Are we entering the mirrorless age?

The world of consumer cameras is at the tipping point: I predict consumers will migrate from DSLRs to compact mirrorless cameras. I’m not saying the DSLR will die. It will live on, but will niche back to where it belongs: professionals who use cameras as a tool to earn a living.  If you have been a keen watcher of the camera industry, you can see the signs…

Past. The Olympus E-P1 (announced June 2009) was the first compact digital camera with a large-sensor and interchangeable lens. It was sans the flipping mirrors and pentaprisms, therefore “mirrorless”. It provided prosumers with a camera that can rival the venerable DSLR in performance, functionality and most importantly image quality without the bulk and heft. This type of camera, dubbed interchangeable lens compact or simply ILC by dpreview.com made perfect sense as consumer cameras are meant to be truly portable. Other brands like Panasonic, Samsung and Sony quickly followed suit. Being an early adaptor, I advised my wife to sell her Olympus E-410 DSLR for a Sony NEX-3. I took a different route, and sold my DSLR for film rangefinder gear.

My cousin's GF-1, one of the first mirrorless cameras into the market. He sent me this pic as soon as he unboxed it.

Present. Fast forward to today, it’s these 4 brands who are gung ho and battling it out in the ILC space. Where is Canon and Nikon? Nonexistent in the realm of mirrorless cameras. The two giants preferred to be conservative and kept focused on the DSLR, which made sense because it is their bread and butter. It seems that Canon and Nikon have decided to wait and see if the ILC market is worth getting into. In the meantime, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony and Olympus have launched new ILCs this year (2011), which offer significant improvements versus their earlier models. There were even a couple of oddball products from Pentax (Q) and Fujifilm (X100).

Future. Sony has already teased its future NEX models, with the NEX-7 and it’s white hot specifications taking center stage. The anticipation is high on these upcoming models, and while we wait, the current Sony models are still selling like hotcakes, particularly in Japan. Financial analysts say that Canon and Nikon are starting to feel the heat, and as I type, rumors of Canon and Nikon planning to get into mirrorless are already circling. Looks like exciting times ahead, especially when you begin to imagine what Canon and Nikon’s offerings would be like. Let’s not forget that they still lead the camera industry in terms of R&D, technology and lensmaking. My personal wish: a compact mirrorless camera from Canon or Nikon with a full frame (!) sensor.

History repeating? I have not lived long enough to know for sure, but during the golden age of film photography, there was a time when the SLR sales took a hit from funky and more compact rangefinders. I would assume that back then, the SLR became a tool for the professional, journalist, etc. and the rangefinder for the casual snapper. This could also be the fate of today’s DSLR and mirrorless cameras.

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P.S. What about film? Film has always been in with us, quiet in the sidelines. In this day and age, it will always be niche with no plans for a takeover. It is nowhere near extinction either. If I will be optimistic, I see it having the same fate as vinyl records, which is on a slow growth in recent years as music lovers return to the sentimental medium.

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