The Time Has Come: A Case for Mirrorless Cameras

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As we begin 2021, it has been a full 13 years since the release of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1, almost eight years since the full-frame Sony Alpha a7 was introduced, and more than two years since Canon and Nikon announced their full-frame mirrorless cameras. In other words, there has been plenty of time to read the writing on the wall (as well as the sales figures), which clearly states that mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras are becoming more popular every year and are the developmental focus of most camera companies, compared to their DSLR stablemates. If one needs further convincing of this trajectory, the Sony Alpha 1 just became the first mirrorless camera labeled as a brand’s “flagship.”

Sony Alpha 1 Mirrorless Digital Camera
Sony Alpha 1 Mirrorless Digital Camera

Before some of you get upset with me for noting that camera technologies evolve, allow me to mention that while I own and use a mirrorless camera, I still shoot primarily with DSLRs, and there are reasons a DSLR makes sense for some photographers. However, I am not the future of the camera market nor am I overly concerned with using the latest/greatest cameras; I equally appreciate the current counter-trend—film’s re-emergence and the embrace of 35mm photography.

If a DSLR, rangefinder, or point-and-shoot work for your needs, that is fine, but the general criticisms waged against mirrorless (sensor size, form factor, autofocus, viewfinder, insufficient lenses) are no longer applicable, and there really is no going back—Canon, Sony, and Nikon have all made that clear in recent years; FUJIFILM, Panasonic, and Olympus are all-in; Leica makes mirrorless; and then there’s Pentax, who, 10 years ago, released mirrorless offerings, but is now sticking to its DSLR roots. So, let’s be real—whether you are starting from scratch to build a system, or an enthusiast looking for the strongest technological package, or a pro seeking state-of-the-art gear, mirrorless cameras should be a part of your kit.

Nikon Z 7II Mirrorless Digital Camera
Nikon Z 7II Mirrorless Digital Camera

As mentioned, there are still reasons to buy a DSLR, and I reject the rhetoric of one “vs.” the other. Mirrorless and DSLR (and point-and-shoots, medium format, and smartphones) will comingle in the camera bags of many shooters for years to come, and you will be a truly evolved photographer when you realize that each type of camera has its advantages. But with the continued strides made in mirrorless camera technology, it’s important to understand the advantages these systems offer.

It’s Called Mirrorless for a Reason

Eliminating the mirror mechanism of the DSLR is at the heart of the mirrorless concept. An internal mirror to reflect light into the viewfinder and then flip out of the way when the sensor is to be exposed necessitates space, time, and movement; a mirrorless camera can therefore be smaller, faster, and quieter by design. With no mirror and pentaprism or pentamirror housing, the potential reduction in size is fairly obvious, but without a mirror moving up and down, a camera can be quieter and will also produce less vibration, which can blur the image. These are crucial advantages for so many photographic pursuits. Also, the mirror mechanism is just that—a mechanism with moving parts that will eventually flaw or even break, possibly limiting the life of your camera and/or requiring maintenance.

Autofocus

While autofocus had been a point of concern for early mirrorless cameras, those days are pretty much gone. DSLR cameras were able to utilize phase-detect autofocus better because, in addition to their imaging sensor, they contained separate sensors to detect focus, while mirrorless cameras relied on a contrast-detect AF system as part of their one imaging sensor. Contrast-detect AF can be more accurate but is generally slower, and that was an advantage for DSLRs, especially for larger sensor cameras preferred by sports, news, and wildlife photographers.

However, mirrorless technology made leaps in recent years to create a hybrid autofocus system, enabling fast phase-detect and contrast-detect autofocus on the same sensor that captures the image. Using one sensor eliminates the potential back-focus inaccuracies, which can be a by-product of the DSLR’s multiple-sensor design. Size and system economy are benefited, as is speed of focus, but improved focus accuracy is increasingly important as megapixel counts rise—higher-resolution cameras are less forgiving to even slight focus errors. The new Canon EOS R5 full-frame mirrorless is noted as having one of the top autofocus systems across all camera types.

Canon EOS R5 Mirrorless Digital Camera
Canon EOS R5 Mirrorless Digital Camera

Live View

Conceptually, the idea of looking at a digital screen to compose an image is the cornerstone to mirrorless camera use, and this is a convenience adopted from digital point-and-shoot and cellphone cameras. For many people, especially those recently entering photography, this practice is second nature and, in general, a comfort with large LCD screens being a built-in advantage. The latest mirrorless cameras have sharp, high pixel-count rear screens that can flip out or tilt for easier odd-angle compositions. Simply put, you no longer have to see through the viewfinder to compose. Of course, DSLRs have also embraced live view technology but often with slower contrast-detect systems built into their image sensors and/or with video applications in mind. The Panasonic Lumix DC-S1 Mirrorless Digital Camera has a 3.2" 2.1m dot triaxial tilting LCD with a “Live View Boost” viewing mode.

Panasonic Lumix DC-S1 Mirrorless Digital Camera
Panasonic Lumix DC-S1 Mirrorless Digital Camera

In-Body Image Stabilization

Mirrorless cameras have led the way in terms of in-body and 5-axis image stabilization. Some DSLRs now have in-body stabilization, but the mirror mechanism is problematic for “IBIS” and they tend to rely on lens-based stabilization, while mirrorless developers were creating in-body systems from the ground up. Mirrorless cameras offer some of the most effective in-body stabilization systems, for example, the FUJIFILM X-T4 Mirrorless Digital Camera. Having the stabilization system in the camera also enables shake reduction to be used with older lenses, even those built long before “image stabilization” existed.

FUJIFILM X-T4 Mirrorless Digital Camera
FUJIFILM X-T4 Mirrorless Digital Camera

Lenses

Mirrorless cameras quickly became a plaything for many photographers to experiment with by utilizing lenses not proprietary to their camera system. The use of vintage and third-party lenses of all varieties on mirrorless cameras has long been a draw, but one generally reserved for tinkerers and lens geeks. For years, it was the dearth of new high-quality lenses for mirrorless systems that dissuaded photographers from embracing these cameras. Again though, this is no longer an issue. It is true that DSLR mount systems, some of which go back decades, have a large catalog of compatible lenses, which mirrorless systems still do not match, especially when it comes to ultra-telephoto and specialty lenses, but either through their own R&D or in partnership with other manufacturers, camera companies have closed the gap by continuing to introduce more high-quality lenses for their mirrorless systems.

And mirrorless camera designs enable certain advantages for lens designers. The distance between the lens mount and image plane in a camera is called the flange focal distance. Without the room needed for a mirror, mirrorless cameras have a much shorter flange distance than a DSLR, thus allowing the adaptability of lenses designed for much older rangefinder cameras and cinema lenses. Also, with the proper adapter, mirrorless cameras can utilize new lenses from other manufacturers and third-party lenses designed specifically for a particular mirrorless system’s mount. The lens options for mirrorless are growing much faster than those for DSLRs. To this point, Canon announced last year that they do not plan to currently develop new EF lenses.

Nikon NIKKOR Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct Lens
Nikon NIKKOR Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct Lens

Large lens libraries are huge advantages of the older mounts, but technologically the mounts are ancient and can be limiting. Nikon made an effort with the Z Series to create a forward-thinking mount that was larger than their classic F line. This made it easier to develop high-quality glass and even led to the revival of the Noct with the release of the Z 58mm f/0.95 S. Nikon is far from alone in this regard.

Mirrorless systems also benefit from the ability to redesign certain focal length lenses to be smaller and lighter. Again, because of the flange focal distance, extreme wide-angle lenses, especially fast-aperture lenses, can be made smaller than their DSLR counterparts. Also, since DSLR cameras’ phase-detect autofocus can struggle to find focus when using lenses that are not particularly bright (those with a maximum aperture of f/5.6 or smaller), extreme telephoto lenses needed to be large to provide the fast apertures required for sports, wildlife, or other photo disciplines. This is not the case when using the hybrid AF sensor on mirrorless cameras, which gives lens manufacturers more freedom to create lighter, smaller, more affordable ultra-telephoto lenses. This is an area ripe for development, and Canon surprised many people in 2020 by introducing new 600mm f/11 and 800mm f/11 lenses for its mirrorless R system.

Canon RF 800mm f/11 IS STM Lens
Canon RF 800mm f/11 IS STM Lens

Form Factor

Smaller camera size has always been a rallying cry for mirrorless cameras. Initially, it seemed to be the only rallying cry, but that too has changed, and ironically not necessarily with the development of smaller and smaller mirrorless cameras. As mentioned, without a mirror and pentaprism housing, mirrorless cameras allow more compact form factors, and many, such as the Olympus Pen series cameras and Sony a6600, embrace this advantage, but as mirrorless cameras improved technically and incorporated full-frame sensors, their bodies grew in size. It also seems that photographers, particularly professional and advanced amateurs, appreciate the large grips and rounded, rugged features of the DSLR, and several mirrorless cameras now also sport an ergonomic size and shape, comparable to a standard DSLR. Overall, however, mirrorless cameras are trimmer and definitely lighter than DSLRs.

Electronic Viewfinder

Finally, the sticking point. The optical viewfinder is one feature that DSLR users still tout as “better” than what mirrorless cameras can offer, and it is true that many photographers, even those raised on smartphone cameras, recognize the advantage of really seeing your subject via mirrors and glass as opposed to through a miniature LCD screen. But, as is the theme of this article, the drawbacks of electronic viewfinders are shrinking just as we, as photographers, are becoming more accustomed to using them. Primarily the size, resolution, and brightness of EVFs have improved over the years, as have the processors, which reduce buffer time and image lag. The Sony Alpha a7S III offers a 9.44m-dot resolution EVF for incredibly bright and detailed image composition.

Sony Alpha a7S III Mirrorless Digital Camera
Sony Alpha a7S III Mirrorless Digital Camera

Electronic viewfinders also offer features that optical viewfinders can never duplicate, primarily the ability to see real-time changes in exposure as you adjust camera settings. It is a giant hurdle removed. Also, functions such as focus peaking and focus zoom make accurate focus, even in manual focus setting, easier to achieve. For those photographers wanting the best of both worlds, the FUJIFILM X-Pro3 Mirrorless Camera offers a hybrid system with both an optical and an electronic viewfinder option.

FUJIFILM X-Pro3 Mirrorless Digital Camera
FUJIFILM X-Pro3 Mirrorless Digital Camera

Silence

Although mentioned earlier in this article, I feel it important to note one benefit that mirrorless cameras truly enjoy over DSLRs, and that is the silence with which they can operate. While the electronic shutter function has limitations, the ability to shoot a mirrorless camera in complete silence (not damping sound) is a monumental advantage for the type of photography I normally do—street photography, cultural event photography, and on-set still photography. It is hard to imagine how different my workflow and success rate would have been if high-resolution mirrorless cameras were available when I started these aspects of my photographic work.

Let us know your thoughts on the evolution of mirrorless camera technology, and which feature brought you into the mirrorless camp, or what keeps you content with a DSLR. And to further this conversation, listen to this episode of the B&H Photography Podcast, in which two bird photographers discuss the pros and cons (mostly pros) of the latest mirrorless cameras.

27 Comments

I understand the change to mirrorless just like film to digital, but I totally disagree that mirrorless is the "way to go" concept.  After 40 years of using everythink from 8x10 to 35mm and the reason that mirroless is smaller and lighter (the Z58mm @4.4# and 8K$ dosent add up) in my calculations.  I still use DSLrs and the M4/3 because at 73 yo the 4/3 is lighter and smaller, but other than that i don't see any advantage in going to ff mirrorles, unless you are just starting out or have the $ to dump all your old glass and sart over.  Yes the new glass is better, but unless you are doing a side by side comparison its hard to tell the difference.  

All true Chester.  If it works, no need to fix it! Thanks for your comment.

Shooting wildlife in remote locations is a big hurdle to overcome with mirrorless systems regarding battery life. Tracking an animal through the viewfinder requires no power from a DSLR but will burn up batteries in a mirrorless. Tracking can easily eat up 30 minutes for one set of shots. Being away from civilization for weeks and traveling simply (no solar chargers and minimal electronics due to the field failures of such devices) means I need to travel with spare batteries to deal with my camera. My exceptions to electronics are headlights, GPS navigator, and sat phone.

Very good points Mark...even my small mirrorless can confound me with how fast that batteries kick it.  But check out this story of photographer Pete McBride walking the Grand Canyon and keeping his Sony mirrorless charged 

  https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/podcasts/photography/podcast-2020-o...

2 concerns: 1) the bright screen in dark settings is a distraction.  2) adjusting the optical viewfinder so eyeglasses are not required.

Thanks for reading Explora, Chuck.  Good points, but it seems the first is a mirrorless CON and the second is a DSLR CON, or am I reading this wrong? 

The best of both worlds, I find using my Pentax bodies that consist of the K10-D, K5 MKII, KP, K3, K3 MKII & K1 MKII along with a host of Sigma & Pentax, both prime & zoom lens along with Panasonic G-95, G-9 and an Olympus OMD 1 MKII with Panasonic, Olympus & Sigma  glass gives me the best of both worlds. There are times I want to travel light or take a camera to photograph a family function or some family dogs running through the creek at my wife's son's house, I

 can use a 4/3 camera, when i get to shoot a wedding or any other paid event, I pack the K1, K3 and the G-9. I have a Pentax K5 that goes with a Sigma 120-400 F 4.5-5.6 as my wild life set up, I also use it to photograph birds from a 14 ft kayak. It took me over ten years to get all of this equipment and I enjoy using each and every one. Today price wise the best value is still a DSLR, you can find one for any budget.

Thanks James...  I'd say you have a good plan and plenty of good gear for the range of work you're doing?  Haven't heard of too many people packing Pentax and Panasonic though, good show!

I have had the Sony A7iii for a couple of years now. I wanted a light full frame camera. I switched from a Nikon 3300 which I still sometimes use given the investment in lenses I've made. Thing is, i've never used the LCD screen on my Sony. It's never even crossed my mind. I look through the viewfinder like I've done for ages. Am I really missing out on something by not using it? Oh, also, the lens choices for the Sony are getting so much better.

Yes Martha!, The new lenses for mirrorless systems are getting better and better.  Thanks for your comment.

Not going mirrorless.

The EVF is not a favorite feature - why would you compose on what is comparable a low res screen? No viewfinder has the MP resolution of the camera itself.

Power is also an issue - those EVFs and screens suck a lot of power.

Thanks William...  there's options for everyone.  I just had a conversation with a photographer who only uses her 4x5 field camera.  I'm growing more accustomed to the EVF but the power is an issue for me too...batteries dying too soon and even waiting for the finder to "boot up" while I'm missing a photo.  It's a balance.

Indeed - thanks for your response!

Excellent article.

There is no arguing that mirrorless is the future.  My conundrum is that I am living in the present - not in the future.  The image quality I can achieve with my Canon DSLRs and L-series lenses is as good as anyone needs (with the exception of those needing super-high megapixel counts).

I am torn.  I want to shoot what the "cool kids" are using but it wouldn't make a bit of difference in my photos.  And, if we're being honest, all of the greatest photos in history were made using gear inferior to what I currently own.

So, how long do I hold out and use my DSLRs?  Will the FOMO cause me to dump $20k of gear (worth only pennies on the dollar) and replace it with $25k of gear that basically does the same thing?

Not being facetious here... it's a dilemma I'll struggle with for quite a while.

But, the resolution seems inevitable, doesn't it?  At some point, I'm going to make the switch.  It's just a matter of when.

Think for a moment what you pointed out, "greatest photos in history were made using gear inferior to what you own". So, go and make your own great photos, if great photography can only be achieved by the equipment, than anyone can achieve greatness. I don't think that''s what makes greatness. One moment, at the right place, we have a chance to capture greatness.

Thank you for your comment Manuel...  yes, we all find those moments and it's what we live for as photographers, regardless of the camera we use.

Thanks Cliff... you make a great point.  I think many of us are in the same dilemma.  Do all photographers need the latest, greatest to make quality images? Of course not. There are some disciplines which are benefitted by the advantages mirrorless tech is offering but if you are satisfied with what you are creating, why switch?  

You make a great point. You’re already invested in DSLR and there’s no real advantage in Image Quality at this point to change if you’re just changing one FF sensor for another FF sensor. So don’t. However, you can upgrade to Medium Format with FUJIFILM GFX Series. The GFX 50 R sells for $4500 but FUJI runs sales occasionally and I think I’ve seen it as low as $3500...new in the box. I have one and love it. Glass tends to be more expensive though due larger diameter required to cover the bigger sensor. But the image quality is an upgrade.

Thanks Robert...   those FUJIFLM medium format cameras are well loved... just ask Greg Gorman  ...  

https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/features/conversation-w...

One real-world advantage that continues with DSLRs and other optical viewfinders over EVFs and LCDs is use with sunglasses. I have photochromic glasses and struggled to get a realistic feel for what my EVF was showing me. I much prefer the looks of things through my Pentax KP's viewfinder to any of the EVFs I have used in the past.

Thanks for the comment Andrew. Yes, there are still reasons to stick with DSLRs and the viewfinder is one, many folks still have a preference for the OVF.  I tend to agree but a getting more and more used to the EVF.  Thanks again.

One of the advantages of the R5's EVF, I discovered by accident. Recently I was at a model shoot in an abandoned warehouse with poor lighting. I was using strobes so lighting the image was no problem but composition was hard as the scene through the electronic view finder was almost black. Then it dawned on me to boost the EVL illumination which is impossible with a DSLR. By turning the brightness up on the EVF, my view turned into daylight and I could compose the image with ease.

Yes!!   Good point Lyle...something my night photography friends mention often.

Good article. It correctly, in my opinion, highlights the differences and resulting advantages/disadvantages of each technology.

Change is inevitable. Rapid advances in technology accelerate these changes. Photographic technology, while probably not advancing at the lightspeed of digital technology in general, is relying far more on digital electronics advances than on mechanical technology improvements. I see that trend continuing, eventually resulting in the ultimate demise of the DSLR. Just look at the big names in the photographic industry: they are laser-focused on mirrorless. The messages as well as the directions are clearly there.

DSLR's, while not exactly dinosaurs, will become less and less relevant as these changes continue. Just like Speed Graphics, TLR's, or buggy whips, they will eventually become curiosities. There will certainly be the hold-outs, and, who knows, DSLR fans may eventually revive the technology - think vinyl records and film cameras!

The overarching concept of all of this is the ART of photography. I consider cellphones, and to an extent even some digital cameras, to be used for "snapshot-ery". The vast majority of today's snapshooters don't have a clue what the ART of photography really is. But that's a subject for another Explora article (maybe there is one already)! 

Good comment John...  and yes, we'll get Todd and/or Allan working on that article, if they aren't already!  Thanks again for reading Explora. 

You’ve touched on 2 pieces of the puzzle- lens availability/flexibility for mirrorless & viewing screen- i really do not like the ‘fold out’ rear screen that Canon has on the R&R5-Fuji has followed suit and Sony...tilt was great and creative- The foldout works great if you’re videoing. Just my opinion.

Thanks for the comment JoAnn

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