Struggling to decide if you should buy a mirrorless camera? We’ve got you covered.
These days, I regularly shoot with both mirrorless and DSLR cameras. Over time, I’ve come to recognize a handful of clear advantages mirrorless models offer over their DSLR counterparts – and it’s those mirrorless camera benefits that I share in this article.
(I also offer a handful of mirrorless recommendations. That way, if you decide that a mirrorless system is right for you, you know what to buy.)
So if you’re just getting into photography but you’re not sure where to start, or you’re a DSLR owner considering the switch to mirrorless, read on!
Note: Mirrorless cameras are great. But DSLR cameras aren’t objectively inferior to mirrorless models, either. DSLRs still have their uses – as I said, I regularly work with one! A DSLR can be a great buy for photographers with certain needs. So if none of the mirrorless benefits that I share below speak to you, then perhaps a DSLR is the better buy. Make sense?
1. Mirrorless cameras offer a live exposure preview
For me, this is the biggest advantage of mirrorless cameras. In fact, it’s the main reason I bought my first mirrorless body back in 2020.
On a DSLR, when you look through the viewfinder, you see the actual scene before you (through your camera’s lens). That’s how the DSLR optical viewfinder works: Light shines from the scene, bounces around the internal mirrors, and reaches the user’s eye.
But – as the name suggests – mirrorless cameras aren’t designed with this mirrored system. Instead, they use an electronic viewfinder (EVF), which doesn’t show scenes directly, but instead displays a feed from the camera’s sensor. This EVF feed incorporates exposure information, so the image you see generally corresponds to the image that you ultimately get.
Now, the feed isn’t perfect. It won’t always show you an accurate representation of the final image, especially if you’re shooting long exposures with changing light. And on many mirrorless cameras, the preview image’s depth of field doesn’t reflect the final image’s depth of field (unless you hit the “depth of field preview” button).
But it’s really, really good. And it’s extremely useful for those situations where you need to capture shots on the fly. It gives you an immediate understanding of where your camera’s exposure is and where it needs to be. If your image looks too dark or too light, you can just do a few twists of your camera’s dial, and – voila! – you’ll have a detailed image.
There are downsides to using electronic viewfinders. They vary a lot in terms of quality, some of the cheaper EVFs can lag, and they certainly can’t match DSLR viewfinders in terms of clarity. Plus, there are some situations where you’ll want to work without exposure simulation – when you’re using flash indoors, for instance – and this often means diving into your camera’s menu in order to figure out how to turn the feature off.
But if you’re the type of person who wants to know the resulting exposure before you hit the shutter button, then mirrorless is a great choice.
(One more thing: While most mirrorless cameras offer electronic viewfinders, some entry-level models eschew the viewfinder entirely. If you’re excited about the live preview advantage, make sure your mirrorless model has an EVF before you hit that “buy” button!)
2. Mirrorless cameras are small and lightweight
The specifics of this mirrorless advantage really depend on the camera you buy. The larger mirrorless bodies are on par with mid-sized DSLRs, but small mirrorless bodies (such as the Sony a6600) are literally pocket-sized, and you can generally carry one around for days without ever realizing it’s in your bag.
This is ideal if you always want to have your camera on hand to capture shots of your kids, interesting scenes while out walking, etc. It’s also perfect for the travel photographer (you won’t have to worry about checked baggage weight limits or carry-on allowances).
Plus, smaller mirrorless bodies are great for street photographers trying to remain inconspicuous. While passersby are bound to notice you lugging around a huge DSLR when shooting in, say, New York City, a diminutive mirrorless camera will often fly under the radar, and you’ll have a much easier time capturing candid photos.
If you really want to take the small form factor to the next level, make sure you check out Micro Four Thirds cameras like the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IV. MFT cameras are particularly handy thanks to their small lenses, so if you’re serious about limiting your camera’s size and weight, they’re a great pick.
Here’s an example of the size variation you can find with mirrorless bodies, from the large Olympus OM-D E-M1X, all the way down to the compact E-M10 Mark III:
3. You can see in black and white as you shoot
Black and white photography is beautiful. It’s also very difficult to get right, mostly because we humans aren’t capable of seeing in monochrome. The best black and white photographers learn how to imagine a monochromatic world, but that can take years of practice.
Fortunately, mirrorless cameras have a nifty solution:
A live monochrome preview.
If your mirrorless camera includes an electronic viewfinder, then you can program it to display in black and white. When you put the EVF to your eye, you’ll see a perfect reproduction of the world – but in monochrome. Amazing, right?
(How do you program your camera to display in black and white? You’ll need to change the picture style to monochrome; the specifics vary from camera to camera, but it’s generally just a very simple adjustment in the camera menu. If you can’t figure it out, check your manual.)
This mirrorless trick means that you can immediately boost your black and white potential. Instead of struggling to see in black and white (which is half the battle of the B&W genre!), you can understand the medium straight out of the gate. You’ll see how different colors are rendered in black and white. You’ll see how black and white tones change as the light changes.
And you’ll become a much better black and white photographer along the way.
Now, it’s true: You can see a monochromatic preview by using your DSLR’s Live View option. But the preview will only appear on your LCD, not in the viewfinder, so its application is far more limited. That’s why I encourage all black and white beginners to consider a mirrorless system.
4. Mirrorless cameras offer silent shooting modes
Like the idea of photographing without a sound? Then you’re going to love mirrorless cameras.
You see, most mirrorless cameras offer true silent shooting, where you can fire off a photo and nobody – not even a person standing right next to you – will hear the shutter.
This is a huge deal, especially for those street and event shooters who need to stay totally unnoticeable. Imagine: You could photograph an entire wedding and would never need to worry about breaking the silence. You could shoot a classical music concert and nobody would ever turn to look. You could capture candid street shots and your subjects would never even glance in your direction.
Some DSLRs do offer silent shooting modes, but these vary in terms of their effectiveness. And the quietest modes rely on the electronic shutter and only work in Live View, whereas mirrorless silent shooting modes work while using either the LCD or the viewfinder.
Do be aware, however, that silent shooting modes have drawbacks. On some mirrorless cameras, these “silent” files contain less color information, which can slightly limit your ability to adjust colors in post-processing. And silent shooting modes can distort fast-moving objects (such as cars and plane propellers), so if you plan to photograph sports or birds in flight, make sure your chosen camera offers a fast shutter readout speed.
5. Mirrorless cameras come with all sorts of cool bonus features
When I got my first mirrorless camera, I was happy with the smaller size and the live preview, and those were the main reasons that I bought it in the first place.
But the extra features…
…well, I couldn’t wait to try them out.
I’m talking about things like focus peaking, which indicates, in advance, which areas of your shot are going to be in focus. It’s not perfect, but it helps you understand whether your focusing is accurate, plus it’s just very cool.
I’m also a fan of manual focusing guides, which let you select autofocus points and tell you when you’ve nailed them with manual focus. This last feature has been invaluable in ensuring I get my point of focus exactly right; it acts as a check when manual focusing for landscape, architectural, and macro photography.
Now, not all mirrorless cameras offer these features. And there are some bonuses, such as Olympus’s Pro Capture option, that you’ll only find in a select few mirrorless bodies.
So when you’re looking at cameras, check out the features hidden in the menus. Who knows? You might find something really special!
The best mirrorless cameras in 2022
If you’re set on mirrorless but you’re not sure which model to buy, then here are a few recommendations:
Beginners looking to dive head first into photography should consider the Canon EOS R10, the Nikon Z50, or the Sony a6400, all of which offer excellent shooting capabilities for reasonable prices. Note that the EOS R10 can use lenses from Canon’s older EF lineup (via an adapter), while the Z50 can use lenses from Nikon’s F-mount series (also via an adapter); this is a great way to grab high-quality lenses at fantastic prices.
Intermediate and serious shooters coming over from the world of DSLRs should check out a mid-level full-frame model such as the Canon EOS RP or EOS R6, the Sony a7 III or a7 IV, and the Nikon Z5 or Z6 II.
And professionals who require the best of the best should look into models like the Sony a7R IV, the Nikon Z7 II, and the Canon EOS R5 – or even the Canon EOS R3, the Sony a1, and the Nikon Z9. These models offer pro-level resolution, lightning-fast speeds, or a combination of both, but they don’t come cheap.
5 essential mirrorless camera advantages: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know all about the advantages of mirrorless cameras, and whether a mirrorless model is right for you.
I love mirrorless technology, but these systems certainly aren’t for everyone. There are good reasons to shoot mirrorless, sure, but there are also good reasons to use a DSLR (and there are even reasons to shoot film!).
Now I’d like to know your opinion:
Which do you prefer, mirrorless cameras or DSLRs? Are there any reasons for shooting mirrorless that I missed? And if you shoot with a DSLR, why? Let us know in the comments below!