Mirror, Mirror in the Camera

September 02, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

Over the past few years, I’ve sat back and watched most of my photography friends upgrade their cameras to mirrorless technology.  I say ‘sat back’, because I’m still using my trusty Nikon D4 that I’ve had for the past 10 years.  I collect old cameras, some of which are over 70 years old, but that doesn’t mean I’m some kind of luddite when it comes to photographic technology, far from it.  The D4 was Nikon’s newest professional DSLR when it came out in 2012 and, despite not winning any prizes in the modern-world obsession with megapixels, it still holds its own in terms of image quality.  As long as severe cropping isn’t your thing, it is still a fine camera and as such, I currently feel no need to change it.

The progression to mirrorless does interest me, though.  For the uninitiated, a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera has a single lens (duh!) which is used for both composition and acquisition.  The camera achieves both by using a mirror that, when down, covers the sensor (or film) and directs light from the lens into the viewfinder so you that can see the scene.  When the shutter button is pressed, the mirror flips up out of the way and allows the light to fall on the sensor when the shutter opens, making the image.  This arrangement has been around for decades and was seen by many as the most convenient way to shoot, because what you see is essentially what you get.  The alternative rangefinder and viewfinder cameras at the time relied on precise alignment of the viewfinder optics and a little guesswork to accurately compose the image, but they had the advantage of not needing a mirror.  The mirror has always been seen as the SLR/DSLR camera’s Achilles’ heel, as the act of quickly flipping a mirror requires mechanical stabilisation, vibration damping etc to avoid any problems with blurring of the image.  It also adds size and weight to the design of the camera body as well as making the shutter-release process noisy.  When I’m shooting in burst mode, which fires the shutter at up to 10 frames/second, it literally sounds like a machine gun.  Forget any ideas of being the next Cartier-Bresson and shooting in discreet pictures of people and events unfolding on the street, as they will almost certainly hear you. The great man used a selection of Leica rangefinder cameras, which I know from experience to be near silent.

As the name suggests, mirrorless cameras don’t have the same arrangement as DSLRs, with the viewfinder being a direct, live preview of what the lens sees provided by the sensor itself.  When the shutter is released, the sensor quickly switches off the preview mode and the image is made like any other camera.   Removing the mirror means that camera manufacturers have been able to exploit advances in electronics to achieve smaller size, lighter weight, higher shutter speeds and burst rates, as well as using the most advanced sensors available today.  All sounds perfect, doesn’t it?

Well, not quite.   There are some problems that I’ve noticed with mirrorless technology that means I won’t be moving to it any time soon.   The first is that the systems use different lenses to their DSLR counterparts.  There are several reasons for the difference, but the main one is that with the mirror mechanism removed, the distance between the lens’ rear optic and the sensor can be greatly reduced, which in theory makes for improvements in lens design where size and weight are concerned.  I say ‘in theory’ because like everything, it’s not quite as simple as that.   Suffice to say, the lenses are different and, in many cases, they are lighter than their DSLR counterparts.  However, I have about £20k worth of excellent lenses for my DSLR that I’ve collected over the past decade, so what do I do with those if I move to mirrorless?  To get around compatibility, Nikon have produced an adapter that allows DSLR lenses to work with their Z series mirrorless cameras (the same is true of the other major DSLR manufacturers).  The drawbacks of the adapter are that it makes the now-slim camera rather bulky, even before the bulky lens is fitted.  Also, in some cases there have been reports of the adapter’s interface affecting the available apertures and dramatically reducing the autofocus performance, particularly on some of the large telephoto lenses that I have.   In my case then, I would have to trade in the lenses as well as my D4, which is essentially the same hassle as changing camera brand entirely.  Add to that the fact that there are currently fewer lens options available for mirrorless, and it’s not looking like an enticing proposition. 

Another potential issue is the battery life.  One of the interesting things about modern use of cameras is the way that phones have influenced how we compose photographs.  We hold up the phone and use the screen to compose, focus and take the picture.  Mirrorless cameras also offer some of that convenience with their reviewing screen, so it’s not surprising to see photographers taking advantage of it.  All that screen time, coupled with the high-performance functions like burst-mode and enhanced videography, can quickly drain the battery.  I was on a photography trip earlier this year and saw the issue first-hand as one of my friends had to keep swapping batteries throughout the day.  Even using the dedicated viewfinder involves a small digital screen to be active during composition, unlike the optical arrangement of a DSLR.  Sure, the mirror is moved electrically in modern DSLRs, but the manufactures have had a long time to refine the efficiency of that.  Naturally, there are steps that can be taken to reduce mirrorless power consumption, but for me it’s an added complication when my camera’s batteries last for days at a time, no matter how much abuse they get.  It might seem like an unfair comparison given that my D4 was designed for professional work and its batteries are enormous, but I suspect the same is true of my other, consumer DSLR.

They say that life is a series of compromises, which is definitely true when it comes to the choice of camera gear.  I really like where the mirrorless technology is going and the cameras my friends have been buying are spectacular performers.  It’s true that when I want to shoot on the street, I’m forced to take one of my film rangefinders in order to be quiet, but that introduces a whole series of other problems.  In Cartier-Bresson’s day, nobody paid him or his camera any attention as he walked around the streets.  Today however, the sight of a Leica (particularly an M model) has fellow photographers coming over to ask about the camera.  If it’s a Rolleiflex TLR like the one in the picture, the attention is exponentially increased.  People are genuinely fascinated to see old gear like this (this Rollei was made in 1958) still being used, so want to ask lots of questions about it.  A mirrorless camera would definitely be an advantage in that situation if I grew tired of it (I’m not, though – I love their interest).  

My 1958 Rolleiflex T, a beautiful Twin Lens Reflex camera that always attracts attention

In the end, it comes down to personal choice – how much effort we want to put into the upgrade vs. the potential payoff.  For me, the balance isn’t right yet so any upgrade I’d make right now would be one of Nikon’s flagship DSLRs, the Nikon D6 or the D850.  With the pace of technological advance, it may soon be that I won’t have any choice in the matter.  Rest assured though, when the time is right, I’ll be a willing convert. 

Bought a new camera or found an old one in the loft?  Get started with some personal tuition for beginners.  It's tailored to your particular area of interests and can be delivered either in person or via video call.  Drop me a line at [email protected] for more details. 

For more about Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of street photography, visit www.henricartierbresson.org/en/



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