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Are Mirrorless Cameras the Future of Digital Photography?
When I bought my first digital camera towards the end of 2001, I thought it was something special. It was an Olympus C-2100UZ, complete with 10X zoom and a stabilized lens. The tiny sensor captured 1.92 megapixels of data. In its day, it was a pretty impressive camera and I was thrilled to have it.
Back then I hadn’t heard of things like ISO or digital noise. I didn’t know that for some purposes you need to look at photos at 100% magnification to see whether the picture quality is satisfactory, or that my photos would never be good enough to make large prints. My camera was digital, so I could shoot as many photos as I liked without having to worry about the cost of film or unwanted prints. And that zoom allowed me to take photos I’d never been able to take before. I loved that camera!
In June 2002 I joined a website called dpchallenge. The main aim of the site is to enter photos in competitions based on different themes, but they also have forums on all sorts of photography related topics. I’ve learned a lot there over the years. One of the first things I learned was the limitations of my camera.
And so began my pursuit of better equipment. Initially I was satisfied with more megapixels. I feared DSLRs with interchangeable lenses and the risk of getting dirt on the sensor. I thought a good zoom was all I needed. But as I watched the skills of the other dpchallenge members improve, I realized that there was a lot that even my latest camera – a Panasonic DMC-FZ5 – couldn’t do. I craved ultra-wide angle lenses and shallow depth-of-field.
In 2007 I finally conquered my fears and bought my first DSLR – a Canon EOS 400D. And then, of course, I needed lenses. First I went for long zooms to cover the range I was used to shooting. Finally, after a long wait, I got my beloved ultra-wide angle lens – a Sigma 10-20mm zoom. It’s still my favorite lens and is able to produce shots no point and shoot camera can.
In time I upgraded to a Canon EOS 7D. It offers me a few features my 400D lacked, like the ability to shoot in live view mode. The focusing system is better, and it can take bursts of photos at 8 frames per second in good light. Even in low light it performs remarkably well when compared to my first digital camera.
But over the years, moving to better equipment has had one big drawback. When I used my Olympus C-2100UZ, it fitted in a fairly small bag, and I still had space for a spare battery and a couple of filters. My camera went everywhere with me and it was no strain carrying it around. Now I have a collection of lenses, but they’re big and heavy and I’m far too small to carry much equipment around with me. At most I’ll ever carry one spare lens. Often I can’t get the shot I really want because the lens I need is at home.
For some of the photographers at dpchallenge this doesn’t seem to be a problem. There are a lot of big strong men out there who are quite happy to carry big bags full of lenses when they go out shooting. But I’ve noticed that even some of the best photographers are starting to downsize. Because DSLRs are no longer the only alternative to point and shoot cameras. In 2012 every major camera manufacturer now also makes mirrorless cameras.
What is a mirrorless camera?
A mirrorless camera is a bit like a compact DSLR. It also has interchangeable lenses, but as a result of leaving out the mirror, both the camera body and the lenses are much smaller. Instead of carrying around my Canon 7D with one lens, I could carry around a mirrorless camera with a selection of lenses, and the bag wouldn’t be much bigger or heavier.
The one thing that the mirrorless loses is the ability to see the view straight through the lens. Instead one may have to settle for an electronic viewfinder. Some mirrorless cameras don’t have viewfinder at all, but only allow you to compose your photos using the screen on the back of the camera.
In 2012 mirrorless cameras still have other limitations. The selection of lenses available is nowhere near as large as what one can get for a DSLR. The only manufacturers who already offer a good selection of lenses are Olympus and Panasonic. Some people are put off these companies, however, because the sensor in their cameras in a lot smaller than the sensor in most DSLRs. But their sensor is still a lot bigger than what one would find in the vast majority of point and shoot cameras, and the picture quality is very good.
Where to from here?
A few months ago I bought my first mirrorless camera – an Olympus E-PL1. It’s not the latest technology by any means, but I wanted to try out a mirrorless camera without investing a lot of money in it. I don’t carry my Canon 7D around much anymore. I feel much better travelling light. But so far my 7D still allows me to do things that my little Olympus cannot manage. I’m not ready to give up on using a DSLR just yet. But I’m already tempted to upgrade to Olympus’s highly rated OM-D E-M5. From what I’ve read it may be good enough to change my mind about the 7D.
I came across this video recently. The speaker’s views are quite controversial. He feels that it’s just a matter of time before mirrorless cameras take over from DSLRs. I’ve already come across a number of people on dpchallenge who have sold theirs. But there are many more who have no intention of doing so. Despite the view expressed in the video, a lot of people believe that sensor size does matter.
So what does the future hold? I don’t believe that the rise of the mirrorless camera means the end of the DSLR. But we will probably see many less of them in years to come.
If you don't already own a mirrorless camera and are interested in buying one, I've written a new Hub which analyses the differences between five different systems. It may help you decide which is the right one for you.