The end of flipping mirror photography

The half-century reign of flipping-mirror cameras is ending. Canon and Nikon will, of course, try to pretend that nothing has changed as long they possibly can, offering oblique solutions like their smallest-ever DSLRs’s, retro models, and by pushing existing technologies to their limits (this is what gave us the D800′s amazing resolution and the 70D’s two-sided pixels.) But the handwriting is on the wall – the DSLR is well on the way to becoming a specialist and a niche product.

Trying to start photography with a great classic camera and lens, a Leitz M4 and 50mm lens taught me a lesson. That all the resolution, contrast, and lovely bouquet and so forth in the world could not compensate for the need to really “get the shot” by being able “see what I was getting” from a distance or very close, and also to properly meter it. (Leitz rangefinders did not offer through-the-lens metering until the M-5 and the Leitz/Minolta compact CL). I had to switch to a dslr and macro, fast WA and short tele and 200 mm tele.

I was following more serious photographers – especially pros– who had switched to Nikon and Pentax and soon also Canon single lense reflex camera systems in the late sixties and early seventies, But I bought an OM-1, because I’d loved the small size and discreteness of the Leica. Maitani, Olympus’ lead engineer, had leapfrogged ahead with that small, light SLR system in 1973. It was such a hit that other camera makers (Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Fuji) had to develop similar small,light models, but eventually Olympus fell behind because the OM system could not be adapted to autofocus.

Digital single lens reflex systems started with expensive Kodak and then also Fuji sensor systems grafted onto and then into Nikon and Canon SLR’ bodies at the turn of the millenium, then evolved rapidly as both makers found ways to modify their film camera chassis to smaller/more affordable APS sensors. Olympus was, again, revolutionary in pioneering a designed-for-digital system tied to the somewhat smaller still Four Thirds sensor for which Kodak promised much. It was less of a flop than Sigma’s somewhat similar attempts, but failed to allow another technology that Olympus pioneered, Live View. In order to implement this revolutionary new technology, Olympus had to turn their traditional supplier of medical sensors, Panasonic.

Live-view, initially derided, has become an essential DSLR technology, because it allows the photographer to see exactly what the sensor is seeing.    (Which since it is continuous, can easily be processed into or video a feature Olympus was aware of failed to implement in a short-sighted decisions to keep costs down .)   It also poses the simple question of why one should ALSO need a complicated and bulky flip- mirror and expensive and heavy pentaprism system in order to see the same image as it comes into the camera.

Olympus and Panasonic – whose DSRS had failed – took the logical step of eliminating both, to produce a much shallower flange that allowed smaller camera bodies and lenses, and Sony trying to find a way into a market its DSLR’s were penetrating incompletely, and Samsung trying to find a way in from the outside soon followed.

In the 1930′s, W. Eugene Smith was fired from his first real photography job because he violated Newsweek policy by using a 35mm roll film camera rather than a 4×5 Speed Graphic. There are many other examples. At every stage of photography there was resistance, as there has been to every innovation: Japanese cameras, SLR’s, through-the- lens metering, auto-focus, digital sensors, etc, etc. Every new development tends to be derided before people ,really experience what it can do for them.

And the old, to some degree, does live on. There is the huge Clyde Butcher trudging through the everglades with his 16×20 camera and .75 ton enlarger making his huge, beautiful prints.There are a dozen or more Ansel Adams work-alikes (and sometimes look-alikes) photographing Yosemite and such. And there are even still a Beseler 45 (coverted from a 57) and a Leitz Focomat enlarger,, trays. etc still in pieces in boxes in my basement.  And there is an Olympus Om4Ti, one of the great classic SLR cameras, coming in the mail.

But time marches on, and the great majority of serious photographers – whether they earn all or a part or none of their living from it – will, inevitably, seek the most practical and convenient device to realize their images. This will, in a few more years, only occasionally be a dslr. In a decade, seeing a photographer using a one may well be as rare as seeing someone using a twin-lens reflex is today.

Which will make the spectacle of me, sneaking out that thirty-year-old OM-4Ti for the single, special picture that I intend to take with it every day even more of a bizarre spectacle!


I was born in Germany, grew up and have lived most of my life in Canada, but was back there from 1986 to 1990 to marry, help to have a daughter and see the wall fall. Attended elementary schools and St. Michael's College High School, Northern Secondary & Jarvis Collegiate in Toronto. Started U at Carleton in Ottawa, but completed my degrees in Anthropology and English at York U in Toronto, where I was also a Teaching Assistant and Research Assistant to Prof. Norman Penner and studied in the Graduate program in Social and Political Thought. Much more recently I completed MA courses in English Literature and worked as a Teaching and Research Assistant at University of Saskatchewan, but became a Program creator and Facilitator and Employment Counsellor at the Saskatoon Open Door Society. I have long been politically active,, have a strong interest in photography, literature and the arts, and am lucky enough to be married to a world-class pianist and to have a beautiful and talented daughter and a brilliant son-in-law,

5 Responses to “The end of flipping mirror photography”

  1. Stan Wiebe
    January 25, 2014 at 13:00 #

    I very much agree with your analysis on this one Erich. I have been a Nikon SLR and dSLR shooter for many years and accumulated a fair amount of gear to support the system. Very good equipment indeed but since buying the relatively tiny Fuji X100S with no option but a fixed lens I have probably shot about 90% of my images with it and only used the Nikon for sports (faster focus and zoom lens) and the odd time where strong flash equipment was important. I am not however a brand or system loyalist but believe in the idea of filling your life with good tools that help meet the need at hand and bring you pleasure and fullfillment as a result. Good thoughts on your blog, Erich. Keep them coming.

  2. January 25, 2014 at 23:30 #

    Hi Stan
    I’ve likely become too much of an Olympus fanboy, but I find myself taking more pictures with their sometimes-dated. sometimes eccentric cameras. Also, its hard for a 65 year old dog to learn new trick! Digital cameras are enormously complex, and apparently the Olympus E-M1 is the most complex/ configurable (according to Michael Reichman of the beautiful http://www.luminous-landscape.comindex.shtml site, who plans to take it on his next Antarctic trips.)

    In that regard, and others the E-M1 is both a blessing and a curse. Finally an Olympus body that is really competitive. Problem is that it also works with my whole raft of Olympus Four Thirds lenses. Just imagine if your little Fuji worked with all your Nikon lenses. Really good lenses – but BIGGER than the Fuji stuff.

    That’s why I was at the 14,000 foot top of Mauna Kea, in the piercing gale, burdened with a Newswear vest stuffed with a 7-14, a 12-60 and 50-200mm zooms and a fisheye, PLUS my beloved Domke 5XC bag with its easy access to an OM-D and a PL-5 body with lenses and three more micro FT lenses; AND the EM-1 on a tripod, for which the pocket vest provided ballast.

    You likely made the better choice – but when was I ever going to be up there again! So burdened with all that gear, trying to push buttons and turn dials through glove mitts, after 90 minutes at 60% oxygen,I could not figure how to turn on the video, as, on an unexpectedly clear night, all of those huge domes opened in quick succession and turned and manouevred to peer at the universe. (Kathleen simply got out of the rental4runner she’d been staying warm in, turned on her little point and shoot, and got great video of the moment).

    You are a wise man, Stan!

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