Before you make the switch, find out exactly what is a mirrorless camera and decide if it’s the right camera for you!

Have you heard other photographers rave about their mirrorless cameras? Ever see another photographer shooting a tiny camera and wonder what the heck it was? Today, we’re going to tackle this new technology and explain just what is a mirrorless camera, some pros and cons of a mirrorless system and where to find them.

How does a mirrorless camera work?

Before we explain what is a mirrorless camera, let’s recap how a traditional DSLR camera works.

DSLR stands for digital single lens reflex. In DSLR cameras, light and your image comes in through the lens. The scene is then reflected (hence reflex) into the viewfinder via a mirror. When you fire the shutter, the mirror flips down to reveal the sensor which records the image.

Mirrorless cameras are, well, mirrorless. These cameras don’t have an optical viewfinder. The sensor is exposed to light and thus, reading your scene constantly. To see the scene through the camera, the photographer looks through an electronic view finder (called an EVF) or the rear LCD screen. It’s sort of like watching a live feed of what your camera is seeing. We’ll talk more about EVS later.

Technically the point-and-shoot digital cameras that have been around the last twenty years or so are also mirrorless cameras. But the term mirrorless camera as we use it today is most often used to describe mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses vs. a point-and-shoot fixed lens camera.

What are the advantage s of mirrorless cameras?

The main advantages of going mirrorless are:

  • Size
  • What you see is what you get previews
  • Better video
  • Faster shooting and higher shutter speeds
  • Silent shooting
  • Edge-to-Edge Auto Focus points
  • Shift-stabilization

sony mirrorless cameras

Meet Your Tiny Camera – Size advantages of mirrorless

Compared to a beefy, full-frame DSLR, a mirrorless camera can feel and even look like a toy in your hands. Since there is no mirror or mirror box, the camera body can be shorter and slimmer than a DSLR camera. The full-frame Nikon Z6 mirrorless, for example, is 5.3×2.7×4 inches in dimension and weighs 1.29 pounds. The full frame DSLR Nikon D750 is 5.5×3.1×4.5 inches and weighs 1.65 pounds. That might not sound like much of a difference, but mirrorless cameras definitely feel smaller and lighter in your hands.
The smaller size makes them lighter to carry, easier to store and much less obtrusive in a crowded setting. Everyday consumers might even ask why you didn’t bring your “professional” camera along.

What You See is What You Get Previews

With a mirrorless camera, you’re not seeing the actual scene in your camera (or a reflection of it). You’re seeing an electronic preview image of the scene. As I said, it’s like watching a live feed from your camera, similar to if you were shooting in video mode on a DSLR. As you adjust the camera’s settings, you’ll see a preview via the EVF of what your final image will look like. So you can see, on the EVF, the affect slowing your shutter speed has on the brightness of the image. And you can see how opening your shutter will affect your depth of field.

While you probably can’t tell how much blur you’ll really get between f/5.6 and f/2.8 for example, it will keep you from rolling your settings to something so blown out or so dark that the image is ruined. I also think that something like this would have been hugely beneficial when I was first learning to shoot in manual mode (which I did back in the days of film…how prehistoric am I?)

Some EVFs also display a real-time histogram. If you’re a histogram nerd like I am, this is a really cool feature. And it eliminates the need for constant chimping, which is what photographers like to call checking your LCD screen.

what is a mirrorless camera

Mirrorless Cameras are Better for Video

What is a mirrorless camera like for video? In general, higher end mirrorless cameras are better at shooting video. There’s some technical mumbo jumbo I can throw in here if you’d like. Mirrorless cameras use something called phase detection that makes for smoother and more accurate focusing during videos. Most DSLRs don’t have that technology. They use contrast detection. The camera looks for the areas of highest contrast in a shot and then moves the lens until these areas are sharp. Contrast detection is what causes the camera to sort of drift in and out of focus in videos shot with DSLR cameras.

Mirrorless cameras are also lighter, as we’ve discussed before. So their video rigs are also lighter, including on drones.

Mirrorless Cameras Offer Faster shooting

Mirrorless camera technology has come to the point that it outpaces that of DSLRs when it comes to continuous shooting. Mirrorless systems can shoot faster, meaning more frames per second. If action sequences or high frame rate burst shooting is your thing, a mirrorless camera will offer you more speed than their DSLR counterparts. My Nikon D750 shoots at around 4 frames per second (even though it says 6). The Sony A9 mirrorless camera, for example, can shoot at 20 frames per second. There are some limitations to continuous shooting, though, but regardless, mirrorless cameras are winning the fps battle hands down.

A mirrorless camera will often shoot at 1/8000 of a second, where many DSLRs can only shoot at 1/4000 of a second. If you need ultra fast-action stopping power, a mirrorless camera gives you an additional stop.

Shoot sports?  We’ll give you the basics here!

mirrorless cameras can be completely silent

Silent shooting

My favorite feature of mirrorless cameras is their silence. Using the electronic shutter, these cameras can shoot completely silently. As in not a single sound.

If you’ve ever tried to be discreet in a quiet church or meeting hall, you’ll know why this is such an awesome feature. No slap slap slap of a shutter to pollute the environment or click to blow your cover. Just you and your camera making no noise at all. I think this is a huge advantage for wedding, event and birth photographers especially.

Edge to edge focal points

Focal points of a DSLR are clustered around the center of the frame. Mirrorless cameras, on the other hand, offer edge to edge focus points. And they are pretty darn accurate. This means you can place your focal point just about anywhere you want on a mirrorless camera and shoot with confidence. No more focus and recompose!

In-camera image stabilization

In-camera image stabilization, often called sensor-shift image stabilization, is a feature on the high end mirrorless cameras. And it’s really cool. The technology is part of the camera and it helps eliminate camera shake at slower shutter speeds. Since it’s part of the camera, any lens you use with the camera will benefit from the sensor-shift stabilization technology.

This image stabilization technology on DSLRs is a function of the lens, not the camera.

Nothing’s Perfect – What are a mirrorless camera’s drawbacks?

Mirrorless cameras are not without their limitations. Below are the biggest disadvantages of mirrorless cameras, as they exist on the market today. The technology is still fairly young, so subsequent generations of mirrorless cameras will see improvements on these.

But here’s where they fall short right now.

  • Battery life
  • Poor EVF performance in low light conditions
  • Quantity of lenses available
  • Ergonomics
  • Lack of 2nd card slot

Battery life

Battery life is the single biggest drawback of the mirrorless camera for me. The battery doesn’t last anywhere near as long as on a DSLR. I shot a 10-hour event on a single battery with my Nikon D750 DSLR. The Nikon Z6 lasted about 2 and a half hours.

The reason? Mirrorless cameras rely on the battery to power the EVF. So if the camera is on, the battery is working. With a DSLR, very little battery is used when the camera is on and ready to shoot. Power gets drained mostly when the shutter is fired and an image is recorded.

To save on battery life, some mirrorless systems are designed to sleep after a period of inactivity. It can take several seconds for the camera to wake up. This feature might not be a big deal to you, but it was frustrating using it for events as I needed to keep waking it up so I didn’t miss a shot. This feature can be disabled but then your battery drains even faster.

How much battery performance you get depends on the battery itself, the camera, the conditions and your shooting style.  And to clarify, it’s not the battery’s fault.  It’s simply being drained faster because it’s being taxed by the EVF, whereas a DLSR battery doesn’t get taxed by looking through the viewfinder.

You could easily buy additional batteries. But batteries aren’t cheap (even off-brand batteries add up) and then you are constantly toting them and around swapping them in and out of your camera. But is that something you want to mess with shooting while you are on assignment shooting?

mirrorless cameras and low light

Poor EVF performance in low light

Image quality for mirrorless cameras in low light rivals that of DLSRs. But the electronic preview of a mirrorless camera suffers when light is low. The image looks grainy and fuzzy and can feel jerky. It also makes it challenging to shoot at times.

Lenses

Because mirrorless cameras are built differently than DSLRs, they require special lenses or an adapter to use traditional lenses. There aren’t very many native lenses (those built specifically for mirrorless cameras). And what lenses are available are more expensive than the DX or FX counterparts. A Nikon Z (mirrorless) 50 f/1.8 lens is about $500, while the traditional Nikon 50mm f/1.8 is less than $200.

Traditional lenses can often be used on a mirrorless body via an adaptor (many older lenses still can’t be used, however, so check your lens and brand first). But mirrorless lenses can’t be used on a DSLR body. The adaptor is an additional expense, usually between $100 and $250, depending on the brand.

Ergonomics

Keeping the slim profile of a mirrorless camera means some cut corners in terms of ergonomics.  Mirrorless cameras tend to be a bit boxy with hard edges.

At first, the Nikon Z6 felt weird and awkward in my hands. It felt too small and I fumbled it a bit simply because I was used to the heft of my D750. Photographers with larger hands or those who need more to grab on to may feel like the ergonomics of many mirrorless camera’s aren’t as comfortable as those of the DSLRs on today’s market.

Lack of 2nd Card Slot and different type of memory cards

Thus far, the Nikon and Canon mirrorless cameras on the market don’t offer a second memory card slot (although Sony, Olyumpus and a few other brands/models have 2 slots).  That’s a deal-breaker for many photographers, including wedding, birth, event or sports shooters. Those photographers want the insurance of a second card slot. If two card slots is important to you, make sure the mirrorless camera you choose has two.

As I said, Nikon and Canon, as of the time of this writing, don’t.

Nikon’s Z series mirrorless cameras also require the XQD cards instead of the standard SD cards. These cards write images amazingly fast, but they are expensive compared to my usual brand/speed of SD cards. If you don’t already have a stack of XQD cards in your bag, you’ll be spending even more money on your conversion to mirrorless. As if that wasn’t a pain, your external card reader probably doesn’t handle XQD cards, so you’ll need a new one of those too (if you don’t like hooking your camera up to the computer every time).

What’s the best mirrorless camera?

I always say asking what is the best camera equates to asking 30 people what the best flavor of ice cream is. Each will respond differently based on needs, tastes and experience. My best advice is to visit a store and handle several different brands and models. See how they feel in your hand. Compare features, price and ergonomics. Do you have a fleet of existing lenses you want to keep in service or are you willing to start over from scratch?

The best mirrorless camera is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Are there full-frame mirrorless cameras?

Mirrorless cameras come in different sensor sizes, including full-frame, crop and micro-four-thirds, just like with DSLRs. Image quality is comparable between DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.

Still not sure on crop sensor vs. full-frame?  Check out our tutorial!

DSLR vs. Mirrorless: Which is right for me?

Personally, I believe mirrorless systems are the future of photography. Just as the digital camera slowly took over film camera use, I believe mirrorless cameras will take over for DSLRs. But that day isn’t here yet and likely won’t be for some time.

Lots of photographers find themselves debating on if and when to make the switch to mirrorless cameras. What’s the answer? Truthfully, I don’t know. It’s something I struggle with as well. I had the DLSR vs. mirrorless debate this fall when I needed to replace a backup camera. Was now the right time to make the switch?

Here’s what I do know:

Fuji and Sony and the like have been at this mirrorless system for a while now. Nikon and Canon have some catching up to do. But mirrorless technology is still in it’s early stages and it’s already pretty terrific.  It’s only going to improve from here.

Personally, I’m heavily invested in Nikon glass, so moving to another brand is too expensive and not something I want to do. When comparing what I needed from a camera (long battery life, fast shooting, great low light performance, 2 card slots, use Nikon lenses) there simply wasn’t a mirrorless option that offered equal or better results than a DSLR, especially when factoring in all the costs.

But that’s based strictly on what I want in a camera right now.

But I will make the switch eventually because I believe the technology and cost will move to the point where it makes sense to do so. That might be in six months, or it might be in two years.

Your needs and budget might be different.  You need to decide that.

My best advice is this…rent or borrow a mirrorless camera for a few days. Try it out and see what you think. The results may surprise you. You might be ready to huck your existing DSLR for good. Or maybe like me, your DSLR is good enough. For now.

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