Note: This article was written in 2013 and most of the information here is now out of date.
When mirrorless cameras first hit the market I was skeptical. My conversion from a 35mm film camera to a DSLR was a huge jump; the idea of then making the change from DSLR to mirrorless seemed like an even larger leap. Despite my initial hesitance, I thought it only fair to research mirrorless cameras before passing judgment. The truth is we are all gadget geeks. We love having as many options in our arsenal as possible so that we have the ability to shoot everything and use those gadgets to mold out final photograph. So let's talk about mirrorless cameras. How they differ from DSLR cameras, and the pros and cons to this new technology so that you can decide if you have a place for one in your camera bag and your photography.
The essential difference between a DSLR camera and a mirrorless camera is obviously the lack of an internal mirror. Any SLR camera, film or digital, take photographs by means of a mirror. The mirror sits inside the body directly behind the lens at a 45 degree angle and points the light coming through the lens into a pentagon shaped prism (or mirror, depending on your model). That light is sent from the pentaprism into the viewfinder, allowing you to see what you are taking a picture of. When you press the shutter down, the mirror flips, allowing the light to go through the shutter onto the sensor for the amount of time set by the shutter speed.
A mirrorless camera is designed to work without those internal mechanisms which makes them much smaller and lighter than their bigger DSLR brother. Mirrorless cameras obviously lack that mirror but they also do not have a viewfinder. They do allow interchangeable lenses like a DSLR unlike a point and shoot camera that has a built in lens which makes them the missing link between a point and click and an SLR.
Positive Aspects of a Mirrorless Camera
First, let’s nail down what we really love about the mirrorless camera options currently on the market. They are smaller and lighter than a DSLR which make them easier to pack especially for travel or on days when you just don’t want to carry a heavy bag of equipment around but foresee the desire to take pictures that are of a higher caliber than a point and click. You might also be able to take more lenses with you to shoot a variety of different styles due to compact size of both the camera itself and its compatible lenses.
They are typically cheaper than a DSLR. The least expensive models (with a single lens) start at about $400 which is equivalent to a higher end point and shoot whereas DSLR’s on the lower end of the spectrum usually start at about $600. This price difference may allow you to expand your initial lens collection off the bat or much sooner than if you had invested in a DSLR.
Mirrorless cameras take advantage of a live view system instead of employing a view finder. Not having to hold the camera to your face allows you to interact with your subjects via facial expressions and eye contact. When you are holding a DSLR up to your face, it blocks out your features and makes it nearly impossible to both shoot and interact with your subject, especially kids, who might be frightened of your unfamiliar camera. The mirrorless camera only has the live view option so you’ll never have to cover your face. Additionally, a mirrorless camera looks much more like the ubiquitous point and click cameras that most children are familiar with.
And now onto the attributes we don’t love so much. The autofocus on these systems is typically much slower than a DSLR meaning your ability to catch the moment is lessened. Along these same lines, they struggle to focus on moving objects, especially object moving towards you and away from, such as a child on a swing.
The number of different lenses is limited and often do no work interchangeably even on models of the same brands. Unlike the major DSLR brands which boast the ability to toggle lenses on a majority of their body models, many mirrorless camera manufacturers are still experimenting with size, both for the actual camera bodies and the lens mount where the lens and body meet in a beautiful artistic union. If you decide to upgrade in the future, you might have to start your collection all over again.
Battery life is diminished. The batteries on a smaller camera are obviously going to be scaled to fit inside of it. The smaller the battery, the less charge it can hold which means you are going to have to buy extra batteries to have on hand or run out of battery life in the field.
The lack of features like a view finder and the heavily customizable settings make it hard to really compare to a DSLR, despite the fact that both types of cameras utilize large sensors for beautiful photographs.
Is it for me?
If you are going from a point and shoot camera and looking to upgrade but don’t foresee yourself learning to use a DSLR in manual mode, a mirrorless camera might be a good next step for you, especially if you want to be able to manually adjust things to be suit your artistic style.
IF you are currently shooting with a DSLR and looking for something more portable to add you your camera bag, a mirrorless camera and the available lenses may be a good and fun choice to expand your current gear. Think about what you intend to shoot with it in correlation with the pros and cons above before you jump in.
If you are looking to replace your DSLR, keep an eye on the market, but don’t jump in yet. The mirrorless camera technology just hasn’t caught up with the tried and true DSLR tech. This is especially true for photographers who frequently photograph kids or sports. Unfortunately, the auto-focus just isn’t going to meet your needs.
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