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Déjà Vu All Over Again

It wasn't that many years ago that the big topics in photography revolved around digital versus film. As we click away on our digital cameras, we all know how that debate turned out. Today's central point of discussion regards mirrorless versus DSLR. As with last time, it may take a while, but technology and progress have a way of deciding these things for us.

Ah, yes. Those were the days. Just after the turn of the century, I jumped fully into digital with the purchase of a Nikon D100 DSLR body. Sporting an impressive 6 megapixels, it was a state-of-the-art wonder. But whether it was as good (or better) than film, well, that was another matter. And one that was hotly debated whenever photographers got together. Under just the right circumstances and with just the right subject, that tiny raw capture could be optimized, enlarged, and printed up to 16 x 20 inches. Or bigger, if you squinted just right. Never mind that most of those circumstances and subjects where the stuff of fables handed down from photographer to photographer, but on occasion, things really did work out that way. Really. It took work and perhaps a bit of luck, but it was possible. Then there were the questions about dynamic range and color balance, shutter lag, durability, and so on. At some point, it became clear that the very fact that such debates persisted with no clear winner was itself testimony to the closeness of the competition.

Here we are, less than twenty years later, and my D850 DSLR shoots images at over 45 megapixels. That really is impressive. Nobody longs for the days of film photography other than those interested in nostalgia or those who just want to be different or difficult. Resolution is clearly better than 35mm film. Dynamic range and every other image-based metric have improved over the years too. As much as I wanted to love my D100 back then, I truly love my D850 today. Once things got rolling with digital, technical innovation after technical innovation snowballed until their combined weight was unstoppable.

So yes, to be clear, I'm sticking with my Nikon D850 for now, and not jumping into the Z-mount mirrorless world just yet. I've written here about mirrorless before, but I don't own one. When you compare basic specs between it and the new mirrorless Nikon Z 7, the two have a lot in common. Other than the mirror, of course. Similar resolution, frame rate and image quality. The Z 7 does have IBIS, more focus points, and a few other plusses over the D850, but the two are in the same ballpark. There simply wasn't enough to make me want to give up on the tried and true. I know my D850 is good based on my own experience, a judgement borne out by numerous other users. The Z 7 had yet to widely prove itself in the field with real users. Early reviews seem mostly quite favorable, but with a few potential issues. Or perhaps it's just getting an undue amount of scrutiny, being new and different. You see, I am very interested in this whole mirrorless paradigm shift and what the future holds.

A recent Facebook post pointed me to a curious article on the Imaging Resource webite. It's an interview with an executive from Ricoh, the company behind the Pentax brand of cameras. The highlight of the interview is his assertion that mirrorless is popular because it's new, and some users who are now switching to mirrorless will come back to the DSLR market within a year or two. In other words, he thinks that mirrorless is a fad.

Now, not every innovation is likely a good one, but mirrorless just makes sense. The whole reason the mirror existed in the first place is to allow the photographer to see the subject they were composing the same as the camera would see it. Previous cameras introduced parallax errors by forcing the photographer to compose through a second, parallel lens path. By inserting a mirror into the path of the primary lens, the image could be diverted to a viewfinder. That was possible only because the mechanical parts necessary could be manufactured to a fine enough degree of tolerance that they could be flipped up out of the way when it came time to take the photo. Camera makers put that mirror there in order to solve a problem but doing so forced them to come up with a way to get the darned thing out of the way when the shutter release got pressed. The mirror never really belonged there in the first place. It just had to be there for single lens reflex to work. It has always been both a defining characteristic and an obstacle. I have no direct evidence to support this, but let's imagine what users of early SLR cameras must have experienced. Finally, they could correctly see what the image they were composing, but now they had to deal with that clunky, fragile, slow mirror smack dab in the middle of their cameras. The mirror has always been a necessary evil.

When they first came up with the idea of a mirror, the idea of an electronic camera was unheard of, even less so a digital one. Improvements in sensors, LCD panels, camera CPU's and so forth have reached the point though where it is becoming possible to substitute wires and electronics for mirrors and mechanical contraptions. Are we there yet? I dunno. Hence my reasons for sticking with the D850 for now. But at the same time, I know that this is coming. Getting rid of the mirror makes for smaller bodies, faster lenses, potentially bigger (and thus even higher resolution) sensors, and who knows what else. My money is on a new line of Z-mount tilt/shift lenses down the road. And mirrorless moves us into the "fly by wire" era of photography. Or perhaps we should think of it as "live view on steroids." Once you decouple the viewfinder from the rest of the imaging system, no longer requiring line of sight with the sensor and lens, there's no telling what else could be possible. That mirror was always a compromise at best. It's days are now numbered. We're not all coming back to the DSLR. Indeed, more of us will be leaving.

It may not happen overnight, depending on your point of view, any more than did the inexorable shift from film to digital. In certain situations and with favorable subjects, we may indeed already be there. In terms of video as opposed to still image capture, that's an even easier argument to make. But in time, the verdict will be certain. There's no going back to mirrors. We can (or soon will be able to) do better.

Some would say that the film to digital shift was different, that many of us were already scanning our film, and that digital capture allowed us to work on a first-generation image file, rather than a digital scan of a film grain image. While it is true that digital made sense in this way both from a potential quality perspective and in terms of potential labor-saving, this only serves to reinforce my point. Photographers were moving to digital in the darkroom for the advantages it offered there. If they could move all the way to digital, it would offer even more advantages. Assuming the technology were up to the challenge. As each new generation of DSLR cameras got released, it became increasingly clear that it was. What at first was indeed questionable in time became certain. My early D100 was a mixed bag to be honest, but my D850 rocks.

I can just imagine early photographers having to fend off questions about whether cameras were just a fad and that they'd all move back to painting. Or those early single lens reflex users having mixed feelings about the better view it gave them but being frustrated about how often such a fragile mechanism would get caught or break. You know it had to have happened.

To put it simply, the future won't be found by looking in a mirror. Hey, that's kind of catchy.

Date posted: May 19, 2019


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