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A History of Mirrorless vs Mirrored Cameras

Have you ever wondered why Leica and Hasselblad cameras are so expensive? Or more specifically, have you ever wondered “Why are people paying huge lumps of money for these cameras?” The answer lies in the history of photography itself. But, I’m beginning to question if these expensive marques are worth it in the digital age.

To understand the current state of cameras, you have to understand a little history of photography. Today’s HDSLR cameras are jack-of-all-trade cameras that are capable of capturing just about any image, in any situation that you throw at them. With my Nikon D7000, I can shoot a rodeo one night, tabletop photography the next day, portraits the following evening, then awake at the crack of dawn to shoot wildlife or landscapes the following morning. In each instance I can expect very good (i.e. ever-so-slightly less than ideal) results.

But historically this was not always the case. Cameras were typically purpose built machines with target demographics of photographers and target missions in mind. Advances in lens design and camera design mean that cameras have become more versatile. But, let’s return to the main point, which is, cameras were purpose built for a mission.

Let’s start with Leica. The first Leica cameras were built in 1913 by Oskar Barnack and were built for traveling photographers, especially mountaineers, who needed rugged, lightweight, and reliable cameras for capturing images of their adventures. The small 35mm film size was extremely limited in quality when compared to 4×5, 5×7, and 8×10 inch view cameras of the day. But the tradeoff meant that a new style of journalistic photography was born from the tool. Photographers were no longer constrained by the sheer size of the camera, and photographers were capturing photographs “in the moment.”

Leicas essentially evolved into their modern day form in 1954 with the introduction of the M3, and seriously, the changes between the M3 of ’54 and the M7 of today are negligible. The M3, as with the M7, was a rangefinder 35mm camera. Optically, the M cameras are very pure, especially in the wide angle lenses.

Let’s geek out for a moment, shall we?

Light passes through a lens, and the point in the center of the lens where the light inverts is called the nodal point. This distance from the nodal point to the focal plane is generally considered the focal length of the lens. A 20mm lens has a depth of 20mm from the optical center of the lens to the film plane. A 200mm lens has a depth of 200mm from the optical center of the lens to the film plane.

But here’s a bit of knowledge you might not know. Not all long lenses are telephoto lenses. As a matter of fact, calling all long lenses telephoto lenses is a misnomer. Telephoto specifically refers to a type of optical engineering where the effective focal length of the lens is actually longer than the distance from the nodal point to the film plane.

Still following me? Telephoto lens designs are made so that the size of the lens is kept at a minimum, but the effective focal length remains. So the nodal point might be 125mm from the film plane, but the lens acts as though it were 200.

“So what!?” you’re saying.

But let me present you this problem. Leica cameras are rangefinder cameras, which means that viewing is accomplished through a viewfinder and the photographer never actually looks through the lens. But what if you want to actually look through the lens, how do you accomplish that?

The answer of course is “using a single lens reflex.”

The concept of the SLR camera is brilliant, but what happens if you want to use wide angle lenses? Say, for example, you want to use a 20mm lens on a SLR camera. The mirror that is hanging in front of the film plane is clearly larger than 20mm, plus there is the lens mount, and the rear elements of the lens. So, how is it possible to use a SLR camera with a wide angle lens?

The answer lies with Pierre Angénieux. In 1950 a French engineer named Pierre Angénieux would introduce a technology that would change the course of photography forever. Angénieux developed the retrofocus design lens. Remember how we learned that telephoto lenses make the distance from the nodal point to the film plane shorter than the effective focal length. Well, Pierre Angénieux designed a lens that was essentially a telephoto in reverse, so that the distance from the nodal point to the film plane was much further than the effective focal length.

What does this all mean?

It means that through some clever engineering and optical trickery SLR cameras could now use wide angle lenses, thus, an entire new type of camera was born. But, these complex lens designs aren’t without compromise. The mirrorless camera designs such as the Leica offer a very optically pure wide angle lens. The reason people rave about Leica cameras is typically the lens performance (sharpness, color, contrast, bokeh, etc.) is far superior to the SLR equivalents. But, SLR cameras are so damn handy, that yes, you can shoot just about anything with them! So like I mentioned earlier, shooting a SLR camera will give you good, but less than ideal results, in many situations.

So we’ve got two cameras, the rangefinder and the SLR. You’re probably beginning to better understand their intended missions. Rangefinder cameras, with their optical purity are excellent for outdoor, wide angle photography. They are light weight, rugged, and extremely compact. SLR cameras on the other hand suffer from complexity on the wide lenses, but excel in portraiture and sports/action photography. With the longer focal lengths, compromise in the lens design is taken out of the equation. Plus, as focal lengths get longer, focusing becomes more critical. The ability to view the image through the lens itself and make critical focus adjustments in shallow depth of field environments means that SLRs rule the football sidelines and racetracks.

Let’s throw two more cameras into the mix, medium format cameras such as the Hasselblad, and large format cameras. Both cameras represent a next step in increasing both the size of the camera and the size of the film when compared to 35mm. And each camera, the Hasselblad and the large format camera, are somewhat analogous to their smaller 35mm cousins.

A Hasselblad is a medium format camera, meaning that the film size is approximately 60mm x 60mm. It is also a SLR camera. The shorter focal length Hasselblad lenses (40mm) are advertised in the Hasselblad literature as “extreme retrofocus.” So, even Hasselblad is acknowledging the engineering complexity of the retrofocus design. The design is also reflected in the price. Short focal length lenses for a Hasselblad are ridiculously expensive.

Large format cameras, on the other hand, function similarly to range finders. There is no retrofocus required in the lens design, thus these lenses benefit from optical purity and simplicity of design. Basically … they’re cheaper and they work beautifully! The tradeoff once again is mobility. Large format cameras are the de facto standard for fine art landscape photographers, as they offer the highest picture quality of any camera, bar none. But they’re immovable objects that take time to setup, reside only on tripods, and are worthless for capturing moving subjects.

Hasselblad cameras excel in fashion and portraiture, especially with the 150mm lens. The 150mm Hasselblad is so widely known and highly regarded that at one point during the 1990s Japanese business executives getting their official portraits would insist that the photographers only use the 150mm lens! It literally became a status symbol.

So, we’ve got four cameras, each designed for four distinct missions. The Leica excels at wide angle snapshots. The 35mm SLR is the tool of choice of sports photographers around the world. Fashion and portrait photographers do favorably with the Hasselblad. Fine art photographers (and professional studio photographers) forgo mobility for the ultimate image quality of a large format camera.

Now that you think you know what you know … let me completely screw it up for you again!

Question: Has digital changed the missions and capabilities of the cameras?

That is one loaded question! The answer is “yes.” But not a little whisper of a “yes.” This is a big, barrel-chested roaring “yes.” And here’s where we reveal Leica as somewhat of a 21st century fraud.

Digital sensors have dramatically changed how we capture images. Digital sensors capture light continuously, then process and display that data on the rear monitor of your camera. Considering that we can now view through the lens on a rangefinder (or even rangefinderless) camera, we have to consider if SLR designs are still legitimate.

Now we get into the debate about mirrorless vs SLR cameras in the digital age. What benefit does a SLR lens design offer to the digital photographer? SLR designs are more complex, they are larger and heavier, and the wide angle lenses are far more optically complex than their mirrorless counterparts. But, (and this is important so pay attention), digital sensors don’t like to capture light at oblique angles. Digital sensors perform best when the light is as perpendicular as possible to the plane of the sensor. As the angle increases, both light loss and color shifting occur at the edge of frame. The result is something that appears to be vignetting, but it’s really not. In addition to the apparent loss of light, there is a dramatic color shift towards magenta. SLR cameras, with their longer nodal point to focus plane distance clearly outperform mirrorless cameras, especially at the widest focal lengths. Now the tables are turned!

Film was only slight affected by oblique angles, and was, in practice, unaffected by wide angle lenses with sort nodal point to film plane distances. Digital is affected so badly that Leica actually programs digital light and color compensation directly into the firmware for their digital M9 cameras.

Color Shift on the Leica

Color shift on the Leica M9 before digital correction

Advances in 60 years of lens design also means that modern wide angle retrofocus designs are optically excellent. Only the closest scrutiny and comparison between a wide Nikon or Canon prime lens vs a Leica lens would show any difference whatsoever.

What about mirrorless camera systems?

I’m glad you asked. What about mirrorless camera systems such as the Panasonic Micro Four Thirds system, the new Sony NEX cameras, and the Nikon1. Aren’t they affected by the oblique angles? Yes they are. The Sony has the largest sensor, so would likely have the most complex digital compensation to eliminate the problem. The Micro Four Thirds system cameras have a sensor approximately 1/4 the size of a full frame Leica, so the oblique angles are reduced with the smaller sensor. The Nikon1 sensor is tiny, and the limiting factor there is going to be the sensor size itself.

Generally, the purpose-built mirrorless camera systems perform excellently. They are smaller and cheaper than their DSLR counterparts. So here’s the paradox. If mirrorless camera systems are simpler to design and more cost effective to manufacture, then why are Leica cameras so damn expensive?

There are a few factors at work here. First, they’ve positioned themselves as a luxury brand. Second, they sell at a much lower volume, meaning they must charge more per unit to recoup overhead. Third, they’re built like tanks. Fourth, they’ve been around forever and their name is associated with quality.

But, don’t let the high price fool you into thinking that if you purchase a Micro Four Thirds camera and put Leica glass on it, you’re going to get some magical mystical image quality. What you’re paying for is coverage. Leica lenses are designed to cover more than four times as much sensor area as your Micro Four Thirds camera. So the extra money is literally spent illuminating the inner workings of your camera body, but not necessarily the sensor itself.

So, which to choose, mirrorless or SLR?

That’s genuinely a tough question. Digital sensors love retrofocus lenses, and SLR camera systems have a wider variety of long lenses. Mirrorless camera systems are tiny, and give professional cinematic images in a form factor that slips into your pocket. We’re at a crossroads where cameras like the Sony NEX-7 are going to completely redefine what is possible with photography. It’s a tiny, mirrorless camera with a big sensor, inexpensive lenses, and exquisite electronics.

The answer to the question really depends on you. The differences between cameras is becoming academic, and the cameras of the 21st century are multi-mission warriors that can tackle nearly any task. If you’re using long lenses and shooting tons of stills, go with the HDSLR. Otherwise, seriously consider a mirrorless camera system. They’re bitchin’, and if you do the smart thing (avoid Leica glass), they’re relatively inexpensive.