The Cameras That Helped Shape the Mirrorless Revolution

Many of us who have been around since the transition from film to digital have been the beneficiaries of innovations in camera technology. It’s been about two decades of growth in the right direction. While some companies have experienced setbacks in the megapixel race, others have contributed more than their fair share to new advancements.

In this evocative journey, you can revisit some of the innovative ideas that shed light on worthy features. While some of them may not have been the most popular models, they certainly caught the attention of manufacturers who, in most cases, followed suit in future product offerings.

The introduction and commercialization of stabilization

Think back to March 5, 2007, when Olympus unveiled the new E-510 (EVOLT E-510), a 10-megapixel camera with new Sensor-shift technology. Back then, digital camera technology was leaping by leaps and bounds as each manufacturer tried to outdo the other. Megapixels were the race, but Olympus created a new stabilization feature that caught the attention of the entire industry.

The Olympus EVOLT E-510.

Using the same motor from a previous Supersonic Wave Drive innovation, Olympus has paired a working sensor unit to detect vibrations from 1Hz to 7Hz. This interesting innovation would allow photographers to obtain a correction effect equivalent to a maximum of 4 levels of exposure value. While this correction was significant at the time, it doesn’t match today’s IBIS (Integrated Image Stabilization) systems found in versions from several manufacturers, which offer double the stabilization.

A seriously high-quality screen

It is at this point that we have to mention Kodak. Unfortunately for camera sales, the Kodak LS443 sat in the shadows while the others played in the field. You can attribute this to Kodak’s demise when they filed for bankruptcy the same year the camera came out in 2012.

The Kodak LS443

What’s remarkable about this camera is the introduction of a rear OLED LCD display. As this technology has found its way into other industries, Kodak has brought the technology to its consumer 4MP camera. The benefit was that users could see color photos for the first time from any angle. The viewing flexibility is due to OLED’s ability to become a self-emitting light source rather than relying on a separate external light source to display an image.

While OLED was never considered in rear displays due to high costs, innovation has shaped the way we see through electronic viewfinders in today’s models. To name a few, cameras such as the Nikon Z fc, Sony Alpha 1 and Fujifilm X-Pro3 all use some form of XGA OLED or Quad-VGA OLED microdisplay, which allows the viewer see a clearer image with less lag.

A powerful zoom

Early digital camera models shared a common 3x or 4x optical zoom length. To gain range, manufacturers have focused on digital zoom. The optical zoom race only started when Nikon introduced the Coolpix 5700 in May 2002. This beast of a camera impressed consumers with usable 8x optical zoom (35-280mm 35mm equivalent).

The Nikon Coolpix 5700

Since then, the optical zoom has become a determining factor for consumers wishing to buy a compact or bridge (SLR type) camera. 10x to 15x optical zoom became standard for most high-end cameras over the next few years, but decades later we saw further development with another of Nikon’s releases. The Coolpix P1000 continues Nikon’s legacy by creating impressive zooms with an extra wide angle. With a 125x optical zoom (24-3000mm 35mm equivalent) under the hood, technology seems to know no boundaries, making it a winning combination in the eyes of sports and wildlife enthusiasts.

A new leap for filmmakers

Remember when camcorders or, as Sony called them, Handycams were all the rage? Before 2008, they were the only credible way to get cinematic footage. However, in November 2008, Canon would introduce a full frame 35mm game changer in the form of the second generation of the Canon EOS 5D.

The Canon 5D Mark II

This Mark II version established a new level of DSLR cinematic quality. The popular camera was the first to shoot broadcast-quality Full HD video, allowing productions to adopt the camera housing as a low-profile, cheaper alternative. Television production used the camera in Episode 22 of the American medical drama House, which aired in May 2010. Prior to that, there were a handful of production houses using the camera, including the BBC and Saturday Night Live.

This kind of leap in cinematography was only possible with the help of free software called Magic Lantern, which came with Canon’s. It was enough to insert the “best” firmware on an SD card. Filmmakers could then control the H264 bitrate, record HDR video, manually monitor and control audio, and use focus assist tools. Without this perfect pairing of camera and software, we might have had to wait several more years for manufacturers to develop the features that filmmakers were clamoring for. This open source development approach shows the power of collaboration and its impact on the industry.

Since then, we’ve seen new developments from manufacturers as the race towards an 8K standard matures, but there’s still a long way to go when it comes to open-source camera software to see more innovation at- beyond a product release.

Face the noise

If you’ve been in this game for over a decade, you’ve no doubt had a camera guilty of producing noise at higher ISOs. For many photographers, talking about shooting at ISO 100 or 200 was all too commonplace to warn newcomers to the digital noise space. This conversation repeated itself until Sony’s noise-chomping flagship came in the form of the Sony a7 in late 2013. This camera was one of the first to show signs noise reduction while maintaining image sharpness, especially up to ISO 1600.

The Sony a7

Moving on from the camera that started it all, Sony knew they were onto a winner, so further development of the Sony a7 II (released in 2014), a7 III (released in 2007) and a7 IV (released in 2021) initiated efforts to deal with high ISO noise. Sony’s technology was not limited to its cameras. In 2015, many other manufacturers would continue or begin using its new sensor business, “Sony Semiconductor Solutions”, which would see planned versions of sensor technology after Sony installed the new sensors in its cameras.

Worthy to be included

The Fujifilm X100 must have a mention here. Its revolutionary design, partly for many professional photographers, has brought back a sense of fun in photography.

The Fujifilm X100

The X100’s 28mm fixed focal length would challenge photographers to think about composition and timing, something Leica users often talked about. However, the hybrid viewfinder was one of its greatest achievements, which offered users an optical or electronic viewfinder. The technology has since continued on Fujifilm’s flagship mirrorless rangefinder models.

A bridge for a leading manufacturer

Where would the industry be without Sony entering the space?

Many newcomers may not be aware that Sony inherited much of the technology from its early DSLRs. Over time, DSLR designs and technology have improved to what we see in mirrorless models today. But before that, kudos to the Konica Minolta 7D. It was the last DSLR model produced by Konica Minolta before Sony acquired the camera company in 2006. So in a way, you could say that Konica Minolta inspired a lot of early DSLR designs from Sony, which evolved into what we see in today’s mirrorless cameras.

The Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D

While there are certainly many other camera models and innovations such as sensor cleaning, wireless control, memory card technology, etc., one of the key takeaways for the industry has been the level of growth shown over the past decade. There has been a pivot from moving boxes (a well-known term in the wholesale industry for selling entry-level cameras) to building state-of-the-art cameras that meet the needs growing number of enthusiasts and professionals.

The engine of this change is due to globalization and the power of social networks. Camera manufacturers’ headquarters have developed two-way conversations with professionals through local affiliates. Their feedback on functions and construction features in the ergonomic design of a product has been critical to the success of an individual camera model.

Hopefully the next few decades will grow beyond the level of manufacturing design we’ve seen. It will be an exciting journey as a new era of stacked and curved sensors collides with Ai, AR and VR while drawing inspiration from an increasingly feature-rich market for smartphones.

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