Sony ditches DSLRs, moving the camera industry beyond film-era designs

Commentary: The future of higher-end photography is mirrorless.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
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Sony A7R II mirrorless camera

Mirrorless cameras like the A7R family are the future for Sony and likely the rest of the camera industry.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Sony has phased out its DSLR camera models, marking the end of an era and pushing the photography industry further from its film-based roots.

If you don't track the internal mechanics of cameras, here's what Sony did and why the move is important. The Japanese company was a key player ushering in the era of "mirrorless" cameras. Those cameras, while not perfect, bring better autofocus, rapid-fire shooting and more computing horsepower to photography.

Mirrorless cameras moved photography away from a core design that dated back to the film era. Back then, SLR cameras used an internal "reflex" mirror to bounce light from the lens into a viewfinder so you could compose your shots. When you snapped a photo, the mirror flipped out of the way and the shutter opened, exposing the film. As photography transitioned to the digital medium, the design of SLRs, or single-lens reflex cameras, was borrowed for DSLRs, cameras that swapped image sensors for film.

The disappearance of mirror-based models from Sony's interchangeable-lens camera website was spotted Tuesday by SonyAlphaRumors. The change also arrived online as camera retailers like Adorama and B&H Foto & Electronics dropped 2016's A99 Mark II.

Sony got its start in high-end photography through its acquisition of Konica Minolta's SLR business in 2005, when shutterbugs dumped film cameras and picked up digital point-and-shoot cameras and DSLRs. Sony's first models were credible but didn't dent the dominance of rivals Canon and Nikon.

Sony's next step was the debut of its DSLT models, so named for the translucent mirror that was a stepping stone on the path toward fully mirrorless cameras. This fixed mirror bounced a portion of the light coming through the lens to the viewfinder and let the rest go to the image sensor.

Sony's mirrorless transition

Sony's real success came when it released its mirrorless cameras, which allow light from the lens to go directly to the image sensor. That digital imagery is shown either on the back screen of the camera or in an electronic viewfinder with a tiny screen of its own.

As the technology matured, Sony's efforts showed the industry that the reflex mirror was a relic. And with the change came a rise in Sony's camera fortunes.

"Sony wasn't a real driving force in the camera business until it left the mirror behind," Lori Grunin, my colleague and a longtime camera reviewer, told me.

Sony didn't respond to a request for comment.

The Japanese electronics giant, which also is a top seller of image sensors used by other makers of cameras and smartphones, has helped push its rivals into the mirrorless market. That includes Nikon's Z6 and Z7 and Canon's R5 and R6. It's clear that mirrorless models are the future for photography pros and enthusiasts.

Mirrorless advantages

One big advantage of mirrorless cameras is better autofocus because the image sensor is running all the time and connected to increasingly advanced processors. Sony helped establish advantages like eye-tracking autofocus that worked well, an important time saver for portrait photographers like wedding shooters. Canon has only just matched that in 2020 with its AI-boosted R5 and R6. Mirrorless cameras are also better at using autofocus across the full range of the frame, not just the central area.

Mirrorless cameras also can shoot silently by using an electronic shutter. Their electronic viewfinders can amplify dim light so you can oversee focus and composition even when it's dark out, and they can help you with manual focusing and exposure, too.

And mirrorless cameras can shoot full-resolution photos incredibly fast. Sony's top-end Alpha 1 and Canon's upcoming high-end R3 shoot 30 frames per second -- the same rate as video. Just a few years ago, shooting more than 6 frames per second was an achievement. But moving fast is easier when mechanical mechanisms like mirrors are left behind.

All isn't perfect in the world of mirrorless cameras. For example, batteries drain faster because the camera has to power the sensor and electronic viewfinder screen. Scenes that the electronic viewfinders show can lag reality, a distraction when you're panning the camera.

The term "mirrorless" is as awkward as "horseless carriage" was for early automobiles. But soon enough, for those who want something more than a smartphone, it'll just be how photography gets done.