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Nikon D750 – Let the Stoning Begin

The Nikon D750 (image used courtesy of Nikon USA)

In photography as in life, it sometimes seems no good piece of kit goes unpunished. In 2012 as the world imaging community prepared to descend upon Cologne, Germany for the biennial imaging fair known as Photokina, the two leading manufacturers of consumer and professional digital cameras introduced major new products. About a week before the fair Nikon introduced the D600. Days later, Canon introduced¬†the EOS 6D. Marketed as entry level full-frame CMOS sensor bodies, the D600 and 6D were intended to attract enthusiasts and crop-frame camera users to make the move into full-frame. The D600 joined Nikon’s flagship D4 and professional D800 and D800e in the FX category of full-frame DSLR bodies. Canon’s flagship 1DX and professional 5DMkIII welcomed the EOS 6D in completing that full-frame lineup.

Fast forward to the present day and, as the 2014 edition of Photokina opens, Canon has not introduced a new full-frame body since 2012. By contrast, Nikon has introduced four new FX (full-frame) DSLR cameras, including the just announced D750. The D750 features an impressive spec sheet:

  • An all-new 24.3 MP CMOS sensor
  • Nikon’s most advanced 51-point auto focus system (incl. group area AF)
  • Nikon’s flagship Expeed 4 image processor
  • Native ISO range of 100 to 12,800 (expandable to ISO 50 and 51,200)
  • Full 1080p/60 HD video (incl. auto aperture/auto ISO smooth adjust)
  • Light but strong carbon fiber and magnesium alloy frame
  • Nikon’s first FX body to feature built-in WiFi
  • The first full-frame DSLR by any manufacturer to sport an articulating rear LCD screen
The Nikon D750 features an articulating rear LCD screen (image used courtesy of Nikon USA)

The Nikon D750 features an articulating rear LCD screen (image used courtesy of Nikon USA)

The response to the D750 on the InterWeb has been immediate and impassioned. Much of the response has been intensely negative. Peruse the popular rumor and fan boy sites, and you will likely see comments such as – Another toy camera from Nikon…It’s disappointing…This is an instant fail IMO…This sucks.

So, why all the venom directed toward a camera that, on paper, makes a strong case for being the best all-around DSLR on the planet? To understand, we need to go back in time to another Photokina summer. In July 2008, Nikon introduced the D700, a professional full-frame DSLR body. It was just the second FX body developed and released by Nikon and was packaged with many of the performance specs of the flagship D3. The D700 featured the same sensor as the D3, a rugged frame, similar controls and layout as the top line pro body and a burst rate that, when paired with Nikon’s battery grip, topped out at an impressive eight frames per second. D3 shooters bought the D700 as their backup body and many pros bought the D700 as their primary body. Adding the rugged crop sensor (DX format) D300 to the mix gave Nikon a trio of professional bodies to meet the needs of dedicated still photographers,

In digital photography, the lifespan of a flagship body generally runs between two and four years. Canon unveiled the EOS 1DX in October 2011. This body replaced the EOS 1DsMkIII (2007) and was a shot across the bow of the long-in-the-tooth Nikon D3. Thus, it was not at all surprising when Nikon announced the all-new 16 MP D4 in January 2012. The D4 replaced the D3 and immediately established itself as a worthy adversary to the 1DX. With the D4’s release, D700 and D300/D300s shooters waited for the next shoe to drop. Which would it be, a replacement for the D700 or the D300?

One month later in February 2012, Nikon announced the D800 and D800e. Previously, Nikon had built a reputation of developing low megapixel (relative to Canon) pro bodies that excelled in low light. With the 36 MP D800 and D800e, Nikon more than doubled the resolution of the Flagship D4. These bodies quickly became favorites of landscape and portrait photographers. However, loyal D700 shooters were left wanting more. While the D700 could make images at an impressive 8 FPS, the D800/D800e barely made 4 FPS. What they wanted was the D4’s sensor, Expeed 3 processor and auto focus system in a D800 body.

An overhead view of the Nikon D750 (image used courtesy of Nikon USA)

By mid-2012, the Web was abuzz with talk of a D700 replacement being announced at the next Photokina. When the D600 emerged as Nikon’s major announcement in Cologne, D700 fans were not pleased. Despite its 24 MP (two-times the D700’s resolution) CMOS sensor, superior low light performance and 1080p video recording capability, the D600 was missing several key features in the eyes of D700 loyalists.

  • No professional build quality. The D600 offered weather resistance but didn’t have the D800’s rugged full magnesium alloy frame.
  • No 51-point auto focus system. The D600 inherited the D7000’s 39-point AF system.
  • Not a pro layout. The controls and menus were designed to be familiar to D90 and D7000 shooters.
  • No 1/8000-second shutter speed. The D600 peaked at 1/4000-second.
  • No 1/250-second flash sync speed. The D600 peaked at 1/200-second.
  • No 8 frame per second burst rate. the D600 peaked at 6 frames per second.

What D700 owners had asked for was a D4 imaging system in a D800 body. What the D600 offered was basically an FX version of the consumer D7000. What was Nikon thinking? Well, they may have been focused on costs and customer retention. In business, one of the keys to maximizing profit is to reduce operational costs. The rugged, pro-build quality of the D4 and D800 bodies were more expensive to produce than the consumer quality D7000. While a hypothetical D700 replacement would need to be manufactured in Japan at greater expense and narrower margin, the D600 could be manufactured in Thailand at lower cost and a higher profit margin.

Another factor Nikon must have considered was the migration of point & shoot photographers to smart phones. The rise of the smart phone had given the general public a take everywhere camera with immediate access to Facebook and Twitter where they could share photos with family and friends. Point & shoot camera sales were in free fall in 2012 and Nikon must have been concerned this trend would eventually hit the crop sensor market. Rather than invest in a format they considered to have a questionable future, Nikon chose to entice enthusiast and crop sensor photographers to upgrade to full frame. The D600 was priced at 1/2 to 1/3 the cost of Nikon’s professional FX bodies yet delivered comparable image quality. Yes, the D4 was better in low light and, yes, the D800 delivered higher resolution, but the D600 was no slouch. It offered comparable performance at a consumer price…or so it seemed.

Soon after D600 bodies started shipping. Reports surfaced on the web of oil and dust particle build up on the camera’s CMOS sensor. One D600 owner produced a time lapse video showing an accumulation of debris and oil that would choke a horse. Nikon had a problem. Their gift offering to enthusiast photographers was turning out to be a Trojan horse. However, Nikon refused to acknowledge what the reports and evidence clearly indicated – the D600 shutter mechanism had a problem. Nikon’s failure to immediately address the problem would allow it to grow into a major public relations disaster that deeply tarnished the company’s reputation as a manufacturer of quality imaging products.

In February 2013, Nikon finally issued a service advisory on the D600. The advisory offered guidance on the correct procedure to use when removing the natural accumulation of dust from a sensor. In essence, Nikon was dismissing the reports as normal dust accumulation. Meanwhile, D600 owners continued to report problems with their cameras and the impact on sales was immediate. When the camera was first introduced in September 2012, a launch price of $2,097 had been set. By November, Nikon was offering instant $100 rebates on their new body. By Christmas, customers were offered a free 24-85mm lens with the purchase of a D600. In January 2013, grey market distributors were pricing the D600 at $1,686. In May, a factory refurbished D600 was priced at $1,560. The camera’s value was in rapid decline and its reputation as a product that had been rushed to market too soon was forever sealed.

In October 2013 – only a year after the first D600 bodies shipped – Nikon introduced the D610. It was announced as a minor upgrade to the D600 but everyone knew it was an attempt to bring and end to the dust and oil disaster. The move backfired. If anything, Nikon’s decision to reissue the D600 with a new shutter mechanism was seen as tacit admission that the dust and oil problems were real. In February 2014, Nikon issued a service advisory to D600 owners offering a free inspection, cleaning and shutter assembly replacement, regardless of the warranty status of their cameras. In March, China ordered Nikon to stop selling the D600. This was followed soon after by a third service advisory that mentioned the option of, on a case-by-case basis, replacing defective D600s with D610s. In August, Nikon reached a settlement in a class action lawsuit with D600 owners. As part of the settlement, litigants were offered new D610s in exchange for their D600s.

To date, Nikon has yet to publicly acknowledge and take responsibility for delivering a camera with a poorly designed shutter mechanism that allows the accumulation of dust, debris and oil on the sensor.

A view of the Nikon D750 interior reflex mirror system (image used courtesy of Nikon USA)

To fully appreciate the damage the D600 dust and oil debacle has done to Nikon’s reputation, consider that DxO Mark tested the D600 soon after its initial release and ranked it as the third-best digital camera sensor on the market. This should have been a time of celebration, with Nikon reaping the rewards of having delivered an outstanding entry level full-frame DSLR camera. Instead, they spent a year in denial and are still in damage control. Even the D610, which by all accounts does not suffer from the dust and oil issue of the D600, has not been able to distance itself from that long, dark shadow.

Which brings us back to the just-announced Nikon D750. In early August when Nikon Rumors announced Nikon’s plan to introduce a new full-frame body at Photokina, the early reports described it as an action camera. Then, came the rumor that the new DSLR would be called the D750. This generated an immediate buzz as people made the obvious connection to the dream of a long-awaited successor to the D700. The online comments quickly focused on the wants of D700 owners: professional build quality, fast and accurate auto focus and a lightning quick burst rate. A D4s sensor in a D810 body is what D700 owners had come to expect.

That is not the D750.

Nikon markets their DSLR cameras in three categories: Entry-level, Enthusiast and Professional. The D750 is Nikon’s top Enthusiast level DSLR camera. Nikon does not market the D750 as a professional camera body. It is not the D4s sensor in a D810 body. Neither is it, as the many critics have claimed, a souped up D610 sensor in a D610 body. And this, friends, is where the D750 story gets interesting. One could fairly describe this camera as a cross over. It borrows features from all digital camera categories.

The D750’s outward appearance is almost identical to the D610. Beneath that enthusiast level surface, lies a completely new animal. The frame is a magnesium alloy, carbon fiber blend resulting in a rugged, weather resistant and relatively lightweight body. The layout of the interior components is completely new for Nikon. This internal redesign created space for fully-integrated WiFi while substantially reducing the size and weight of the camera body. WiFi is pretty standard stuff in consumer bodies. Small size and low weight are definitive qualities of mirrorless cameras. Rugged build and weather resistance are qualities that define professional DSLR bodies.

A side view of the Nikon D750 showing the articulating rear LCD screen (image used courtesy of Nikon USA)

The Expeed 4 processor and 51-point AF system are taken straight from Nikon’s flagship D4s and professional D810. Other features borrowed from Nikon’s professional lineup include full 1080p/60 HD video, auto aperture and auto ISO during video recording, and an industry-leading focus detection range of -3 to +19 EV. The articulated rear LCD is another feature taken from their consumer line of camera bodies. Performance characteristics shared with the enthusiast level D610 include a 1/4000-second maximum shutter speed and a 1/200-second flash sync speed.

In the D750, Nikon has delivered a camera designed and intended to appeal to a broad audience. In so doing, they’ve made a camera that – while incorporating features from several genres – is impossible to peg into any one category. The 24 MP sensor is among the best available…but it’s not the D810’s 36 MP sensor. The 6.5 frame per second burst rate is among the fastest in the market…but it’s not as fast as the 1DX or the D4s. (or the D700) The 1080p/60 HD video recording capability is very good…but it’s not 4K. The build quality is rugged and weather resistant…but it’s not weather proof. It’s impressive feature set is packed into a small, lightweight body…but it’s not mirrorless small.

In a nutshell, the D750 seems to be a Jack of all trades and a master of none. There is, perhaps, one exception. Could the D750 be the master do-it-all camera?

If you enjoy shooting sports, the AF system and burst rate will more than get the job done. In the professional full-frame DSLR category, only the Canon 1DX and Nikon D4/D4s have faster burst rates. If you enjoy portraiture and landscapes, the 24 MP sensor will deliver gorgeous, detailed images. Only Nikon’s D8XX lineup offers higher resolution. On paper, no DSLR does a better job of achieving focus in low light and the high ISO performance of the D750 is among the best in the market. If you enjoy shooting video, the D750 allows production in full HD with stereo audio. The dedicated video professional may be better served by the Panasonic Lumix GH4 or the Sony A7s. However, the D750 offers video functionality that is more than adequate for the enthusiast.

In short, the Nikon D750 looks for all the world like one of the best – arguably the best – choice as the camera that can do it all. If you are a professional photographer looking for a second body, wouldn’t it be nice to replace your current backup with something that is a little smaller and lighter? Something with outstanding resolution and low light performance? A camera with industry-leading auto focus? A camera you can use to capture quality video and sound? A backup body that does all this at a price point below $2,500? If you are an aspiring professional looking for one body that can take on any assignment (or an enthusiast seeking the same) does the D750 look like the perfect all-around performer? This is a camera body that, on paper, appears capable of shooting anything: editorial, sports, wedding, landscape, portraiture, wildlife, street, video…you name it.

Is the new Nikon D750 the best all-around DSLR camera in the world?

Bill Ferris | September 2014

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