Mirrorless cameras, the small interchangeable lens compact systems that have been released by virtually every camera manufacturer over the last few years, were once touted as the future of digital cameras. With sales of compact cameras suffering from the rise of camera phones and sales of DSLRs seeming to suffer from the recession, the mid range mirrorless systems seemed to offer manufacturers an olive branch of profit in an otherwise depressed market. That was the theory anyway, but things seem to have changed.
There have been a couple of interesting reports out lately regarding mirrorless sales, and camera sales in general. These reports have poured cold water on the notion that mirrorless cameras are the future of the market. While camera sales have been down across all segments, mirrorless sales have been taking a pounding. In fact it is the high end DSLR that now seems to be performing well. With so many of the proponents of mirrorless cameras having previously declared the death of DSLRs it now appears that it is the future growth of mirrorless cameras that is uncertain.
There are a few things to be aware of before jumping to conclusions about the future of the format though. For a start, a few data points do not a trend make. This could well be just a blip in the market. Also, the segment could have been overheated to begin with, so this could well just be a normal correction. On the other hand it does offer some pause for thought.
To be honest, Im not really sure what to think about this. As a mirrorless user myself, and a big fan of the format, I’m sad to see the segment doing so poorly, but on the other hand I can see why there could be difficulty in the market.
Just who the mirrorless format has been aimed at has not been very clear since it first emerged. Some manufacturers are convinced that the cameras are best suited for the high end, and pitching their wares as a second body for pros. Others have been purely targeting consumers, seeing the mirrorless format as a step up system for those who want to move beyond the compact camera. I think the low end of the market in particular has been very confusing for consumers. There are numerous models all very similar to each other, and there is often little to difference between newer and older models. I also believe that the fact that many older models are so good, purchasers of these cameras are not upgrading because there’s nothing much to offer in newer models that matters to them.
The high end of the market has had its issues too. The biggest problem in my opinion is that there are numerous gaps in the various systems lineups that limit the capabilities or otherwise capable cameras. In particular, there are very few high quality zoom lenses available (with the exception of panasonic’s offerings for its micro four third cameras). Sony’s Nex line has suffered from a lack of high quality lenses in popular focal lengths until quite recently, and no system has high quality fast (in terms of Aperture) zoom or telephoto lenses available. I think all these factors have contributed to a dampening of enthusiasm for the segment. It is getting better though.
Proponents will tell you that you need to change the way you shoot to appreciate the format, and that it is somehow a purer form of photography. While some of that’s true to an extent, many consumers don’t care about being “pure” to the art form.
Reading some of the commentary on some other sites and in various forums, I’ve noticed some other common criticisms that I hadn’t really thought of personally. The biggest issue for many people is price. For the price of a good mid range mirrorless camera and a high quality lens you can buy a cheap and small DSLR with a lens of equal or better quality, and still save money, while having the full range of versatility available by the wider range of lenses and accessories. It’s an interesting point, but it’s not 100% true, because there are combinations of mirrorless cameras that are cheaper than equivalent DSLRs, the fact that it is the general perception shows a lack of proper marketing by manufacturers.
Another issue people seem to have is the notion of pocket-ability. One of the selling points of having a smaller camera is that you can put it in your pocket, but as many people have pointed out, a camera such as the Fuji XE-1 with a 35 mm lens is not much smaller than a small DSLR such as a Nikon 3100 with a similar 35mm lens attached. While mirrorless cameras do look smaller over all, neither is particularly pocketable, and the Nikon combination is cheaper.
As for me personally, I still think that there are strong merits to the mirrorless systems. For street photography, the benefit of the inconspicuous nature of the smaller camera can’t be understated. Even if you we’re using a small DSLR, it still looks like a DSLR and people still react to it as such. When I’m shooting with my Nex-7 no one pays any attention to me. They just think I am a tourist. Having said that I do still appreciate my DSLR. I’ve spent the last several months shooting almost exclusively with mirrorless, but lately I’ve returned to shooting with my big cameras, and to be honest it has been like a breath of fresh air. There is something about actually looking through the glass that even the best electronic viewfinder can’t replicate. There’s also something that just seems more solid and reliable about shooting with a DSLR too. It’s just a much more reliable and hassle free shooting experience. This is the point where mirrorless fans start sending hate mail about it being the fault of the user for not embracing mirrorless and being a true photographer, but like I said earlier though, I do love mirrorless, I love the weight, and the size, and I’m not bashing mirrorless cameras, but there is a reason that DSLRs are still the workhorse of most of the industry for the majority of pro photographers.
At the end of the day, the mirrorless segment is here to stay. I think the current sales data points to a maturation of the market and a course correction for manufacturers. I think the hype is starting to recede and the segment will shake out to be smaller than probably most people thought it would, but still a respectable source of business for camera companies. As the manufactures start to address the holes in the various lineups I think we will see the market settle down, but I think people need to come to terms with the fact that the DSLR is going to be with us for a long time to come.
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