More than ever, rumors are circulating that Canon and Nikon are finally going to take mirrorless seriously by building full-frame mirrorless cameras. These rumors, which may well turn out to be nonsense, all seem to suggest that these cameras will be built around the companies’ respective DSLR mounts.
It’s an interesting quandary: develop a new, space-efficient mount or stick with your existing system?
I’m going to argue that the right answer is much clearer for a manufacturer than for the end consumer. And I think I can guess which option we’re likely to see.
Supporting your legacy
The benefits of supporting your legacy mount seem obvious: the manufacturer gets to keep selling their existing lenses and the consumer ends up with a huge range of lenses to choose from. Surely there’s no conflict there?
The advantage of all (or most) of an existing system’s lenses being compatible from day one seem overwhelming. Plenty of choice, the ability to sell mirrorless cameras to existing lens owners and no reputational damage. Everybody wins, right?
"There's a risk of building a system that prioritizes backward compatibility over maximizing performance"
The problem with building a mirrorless camera with a full-depth mount goes deeper (pun intended) than all of your mirrorless models being bigger than necessary. That said, even people who prefer larger cameras are usually referring to grip depth and spacing of controls, rather than demanding their camera has a big box of fresh air in the middle of it, for no functional reason.
No, the bigger issue is that most DSLR lenses aren’t designed for mirrorless. I’m not just talking about some designs being larger than necessary, I’m talking about the use of focus motors that are great for DSLR phase detection but that are woefully clunky when driven using contrast detection AF. Secondary sensor AF, as used and painstakingly optimized for DSLRs is very effective at telling the lens where it needs to move its focus elements to. The ring-type ultrasonic motors used in most high-end DSLR lenses are great at responding to such a command.
Contrast detection asks very different things of its lenses. Instead of racing to a particular point, they need to smoothly scan through their focus range then perform a series of back-and-forth movements to find perfect focus. The result tends to be more accurate but requires a lightweight focus element and a very differently type of focus motor.
The alternative approach: on-sensor phase detection, is in its relative infancy. It may be able to make better use of existing lenses with ring-type motors, but it’s still not clear how well it can interpret significantly defocused scenes.
Also, at present, most on-sensor phase detection information is fed into what are more precisely described as 'Hybrid' AF systems: they get very close to focus using phase detection then perform a CDAF hunt to confirm the optimal position. Perhaps this will change, hopefully without the loss of the precision that mirrorless AF tends to excel at, leaving us just with the size disadvantage.
Alternatively, of course, there's a risk of building a system that prioritizes backward compatibility over maximizing performance. It's noticeable, for instance, that Sony makes very little use of ring-type focus motors in the lenses its developing for the E-mount, despite having experience of using them for its DSLR A-mount.Read More...
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