With the Q and A7R Mk II landing on the front the page of every photo website and in the Facebook feed of nearly every photographer, the mirror is looking less necessary by the day. What was once a conduit to essentially allow photographers to see what they’re photographing is now a vestige, something that needs space and adds weight. Ask any photographer who’s used big rigs, they’ll say the weight is the biggest drag, and that they’re increasingly drawn to smaller cameras by the likes of Sony, Fuji, Olympus and the like. Companies can make smaller cameras by taking out the mirror, and the company who’s been working on it perhaps the hardest is Sony. Leica’s up there now, too, but for different reasons.
I remember snagging the last Sony a580 that B&H had in stock back in 2010. The a580 was one of the company’s last traditional DSLR offerings, as the SLTs (Single Lens Translucent) were already on the rise. The a55 was the talk of the town when it came out in 2010. Light was able to pass through the mirror onto the sensor, and given the camera’s design, there was an electronic viewfinder instead of an optical one. As SLTs were taking shape, Sony had already introduced its NEX line of compact interchangeable lens cameras with APS-C size sensors earlier that year. There was no mirror at all in those, and it was an early sign that times were changing for Sony. DSLRs completely bit the dust at Sony, as the SLT and NEX lines raced ahead, only to be consolidated later under the Alpha branding for both. The A-mount is the main remnant of Sony’s acquisition of Konica Minolta.
Similarly, Leica’s never really been about mirrors. The company’s raison d’être has been its M series of rangefinders, which have a slim physique due to their lack of reflex mirrors. That’s not to say there weren’t SLRs. Leica had a line of traditional SLRs known as the R-mount cameras, but when people talk about wanting an old Leica, they’re talking about the Ms, not the Rs. You can get an M4 body-only on eBay for about $1,000. You can get an R4 for about $100. A Summicron-M 50mm f2 lens will run you over $1,000. A Summicron-R 50mm f2 will fetch about half that. The demand just isn’t as high.
Digitally, Leica’s been mostly conservative. The Ms have been popular, but they’ve lacked the trappings other companies were offering in spades: hi-res LCDs, built-in wi-fi, HD video, etc. They could take outstanding images, but the cameras technologically were not as advanced as their peers. Leica was resting on its laurels until it finally decided to take digital seriously.
The Q and a7R Mk II announced dropped around the same time. Leica’s $4250 fixed-lens beast inspired such fanfare because it’s the first of its kind the company’s repertoire to fully embrace the digital age with its built-in wi-fi, HD video, stupidly hi-res electronic viewfinder, and other accoutrements. Sony’s $3200 42-megapixel behemoth tore the doors off its predecessor, and while it can’t reach as high an ISO as the a7S, it has a back-illuminated sensor that improves its light-gathering ability. All of this is because the reflex mirror is nowhere to be found.
Stripping the camera of its mirror and pentaprism allows it to be much smaller, and with less space to worry about, more can be done. Sony and Leica aren’t the only ones to eschew the mirror. Olympus and Fujifilm are the other main contenders, but Fujifilm’s had the same sensor in all of its recent X-series cameras. Olympus has been doing great things, too, but the company doesn’t have as much reach as Sony. You might be surprised to find that Sony’s sensors can be found in the iPhone 6, several Samsung phones, and Nikon DSLRs, among others. Sony’s booming sensor business aside, the company has made the case that the mirror is, more or less, obsolete. Who knows if there’ll be a successor to the a99, a58, or the a77II?
Canon and Nikon are still trucking with their mirror-filled DSLRs. They make good cameras, but no one’s looking to them for innovation anymore. Sony’s been charging ahead with its full-frame E-mount line. In just over a year, we have the a7, a7II, a7R, a7S, a7RII. For a time, there were more cameras for that mount than lenses.
That’s not to say there isn’t value in old forms, that is to say in mirrors. Plenty of photographers use cameras with mirrors, digital and otherwise, because it’s what they have or they want to actually see what they’re photographing, not a video out signal in an electronic viewfinder. Do I want the mirror to go away? Not really, but what removing the mirror has allowed companies do is incredible. The Q and a7RII have been critically lauded, but it begs the question, “How do we want to see the world?”
Is it an image reflected off a series of glass surfaces, or something like a VR-headset where all the information is available around the digital frame? Do we want pixels between us, or a periscope turned on its side? I find that I sometimes have trouble going back to film cameras because my eye’s grown increasingly dependent on an EVF, and that, to me, is worrisome. Yet, as I set down my camera and look ahead at what’s to come, all I see are pixels through the viewfinder.