Does Mirrorless Make You Better?

There's a misguided notion that the only reason why DSLRs are getting abandoned and mirrorless emphasized is that this is what the camera makers want to happen. To some degree, I'm guilty of adding fuel to that fire by pointing out—as far back as a decade ago—that mirrorless was probably inevitable as it allows the camera makers to take out complexity in parts and manufacturing. 

But the notion that the camera makers themselves are in full control of the transition is, at the minimum, not complete, and potentially misleading, as well. 

Thing is, a dedicated camera is not something anyone other than perhaps a photojournalist, an event photographer, or some pros with corporate clients needs. If the working professionals were the only ones buying cameras, the market would be so small that we'd have only two or three companies selling products, and they'd be at least twice the current costs, probably higher. 

Two other customers in the market are more important in the long run than the pros: enthusiast/hobbyists, and true consumers are driving the market, particularly when they get convinced they need a camera (e.g. the old Kodak "protect your memories" guilt marketing). Those two groups have far more influence on what happens in terms of moving from one platform (film SLR, DSLR) to another (DSLR, mirrorless). If those groups don't see the benefit to them, such moves don't happen. Or more likely: they are attempted, but don't take root.

DSLRs solved a clear problem for the enthusiast/hobbyist/consumer: suddenly they could near instantly verify that the photograph they took is the one they wanted. We joke about sports photographers "chimping" with the first DSLR cameras, but as it turns out the ones that benefited most from instant image review were the non-pro group. That ability was a clear benefit to them, and they started buying dedicated cameras in record numbers very quickly. That led to a dramatic increase in units sold in the first decade of this century, and probably saved a few camera makers from oblivion along the way.

The question in the headline is essentially this: do mirrorless cameras have that same kind of impact that DSLRs did? Do the enthusiasts/hobbyist/consumer groups get enough clear benefit that they essentially endorse the platform switch from DSLR to mirrorless and generate new sales for the camera companies?

My answer is mixed. Yes in several aspects, no in another. 

First, let's start with the benefit side. There have been several, though they're not free from argument as to their importance:

  • WYSIWYG — Mirrorless elevates chimping to real time. The viewfinder fairly represents the final image.
  • Size/Weight — Taking out parts also let the cameras get smaller and lighter. This crowd never really liked large five-pound necklaces.
  • Focus — Focus anywhere in the frame was new and useful. Used correctly, it gets rid of the focus-and-recompose delay.

I'd argue that those three things were enough to make the transition to mirrorless inevitable. It was a slow transition, though, taking over a decade before mirrorless unit volume exceeded DSLR unit volume. However, as more crossed over and began touting the benefits, the transition eventually gained enough momentum that the two dinosaurs of Canon and Nikon had to make the switch, too. 

But let me be clear, this wasn't an early round KO by mirrorless. DSLR users are still fighting, though the camera makers have mostly moved on. 

In retrospect, the transition point was when Sony gave up on SLT types of DSLRs and eliminated the pellicle mirror. Doing so let them get to all three of the benefits I point out above instead of just one. To Sony's credit, once that Alpha decision was made, they ran with it as fast as they could, and created a lot of marketing noise as they did. Which is how the mostly DSLR user base started hearing about the fact that there might be benefits from a new platform compared to their existing one. 

Over the decade, I documented a lot of this. I discovered Samplers, Leakers, and Switchers, all of whom had been dedicated DSLR users, but in their exploration of alternatives eventually became mirrorless users. At one point I found through surveys (mostly of Nikon DSLR users) that leaking was driving about 5% of the camera purchasing going on at the time. But 5% sustained eventually eats up the 100% ;~). The Rule of 72 says that this 5% leak would take only 14 years to become 100%, remarkably close to the time it actually will end up taking.

If it weren't for the supply chain issues going on, I believe that we'd see a faster transition now, and DSLR sales dwindle even faster. That's a bit ironic. I'd have thought that part supply issues would have just had Canon and Nikon leave DSLRs totally behind, but there's something I'm not understanding about the supply chain that's kept them moving enough parts into DSLR production that we're still within sight of the 50/50 transition point. I suspect that it's that to get back on top in mirrorless, Canon and Nikon need the next generation in parts (stacked sensors, faster image processors, etc.), and those have been difficult to get on fabs in quantity, let alone to drive down in price. But it'll happen.

The question mirrorless users should be asking themselves is this: what's the next major transition point? Nikon's Z9 seems to suggest the loss of the mechanical shutter, and I'm pretty sure all the camera makers would love to lose their mechanical IS platforms, too. Cards seem so old school in this age of moving things through the cloud. And, of course, more machine learning can make that WYSIWYG/Focus benefit into WYWITFP (What You Wanted In The First Place). 

Life doesn't stand still in technology products. If you're a mirrorless camera owner today, you're in the golden period of mirrorless: you have plenty of choices, they all perform quite well, and they all pretty much live up to the promises that mirrorless was making for you in the first place. The camera makers will continue to refine those products—but not make large advances—right up until the next platform shift occurs. 

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