Mirrorless Goes Mainstream

Posted in Equipment, Photography by Nathan Lee Bush on February 9, 2011
Boxed in?

Boxed In? Clockwise from top: Sony NEX-5, Olympus E-PL2, Panasonic GF2, Samsung NX11. Center: Nikon D700, Canon 5D Mark II

Disruptive Technology

Like all technological revolutions, the onset of the digital camera age brought with it a major shakeup in the photo industry. Former film powerhouses like Polaroid (truly instant feedback made physical “instant” proofs obsolete) and Kodak (still catching up), rested on their laurels and receded into the background, while smaller players like Sony (which bought Minolta), Samsung, Panasonic and Casio invested in new digital technologies, rocketing up the ladder.

The Next Frontier

The transition to digital sensors brought it’s own technical hurdles, but the dominant interchangeable lens system of the past century remained single-lens reflex, with mirrors beaming the image from the lens into an optical viewfinder. It’s been acknowledged for years, however, that advanced digital sensors and screen technology could negate the need for a mirror box by showing you what the sensor sees directly on the screen, allowing much smaller camera bodies. But the necessary technologies had not yet converged to make this mirrorless – also often called EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) – future a plausible reality.

Fast forward to 2011. A thousand technical baby steps later, we seem to be entering the second phase of the digital revolution, as the promise of mirrorless technology is matched by its technical feasibility and cost-effectiveness. High-resolution screens allowed for acceptable fidelity and critical focusability. Moore’s Law, ensuring the exponentially increasing price-performance of processor speeds, delivered the essential miniaturization, enabling powerful on-board processing in a small package.

Niche players had been jealously eyeing the high margins of pro systems. Understanding the necessity of a critical mass of users needed to lock photographers into a new system, and with a nothing-to-lose attitude, they dove in feet first, attempting to usher in and own the next era of pro photo technology: the large-sensor compact.

The New Writing on the Wall

In mid-2008, Panasonic and Olympus announced the Micro 4/3 lens mount, a mirrorless system that halved the flange back distance (the distance from lens mount to the sensor), enabling large-sensor cameras with compact bodies and lenses. Samsung was second out of the gate with its APS-C mirrorless system, the NX series. Sony also saw the potential growth and in May announced it’s own mirrorless system, the NEX series, also with larger APS-C sensor and an even shorter flange back distance, allowing compatibility with a nearly limitless variety of alternative lenses (look for forthcoming articles on this topic in the near future).

The pro duopoly, Canon and Nikon, did what any self-respecting hubristic hegemony would: they ignored it, opting to hone their flagship products. Meanwhile the mirrorless crew, led by the Micro 4/3 consortium and Sony, developed their lines at startling speed. Between them, Panasonic and Olympus released 11 Micro 4/3 cameras, in various consumer to enthusiast configurations, and a pro camcorder, the AF100, as of this writing. NEX had two cameras and a semi-pro camcorder, with the promise of more in short order.

In the US, these systems met with moderate success, but across the Atlantic/Pacific, the other major photo markets feverishly embraced the new systems. In December, the NEX addition to Sony’s lineup allowed it to seize the number two spot from Nikon in interchangeable lens cameras in the UK that month. In Japan, the cameras achieved even greater acceptance, grabbing a whopping 23.2% market share among interchangeable lens cameras for 2010, with three of the top ten spots.

This week provided another huge shift in momentum in favor of the mirrorless systems, as a flurry of major lens-makers signed on to produce for the two leading systems, including many smaller producers as well as heavyweights like Sigma, Zeiss and Schneider Kreuznach.

Catch Up for CaNikon

The majors now find themselves in the unusual position of playing catchup to the first-movers. Nikon has hinted at plans to unveil a mirrorless system in the coming months, with the rumor mill speculating a higher-end option than any current offering. One can only assume that Canon, which led the market for years with high-end compacts like the G and S series’, is also moving to quash this threat with it’s considerable engineering and marketing prowesss. Pentax is also rumored to be in the hunt, with a mirrorless system of its own.

And the Winner is…

While there will be the inevitable winners and losers from this period of upheaval, one clear winner has already emerged: the consumer. With the frenetic pace of development and truly original solutions to age-old technical challenges, circumventing the traditional game of incremental spec one-upsmanship between Canon and Nikon, we’ve had one of the most exciting periods of technological advancement in the history of photography. Now sit back, and enjoy the show.

Nathan Lee Bush is a photographer and filmmaker in New York City. His work is on his blogsite and Vimeo. He’s also on Twitter/Facebook.

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3 Responses

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  1. Chris Sorlie said, on February 9, 2011 at 10:00 pm

    Well said and right on! I’m eagerly waiting for Olympus to bring out more of a “pro body” with two dials and an evf. I feel sorry for people who purchased E-5’s and K-5’s. It’s going to be a lot of fun buying lenses in the next year or so.

  2. […] the new Panasonic pro camcorder, the AF100; I covered the ‘Mirrorless Miracle,’ and argue that the new mirrorless systems like Sony’s NEX or Panasonic/Olympus Micro Four Thirds is […]

  3. […] week’s photography news, including surging interchangeable lens camera sales (thanks to new mirrorless offerings), and how Apple’s inclusion of the ultrafast Thunderbolt, Intel next-gen I/O technology, in […]

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