Camera Wars!

sony-a7_front_medium nikon-d610_front_medium

(Camera equipment photos used courtesy Sony USA and Nikon USA, respectively)

When the world’s leading travel photographer describes the competition between digital single-lens reflex cameras and mirrorless digital cameras as a war, you can almost hear the rush as members of the larger photography community pull up chairs to settle in for the show. Well, here’s a radical notion. I’m going to stand and join the discussion. And I do mean discussion. I have little time or interest in the hyperbolic frenzy over supposed camera wars. My interest is in the two technologies, their respective advantages and disadvantages.

The first thought that comes to mind is a question, why does this topic engender such passion? First and foremost, a camera is a tool. The bottom line with a tool is, does it allow you to do your job, to complete the task? The single-lens reflex (SLR) design has allowed photographers to make amazing images since the late-1950’s. Anyone who would dispute the usefulness of this design is deceiving themselves. As a purely practical matter, there is no real debate. SLR technology works and works well.

Of course, a camera is more than just a tool. It is also an artistic device. Photography is many things, including an artistic medium. A camera is to the photographer as the brush is to the painter, the chisel to the sculptor or the pen to the writer. Where artists reside, there too resides passion. Passion fuels our creative ambitions and our arguments. So, while watching photographers arguing over SLR versus mirrorless technology, bear in mind that the passion and hyperbole are more a reflection of the people than the technology being debated.

We should also keep in mind the camera’s role as a fashion accessory. Some photographers wear their cameras with a similar feeling of pride as a first responder or athlete in a uniform. The camera signifies a person’s status as someone for whom photography is more than just a hobby. It is a profession and a passion.

While I acknowledge that passion has a place in vigorous debate, I would argue that it should not be allowed to dominate the discussion. Arguments are neither advanced nor won by being the one to scream the loudest. It is rationale that prevails. At the very least, being the rational one in the room offers a reasonable chance of being taken seriously.

So, let us set passion aside and engage in the debate.

Kodak Brownie Flash III ca. 1957

Kodak Brownie Flash III (ca. 1957)

First, a little background. George Eastman’s invention of the Kodak box camera in 1888 effectively launched the era of the amateur photographer. For more than half a century starting in 1900, the Brownie camera anchored Eastman Kodak’s position as the dominant US company in amateur camera and film sales. The Brownie was simple, could be taken anywhere and was priced for the consumer. Kodak earned a profit by selling you the camera. They made billions through the sale of film the camera used to make photos.

Let’s fast forward to the present day. The smartphone has fundamentally changed how people capture and share special moments. More often than not, when a person reaches for a camera to take a picture, they reach for their smartphone. Of the 1.8 billion cell phones sold worldwide in 2013, nearly 1 billion were smartphones. Smartphone cameras are capable of making excellent pictures and, with access to the Web just a button push away, it is incredibly easy to share your smartphone photos with family and friends. In short, the smartphone is the Brownie camera of the 21st Century.

The emergence of the smartphone as the camera of choice for most people has resulted in a dramatic collapse in compact camera sales. Since 2010, compact camera sales have plummeted by more than 50% from a peak of 112 million units (2010) to just 50 million in 2013. The digital revolution has also produced a fundamental change in the lives of professional photographers. The first decade of the 21st Century marked the rise of the interchangeable lens digital SLR (DSLR) camera as the predominant professional and serious amateur camera in the world. DSLR sales peaked in 2011 at 16 million units. DSLR sales have since declined to 14 million units in 2013 and that trend is expected to continue. (For a deeper discussion of the current condition and future of the digital imaging industry, visit photographer Thom Hogan’s website at http://bythom.com/)

In a moment of unsurpassed irony, the Eastman Kodak Company filed chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February 2012. Although Eastman Kodak had developed the core technology used in today’s DSLR cameras, they were slow to embrace this emerging technology and ended up paying the ultimate price for their complacency.

The last few years have seen the emergence of a newcomer to the world of photography: the mirrorless digital camera. In a nutshell, mirrorless cameras replace the optical viewfinder of the single-lens reflex (SLR) design with an electronic viewfinder. As a result, mirrorless cameras have no internal mirror or pentaprism redirecting an image of what is being photographed to an optical viewfinder. Mirrorless cameras use pixels on the main sensor to generate and display an electronic image on a screen. Manufacturers have leveraged this technology to make mirrorless cameras physically smaller and lighter in weight than their SLR counterparts.

According to some industry observers and analysts, the advent of the mirrorless camera sounds the death knell for the tried and trusty DSLR. There are even predictions that Nikon and Canon will soon be marginalized as still camera manufacturers. So, are Canon and Nikon really going the way of Eastman Kodak…to the trash heap of history? Will the SLR camera body be all but forgotten five years from now? My answer to both questions is, no.

If you compare performance in terms of image quality, mirrorless technology offers nothing new, nothing better. Full-frame mirrorless cameras are built around the same sensors used in full-frame DSLR cameras. Resolution and low light performance in both are essentially equal. This should come as no surprise. After all, the electronic viewfinder is new technology for viewing and composing the scene to be photographed. This new technology has nothing whatsoever to do with the sensor and image processing done by the camera.

In the absence of a marked improvement in image quality, what motivation is there for DSLR owners to move to mirrorless? What barriers must be overcome in persuading a photographer to make the change?

As you move up the scale from photography enthusiast, to passionate amateur to professional, cost becomes an ever increasing barrier to any photographer’s decision to change formats or brands. Making such a move involves more than replacing a single camera body. For the serious amateur or professional, it involves replacing multiple camera bodies and thousands of dollars in premium lenses. Unless a new format or system is able to deliver obvious and significant improvement in image quality, there will not be a rush to embrace that new product.

An overhead view of the Sony A7, a full-frame, 24 MP mirrorless digital camera

An overhead view of the Sony A7, a full-frame, 24 MP mirrorless digital camera

In marketing this new technology, mirrorless camera makers have focused on the inherent size and weight advantages of the design. In 2013, Sony introduced two full-frame mirrorless digital cameras. The Sony A7 and A7R are built, respectively, around 24 megapixel (MP) and 36 MP sensors. The 24 MP Sony A7 weighs 40% less than the 24 MP Nikon D610. The 36 MP A7R weighs less than half as much as the 36 MP Nikon D800. So, how much do digital camera owners value the smaller size of these Sony mirrorless cameras? During the 2012 sales year, mirrorless bodies accounted for 24% of interchangeable lens camera sales. In 2013, mirrorless bodies accounted for…24% of interchangeable lens camera sales. Thus far in 2014, mirrorless camera sales are slightly ahead of 2013 and slightly behind 2012.

While mirrorless has garnered a significant portion of market share, sales figures over the last two-plus years show no mass migration of SLR owners adopting this new technology. The biggest reason, is that neither Canon nor Nikon – who collectively dominate interchangeable lens digital camera sales – have adopted mirrorless technology for their flagship camera bodies. The millions of Canon and Nikon shooters around the world have billions of reasons not to make the jump to another brand of camera. If the cost to make the switch to Sony (or Panasonic or Olympus) isn’t going to result in obviously better photos, why jump ship?

Another barrier to the mass migration of DSLR owners to mirrorless, is the American cultural preference for big things. Whatever the reason, Americans prefer their houses, cars, TV’s and cameras to be big. In the world of photography, this is influenced to some degree by what we see the pros using. Professional photographers set the standard by which others judge the equipment they purchase. If the wedding photographer is shooting a Canon or Nikon DSLR, that is the camera the aspiring wedding shooter will covet. The same goes for aspiring sports and editorial photographers. As long as the professionals continue to shoot with relatively large SLR bodies, that technology will continue to lead in market share.

Personally, I see Canon as the key to this variable. Canon is a leading manufacturer of lenses for both still and video cameras. Sony is the world’s leading manufacturer of professional video cameras. It is very common to see Canon lenses on Sony cameras in television studios and at athletic events. If Canon were to commit to developing a full line of professional quality lenses optimized for mirrorless camera bodies, that would force Nikon to do the same. With the big two on board, mirrorless would soon dominate the industry.

However, if Canon remains committed to the SLR design for their flagship bodies, that design will retain the lion’s share of the market. Not forever, perhaps, but certainly for the immediate future.

Another reason enthusiast photographers are not racing to buy mirrorless, is that mirrorless camera marketing places this technology in direct competition with the smartphone. If compact size and low weight are priorities for a photographer, the best option may not be a specialized digital camera. Potential customers can easily address these considerations by simply using their smartphones for all photographic needs.

We should also consider the objective advantages offered by the SLR design. Let’s start by comparing viewfinders. Video lag is an aberration all electronic viewfinders must address. Lag, is the delayed response of the electronic viewfinder in displaying changes taking place within the field of view. An optical viewfinder has zero lag. As you pan from side-to-side or tilt up-and-down, an optical viewfinder shows you exactly how the scene looks and does so, instantaneously. Mirrorless cameras have to translate that view into an electronic signal and display it on a screen. This takes time. If too much time, the electronic viewfinder will suffer from seriously annoying lag.

The Sony A7 battery compartment

The Sony A7 battery compartment

Electronic viewfinders also require power while a DSLR does not need to power an optical viewfinder. A physically larger DSLR may weigh more but one of the benefits is a larger, more powerful battery. This combination of a larger battery and reduced power draw allows the DSLR to take two- to three-times as many exposures on a single charge as a mirrorless camera. To take the same number of exposures with your mirrorless camera, you’ll need to carry more spare batteries. Batteries take up space and add weight. The size and weight advantage of the mirrorless design isn’t as significant as it first appeared.

Let’s talk about storage. High end APS-C and full-frame DSLR camera bodies typically come with two media card slots. A physically smaller, mirrorless camera may have just one card slot. That second card has many potential uses. It can be used to back up all your exposures. You could save still images on one card and videos on the second. You could simply use the second card as overflow and effectively double the number of exposures you can take, before needing to change cards. None of these options are available when shooting with Sony’s full-frame mirrorless bodies. You do have the option of connecting that mirrorless camera to an external storage device. However, that would take up space and add weight, further reducing the most-cited advantage of the mirrorless design.

Let’s talk about focus. DSLR cameras typically employ phase detect focus systems. In a nutshell, phase detection is a process by which the camera splits the incoming image into two displays, compares them and adjusts focus until both displays match. Phase detection measures the distance to the subject and tends to be pretty fast. Mirrorless cameras typically use contrast detection focus systems. The camera compares adjacent pixels and adjusts focus until contrast between adjacent pixels is maximized. Since the camera doesn’t know the distance to the subject, finding that accurate focus point can take longer.

Since phase detect and contrast detect systems make different performance demands of lenses, a lens optimized for use with one focus system may not work as well with the other. With mirrorless technology still being relatively new, the selection of lenses optimized for that design is limited. This is something that will be addressed over time but the question is, how much time?

Sony  A7 with adapter and Sony 70-400G lens

Sony A7 with adapter and Sony 70-400G lens

Speaking of lens availability, there are adapters that will allow you to mount your existing Canon and Nikon glass to a mirrorless body. Mounting a premium 70-200, f/2.8 zoom lens to a mirrorless camera adds about 3.5 pounds to the system weight. An adapter will be needed, which adds additional weight and introduces optical aberrations. This is not a package that can be carried in a pocket or purse, and the weight advantage of the mirrorless body is now almost completely negated. The mirrorless system will still weigh a pound less than the DSLR system, but the total weight of either could hardly be described as anything but heavy.

Let’s talk about size and weight. Less of both is not always a good thing. The buttons and controls on a mirrorless camera body can be small and closely spaced. This is not an advantage for people with large fingers or limited manual dexterity. Also, a lightweight camera body has less inertia. In other words, less energy is required to get the camera moving. When shooting handheld, a mirrorless camera is more susceptible to shake and vibration. This puts the lighter camera body at a disadvantage in comparison to a larger, heavier DSLR camera.

To summarize, mirrorless and SLR digital full-frame cameras are built around the same sensors. As a result, both designs have the potential to deliver equivalent image quality. While the mirrorless fanboy will say, “Look, my camera takes pictures just as good as yours,” the DSLR fanboy will reply, “Why should I spend thousands to switch to a camera system that doesn’t take better pictures?”

Mirrorless camera manufacturers market their products as offering a significant reduction in size and weight in comparison with DSLR cameras. This marketing strategy reminds consumers that the smartphone in their pocket offers a no-cost, no-additional weight option. By comparison, DSLR bodies have a decided advantage in battery life and image storage capacity. Also, phase detection focus offers a clear advantage over contrast detection in situations where the camera needs to quickly adjust focus to follow a moving subject. The limited availability of professional quality lenses optimized for the mirrorless design creates a disincentive for photographers to make the switch. And while adapters can be used to mount your existing glass to a mirrorless body, this can add substantial weight to your “lightweight” photographic system.

On the subject of lenses, I should point out that small, extremely high quality Leica and Zeiss glass can be used with mirrorless bodies, again, with the right adaptors. The limiting factor with this option is cost. Leica and Zeiss optics are priced well beyond the budgets of all but a very small percentage of professional and enthusiast photographers. And I mean small. Leica aspires to have a 1% market share.

Rather than focusing the discussion on some tag-team match featuring Sony and Olympus versus Canon and Nikon, the real brass tacks question is this: Is mirrorless the future of photography? Will the single-lens reflex design fade into obscurity? The answer is probably, yes.

The single-lens reflex design will definitely fade into obscurity. I have no idea if it will happen in five months, five years or longer. However, technology is always advancing and, eventually, something will come along that delivers significant improvements on SLR technology. That something could very well be the electronic viewfinder. However, I think mirrorless camera manufacturers are missing the real opportunity. Leveraging mirrorless technology to make full-frame camera bodies smaller and lighter places them in direct competition with the smartphone. That is a battle no camera body is going to win.

If Canon and Nikon want to take control of the race and secure their positions as the leading  camera manufacturers for the next generation of photographers, they will develop electronic viewfinder technology to replace the internal mirror and prism systems of their flagship cameras. These new, mirrorless cameras don’t need to be any smaller. They do need to deliver all the functionality SLR bodies currently offer plus new functionality that gives professional photographers a compelling reason to stay with Canon and Nikon products.

If there is a war to be fought between SLR and mirrorless technology, the chase for smaller, lighter bodies will not turn the tide. People like big things and pros like things that make them look big. The next time you’re at a wedding, look for the photographer with the most equipment, the biggest camera and lenses. That’s the professional. And the camera that person is using, is the camera everyone will want.

Until then, get out and shoot!

Bill Ferris | April 2014

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