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.
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.
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.
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)
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
The best rated mirrorless cameras include these brands/models
- Sony mirrorless cameras – two A7R, nine A6000, one A7Rii, one A5000 – for a total of 13 Sonys
- 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?)
- Fuji mirrorless cameras – one X-M1, five X-T1s, one X-E2 – total of 6 Fujis (7 if you count me as well)
- Panasonic – one GH1, one GH2, one GH4 – total of 3 Pansonics
- Nikon – one J5
- Leica – one M9
- Samsung – one NX mini
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.
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.
- 5 Lessons Learned Switching from DSLR to Mirrorless for Travel Photography
- 10 Reasons Why a Pro is Using a Mirrorless Camera for Personal and Paid Jobs
- My 30 Day Adventure With The Fuji x100s
While some pros still hang on their SLR gear, others have ditched it 100% for mirrorless:
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!
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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…
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:
- 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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?
Is there a through the lens viewfinder and if so how does it work in a camera without a mirror?
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.
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.
Images in this article
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
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.