The compact changeable lens cameras: Evolution or Revolution?

Before we begin, let’s set a few definition straight :

Evolution :
Definition: a process in which something passes by degrees to a different stage (especially a more advanced or mature stage); Example:  “the development of his ideas took many years”; “the evolution of Greek civilization”; “the slow development of her skill as a writer”

Revolution :
Definition: a drastic and far-reaching change in ways of thinking and behaving; Example: “the industrial revolution was also a cultural revolution”


Also for this entry, we will be limiting our scope only to DSLR and SLRs with occasional reference to the current crop of “PnS” (point and shoot cameras) cameras whenever it helps with the topic.

Compact DSLR
So what is today’s entry about ? “Compact DSLR” ;is what many are calling it although personally it should be called mirrorless design or a poor man’s digital rangefinder. Yes the age of small and lightweight camera has truly begun.  Sure we’ve had them for years but those PnS camera were really next to a bag of crap that even a disposable film camera were way better than them.

Short history lesson
Ever since SLR (Single Reflex lens) started to go digital thus earning the name DSLR (Digital Single reflex lens) the physical weight of the camera increased due in part to the many components needed to be included with the camera for the digital sensor to work especially the digital signal process where as in SLR this process was handled by film which only needed a good motor (manual or automated) to forward or rewind the film hence it was a simpler design.

As a result, DSLR was notoriously getting bigger and heavier although some noble attempts were made to make it “weight-friendly” ( such as the budget class DSLR offered by many camera companies) but at the expense of many usable features such as speed, size, quality and most important of all, ease of bloody use.

Bigger is always heavier
But ultimately, if you wanted a good DSLR expect it to be big, heavy and it goes without saying expensive.  So heavy I’ve have heard reports of DSLRs having saving the lives of photojournalist from bullets during assignments in war-torn regions (of course the DSLR doesn’t doesn’t survived the ordeal). Are they true? I’ll leave that for the Mythbusters to find out.

One thing was constant though, with this new age of photography; things were going to get heavy (in more ways than one). Not only did it enable a quick turn around time for photographers to publish their work but since the Internet, it has allowed everyone to share their works of art ( though sadly while it has given the masses access to beautiful works, it has enable crappy photographers access to the masses as well but I digress).

M 4/3
This was the standard rule for a while until one day (announced on August 5, 2008) 2 companies (Olympus and Panasonic) got together to create something new and surprisingly evolutionary. It was Micro Four Third system which was a further logical step for this system in which instead of having a pentaprism and mirror to reflect the the image that would be seen by the sensor, it would instead use the sensor right away to provide live view of the photo.

This dramatically altered the playing field, allowing  for a smaller and lighter design by removing the 2 elements not needed by digital sensor namely the big hunk of pentaprism glass and the mirror (that reflects the image up to the pentaprism) and with it a host of any components needed to operate the mirror.

Cameras base on M 4/3
But it wasn’t until almost a year later did a camera base on this new design was released on June 16th 2009, the Olympus PEN E-P1!

Olympus PEN E-P1 with a 17mm f/2.8 and 14-42mm lens

The initial reaction from people were the same perception that since it was small and light, it would be total crap. Though surprisingly in the many months to come, the camera garner many good reviews! It was good! It had all the good features of a DSLR minus the weight, although a few minor complains abound but it was good enough that Olympus released an update to it on November 5th 2009, the E-P2 which resolves many of the initial complaints

Olympus E-P2 with 17mm f/2.8 pancake lens

though one complaint remained; price which Olympus hopes to revolves with the announcement of  their low-priced model. The Olympus PEN E-PL1 announced on February 3rd 2010.

Olympus PEN E-PL1

This models is significantly cheaper though it only has a number of trade offs which you can find listed and explained in detail here.
Anyway, not wanting to be left out of the m 4/3 game. Panasonic, who had worked on this design with Olmypus released their own implementation namely the Panasonic GF1! Announced  shortly after the E-P1.

Panasonic GF1

Its very obvious that while Olympus’ implementation caters to consumer friendliness , Panasonic’s implementation instead try to appeal to the professional who maybe looking for a lighter and smaller system.

Evoluationary or Revolutionary?
Okay now for the big question, are these m 4/3 a new kind of revolution of cameras?
No, why? while the m 4/3 cameras is certainly something new to the digital camera field but it can be said that they are just regular PnS camera that has finally implemented all the features found in pro level DSLR while maintaining  their small size and light weight.

or you can say because it’s just another play on an old game as the design resemble another camera design which pre-existed m 4/3 called Rangefinders. Its also a mirrorless design and its lighter and smaller than most pro level cameras and its still being made though incredibly expensive by a few companies such as Leica. Hence the moniker “poor man’s digital Rangfinder”.

I’m surprised that it required the R & D effort of 2 big companies just to come up with this design when the concept has already existed. Perhaps the effort was spent on just trying to get it through their thick skulls that better doesn’t have to be bigger.

If you think about it, it was just the next logical step, not an entirely new system all together. If they had designed a system that would do away with cameras all together but instead create a device that could read images from our thought and convert them into digital images hence we can create any piece of art just by imaging it! We would then be only limited by our imagination. Now that I would consider it evolutionary!

But from what we have seen, this is not the case.

Anyway, this new design has already been shown to be possible with regular PnS camera, just that they needed to be faster (though PnS lacked the ability to change lenses).  I would say that at most this is an evolutionary fusion of concepts in which they are now combining designs in hopes of deriving a better design.

Though another question pops into mind, will this change the way people will want their cameras to be like? Yes, as shown by the rise in demand by both consumers and professional for cameras like the E-P1, GF1 and even the Leica M9. Companies will either try now to make their current camera line lighter (unlikely) or introduce their own line of light and simple cameras but with a powerful sensor.

Such as Sony who have recently announced at PMA 2010 offering an APS-C size mirrorless cameras, sounds familiar?  ( note the  m 4/3 sensor size is smaller than most DSLR  (APS-C)  but still many times much larger than the sensors found PnS, hence why the quality from these cameras are much better than PnS but are only marginally poorer than DSLR).

Digital renditions of the new "Ultra-compact" by Sony themselves. Credit to Albert Ng on for the photo

Slated to be release sometime end of 2010 just in time for Christmas I wager.  For more in-depth information, you can go here on what Sony has planned for 2010. Yes folks, it seems these camera may be given carl zeiss lenses.
And now it seems Sigma themselves are saying that they too planned to release their own “mirrorless” system in the future as stated by their COO here during PMA 2010.

With these new trend being set in motion, I suspect its only a matter of time before other camera companies will follow suite though the question is, who will be able to present their product as the “Everyone must have this camera!”?Ultimately it will come down to how each company market their product.

What does it mean now
Now that we’ve established m 4/3 or mirrorless designs started a evolutionary step but may just as well started a new revolution. We should be seeing another market segment in today’s current product line that caters to the prosumers class.

Who are the prosumers? They are the market segment which want something more than consumer level cameras but are not willing to commit to the level of cash required by professional level cameras. I’m guessing that while these cameras are small and light, most consumers will still stay away from them due to the high price of not just the camera bodies but the lenses for them as well which are still damn expensive.

Short version of this explanation, it just means we have more choices to choose from instead of just either getting the
consumer level or the pro level. We now have a middle ground which a lot of people would love to try, even professional photographers.

But will this be the end of SLR/DSLR?
I’ve always wondered why do people love to say this?
“With the raise of TV, radio will die”
“With the Internet;  TV and newspaper along with Books are doomed.”
etc etc

What does it mean for DSLR? Nothing.
Sure it might one day make DSLR obsolete but why is that so important? Its just our tools becoming better. Its not like DSLR is a way of life,  it just a tool and like a type tool you can choose not to use it and continue to use the one you like. The one that you feels helps you express your artistic vision or whatever you like to do with it.

For example, say right now, some world changing event causes all DSLR to become inoperable, I don’t mind. I still can go back to SLR or if that is not possible I’ll go back to sketching.

But even after that example you still feel scared that its the end of DSLRs then photography may not be a hobby or line of work you should be in since you’re worrying way too much about your gear!

So for those who love to cry about the end of gadgets, if DSLR do die then let it die. It just means something else better came along. Just enjoy it for now till that some thing comes along. But until then, I’m going to enjoy my D700 along with by Nikon F6 (this is a SLR camera which many claimed would die when DSLR became mainstream, yet there are many people still using it because its FUN! Something a lot of people have forgotten to have).

Personally though….
Though honestly, I doubt DSLR will die that dramatically as forecast by people. The pool of users will certainly shrink as mirrorless design camera gradually improve and more and more people realized  that this is the camera system they should have invested initially rather then the professional level stuff as it offers them the simplicity and ease of use they’ve wanted.

Though for professionals will still need DSLR for a lot longer as these mirrorless system are still not up to par for their requirements yet or are just not suitable for the work placed upon it. Especially for those going on dangerous or demanding  assignments and we’re not just talking about being able to stop bullets here. 🙂

The point of this article
So why such an entry?

It all started a while ago when a friend who kept worshiping out loud  how great the Olympus PEN E-P1 about it to me all bloody week. On how it will change the game and stuff, note that he only got into the game just recently with the purchase of his EP1 so hence his fanboyinism.

Though in retrospect, it got me thinking what indeed is evolutionary as well as revolutionary in terms of photography technology. Hence I did my own research into the topic but the sheer amount of details I could have put in here proved too much for me as another friend put it, I could have looked at the topic from many angles and not just this short entry. This is nothing more than a ranting of what people considered to be evolutionary as well as revolutionary.


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