Why We Have Such a Love-Hate Relationship with Mirrorless Cameras

Why We Have Such a Love-Hate Relationship with Mirrorless Cameras

It’s odd how some ideas seem to cascade once our minds start churning.

I recently wrote about the weird fascination we have with constantly chasing the latest cameras and gear, where I investigated the uncanny rise of full-frame mirrorless cameras. And with the newly announced full-frame mirrorless offerings from Nikon’s (the Z6 and Z7) and Canon (the EOS R), the bell has been sounded for an all-out mirrorless war.

Which got me thinking. Why are we so fascinated by mirrorless camera technology?

Our love-hate relationship with mirrorless cameras is of special interest to me. I’m a card-carrying member of the Sony full-frame mirrorless photography club, and I’ve used an A7R MK1 as my main camera body for some years now.

Let’s look at what mirrorless camera technology gives us, and why the winds of mainstream personal and professional photography are gusting towards a predominantly mirrorless future.

Note: I’m not trying to promote one camera system over another. While I do most of my work with a mirrorless camera, I still use SLR (film and digital) bodies and large-format film cameras.

The Allure of Mirrorless Camera Tech

The concept of mirrorless cameras is nothing new. Mirrorless digital cameras with interchangeable lenses have been available commercially since 2004. That was the year Epson released the still cool (yes, really) R-D1, which incorporated a rangefinder design alongside a digital APS-C sensor. This camera was a bridge between the familiar 35mm rangefinder and the digital revolution that was soon to come.

But let’s back up just a second. What makes a mirrorless camera so appealing to the general shooter? For the most part, it’s the lack of a mirrored optical viewfinder (hence the name).

Size

Traditional SLR cameras (both film and digital) use a mirror and pentaprism system to show what’s being seen through the lens. But while this system is ingenious, it does make the camera quite bulky.

Mirrorless digital cameras do away with this system, relying on the digital sensor itself to show what’s going in front of the camera using an electronic viewfinder (EVF), an LCD screen, or a combination of the two. (Think of this as a constant “live view”.) This means mirrorless digital cameras can be inherently smaller than most DSLR camera bodies.

The Sony A7R MK1 (left) and the Canon 7D MK1 (bodies only).

And whenever something becomes smaller, it usually becomes more comfortable and practical.

Resolution for Days

Let’s briefly talk about the game-changing event in 2013, when Sony released the ILCE7 and ILCE7R (commonly known as the Sony A7 and Sony A7R respectively). These two cameras took what most hobby and professional photographers thought was possible from a compact digital camera and threw it out the proverbial window.

The A7 and A7R were the first full-frame mirrorless cameras, each packing pro-grade DSLR performance into a hand little camera body. They could even be mated to whatever lenses the photographer was using at the time (with the appropriate lens adapters). The A7 sported a 24.3 megapixel sensor, while the A7R floored us with a sensor packing 36.4 megapixels.

This meant ultra-high resolution, enhanced low-light performance and full-frame bokeh cream could be achieved with a mirrorless camera while keeping weight and physical size to a minimum. The fact the price was comparable to other full-frame DSLR cameras at the time led to a mass exodus as camera jockeys (including me) handed in their DSLR for these new, more wieldable mirrorless cameras that could match their current setups.

The Good, the Bad, and the Mirrorless

But it’s not all butterflies and rainbows in the mirrorless camera world. Some of the benefits of digital mirrorless cameras are also their Achilles heel.

Battery Life

The ever-present live view tends to drain batteries quicker than their DSLR cousins, and also limits their burst mode rates. While the problem has been somewhat alleviated, the battery life of full-frame mirrorless cameras still hasn’t caught up with most current DSLR models, even though their burst rates have. This leaves some feeling slightly disadvantaged when it comes to battery mileage.

A Diminishing Size Gap

As I said earlier, the ratio of photographic punch to physical size was one thing that drew me to the full-frame mirrorless realm. But it comes with a few caveats.

For example, if you need to use non-native lenses with converters you won’t get much of a size benefit from mirrorless systems compared to their DSLR counterparts.

A Canon 5D MK3 with a Canon 50mm F/1.8 lens (left) and a Sony A7R with an EF 24mm f/1.4 Sigma lens attached via an MC-11 adapter.

While this is becoming less of a problem – more and more third-party lens manufacturers getting on board and producing native-mount lenses for most mirrorless cameras – it’s still worth mentioning.

An Undeniable Shift in Mentality

The “big guys” (i.e. the larger camera manufacturers) have been basking in their exclusivity for years. While they’ve produced  excellent (and sometimes iconic) cameras and lenses, their innovation has been lacking during the past few years.

These long-standing giants in the photographic industry are starting to realize they aren’t the only game in town. And consumers have gotten wise to the fact that mirrorless cameras, particularly full-frame mirrorless cameras, can match (if not outperform) the products that have seen them resting on their laurels for so long. The Nikon Z6 and Z7, the Canon EOS R, and even the Panasonic SR1, all hint that Bob Dylan was right all along.

The times really are a changin’.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Adam Welch is a full-time photomaker, author, adventurer, educator, and self-professed bacon addict. You can usually find him on some distant trail making photographs or at his computer writing about all the elegant madness that is photography. Follow his blog over at aphotographist.com and check out his brand new video eCourse on Adobe Lightroom Classic!