What’s in a name?

Ed Lee
Apr 25, 2011

A short term challenge that the digital camera industry has not addressed is standardizing on what to call the new crop of interchangeable lens cameras. Technically, they don’t qualify as Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras because they do not contain a mirror box. Mirrorless camera is a term that is currently being used by many, but it is not a name that we think will stand the test of time.

Product categories, in general, should not be named for what they do not have. If they start that way, they do not stay that way for very long. One 19th century example of this is the “horseless carriage” which was named such because the carriage was propelled not by horses anymore but by an engine. Horseless carriages eventually became the automobile. Henry Ford called his first horseless carriage a “quadricycle,” which referred to the 4 bicycle wheels mounted to the vehicle.

Horseless Carriage – Ford Quadricycle

The Olympus “filmless digital cameras” are a more recent digital photography example from 1999. By 2002, Olympus had dropped the “filmless” term and just called its new products “digital cameras.”

Mirrorless cameras have been around since late 2008, with the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 being the first to market. Now several years later, we think it is time to drop the “mirrorless” term and adopt a new industry standard name for the category.

There is no consensus in the market as vendors, industry organizations, and retailers are using similar but different terminologies; leading to confusion among consumers. For example:

  • Olympus refers to its PEN line of cameras as “a new generation system camera and a Micro Four Thirds camera,”
  • Panasonic refers to its G-series cameras as “interchangeable lens system cameras,”
  • Samsung refers to its NX-series cameras as “compact system cameras,”
  • Sony refers to its NEX line of cameras as “small, light interchangeable lens cameras,”
  • The Camera and Imaging Products Association (CIPA) in Japan and Best Buy refers to the new cameras as “compact system cameras,”
  • Walmart and Amazon.com list the cameras under the “Digital SLR” category,
  • B&H Photo and Video refers to them as “Mirrorless System Cameras,” and
  • Samy’s Camera calls them “Digital compacts with interchangeable lenses.”

Recently, the DPReview.com website hosted an informal and unscientific poll asking its readers to choose a name for the category. Results were mixed. Although the Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera term got almost half the vote, the discussion on the site indicates that many people did not like any of the terms and felt being forced to choose an answer was choosing the lesser of two evils (which by the way is one of the names proposed to describe the cameras: electronic viewfinder with interchangeable lens = EVIL). Including an “Other” choice would have allowed these people to accurately voice their opinions.

InfoTrends research shows that awareness of various camera category names is generally low. In two recent studies, consumers were presented with different names of camera types and asked if they had heard of any of them before taking the survey. Among DSLR owners, virtually everyone was familiar with the DSLR term, and about one-third to one-half had heard of some of the other terms currently being used to describe the category. Among general consumers, DSLRs scored the highest, and compact interchangeable lens camera (which was not a response in the DSLR study) was a close second at 39%. The other names scored only in the 10% – 15% range. In our upcoming 2011 digital camera end user survey, we will examine the naming issue again, adding some of the newer terms being used today.

Compact Interchangeable Lens Cameras

Moving forward, we plan to use the term “compact interchangeable lens cameras,” and propose that others adopt this term as well. This term is descriptive (especially for the rangefinder-style models), simple, and easy for consumers to remember.

What are your thoughts? Leave us a comment to let us know.

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