The Other Hand

Balanced commentary from an unbalanced mind.

Why MILCs will beat SLRs

Meet the future of serious cameras:

Fujifilm X-Pro1 (Engadget photo)

This is the Fuji X-Pro1, just announced last week. The photo is from a preview at Engadget. I’m going to cover this in three posts: today, I’m going to talk about why this kind of camera is going to stomp on SLRs… eventually. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the various contenders, and why the X-Pro1 is the first one that’s really interesting. And then after that, I’ll talk about how the market might evolve.

Why SLRs have been superior

The X-Pro1 is just the latest in the new trend of MILCs: Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras. It’s admittedly an annoying acronym, but it has the virtue of being both accurate and on-point. This category of cameras has been around for just about forever — Leica, Contax, and Nikon, among others, have had popular mirrorless cameras since the 1930s, usually called “rangefinders” due to the focusing/viewfinding method they used. Rangefinder cameras have several advantages over SLRs — they’re smaller and faster, and the viewfinder image doesn’t black out when you take a photo.

Basically, that’s because of the R in SLR. SLR stands for “single-lens reflex”: the camera uses a mirror (and usually a prism) to feed the image from the lens to the photographer; when he takes a photo, the mirror flips out of the way to expose the sensor (or film). Single lens + reflection. That mirror takes up space, making the camera bigger, and also requires larger lens designs. Flipping the mirror out of the way takes time and blacks out the viewfinder.

But SLRs are by far the more common serious/professional camera, and for good reason: they have been more accurate. By using the same lens for both viewfinding and picture-taking, you can be more certain that what you’re seeing is what you get. In practical terms, this means that SLRs have two key capabilities that film-based MILCs didn’t: autofocus and zoom lenses. These differences made rangefinders less versatile, and in my lifetime they haven’t really competed with SLRs for professional use.

The digital age is the age of MILCs

Note the use of the past tense, above. The switch to the digital world brings the capability to remove the disadvantages of the rangefinder. In the world of photographic film, you had to make a choice — is the light hitting the film, or the viewfinder? But now, you can use the digital sensor as your viewfinder. Suddenly, it’s the SLR that’s limited: not only does that big mirror get in the way, but also the MILC now has the more accurate viewfinder. It’s not just showing what the lens sees — it’s showing what the sensor sees. You end up with a camera that not only retains the rangefinder advantages, but also turns the SLR advantages into disadvantages.

That’s the theory. There’s still a practical question about the best way to show the sensor image to the photographer. The easy way — in use with just about every digital point-and-shoot — is to put a big screen on the back of the camera. That works great for quick snaps, but serious photographers have problems with it. For one, it means you have to hold the camera away from your body, which makes it less stable. It’s also harder to get a close look at key details like focus and composition. And when you’re working in bright light, it’s tough to see the LCD screen — sometimes impossible. So it turns out that serious photographers prefer to get their eye right up against the camera to see what’s going on.

You can get around this by putting the image inside a viewfinder, but that’s still a work in progress. The X-Pro1 uses a hybrid digital/optical viewfinder, which has been well received in the Fuji X100. This is probably the best overall approach, though there’s likely still room for improvement. But ultimately the optical/digital viewfinder, combined with the rear LCD, offers a far bigger range of capabilities and shooting modes than a SLR ever could. When you combine that with the faster operation and smaller overall size that the MILCs can offer, it seems like the SLR’s end is coming.

But that day might still be far off.

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Written by cisko

17 January 2012 at 10:21

Posted in Photography, tech

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