The mirrorless camera: A beginner’s snapshot

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on July 03, 2019 Published on July 03, 2019

Will this new shooter sound the death knell for DSLRs?

Just when camera buffs were worried about the future of DSLR cameras, mainly the entry- and mid-level shooters, thanks to the onslaught of cutting-edge camera phones and easy-to-use, feature-rich photo editing applications, the growth in the sales and the popularity of mirrorless cameras is a welcome surprise.

Even though there was a 12 per cent fall in the total number of DSLRs produced in 2018, mirrorless cameras bucked the trend by improving sales by 2 per cent. In 2018, the industry made nearly 4.2 million mirrorless cameras, against 6.6 million DSLRs. In India too, the trend is in favour of premium mirrorless cameras. Vendors say there is a visible spike in consumer interest.

That said, even among photography enthusiasts, there still exists some confusion on the character and specs of a mirrorless camera. For starters, it is just another camera, without a mirror inside. The mirror in question here is the now-famous reflex mirror, which revolutionised the art, craft and business of photography. In fact, the idea of reflex mirror was introduced back in 1676. It took many more decades for the system to become smooth. The SLR camera, invented in 1861 by photographer and writer Thomas Sutton, ruled the roost ever since, especially during the 20th century, until compact point-and-shoot cameras and camera phones started challenging its monopoly, especially in the low-end market in the 1990s and 2000s.

In the early years, cameras would sport two reflex mirrors: one for the lens and the other for the viewfinder. But then, what the viewfinder would see would be a little different from what the lens would see since both are placed in different locations inside the camera’s body. The optical viewfinder is absent in the mirrorless camera. Here, you get a preview from the imaging sensor that is always exposed to light. The preview appears on the rear LCD screen or an electronic viewfinder, not the optical one as in the DSLRs.

As you can see, the reflex mirror is a crucial part of DSLR cameras. Simply put, it does what a mirror does: it reflects light. In the case of DSLRs, a mirror placed between the lens and image sensor acts as an intermediary between the lens, the sensor and the viewfinder. The reflex mirror does two main functions here. It reflects light into the (optical) viewfinder. It also allows light from the object (passed through the lens) to hit the camera sensor, which reads the light appropriately and builds the ‘image’. But in a mirrorless camera, the process is much simpler: light goes directly to the image sensor. We have an electronic viewfinder in place of the optical viewfinder, which just reproduces what the image sensor sees. In mirrorless cameras, the absence of the mirror helps cut short the distance between the lens mount and the sensor, making the body leaner and lighter.

Make no mistake, the new mirrorless cameras can shoot as good (or better in many cases) as the DSLRs. The popularity of mirrorless camera in recent years owes it to the advancements in two technologies: the electronic viewfinder and the autofocus system.

Mirrorless cameras feature a different autofocus system. In the DSLR, when the light that comes through the lens hits the mirror and gets reflected on to the viewfinder, a slice of the ray goes to the sensor placed below for autofocus processing. Here, a phase detection autofocus system figures out where the object exactly stands and how the lens should focus to capture it, and adjusts the focus accordingly. This is actually a fast method thanks to the reflex mirrors. This by far has been the best method in helping the camera perform its focus functions properly. But the very absence of the reflex mirror makes this task difficult in the mirrorless system. Changing the direction of the light to a dedicated autofocus sensor becomes a tough task. But the camera fixes this issue by using a method called contrast detect autofocus.

This is where the camera reads the sensor’s behaviour to find the point of focus and adjusts the lens till it gets the maximum contrast around it. Understandably, this process is slower as the reading and allied processing takes time. The camera has to move the lens in more than one way to find the sharpest point. But once this is achieved, the result is supremely accurate for stills. And that explains the extremely focussed images mirrorless cameras deliver.

Mirrorless cameras are quick to operate, and can offer high resolution views (which helps you compose better photos) with better refresh rates (60 per second and more, which helps in sharper images). This is a blessing in low-light conditions. Another interesting feature of mirrorless cameras, my favourite, is the possibility they offer in terms of using open source lenses to improve the camera’s capabilities thanks to the simple mount adapters.

So is this the end of DSLRs? Unlikely. As things stand now, mirrorless cameras, despite the better results they deliver (mainly for stills), are a work in progress and basic or even mid-range users can wait it out before shifting away from their trusted DSLRs. Clearly, the mirrorless market is improving with big players such as Sony, Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, Panasonic, betting big on it. In India, all the players are investing in this space. Japanese Fujifilm, for one, plans to capture around 30 per cent share of the premium mirrorless camera market in the next three years in India.

Published on July 03, 2019
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