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).


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 eBooks and Lightroom presets!.

  • Thanks for sharing useful information with us that is very helpful for me as a photographer.

  • IRG – Ricardo Galvão

    I have a hate about mirrorles from Nikon and Canon…even the newst one…the others, even olympus, I love them……

  • fotensity

    Unfortunately one serious drawback for me (recently bought sony a6300) is the way the shot frame is being displayed hence preventing me to view the scene immediately after the shot and prepare for the next one. In the 1-2 seconds while the frame is being displayed i am unable to see the ‘real time’ action. this leads to a lot of blind shooting and it is infuriating when the scene is changing and some moments are lost because i am prevented from following the scene mood. It enforces a ‘chimping’ process, unless there is a camera setting that turns off the shot image display.
    I don’t need to see the shot image as i am 95% sure that i got the moment I wanted and need to move on to anticipating and capturing the next one coming.

  • Caroline O. Norman

    I am getting $37000 every month by freelancing from comfort of my home and you can also do the same. In office workplace job you dont get that freedom that you really want, so office job really sucks. On the other hand in Internet earning, you have the freedom to enjoy your time with your family any time you want and also go on holiday break together with them any month you would like. This is what I do> https://fraymate.tumblr.com

  • Tom Cooper

    The display of the just-shot image can be turned off. RTFM.

  • KC

    Actually, I prefer mirrorless cameras. I won’t buy another SLR. I wasn’t crazy about SLR’s in film days either. The dark tunnel-like viewfinders, dust on viewing screens, the “flappy” mirror, along with its vibration and noise, etc. When I shifted to digital I wanted all new technology, not “just like a 35mm SLR, but not quite”.

  • Simon Pole

    I still consider them to be different tools and each has its strength and weakness, right now mirrorless and SLR complement one another, forget the compactness if you want good fast glass, although a walk around street lens may maintain the size advantage, I also think in the end, too small is too fiddly, ergonomics are also important.
    I think one of the biggest advantages of mirrorless is that on sensor AF is often more precise as is live view but that is not always practical, but can be with an EVF, I think that maybe (super)telephoto is still a problem for on sensor AF at present, pick the right tool (camera) for the job.

  • john t

    I don’t get the battery life thing, I mean would I like my battery to last for days… sure, does it worry me to carry an extra battery in my pocket… not in the slightest. To use battery life as an argument against mirrorless is to expose your insecurities about the future.

  • john t

    the Olympus E-M1 ll is a cracker of a camera and I’d defy anyone to pick the difference between shots taken with it compared to a full frame camera by the same photographer. People who say the can are kidding themselves (with very low light levels perhaps being the only exception).

  • BlackEternity

    Exactly this.
    Bought an A6000 as my first real camera and I turned it off because it’s stopping fast pictures to being taken.
    What “irks” me a tad more is that the EVF can be pretty messy in low light and you really need to focus on a tiny pixel if it’s sharp or not. And my friend with his DSLR can properly view it through the viewfinder without pixelated mud on high ISO.

    This is the only real drawback that I encountered so far but it won’t change my mind about a mirrorless camera as a daily driver to have around me when I see something nice – Again just hobby photography.

  • BlackEternity

    Nice to have an article about mirrorless cameras but sorry – it feels like the article is incomplete.
    There doesn’t seem to be a conclusion on why to have a “love hate” relationship with the Mirrorless cameras.

    You mention battery life. That’s it. I have an A6000 and 5 batteries. Carry 3 in my big pouch for complete “adventures” when I need everything.
    And a single one in my daily bag that is always with me plus the current one in my A6000. No issues here. They are tiny, weigh next to nothing. Due to multiple batteries there has never been an issue with charhing.

    What irks me more is the EVF – if you want to take pictures of stars or night-pictures, you need to make your picture out of the mud that the high ISO produces to pixel-peep if your subject is in focus.
    Classic DSLRs are better on that one – no questions asked.
    But I chose an A6000 over a Canon DSLR that my friend offered me real cheap because I wanted to carry that sucker around on a daily base without the “hassle” to carry it. And it delivers fine.
    I just upgraded my telezoom to an 70-300G and it’s awesome. It’s tiny compared to the 300mm of the Canon on DSLR.

    I would love to see a follow up on this article – it seems incomplete. Where is the love-relationship? The advantages that you gained when you have your mirrorless with you? And where are your thoughts that you miss X on your DSLR and are frustated with it?

  • Steve McKenzie

    I don’t hate my Sony A7R or my A7RIII …

  • @disqus_KsZkitjNZT:disqus He didn’t say anything about it as an argument against mirrorless, it’s just a fact. I shoot Fuji mirrorless and just one extra battery won’t do it. If I’m traveling and am out shooting all day I will run through up to FOUR batteries in a day. With my Canon 5D3 I could do an entire wedding on one. It’s neither here nor there, it is just a fact.

  • Charles G. Haacker

    Great piece, Adam! Thanks! For me there was never the slightest question: *mirrorless!* Totally. I am a retired commercial studio pro with a degree and everything. I worked only in film. When I came to digital in 2007 with a tiny Nikon L12 I recognized instantly that it was a mirrorless. So is your phone camera. What I saw was what I got. Live view all the time. Wow! Gobsmacked! Over the moon! Never looked back. I staged up for years through various compacts until finally getting a Big Boy camera.

    There is no camera I cannot use, film or otherwise. I loved my film SLRs. I understand perfectly folks who despise EVFs (or at least get grumpy over them). I see several folks with Sony A6000s (I have one) because its EVF is indeed mushy which was why I bought an A6300 that is now my primary. The A6000 serves as a fine and crucial backup but I am madly in love with the A6300’s brilliant, sharp, no-lag-at-all EVF. I did not get an A6500 becasue I am a left eye shooter and my schnozz would be in constant contact with the touch screen, and near as I can tell the 6300 and 6500 are otherwise identical only the A6300 is cheaper and cheap sometimes is good.

    I shoot a lot of charity stuff and frequently need to be stealthy. The A6300 has a cool nifty silent torpedo mode. The focal plane shutters are very quiet but sometimes silent is better. SLRs and DSLRs just can’t totally silence that mirror slap (just listen to the press gaggle firing away).

    EVFs and continuous live view are definitely energy hogs and I run both all the time. When I’m out with two bodies I carry six charged batteries plus a charger at all times. I think they weigh about an ounce each. I shoot 100% raw. I shot an event not long ago, a charity walk. Came back with some 2,000 raw captures. Went through one battery and part of another. ¯_(?)_/¯

    Live view to me is one of the massive, overwhelming advantages I think modern, fast, no-lag-at-all mirrorless have over DSLRs. I practically never miss a shot, especially due to gross exposure error because I see in the finder exactly what the exposure really is. I can adjust instantly. I also like being able to see the DOF right in the finder at all times without having to stop down to working aperture. I never liked that in SLRs. It mostlys just gets dark and tough to see.

    I don’t have a love-hate thing with any camera. They’re just tools in the bag. But I confess to being a little giddy about mirrorless and have no desire ever to own a DSLR.

  • Rhonald Moses

    Except for size, there is nothing else elaborated here as advantages of mirrorless camera. Could have gone a bit deeper

  • Ralph the Bus Driver

    It is similar to back in the old days when you had to stop and change the roll of film. The world kept on going while you were stopped. Changing a battery is quicker than changing film, but there is still the pause. Then, you need to ensure that your battery is charged before changing it. You never get a second chance to catch that shot.

    Is it the end of the world? Of course not. But it is a point, regardless of how small it may be to you. If you only take landscapes then you won’t have a problem. Weddings won’t mind a few seconds wait. Small children will.

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