They go by various names — mirrorless, MILC (Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras), MFT (Micro Four Thirds), CSC (Compact System Camera), and EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder with Interchangeable Lenses) — but they are all essentially the same thing. A small, compact camera with interchangeable lenses that lack the mirror and prism found in DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras.

These mirrorless cameras only have a rear LCD on the camera’s back, or a rear LCD along with an LCD viewfinder. Without a mirror and prism, there is no “through the lens” optical system such as found on DSLR cameras. What the sensor sees goes straight to the LCD screen(s).

Mirrorless cameras first appeared on the scene back in late 2008, when the Micro Four Thirds standard was created by Olympus and Panasonic. (Olympus and Kodak previously had created the Four Thirds system for DSLR cameras, with the Micro Four Thirds developed for mirrorless cameras.)

Their market run has been slow, but steady. As more camera manufactures begin offering mirrorless options, the market share has been slowly growing. From Sony to Fuji to Panasonic to Olympus to video camera manufactures to even Leica, the list of makes and models is growing … even as sales are slipping. Or are they?

Is the mirrorless camera market segment to be taken seriously? Can the DSLR ever be upstaged? And quality-wise, are mirrorless cameras even something to be considered in comparison to the high-end DSLR cameras, such as the Nikon D800?

IRRELEVANT OR A CONTENDER?
As the comparisons between mirrorless and DSLR intensify, many pundits are starting to refer to it as a battle. That might make for good clicks on the blog, but the two segments are not competitors, like Nikon and Canon, but serve a different purpose, much like a full-size truck to a sedan, but both ultimately do the same thing: take pictures.

When the mirrorless segment came out, there was much chatter about it just being another system to clutter an already complicated market. With cell phones clearly surging ahead in the percentage of camera clicks to camera type, was this too little, too late?

Compact cameras (fixed, non-interchangeable lenses, i.e. point-and-shoot cameras) have been steadily declining as consumers opt for their cell phones to take the happy snaps typically reserved for point-and-shoot cameras. Was offering an interchangeable lens version of point-and-shoot cameras a last gasp of air or a cleaver gimmick that had serious consideration, but died a pop culture death, much like the Kodak Disc Camera?

The disc camera, or actually disk film, did not sell well in the market primarily because of the small imaging size: the negative was tiny, not much bigger than a thumbnail! And these new mirrorless cameras shared a similar feature in that they had small sensors. The Micro Four Thirds sensor is smaller than the often-scoffed-at APS-C sensor, which is smaller than a full-frame sensor (the original 35mm negative size). The mirrorless cameras were considered in some circles as irrelevant.

But they didn’t fade away. Instead, the mirrorless camera market has grown over the past five years, with more and more photographers talking about the benefits of these cameras — from size, cost, image quality, and functionality — even as skeptics still scoff at the system. But in the past year, things have changed considerably.

(Full disclosure: In early 2012, after much research, I invested in the Fuji X-Pro 1 system, and late last year I sold off the last of my DSLR equipment. Between the Fuji for still photography and the Micro Four Thirds for video, all my bases are covered. But having shot with DSLRs for over three decades, still renting them as needed — more on that later — and instructing others with DSLRs through our High Sierra Workshops’ courses, DSLRs are still very much a part of my photographic career.)

Most of the buzz recently has come as a result of many professional photographers embracing — and even switching entirely — to a mirrorless system. Blogs are filled with tales of conversion as more and more pros either supplement their shooting or have focused entirely on the smaller form-factor. Much like Leica was the personal favorite of photographer’s of lore, the mirrorless is quickly moving in to become the go-to camera for pro shooters. Does that mean they know something you don’t? No, not really.

SENSOR SIZE AN ISSUE?

A brief perspective is needed here to understand differing viewpoints on the “merit” of smaller-sensor cameras versus full-frame cameras, especially when you compare the viewpoint of a professional photographer to that of a hobbyist or enthusiast. Ever since Canon released the EOS-1Ds in 2002, photographers have used the full-frame sensor size as the gold standard that earmarks a “better camera”. However, is is mostly the enthusiast and hobbyist that generate that standard.

You see, it wasn’t until I started shooting digital video that I realized that the sensor size, relative to the lens focal length, is irrelevant. In digital cinematography, there is no “full-frame” gold-standard. The varying sensor sizes simply equate to different focal lengths. And different lens models, from Cooke to Panavision to even Canon, have lenses that “match up” to certain sensors based on the Director of Photography’s preferences. In other words, it doesn’t matter. A sensor is simply a sensor, and the focal length of the lens is relative to the sensor size. That’s it. 

For pro shooters, the bottom line is that the camera is just a tool. And as we teach in the workshops, you select the best tool for the job. As the parameters for each job changes so does the cameras we choose to use. While I personally have gone all mirrorless for my photo and video work, I recently rented three Canon 5D Mark III cameras for a video job, simply because the nature of the job paired with the DSLRs workflow. It had nothing to do with image quality.

While sales and feedback domestically in the United States (we’ll touch on that in a moment) reflect an aversion by the American photographer to the mirrorless market, globally the mirrorless camera is endorsed much more, and not only by photographers but also videographers.

Four Thirds segment received a huge boost in industry confidence when the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, an anticipated video camera in the cinematography market, went with only the Micro Four Thirds lens mount. Shortly after the release of the Blackmagic camera, Olympus released the OMD E-M1 still camera with flattering reviews and high marks, often referred to as the top camera of 2013. The close contender to that claim to fame was the Sony A7, seen above, the first full-frame mirrorless camera to reach the market. And the recently announced and soon to be released Panasonic GH4 has been ground-shaking in both the photo and video worlds, with a high-quality 16MP sensor coupled with 4K video, in a compact Micro Four Thirds body that is selling for just $1700.

And just a few days ago, low-cost lens leader Samyang greatly expanded their line of lenses for the mirrorless market, encompassing Sony, Fuji, Canon M, Samsung X, and Micro Four Thirds lens mounts. This investment reflects a vote of confidence by Samyang in the compact system camera market. But do the manufactures see a path that the consumers aren’t following?

The Associated Press recently did an investigative piece into the viability of the mirrorless market, addressing both a decline in sales and how the consumer has reacted to the Compact System Camera (CSC) mirrorless market. And the question asked that was the most revealing was “do people really care if they buy a DSLR or Compact System Camera (CSC)?” The simple answer was, no. Research has shown that 48% of consumers that have purchased a DSLR in the past two years would now consider a mirrorless camera. Most of that awareness of the market segment comes from the explosive positive reviews of the recent Fuji X-E2, the Sony A7, and the Olympus OMD E-M1.

When the mirrorless cameras are taking the attention of top systems, they no longer can be considered irrelevant but rather a contender. But while they are taking attention as top systems, are they taking the market by the same intensity? In short, no.

THREAT TO DSLRs?
Over the past week, the big industry news was the slump in DSLR sales from October of last year through January. Perhaps “slump” isn’t the correct word, as the decline and outlook looks more a precipitous cliff. Of note in that same report was the drop in mirrorless cameras from November of last year through January. The mirrorless market sales, aside from a significant bump in late 2012, has been level for two years. But as DSLRs sales plummeted, mirrorless also had a fall in sales, though not as steep.

In the AP story linked to above, a London camera store manager commented, “You’ve got the big boys like Canon and Nikon who are doing very well… But these brands don’t have the most successful compact system cameras (CSC) and, for whatever reason, [consumers] are still hanging on to the glory days of Canon and Nikon. I think they largely have this idea that it’s got to be a Canon or a Nikon because that is what they have been told to buy, by a friend. So, even though CSCs have lots of benefits, I think we are struggling still to treat technology companies as serious camera brands.”

I’ll be honest and say that I have little to no patience with fanboys who stand by their brand, such as Nikon or Canon, simply because the nameplate on the camera says to others that they are a better photographer using a better camera. I shot Nikon for several decades before switching to Canon, and now switching to Fuji and Blackmagic. I don’t care about the brand … I care about the image quality and what the camera can do for me.

And that is where the threat to the DSLRs comes from … what can the mirrorless system do for photographers that the big gun DSLRs can’t do?

When it comes to weight, the answer is a resounding “yes”! These are compact systems after all, and focal length for focal length, you are saving a lot on weight.

When it comes to feature-set, the mirrorless cameras are equal to, on-par or, in some brand-specific cases, exceed that of their DSLR counterparts.

When it comes to price, the mirrorless once again beat out the DSLR cameras. But we can’t call their prices cheap. It still is an investment, considering the Fuji X-E2, 10-24mm, 18-55mm, and 50-200mm lens package will set you back $2800. Still, when compared to the Nikon D4s at $6500, that Fuji set-up is a great deal. Even when you don’t go for the top of the financial hill and instead compare to the price of the Nikon D800 body, you are neck-in-neck in price but still getting more bang for your buck with the Fuji system.

“Wait a minute! You just compared the price of a Fuji compact camera to the Nikon D800 and D4s! You can’t do that!”

You’re right. I can’t. Because that is not a comparable camera to put up against the Fuji. Or the Sony. Or the Panasonic. Or the Olympus. That’s comparing apples to oranges. But yet you see this same comparison happening constantly, and the consumer base is falling for it. But the comparison isn’t in price, but in image quality.

The reviews that DON’T compare a mirrorless camera to the Nikon D800 or the Canon 5D Mark III are few and far between. Of course you are going to see a difference in image quality between the Nikon D800’s 44MP RAW file and the Fuji’s 16MP RAW file. There is just a whole lot more information being captured in the D800. It’s not a fair comparison, just like the price points aren’t a fair comparison.

The inherent problem with this comparison is that the largest market purchasing the mirrorless system aren’t the same that would be going after the D800. Realistically, how many photographers are weighing their choice between a Nikon D800 and the Olympus OMD E-M1? None. It’s a different market segment, but that hasn’t stopped the comparisons from coming in, paring down the quality of the mirrorless cameras when trying to put them on the same pedestal.

When the reviews are realistic, the mirrorless come out as an equal or in some cases, specifically with Fuji’s X-Trans sensor, above the DSLR counterparts. But you can read reviews until your eyes grow weary and that won’t help with the real world experience. Our perspective on the workshops are showing the same gradual leanings and transitions to the mirrorless cameras. On the Death Valley workshop that just concluded a few weeks ago, three of the 10 participants were shooting the Fuji system, ranging from the X-E2 to the new X-T1. While they still carted around their DSLR cameras and heavy tripods, they were almost always shooting hand-held with the Fuji cameras. And grinning the entire time.

BEYOND THE TECHNICAL
One the one constant that we see all the time, both first-hand and in reports, is the new-found or rediscovered joy in taking pictures after switching to a mirrorless camera. The three students in the workshop all remarked at the creative ease that existed when shooting with their Fuji cameras. Gone was the fussing over the DSLR. They were just enjoying the picture taking process. The simple form-factor, lower weight, solid feature-set and ease of use all make the picture creation process just pure joy.

Personally, shooting with my Fuji is fun. My Canon gear never felt like fun. They felt like work. Now, even when I’m working on an assignment shooting with my Fuji, it doesn’t feel like work. It feels fun.

“Yes, but you have a small sensor and are only getting 16MP!”

If that is the best argument for going the DSLR route, then a reality check is sorely needed. Do we really need to print 40×60 prints? For who? Where? When was the last time one of your photos ended up on a billboard? When was the last time one of your photos ended up online in an email or web gallery? Exactly. The camera is a tool. Pick the tool for the work you do.

All the reasons I hear for the size of the huge sensors in comparison to a mirrorless sensor is completely invalid. They have no base in creativity, fun or art. They are all technical excuses to ignore the creativity, fun and art of photography. It’s comparing the full-size truck to the sedan. Both will get you there. One carry’s a larger load, but the other is easier to drive. But how often do you need to carry the larger load? A pro shooter can attest to needing that larger load, but for the consumer and enthusiast market, it’s part of the fanboy rage about who has the bigger camera. Bigger might not be better.

Comment after comment you read from mirrorless system users reflects the same thing: “There was no reason to haul the heavy big gear when this little camera did just as good, if not better. It’s just not worth the trouble.”

How much of the reluctance stems from stubbornness? An unwillingness by fanboys to believe that a small camera could be just as good as their DSLR. Or reluctance from fear? That the DSLR has served so well, for so long, and can’t possibly be replaced by something like that. And what happens when the situation arises that the mirrorless DOESN’T cover the presumed gap.

That was my concern. I had too much faith in my DSLR gear to believe that it could be replaced. That’s why I held on to it for well over a year. I needed to see that I truly didn’t need it anymore. I went from a Canon 7D to the Fuji X-Pro 1, and couldn’t be happier. As I said before, photography became fun again. And the image quality DID exceed that of the Canon 7D. By a landslide. And it was lighter. Cheaper, Better features. All-in, the mirrorless sold me to the point that I couldn’t see any reason why I needed to keep a DSLR camera for my professional photography career.

But if all the attributes for the mirrorless are outweighing the DSLRs, why aren’t they selling?

THINK OUTSIDE THE BORDERS
It’s one thing for an analyst to look at bar graphs of sales and make prognostications. Which is what we are seeing a lot of lately. But in the comprehensive illustration below, compiled by the folks over at LensVid, shows much more information about the trends and directions of DSLR and mirrorless cameras.

Based on the Camera & Imaging Products Associated Data, the info graphic looks at camera sales from 2009 (the first full year of mirrorless system sales) through last year. Of all the charts and graphs on the entire graphic, there are three that are worth noting:

1) The graph in the top-right corner shows the prediction of mirrorless camera shipments worldwide (in green) against the actual shipment numbers (in yellow). For 2013 the actual shipments were only 1/3 of the predicted shipments, a stark drop from what was supposed to be a rising trend. As 2014 starts with stagnant numbers as well, many analysts are noting that the Fuji X-E2 and Olympus OMD EM-1 both have boosted said manufactures’ bottom line by cutting losses by 60% in each case, according to the above AP article. And with the Panasonic GH4 looming large on the horizon as a new, high-end, dual-purpose camera that will predictably cut into the DSLR market share, that rising prediction in shipments might just be a bit behind schedule.

2) In the bottom-right graphic, titled “Camera Market Overview”, both the numbers for 2012 and 2013 speak loudly about the elephant in the room, namely cell phone cameras. With mirrorless cameras taking only 4-5% of the total market for the past two years, and DSLRs not having a much better volume considering the long-established dominance of the camera style, the mirrorless vs. DSLR debate is a mute point. It’s more cell phone cameras vs. everyone else!

But in regards to the DSLR manufactors taking on the mirrorless market, Canon and Nikon’s ventures into the market segment have been tepid at best. The Canon M system and the Nikon 1 system barely register a blip on the consumer radar. Most of the sales have gone to their respective DSLR owners who have “faith in the brand” who wouldn’t consider switching to another brand or camera system that most certainly is regarded as sub-par by DSLR diehards.

The Nikon 1 and EOS M didn’t satisfy customers so many consumers see mirrorless as something inferior to DSLRs,” said Toshihisa Iida, Fuji’s Senior Sales & Marketing Manager in an interview with DPReview. “That’s the biggest challenge.

Iida went on to say, recognizing this logjam of acceptance, that he wished Canon and Nikon would invest further in the mirrorless industry as “it would increase awareness.”

But to do so, would begin to undermine what is Nikon and Canon’s largest source of revenue: DSLR sales. An understanding that is becoming aware even amongst mirrorless system users, as noted by the following anonymous comment on the AP story: “Bottom line for me: the MFT vs FF sensor size religious wars do not interest me in the least. I’m looking for a camera system I can buy into that has multiple models all using the same lens mount that fit different styles of shooting. Canikon can’t compete with MFT in this regard. In fact, the “big guys” don’t seem to be innovating much at all in this area.

3) Probably the most important and telling data in the above info graphic is the one found in the bottom-left corner. Most Americans have turned away from the mirrorless market, despite some recent gains, as sales struggle in North America. But when we look beyond our borders to include Europe and Asia, we need to recognize a growing trend that will certainly dictate the future of photography.

The bottom statement of fact regarding percent of Japan’s population against camera shipments is one of two key data facts. While Japan is only 1.7% of the world population, the Japanese market received between 13-15% of the camera/lens shipments! Supply and demand will dictate that what Japan desires will become a priority.

The second key data fact is listed on the right side of the same graph, where it states that last year, 27% of the mirrorless cameras sold globally were sold in Japan. A full quarter of the global sales went to 1.78% of the global population! And that is a staggering rise up from 19% in 2012.

Just in December alone, as seen in the data above, over 43% of the global mirrorless camera sales occured in Japan. With all the major camera manufactures based in Japan, and the largest number of sales staying within their own country’s borders, coupled with the increased draw in the Fuji X-E2 and X-T1, Sony A7, Olympus OMD E-M1, and Panasonic GH4, it is easy to predict that the mirrorless market segment in Japan will not only continue to rise, but rise significantly. When it comes to camera technology and development, what starts in Japan spreads to the rest of the world.

Regardless of resistance of fanboys and the embrace by professionals, the mirrorless market will not only make inroads into the DSLR market, it very well could become the more dominant system. And that will affect you as a photographer.

Michael A. Mariant is the founder and Director of Workshop Operations for High Sierra Workshops. Michael leads several workshops and courses with HSW, including “Advanced Photography: The Zen of Thinking in Yosemite“, “Yosemite in Winter”, “Yosemite in Spring”, “Death Valley”, “Eastern Sierra & Owens Valley”, and “The Giant Redwoods of Northern California”.