For perhaps the last 50 years, the logical choice for someone starting out their photographic journey or stepping up from a compact camera has been the SLR or DSLR. The SLR camera has long been regarded as the tool of choice for enthusiasts and professionals alike; a veritable workhorse and perfect tool for learning the many technical aspects of photography.
There is, however, a relatively new kid on the block: the mirrorless camera. These cameras had a slow, somewhat shaky start. Some (perhaps long-in-the-tooth) photographers rejected the possibilities of the new technologies incorporated into these cameras, instead concentrating on some of the negatives of the earlier production models.
There were, indeed, some major drawbacks to earlier incarnations of the mirrorless camera. But, as with many new technologies, the manufacturers persevered, and ironed out the main issues. They succeeded to the point that, today, we have a viable alternative to the DSLR system, one that enthusiasts and professionals can and do use on a daily basis.
Image by Karlis Dambrans via Flickr
Mirrorless systems are becoming viable rivals to the DSLR, Mirrorless vs. DSLR: which to choose?
What is a mirrorless camera?
Put simply, it is an interchangeable-lens system camera that dispenses with the bulky, complex pentaprism-based optical viewfinder of the DSLR. The viewfinder is replaced, in most cases, with an electronic version, similar to the LCD screen, but built inside the viewfinder itself. There are also some mirrorless cameras that use a hybrid system of a rangefinder optical viewfinder combined with an electronic viewfinder.
There are a few variations in sensor sizes. Some use the micro 4/3rds format, a notable number now use the APS-C format sensors often found in DSLRs, and there are now even full-frame sensors in mirrorless cameras—the Sony A7 and Leica M Digital Rangefinder being the prime examples of this.
Image by Lee via Flickr
Full frame in a mirrorless system
Where did they come from?
The genesis for the mirrorless camera was the Epsom R-D1, released back in 2004. This was a high-end, rangefinder-style camera that, although well-regarded, failed to create a mirrorless niche. The same is true of the Leica M8; again, another very expensive, somewhat exclusive photographic tool.
In late 2008, the Micro Four Thirds system was announced to the world. This sensor was an offshoot of the original Four Thirds system designed specifically for a mirrorless camera body. Panasonic, Ricoh, Samsung and Olympus all produced early mirrorless cameras based on this sensor, but it was perhaps the Olympus Pen E1-P, announced in mid-2009, that captured the attention of the photographic world. This was a retro-styled camera, loosely based around the original Olympus Pen half-frame cameras of the 1960’s. The E1-P had no viewfinder at all, relying on a large, bright LCD screen on the back.
Of the big two, Nikon were first to the mirrorless party in 2011, with the Nikon 1 System. These cameras featured an electronic viewfinder, but were not a commercial success. Canon came to the mirrorless scene in 2012 with the EOS M, with similar results to Nikon’s.
Image by David Martin via Flickr
Mirrorless genesis; the Epson R-D1
What are the advantages of mirrorless?
The first obvious advantages are the size and weight. The complex mechanisms of the DSLR are not needed in the mirrorless system cameras, meaning that the bodies can be significantly smaller and lighter, even with a similarly sized sensor. A secondary advantage to this is that the lenses can also be smaller. This means you can fit more equipment in a smaller camera bag and it will still be lighter.
Secondly, despite their compact size, these cameras often have large sensors. This means that the image quality is on par with equivalent DLSR cameras, and in some cases surpasses them. It also means that, on the larger sensor mirrorless cameras, the depth of field will be similar to DLSRs given the same aperture.
Mirrorless cameras are very discreet, making them the natural successor to the film rangefinder for street photography. Their compact size and near-silent shutters make them the perfect choice for the next generation of Cartier-Bressons.
Although there are some very expensive mirrorless cameras, on the whole a good-quality mirrorless system can work out to be cheaper than an equivalent DLSR-based system.
Image by Zhao via Flickr
Size is an important advantage to the growing mirrorless system
And the disadvantages?
Despite the rapid advances in electronic viewfinders, they are still not to everyone’s taste. For one thing, they can lag in low light. Some find that the small cameras do not give that feeling of being connected with your subject. Hybrid viewfinders fare better in this respect.
Although improving rapidly, there is still a gap in autofocus speeds between DSLRs and mirrorless systems. This is an important factor for people shooting action, where the camera needs to lock and track a subject.
Lastly, DLSR systems still have a far wider choice of lenses and other peripherals. The choice of lenses is significantly greater for DSLR systems; particularly for wide-aperture professional standard lenses at the extreme wide angle end in the longer telephoto range.
Overall, mirrorless cameras have grown from expensive, exclusive cameras ten years ago, to become a serious rival to the DSLR system. Whilst there are certain areas of photography where a mirrorless camera still cannot rival traditional DSLRs, there is a growing number of photographic niches where it can equal and even exceed them. The mirrorless revolution is happening, and happening fast.