A Brief History of the Mirrorless Camera System

Mirrorless is definitely the darling of the photographic world right now. The established mirrorless manufacturers have been joined by some serious competition from Nikon and Canon in the full frame sector. However, mirrorless is not a new technology. This technology is one that has been around for a surprisingly long time, building slowly and surely into a true competitor for reflex systems. 

Today we are going to take a trip back through time to look and the history of mirrorless technology.

What Is A Mirrorless Camera?

By its very definition, any camera without a mirror could be classed as mirrorless. Compact film cameras from decades back could technically fit into this category. However, the modern day term is actually Mirrorless Interchangeable-Lens Camera or MILC. They are also known as compact system cameras. Sometimes the term is also applied to fixed lens compact cameras but technically this is an incorrect definition. 

Mirrorless cameras are generally lighter and smaller than their DLSR counters-parts. This is because there is no requirement for the complex mechanics of a returnable mirror and shutter curtain. Due to the lack of a reflex system, the camera uses an EVIL system, Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens to allow the photographer to compose the image.

The Genesis For The Mirrorless System.

The first true mirrorless camera came from an unlikely source, Epson. We know them as the photographic printer and ink company but in 2004 they released the R-D1. This was a digital rangefinder camera with interchangeable lenses developed in partnership with Cosina. It was a premium, and highly regarded, camera for its time and even featured a manual film winder to prepare the shutter for the next shot.

The genesis for Mirrorless was from an unusual source, Epson. By Rama via Creative Commons

The second camera to hit the mirrorless market was the Leica M8. Released in 2006 it was Leica’s first digital M series product and supported all M series lenses. It’s initial release sparked some concerns about image quality, especially in over-sensitivity to infrared light. 

Leica followed soon after. By Rama via Creative Commons

The Rise Of Micro Four Thirds.

While the early mirrorless cameras were high-end niche products, in 2008 Panasonic released the DMC-G1. This was the first product of the new M4/3 standard developed by Panasonic and Olympus. The M4/3 system was a further development of the 4/3 standard which was based on DSLR technology. M4/3 used the same sensor size but removed the mirror box and pentaprism. 

The DMC-1 was a well received and specified camera and kickstarted the mirrorless movement. Both Olympus and Panasonic built on the success, releasing numerous other cameras in the format.

Samsung and Sony also launched into the Micro Four Thirds market with the NX10 and NEX-3 respectively. The Sony models offered a new mount that differed from the Panasonic/Olympus standard. 

The very popular m4/3 system was kicked off by the G1. By Rama via Creative Commons

New Players New Sensor Sizes

In 2011, Pentax joined the mirrorless ranks with the Pentax Q. This used a different sensor to the M3/4, instead putting a 1/2.3 inch CMOS sensor. This allowed for a very compact interchangeable lens system but the at the cost of noise at high ISO.

The same year saw Nikon’s first foray into the mirrorless world with the Nikon 1 series. Featuring a relatively small 1” sensor the cameras were reasonably well specced but not a commercial success.

In 2012, Fuji announced their first compact system camera the X-Pro1. Building on the success of their APS-C X-Trans sensor, the X-Pro1 spawned a series of smaller budget versions built on the same sensor. Fuji also shook up the market with a medium format mirrorless camera, the GFX 50s released in 2017.

Fuji's X-Pro1 signaled their intent for the future. By Rama via Creative Commons

Time For Full Frame. 

In 2013, Sony announced the ⍺7 and perhaps signaled the true arrival of the mirrorless system. Featuring a 24mp full frame sensor in a smaller body the ⍺7 started off the full frame mirrorless revolution. They held the full frame market pretty much to themselves for five years, releasing an ever-increasing range of cameras and lenses.

Their monopoly ended in 2018 with the entry of Nikon and Canon to the full frame market with the Z and EOS R series respectively. Panasonic also announced their intentions to enter the full frame market with the yet to be released S1R and S1.

The Alpha 7 signaled the arrival of full frame. By Jürgen Matern via Creative Commons

The State Of Play Today

2018 will probably be regarded as the year that mirrorless came of age. The existing players expanded on already well-established systems, while the more traditional duo of Nikon and Canon finally accepted that mirrorless was a technology for both enthusiasts and professionals.

Are we seeing the death of the DLSR? Probably not in the short term. Too many people have too much tied up in DSLR systems to jump wholesale on the mirrorless bandwagon. However, I would suggest that we are now at the tipping point, the point where mirrorless sales will start to overtake DSLRs, firstly in the consumer market and eventually in the pro market too. 

The technology is mature, the market is ready, mirrorless is here to stay.

Let us know in the comments below if your next system will be mirrorless or DSLR based, or perhaps both.


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About the author

Jason Row

Jason Row is a British born travel photographer now living in Ukraine. His images have been licensed to companies such as Cunard, Ethiad and Virgin Atlantic as well as multiple newspapers and magazines. As well as shooting stills he is now creating travel stock video in 4K. He maintains a travel stock photography site at Jason Row Photography You can also catch up with him on Instagram at Jason Row Photography

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