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6 Things You Should Know About Mirrorless Cameras

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If you are shopping for a new camera, the hype of the moment is the so-called mirrorless camera.
But should you buy one? In this article, we will discuss 6 things you should know about mirrorless cameras.
Have a read and then decide if mirrorless is the way to go.

What Is a Mirrorless Camera?

As the name suggests, mirrorless cameras have no mirror. This is unlike digital single reflex cameras, better known as DSLRs.
The mirror has been in use since the 1950s, so why change it?
There are at least three good reasons to remove the mirror:

  1. no more delicate and complicated mechanism;
  2. reduces camera shaking;
  3. a more compact and light camera body.

An electronic viewfinder replaces the mirror system. This is a small, high-resolution LCD screen.
The image below shows old Olympus OM-1 (35mm film) and a modern Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mk ii.

Diptych showing the mirror in the Olympus OM-1 SLR camera (left). On the right no mirror is present the interior of the modern Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mk ii mirrorless camera
The mirror in the Olympus OM-1 SLR camera (left). On the right no mirror is present the interior of the modern Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mk ii mirrorless camera, and the sensor is visible.

A small disclaimer: I am a long time mirrorless camera photographer and enthusiast. I think they are the future.
But, if you are considering to go down the mirrorless camera road, you should know that it’s not all roses.

6. Mirrorless Cameras Are Smaller and Lighter Than DSLR: The Size Myth

The mirror (with all the other related parts) is not there anymore. This allows the camera body to be smaller and lighter than usual DSLR bodies.
This is particularly good for pro-graded gear.

The Myth

A mirrorless camera is the perfect camera to bring everywhere. They are small and light.
If portability is something you value, you should buy one of these cameras over classic DSLR ones.

And Now the Truth

This is historically accurate. The first mirrorless were Panasonic and Olympus cameras. They had no electronic viewfinder (or it was optional).
They also sported a micro four thirds, MFT, sensor. This is half the size of a full frame sensors.
But what about today’s mirrorless cameras?

One of the first Olympus mirrorless cameras: the EPL-2 with MFT sensor and no EVF.
One of the first Olympus mirrorless cameras: the EPL-2 with MFT sensor and no EVF.

Olympus is still working with the MFT format.
Other competitors like Fujitsu, Sony, Pentax, Nikon and Canon? They’re using APS-C and full frame sensors instead.
But the size of a full frame sensor should not change the size of the camera body in a significant manner, right?
True, but these cameras are ILC cameras. This stands for Interchangeable Lens Cameras.
The size of a lens determines the amount of sensor that is illuminated. This means it affects the size of the image the lens projects on the sensor.
Very compact and lightweight interchangeable lenses can illuminate MFT sensors.
But for full frame sensors? They need lenses that are as big as those used by DSLR full frame cameras.

The Olympus EPL-2 with the 14-42mm lens - mirrorless camera facts
The Olympus EPL-2 with the 14-42mm (28-84mm equivalent focal length on full frame, or EFL), a classic kit lens. The SD card is there to set the size scale.

An there’s another drawback. The camera body is nice and small. This means that the camera-lens system is unbalanced on the lens side.
This is tiring and annoying when photographing handheld with big lenses.
If you need an adapter, things get even worst. The heavy lens, in fact, will be pushed further in front the camera body. This will make an already unbalanced system worse.

Top view comparison of a 28mm wide angle lens on the old OM-1 (right) and on the OM-D EM-5 Mk ii (left).
Top view comparison of a 28mm wide angle lens on the old OM-1 (right) and on the OM-D EM-5 Mk ii with necessary adaptor (left). The lens sticks further out with the adaptor, moving the weight far from the camera body.

This also reduces the portability of a full frame mirrorless system. What you gain is only on the size and weight of the camera body only.
But to make things more ergonomic, the bodies are often not made as small as they could be.
Dedicated accessories even exist to make the body larger and easier to hold.
Below is a comparison between the Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mk ii and the EPL-2. You can see them with and without the accessory power grip for the OM-D.

Diptych comparison between the EPL-2 and the OM-D EM-5 Mk ii with and without power grip.
Comparison between the EPL-2 and the OM-D EM-5 Mk ii with and without power grip.

Removable battery grips are an interesting solution. It allows the camera to stay small when paired with small and lightweight lenses.
And ergonomics are improved when using heavy and long lenses.

Verdict

As you see the Size & Weight argument is not a particularly good one. Especially if you care about portability.
If this is your case, try a high end bridge camera such as the one from the Sony RX10 family. Add a fast superzoom lens and it can be a better solution.

Diptych of the OM-D EM-5 Mk ii with power grip Vs the Sony RX10 bridge camera - mirrorless camera tips
The OM-D EM-5 Mk ii with power grip Vs the Sony RX10 bridge camera

5. Mirrorless Cameras Are WYSIWYG Cameras

Mirrorless cameras have a much stronger advantage over DSLR. They are What You See Is What You Get kind of cameras. And this will make you improve faster as a photographer.
How? They always use the electronic viewfinder (or live view) to show you what the mirrorless digital camera sees. And the effects of changing camera settings (shutter speed, aperture, ISO). You see these in real time.
The video below shows the effects of changing the shutter speed in real time.

A gif showing settings applied real time to the scene displayed on the LCD or EVF.
Settings are applied real time to the scene displayed on the LCD or EVF.

This will help you understand the exposure triangle, aperture, shutter speed, etc.
It will also make it easier to work in manual mode, particularly for photography beginners.
Another benefit is that it will help you to manual focus in the dark. Especially if you are trying some astrophotography, nighttime or interior photography.
Overexpose the image to brighten the scene enough that it will be easy to focus. Then return to the proper settings for taking the photo.

4. Mirrorless Don’t Suffer From Light Leakage During Long Exposures In Daylight

If you have an optical viewfinder, light can enter your camera from it.
In the photo below, the image you see on the mirror is coming from what the viewfinder sees.

Light from the optical viewfinder of my OM-1 forms this image on the mirror.
Light from the optical viewfinder of my OM-1 forms this image on the mirror.

Light leakage from the viewfinder is not usually a problem. But if you’re doing long exposures, you should cover it. Your eye will not block it and light can creep into the body ruining your image.
If you look at that strap that came with your camera, you will find a small black piece of soft rubber. That is what your camera maker wants you to use to close the viewfinder during long exposures.

The cover for the optical viewfinder of a Canon DSLR.
The cover for the optical viewfinder of a Canon DSLR.

Since mirrorless cameras have no optical viewfinder, you don’t have to remember this. And you can’t do anything even under harsh midday sun(and I do infrared photography with a mirrorless…)

3. Battery Life Is Poor With Mirrorless Camera: The False Power Problem

Mirrorless cameras drain their batteries faster than DSLRs. Even if the rear LCD is OFF, it uses energy to power the electronic viewfinder.
On average, battery life for entry level mirrorless cameras is about 300 shots. The high end camera Sony a7 iii reaches an astonishing 700 shots.
Entry level DSLRs also allow you to take around 400 shots with a charged battery. Up to 1000 shots for the pro models (e.g., Canon 80D).
People seem to make a big deal out of that. To me, this is a false problem.
How many of us shoot more than 300 images without the possibility to replace the battery with a spare one? Do we need to shoot 900 photo with a single battery?
Also, as I said before, power grips are available for many high end mirrorless cameras. These allow you to use two batteries at the same time.
I do astrophotography with my Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mk ii. I am out there at night, in the cold and/or humid weather.
Even when I’m taking 200+ images of the starry sky, I never run out of battery. Even without using the power grip.

2. Mirrorless Have Fewer Accessories Than DSLR

That may be true, at least for MFT mirrorless cameras. Third party lenses are scarcer than in the DSLR world. There are only some from Sigma (3 lenses), Tamron (1 lens) and Samyang/Rokinon (>3 lenses).
Lens adaptors are usually available to adapt lenses with a different lens mount. You can pair mirrorless cameras from Canon and Nikon with existing DSLR lenses.
There may also be fewer models of flashes and remote shutters than those available for DSLR.
Once again, though, this is something of a false problem. Makers of camera accessories follow the market. And the mirrorless market is growing by the minute.
They will start building dedicated accessories and lenses soon.

1. Pros Don’t Use Mirrorless Cameras: The Quality Myth

This is the most common argument against mirrorless cameras. Professional photographers are still using DSLR.
That’s not true. There are many world-renowned photographers who have switched to mirrorless.
One of the first to do so was travel photographer Trey Ratcliff.
Other notable photographers include Andy Mumford and Phil Norton.
Image quality, today, is all about the lens and sensor (and electronics) combination. The mirror has no role in that. If you want to give the mirror a role, it’s the bad guy slapping around and blurring your long exposures.
There are many pro graded lenses out there for mirrorless cameras, so image quality is not an issue.
There are two very practical, reasons why most pros are still using DSLR cameras:

  1. They have spent a little fortune on photography equipment. Switching is expensive;
  2. People tend to associate small cameras with amateurs. And big, bulky DSLR with large lenses with professionals. If you are a wedding photographer with a small Olympus PEN-F, you will not attract many customers. And those you will get will give you weird looks.

Conclusion

If you are in the market for a new camera and you are interested to go mirrorless, here is what you should know:

  1. Mirrorless are not always the small and light package people say. The most compact ones are MFT mirrorless cameras. Their smaller sensor can be illuminated with small, compact, lenses;
  2. A mirrorless camera can make you become a better photographer. You will be able to see the effect of your settings in real time;
  3. Yes, mirrorless has shorter battery life than DSLR. But do you really need continuous shooting of more than 300 photos without changing the battery?
  4. There is a larger number of camera accessories and third party camera lenses for DSLR than for mirrorless. But the situation is changing as the mirrorless camera gains more and more market share;
  5. Image quality is on par with that of DSLR cameras. Many pro photographers (particularly travel and landscape photographers) have completely switched to mirrorless camera systems.

For more great information, check out our great guide to the different types of digital cameras.

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6 comments
  1. Great points you have here, i already have a d850 and checking it out the new xt30. I find my d850 a bit big and heady for daily use. Though i am having second thought if that reason can justify getting a new camera, since i am not earning anything from this and only do it as a hobby.

  2. Just as I thought, the only benefit is for camera companies, who can build a simpler camera (not that they have got any cheaper). Live view we already have, only with a much bigger panel on the back of the camera. Actually I am not sure why they even have a digital viewfinder, they should do a rangefinder style optical viewfinder. I think they have just run out of ideas and are now worried that they will miss whatever the new trend is.

  3. MFT is 1/4 of full frame (24×36) and not the 1/2 of full frame, APS-C is nearly the 1/2 off full frame.
    In analog format: MFT = 110 format, APS-C = half fram 135 format and full frame = 135 standard format.
    Further we have now 44×33 small medium format and 54×41 nearly full frame 645 in analog format: 120, 220 and 70mm.

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