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Gear & Apps

Should You Switch to A Mirrorless Camera System?

By Guest Contributor on August 7th 2014

Mirrorless cameras, aka compact system cameras (CSCs), have become very popular recently, but some photographers are still skeptical. In an article titled,The Mirrorless Debate, a dozen top photographers weighed in on the question. It’s widely agreed that the small size of CSCs makes them more nimble and less obtrusive. This can help to both disarm subjects and to allow shooting candidly. Photographers often comment that having a small, high quality alternative means they are likely to carry the camera with them to places where they wouldn’t take their DSLRs. Personally, I feel comfortable taking my Fujifilm X20 almost anywhere including venues where I would likely be challenged by security guards if I had my Nikon DSLR.

[REWIND: SONY FULL FRAME MIRRORLESS CAMERAS | GEAR TALK EPISODE 3]

Fujifilm-X20

Highly Mobile Lenses

Not only are the cameras smaller and lighter, but so are the lenses. For example, the Olympus M.Zuiko ED 75-300mm f4.8-6.7 II weighs less than 15 oz. (423 g). By contrast, the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR weighs in at 56 oz. (1570 g). The crop sensors on most of these cameras mean that the true focal length is greater than the nominal length; so, for the Olympus 75-300 mm the 35 mm equivalent range is 150-600 mm.

With CSCs, you can easily carry an assortment of lenses to cover a variety of needs. Derrick Story’s photos of his “fit kits” illustrate just how much functionality you can pack into a single small bag—enough, as Story says, “[to] handle just about any situation, anywhere.

Fujifilm-X20-shot-of-cathedral-in-SF

Cost & Commitment

The cost of compact cameras and lenses is often less than for DSLRs. The Olympus lens mentioned above is listed at $499.99 while the Nikon lens comes in at $2699.95. The focal lengths and feature sets are different so it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but this kind of cost differential is not uncommon. Still, even with lower costs, some photographers object to having to buy a second system. And the field is evolving rapidly so it’s hard to know which system to commit to.

Electronic Viewfinders vs. Optical Viewfinders

Some photographers dislike the electronic viewfinders (EVFs) which are common on these cameras, preferring instead traditional optical viewfinders. Using an EVF does require some adjustment, but it also brings benefits like seeing the actual exposure in the viewfinder and even being able to shoot in the dark. Kevin Mullins says, “I can be sure of my exposure with less chimping required. This means I can concentrate more on shooting, and capturing the moment.

Fujifilm-X20-shot-of-backlit-flower-buds

DSLR “Pro” Features

One of the areas where DSLRs still have an advantage is in autofocus speed. This makes DSLRs the first choice for shooting action like sports and wildlife. Similarly, for these types of shooting, specialized long lenses are available for DSLRs while that’s generally not true for CSCs. Also, the smaller sensor size of most mirrorless cameras means that getting a very shallow depth of field is harder than with a full-frame sensor.

Another area where DSLRs have an edge is in supporting dual SD cards. Jeff Ascough says, “I like to use dual cards in every professional situation and mirrorless can’t provide this as yet.” Ascough also cites weatherproofing and build strength as advantages still held by pro DSLRs. Battery life for mirrorless cameras is also an issue.

Conclusion

Currently, Sony, Olympus and Fujifilm are among the companies that are creating some of the most innovative and exciting new mirrorless cameras. Sony’s highly regarded Alpha A7 line offers a full-frame sensor with resolutions up to 36 MP in a compact device. Their full-frame RX1 offers downloadable apps. The Olympus OM-D line is also well thought of by professional photographers and offers a wide range of lenses. And Fujifilm’s X-series has brought innovations like their X-Trans sensors which, according to the company, dispense with the Bayer filter to provide higher resolution. Their X-T1 MultiMode viewfinder can simultaneously display both a detail view and an overview of a scene.

Fujifilm-X20-shot-of-Fresnel-lens

Purchase decisions must be based on your specific needs and what you value most. Here’s a list of pros and cons for CSCs:

Mirrorless Camera Advantages

  • Much smaller & lighter
  • The EVF displays the actual exposure; can show what you’ll get in situations like backlighting and snow
  • Can be less intimidating to subjects/clients
  • May be allowed in venues where a DSLR would not
  • Cost of a body with several lenses can be significantly less
  • Focus peaking helps to focus precisely and evaluate DOF
  • Wi-Fi included on many models
  • Photographers say they’re freeing, more fun

Mirrorless Camera Disadvantages

 

  • Shallow depth of field harder to achieve with crop sensors
  • Dual memory card slots not available
  • Autofocus typically not as fast
  • Some EVFs are not as good as optical viewfinders
  • Limited selection of cameras with high resolutions (i.e., higher than 20 megapixels)
  • Not as weatherproof, rugged
  • Short battery life
  • Specialized lenses may not be available
  • Use with “legacy” lenses can be problematic (e.g., autofocus may not work)
  • They don’t look “professional” to some clients

At this time, many photographers still prefer DSLRs for important assignments. Their combination of control, flexibility, speed, robustness and high resolution makes them hard to beat. On the other hand, photographers report that shooting with small mirrorless cameras is more fun! Consequently, they shoot more often and get more shots. And even though full-size DSLRs still have advantages the gap is closing rapidly. These small cameras definitely represent an important part of the photographic landscape of the future. Are you ready to switch?

About the Guest Contributor

Dave Salahi is a photographer, Photoshop artist and Photoshop instructor in Southern California. In a previous life, Dave was a software developer and still does some website development work. His website, The Photo Performance, features Photoshop tutorials and other photography info.

If you’re interested in becoming a guest contributor, contact us!

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Eliot Gonzo

    shallow dof harder to achieve due to crop sensors… how is that a MIRRORLESS CON.. its a CROP SENSOR con/pro depending on yer needs.

    af not as fast with continous tracking. single shot is blazingly fast on many models. are you comparing low end mirrorless to high end dslr? what about the utter junk af of a low end canon dslr?

    some evfs not as good as ovf… true… but some evfs let you see in the dark better than the ovf… the sony a7s. have you used one?

    use with legacy lenses can be problematic due to af loss possible. but they can use almost any lens! wheres THAT in the list. if mf is yer thing, ur SET! how is that not listed as a PRO?!

    some of these are great
    some of these make me wonder if you are a maker of mirrors for camera manufacturers… or something else ridiculous.
    its feeling a bit slanted here…. but hopefully this will get some people to CONSIDER other options, whether mirrorless or dslr, or whatever, and do their own research to discover whats real.

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    • Matthew Saville

      Very well said, IMO. High-end (and even mid-end?) mirrorless cameras have already dramatically surpassed low-end DSLRS, (and to some extent, again even the mid-end?)

      It is only a matter of 1-2 generations before the likes of the Sony A7s and A7r completely trump even the flagship DSLRs. I hope by then that Canon / Nikon get their act together and jump on the wagon! Surely they’re not going to be as ostrich-y as Kodak about this… (heads in the sand…)

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  2. Enzo Scorziello

    I would agree that the CSC’s do have their downsides, just as the larger bodied cameras. They each have their pros and cons. I originally purchased a Sony Nex-3 as a hobbiest, and realized that I love taking photos, so much so that I have been able to turn it into a good gig on the side. I recently upgraded to an a-6000 and couldn’t be happier. As stated above the portability is the number one reason I bought into the Sony lineup and when they came out they were head and shoulders above the direct competition, that gap is definitely narrowing with the Fuji’s and Olympus’, but IMO Sony still gives the best bang for your buck.
    At the end of the day it is all in knowing how to use the gear you have.

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  3. Gonzalo Broto

    Apart from the obvious technical differences, there is one single advantage of mirrorless CSC’s that outweighs any other disadvantage, and that is portability. I have never carried a camera with me at all times in my small handbag before, which has granted me captures in places where I would have never had a chance to photograph otherwise.
    Whether as a second body or as a primary one, these little cameras are, for me, the perfect embodiment of fun and discretion. I have been using exclusively Lumix m4/3 cameras for the past year and a half and I would never go back to bigger bodies anymore.
    Recently I had the chance to visit Yangon, former Myanmar’s capital city, and I only carried my 2 small mirrorless cameras with 2 small lenses, and that was all I needed to capture all I encountered in that fascinating city. You can see some images at my blog: http://gonzalobroto.blogspot.com/2014/08/religious-yangon.html

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  4. Jason Switzer

    This is a timely article for me, personally. I’ve really wanted to get my hands on. Fuji X-mount camera, but the bodies just aren’t where they need to me from a technological standpoint (at least not enough for me to plunk down my hard-earned cash). The XT1 is almost there, but I’d like a rangefinder (basically an X-Pro2) instead if a mini DSLR-style body. More importantly, I’ve read reviews complaining about the autofocus. Coming from a 5D Mk III, I wouldn’t tolerate autofocus that can’t track moving subjects properly. I’m pretty jazzed about the Fuji lens lineup though. They have all the focal lengths I want (or will be next year) – 24, 35, 50, 85, and 135. And they all autofocus, which is great.

    I looked at the micro 4/3 cameras from Olympus, but the only way to fat really shallow depth of field from that sensor is to use manual focus f.95 voigtlander lenses… And those lenses are pretty beefy, which negates the weight advantage of a micro 4/3 system.

    So Fuji it is for me (one day). Although the fact if the matter is, I alreDy own an amazing FF DSLR (Canon) system. Any mirrorless system would be “just for kicks” and if probably only use it when traveling. When it comes to paid gigs, I’ll alwYs go with what works best, and from all of the research I’ve done, at this point, DSLRs are still the best.

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  5. fotosiamo

    Other than the mirror box, there really isn’t any technology inside a modern DSLR that can’t be transferred over to a mirrorless camera. In fact, the majority of it have already been adapted to higher end mirrorless.

    Don’t even be surprised if a mirrorless medium format camera comes out in a couple of years. And watch, it’ll probably be a Sony camera, the way they’re leading the mirrorless charge!

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  6. Austin Swenson

    I would simply agree with a lot of what this article says, I think the biggest drawback for having a camera with an EVF is shooting in dark situations. I think that OVFs have only a slighter advantage in that category though because it’s about if you can focus in the dark, not whether you can see through the viewfinder, which I think is ultimately an issue of buying good glass. I think to get around this, simply shine a powerful flashlight at what you are trying to focus on, and simply take it away right as you are going to press the shutter. That would help focus better regardless of what camera you use.

    As for looking more professional, I think that’s way more of an insecurity on the part of the photographer than it is on the client side. When a client sees the work you produce when you first meet, who cares what the equipment looks like?

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    • Matthew Saville

      I very much agree, Austin. Anyone who is insecure about shooting with this or that camera as a pro, well, they are mistaken. It’s all about personality and a sense of presence, no matter what camera you shoot with.

      I also agree that shooting in extremely dim light is a real show-stopper for me. I’ve tried mirrorless cameras many times, and most recently with the A7 series and the A6000 as well. In pitch-black situations, it’s simply downright un-usable because you practically go blind staring into that bright EVF. It’s not just a “get used to it” type thing, it’s a difficulty that I simply do not wish to put up with.

      Other than that, though, IMO mirrorless systems have already won. They’ve got the FPS to match flagships, and better. They’ve got the AF power to almost match the flagships. They’ve got the functionality and image quality to match any pro camera. And now, quite rapidly, they’re getting the lens support they need.

      If I weren’t a wedding photographer and astro-landscape photographer, I’d have already switched…

      =Matt=

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