Mirrorless cross-dressers (and why there is a problem with that)
Regular readers of this blog, are already aware that we take a “militant” pro-mirrorless stance. Nice word this: Militant . Most often used by people annoyed that you have arguments to support your position and insist on using them. No worries though; history teaches that yesterday’s “terrorists” become today’s “freedom fighters”, and vice versa. So we will continue to support mirrorless as the current and future photographic technology of choice, regardless.
In that vein, please consider this article, as well as others to follow, as part of my personal “mirrorless manifesto”.
Most often than not, there is a complaint that “mirrorless” is a word defining a category by what it’s not. It’s akin to describing an automobile as a “horseless vehicle”. Personally, I’m not bothered. In fact, I find it quite appropriate, in the sense that, having a useless part/method/concept removed, very often is an indication of serious improvement. For example, it’s great that we now have wireless communications, tubeless tires and solderless terminals. In case someone asks, I reply in all seriousness that my cameras are devoid of a flapping mirror, because technology has moved forward quite a bit from the 1950s.
Still, some manufacturers seem rather embarrassed to call their cameras “mirrorless”. Take for example Panasonic, which even coined the acronym “DSLM” to describe their GHx line of cameras. Let’s take it apart; “Digital Single Lens Mirrorless”. “Digital”, because, you know, we don’t want customers to mistake it for all the film cameras out there. Also, “single lens”, because, obviously, the market is flooded with twin lens cameras, and we don’t want to be mistaken for those, either. And the unavoidable “mirrorless” at the end. Seriously, now, Panasonic? No wonder nobody in their right mind officially uses this terminology.
But what’s especially disturbing in my opinion, and the main subject of this article, is that, in some cases, mirrorless companies not only try to sound like they are making DSLRs, they also try to make them look like ones.
Panasonic, with their GHx series of cameras, and Samsung, with the NX30 and NX1 are the main culprits here. I guess the rationale was, if a camera doesn’t look like a deformed spawn of the unholy union of the creature from "Alien" with a black jellybean, it is not considered “pro” enough.
Please don’t get me wrong; these are extraordinary capable cameras in their own right. And of course, I have no problem with their functional operability either. My gripe is with trying too hard to make them look like, in my opinion, an outdated paradigm.
This bloated “DSLR look” has its origins in film cameras of a couple of decades back. I suppose curvy “space age” looks were fashionable back then, along with several other fashion statements we now pretend to have forgotten. And it continues to be the standard today, since DSLRs are actually film SLRs with an electronic sensor in place of film. For me personally, film cameras such as the Olympus OM and the Nikon FM are the epitome of elegance AND functionality. I won’t even mention rangefinders, which can be things of beauty by themselves.
I may be mistaken, but I think it was in Kirk Tuck’s website that I first encountered the term “cameras for artists” to describe both the initial Leica type rangefinders and the light, compact mirrorless cameras of today. I believe the mirrorless emergence being a repetition of the pre-war phenomenon of smaller rangefinder cameras finding their way into the hands of talented photographers, daring enough to let go of their TLR and larger view cameras. In that sense, trying to make a mirrorless look like a DSLR, in order to project the concept of technical seriousness, is just lame: imagine the first SLR cameras trying to look like TLRs, just to be “serious”.
After all, both the aforementioned companies also have a host of really compact, “rangefinder-like” bodies, it’s just that they seem to design and promote them more for the “enthusiast” or “entry level” markets. Olympus and Fuji, having a long history from which to borrow, opted for “replica” designs. I love both companies for proving this can actually work very well, and still result in a camera you will be proud been seen using. Sony and Leica, in varying degrees, chose a more modern “electronic appliance” look and functionality, which is also a valid proposition; photographic technology is not dogma and, if a new functional paradigm could work, we should at least give it a serious look.
Here are the problems with the “mirrorless cross-dressers”; one minor one (though I’m not sure how minor) and one major and deeper one:
First of all, pro mirrorless cameras seem to grow to the point of being indistinguishable from mid-level DSLRs. Have a look at a size comparison between the NX1, the GH4 and the latest Canon 750D. They don’t only look the same size, they also look dreadfully ALIKE! I’ll give you that the Canon may be inferior to the other two in some respects, weather sealing would be one example, and it’s certainly not meant as a pro camera. But for a large portion of the market this may be irrelevant; note also that the Canon can be quite cheaper. Also, Pentax has a reputation of making excellent “compact” DSLRs.
I never argued that a mirrorless camera should be small and light, for the sake of being so. Seriously, a certain size and weight are necessary for a number of reasons. DSLR styling and shape is not, though. Which brings us to the second problem.
This is virtually a demonstration of a peculiar inferiority complex on the part of mirrorless brands. At this point where, in fact, DSLR companies desperately try to introduce extra “mirrorless” functionality in their cameras, e.g. face detection sensors, trying just to LOOK like DSLRs to be taken seriously by the soccer mom crowd, is embarasignly pathetic. In all fairness, just promote the damn cameras as being better than DSLRs (and have the technology to back-up this claim), and even emphasize the fact that they look different.
Being free of styling and conceptual design elements can be feasible even with the fashionable “retro” design. Take for example Olympus with the double grip solution on the E-M5 cameras. This modular approach could be extended even further; e.g. making available specialized grips for extra functionality, connectivity, etc. The name of the game is innovation. If it ends up looking too futuristic, so be it. Let the consumers decide if they like it or not. Which means, educating them on what actually matters.
Mirrorless companies and, in fact, in many cases, mirrorless users, seem obliged to apologize for their choices. This, if any, is the take-away message. You don’t apologize for innovation and originality. And you certainly don’t try to look like the ones you try to overpower.