact cameras that they are used to. To this day several customers have come back to me many times and told me how much they are enjoying their cameras, even those that know nothing about photography are very satisfied with the quality of their photos. Will compact cameras die? Probably not, but they may certainly decrease in numbers. Will MSC replace SLRs? Again, probably not, not until technology advances in quite a few areas, but truthfully they were not meant to. MSC cameras exist solely to get the average consumer a better looking photo, maybe even lead them further into a hobby of photography; and certainly they perform quite well for the professional/semi-professional looking for a sidearm when they do not wish to take the large camera grocery shopping. I personally look forward to see what will happen with mirrorless cameras, and it’s all thanks to a newcomer in the photography industry who dared to do something different.

~t

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