A Rose by Any Other Name

October 24, 2011 ·

Michael Reichmann

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” 
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” 
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”

Rusted. Bruce Penninsula, Ontario. October, 2010

Prior to the year 2000 and the beginning of the digital photography era, what we called cameras was pretty much based on how we used them to view and compose. There were groundglass view cameras, rangefinder / viewfinder cameras, twin lens reflex cameras, and single lens reflex cameras. When theSLRmorphed into digital it was straightforward to call it aDSLR(Digital Single Lens Reflex).

But in recent years we have seen cameras introduced that break the historic mold. Some don’t have viewfinders, some aren’t reflexes – without mirrors and prisms – and we are consequently left searching for terms to describe what they are. Some even have semi-transparent mirrors just used for autofocus measurement.

The first attempt at naming them coined the acronymEVIL(Electronic Finder Interchangeable Lens). Simple, descriptive and accurate. Kind of fun as well. But, for obvious reasons manufacturers hated it.

Since then some people call themCSC(Compact System Cameras) and some ILSC (Interchangeable Lens System Cameras). Neither has really caught on.

We’re not sure which manufacturer first started calling them “Mirrorless” cameras. This seems to have caught on, but it’s not a very good name. I use it in my own writing, though reluctantly. It describes what the camera isn’t, rather than what it is. Saying what something doesn’t have is nowhere near as useful as saying what it does have.

The use of “Mirrorless” brings to mind the classic negative marketing story about the introduction of canned tuna. Initially canned fish was salmon. When canned tuna was introduced (in the 1930’s I believe) it just didn’t catch on. Then, some bright marketing executive came up with the slogan – “Won’t turn pink in the can“. This turned the market around and it wasn’t long before tuna became predominant.

Today, saying that a camera is “Mirrorless” somehow implies that it is inherently superior to one that does have a mirror. Smart marketing, but not necessarily factually correct.

So, without arguing the merits of cameras with or without mirrors, lets look at the current camera taxonomy.

We currently have the following (with examples)….

– cameras with mirrors and prisms (Canon 1Ds MKIII)

– cameras with mirrors and prisms and Live View rear LCDs (Nikon D7000)

– cameras with translucent mirrors, electronic viewfinders and Live View rear LCDs (Sony A77)

– cameras with only rear Live View LCDs (Sony NEX-5)

– cameras with rear Live View LCDs and built-in optical viewfinders (Canon G12)

– cameras with rear Live View LCDs and built-in electronic viewfinders (Panasonic GH2)

– cameras with rear LCDs and optional electronic viewfinders (Sony NEX-5n)

– cameras with hybrid optical and electronic viewfinders (Fuji X100)

– cameras with optical viewfinder / rangefinders and no Live View (Leica M9)

If we follow the historical precedent of naming cameras by how we use them to view and compose we’d end up with a Tower of Babble.

We have no intention of fixing all of the world’s woes, or even coming up with unique names for numerous different variations on the digital camera theme. But maybe it’s time to at least do away with the inappropriately negative use of “Mirrorless”.


EFC – Electronic Finder Camera

Our suggestion is that a useful term for cameras that are not DSLRs would beElectronic Finder Cameras (EFC). Both Sean and Michael intend on using this acronym in their writing from now on. It excludes cameras like the Leica M9, and all DSLRs (which already have their own well established name), but seems to encompass just about all other cameras with either Live View eye-level or rear LCD finders.

November, 2011

Michael Reichmann

Michael Reichmann is the founder of the Luminous Landscape. Michael passed away in May 2016. Since its inception in 1999 LuLa has become the world's largest site devoted to the art, craft, and technology of photography. Each month more than one million people from every country on the globe visit LuLa.

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