About mirrorless cameras

I started shooting photos long ago — my first camera was a Rolleiflex SL35 ME my parents had collecting dust in a closet. I have few memories of it, and no photos to prove my messing around with it.

As a teenager I moved to a compact film Olympus mju2, and from there to a Yaschica FX3-2000 and a moltitude of Soviet era rangefinders, reflex and compacts (Zorki 4, Fed 2, Fed 3, Fed 5, Kiev 4, LOMO Smena 8M, LOMO LC-A, Zenit, Lubitel 166B, etc etc, this could be a whole new post).

My first digital camera was a compact SiPix 1300, an unbelievably limited camera with 1.3 megapixels. From there I moved up to a Canon Powershot A100, then a Kodak DX4530 and finally a Konica Minolta Z3, which was the first digital camera I actually enjoyed using. I remember spot metering with it for the first time and being blown away by the versatility of that concept.

Next steps were a Lumix LX-3 and my first digital reflex, a Canon EOS 300D I got in kit with a zoom lens for a bargain. At this point I started understanding that digital wasn’t just the future but became the actual present, pushing film from mainstream into a niche. A lovely, beautiful, rich niche — but still a niche.

I eventually dropped Canon and moved to Nikon, buying the D7000 and then the D810. I remember the jump from the D7000 to the D810, it seemed the viewfinder was something from another planet, so bright and big.

I finally moved to the D850 and that’s my main camera for Architectural works and for most of work photography. The D850 has high resolution, an amazing dynamic range, it is weather sealed and very well built, it has a handy tilt screen for Architectural photography, a fast and reliable autofocus.

Of course I also use the Ricoh GR II a lot (mostly for fashion / editorial / lifestyle) and the Olympus Pen-F (like the GR but less frequently), but the Nikon is my main work setup.

This camera chronology isn’t here just to fuel my nostalgic feelings — it will be useful a bit later in the post.

A market trying to survive

Camera brands got to a level of stagnation that is requiring them to create new markets. Millions of dslr users are not investing anymore, because they have cameras that are good enough and they already bought the lenses they need. How can camera brands keep selling us stuff then? Here comes the mirrorless with their new lens mounts.

Mirrorless cameras are nothing new. Panasonic introduced the G1 in 2008 — that was the first interchangeable lens mirrorless and the first Micro Four Thirds camera.

We could say that the Leica M8 and the Epson R-D1 were the actual first “interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras” but they were rangefinders, so they had no electronic viewfinder — a rangefinder is mirrorless by definition, even when using film, so they don’t really count for what we are discussing.

The term “mirrorless” is generally used to define a camera that works like a reflex but has no mirror — so it has a viewfinder that shows the world through a screen instead of optics.

So, mirrorless cameras are nothig new. All camera brands already gave it a shot at some point, see Nikon 1 or Pentax Q for instance. What’s changing is that now all of them (except Pentax) decided mirrorless will be the future, and are gradually trying to push photographers away from dslr and toward mirrorless.

This is great for camera brands, because it means photographers will buy new cameras and have to change lenses, buying again what they already have. Nikon and Canon are offering adapters but are also saying the new lenses are lighter, optically much improved, focusing better and so on. Keep this in mind, we will get back to it.

I have a problem with this marketing move. To be honest, I have a problem with mirrorless.

Before I get into the details, I would like to clear a concept: I am not a dinosaur stuck in the past. My introduction to this post was meant to show my evolution in terms of equipment. I shot 135 and 120 film, reflex, twins lens and rangefinder cameras, mirrorless cameras, digital and film compacts. I love to explore new tools. I use Micro Four Thirds mirrorless cameras since long before Nikon and Canon decided we must buy again all we already have. I loved the Pentax Q system. Etc.

When I say I don’t like mirrorless cameras it’s because I use them since years. I tried the most recent Sony, Nikon, Olympus and Panasonic mirrorless cameras and it didn’t change my opinion — on the contrary, it invigorated it.

A matter of controlled evolution

Digital SLR cameras probably reached the top of their evolution.

Looking at cameras like the D850 or D780 or the Pentax K1 it is clear there is only that few space left for improvements. I mention the K1 because it is a full frame high resolution camera with in-body stabilization. Nikon could integrate ibis in a D850, add the live view features of the D780 and really produce the definitive dslr. They won’t do it of course, because that wouldn’t help them sell millions of new lenses. For that, they need a new mount. I talk of Nikon but you can think of Canon too.

Nikon and Canon could have given their dslr a set of features to make them a better fit for this world — ibis but also a proper integration with smartphones, for instance, making it easier to share and edit photos on the go. But that would have not saved them. They need to sell a lot of new stuff, for surviving. Lenses, accessories and support: that’s where the money is, and so a shift to a new mount and new tech is mandatory.

Mirrorless cameras are still evolving. I am sure the technology for making them peak is mostly available, but companies will give it to us little by little, one iteration at the time, so we will want to change our camera a couple of times before reaching the point where it is so good you don’t feel need for a change. And that’s one of the points that make me uncomfortable with mirrorless.

Viewfinders

Let’s forget for a moment the ethic and market issues — I will now talk about the other problem I have with mirrorless: the lack of optical viewfinder.

The EVF is one of the features being used by camera brands for giving the impression of evolution and make new models desiderable. Its resolution keeps increasing, the lag keeps diminishing, the black-out keeps being reduced, the dimension of the viewfinder keeps increasing. New high-end cameras are being put on the market with viewfinders worse than the available state of the art, so that you will want to buy the next model when they make its EVF 30% better than current one. Look at the Nikon Z6 II and Z7 II: they were just released and could have used a better viewfinder, but Nikon decided to keep that for later and use it for adding desirability for the next iteration.

When a company puts a product on the market, they aren’t just thinking about how to sell that, they are thinking about how to sell the next model.

Olympus is another example: they kept using more of less the same EVF technology for years. In their case I think it was just cost cutting and a way for getting rid of components they already bought, but the final result is the same: photographers buy cameras with technology that is already obsolete.

Now, there are different kinds of optical viewfinders, with different enlargement, size, clarity, but they all show reality in same “resolution” and without lags. Even the often terrible viewfinders on Soviet rangefinders are having no lag and full “resolution”: they show reality as it happens.

An EVF on the contrary shows a digital reproduction of reality. At some point the resolution will be high enough, the frame rate high enough, the lag low enough and that could be tricking our mind into thinking we are looking at reality, but we are still far from that. When will it happen? My idea is that camera makers will try to sell us at least a couple more generations before that. And to be honest, I am not sure such a EVF will actualy happen (something that can trick our mind).

Did you ever look at a TV screen and thought it seemed like watching reality, or close to it? That never happened to me, and I’m pretty sure I watched the most expensive and high quality TV sets in the world, when shooting some villas. No matter the tech, the resolution, the refresh: it is still clearly a screen reproducing data.

In meantime, digital slr cameras are offering a viewfinder that shows reality, with no lag. And I much prefer this.

More on the EVF

The main characteristic of the electronic viewfinder is that it shows the scene not as it is, but as it will be recorded. So it shows a preview of the exposure, of the white balance, of the film effects.

When we take a photo, we are looking at reality and wanting to capture the scene, so it is important to see it as it is.

But at the same time we are capturing it on a photo and we care about how the photo will look in the end, so we want to see the final image before we capture it.

What is prefereable, to see reality as it is or to see reality as we will capture it in photo? This could also be the topic of a whole new post.

And is a balance possible? Let’s think about a couple of concepts.

When we shoot with a dlsr we see reality as it is. In the viewfinder we also see a visual indication telling us how much the scene is over or under exposed, depending on the exposure metering we chose. If shooting RAW we have lots of space for fine tuning the exposure, and it’s safe to say we can shoot with a certain degree of wrong exposure and still fix it in post when developing the file. So, if we think of the goal of getting a good exposure, it is not necessary to see the final preview of the photo before we shoot it.

The preview we see on the EVF is also not correct. It is basically showing us an approximation — a sort of jpg vs th raw that is actually being seen by the sensor. That’s why the use of histograms with EVFs is still suggested when wanting to capture the correct exposure, because what we see on the back LCD or the EVF is not showing the RAW but rather an interpetation, that may be clipping highlights or shadows depending on the contrast of the screen or the applied film simulation etc. Since only the histogram can show us exacly the quality of the exposure, the exposure preview in the EVF is once more not necessary.

Some will say that with an EVF you can overlay zebras or some other clipping aid. That’s true, and that could work for someone, I guess. But I don’t want to have graphics interfering with my scene as I shoot it. I need to be connected to the scene and not look at it like a lab technician. A bit of care and reasoning when exposing are more than enough for capturing the correct amount of light.

A third point: most professionals and semi-pro shoot raw and develop the files. And even when shooting jpgs people still edit them on various software. That also happens when shooting with our phones: I take the HEIC file and edit it in Lightroom Mobile, RNI Films and other apps. So the image we see in the EVF is basically never the final one, because we will change it later, very often quite radically. All these YouTubers enthusiastically praising mirrorless cameras for showing “the exact preview of my photo” and then slapping their own presets on the photo and editing before sharing it. Does that make any sense?

There are times when I like the output of the Ricoh GR II so much that I don’t want to edit the photos, but that’s quite the exception (and the GR is not a mirrorless but rather a premium compact camera, not much different from a phone in certain ways).

These three points are what makes me say that at the moment the EVF is not necessarily better than the OVF, and that camera brands are just marketing it as such. At some point in future maybe technology will be better and improve on these aspects, but that’s still not the case, even on the best EVFs currenly available to consumers.

I want to look at reality as it is, capturing a proper exposure, developing the photo if necessary. For this approach, the OFV is still the best choice.

As some readers may remember from previous posts, I do enjoy shooting with screens, like the GR and the iPhone. But I want to have the choice: sometimes a screen is better, other times the optical viewfinder is. A modern dslr lets us choose what’s best. It all depends on situations. By choosing a mirrorless today, we are losing a perfected tecnology like the OVF in exchange of an evolving one that still has drawbacks, no matter what the marketing departments try to tell us.

As a professional I am always taking care of my equipment, which also means comparing it to what is available on the market. I have a level of quality I must provide and a set of situations I must be able of dealing with, so if better equipment is available and it fits my business plan, I do consider it. I have nothing against evolution. I love evolution and change, it’s the base for a life worth living — and for a healthy business too.

So I’ve been considering acquiring Nikon Z cameras and lenses for my job, since when Nikon released the first Z7. I still didn’t do it and won’t do it anytime soon, for the reasons I mentioned in previous paragraphs.

Even the other “advantages” of mirrorless cameras are not enough to covince me. The size advantage? Well the cameras are smaller and lighter but lenses are not, so the overall portability of the system doesn’t change. Unless you go for a much smaller sensor like m43, but that’s a whole different topic.

In-body stabilization? When I shoot Architecture I use a tripod. When hand holding the camera, high ISO is usually good enough for when there is not much light. For videos I need a gimbal anyway because no Full Frame camera still has proper stabilization for hand-held video. Etc.

New Nikon S lenses for the Z mount are apparently amazing. I believe that, but so are many F lenses. I don’t think any Nikon photographer ever sad “oh, if only Nikon made this lens but sharper! this is not sharp enough!” — if you can afford it, there is a F lens out there that reaches and surpasses even the highest professional standard.

Again, I talk about Nikon becase that’s what I use, but I could mention Canon instead.

Conclusion

So, my personal point of view is that there are no absolute reasons right now to move from dslr to mirrorless.

Camera brands are hard at work convincing photographers of the opposite. Camera gear websites are pushing out review after review about the new cameras and lenses, because that’s what keep these websites alive.

I am not talking about some dirty conspiracy — this is just the way market works. Camera gear websites and YouTubers live off ads, so they need sponsorships — and beside that, camera gear is a popular topic they can monetize. That’s why they are all so enthusiastic about new gadgets, rumors, tests.

The message these authors are promoting is that the dslr is old and gone, while the mirrorless is the future, and of course who wants to be old and gone? We all want to be in the future, don’t we? Well, no, not necessarily.

Dslr is not old, it is mature. Their controls are not old fashioned, they are refined after generations of evolution.

Modern dslr cameras are exceeding the quality of most photographers. Their lens systems are mature, affordable, vast.

I think there wasn’t ever a better moment for acquiring dslr cameras and enjoy them for years to come, before mirrorless will also mature.

Unless something unexpected will happen and convinces me to start using mirrorless cameras, I will stay with my system and pass on this generation of mirrorless too.

I close the post with a photo of Lindbergh showing some shots to a wonderful Alicia Vikander.

The camera is a D850, the lens a Nikkor 70-200. Peter was 73yo in that photo. He still worked with Full Frame Nikon dlsr cameras and that heavy 70-200 was his favorite lens. The weight and size of the camera didn’t bother him, and he could have used every other camera in the world. That always made me think.

My goal with this post wasn’t to tell you that mirrorless cameras are bad and you should not use them. If you like them and they fit your vision, you definitely should use them. What I’m saying is: don’t fall for marketing crap, there is nothing inherently wrong with dslr cameras, they are not old tech and there is no merit in being first in line adopting new tech. The merit is all in the photos we shot.

Modern dslr cameras are incredible pieces of technology and they are still more than enough for every kind of photography and photographers. In the end, photographers should use what makes them comfortable and what satisfies their needs — and then be out there taking photos, thinking, experiencing the world — that’s so much better than running after the latest technology, isn’t it?

6 comments

  1. Wonderful post Andrea…thanks for the effort to assemble and share it!

    I shoot 2 cameras as an amateur…my Ricoh GR ii for my BNW work and an Olympus OMD EM1 MARK II for my Macro and lifestyle shooting. I used to shoot a Nikon D750, but after a slightly debilitating injury to my left hand, I needed a lighter, smaller gear set up and went with the Olympus package. I love using both of these cameras and am glad I can still shoot…although it initially broke my heart to sell my Nikon.

    Keep up your straight-forward and honest writing Andrea!

    1. Hello David! We are lucky to have some high quality compact systems out there. It’s a pity Olympus didn’t manage to evolve and keep healthy their wonderful system! The smaller m43 sensor allows for some beautiful compact lenses, like the 1.8 primes. My favorite lens is the M.Zuiko 25 f1.8, it almost never leaves the Pen-F. Have a nice day!

  2. As always your thoughts are rational and right on target. Glad to see your 850, they are wonderful. I had one wTamron 24/70 and sold it to a pro that I was taking a photo trip with for Milky Way and meteor showers in the Adirondacks. He has all Nikon gear, was using 810 w nikkor 24/70, but when he put my photos on during class presentation and then his side by side, made me offer I said yes. Since he has gone all Tamron lenses, likes them better. Anyway I have been looking last year and half and because I started w fix lens decided stay that way. Use my Leica x’s w grand daughters, then my Ricohs and now Leica Q. What a hoot this is, love the 28 1.7 Summilux. Saving now for the q2 or Q2 Monochrom they are weather sealed, if you get chance try one, your Ricoh get jealous. There is a instagrammer tatakisg, a Greek professional who only uses Q check him out. He is doing long term project based on national costumes. Which with your talents could work with tourist dept of other Med islands, to promote them and make some bucks, just an idea but what the hell you got to loose, they can only say no. Any way keep your beautiful site going.

    1. Hey John, thanks for sharing your experience. Having shot for so long with film rangefinders I always had a sweet spot for Leica. Every now and then I consider buying a M. I also considered the Q and Q2 of course, because I love the 28mm abbove all, but I never bought because I can’t decide between a M and a Q. My nostalgic mind tells me to go for a M (real rangefinder) , my rational mind tells me to go for the Q2 (autofocus, cheaper as a whole since it’s fixed lens only, better weather sealing). Sooner or later I will decide, in meantime I will keep enjoying my Ricoh Gr 🙂

      I checked the instagram account you mentioned, what a gifted photographer! I love his black and white and his natural light work. Maybe you are right, I could do some similar project with the GR 🙂

  3. Ps, the Q2MONO chrom according to reviews I have read, takes better pictures than the big boy M10 Monochrom

    1. That could very likely be true, a well designed combination of fixed lens and sensor can sometimes produce surprisingly high quality. Just think of the GR, which is producing a quality we would not expect from a small callapsible lens and an APS-C sensor!

      To be honest I don’t think I would ever buy a monochrom only camera. My black and white digital developing needs color as a starting point — I look at the color and I think which hue can I make lighter, which one can I make darker, I often mix different treatments in the same shot. I could not do that if the starting image is already in black and white.

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