The Rise Of “Mirrorless”

Not long ago when you wanted even a modicum of quality with the ability to interchange lenses and control over cameras and functions worthy of the craft you’d mainly have to choose among a variety of D-SLR-type cameras. While they all followed the 35mm SLR form and even modes of operation, the digital differentiator was generally the size and megapixel count on the sensor. While there certainly were variations and competitive technologies within different brands, the major split was between APS-C and so-called “full frame” (larger sensors equaling the 35mm format). Improvements tended to drift “down” from full-framers to APS-C, but there were also a number of concessions, if you will, that moved up from APS-C to the more pro-oriented models, which for some muddied the waters although body construction, shutter cycles, and other matters of concern to pros were retained in the higher-priced cameras.

But then along came a brand-new form factor (actually, not so new as many were reminiscent of, and indeed played upon the desire for rangefinder style and size cameras) which has been called “mirrorless” (no slapping mirror when an exposure was made), interchangeable lens compact cameras, or, as TIPA defined them, compact system cameras. Whatever you call them they offer many of the features of D-SLRs in a decidedly smaller and lighter package, along with lenses that weigh next to nothing and quality that has surprised even the most devout skeptic.

As with any new system the choice for lenses and accessories was at first slim, but adopters soon discovered that with adapters they could mount their “old” glass of different makes onto these cameras with ease, and we saw Contax, Nikon, Zeiss, and other glass appearing in a kind of hybrid old-new mix. And while independent lens makers at first took a wait and see attitude we now are seeing many more offerings from them, including our report on the new Zeiss Touit lenses for Sony and Fuji compact system cameras in this issue.

It has generally been our policy here to not review point-and-shoot cameras, as we considered them pretty much a commodity product, and it was not because we were snobbish but because we felt that while fun and easy to carry they pretty much were snapshot cameras. (In fact, we have done some “bridge” camera reviews, those that offer integral lenses with high zoom ratios.) But that’s not the case with compact system cameras, as they are coming on strong and, in my mind, already have posed a challenge to the D-SLR/35mm SLR form factor.

Are these to be the be-all and end-all for the on-the-go photographer? There are some issues with certain models, mainly having to do with viewfinder systems that have you sometimes guessing just what you have in the frame. But more models now feature enhanced EVF (electronic viewfinder) and live view monitors that overcome some of those criticisms, and as these improve the challenge to the D-SLR will become even greater. We are just getting into what we call the “intro” season, so we’ll certainly see more compact system cameras, lenses, and adapters coming. And 2014 is a photokina year, which means it will be filled with new tech and surprises.

Stay tuned!