The Good News, Bad News Mirrorless Problem

(commentary)

I’ve written before about how the mirrorless camera makers are playing catch up. Fujifilm, in particular, went on a long road to updating the X cameras’ software to improve performance and add features to get more into parity with what a DSLR user would expect.

That’s part of the good news. Fujifilm, and now Sony, appear to be iterating towards “DSLR equality.” Olympus to a large degree was already there with the E-M5 and E-M1 (though they need to seriously iterate their menu organization and naming practices). Likewise, we saw a lot of features in mirrorless that were progressive in nature, such as the inclusion of WiFi, and where the DSLR makers are still playing catch up.

The bad news is that, other than m4/3, we’re pretty much still waiting for lenses with many of the mirrorless systems, and we’re also finding that the further you go into the telephoto realm, the less competitive some of the mirrorless systems are. The Sony A7II, for example, has IS that works fine with the existing FE lenses, but we don’t really have any good way of getting past 200mm, and it’s appearing that the built-in IS on that camera doesn’t deliver as much IS once you’re out past 100mm anyway.

Mirrorless cameras are turning into smaller, lighter, excellent performers that do well in a limited range of focal lengths, typically 16-105mm. It’s when the subject starts moving fast and/or you need lots of reach that those three adjectives (smaller, lighter, excellent) tend to disappear.

I’m not convinced that those three things will be “fixed” in the near term, if ever. Once you get into longer telephoto lenses, the lens size and weight tends to be dictated by focal length and aperture and less by sensor size. A 300mm f/2.8 lens will be at or near 300mm in length and the front element will be over 100mm wide. Sure, m4/3, with it’s crop length, can produce a 150mm f/2.8 lens that’s “equivalent,” but it will still be 150mm in length and feature a 58mm front element or larger, and technically it has a two stop disadvantage to a full frame 300mm f/2.8, so we really should be comparing to a 300mm f/5.6. An APS system will need a 200mm lens, and it’ll have a 72mm front element at f/2.8 and just over a one stop disadvantage. In other words, there’s some scaling, but the size/weight of telephoto options tends to start creeping beyond the small, light category and aren’t delivering the same subject isolation at f/2.8.

I’m also not yet convinced that we’re close to totally solving the autofocus differentials that mirrorless cameras show vis-a-vis DSLRs. Sure, focus has gotten fast, and it does work decently at following some types of moving subjects, but it’s not at equivalence for the more extreme camera uses (sports, birding, wildlife in general, even pets/children to some degree). Moreover, what a lot of people are saying is “focused” with mirrorless cameras is not what I’d call nailing the focus. I see a lot of near misses in autofocus sequences with my mirrorless cameras on moving subjects.

That said, mirrorless cameras are certainly ready for prime time. They definitely get above the 80/20 bar, and maybe even the 90/10 bar for most photography work. My suspicion is that DSLRs are the new Medium Format. In other words, the ones who are truly serious about extracting all they can from their imaging will still use DSLRs, while the rest will use mirrorless cameras.

Canon and Nikon both recently told Japanese press that they’re seeing softness in low-end DSLR sales and that they are doubling their mirrorless R&D efforts in response. That’s good news for the mirrorless world in general, though it could be threatening to some individual companies. More competition means the bar is likely to get raised faster for mirrorless.

What do I expect in 2015 for mirrorless?

Well, unfortunately, mostly more pixels from the existing players. Fujifilm will likely climb to 24mp, Olympus has a 40mp “trick” up its sleeve, and Sony is threatening 46mp on the A7 series. More pixels is something the Japanese camera makers know how to do, so they’ll do it. I also expect continuous refinements in feature sets and video capabilities. Maybe we’ll see some additional and modest focus improvements. But we’ve already made the big leaps to highly competent mirrorless cameras from many players.

Now the problem is how to polish that into something even more refined and to push performance parameters when you can. I expect few really surprising developments in mirrorless in the coming year, unless you regard something in what I’ve written above as surprising.

The wild cards in the coming year are Canon, Nikon, and Pentax. Can any of them manage to put something into the market that will challenge Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony? Canon is making noises again about their mirrorless efforts, and I know Nikon has prototyped a D3xxx level DX mirrorless camera. Personally, I’d bet on Canon more than Nikon at this point for getting a truly competitive mirrorless product going, as I think it’s an easier move to go from the EOS M to what they need than for Nikon to come in with yet another new system. Nikon has too many toes they can step on (Nikon 1 models, and D3300), and technically a truly competent DX mirrorless system from them would eradicate the need for both the Nikon 1 and the low-end DSLR. I just don’t see them making such a calculated self-cannibalization move.

I’m sure that some are going to misinterpret or misquote this article, and accuse me of being a DSLR-apologist or something. Please read carefully and note my other article this week (mirrorless in Costa Rica). I’m a fan of mirrorless and use it myself. I just don’t think mirrorless is the be-all, end-all product that DLSRs had been for so long. Maybe there isn’t one any more, and you simply use mirrorless for one set of tasks and DSLRs for another.

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