For some shooters, be they photographers or cinematographers, creatives, and everyone in between, the camera is key. It captures their vision, and everything else is just an accessory. Yet for others, the lens is the foundation of their creative project.

Others still couldn’t care less and would rather shoot on an iPhone. We’re looking at you, Steven Soderbergh.

Wherever your allegiances lie, one thing has always been constant. Camera design has always influenced lens design. No matter the medium, photography or cinema, lenses have evolved in the shadow of the camera body for better or for worse. 

However, the industry is currently in a massive technological shift thanks to the advancements in mirrorless camera technology.

According to Canon's Chairman and CEO Fujio Mitarai, their next flagship SLR camera will be the last. They’ve even stopped production on new EF lenses. While they’ll consider making consumer-level DSLR cameras in the near future, Canon's long-term plan is to focus on the mirrorless format.

Sony has replaced its DSLR lineup with its successful mirrorless cameras, and Nikon is also making strong moves to focus on its new Z format.

Cameras are drastically changing. Usually, when that happens, lenses also go through a sudden evolution.

But can things be different this time around? Let’s look at the past and see what answers we can come up with. 

The Old School

During the 20th century, photographers saw a series of camera and lens designs. Rangefinder cameras became popular in the post-war era until they were usurped by the single-lens reflex (SLR) design. Medium format cameras contained their shutters in the lens until the focal plane design took over.

With all of these cameras, the limitations of their design influenced lenses. 

The Hasselblad 500C, the camera NASA took to the moon, and the workhorse of medium format photographers, kept the shutter mechanism in the lens. However, as the shutter was moved into the body, Hasselblad lenses got faster. Not only in their aperture, but in their shutter speed. 

SLR cameras, and their later DSLR cousins, were built around a mirror/prism design that required a significant amount of space between the lens and sensor/film plane. About 1.7 inches for Canon's EF mount. 

While SLR lenses had some benefits over the rangefinder concept, they were optically inferior on the wide end and suffered from poor manual focus accuracy. Wide SLR lenses were designed as retrofocus lenses. This meant that a lens was longer than its focal length in order to leave room for the reflex mirror, which made them soft in comparison to their rangefinder equivalent. 

Cross section of Nikon SLR camera and lensCross section of Nikon SLR camera and lens.Credit: Photo by Martin Vorel

The rangefinder design kept the lenses snug to the film plane since it didn’t need the mirror and prism. It used a separate optic for focus and composition, which allowed for more accurate focusing. Even though this camera design was complicated and needed robust maintenance, rangefinder lenses were superior, especially in the wide-angle range.

Think of rangefinder cameras and lenses as the grandfather of mirrorless cameras.

As for cinema? Lenses also suffered from the same issues. In order for operators to see their composition, a spinning shutter/prism mechanism needed to live between the lens and film plane. This distance between lens and medium created optical obstacles that needed to be overcome.

That space has always been a limiting factor in how good lenses could be. While high-quality cinema and SLR lenses do exist, the price for circumventing these early design limitations was pricey.

But why did we cover all of this photography (and some cinema) history? You can also thank Canon for that.

Hasselblad H6D-100c with VideoHasselblad H6D-100c with UHD 4K VideoCredit: Hasselblad

The New School

Since the introduction of the Canon 5D, the line between film and photography has become non-existent. Remember Hasselblad from a few paragraphs before?

Its cameras shoot video now

Mirrorless is the future of both still and moving images and the evolution of lens design is at another turning point. Without the need for a mirror or a spinning shutter, lens designers can create glass that lies only millimeters from the sensor. 

Canon’s new RF mount has a focal flange distance of 20 millimeters. Less than half of the original EF mount. Nikon’s Z line comes in at 16 millimeters.

In comparison, Nikon's F mount for SLRs had a whopping 46.50 millimeters between lens and film plane. 

Even ARRI took the plunge and decreased its focal flange distance from 52mm to 44mm when updating the PL mount to its new LPL.

Why Does This Matter?

These new lenses and lens mounts differ in one special way from previous generations. They aren’t limited by the design of the camera. The distance between the sensor and lens can be whatever the manufacturer wants it to be for the best results. With that limitation out of the way, lenses can embrace the advantages of rangefinder lenses, without their disadvantages. 

This is where we get lenses such as the new Nikon NIKKOR Z 58mm at f/0.95. Venus Optics and Mitakon-Zhongyi both have full-frame lenses at f/0.95. While Nikon did have a 58mm lens made for its SLR cameras, the lens topped out at f/1.2 and was very expensive for the time. The APS-C mirrorless lens range is also exploding with attractive options from several different manufacturers. ARRI’s new Signature Primes are near-telecentric, which means that light from the rear of the lens exits almost perfectly perpendicular to the sensor, reducing spherical and chromatic aberration.

As we head into this new future, it will be interesting to see how lens design stacks up to previous generations. Not only in build quality and optics, but in price as well.

This goes for photography and cinema (if that’s even a distinction we can make anymore).

The only problem will be compatibility. While older lenses will always work with modern camera bodies, with a few exceptions, new lenses will have a hard time working on older camera bodies, if at all.

Even if you don’t upgrade to mirrorless, or have already taken the plunge, keep your favorite vintage lenses nearby. While the lens market is expanding with new options, vintage glass has become a lucrative option for filmmakers and creatives alike.

Rehoused Nikon Lenses by Zero OptikRehoused Nikon AI-S Lenses by Zero OptikCredit: Zero Optik

Just look at Zero Optik in Los Angeles and Iron Glass Adapters from Ukraine. Both companies are doing amazing things with old lenses. 

However you take the news from Canon, Nikon, and Sony, one thing is true. It has never been a better time to be a creative.

Want to know more about the new mirrorless options? Check out our gear guides!

Source: Yomiuri Shimbun Online