The photography industry is in turmoil. The age of the professional photographer is coming to an end while the rise of the smartphone is bringing the art of photography into the hands of millions. Strange days indeed. Amidst all this change both Canon and Nikon have announced mirrorless cameras that are poised to breathe new life into both vendor’s dedicated camera lines. Will they? I don’t believe they will and in the end, mirrorless cameras are simply a incremental improvement on the road to the true next-generation photography tool; the smartphone.
What IS a mirrorless camera?
Simply put, a mirrorless camera is a camera that, unlike a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera, lacks a mirror that typically allows the photographer to view the scene through the lens using an optical viewfinder. When developed, the mirror approach was a great way to frame your photos before you pressed the shutter button. Now, using digital viewfinders found in mirrorless camera systems you no longer need the mirror apparatus to frame your photos. You can just view the scene directly off the camera’s sensor. This is a fantastic improvement over that standard DSLR approach for several reasons; no mirror means the camera can be smaller, using a digital viewfinder means what you see is much closer to how the final photo will look when taken. Both are really good improvements, and are clearly better than the classic DSLR, but all is not well in mirrorless camera land.
Mirrorless is incremental improvement, smartphones are a revolution.
So let’s get down to the heart of the matter. At the end of the day, mirrorless cameras are just an incremental improvement over what came before in DSLRs. There I said it. Nothing so far seen in the mirrorless world is what I would call revolutionary. Lots of small improvement have been made in the latest models from Nikon and Cannon but neither has produced something that truly changes how we take photos. Are mirrorless cameras smaller? Sometimes, but the smaller they get the more compromises you end up with.
No dedicated camera system, mirrorless or otherwise, available today has anywhere near the flexibility of a smartphone.
All hail the smartphone!
What if I were to tell you that a camera vendor had convinced all of it’s customers to upgrade their camera once a year? Even better, what if that same vendor was able to also “upgrade” the quality of the photos taken by those cameras using just software for free? Obviously there is no dedicated camera vendor willing to operate on that type of upgrade schedule and none of the traditional camera vendors seem willing to give out major feature-inclusive software upgrades for free. They just cannot compete. I’m completely convinced that smartphones and the camera hardware they are rapidly iterating on a annual basis will dominate the photography world going forward. The harsh reality for the camera vendors is that the smartphone is rapidly gaining in both image quality and feature set over traditional “dedicated” cameras. Let me be clear, this is not a bad thing for photographers, but it’s really bad news for camera vendors. I foresee a future where virtually all photography is done using various types of smartphone-style devices. Today’s iPhone and Samsung Galaxy already can produce amazing image quality and include features that are simply not feasible using traditional dedicated camera systems. Upstart vendors such as Light (with their L16 camera) are attempting to bottle some of this lightning into unconventional form factors but it’s not likely to gain any significant market share as Apple and Samsung rapidly continue to create better and better hardware and accompanying software. Just look at how far things have come in the last ten years and then imagine what the next ten will bring!
What’s a photographer to do?
My advice is simple but might not be for everyone. If you consider yourself a professional photographer you are likely going to spend money on whatever you think might be useful regardless if it only gives you an incremental improvement. For those semi-pro folks already using a DSLR, don’t invest in a mirrorless system unless you know exactly what you need and the system clearly offers up an awesome step up that really improves on the quality of the work you create. Prices on DSLR pro-level lenses are crashing (finally) which makes getting the high quality glass you need to produce amazing images far more accessible. If you are looking to get into photography and are not coming from a DSLR then my advice is to get yourself a high-end smartphone along with a cheap, second-hand pro-level DSLR with some good quality lenses if you feel the need to “look professional”. The money saved over a state-of-the-art mirrorless system will get you several smartphone upgrades and likely some awesome glass for your DSLR. When the time comes, you can place that DSLR on the shelf for your kids to ask about when they grow up.
Ultimately, the camera market will still exist in the future, abet in niche market form only, while the art of photography itself will grow and expand in new areas thanks to the innovation we are seeing now.
Agree? Disagree? Give a shout out in the comments below!