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Why aren’t mirrorless cameras smaller?



An ad for Canon EOS R System Mirrorless Cameras.
Cannon

The mirrorless camera was originally called the smaller, lighter and more convenient alternative to DSLR. But if you look at the latest mirrorless cameras from Canon, Nikon and (to a lesser extent) Sony, it has not really played out. Let̵

7;s look at why.

Canon’s new mirrorless camera, the EOS R5, weighs just 26 ounces and measures 5.43 x 3.84 x 3.46 inches. The company’s closest equivalent DSLR, the 5D Mark IV, weighs 31.4 ounces and measures 5.94 x 4.57 x 2.99 inches. Although there is definitely a difference and the R5 is lighter and smaller (in most dimensions) it is not exactly night and day. Then, of course, you also need to add a lens.

Canon EOS R5 with a long lens attached.
The Canon EOS R5 is not a small camera after you add a lens. Cannon

Adding an RF 24-105 mm f / 4 L IS USM lens (24.5 ounces) to R5 and an EF 24-105 mm f / 4 L IS II lens (28.1 ounces) to 5D increases their total weights to 50.4 and 59.5 ounces, respectively. You feel the difference if you hold them both at the same time. However, it is not a very easy installation either – they are actually quite similar.

But here’s the real kicker: RF 24-105 and EF 24-105 are the same size and have lenses. One of the biggest advantages of mirrorless cameras is that they use brand new lens mounts so that manufacturers can make even better lenses.

The mirrorless replacement for the incredibly popular EF 24-70 f / 2.8 L II USM lens (28.4 ounces) is the RF 28-70 f / 2.0 L USM, which weighs a ridiculous 50.4 ounces. Put it on an R5, and the total weight is 4.75 pounds compared to the 3.74 pounds of 5D and its 24-70mm lens. Now the mirrorless camera rig weighs more!

How did we end up here?

Canon and Nikon’s manufacturing decisions

The main reason why mirrorless cameras are not smaller and lighter is simple: Canon and Nikon did not want them to be. We will go deeper into why a little later, but first a short history lesson.

Canon and Nikon’s DSLR platforms are technically old. Canon launched the EF mount in 1987 while the first Nikon F-mount lenses were released in 1959. It’s basically prehistory.

A DSC 620.
This 30 year old EOS 620 still works with brand new Canon lenses. Harry Guinness

While Canon and Nikon have made good use of their lens platforms, they have now hit hard physical limits with how much longer they can drive them. Canon would probably have loved to release the monster RF 28-70 f / 2 that we mentioned above for their DSLRs.

However, due to the design of the lens mount, the company could not manufacture a corresponding lens. Canon has been limited to 24-70 mm f / 2.8 for decades.

When it came time to design a new lens mount for their mirrorless cameras, Canon and Nikon simply chose not to get smaller – they got bigger. By removing the mirror, they were able to reduce the distance between the lens and the sensor, which improves the image quality. Widening of the bracket made it possible to make lenses with wider apertures.

They now have more options to renew, which means bigger, crazier lenses.

In theory, Canon and Nikon (and before them Sony) could have designed smaller lens mounts, but that would have limited them further.

This leads us to the next reason why mirrorless cameras are still so big.

The size of the lenses

While cameras get a lot of attention, it is the lenses that do most of the hard work of photography. A big problem for manufacturers who want to make things smaller is the laws of physics.

A full-frame camera sensor is standardized from a piece of 35 mm film. They are 36 x 24 mm and it can not really be changed. Sure, there are smaller image sensors, like the ones used in smartphones and APS-C cameras, but they come with a whole host of trade-offs.

The advanced amateur and professional photography industry is based on the 35 mm standard, and that includes the lenses.

The relationship between the focal length of the lens and the size of the sensor affects how things look. On a full-frame camera, wide-angle lenses have a focal length of less than about 40 mm, while telephoto lenses have a focal length longer than about 70 mm. In the center are the normal lenses, which provide a perspective similar to the human eye.

However, focal length is a physical property of a lens. A lens with a focal length of 100 mm does not have to be 100 mm long, but it will be in that ballpark.

A photographer who uses a huge telephoto lens.
Getting rid of a small mirror would not make this setting much easier. Ryan Fletcher / Shutterstock

As long as the camera manufacturers are committed to creating a full-frame camera, they are also committed to the lenses having a certain (fairly substantial) size. There are small savings that can be made by using lighter materials or more compact patterns. However, there is no way for a 24-70mm zoom lens to be much smaller than it currently is and be good.

Because the lenses must have a certain size, so do cameras. That’s why Canon’s lightest full-frame mirrorless camera, the RP, is still 17.1 ounces – about 2/3 of the weight of the flagship R5.

Even the cheaper, lighter cameras still have to work with the same lenses.

The downturn in the consumer camera market

So far, we have focused on high-end in the camera market because it is the part that provides the greatest possible hope for manufacturers.

Since 2010, global sales of digital cameras have decreased by 87 percent, from 121.5 million to 15.2 million. Smartphones have stolen the low-end consumer-focused camera company.

Since almost everyone who wants a small, light and easy to carry camera already has one in their pocket, there is not much incentive for manufacturers to develop a competing product.

Mirrors were never that big

Part of the discussion about camera size and weight that is a bit lost is that the mirrors in DSLR were not that big in the first place. They take up little space (which is why mirrorless cameras have slightly smaller dimensions), but they were never particularly heavy. The sensor, electronics, battery, LCD screen, viewfinder, SD card slot, lens mount and so on are still there.

Plus, as we covered earlier, the manufacturers used the little size and weight saved for more advanced lens mounts. It is the same reason that removing headphone jacks from phones has not led to smaller, lighter phones but rather more advanced phones.

Are there any small mirrorless cameras?

If you really want a small, lightweight, mirrorless camera, you’re in luck! They exist, they are just not flagship products for most brands. This is because the compromises required to make them are not suitable for large specifications.

Canon, for example, has the EOS M series of mirrorless APS-C cameras. Sony’s Alpha line also includes many APS-C models. Unfortunately, because these use the same lens mount as full-frame cameras, most lenses are still quite large.

However, Leica’s M-Series mirrorless rangefinders are about as compact as a full-frame camera can be.




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