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Mirrorless Cameras – Everything You Wanted to Know

everything you ever wanted to know about mirrorless cameras

Last fall I finally took the plunge and invested in a Fuji X-T1 mirrorless camera system. I did a lot of research online, asked anyone I knew that had one already, and I was still on the fence for over a year. A while back in the July Digital Photo Mentor newsletter I asked a few questions to see where you are on this matter:

  • What is holding you back from buying a mirrorless camera?
  • Are you 100% clear on the difference between them and SLR cameras?
  • Is the huge variety of options available from all the manufacturers confusing?
  • Do you have a mirrorless system already? If so, which one, and why did you choose it? Do you love it?

I got an enormous response and over 80 email replies. In this article I'm going to summarize some of the stats that I pulled from the your emails, and answer some of the questions you may have if you're still unsure about mirrorless camera systems.

What are mirrorless cameras and why should you care?

Before we do that I want to explain what mirrorless cameras are, how they're different from an SLR and some of the advantages of each.

SLR camera cross section
Image credit: Wikimedia

The above diagram shows the inner workings of an SLR or Single Lens Reflex camera. The important parts being:

  • #1 Lens
  • #2 Mirror – which reflects the image coming through the lens up into the prism
  • #3 The Shutter – which opens and closes allowing light to hit the sensor
  • #4 The camera sensor – that captures the image (if this were a film camera the film would be here)
  • #7 The prism – which flips the image around so that you see it right side up in the viewfinder
  • #8 The eye piece or viewfinder where you see the image

When you press the shutter a whole bunch of stuff happens in an instant:

  • The mirror flips up out of the way (that's the la-chunk sound you hear)
  • the shutter opens
  • and the aperture closes down to the setting you chose.

All of this allows light to pass through directly to the sensor – making your photo.

Now compare to the diagram below showing both an SLR and mirrorless system. The top shows an SLR and the distance from the front of the camera to the sensor.

Notice in the bottom one the distance is significantly reduced due to the lack of the mirror in between the lens and the shutter.

DSLR vs Mirrorless Cameras

.

Because of the absence of a mirror the camera body can be made slimmer and smaller, and also much quieter (some can even be completely silent) due to the mirror not slapping up and down with each exposure.

Diagram of DSLR vs mirrorless cameras inner workings
DSLR vs Mirrorless Cameras – Image credit: Wikimedia
Sony Alpha ILCE-6000 APS-C frame camera no body cap-Crop
This is what it looks like when you take the lens off a mirrorless camera – you can see right through to the back, directly to the sensor. Notice the compact size, but also note that you must take great care not to damage the sensor, or get dirt inside, when changing lenses. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Benefits of mirrorless cameras

I'll cover this in more detail below but the short answer here is the biggest reason to go mirrorless is because the cameras are smaller and lighter, with little or no loss of image quality.

They're also less conspicuous, quieter so you can be anonymous, and depending on the model and brand can be lower in price (although that doesn't hold true for all models as some are even more than SLR – it costs more to make things smaller, think smartphone technology).

There are other reasons and neat features mirrorless cameras have – keep reading to learn more.

benefits of mirrorless cameras lighter than dslr
Fuji X-T1 I was able to both hold the baby sea turtle in one hand and take the shot with the other. Try that with a big SLR and big lens.

Reader stats regarding mirrorless cameras

Here are a few interesting statistics that I pulled from your emails. Overall I got 61 responses with either comments or questions. You guys had a LOT to say about this topic and it took me quite a while to read and sort through it all. This is what I came up with.

Of those 61 people:

  • 26 of you do NOT have a mirrorless camera
  • 34 DO already own a mirrorless system (35 if you count me also)
  • One was unknown (waiting for clarification)

photographers who own mirrorless

Of the 34 people that do own mirrorless:

  • 22 downsized from a larger DSLR (23 if you count me also)
  • 4 upsized from either having no camera or using a point and shoot
  • 8 did not mention what they used prior to getting mirrorless

photographers who upsized or downsized their camera

One interesting anecdote. I am currently taking an intermediate level photography class. Of eight people enrolled, two of us have mirrorless cameras. Of the six who have DSLRs, I have heard at least three or four of them complain about how heavy their cameras get after spending a day out shooting. – Larry (Digital Photo Mentor reader)

The best rated mirrorless cameras include these brands/models

  1. Sony mirrorless cameras – two A7R, nine A6000, one A7Rii, one A5000 – for a total of 13 Sonys
  2. Olympus mirrorless cameras – three OM-D E-M10s, one OM-D EM-1, one Pen E-P5, three OM-D E-M5 (Markii and Original), one Pen E-PL1 – total of 9 Olympus (Olympusses? Olympi?)
  3. Fuji mirrorless cameras – one X-M1, five X-T1s, one X-E2 – total of 6 Fujis (7 if you count me as well)
  4. Panasonic – one GH1, one GH2, one GH4 – total of 3 Pansonics
  5. Nikon – one J5
  6. Leica – one M9
  7. Samsung – one NX mini

popular mirrorless brands

The clear winner, by a lot, was Sony mirrorless – second goes to Olympus, third to Fuji.

What can we learn from those numbers?

Well the first thing I noticed was the high number of you already have a mirrorless camera – over 55%! That was a bit surprising to me and I do feel a shift has happened over the last 12 months or so. I've also noticed the trend occurring in my classroom as well with more and more students showing up with them all the time. Just recently in my street photography class two of nine students had mirrorless cameras, plus myself.

Second thing I noticed is that the overwhelming reason for the switch for most people – again including myself – is to downsize and carry something that isn't so big and heavy. Almost 65% of responders chose to go from using a DSLR to a mirrorless camera, some opting to use both.

I still have my full frame Canon 5D Mark III, which I'll still keep, but I honestly haven't picked it up since I got the Fuji 10 months ago. Some people have even sold all of their SLR gear after it sat unused and the decision was obvious.

mirrorless cameras make travelling easier
Fuji X-T1: one of our Nicaragua tour participants Jana here using her Olympus OM-D E-M5 mirrorless camera.
My dad shoots on a Nikon full frame and we bagged up all our kit for comparison a few months ago. My entire camera kit – body, 4 lenses, filters, remote trigger, charger and cables was the same size as his body with a big zoom (75-200 2.8?) attached. When I travel on long trips I have all my kit, 13″ MacBook, over ear headphones and a change of clothes in a bag half the size of my dad's camera bag alone. – Owen F. (Digital Photo Mentor reader)

It's pretty clear that mirrorless cameras are here to stay and they're making an impact in the photography industry in a big way.

Taking a look at the last chart and stats you'll notice that the BIG TWO – Canon and Nikon – are curiously missing from the list of popular brands.

That's a big deal!

They have owned the market for years as the top ranked manufacturers, especially among professional photographers. Are they on the verge of being ousted? Hard to say – but clearly the innovators are Sony mirrorless cameras, Fuji, Olympus and Panasonic, the new BIG FOUR.

What do the pros say about Mirrorless Digital Cameras?

Beyond this list a quick google or YouTube search, or look at some recent articles on dPS (below), will show you that even many pros are jumping ship and ditching their Canons and Nikons for Sony mirrorless cameras, and Fuji in particular.

kitchen staff hotel Con Corazon shot with Olympus OM-D E-M5
Olympus OM-D E-M5: shot done for Hotel Con Corazon, they used it in their annual report.

While some pros still hang on their SLR gear, others have ditched it 100% for mirrorless:

While I do have a bias in that I am sponsored by Sony, the truth of the matter is that they, unlike the rest of the mirrorless market, are starting to offer “no compromise” cameras in the sense that they can do everything a DSLR can and in many cases, much better. For example the new a7R II has great AF, top of the industry DR and shoots 4k internal video. Essentially most of the new Sony mirrorless cameras don't require photographers to hold onto their older DSLRs because of a missing “feature” or presumed functionality. Professional photographer Colby Brown on his Canon 5D Mark III DSLR vs Mirrorless Sony A7Rii and A7s.
Fuji captivated me. I did not expect to have such an outstanding experience with the product. I was literally blown away when I first got the camera by the performance and image quality. It took me some time to adapt but in the end I don’t regret the decision to keep investing into my mirrorless camera system. I am not looking back – mirrorless, and especially for me the Fuji X system, is here to stay. – Professional photographer Daniel Korzeniewski,

Best Rated Mirrorless Cameras

I was part of a survey of photography experts who were asked the following: If you had to recommend three mirrorless cameras, which would they be? And why?

Results of that survey:

The Best Mirrorless Cameras

Most Selected Mirrorless Camera Brands

  • Sony mirrorless cameras (33%)
  • Fuji mirrorless cameras (30%)
  • Olympus (20%)
  • Panasonic (10%)
  • Samsung (3%)
  • Other 3%

Read the whole list and comments here.

Look at the best rated mirrorless camera brands chosen by the experts and compare to the list above. Same four: Sony, Olympus, Fuji and Panasonic. Hmmm, starting to see the trend now? I am!

Olympus OM-D E-M5: shot done for Hotel Con Corazon.
Olympus OM-D E-M5: shot done for Hotel Con Corazon.

Reasons for buying mirrorless and what is most liked about them:

Okay that's all interesting but let's dig into the meat a little and talk about why you might want to make the switch and what the benefits are of a mirrorless system. Here is a list of things people liked about their mirrorless cameras, in descending order of most popular first (the number in brackets represents the number of people who listed that benefit):

  • Lighter weight, smaller size, portability (26)
  • Image quality (13)
  • Like and even prefer the EVF to the optical one in an SLR (5)
  • Durability/weather resistant (5)
  • Low noise at high ISO, shooting in low-light (4)
  • Less conspicuous, can be anonymous in a crowd (4)
  • Lens choice and availability (4)
  • Price (3)
  • Can use old lenses with an adapter (2)
  • Brought fun back to photography, creative juices, joy (2)
  • Ease of use (2)
  • Extra features most DSLRs don’t have (film simulation, panoramic mode, wifi) – (2)
  • Manufactures more innovative than SLR ones (2)
mirrorless camera are great for street photography
Olympus OM-D E-M5: also works great as a street photography camera as you're much more inconspicuous and anonymous than with an SLR.

Key Takeaway: Portability and Image Quality

One thing I take from that is clearly the smaller, lighter, more portable quality of mirrorless cameras is a key factor in deciding to switch. But look at the second point listed – image quality. If that is one of your concerns, notice how many people said they chose mirrorless cameras because of quality and some even felt it is equal or better than their SLR in some cases (based on what they said in their email).

Puts the Fun Back in Photography

Another thing that struck me was that for a few people, using a mirrorless camera made photography fun again. If it's become a chore to drag out your DSLR kit to shoot, so that you don't bother – this could be a huge one for you too. Photography should be fun, and if the gear is the focus then it becomes less so.

Perhaps worth looking into, maybe borrow or rent a mirrorless system for a day or weekend and give it a go to judge for yourself.

Olympus OM-D E-M5: Bright colors and action shots no problem.
Olympus OM-D E-M5: Bright colors and action shots no problem.

Is it all rainbows and unicorns though? What are the drawbacks?

One of the questions I got in the email replies was about telling it like it is, no sugar coating, what they don't tell you in the glossy camera brochures. So here are some things that were mentioned as being common issues or complains with mirrorless (listed in no particular order and the number in brackets is how many times I saw that same answer):

  • Nothing (17)
  • Focusing issues (7)
  • Learning curve to a new system (6)
  • Battery drain issue (4)
  • Lack of lens selection (3)
  • Doesn’t like EVF as much (3)
  • Image quality not as good (2)
  • More digital noise in images
  • Bigger lenses still weigh as much as SLR ones
  • Dislike the menu
  • Too small for big hands

Takeaways from that – notice by far the biggest comment was that they found nothing wrong or a problem with their mirrorless camera.

That's half of the people who own one, based on these stats.

I'd have to say that's pretty good, considering there are even things about my Canon 5D Mark3 that I wish were different, or that bug me – and many of the issue are small and easily handled.

raw data range of mirrorless camera example
Olympus OM-D E-M5: straight out of camera not touched at all just to show the range it holds in its native raw files

Common issues with mirrorless cameras

The biggest complaints are focusing issues, the learning curve and battery drain. I can't answer for everyone that replied, but I can tell you my thoughts about using the Fuji X-T1.

BATTERIES

I do certainly find that the camera is a battery hog for sure. But that is to be expected as it's using an electronic viewfinder that has to be on all the time while you're shooting.

To combat that issue I carry four fully charged batteries with me at all times – bit of a pain, but manageable.

FOCUS

I have noticed that I've missed a few shots with moving targets but I'm going to chalk that up to my inexperience with the camera and choosing the wrong settings.

For sure it doesn't focus as fast, or track as well as my Canon, but I don't expect it to – if you shoot sports, birds or something really fast moving then perhaps mirrorless isn't right for you.

I've also since learned more about the camera and am pretty confident it was me screwing it up, not the camera. Which leads to . . .

LEARNING CURVE

Yes there certainly is one when switching camera systems, but that is true of anything new. When I bought a Wacom tablet it gave me fits for about 3 days, now I'm in love with it and won't trade it for anything.

If you're used to one camera system, buying a new one that is completely different is going to take some getting used to.

But if you use it every day, even just to play around, you will get to know it faster.

low light example of mirrorless camera Fuji X-T1
Fuji X-T1 shot in low light at ISO 1250, f/5 at 1/60th with a 32mm lens. B/W conversion in Lightroom CC.

Also select one that is intuitive for you. Go to a camera store and try a few out. See how the camera feels in your hands and if you can locate all the major adjustments quickly without having to ask for help.

I was quickly able to do that with the Fuji, and I loved how it looks like an old-time film camera so I knew it was the right choice for me.

IMAGE QUALITY

This one is really subjective.

Is the image quality from the Fuji up to par with my Canon? No probably not – but it is really close!

I don't expect it to match or exceed my 5D Mark3, that would be unrealistic – to expect an APS-C camera to beat a full frame one. But considering the sensor size difference the quality is lot closer than I actually thought it would be.

Looking at the Olympus OM-D E-M5 I was super impressed with its image quality as well when compared to that of the Fuji, and even to the Canon.

Fuji X-T1 unprocessed right from camera raw file
Fuji X-T1 unprocessed right from camera raw file
Fuji X-T1 processed in Lightroom CC
Fuji X-T1 processed in Lightroom CC

So partly I think settings your expectations to a realistic level is a good starting point. You cannot ever get higher quality, in a smaller sensor, in a smaller package and get it at all a lower price too. It just doesn't work that way. Laws of commerce dictate you can have two of these three things, but never all at the same time:

  • Have it be good (top notch)
  • Have it be fast (or small)
  • Have it be cheap (low priced)

So if you want great quality and small – it will come with a premium price.

If you want small and lower priced – you'll have to sacrifice a bit of quality.

If you want quality and low price – it's not going to be small (if you can even find top quality and low price together).

I hope that makes sense.

example of skin tones using mirrorless camera
Fuji X-T1 Great for people photos, reproduces amazing skin tones.

So if you're waiting for the miracle full frame, mirrorless camera, that fits in your pocket, shoots amazing noiseless photos at 12,800 ISO and is under $1000 – you'll be waiting a while I'm afraid. So you are the one that has to decide if mirrorless is for you or not. I think this quote from one email replies sums it up best:

While mirrorless cameras may fall marginally short of full frame DSLR cameras, I have to believe that the skill of the photographer can overcome some of those differences. Being an amateur photographer, using photography to tell stories of my family and produce artwork of places I have been and love, and now hang on my walls, this camera works for me. – Deborah L.

Read more about getting the best quality images from whatever camera you use here: Six Tips for Getting the Best Quality Images Every Time

You may want to consider mirrorless cameras if:

  • You're tired of hauling heavy gear around, and/or it's affecting your health.
  • You're in the market for an upgrade anyway and don't have a bunch of money tied up in lenses already.
  • You have an unlimited budget – in which case go for it.
  • You're looking to upgrade from using a point and shoot or your smartphone to something with more control and image quality.
  • You like to do the following kinds of photography: landscape, street photograph, portraits, macro, travel or still life.
  • You do a lot of traveling and want a smaller setup for that.
Fuji X-T1 great handheld in low light
Fuji X-T1 great handheld in low light. Exposure: ISO 3200, f/4, 1/40th, 18mm lens

A Mirrorless camera system may not be for you if:

  • You're totally happy with the gear you have in all respects.
  • You recently upgraded to SLR and haven't learned everything about it yet.
  • You have a lot of SLR lenses and it's a big investment to switch.
  • Budget is a restricting factor – mirrorless does not always equal lower price.
  • You shoot sports, birds or wildlife – some brands do not yet have a lot of choice in the long telephoto range for mirrorless lenses. Also, while I can't speak to this directly as I don't do those things – some people have reported issues with focus tracking, and shooting fast moving subjects. But again, depends on the model you buy too.
Do not want to change solely for change and do not have confidence that the mirrorless is better suited to me. – David K.

I couldn't agree more with David!

If you want to get mirrorless just because it's the latest, greatest thing and all your friends have it – that may not be the best reason. Also consider that even if you make the jump you may question your decision – I had a few people mention that in their email, and I myself have wondered if I'd have been happier with an Olympus (after using one for two months). But…

Questioning one's equipment seems to be a universal pastime of photographers, whether using a DSLR or mirrorless. Further, just as many Canon DSLR owners may consider moving to Nikon and vice versa, given the fast growth in the mirrorless camera market, it is probably just natural to be watching other manufacturer’s offerings and question whether a move to another (mirrorless) system is warranted. In that regard, some things never change…– Larry

Most common reasons for not switching to mirrorless cameras:

The following is a list of reasons people gave for not switching to mirrorless so far (the number in brackets indicates the number of times I saw that answer). See if you relate to any of these:

Fuji X-T1 night shot, retains lot of detail in low light
Fuji X-T1 night shot, retains lot of detail in low light
  • I don’t even know where to begin, have NO information/knowledge about it (11)
  • Cost, can't afford it or justify it (7)
  • I can’t see a reason to switch, can’t justify it (4)
  • I'm heavily invested in SLR lenses (3)
  • Too much confusion over the choices available – (4)
  • I want dials/buttons
  • I want full frame and mirrorless options for that are limited
  • Lens selection is limited (no long telephoto ones available)
  • I have image quality concerns
  • I want fully rotating articulating screen on one
  • I have durability concerns
  • I want quality of full frame without the size or high price (this just isn't going to happen soon, see my thoughts on that above)
  • There is no built-in flash on most mirrorless cameras
Fuji X-T1 tilt screen feature is helpful
Fuji X-T1 using the tilting screen to get close to the ground without laying on the sand

The biggest reason is lack of information.

Hopefully this article will help you in this regard if you fall into that category. Of course cost is a factor – if it wasn't we'd all have closets full of gear right?!

But take notice of the third point – if you see no reason to switch, then don't.

It's that simple.

Don't let anyone try and convince you of anything. If you love the camera you have now, and don't feel it's limiting you in any way, then by all means keep using it.

As for the confusion over so many choices available, the easiest way to solve that is two-fold.

First ask your circle of photography friends what they use and why – taking note of who shoots most like you do, and what they say.

Then visit a camera store – not Best Buy or Costco or a big box store – an actual camera store that has “camera” in the name! The staff there will be much more knowledgeable (or should be anyway) on the different brands and models. Be prepared to tell them the following when you go in and they will be much better able to help you make a wise decision for you:

  • The type of photography you like to shoot – this is key to knowing which model will be best for you.
  • The top four features you need in a camera (your must-have list) such as: you want more dials/buttons than menu driven options, you want a camera that shoots video, you want one that performs well at high ISO, you need one that fits a certain size, you want one with an electronic viewfinder, etc.
  • What camera you use now – they may be able to suggest one that feels similar or has familiar controls.
  • Your budget – be realistic and remember you'll likely also need extra batteries, maybe a new bag, charger, filters, memory cards, etc. Don't spend your whole budget on just the body, make sure you get all the pieces you need.
Fuji X-T1 great in contrasty lighitng, shot in bright midday sun.
Fuji X-T1 great in contrasty lighitng, shot in bright midday sun.

Most common questions from people who haven’t bought mirrorless yet

Last but not least, I'll see if I can answer some of the burning questions about mirrorless to help you get off the fence and either make the leap, or stick with what you've got now.

What are the differences? DSLR vs mirrorless?

This was a really common question, more than four times this was asked. See the diagrams at the top of the article for the physical differences in the body structure of the two kinds of cameras. The biggest difference obviously is size and weight.

Is the image quality as good?

I think we've covered this already above.

I'll just add that from the mirrorless cameras I've personally used (Fuji X-T1 and Olympus OM-D E-M5) I did not see any issues with image quality. You need to take into account with you will be doing with your images too as to whether this is a factor or not.

Do you make large wall sized prints of your images?

I'm not talking about 8×10, I mean like 36 inches or bigger across. I would issue a challenge that any camera (including point and shoot ones) released within the last 12 months can easily make up to 24″ print with no visible loss of quality. We have so many megapixels now it's gotten ridiculous – most people never use them to their full potential.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 mirrorless low light photography example
Olympus OM-D E-M5: Performed surprisingly well in low light and high ISO. This was shot at: ISO 6400, f/3.5, 1/60th with a 12mm lens.

Are you selling images commercially? Making billboards or stock photography? Or do you mostly share your images online on sites like Facebook, Flickr, 500px and so on?

Think about what you're doing, what your real needs are and do you really need THE best?

How does the cost compare?

Cost of mirrorless can be lower or higher than an SLR – it all depends on the model you choose. Go for a Sony full frame A7Rii or a Leica M9, and you'll be paying more. But get a Sony A6000 or the Samsung NX3000 and you can get a whole system for under about $1000 USD (camera body and a couple lenses).

Is the lens selection good? What lenses are available?

Again this varies by brand and model.

Lenses for the Sony A line still seem a bit limited but more are being added all the time.

When I got my Fuji 9 months ago there was little selection beyond the basic choices, it too is expanding. Soon the third party brands will be making lenses for these cameras too and you'll see Tamrons, Sigmas and others on the market. I have a fun little 8mm fisheye lens for my Fuji, it's made by Rokinon and was under $300.

Do your research and see what's available now for the camera you're considering. Keep in mind that you don't need every lens and every focal length covered from 8mm to 800mm. A good all-purpose zoom and a couple of fast prime lenses will do you nicely. I travel with the Fuji 18-135mm, the 35mm f/1.8 and the Rokinon 8mm in my bag and that's it.

Fuji X-T1 Great for people photography it's not intimidating to the subjects.
Fuji X-T1 Great for people photography it's not intimidating to the subjects.

Are mirrorless cameras significantly lighter?

Uh yes! Just go to a camera store and hold a few for yourself.

Take your own camera kit along and see if they'll let you fill a bag with the stuff you'd like to buy and compare the heft of the two bags. See how significant the difference is with the entire kit, not just the camera only.

Now imagine carrying both around all day.

You tell me, is it a lot lighter? I say yes.

My husband used to “get” to carry the camera bag full of my Canon lenses. I'd carry the camera while shooting.

Now I might put one lens in a small bag or even my purse and just go. He's certainly happy!

It's nice, small, compact and as a bonus my tripod gets to be smaller and lighter now too as it's holding less weight.

Consider ALL factors not just the body.

Do they have a long shutter lag time?

I can't answer that for all cameras but the two I've used certainly don't have any issues with this. If anything they shoot faster because there is no mirror to flip up. Check the specs on the one you're looking at, DP Review usually has info on the latest brands and let's you do side-by-side camera comparisons so you can look at a few together and scrutinize the features.

garbage dump community El Limonel in Chinandega, Nicaragua
Fuji X-T1 shot at the garbage dump community called El Limonel in Chinandega, Nicaragua.

Which is the best rated mirrorless camera? Are some better than others?

From the stats above you can see that there are four clear front runners for the best mirrorless camera. You really can't go wrong if you choose any of them (Fuji, Sony, Panasonic, Olympus). The others have some good choices, but a few are lagging sadly behind (come on Canon and Nikon).

The best mirrorless camera to pick is the one that:

  • Fits your budget and feels good in your hands, as well as suits your photography needs.
  • One you will use, is intuitive for you, and that you will actually take with you when you go out.

What’s the difference between mirrorless and Four Thirds?

You may have heard the term Four Thirds or seen it as FT – what that means is that it is a different sensor size.

So some (most now) of the MFT cameras are mirrorless but they all have one thing in common, sensor size. They also have a common lens mount which is really cool because Panasonic, Olympus and other brands that use the Four Thirds mount can all choose from a really wide selection of lenses.

MFT is Micro Four Thirds and is the same sensor size but slightly different lens mount (they are smaller too).

So find out what mount and type of lenses and sensor the camera you're looking at has, and what options you have for lenses in that line.

Olympus OM-D E-M5: Skin tones also really good with this camera.
Olympus OM-D E-M5: Skin tones also really good with this camera.

What to look for when researching or buying mirrorless cameras?

I've already mentioned a few but you want a camera that feels good to you, and is intuitive, above all else. If it doesn't feel good to you – you'll either fumble with it and miss shots, or worse yet – leave it at home.

Look at the stats above on the important factors others looked at before making their decision and start there. Some common features to review are:

  • Size/weight
  • Price – factor in the cost of a camera body, lenses and extra batteries.
  • Lens selection available
  • Sensor size
  • Review ratings – are others that use it liking it?
  • Does it have an electronic viewfinder or just back screen?
  • Does it have a touch screen? If that's important to you, look for it – I actually turned it off when I used the Olympus, don't like it, so wouldn't look for that as a feature. I would look for whether or not it can be disabled!
  • Is it weather sealed or resistant? How sturdy is the build and is that an important factor for you?
  • Does it have any extra fancy features you might use? Surprising how often I've used the Panoramic mode on the Fuji.
  • Does it have focus assist?
Fuji XT-1 panoramic shooting mode example
Fuji X-T1 Used the built-in panoramic shooting mode for this one, it is not stitched in LR or PS.

Is there a through the lens viewfinder and if so how does it work in a camera without a mirror?

Olympus OM-D E-M5 mirrorless great tonal range
Olympus OM-D E-M5: shows the great tonal range and reproduction of this little camera. Very impressive.
Yes and no is the short answer here.

Some models do have an electronic viewfinder or eye piece.

What you're seeing is coming through the lens but it's not hitting your eye directly as in an SLR, you're seeing exactly what the sensor sees.

I find that really cool actually.

At first I thought it would take some getting used to the electronic screen in the eye piece – but the fact that when I adjust the exposure, White Balance or anything that affects the image – I SEE it immediately in the viewfinder.

With an SLR you have to take the photo first to be able to see what your adjustments are doing. Some models (my Fuji does this) also have a level so you can tell if your photo is crooked, and a histogram so you can check exposure before you shoot.

Bonus – some models also have focus peaking, or focus assist. What that means is assisted manual focus. Back in the old days of film we had a split focusing screen where the object would appear separated until it was in sharp focus. Now with digital that isn't available on SLRs but it IS on mirrorless. On my Fuji X-T1 I can do split-screen focus or focus peaking (where the thing that is sharp glows in a color you pick like red). It makes it easy to use manual focus, especially great for night photography and even surprisingly for moving targets.

Is the image you see the same as what the camera captures?

This will depend on the model again but mostly, yes. Some EVF (electronic viewfinders) do crop out some of the image so what you capture isn't exactly the same. Check the specs for that camera, it should say on there if there is a crop factor on the viewfinder or LCD screen.

BUT as I mentioned above many mirrorless cameras show you the adjustments on screen before you shoot. That can be a huge learning tool as well. Put the camera in manual and change the aperture and see what it does immediately. How cool is that?

Is not having a mirror to pop-up once the shutter is released really such an improvement?

“If so, just what exactly is improved, still faster shutter speeds? Shutter speeds on current DSLRs are extremely fast (i.e. 1/16000 for some canons and Nikons), so I don’t see how much faster we actually need to go. Though of course, if it can be made faster, someone will do it. Removing the mirror would remove the possibility of camera movement for very slow shutter speeds. That’s a good thing, I suppose, but aren’t you going to tripod the camera anyway for that type of shot? Doesn’t that eliminate any benefit you gain from removing the mirror to avoid camera shake while the mirror is popping up?” – Digital Photo Mentor reader

Yes that is true, and I hope with all the answers and information above I've already covered this one. There are other benefits and advantages to using a mirrorless camera. The bottom line is – if you do not see any benefit for you, then don't go mirrorless.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 hold detail in contrast lighting
Olympus OM-D E-M5 for a smaller sensor camera I was impressed with how it held detail in contrasty lighting situations ike this one.

Can I use my old (Canon, Nikon, etc.) lenses on it?

Yes with some caveats.

I did get an adapter to put my Canon lenses onto my Fuji but the brand I got doesn't connect the lens to the camera other than physically, meaning they don't talk. There was no autofocus, no exposure information, etc. Pretty hard to change the aperture on a Canon lens with no aperture ring on the outside. So I returned it and got a Fuji 35mm f/1.4 lens instead.

I've found I don't want to put my big heavy Canon lenses on the Fuji, it kind of defeats the purpose of going smaller and lighter.

Where it does get fun is you can get adapters to put some funky old retro lenses onto your camera. Try a Holga or Lomography lens, how about a Lensbaby, or walk into a camera store and browse the use film lens section to see what goodies you can find.

scarab bettle closeup with Fuji X-T1 mirrorless camera
Fuji X-T1 Works great for close ups, this scarab beetle was nice enough to sit still too. Exposure ISO 200, f/5.6 at 1/90th with an 85mm lens.
Fuji X-T1 With beer bottle to show the size of the beetle.
Fuji X-T1 With beer bottle to show the size of the beetle.

Images in this article

Jana allingham photographer

All the images in this article (with the exception of the photo of the Sony camera) were taken with either the Fuji X-T1 or the Olympus OM-D E-M5 mirrorless cameras. They were taken on our last two tours to Nicaragua and some of the people you see in the photos were tour participants. You can see more of Jana's images and her thoughts on how the tour helped her take better photos here: Picking up Your Camera Every Day – a Perfect Formula for Success

Summary

Whew that was a lot! I don't know about you, but I'm tired. This took me over a week to compile all the emails, put into a spreadsheet, sort it out to make sense of it and write this post. I hope you have found it valuable as a resource.

If you have a mirrorless camera and have anything to add please do so in the comments. Share with us why you switched, did you upsize or downsize, and what camera you ended up with and why?

Haven't made the leap yet, or still on the fence? If you have any other questions that haven't been covered already put them below and ask those of us that have mirrorless to help you figure out what's the best choice for you. Perhaps it's mirrorless, or maybe it's sticking with what you've got. Either way we can help you educate yourself to make an informed decision.

You are here: Photography Tips » Mirrorless Cameras – Everything You Wanted to Know

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  • An important topic which is very well covered, Darlene and Jana.
    I am amazed by the fraction of people that got mirrorless camera in this study.
    This must be because of the small sample size and we cannot extend it globally.

    I am from India and as far as my knowledge and interaction with other photographer goes, this fraction will be less than even 2%.

    Yes, the topic has been explained in great details and it will help many other to spend a thought process before buying a camera (whether DSLR or a mirrorless).

    Loved the article. 🙂
    Best Regards
    Anshul Sukhwal

  • waynewerner

    I’d be curious to hear from some portrait photographers who have switched to (or tried) mirrorless cameras.

    It’s funny to me because I bought a Nikon D100 w/battery pack from eBay for a couple hundred. When I walk around with it, people make comments like, “Now *that’s* a camera!” or “That’s a *big boy* camera!”

    Even though technologically speaking it’s rather old and only shoots 6MP (and unless I’m taking one shot, forget about shooting RAW, it takes maybe two or three frames per *minute* that way), people still think it’s an impressive camera 🙂

    I’m curious if anyone shooting portraits with a mirrorless camera have gotten looks/comments like, “You’re going to take my picture with *that*?” ~_^

    Or if people are mostly receptive?

    • I haven’t used it for a client job yet but may and let you know! There certainly is a perception that bigger means professional for sure.

  • I switched over to mirrorless camera systems just under one year ago and have not touched my DSLRs since.

    Over a 35 year career in photography, 20 as a US Navy Photographer, I have literally used every camera type and system imaginable. I was drawn to the mirrorless cameras because they reminded me of the small, compact Leica cameras I used when doing photojournalism.

    Based on reviews, and the fact that I still wanted a full-frame option, I went with the Sony systems. I bought the A6000 first to test out mirrorless. I love that little camera and it was producing better images than any of my Nikon gear. I really like the Electronic View Finder. It gives me the ability to shoot available light and know exactly what the image will look like before releasing the shutter.

    A couple of months ago, I purchased the Sony A7ii with the Zeiss 24-70mm lens. The quality I’m getting off of that camera amazes me. I still need a couple of more lenses to round out my Sony system. After that, I need to find a good home for my Nikon’s. I hate to see good cameras collect dust.

    • Nice! You still use the a6000?

      • I still use my a6000 in three situations. First, as a backup camera to my A7ii, usually with a different focal length. Second, when the APS-C sensor will give me a little more reach with the lens. Third, when I just want a small, lightweight camera option.

  • Molly Drummond

    I have a Nikon 600 which is really heavy with a 24-70 lens. I don’t have the 72-200 which I would love but know that it is even heavier. I did just get the SpiderHolster which is fantastic for carring and the weight. I also have the Fuji X- T1 which I love. I like photographing people and events. I take both cameras when I go out. The Fuji is not heavy on my neck, makes no noise, not invasive, and takes great photographs. I put one focal length lens on that and a different on my Nikon. I feel that I am better prepared for the action. I am still very much a beginner but am learning with every event and every shot. I am curious how others use their cameras.

  • Robert Gonzales

    Has any reader used an adapter to attach Canon EF lens to the Sony A7ii?

    • Robert, I haven’t but an acquaintance of mine has. He used, if I recall correctly, a Metabones adapter. From a brief discussion I had with him he raved about everything except autofocus. In particular, it was slow and sometimes spent too much time hunting for focus – more so with EF zooms vs primes (?). His conclusion was that he didn’t shoot anything fast – BIF, sports, kids so this was not a problem for him. He did suggest that before changing ‘systems’ it would be best to borrow or rent one first.

      Perhaps someone can help me – I forgot to find out about flash especially the Canon wireless system (ST-E3-RT / 600EX-RT) as I suspect none of the mirrorless cameras support this yet?

      • not sure – I can’t get my yongnuo remotes to work on the Fuji they may not be compatible but the Canon flashes aren’t for sure

        • Thanks Darlene re: Canon compatibility. Very informative and interesting article!

    • William Douglas

      I have the Fotodiox adapter for my Canon lenses to use on my Sony NEX 6 (Way cheaper than the MB and works just as good). I have the focus hunting as well, but not with ALL telephotos lenses. For some reason my Canon EF 70-300mm IS USM the Sony seems to think it is the Sony OSS model 70-300 and it works perfectly. I have NOT switched to mirrorless only, I still use mostly my Canon EOS 5D & 6D full frames.

  • Bill Lapham

    I got the Sony SLT A77 for my birthday a couple of years ago. I was a Minolta user and had $4,000 of lenses. The first thing that happened is the “pop-up” flash popped up and became totally detached from the body. I had to send it to Texas to get fixed.

    I am trying to do some macro with an LED ringlight. The shots have a blue/grey cast and the customwhite balance settings doesn’t work. The custom WB doesn’t set and correct.

    Lastly, the focus control doesn’t focus on the object I am shooting. With the subject (coin) centered, the red spot focus light is off the subject by 2″ at a camera distance of 8″ from the subject.

    It also eats batteries like you wouldn’t believe.

    In video mode it is quite noisy. (and it overheats and shuts down if you shoot too long,)

    Very disappointing customer service….

    • Hi Bill – it’s my understanding that the SLT isn’t mirrorless though?

  • Jim Ruse

    I bought the Fuji x-T10 a few weeks ago. I’m a little surprised none of your stats included this model. It’s a great little camera and the reviews are very positive. I’m falling in love with it. As you mentioned, there is a significant learning curve, but I love some of the features and it very customizable! Mine came with an 18-55 f2.8-4 lens and I just bought a 27mm f2.8 pancake lens. I won’t be getting rid of my Nikon gear (at least not yet) but I can see the Fuji competing for my time. I bought it as an additional piece of gear…not a replacement. I can see reasons for shooting both.

    • I think it’s just too new yet. I did the survey in July and not sure it was out yet. Glad you’re liking it, way easier time lapse hey!?

      • Jim Ruse

        Oh my gosh! Yes…I checked out the time lapse feature…soooooo simple! 🙂

  • Terry Zimmerman

    I really appreciate the time you have taken to compile this article. I own a Canon 7D and an SL1 with a decent selection of Canon lenses. I decided to go mirrorless a couple of months ago when I found a Lumix GF3 on eBay for a price I couldn’t refuse. It came with a 14-42 power zoom and I found a 42-142 zoom to go with it on special from B&H a couple of weeks later. I was amazed at the quality of the images. Though the sensor is smaller, they are very comparable to the APS-C images of my Canons. I’ve sold more stock images taken with the Panasonic than I have with the Canon, and I’m more likely to take it with me. I’m not getting rid of my DSLR cameras just yet, but it may happen in the future. Another big plus is being able to find bargains on old film lenses. I bought a Canon 50mm f/1.4 FD lens for $6 at Goodwill. I added a $10 adapter and now have access to some of the best low light photography I’ve ever taken. I’m highly satisfied!

  • KP Karunakaran

    Speaking for myself, I was bold enough to recently sell my Nikon D800E camera and all lenses (primes and zooms) for the Sony A7R which I recently upgraded to A7R II. Along with some newly released Zeiss lenses, great system. The relative small size of the lenses (I have primes, some manual focus) and camera compared to DSLR has actually helped me go out and photograph much more – for that reason alone, worth it! Especially street photography. Personally I think Nikon and Canon will only play catch up. Yes focus speed is still a bit slower than DSLR but getting better with newer versions. With peaking, easily handled except if you are shooting fast moving subjects or action (which I rarely do).

  • Carol Grady

    I have a Sony A6000 that I love. However, there is no manual available that fully covers all of the functions of this camera. There is definitely a learning curve, one that I have not yet been able to figure out. A manual or a you tube tutorial would help.

  • Ravindra Kathale

    Hi! Thanks for a detailed article on mirrorless cameras. I liked it.
    I have an Olympus SZ-10 P&S camera and was quite satisfied with it. (I am not a professional. I photograph as a hobby and for fun). Last year I bought Sony Nex 3 NL. Reasons: 1. Light weight. 2. Small size (therefore less conspicuous, less intimidating, easy to carry – even my wife doesn’t complain ;), 3. fits my small hands 4 Reviews were encouraging; 5. price was right, 6. looked like it would serve my purpose of shooting anything from landscapes to insects. I loved the camera from day 1, shot 1. I never used a dSLR and there was no unlearning required. Went straightway to Manual mode and never regretted it. Its convenience is highlighted during outings and trips – I never feel the burden. Picture quality is great. Convenience of use is also great. My only grouse is, it doesn’t have the dials that dSLRs have. All settings are required to be done going through the menu. Since I have never used a dSLR (so far!), I cannot compare. But I am very happy with it.
    Mirrorless cameras are yet to become popular with professionals. Almost every pro I discussed with says, “Practice on this for a year or so and then graduate to SLR” or words to that effect. many believe they don’t offer the same range of facilities that dSLRs do.
    I get a great kick out of joining the pros with my small little Sony in their photography of various functions and then compare the results! Sometimes they are annoyed!
    High prices also are a deterrent.
    Once again thanks for the article.
    sincerely yours,
    Ravindra Kathale

    • You’re welcome thanks for reading. I think there are quite a few pros switching, maybe just not in your country yet – see Anshul’s comment above. But I think it is moving that way and fast.

  • Liz

    Great article. I just made the leap to an X-T1. Love my D800 but air travel challenges and a particularly nasty hike through the desert convinced me that a different system was needed when I travel. Learning curve was steeper than I expected but love the photos. And I’m having a ton of fun playing.

    • Did you use a film camera ever before? I found the learning curve in this camera short for me because it’s in many ways like old school film cameras.

      • Liz

        Good point. I did but took a long break and have been digital for a very long time. Once I put aside the what feels instinctive with my Nikons, the X-T1 learning curve flattened, with substantial help from Google/YouTube!

  • Michael Stevens

    Great article. Caused me a lot of time on it; not finalised yet. Conclusion=Big dilemma!

    I have a Canon 5D II (and MkI) L lenses f2.8 24-70, f2.8 70-200, 15mm fisheye, f4 17-40, f1.4 50, & f2 135. I’m not bragging; just collected them. But what a weight and can’t take much of that on aircraft. On my recent Scottish sailing trip (see LightRoom article) I had to pass all the gear from the yacht to the dinghy and off again every time we went ashore. Liability! I often don’t take my camera out because of this but I love the gear. My first thought after this article was sell it all and look into which mirrorless camera. All sounds good. Weight, not so obvious, security in foreign countries all point to mirrorless.

    Recently I bought the two Yongnuo YN568 ExII speed lights, triggers and controller (Darlene recommended, thanks) (after my Canon speedlite crashed to the ground) and they’re great. Full off camera ETTL control etc. but what about with mirrorless cameras? A lot of reviews say they work, but only manually, which is OK I guess. I’ll look further at this.

    Sorry for the lengthy post but I think it’s helping me to make my mind up. (and those from other contributors) …. I’m going to look further into which mirrorless camera will suit me and sell my gear before it becomes worthless as DSLRs fall out of favour! ….I think! 🙂 When you see news photographers using them you’re too late!

    • Yeah I was in the same boat, and I’m glad you like the Yongnuos. I have yet to get them to work with the Fuji though. Selling now is a very valid point! I still have a Hasselblad medium format film camera in a box in my closet for that very same reason! Things went digital and I waited too long.

      • Yeah I was in the same boat, and I’m glad you like the Yongnuos. I have yet to get them to work with the Fuji though. Selling now is a very valid point! I still have a Hasselblad medium format film camera in a box in my closet for that very same reason! Things went digital and I waited too long.

        • Michael Stevens

          There we are! Just bought a Fuji X-T1 (+18-55mm & 10-24mm) for my holiday to Italy tomorrow. Yongnuos controller and triggers all work. (Firmware 4 helps?) Probably not ETTL but not too big a problem.
          Hope I come back happy.

  • A wonderful article Darlene, one of the most complete articles I’ve seen about mirrorless. Also, thanks for the mention.

  • C E

    I ended up purchasing the Sony A6000 just before a trip to Victoria, BC. I have to say, it was incredibly easy to pack and carry and the price was right for a starter mirrorless … read the manual during the flight. I like the quality of the photos, but the fraction of photos that were usable from my trip were minimal. I shoot mostly sports and wildlife and can brace myself with a Canon 5DM3 with a 150-600 lens attached with no tripod (no small feat for a 60(ish) woman) but I had a devil of a time trying to hold the little camera steady. I am not sure if it was because I did not realize how much longer it takes to capture a frame or what the problem was. Maybe my few muscles went into shock – lol. There is a learning curve to it that is for sure! I did capture a few wonderful landscape shots! Other than me learning how to hold it steady, the only drawback/complaint I have is the basic lack of DOF I get with the lenses that came with the kit. This is an easy fix with the purchase of new lenses. One of the best features of this little camera is the movable LCD screen – I can get very low angles without having to do the belly crawl. I certainly am not ready to sell my equipment; since nothing, in my opinion, gets the quality of photos like my 5DM3. I will keep practicing with it … maybe I will be ready for a complete switch in 10 years time.

  • msvln

    Thank you, Darlene. I have an advanced point & Shoot and was thinking about upgrading to either a DSLR or a mirrorless. Size is an important consideration. After reading your article, I’ve decided on mirrorless, model still to be determined. Since I don’t have a DSLR now, the learning curve shouldn’t be any steeper. Again, thank you. I’ve read this information over and over.

  • Tim Aucoin

    One thing I love, which I believe is a huge plus for mirrorless is the ability to get major (and minor) features added to the camera(s) via firmware updates. I know that the more modern DSLR’s offer firmware updates also, but they don’t seem to be as feature rich as the mirrorless camera updates. A great example is the recent firmware update (4.0) to my OMD E-M1… it adds Focus Bracketing mode and Focus Stacking mode! With focus stacking, multiple shots are composited to create a final image with a very deep depth of field (i.e. larger than f/22) — fantastic for macro shots! And it’s all done in-camera! These are great updates, and they added many more (including complete silent shooting mode)! Just my thoughts on the subject!

  • Sally Famarin Chisom

    A wealth of information! I bought my first mirrorless camera 2 years ago, the Olympus E-PM2 and the Olympus 14-150mm lens. I have trouble holding my DSLR camera steady. Due to the smaller size, lighter weight and the touchscreen, I am able to hold the camera steadier taking clearer photos. A year later I purchased the Canon Mirrorless EOS M, at a very-very low price from Amazon. The primary reason for purchasing this system was the ability to use the lenses for my Canon T3i (which I still own) using the Canon EOS M mount adapter. Most often I use the Canon EF-M 22mm f2 STM Compact System Fixed Lens or Canon EF 50mm; periodically the Tamron 18-200mm. Both these mirrorless cameras do not have a EVF, so I battle the glare on the screen. Well this year I invested in the Olympus OM-D E-M10which has a fantastic EVF and I can still use the Olympus lens from my Pen. I use all my cameras, depending on the location and event. I love them all! They produce great images. I always carry either the Canon EOS M or Olympus Pen in my purse in case I see a potential shot while out and about. The learning curve to master the controls and settings was short for me. Photography is a hobby. I’m not a pro. Thanks Darlene. I have learned so much more with this article and others you have shared. I also enjoy the pictures you share. Look forward to more.

  • Tom Cocchiaro

    HI Darlene, I only saw one thing you didn’t mention regarding the benefits of a mirrorless camera and probably one of the only reasons I would consider buying one. I am an amateur astronomer and have used standard DSLRs to shoot astro pics with some good results, however, there is one thing I wish I could tame depending on the telescope and mount combination I use and that is vibration (because exposures of 1-30 seconds are sometimes necessary to get the shot) caused by the mirror slapping up at the beginning and slapping down at the end. Given some of your descriptions that claim low noise in the images, it may be that a mirrorless camera would be more consistent in terms of sharp, smooth images. Will have to take a look.

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