What's a Complete Mirrorless System?

Just after posting my latest trends article, I read and was struck by a post on dpreview: When will mirrorless put it all together? All these mirrorless cameras are "systems" cameras, meaning that the camera body is only part of the bigger picture for serious users (e.g. readers of this site). The implication of that post was that no system has evolved yet to what everyone needs. I'd basically agree.

Here's my more complete and structured restatement of the original poster's proposed needs for a "complete system":

  • One or more bodies, smaller than DSLRs.
  • Full set of small lenses, smaller than DSLRs.
  • Image quality that satisfies serious users in most conditions they'd shoot in.
  • Useful focus performance both in initial acquisition as well as tracking.
  • Built-in or optional high-quality viewfinder (probably EVF), built-in flash (plus standard hot shoe support).
  • Full set of user controls (not buried in menus), with reasonable user customization allowed.
  • Full set of options: GPS, remote controls, AC power supply, tether support, external flash (especially full system capabilities, including wireless), and so on.

In case you're wondering about the "smaller than DSLRs" requirement: mirrorless doesn't stand out from a DSLR in any truly useful way unless it is smaller, in my opinion. As Sony has proven, you don't need to flip the mirror in DSLRs, but having the translucent mirror provides useful performance boosts in focusing. Of course, Nikon later proved you don't need a mirror at all to get that kind of focus performance. Still, I don't see a lot of point in moving to a mirrorless system if it is the same size as a DSLR. DSLRs, after all, are now very complete systems with very high levels of performance. 

It does seem as if all the major vendors have missed something so far in mirrorless:

  • m4/3: tends to fail at high ISO image quality and tracking focus performance, plus only a few of the Panasonic models have built-in EVFs. GPS and tether support is also missing. The good news is that the lens set is broad, deep, and will soon have almost no gaps. The most developed of the systems so far, but it also is the only system with two players in it, so this is to be expected.
  • Nikon 1: missing a lot of needed lenses, the J1/V1 both miss the viewfinder/flash requirements in different ways, both miss the user controls and customization needs.
  • Sony NEX: missing a lot of needed lenses (plus the lenses are DSLR big), focus performance needs improvement, and proprietary external flash is a miss (NEX-7 an exception). Incomplete GPS, tether support.
  • Samsung NX: missing a lot of needed lenses, focus performance needs substantive improvement.

On the flip side, we're still very early into the mirrorless era. The oldest of these systems (m4/3) is barely two years old, and some (Fujifilm) are just now launching. The systems they're competing against (DSLRs) are 30 to 55 years old. We all need to be patient.

At the same time, one worries that the camera companies don't see the user the same way as the users see themselves. Too many of the camera body entries seem highly targeted at specific users, but actually fail to fully satisfy those same users. In the case of those targeting the entry users, it's usually a performance element that fails. In the case of the serious and higher-end users, it's usually the lens and other system options that are missing.

Obviously, different people see the different cameras differently: we do tend to have differing needs. But we haven't seen a mirrorless camera resonate in the way that the Apple iPod or iPhone or iPad did. To do that you have to exceed and anticipate unserved and previously unknown user needs. That isn't happening in camera designs. Indeed, most cameras aren't exceeding or fully serving known user needs. That's one of the reasons why I think we get so much "why didn't they..." types of comments and posts and why so many are frustrated with the current offerings.

Still, the operative word is patience. I think all the major systems will eventually come around to fully serving a broad range of users.  

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