How to Decide if a Mirrorless Camera is Right for You

One of the biggest changes in the camera tech world was when mirrorless digital cameras were introduced, over ten years ago. Apparently, the first ever mirrorless camera was the Epson RD1 way back in 2004. More well known was the Olympus E-P1 in 2009 which really kickstarted the system. Since then, they’ve seen a meteoric rise to fame with mirrorless popularity increasing as the technology improves – and prices continue to fall. In this article, I’m going to talk about pros and cons of mirrorless cameras to help you decide if it is the right choice for you.

A photo of Sydney Opera House during the Vivid light festival, taken with a mirrorless camera.
Sydney Opera House during the Vivid light festival, taken with my Panasonic G3 mirrorless camera.

What is a Mirrorless Camera?

Let’s first look at what a mirrorless camera does. These cameras remove, you guessed it, the mirror normally found inside DSLR’s – which is part of the reason your Canons and Nikons are so big and bulky. The mirror in DSLR cameras is used to reflect light from the lens onto the viewfinder so you can see what you’re taking a photo of. When you hit the shutter button, the mirror flips up to allow the light to hit the sensor instead – capturing the photo.

Mirrorless cameras just let the light hit the sensor directly, with a digital viewfinder displaying a preview based on exactly what the sensor’s seeing – no mirror trickery required. By removing the mirror and its mechanisms, a lot of bulk is removed from the camera body. This makes mirrorless cameras much smaller and lighter than their counterparts. Like DSLR’s, mirrorless cameras come with inter-changeable lenses although these are usually locked to the brand of camera.

A diagram showing the cross section of a mirrorless and DSLR camera side by side. Mirrorless size savings are apparent.
The internal workings of DSLR and Mirrorless cameras. It’s easy to see why so much space is saved by ditching the mirror system.

My Experience Using  Mirrorless Cameras

I started out as a casual photographer; using film and digital compacts for holiday snaps. My first “big” camera was the mirrorless Panasonic GF-1, which I got for a safari trip. Why didn’t I choose a DSLR instead? The GF-1 was cheaper, smaller and lighter than a low-range DSLR, but took comparable images. When I decided to go for a few years traveling the world,  I was considering buying a DSLR for the trip – but couldn’t justify the cost, as the results from the GF-1 were so good.

During my travels, I upgraded to a mirrorless Panasonic G3, which had a bigger sensor and a viewfinder – instead of just an LCD screen. When this eventually died, I had a hard decision; stick with mirrorless or finally go for a DSLR? In the end, I’d found mirrorless cameras to be so light and compact that they are perfect for traveling. I couldn’t bear the thought of lugging around a heavy DSLR every day. So to raise the quality of my images, I invested in a Sony A7 (the first of their full-frame mirrorless cameras). Now I have the best of both worlds–a powerful mirrorless camera that competes with the best DSLRs yet is much smaller and lighter.

A photo of a lioness taken by a mirrorless camera.
I only owned my first mirrorless camera, a Panasonic GF-1 for a week before I took it on safari. It was a bit of a trial by fire as I had never used an advanced camera before. In retrospect, the image quality of the photos weren’t that great – for wildlife photos sharpness is key and the cropped sensor and average telephoto lens meant the crispness was low compared to a DSLR (this photo has been sharpened in post processing).

Mirrorless Pros

During my time with mirrorless cameras, I’ve really learned their benefits and drawbacks first-hand. First, let’s look at the pros of using a mirrorless camera. These are the reasons I stuck with mirrorless for so long – and I don’t intend to stop anytime soon!

1. Smaller Size and Weight of Body

This is the most compelling reason to go mirrorless. For people who do photography on-the-go, you can’t go wrong with their light weight and small dimensions. If you compare a mirrorless camera body and its lenses to the weight and size of standard DSLR, you will be amazed at how huge, heavy and bulky the DSLR kit is. Lenses especially can be tiny compared to their DSLR counterparts; a great boon when you want to carry a few of them with you.

For me, this means I can move more freely with my camera. I’m more likely to take it with me and whip it out for an opportunistic shot. With a small prime lens attached, I can fit a mirrorless camera in my coat pocket. When traveling for long periods of time, the reduced weight of my gear makes a huge difference to my welfare.

It’s for these reasons that many photography pros now use a mirrorless camera for their “walkabout” camera, or their backup camera, instead of a second DSLR.

A street photograph of many cyclists in Kathmandu, taken with a mirrorless camera.
The compact size and weight of mirrorless means I’m more likely to have it on hand and can carry it for longer around my neck. That means I’m more likely to get quick shots like this one in Kathmandu (taken with the Panasonic GF-1).

Size and Weight Examples:

To give you an example of the difference, let’s look at some size and weight comparisons of the mirrorless full-frame Sony A7 versus the popular full-frame Canon 6D DSLR:

A table showing mirrorless vs. DSLR size and weight savings. The comparison is between Canon 6D DSLR vs. Sony A7 mirrorless.

Here’s how they look side-by-side on Camerasize.com (a great resource to visually compare sizes of mirrorless vs DSLRs).

A photo showing side by side comparison of Sony A7 body and Canon 6D.
The Sony A7 body compared to the Canon 6D.

2. Smaller Size and Weight of Lens

The size and weight of the Sony A7’s lenses are mixed compared to other DSLR lenses – with some Sony lenses significantly lighter or shorter than similar DSLR options, but others are as big and heavy as their counterparts. However, in general, lenses available for other mirrorless cameras tend to be a lot more compact than DSLR lenses. I found that my Panasonic lenses were much smaller than similar Canon, Nikon and Sigma lenses. Olympus lenses follow this trend as well. Website DPReview has a handy lens comparison tool if you want to compare mirrorless and DSLR lenses.

3. Mirrorless Let you be Invisible

It’s easy to overlook, but the reduced size of your camera makes it much less intrusive. When dealing with people and doing travel photography, this is a massive advantage. You can discreetly take candid photos, or take out your camera in places you wouldn’t feel comfortable revealing a big DSLR. A smaller camera is much less intimidating to people who aren’t used to having their photograph taken, especially for close-ups.

A smaller camera is much less intimidating to people who aren’t used to having their photograph taken, especially for close-up shots. Mirrorless cameras don’t look big and professional (which some pros dislike), but this means you can take photos without people stiffening up thinking they’re in some serious photo shoot.

This impression also makes you a much less likely target for thieves – if people see a DSLR camera, it’s immediately a flag for “big and expensive”. Most mirrorless cameras look similar in size and shape to cheaper, run-of-the-mill cameras; meaning they aren’t associated with an especially high value.

Another aid to your “invisibility”: the click of the shutter and the internal mechanism of a mirrorless camera tends to be much quieter than the deafening sounds of a DSLR taking a photo. Mirrorless is much more discreet, allowing you to take photos without advertising that fact so clearly.

A photo of a cultural art performer in Bali. Taken up close with a mirrorless camera.
If you’re using a prime lens, you need to get up close and personal for your shot. The smaller the camera and lens, the less intimidating it is for your subject. I took this photo with the Sony A7 in Bali.

4. What You See Is What You Get

A mirrorless camera’s viewfinder/screen creates a digital preview using light information directly from the sensor. This means you get a much more accurate representation than DSLRs of what your photo will look like. Adjusting exposure and other settings update the preview, letting you see how your changes affect the photo. This is a really useful feature of mirrorless and beats DSLRs hands down. It’s a handy timesaver that you only truly appreciate when you go back to using a camera without it!

5. Lower Price

At the time that I started buying mirrorless cameras, their price compared to a DSLR was cheap – considering that you could get results of a similar quality. Today, of course, prices of mirrorless cameras wildly vary – lots are even more expensive than standard DSLRs. When I was buying a mirrorless, I found they fit neatly into a price bracket between compact and mid-level DSLRs. This still holds true today – making them an ideal jumping point for more serious photography for those who don’t want to shell out for a pricey DSLR. 

Disadvantages of Mirrorless Cameras

Despite my love for mirrorless cameras, they do have some issues and limitations. Bear in mind that the earlier generations of mirrorless cameras suffered from these problems more than the current generation. Some of these problems still exist though – and it will take time for the camera industry to iron out the kinks in this new technology.

1. Image Quality

One of the reasons that mirrorless cameras are so small (aside from not needing a mirror)is that they often have a slightly smaller sensor than DSLRs. Many mirrorless cameras use these “cropped” sensors – most notably the Micro Four Thirds sensors which Panasonic and Olympus use in their mirrorless camera lineups.

What does a cropped sensor mean for you? Slightly lower image quality and poorer ISO performance than a DSLR. However, it’s important to note that this complaint only affects some ranges of mirrorless cameras. In the past, most of them used cropped sensors, but these days there’s a wide range of sensor sizes available, even full-frame (like the Sony A7 range).

Just make sure if you’re thinking about investing in mirrorless that you check the sensor sizes when you’re browsing – smaller cameras may well be using a cropped sensor. Cropped isn’t all bad though. These sensors are cheaper, which is why you see such cheap, high-quality mirrorless models on the market.

A photo of sunrise taken in Nepal using the Panasonic G3 mirrorless camera.
I took this shot in Nepal using my Panasonic G3. Although the camera was on a tripod, I still needed to go up to ISO 800 for this shot, and it struggles to expose the dark foreground with its cropped sensor. You can see there’s a lot of noise (and this has had some noise reduction in post production).

2. Low-Light Performance

Unfortunately, I got into mirrorless in its infancy. That meant the Micro Four Thirds cropped sensor of my Panasonic cameras caused me problems. My worst difficulties were with lower light levels. I had to use prime lenses, low f-numbers or set up a tripod in many locations. When you’re traveling, you’re constantly taking photos in shade, interiors and at darker times of day like the sunset.  Image noise on my photo was noticeable if I used ISO 400 or above. In comparison, a DSLR in the same circumstances would probably cope without much image noise until ISO 1000 or more. If you’re thinking about getting a cropped sensor model, bear in mind the situations you’re likely to be photographing in 

The variable quality of lenses available for mirrorless cameras also directly affects the image quality. Nowadays, there are some very good lenses available for mirrorless, but back in my Panasonic days the affordable lenses usually couldn’t stand up to DSLR lens quality. If you’re looking to go mirrorless but worried about image quality, be sure to review the lenses available for the body you want to buy.

A photo of a night portrait shot taken with a mirrorless camera and a prime lens
As an example of how important lens choice can be when going mirrorless – check this photo out. This is taken with the same camera as the Nepal shot, the Pansonic G3. However, this photo was taken at night, also at ISO 800 but handheld. The difference – I was using the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 prime lens rather than the kit zoom. Panasonic has some very good prime lenses including this one – and when using it it’s very hard to distinguish photos from those from DSLRs.

3. Autofocus Speed Issues

Older mirrorless cameras can struggle with autofocus speed and I found this a problem with my Panasonic cameras, especially when taking photos of quickly moving subjects. Mirrorless camera autofocus speed today is much improved though, with more expensive mirrorless cameras outperforming DSLRs in this regard. I have great burst speed on my Sony A7 and I’ve used it to capture many fast-moving scenes. Just be aware it can be an issue on older models.

4. Smaller Range of Lenses and Accessories

Because mirrorless cameras are in their infancy compared to DSLRs, there are fewer lenses and accessories available for them. Also, because they aren’t yet as popular as DSLRs, there’s not a lot of cheap third-party kit for them around. With mirrorless, you are often trapped using the camera brand’s lenses and accessories and not much else. I found this annoying with my Panasonic cameras, although one of the reasons I like the Sony A7 range, is that you can use legacy lenses from other brands using adaptors. It’s a great feature which has lured many old-school DSLR users into the Sony fold. Hopefully, in future, we’ll see more cameras offering this kind of compatibility. 

A photo of an external flash attached to sony A7 mirrorless camera.
I really wouldn’t fancy mounting this LED lamp on my Sony A7 for any length of time, it’s about double the size of the camera itself. Big telephoto lenses can also be problematic on small mirrorless camera bodies. I found that using a tripod with a telephoto lens was hard, because the lens was too heavy compared to the camera body, putting the strain on the mount.

5. Short Battery Life

This is an annoying problem for the serious photographer. Mirrorless cameras suck power like nobody’s business – mostly thanks to their digital screen/viewfinder requiring power all the time – whereas a DSLR just uses light and glass for the same job. Battery life is pretty woeful for mirrorless across the board. For a traveler like me, this can be a nightmare. On my world travels, I had to have three batteries with me at all times, charging them every night, as I could easily burn through them in a day’s shooting. Of course, making matters worse – extra official batteries are ludicrously expensive too. Although mirrorless battery life is slowly improving, DSLRs are always going to beat mirrorless in this power struggle.

A photo of a hiker crossing a river bridge, taken using Panasonic G3 mirrorless camera
Expeditions and tours which take days make photography difficult when you have to conserve as much battery as possible. Multiple spares is the only solution unless you want to carry expensive mobile battery chargers with you. Photo taken with Panasonic G3.

6. Usability Issues

Mirrorless cameras struggle a bit in the comfort department. Ergonomics can be ropey, and the small body size can be a problem when using larger lenses, unbalancing the camera. A lot of mirrorless cameras suffer from usability issues compared to DSLRs, with awkward menus or controls. They’re improving over time as they evolve, but DSLRs have honed their usability over the years making them smooth and easy to use. People moving into mirrorless from the DSLR world might well struggle with new settings and weird controls.

Mirrorless brands are now doing a better job of trying to emulate Canon and Nikon’s control setups with mixed results. I found Panasonic cameras easy and comfortable enough to use, although their menus were clunky. Sony though has done a good job with the A7 range, feeling very like a DSLR to use.

My poor, battered Panasonic G3 with its longest telephoto lens. It’s been through jungles, over and in seas, onto snowy mountains and into dust storms and deserts. Suffice to say the camera is kind of broken – it only works on Auto mode now. The touchscreen doesn’t work. Still, it will always hold a special place in my heart!

7. Viewfinder Lag

Although “what you see, what you get” is listed as a pro – there is a downside of having a digital viewfinder/screen instead of glass to preview your image. A lot of mirrorless viewfinders struggle with fast scenes, especially quickly changing contrast or objects. Some viewfinder lag is common, especially on cheaper models. In general, I only occasionally find it to be an issue, but for certain situations, it can be annoying.

8. Limited Durability and Sealing

Many DSLRs and their lenses have great weather-sealing–stopping moisture, dust and other camera-killing bits getting into cracks and hurting your beloved gear. Mirrorless cameras often lack this or have fairly weak weather-sealing. My Panasonic cameras all suffered and I wouldn’t pit my Sony A7 against a Canon DSLR in the durability department – I have to be a lot more careful with my mirrorless gear.

In general, mirrorless cameras and their own-brand lenses are simply not as durable as most DSLRs – unless you specifically seek out the few properly weather/waterproof models. If you’re thinking of going mirrorless, be sure to investigate their sealing properties and consider the conditions you might be subjecting your camera to.

9. The Satisfaction Factor

Lastly, it must be said that there is something satisfying about holding a nice hefty DSLR and taking photos, with the satisfying clicks and clunks of the mechanisms inside. It’s a little thing, but it just feels better to use most DSLRs compared to mirrorless!

A photo of a sand dune taken with the Sony A2 mirrorless camera
Like any photographer, sand makes me very very nervous. With mirrorless, I have to be especially vigilant to protect my camera in sandy places and clean it thoroughly afterward. A grain of sand killed my settings wheel on my Panasonic GF-1. Since then I learned my lesson! The photo was taken with Sony A7.

Is Mirrorless Really Awful?!

I know it sounds like there are a lot of cons for mirrorless compared to pros. But there are two important points to remember:

The Pros Outweigh the Cons

For me, the benefits of mirrorless far outweigh the cons. The size, weight, and “invisibility” of mirrorless in the kind of photography that I do makes them invaluable compared to DSLRs.

Many of the Cons are Disappearing

Mirrorless cameras are constantly narrowing the gap between DSLRs–now in many cases beating them. As mirrorless technology improves and companies learn how to make better, more usable cameras, many of these cons are being erased. A lot of the cons that I have listed are simply not evident on many of the newer or more expensive mirrorless cameras.

A portrait photo taken with a Sony A7 and a 55mm prime lens.
A portrait photo taken with a Sony A7 and a 55mm prime lens.

Conclusion

This article only covered the pros and cons I felt the most strongly about using mirrorless. There are many other factors to consider when weighing them up against DSLRs. If you want to know more, check out the extra reading links below.

Ultimately, I think the biggest strength of mirrorless cameras is their small size and low weight – encouraging users to take their camera with them more and giving them more freedom. Mirrorless creates a better quality of life for photographers.

Most photographers believe that mirrorless will eventually become the de-facto camera technology. DSLRs will never die out though, at least in our lifetimes. DSLRs are too well established and used by too many photographers. Some people will always prefer DSLRs to mirrorless (even if only for retro value) and older/second-hand DSLRs will always be around at cheap prices.

A photo of a fluffy duckling after a swim. taken with Panasonic G3 and a 20mm prime lens.
A fluffy duckling after a swim – this is the Panasonic G3 with the 20mm prime lens.

But I’m happy that I went mirrorless and never looked back. I’d still be happy to get a DSLR for other types of photography, but right now a high-end mirrorless camera lets me do everything that I need to, with the portability that I love. Hopefully, this article has given you some insight into the world of mirrorless cameras. I’m eager to hear your thoughts on the subject, especially from anyone who has switched over from DSLRs!

SUBSCRIBE

Get valuable photography education and inspiration.

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.

 

About the author

Alan Stock

Photographer, traveller and writer hailing from the United Kingdom. I love exploring new places and cultures, I like to learn and teach others. I also enjoy films, videogames and good food!

  • Loved the personal experiences and honest review, Alan. Have been hearing so many good things about mirrorless and even MFT format https://www.photoblog.com/forum/t/micro-4-3-shooters/19709/. I really love my 6D for the Image Quality it provides but I am really starting to feel the weight of it when I go on long travels, especially overseas trips. It can make you sore after a whole day of shooting and makes it a hassle for even people around me (they end up carrying some of my stuff). So I can see the value of having a mirrorless camera. Perhaps one day soon!

    • Berckmans Peter

      Since I decided to take up photography again ( begin this year ), I went looking what is on the market. After a while of reading, searching, going to shops etc. Taking all he info in that they gave me, I went for Fuji. The XT 10 is the step in model of the x range ( I am on a budget ) and did not regret one moment buying it. It takes great pics ( video is not important for me ) in many situations. And the size and weight means you can take it everywhere without braking your back. Love mirrorless.

  • Helen Hooker

    It’s good to hear your experiences Alan. I was a confirmed DSLR shooter for a long while but bought a Panasonic M43 camera a couple of years ago as a lightweight alternative. A couple of months ago I realised I’d barely used my Canon 5D3 for nearly six months as my GX8 had become the camera I automatically reached for. I’ve since sold my full frame camera (although I’ve kept a 7D2 for action and wildlife stuff) and have invested in really good lenses for my mirrorless camera. I do a lot of travelling for my work and I love the way I can carry my camera at all times without feeling grumpy about the size and weight now. A couple of my DSLR toting friends gave me a hard time about my choice but I’ve no regrets. I feel if I’ve invested in the best glass the camera bodies will continue to improve and I can upgrade my GX8 as and when I feel the benefit is great enough to warrant doing so.

  • Kara M.

    I really have to disagree with #9. I had a DSLR after my film camera drowned, and I hardly picked it up. Not only was it big and unwieldy, but I hated having to go into the menus to change even the simplest settings. Once I got sick, the DSLR was just too heavy, and the “pro” lenses were impossible for me to lift/carry. The best thing I ever did was sell that DSLR and buy a Fuji X-T1 and some prime lenses, which is much lighter and simpler (I love the retro-feel of the knobs and controls). Now I can enjoy photography again!

Send this to a friend