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Recently there has been a great deal of buzz in the photographic community regarding a few terms that might sound a little odd or strange, like “mirrorless” or “micro four thirds.” These refer to different types of cameras that might not be as popular as standard DSLR models right now, but many think are the future of photography. However, just understanding what everything means can be an exercise in frustration, especially when all you likely want to do is buy a camera you can enjoy using.
To that end, I’m going to try and dispel a bit of the confusion regarding mirrorless cameras and hopefully give you some information so as to make an informed choice the next time you are in the market for a new piece of photography gear. We’ll explore some of the history of how cameras are constructed, as well as discuss some of the benefits and drawbacks to this new technology, but I’m going to stop short of making the subjective judgement call about whether mirrorless cameras are better than DSLRs and hopefully help some readers answer the age old DSLR vs Mirrorless debate.
For me it’s not about which camera is better than the other, it’s about finding one that works with your style and lets you shoot the photographs you want. You can debate all this in the comment section if you like, but what I’m here to do is simply present information and try to be as unbiased as possible.
To understand the word mirrorless it helps to know a bit about the way most DSLR cameras are built. Almost all Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Pentax interchangeable-lens cameras share a similar industrial design: light enters through the lens and gets bounced off a mirror, through a special prism, to end up at the viewfinder. When you click the shutter button, the mirror flips up, which allows light to hit the actual image sensor on the camera, and voila your photograph is taken. This process might seem like a high-tech solution, but it’s actually a bit of an anachronism. Long before digital cameras existed, most of their film-based counterparts employed this same method to get light to the viewfinder, because it was a useful way to compose your photo before clicking the shutter. But thanks to advances in modern technology, this flip-up mirror method is no longer necessary, and a whole new breed of cameras is beginning to make inroads into modern digital photography. These new models have no flip-up mirror, and thus the term “mirrorless” was born.
There are many different types of mirrorless cameras on the market: some have interchangeable lenses, others offer a single built-in lens, and some with their own types of image sensors and other characteristics that are suited to more niche markets. But the one thing they all have in common is the absence of a flip-up mirror.
Believe it or not, you probably already own a mirrorless camera. All smartphone cameras are mirrorless, as are most point-and-shoot models. Instead of a tiny little viewfinder that you hold up to your eye, you can see a preview of your image right on the phone or on the back of the camera itself. And if you like shooting your DSLR in “Live View” mode, where you look at the rear LCD screen to compose your shots instead of the viewfinder, you are essentially using it as a mirrorless camera already. (The click you hear when you enter Live View is the mirror flipping up. It stays like that until you exit Live View.) In fact, many of the higher-end mirrorless cameras have even gone so far as to replicate the traditional eyepiece viewfinder, but instead of reflecting incoming light from a mirror, it simply shows a very tiny version of what would normally be displayed on the back of the camera.
Another component of mirrorless cameras that is a bit more technical in nature, but just as important to understand, is that of sensor size. In digital cameras the image sensor is essentially a piece of digital film that captures light, in much the same way actual film does. Full-frame DSLR cameras have image sensors that are the same size as a piece of 35mm film, but most consumer-grade DSLRs, and virtually all mirrorless models, are crop-sensor cameras. This means that the image sensor is smaller, which has two notable implications:
The most common format of mirrorless cameras are in a category developed by Olympus and Panasonic called Micro Four Thirds, which refers to the size and shape of the image sensor itself as well as the types of lenses that can be used on these models. Other mirrorless cameras use an APS-C sensor, which is the same size sensor used in common DSLRs such as the Canon Rebel T5i and Nikon D3200 (however, even Canon and Nikon use slightly different image sensor sizes), but there are some models such as the Sony A7R that use full-frame sensors as well.
While it’s doubtful we will see crop-sensor cameras (whether micro four thirds or APS-C) reach the same high ISO sensitivities as full-frame models, many of them today are perfectly capable of shooting at values such as 3200 or 6400 without too much degradation in image quality.
As for the lens behavior, shooting on a crop sensor camera means that your focal lengths will not look the same as on a full-frame camera. For example, on a micro four thirds camera a 30mm lens behaves similar to a 60mm full-frame lens. A 100mm lens acts like a 200mm, and so on. For most people this is fine, and they learn to adapt to the differences in lens behaviour over time. For some photographers this a significant detriment that, combined with how depth of field behaves a little different on crop versus full frame cameras, ends up being a deal breaker.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s not about finding out which type of camera is better – that question is unanswerable. Instead, it’s important to simply know the various details of micro four thirds and other mirrorless cameras, in order for you to make an informed decision if you are thinking about purchasing new gear.
However, one benefit of crop sensor cameras that is important to note is their price; they are significantly cheaper than their full-frame counterparts. The cheapest full-frame camera costs around $1500 and they can easily cost many times that amount. On the other hand, some micro four thirds models start at a couple hundred dollars which makes them much more affordable for most people. It’s important to know that mirrorless cameras are not just for beginners, or those who like to shoot in Auto. Many photographers are buying these cameras, and some professionals have even switched entirely from heavy, expensive, DSLR models to their much lighter and more portable mirrorless counterparts.
As you can see, thanks to advances in modern technology the age-old flip-up mirror design in most cameras is not really needed anymore, but we are still a little way off from mirrorless replacing traditional DSLR designs entirely.
These new types of cameras offer some significant benefits over traditional DSLRs, but come with some important limitations as well. Remember, we’re not here to discuss which one is better – that’s something that only you can answer, given your unique needs as a photographer. It is important to know that mirrorless cameras do have some notable selling points, but also some drawbacks as well.
Perhaps the most significant difference between mirrorless and traditional DSLRs is their size: because the flip-up mirror mechanism, combined with the light-reflecting prism, are no longer needed these cameras are typically much smaller in size and weigh less too. This can be important if you are someone who likes to take your camera with you wherever you go, especially if the weight of your DSLR starts to drag you down after a day of shooting. It also means the lenses are smaller too, so you can fit several in your camera bag whereas before you might have only had room for one or two.
Another benefit that mirrorless cameras enjoy over DSLRs, is a viewfinder that displays a more accurate representation of what your final photograph will look like. If you look through the viewfinder of your DSLR and adjust settings like ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, you might notice that the image in the viewfinder doesn’t change. It’s not until you actually take a photograph that you see what effect your alterations had on the photograph. At that point you can look at the picture on the rear screen and judge whether you need to change things for subsequent pictures. Because mirrorless cameras use electronic viewfinders, you can see in realtime the effect that things like aperture and ISO adjustments will have on your pictures before you press the shutter. This can have a dramatic effect on how you shoot, as it removes some of the guesswork with your camera settings.
There are other benefits to mirrorless cameras as well such as focus peaking (the ability to see, when focusing manually, the exact pixels on your image that are in focus), quieter operation due to the lack of a flip-up mirror, and fewer overall moving parts which means a longer theoretical lifespan. But in order to get an accurate view of the situation, let’s take a look at some of the disadvantages as well.
Things are looking quite promising over in Mirrorless Land, but it’s not all sunshine and roses just yet. There are some notable drawbacks to this technology, and if you don’t look at all the details you might end up with a camera that is ill-suited to your needs as a photographer.
Currently one of the most significant limitations is that of battery life: they just don’t last as long. The only time a traditional DSLR draws power, when not in Live View mode, is when it is actively metering the scene or writing picture data to the memory card. No power is used at all if you hold the camera up and look through the viewfinder, and because of this it is fairly common to get up to a thousand pictures or more on a single battery charge. Power usage is a bit different on mirrorless cameras for two reasons. First, batteries are smaller because the cameras themselves are smaller, and second they essentially operate in live view mode 100% of the time. Mirrorless cameras generally get a couple hundred shots on a single battery charge, which is nothing to sneeze at, but nonetheless a significant difference between them and their old-school brethren.
Another limitation that is worth mentioning is the focusing system. Most mirrorless cameras use a technology called contrast detection, which is simply not as fast as the traditional phase-detection method used in DSLRs. While the former gives you access to a wider area of the frame in which to focus, it simply cannot match the speed of the latter which limits the appeal of mirrorless camera for things like sports and fast-moving wildlife photography. Some manufacturers are starting to utilize phase detection in their mirrorless models, as well as hybrid systems that offer the best of both worlds, but for now it’s safe to say that standard DSLRs are generally better suited for sports, wildlife, and other types of action photography.
Of course there are other limitations such as fewer lens options, LCD screen refresh rates that can’t always keep up with DSLR viewfinders, and more, but as technology advances much of this is being addressed.
Will mirrorless cameras ever reach full parity with DSLRs? Some think so, but others are not fully convinced. The important thing to remember is it’s not about what other people think; it’s about what matters to you. If you find a camera you like, and it serves your purposes as a photographer, then it really doesn’t matter whether it’s a DSLR, micro four thirds, full frame, medium format, or plain old 35mm film camera. If it can take the pictures you want to take, then it’s probably the right camera for you.
We’d love to hear your opinion on the DSLR vs Mirrorless debate in comments below!
Related Reading: A Guide to Buying Your First DSLR