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