What a year it has been. We have had a nearly constant stream of announcements featuring high-profile releases almost every week. Now that we have hit the holiday season and get a slight break in the announcement schedule (but not with the deals!) we want to look back at some of the more interesting trends from the year. Today, we are going to focus on something that has been used in photography for a century: the mechanical shutter.
The idea of a photo camera without a mechanical shutter isn’t a brand-new concept. However, if you refer to our top mirrorless cameras of 2023 article, the Number One and Two spots are held by professional systems whose brands felt that the time and tech was right to give up the mechanical shutter entirely.
Is it the beginning of the end for the mechanical shutter?
Usually, the only cameras that would eschew the mechanical shutter in recent years were oddities—I’m looking at you, Sigma—or super-compact options, such as the one in your smartphone. The reasons for using a mechanical shutter for photo quality are very clear:
Eliminates the rolling shutter skew of most electronic shutters
Syncs with flash and without artifacts
Less susceptible to flicker sources, such as fluorescent bulbs
The issues with electronic shutters are essentially the opposite of the mechanical shutter’s advantages:
Rolling shutter skew (on most electronic shutter implementations)
Inability to sync with flash at reasonable shutter speeds
Susceptible to banding when shooting with flickering light sources
The flash sync alone is a necessity for so many photographers that not having a mechanical shutter is a dealbreaker. This is why it is quite incredible that Nikon released the Z9 and Z8, its top mirrorless cameras, and that Sony released the a9 II, also a pro-oriented mirrorless, without mechanical shutters. Both companies seemed to have solved the biggest issues with electronic shutters.
Camera makers have been working on resolving many issues with rolling shutters over the years and we have seen great progress. Many newer cameras do offer some form of flash sync; anti-flicker tech has mitigated some banding problems; and rolling shutter has been improving as processing technology gets better over time. Still, I didn’t think the day a flagship camera would drop the physical shutter mechanism would be so soon.
Nikon was the first with a shutterless flagship camera, and maintained optimal functionality by giving a boost to the camera and sensor processing capabilities. You can have a lot of success by speeding everything up. This allowed for minimal rolling shutter in the final imagery and the ability to sync with flash at a reasonable 1/200 second—that is still a bit shy of the super-common 1/250 second possible with many mechanical shutters, but it’s still very good.
The reasons for making this move are obvious. Electronic shutters have been able to achieve things that only mechanical shutters of the highest quality could even dream about:
Faster continuous shooting, up to 120 fps in some cases
Faster shutters speeds, often reaching 1/16,000 second and above
Eliminates blackout with electronic viewfinders
No mechanical wear within the camera
These are all great features that are almost unachievable without significant investment and advancement of physical shutter mechanics, unlocking the full potential of modern imaging technology and allowing the Nikon Z9 and Z8 to become class-leading examples of what is possible if we embrace and develop electronic shutters fully.
Even the implementation of electronic shutters on more affordable cameras has given them more capabilities. Since when could a mid-range camera offer continuous shooting faster than 10 fps? The electronic shutter is a force to be reckoned with in the history of cameras.
Following Nikon’s groundbreaking push to a pro-oriented shutter-free system was Sony’s release of the a9 III, even though Sony took a more intriguing approach by developing a sensor and processing pipeline in the a9 III that allows for the implementation of a global shutter.
Many concerns about electronic shutters, such as skew and banding, are the result of how most electronic shutters function. The camera literally reads the pixels from the sensor, line by line. That’s why you can see skewed objects because there is movement between the beginning and end of the sensor’s readout. The Nikon cameras’ developers approached this by making the readout much faster, and that does work decently. However, global shutters change the game by reading out every single pixel simultaneously. No more rolling shutter. No more banding. Perfect flash sync.
The a9 III is basically the first true camera where the dreams of electronic shutters were finally realized. Judging by the specs alone, I don’t think there is anyone who isn’t impressed. They offer full-resolution (and quality) 24MP raw shooting at 120 fps, shutter speeds up to 1/80,000 second—with flash sync at any shutter speed! There is no distortion, and blackout-free live view. And it’s a great-looking camera.
Still, global shutters aren’t a brand-new technology. A small number of video cameras offer them. The problem is that, to implement global shutter with those cameras, there is often a noticeable decrease in dynamic range and more noise in low-light conditions when compared to similar options that use CMOS sensors with rolling shutters.
While I would love to take Sony’s word for it that its global shutter results in no negative side effects for image quality, it is hard to believe that the a9 III will match the dynamic range potential of the a7R V or the low-light performance of the a7S III. It can come close and, honestly, that is more than enough. This does mean that there will be many cameras that stick, safely, with the mechanical shutter for the time being.
We also haven’t even mentioned price. All these cameras are targeted at professionals and aren’t easy purchases for beginners or even many advanced amateurs. The Z8 is the most affordable, and that has a list price of $4,000. The a9 III is the only true global shutter photo camera available and that retails for $6,000. The cost of this new tech could slow implementation in other models in the near future.
Having gone hands-on with the camera, I think I can say that Sony is making a spectacular camera that will find its way into the hands of many professionals. This shows that it is possible to make a good, usable global shutter for photographers.
One other thing to mention is that most of us are already using shutter-less cameras in our daily lives—our smartphones. These ultra-compact cameras rightfully eliminated them as part of a dance between image quality and convenience. You’ve probably never thought too much about it, but you also probably haven’t tried to tether a smartphone and sync it up with some strobes. Mechanical shutters are now being squeezed on both sides. Their days are numbered, and the camera world will likely be better because of it.
Some of us might have nostalgia for the classic and satisfying clicks and thunks of mechanical systems, but hey, now you can choose the exact sound you want.
In other news…
It is still Cyber Week at B&H, so be sure to check out all the latest deals!
Find out more about Hasselblad’s 90mm V series lens for the X System with our hands-on video.
SmallRig offers a range of lighting solutions, so we looked at the small and feature-rich RC 60B in this hands-on video.
Sigma announced its long-awaited 70-200mm f/2.8 a couple of weeks ago. Check out our review in this hands-on video.
We hope you are enjoying this holiday season! Be sure to check out some of our end-of-year content on Explora!