Since it began taking off in 2011, I have been watching the mirrorless camera evolution from the sidelines. In theory it is a great concept, but in practice it is still lacking a fair bit. However, some of the large manufacturers are really jumping in on this new, and seemingly more popular style of camera now, trying to find their niche in an area of the camera market where they don’t have to fully compete with the likes of Canon and Nikon just yet. So for now, brands like Sony, Fuji, and Olympus are dominating the mirrorless segment.
In fact, Sony’s most recently released top of the line mirrorless model, the Sony A7R, was named camera of the year in 2013. Mainly because of its relatively sturdy build for a mirrorless camera and the fact that it offers a full frame 36MP sensor in a body that is much smaller than your typical full frame DSLR. The body itself is also very versatile in that there are adapters available to utilize various other brands of lenses with the A7R, including also Leica lenses. But often when using other brands of lenses with adapters one can expect increased autofocus problems.
So in this post, I am going to review some of the pros and cons of this new type of camera design and bring you a bit more up to date on how far the technology has developed.
Let’s start with the most positive aspects of mirrorless cameras. The biggest attraction is that they are smaller, lighter weight, and quieter (because they don’t have a mirror that moves up and down) than their 35mm DSLR counterparts. This makes them more attractive to people who want to lighten their equipment load and/or shoot on the street with a smaller, more stealth, and less obtrusive looking camera. Plus the bodies and the lenses generally cost less than full frame DSLR cameras thus, making them more attractive to photographers on a tighter budget. Mirorrless lenses are often physically smaller too than an equivalent focal length DSLR lens, giving mirrorless cameras a greater weight advantage both in terms of body and lens.
But the biggest problem with the whole mirrorless concept I see is that, in the absence of having a mirror, there is no way to look directly into the viewfinder and out through your lens to see what is really in front of your camera. This means all mirrorless cameras have to be designed either with a ranger finder type viewfinder that sits on the top or side of the camera or with an electronic viewfinder that uses the camera’s own digital sensor to act as a through-the-lens viewfinder in lieu of having an optical one.
Brands like Fuji, who are strongly forging ahead with mirrorless design improvements, have made good advances in electronic viewfinder technology to eliminate a lot of the problems from earlier mirrorless designs. For example, they have managed to improve upon the electronic viewfinder problems that are common in low light situations where you have viewfinder display lag. They have also addressed the problems of being able to track high speed, moving subjects with mirrorless auto focus.
However, in my opinion, there is still nothing as good as seeing the real subject reflected into your viewfinder by a mirror from inside the camera. Meaning, traditional optical viewfinders will likely remain more reliable than electronic ones. Plus auto focusing of mirrorless cameras is still a problem in low light because of how the mirrorless focusing technology works. The next problem is that, except for the Sony A7R that I mentioned, all other mirrorless camera models (as of today) are not yet full frame. This makes it hard for most mirrorless manufacturers to fully compete yet against DSLR bodies on the 35mm digital camera playing field.
One more big concern worth pointing out is that, so far, Fuji is the only manufacturer with a full line of X mount lenses to support their mirrorless line of bodies. Sony is talking about putting out more E mount lenses in the future for their A7 and A7R and is also having Zeiss make some of their E mount lenses for them now. Sadly though the Zeiss E mount lenses are very pricey. But a number of the mirrorless models don’t even offer the ability to interchange lenses yet and are sold with only one irremovable prime lens. This quite limits the camera’s ability to shoot a variety of different subjects because of having only one, single focal length.
But the big looming question is if mirrorless will turn out to be just a passing fad? And, if it does, then you may not have manufacturers fully supporting their respective mirrorless systems into the future with additional lenses and new technology as hoped for.
I think the jury is still partially out on the mirrorless camera phenomenon. Some of the mirrorless bodies out now can comfortably compete with the technology of some crop sensor DSLR cameras. But mirrorless still has a way to go until they can fully compete with the likes of the top of the range full frame DLSR cameras from Canon and Nikon. So if you haven’t jumped in on a mirrorless camera yet, then I say wait a couple more years to see if they are really here to stay. It will also be interesting to see if more camera manufacturers will eventually start making mirrorless in full frame, whilst also resolving the other issues I mentioned that continue to plague mirrorless camera technology at present.
Great piece. As an owner of both DSLR and a mirrorless camera, I say they are horses for different courses. My main concern with mirrorless cameras is their AF capability, my DSLR will always be faster than my Fuji. So forget about shooting sports with these. It is phase detection vs contrast detection, not even close in my opinion. But hey, they are getting better with technology…
One great thing about them, they are lightweight and handy. My DSLR feels like a bulky computer, esp with telephoto lens.
Pro works? I say use the DSLR. Traveling light on a holiday? I say use the mirrorless.
Thank you Alex and very good points. It will be interesting to see if they are ever able to solve the issues with the auto focusing of mirrorless cameras. Also, bear in mind if you decide to use your Fuji with adapters to shoot with other brands of lenses that the auto focusing issues will become even more of a problem. Let’s see what the future holds though. Nikon just put out a new mirrorless this month called the J4, but it is mainly just a point and shoot type model.
Great post! I often look with great fondness upon the various mirrorless camera systems, mostly because they remind me so much of the jewel-like little 35mm rangefinders one used to pick up so cheap in the 1980s/90s, and which provided such a wonderfully light, balanced tool for capturing images dripping with immediacy. Thanks to their small sizes and lack of unneeded frills, they often provided image quality superior to much heavier and pricier SLRs and TLRs. It didn’t hurt that one could capture great candid shots of people without sticking hulking great cameras with big, off-putting lenses in their faces.
Great feedback Nick. I think one of the situations when mirrorless really shines is for travel photography where one may need to walk long distances with their gear. So then traveling with lighter weight equipment makes a lot better sense. So they would probably be really good for situations like shooting landscapes where perhaps you only need to travel with one wide angle lens. But the fact almost all mirrorless models are not full frame means they can be more limiting too in terms of wide angle capability. For example, Fuji makes a 14mm X mount lens for their mirrorless system which would be about 21mm equivalent because of the 1.5 crop factor. Perhaps not wide enough for certain situations. As I mentioned, mirrorless could also be good for street photography too though where it’s better that people don’t view your camera as being professional. 21mm would probably be wide enough for street photography.