Will the Drawbacks Go Away?

I've been clear for some time that mirrorless is the way virtually all interchangeable lens cameras will go. Again, the reason is that mirrorless designs reduce parts and manufacturing complexity, and thus cost for the manufacturers. Indeed, the clear future transition to mirrorless was one reason why I split my Web presence to create this dedicated mirrorless site back in 2009. 

Lately there's been a lot of discussion about whether the DSLR is dead and mirrorless is the future. Well, here's the short version: No, DSLRs are not dead, and yes, mirrorless is the future.

Some of that has to do with the fact that there are still some drawbacks to mirrorless, some of that has to do with the fact that DSLRs are more than capable of doing the job that most photographers need done and most people have no need to replace their DSLR and lens sets.

So today I want to discuss the issues that many people say mirrorless cameras still have that need to be addressed (I might disagree ;~). Let's tackle each of those individually.

  • Viewfinder image is lagged. This issue is real, but somewhat overblown. It shows up mostly when you try to shoot action, particularly with burst shooting. Technically, there's a solution, though it's on the costly side because it's all about internal bandwidth and processing speed. That extra speed is used to synchronize the capture and view, something akin to genlock, which has been around for a long time with dedicated broadcast video cameras. Another solution filmmakers and videographers have used for years is to keep both eyes open and learn to react to the left eye's timing and use it to control the pan. Unfortunately, this doesn't tend to work for some camera designs—some big camera/lens combos get in the way of the left eye seeing clearly—nor does it work for left-eye dominate folk. Samsung's NX1 probably had the best synchronization of capture and view so far, with the Sony A9 being right behind. But others have pushed from 30Hz to 60Hz to 120Hz viewfinders with shorter delays. Today, the lag on most new cameras is pretty short. Short enough that it isn't a real issue on static subjects and minor motion, and only becomes an issue when you shoot a burst of action, particularly with a subject that forces you to pan/tilt. Note that DSLRs don't have a lag to their display, but they have blackout between images, which also can also cause you to lose tracking of moving objects. The best of the DSLR bunch, such as the Nikon D5, have very short blackout periods, which makes it fairly easy to follow action. My expectation for mirrorless is that lagging viewfinders will just continue to be less of a problem over time as more bandwidth is built into the sensor and electronics of the mirrorless cameras. We already have cameras—the Sony A9, for example—that work fine with erratic, fast-moving subjects.
  • Viewfinder view is artificial. You might be surprised to learn that there are many different viewfinder technologies that have been used already, with more to come. Most mirrorless cameras are using a 1/2" display (LCD, LED, OLED, etc.), but the way the "dots" are arranged and updated can be (and is) quite different. The lower cost displays often have what is known as "color tearing" because they're using sequential updating of the primary colors, not simultaneous. Some people have eye/brain systems that are susceptible to low refresh or backlight brightening technologies, too. The best EVFs today tend to be OLED with high simultaneous refresh, and feature at least an XGA level of "pixels" (dots versus pixels is a subject for another day). The tricky part is making those pixels not look artificial, despite the mirrorless camera showing you what the final image will look like. Fujifilm, Nikon, and Sony all do an excellent job of that these days. Some of the Olympus and Panasonic cameras also hit that level. But this will only get better in the future. We've still got a ways to go before it will look 100% natural to most people. My expectation is that we'll get more pixels and higher refresh rates before we get "perfect" artificial views. That's because what we're seeing in the EVF is being processed by the camera's ISP, and right now those key chips are getting updated on about two year cycles.
  • Focus system is not as precise. This is a tricky one. Technically, a DSLR's focus system isn't precise, either, though for a different reason. The geometry of the very "short" phase detect systems built into camera sensors doesn't allow for the same level of precision and discrimination as the geometry of the DSLRs (though DSLRs have some alignment and quantity of light issues they have to deal with). I'm surprised at how fast the camera companies have learned to deal with this without always having to resort to a contrast focus step. I suspect it will get better in the future, as a larger data set allows you to use statistical analysis to "guess" the precision. Still, there are some small issues with on sensor PD that need to be dealt with in mirrorless systems. And those will all be resolved by more complex and intelligent algorithms. Which requires more bandwidth and speed internally. My expectation is that we'll soon have very competent AF systems in every new mirrorless model, even low end ones (e.g. the recently introduced X-A7 has moved the Fujifilm low-end up near their high-end). As data speed and processing power increases in the cameras, algorithmic and AI approaches will quickly fix the few remaining focus issues with mirrorless.
  • Electronic shutter rolls. Most DSLR users weren't aware that they had a rolling shutter. They do, because above the flash sync speed the shutter is actually a moving slit, but that's generally a fast enough movement to not be noticed in the recorded data. Mirrorless cameras haven't quite gotten there yet. The A9 comes the closest, but still falls a bit short. Most of the current mirrorless cameras are somewhere in the 1/15 to 1/30 range for electronic shutter roll (DSLRs are typically 1/200 to 1/250). Beyond the mere rolling, there's also the issue of what happens due to the interaction between frequency-based lighting and the frequency-based electronic shutter that needs to be dealt with. These issues have gotten better over time, but are still not close to where we need them to be. They'll get there. And yet again, we'll need more bandwidth and speed internally to deal with it. My expectation is that we'll get to near DSLR parity on the high-end cameras in a generation or two in terms of rolling shutter. Frequency-based lighting is going to take some clever technology to deal with, so it may be awhile more before we really get the ability to always sync our shutters with our lights.
  • UX is wrong. Most mirrorless has gone the way of making the equivalent camera smaller (hey Panasonic, what are you doing? ;~). I'm not sure why, but that seems to have broken the ergonomics teams at most camera companies. Small, hard-to-find buttons, cramped controls, proliferation of controls anywhere a bit of empty real estate can be found on the body form, and more faults all showed up on virtually all cameras (though Nikon probably did a better job at not messing things up than most of the others; the Olympus OM-D E-M1 also seems to have gotten things right). I find it a bit amusing that it took Sony four generations of cameras to let me find the AF-On button with light gloves on, but I still see really poor UX choices by a lot of the camera companies, all of which should know better by now. We've got 80 years+ of knowledge about what kinds of controls do and don't work, we've had 80 years+ of studying the hand position on cameras (and eye position, too), we've had 30+ years of studying on-screen interactions. And yet, here we are with mirrorless cameras still coming out that have less-than-acceptable ergonomic issues. (Aside: this is a constant mantra with me: the Japanese camera companies have been particularly poor at dealing with solving the biggest user issues, and those often are ergonomic or workflow related, not electronics related. Yes, Apple gets things wrong from time to time, but they're the model we really want camera companies to look closely at: solve user problems with electronics, not create products with electronics and let the customer figure out how to solve their problem.) My expectations are that, to survive in a low-volume market, any remaining camera company is going to need to pay more attention to ergonomics. The ones that do will survive, the ones that don't will get shunned by users.
  • Battery performance is bad. The image sensor is always on, the EVF (or real LCD) is always on, the image stabilization may always be on, plus we need more bandwidth and speed internally to do all the things that need to be done. All those things end up requiring power. The DSLRs definitely do have an advantage in that they can more easily and more often go quiescent, and thus preserve power. I have little doubt that the electronics companies are all working on dealing with this issue. I note, for instance, that Apple's latest CPU/GPU/AI/ISP (!) chip, the A13 Bionic, automatically turns off pieces of itself that aren't being used and even has a very low-power set of cores it can drop to for background use when instant computation and performance isn't necessary. We'll see more of that sort of thing in cameras, too. Plus battery technology is about to improve, as well. Still, of all the issues I present here, power is the one that I find the most troublesome today. We're at a stage where I can usually get by with two batteries a day with most of mirrorless cameras, but I really would like to get that to one. My expectations is that mirrorless cameras will tackle this in small pieces, though at the same time. In other words, make the battery a little more powerful/efficient, lower the power requirements of any chip by a bit, find ways to put some parts in low power mode at times when they're not being stressed, let the user power the product from USB, and so on. We also seem to be on the verge of some battery breakthroughs, as well, which might help, too. 
  • Lens choice is restricted. m4/3, Fujifilm, and Sony users might protest about this, but realistically only the m4/3 would have a clear argument that they have little to no choice restriction with lens sets. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that m4/3 can hold off the ever-better smartphones (more on that in another article later this fall). Fujifilm and Sony, meanwhile, have done an excellent job with the wide-to-200mm lens ranges, but I'd argue that they still have a lot to fill in the >200mm range to be complete. Canon and Nikon started from scratch last year, and are scrambling to catch up, though the fact that EF (Canon) and F (Nikon) DSLR lenses seem to work without compromise on their adapters means that there's a lot of choice for those transitioning. Given that the overall size of the market is going to be far smaller for on-going mirrorless than it was for DSLRs at peak, there are some real challenges moving forward with lens sets. Can you get a reasonable ROI on a lens that might sell 15k units over its lifetime? Tilt/Shift, serious macro, exotic telephoto, cine, and even really fast primes—primes that push the limit that can be done with a mount—all tend to fall into this category. The only reason we tend to get a lot of cine lenses is that companies are basically just repurposing existing lenses with accurate stop markings and gearing, which doesn't involve as much investment as doing a completely new lens design. That said, the good news is that the Japanese companies have experience with low volume lens production. The bad news is that you may pay more for such lenses when they do appear. My expectations are that everyone will quickly fill their 14-200mm range with primes and zooms that overlap and give you plenty of choices. (Well, okay, Canon EOS M? Totally unknown if Canon will ever get the message there.) Both Canon and Nikon can count on their exotics working fine with their adapters, so we'll probably see them tend to take a cautious approach to extending out beyond 200mm, but Sony has no choice but to quickly fill their gaps (currently the biggest gaps are a fast 200mm, 300mm, and 500mm prime). 

Overall, serious mirrorless products are healthy today, and going to get healthier and more compelling as the above issues get fleshed out. Meanwhile, entry DSLRs are going away fairly fast (at least in terms of selling to consumers), but actually remain a very good value. High-end DSLRs are so well fleshed out that they could last today's shooter much of their career even if they bought a new one today. On top of that, the drop in new DSLR sales volume coupled with the slow transition to mirrorless is reducing customer cost on the DSLR side, particularly to someone willing to buy used or at the trailing edge of camera generations. 

So many of the articles, forum posts, and other speculation I see tries to frame the DSLR and mirrorless segments as a "battle" with a clear winner. Quite frankly, the consumers are the current winner. You have the choice of really competent product either way you go, there's a clear transition path for those that want to take it, and prices on the side that most claim is "dead" are actually quite compelling (particularly if you dip into the used lens market) for product that is as good or better than the side that's being claimed as the "winner." 

I still write, for instance, that the Nikon D850 (DSLR) is the best overall camera you can buy in the market today. It's so Swiss Army Knife in its abilities, but professional at the same time, that it's a very compelling body. If I weren't trying to document what's happening in the camera market, I could have just stopped with buying a D850 to supplement my D5 and be happy for what likely remains of my shooting career (which I take to be probably 10 years). And yes, the Nikon Z7 and Sony A7Rm3 (I've just started using the Sony A7Rm4, but my initial impression is similar) is right near where that D850 is, just in a mirrorless form. 

Frankly, I see me (and you) as being the winners right now, not a specific technology. 

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