Thursday, May 3, 2012

What Do We Call Micro 4/3 Cameras?

Yesterday, a friend of mine, Kim, pointed out an infuriating and bone-headed mistake he caught in a recent B&H catalog. I think this mistake is a good illustration of why the problem of creating a new class and format of camera, and then not having a good name for it, is a real challenge. Lots of mistakes and misinformation can result. In a short essay explaining the differences between DSLRs, like the Nikon D800, and the newer Micro 4/3s cameras like the Olympus E-P3 or the Panasonic GX1, they labelled the new cameras as "Mirrorless DSLRs." It's almost like they don't know what "SLR" stands for, which is a profound bit of nonsense that can only confuse people. It is about the same as calling digital cameras, "filmless film cameras." It just really doesn't make sense.

In the 20th Century, several camera formats came into being. View cameras meant that you view straight through the camera, seeing the direct image projected by the camera lens. TLR, or Twin Lens Reflex, meant that there were 2 lenses on the camera, one for taking pictures and one for viewing. The "Reflex" part of the name referred to the mirror that reflected the image from the viewing lens upwards into a ground glass screen so that the photographer looked straight down into the camera as they used it. Rangefinder cameras referred to the rangefinder mechanism linked to the lens focusing which superimposed two images, so that when an object's two images lined up, that meant the focus for that object and distance was achieved. And finally, there were SLRs, which stood for Single Lens Reflex. These cameras were the mainstay of most photographers and combined the aspects of the other focusing methods into one usable and flexible style. In an SLR, the photographer looked through the taking lens, the image from that lens was reflected by a mirror into a ground glass screen and then channeled through a glass pentaprism and other glass elements to the photographer's eye. The term "Reflex" referred to the mirror used to reflect the image into a ground glass screen. In cameras, "Reflex" always refers to a mirror, and that is why calling a camera a Mirrorless DSLR is so ridiculous.

Since the advent of digital cameras, the "D" was added in front of SLR to mean a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera and that is fine. But we don't have an easy and simple designation for the new format of cameras, even though many companies are making them. Sometimes they are called "mirrorless cameras," which is okay but kind of vague. None of the digital point-and-shoots have mirrors, either, but they aren't really the same kind or level of camera, so that could be confusing. Some people have even suggested calling this new format, EVIL, which stands for Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens. While clever, it seems like a marketing nightmare guaranteed to alienate certain folks. Who wants an EVIL camera? I guess I'd suggest a variation of SLR, which would be SLM, or Single Lens Mirrorless. It's simple and fits the nature of the cameras in question. From now on, that's what I'll be calling them. And B&H? Come on, you can do better than that!