Possibly, but I firmly believe they are not the present.
Ostensibly, a camera is little more than a box which holds a lens in front of a sensor – be it CCD, CMOS or cellulite. Moving forward, this box also has to open a pathway for light to hit that sensor for a specific amount of time, and it’s kind of handy if that box also lets us see what light is coming through the lens. To be kind to that simple box, most medium and large format lenses have their own shutters anyway, alleviating the camera box from this onerous duty.
The problem, for the longest time, is that the light through the lens was aimed at the film plane, rather than through a view finder. An early solution has been to swap the viewfinder for the film plane when you have composed and are ready to shoot, such as with view cameras. A simpler and quicker solution is to have a separate viewfinder that approximates what the lens sees. Twin lens reflex, most film point-and-shoot cameras and range-finders fall into this later category. Parallax, focussing, and depth of field previewing are problems which variously plague viewfinder and TLR cameras.
An advancement on this problem came with the single lens reflex camera. The earliest SLR camera was described in 1676, but they didn’t really become feasible or popular until the mid 20th century. The SLR places a mirror in the light path of the lens, reflecting that light up toward the viewfinder. Most SLRs have a pentaprism above this mirror – light from the mirror bounces around the pentaprism and exits onto the ground glass viewing screen, allowing the photographer to see the image visible to the lens, the right way around, and parallel to the lens axis. When the shutter is triggered, the mirror is raised out of the way of the sensor, and the shutter curtains do their precisely choreographed dance. The sensor does its chemical or electronic trickery, and the hapless photons are captured, recorded for all to see. The mirror then insolently drops back into place, giving the photographer his much loved window to the world once again.
It is by necessity a mechanical device, and bulkier that a simpler viewing system. Despite this bulk and mechanical complexity, the 35mm SLR has for many years been the working professional’s camera of choice. That’s because they’re so damn good.
When digital cameras started to become commercially available in the 90s, it was immediately apparent that the shutter curtains, SLR mechanism and viewfinder – all of the mechanical parts after the lens, in effect, could be omitted. A CCD sensor could be set to record only the slice of time desired, so shutter curtains weren’t needed. In fact, without shutters, the sensor could be left running and feed the image to an LCD screen. And this is precisely what consumer level cameras have been doing since then. They are marvellous, and a massive boon for people who were previously used to film based viewfinder cameras, or those who really aren’t interested in the manual complexity of an SLR. For the working professional, though, they’ve never quite cut it. To this day, the majority of professional grade digital cameras are mechanically no different from their film ancestors, with the exception of replacing the film plane and winding mechanism with a CCD or CMOS sensor.
Over 20 years on from the democratisation of the digital mirrorless camera, there is renewed talk about the mirrorless camera dethroning the mighty SLR, but I just don’t think it’s true. Yet.
I got to thinking about this recently when I was doing a string of very different jobs in succession. Within the space of two months I found myself: shooting product photography with strobes on seamless paper; bashing my camera into the snow and ice whilst climbing a frozen vertical gully, wiping the snow off and shooting; recording a wedding; shooting time-lapses at night, rapid-fire shooting frames of competitors crawling through the mud at me like a zombie game, shooting a feature film, filming commercials and shooting environmental portraiture out in the field. All this was with one camera, a professional grade SLR. I could not think of another camera system that would have been up to all of these tasks, and few that would have been as good at any one of them either.
Of course, if you have narrow specialty and only shoot studio work, or solely shoot video, or you’re a spy, then there are arguably better suited cameras, and you can probably do away with your mirror and pentaprism. For the world-wise jack of all image trades photographer, however, we’re still waiting for a system that is as customisable, as rugged, as fast and produces comparable image quality to that quaint, supposedly antiquated mechanical dinosaur of a single lens reflex camera. There are many of who aren’t ready to go mirrorless just yet.