It was only a few years ago that “mirrorless” was a dirty word. What were once seen as “prosumer” or hobbyist cameras have finally made the leap into the professional and enthusiast space.
Most major camera manufacturers have dabbled with mirrorless technology at this stage, but only a few have pushed the boundaries of what a camera that foregoes traditional through-the-lens optics can do.
If the future is mirrorless, are you ready to make the jump?
1. Small Is Good
I still take most of my photos with an iPhone because it’s always on me and the images are satisfactory. You can even shoot RAW with the right combination of iPhone and apps, and the telephoto lens on the iPhone 7 Plus is surprisingly useful.
The Nikon D50 was my first digital SLR, purchased in 2005. By today’s standards it’s a mid-sized camera, chunky for an entry-level model. My biggest issue with the camera isn’t the aging internals, lack of autofocus points, or even low light performance. It’s the fact that it’s too big to carry around comfortably.
I’ve been known to fall into the trap of bleating “the best camera is the one you have on you,” but it’s still true. I’ve taken far less photos on my iPhone since buying a small APS-C Sony mirrorless camera, because the Sony is usually within reach. I haven’t even attached the included neck strap because the camera is usually in my hand or floating around a tote bag.
Sick of lugging a giant camera body around with you? Hate the swing of a DSLR around your neck? Often leave your camera at home because you can’t be bothered transporting it? Mirrorless cameras are here to save the day! By virtue of the lack of a mirror (which enables the use of a true optical viewfinder), these cameras are considerably smaller than their more traditional counterparts.
— Jason Crittenden (@YourREguy) August 25, 2017
Even the lenses are smaller, which is the case for all but the fastest full-frame glass. Sony and Fuji’s APS-C lenses, and the wealth of Micro Four Thirds (MFT) options from manufacturers like Olympus and Panasonic, allow you to fit a fair number of lenses into a relatively small space.
I’m still looking for a camera bag that’s small enough for my Sony a6500.
2. Focus Is on Point
One area that digital SLRs once put all others to shame was autofocus. It’s no secret that things have changed dramatically, particularly where Sony is concerned.
While Canon has its excellent dual-pixel autofocus technology, Sony managed to steal the “fastest autofocus in the world” title in 2016 with the a6300. What’s more, Sony’s implementation of phase-detect autofocus (PDAF) in their latest models puts them at the front of the autofocus game.
PDAF provides competent lock-on and tracking of objects across the frame. Assuming you’re using Sony lenses, the camera can track subjects with little to no “hunting,” whether you’re shooting stills or video. For portraiture, there’s nothing quite like Sony’s Eye-AF to get tack-sharp focus on your subject’s eyes (it even works with cats).
Panasonic and Fuji can’t quite compete with Sony yet in terms of autofocus, but both are committed to improving performance of their cameras with incremental firmware upgrades. Both the Fuji XT-2 and Panasonic GH5 received major upgrades that improved their AF performance only months after each was released.
So can mirrorless technology rival the likes of Canon for autofocus? I’d say so. The fact that mirrorless technology has come anywhere near DSLR pack leaders is reason enough to consider them competent in this department.
3. Mirrorless Is the Best Choice for Video
For top-quality video on a budget, you can’t get better than the Panasonic GH5 as of this writing. No other camera can shoot cinema 4K at a bitrate of 400 Mbps for the $2,000 Panasonic is asking. Compatibility with the MFT mount further sweetens the deal by putting plenty of affordable glass at your disposal.
If you can’t spend spend GH5 money, the Sony a6500 offers incredibly crisp 4K at 100 Mbps in a tiny package. Even the cheaper a6300 offers comparable 4K performance (without the in-body stabilization) for less than $1,000 with a basic 16–50mm kit lens to get you started.
DSLR manufacturers have seriously dropped the ball when it comes to video in recent years. Canon decided to focus their video efforts on the Cinema EOS range (including the C300, C500, and 1D C) and recently left even basic 4K support out of the 60D Mark II.
Nikon has never been much of a competitor when it comes to video. Recently, their best APS-C camera ever — the D500 — shipped with a crop factor of 2.175x on 4K video recording. To quote photographer and blogger Jens Bouma:
“This makes my 24–70 a 52–152mm lens and unusable as all-round lens for video. For example: a 16–35 would be 35mm at minimal so if you want to shoot 4K video wide-angle you need a 10mm lens at least.”
These cameras are not cheap. They’re all more expensive than comparable Sony or Panasonic offerings, but video performance isn’t up to snuff. The message from Canon is clear: if you want great video features, you’ll need to cough up for a great video camera. Nikon seems to be trying, but their efforts don’t look great when Sony’s cheap a6300 offers Super 35mm 4K 24p footage (downsampled from 6K) with full sensor readout.
Sony and Panasonic are the only manufacturers offering professional features in a pocket-friendly package. These cameras ship with pro-level features like focus peaking (for assistance when manually focusing), zebra striping (for highlighting poorly exposed areas), and flat logarithmic gamma curves like S-Log and V-Log (for more control when color grading footage).
Form factor can also make the difference for video, since you can fit a smaller camera on a lighter gimbal or mount it in unusual places where larger models won’t fit. If you want a run-and-gun or studio setup, why not rig your camera up with a cage (like the SmallRig) and add all the 4K monitors, audio inputs, and external power sources you could ever want?
4. Hybrid Shooters Are Welcome
A hybrid shooter is someone who shoots both video and stills. They might be hobbyists, looking to dip their toes into both mediums, wedding or event photographers who need flexibility in their equipment, or video enthusiasts who appreciate the need for decent still performance from time to time.
Mirrorless cameras currently offer the best of both worlds for those with “hybrid” needs. Not only are they smaller, so they’re easier to carry around, but modern sensors provide excellent image quality in both areas. Sony’s full frame offerings like the admittedly expensive A9 and more affordable A7-Rii can easily stand with the best Nikon and Canon has to offer.
Even smaller APS-C sensors are worth considering, since they only use a 1.5x crop and still offer a large enough surface area for good low-light performance and decent depth of field. MFT may suffer a bit in this department, but the huge range of lenses on offer softens the blow.
When it’s time to open your wallet, you want the most for your money. Mirrorless cameras provide the best of both worlds: great still images, with video performance that gives even the most expensive DSLRs a run for their money. Since they punch well above their weight for the cost, this leaves you with more money to spend on lenses.
5. You Don’t Need a Mirror Anymore
Electronic viewfinders (EVFs) were once laggy and frustrating to use on all but professional gear. That’s no longer the case. Huge leaps and bounds have been made to cram low-latency screens, with virtually imperceptible lag, inside small mirrorless cameras. The feeling of disconnection between the EVF and what your camera is pointed at shouldn’t put you off any more.
How Can Mirrors Be Real If Our Eyes Aren't Real
— Jaden Smith (@officialjaden) May 2, 2013
In fact, I’d argue that EVFs are reaching the point where they surpass traditional optical viewfinders in certain scenarios. One of my biggest gripes with the Sony a6500 (and many rival cameras) is that the LCD panel on the back of the camera is hopeless in bright light. Thankfully the inclusion of an EVF provides a nice dark space for me to peer into and compose the shot — so far, so DSLR.
Where the Sony’s EVF really comes into its own, however, is with features like focus peaking and focus assist magnification. The first highlights the areas of my shot that the camera thinks are in focus, which makes it easy to quickly adjust focus. Focus assist magnification is exactly what it sounds like: the camera will zoom in so I can better gauge whether the subject is indeed in focus.
While many DSLRs feature a form of focus peaking which lights up the viewfinder’s focus points, it’s simply not on the same level. Focus magnification is also not possible with an optical viewfinder, since it’s a direct passthrough to the lens by way of a mirror. There are other handy features too, like a level display for perfecting straight horizons, an onscreen histogram, and zebra striping when shooting video.
I can adjust virtually every parameter on the camera without moving. When I’m done shooting I can see the image properly by peering through the EVF. It’s worth noting that not all EVFs are created equal, and I do wish the live display quality was a bit better at times, but it’s good enough for work and play.
Mirrorless Camera Drawbacks
Unfortunately, the jump to mirrorless isn’t without sacrifices. For many, that’s a collection of lenses that has taken years to get to this stage. While adapters can overcome many of the issues, you’ll probably want native glass for autofocus purposes. Rebuilding a collection of primes, or discovering that Sony doesn’t make a decent wildlife-worthy telephoto zoom for its APS-C range, might put you off.
Battery life still sucks, and Sony is probably the worst of the bunch in this regard. The saving grace is that their cameras can all be charged and powered via USB, including battery packs. Fuji has started to implement USB power for their cameras like the XT-2. Panasonic has yet to dabble in USB power, but battery life is much improved over Sony’s offerings.
Some manufacturers rely too much on complex menu systems (Sony, again), and professional shooters may demand more in the way of custom functions on all but the most expensive full-frame models. Mirrorless cameras also lack the “instant on” of their SLR counterparts, but the delay on my a6500 hasn’t caused me to miss any important shots yet.
Not all mirrorless systems are created equal. Neither Canon’s EOS-M or the Nikon 1 mirrorless systems set the world alight when they arrived. The Canon M100, which was announced in August 2017, has comparable specs to the Sony a6000 (which was released in 2014). And then there are rumors that Nikon is preparing to throw in the towel and completely rethink its approach to mirrorless.
Cost is arguably the biggest hurdle. Switching camera systems goes beyond the lenses: if you’re a professional you need at least two bodies, just in case something goes wrong. You might need to reinvest in a new set of memory cards, especially for high bitrate 4K video. You’ll need a new set of batteries, backup power banks, and chargers for everything. Speedlights, microphones, cages, something to carry it all in… the costs soon add up.
It’s also one of the fastest-moving spaces in terms of photography right now. A two-year-old mirrorless camera doesn’t hold a candle to the latest models, so you might be looking for a body upgrade sooner than you would with a comparable DSLR. A new and improved model doesn’t immediately render whatever came before it useless, but know the symptoms of gear acquisition syndrome (GAS) before you jump in.
Mirrorless to Impress
For me, the Sony a6500 offers an opportunity to get back into still photography and acquire a competent video camera for our reviews here at MakeUseOf. The price, size, and performance are exactly what I’m looking for. I’ve had to contend with poor battery life and a smaller array of lenses than I’d like, but the trade-off has been worth it.
If my situation sounds similar to yours, I’d recommend you consider switching to a mirrorless system that fits your needs and budget.
Have you switched to a lighter video-friendly mirrorless system? Maybe you’re an SLR shooter who needs huge focal lengths and RAW buffers that go on for days? Add your thoughts in the comments below.