The Ultimate Guide to Mirrorless Cameras
So you’re thinking about getting a mirrorless camera? It’s a sensible choice. Mirrorless cameras have rapidly become the camera of preference for professional photographers after decades of domination by DSLRs. But there’s a big difference between understanding that mirrorless cameras are popular and understanding why they’re popular. And the market is filled with more than just mirrorless and DSLR options.
With phones offering increasingly high fidelity cameras built in, is it worth investing your money in a mirrorless camera? That depends, but we’re here to help you find out. Keep reading to figure out what makes mirrorless cameras such a hot commodity in the world of professional and hobbyist photography.
Understanding Interchangeable Lens Cameras
What is a mirrorless camera? Before we can understand what advantages mirrorless cameras offer over their DSLR counterparts, we have to know what they have in common. Both mirrorless and DSLR cameras are defined by the quality of the photos and video they produce and their wealth of features. But the factor that really sets both of these camera types apart from other breeds like point and shoots are their interchangeable lenses.
The defining factor for both DSLR and mirrorless cameras is the presence of a bayonet style mount on the front of the camera. This allows a wide variety of different lenses to be slotted into place, and it increases the versatility of these cameras significantly. Whether you’re looking to capture a vintage look, employ an expansive widescreen resolution, or capture shots from a distance, a single mirrorless camera is only limited by the lenses you have in your repertoire.
What is the Difference Between a Mirrorless Camera and a DSLR?
So What is the advantage of a mirrorless camera? It’s right there in the name: the lack of a mirror. DSLRs are the more analog option of the two. A mirror placed in the body of the camera reflects the image captured through the lens back into a viewfinder. That means that what you see when you peek through the camera is a 1:1 reflection of what you’d perceive staring straight through the lens. When you click the button to take a picture, the image you see is captured by the camera’s sensor.
Mirrorless cameras ditch that prism and mirror entirely. In place of an optical viewfinder, it uses a digital alternative. The image captured in the sensor is digitized and projected right onto the viewfinder. And while the image you see is a replica refer than a reflection, modern mirrorless technology makes the distinction between the two virtually indistinguishable. Let’s look into why mirrorless cameras are better and what weaknesses they have when compared to DSLR alternatives.
- Portability: A simple mirror may not seem like it would make that much of a difference, but it has a huge impact when you’re talking about something as portable as a handheld camera. Mirrorless cameras sport smaller dimensions and significantly lighter weights on average which makes them great for travel photographers and allows you to pack more gear into a single bag. This is a situation where mirrorless definitely wins out.
- Low Light Visibility: When looking through an electronic viewfinder, you’re not looking at what’s on the other side of the lens but rather on what your sensor can process. That means that in low light situations, you can expect more noise from an electronic viewfinder. But the assisted lighting of EVFs allow you to better focus on your subjects. The preview may not look as pretty in a mirrorless, but it’s better to produce accurate results.
- Lens Variety: Interchangeable lenses are arguably the biggest selling point of both mirrorless and DSLR cameras, and DSLR has a significant head start in this regard. There are simply more DSLR lenses available, and while most mirrorless models can mount DSLR lenses with a proper attachment, determining compatibility can sometimes be tricky.
- Zoom: While most DSLR cameras can zoom up to 100%, mirrorless models have digital zoom built right into the viewfinder. It’s a huge convenience that allows you to capture your subjects up close and personal without having to put in much effort or waste time getting your subject in focus.
- Focus and Tracking: DSLR cameras make use of a limited number of fixed autofocus points when trying to focus on a subject whereas mirrorless cameras can hypothetically make use of unlimited AF points due to phase detection sensors. And since the viewfinder is filtered through a digital sensor, they can make use of far more sophisticated tools for facial and eye tracking. It’s something that will only become more advanced as technology develops too. That said, they tend to lag behind DSLR cameras in terms of continuous autofocus and tracking.
- Price: We can talk all day about what mirrorless cameras are good for, but most people are going to have some limitation on their budget. The fact that mirrorless cameras don’t have to worry about expensive mirrors and prisms in their construction means that you can almost always get a mirrorless model for a significantly cheaper price than its DSLR equivalent.
- Battery Life: The electronic viewfinders that mirrorless cameras use bring a lot of utility to the table, but those same features are also a power hog. You can expect the battery to drain much more quickly on a mirrorless camera. And while mirrorless cameras can typically only take half as many shots before needing to be recharged, a typical mirrorless camera will still allow you to take hundreds of photos before needing to switch out the battery. It may be a hassle, but it’s not an insurmountable one.
Mirrorless Camera Lens Types
What does a mirrorless camera mean for you as a photographer? At its most basic, it means that you have a wider toolkit to shoot the type of photos that you want to shoot. That means that a mirrorless camera is only as versatile as the lenses you have available for it. And while mirrorless cameras have fewer lenses available to them than most DSLR equivalents, there’s still a huge variety available to you. We’ll start by unpacking the specifics of focal length. Then we’ll provide an overview of the most popular lens types.
The focal length is the critical factor in determining what type of shots a given lens can produce. That focal length, measured in millimeters, refers to the space between the lens and the image sensor while a subject is in focus. In practical terms, the results are pretty basic. A lower focal length will produce wider shots. The focal length your camera supports is determined by the sensor size used within the camera.
The majority of mirrorless cameras you’ll find are going to make use of an ASP-C sensor. ASP-C cameras occupy a position between micro four thirds and full frame cameras, offering focal lengths that don’t go as small as micro four thirds models (which bottom out at 6mm) or as high full frame cameras (with a ceiling of 500mm) but instead offer a happy medium between the two. The following focal lengths are supported by ASP-C cameras.
Lenses typically come in two varieties in what focal length they offer. Prime lenses support a single fixed focal length, and while that makes them less versatile, they tend to produce better quality results. If you know exactly the width and depth of a picture you want, you’ll get cleaner results and better low light performance with a prime lens. Zoom lenses make some compromises in terms of quality, but they allow you to adjust the focal length along a spectrum to produce the exact frame that you’re looking for.
Between the focal length of lenses supported by mirrorless cameras and the choice of prime or zoom options, you have well over a dozen different options to choose from. Fortunately, lenses are broken down into a much smaller number of categories that are classified according to their general purpose.
Advanced photographers are going to understand the intricacies that come from shooting with a 12 vs. 10 mm lens, but if you’re just starting off, these types can help you find the right lens for your needs. Since they’re the most common sensor type, we’ll focus on ASP-C mirrorless cameras, but the ranges listed will allow you to find an appropriate lens if you find yourself using a micro four thirds or full frame camera instead.
Range: 8mm – 24mm
Supported focal lengths: 10mm, 12mm, 15mm
The lens type with the smallest focal length is also one of the most specialized. They offer the widest angle of any lens you’ll find. That makes them a great choice if you’re trying to take expansive panorama photos. Fisheye lenses are a practical necessity for architectural, real estate, and landscape photographers because they allow you to capture more of the environment than any alternatives, and they’re also a common choice for abstract artists.
That said, these lenses will probably have negligible use for most photographers outside of these specializations. The most notable issue with them is that the super wide angles they offer create distortion. That can be an advantage if you’re an artist trying to foster some surreality in your photos, but it requires some smart post-editing if you’re going for something more naturalistic.
Range: 24mm – 35mm
Supported focal lengths: 28mm, 35mm
The kit of a landscape photographer will usually consist of a wide angle lens as their primary choice and a fisheye as their secondary, or else they’ll employ a zoom lens that lets them switch between wide and ultra-wide focal lengths. Wide angles will provide an expansive enough frame for most landscapes, so if you’re debating whether you should invest in a wide or ultra-wide angle lens, you should probably option for the former first. They offer a great sense of focus, and they’re one of the more lightweight options around.
But while these lenses aren’t as prone to distortion as their fisheye counterparts, wide angle lenses are still more likely to distort their subjects than lenses with a higher focal length. They also tend to produce blurrier backgrounds than other lens types.
Range: 35mm – 135mm
Supported focal lengths: 35mm, 55mm, 85mm
Standard prime lenses are a case of “What you see is what you get”. They produce results that exactly replicate what you see through the viewfinder. They’re a middle of the road choice, but that also makes them the most commonly used lenses and a necessity in the bags of most photographers. And they offer the sharpest image quality of any lens around while also offering the best performance in low light. If you aren’t trying to achieve a specialized effect with your photo or you’re still learning how to use a mirrorless camera, a standard lens will always be your best bet.
But that lack of specialization is also a standard lens’ greatest weakness. They can’t provide you with advanced zoom or wider angle shots, and the quality of your results will have a lot more to do with finding the right position to shoot your photo from.
Range: 55mm – 200mm
Supported focal lengths: Variable
If you’re going out into the field and you don’t know exactly what you’re expecting to capture, zoom lenses are the way to go. Their versatility is unparalleled since they allow you to achieve a significant variety of different focal lengths without having to swap out the lens. And they can save you money and provide you with a lighter kit since a single lens will achieve a lot of different purposes.
But zoom lenses don’t offer the image quality or low light performance of standard fixed models, and they can’t achieve the dramatic focal lengths that come from wide angle or telescopic lenses. They also tend to be larger and heavier (although they certainly aren’t heavier than carrying around multiple lenses for multiple focal lengths).
Range: 50mm – 200mm
Supported focal lengths: 55mm, 85mm, 140mm, 200mm
If you need to get up close and personal with a tiny subject, macro lenses are the best option. This makes them the lens of choice for detailed oriented photos. They’re popular among nature photographers because they can provide highly detailed results for insects, blades of grass, or other small components of nature. They’re also a popular choice when trying to provide closeups in wedding photography.
But they’re pretty limited in nature, and that also makes them expensive. Macro lenses are only going to be useful to you if you have a tiny subject you need to capture in glorious detail. Their limited usage makes them a poor choice for beginning photographers but a necessity in a number of specialized fields.
Range: 100mm – 600mm
Supported focal lengths: 140mm, 200mm, 300mm
Telephoto lenses are to macro lenses what fisheye lenses are to wide angle lenses. You’ll find telephoto lenses available in both prime and zoom options. Not only can they capture subjects incredibly far away, but they allow you to get a wide variety of shots without having to worry about positioning in the same way you would need to with a standard lens. They tend to produce blurred backgrounds with subjects in sharp focus and are popular for nature and action photographers as a result.
But the highly specialized nature of these lenses and their power makes them both very heavy and very expensive. The latter limits their usage for general purpose use significantly. If you’re planning on using a telephoto lens, chances are that you’ll need to make use of a tripod for added stability.
Mirrorless Camera Brands
Trying to determine what is the best mirrorless camera is a fool’s errand. There are too many good manufacturers around and too many variables to take into consideration. Your budget, skill level, and purpose for using a camera are all going to be a factor in picking the right model for your needs. But there are some brands that are prolific in the field, and picking an established brand really opens up your options in terms of lens variety. Here are the names to keep an eye out for when shopping.
- Canon is easily one of the biggest names in the business, but their international brand recognition is built on solid ground. If you’re willing to invest in a proper lens mount, you can get access to Canon’s truly extensive catalog of DSLR lenses in addition to their decent variety of mirrorless options. Their lenses also tend to be relatively inexpensive, meaning you can save money in the long term as you start to expand your collection.You’ll especially want to keep an eye out for the EOS line. They’re affordable and great for new users. The EOS M is designed with enthusiasts in mind, and Canon offers two full frame models with the top line EOS R and the more affordable EOS RP.
- Fujifilm is often synonymous with instant film cameras, but they’ve been aggressively moving into the mirrorless market in more recent years. And they’ve developed a line that’s surprisingly diverse and surprisingly high-quality. Fujifilm mirrorless cameras are some of the more competitively priced options around. If there’s one knock against them, it’s that they don’t offer full frame models. But that won’t be a limitation for many photographers.The X-series of Fujifilm cameras are too diverse to properly categorize, but that also means that there are models available for photographers of just about every taste. All of them come with ASP-C sensors. If you’re looking for the best of the best that Fujifilm has to offer, you may want to check out the GFX 50R with its medium sized sensor.
- Leica is a name synonymous with prestige. While their cameras are undoubtedly some of the most expensive around, they’re of unparalleled quality. A Leica camera is a point of pride for professional photographers, largely due to the quality of their builds and their pristine performance. But the high price tag and lack of automatic modes means that they’re not particularly suitable for amateur photographers and hobbyists.Leica is arguably the most well respected name in photography, and the cream of the crop in their catalog is the M-series. If you’re going to be investing in a Leica, you may as well spend a little extra for the best they have to offer.
- Olympus could arguably be considered the progenitor of mirrorless cameras, and while companies like Sony are giving them a run for their money today, Olympus has managed to find a clear niche for themselves. They offer some of the best value in the business – marketing low priced cameras that still manage to pack in some of the most innovative tech on the market today. And the notable sturdiness of their cameras make them an ideal choice for nature and outdoor photographers.There are two main lines to take into consideration when looking at Olympus mirrorless cameras. The OM-D is aimed squarely at professionals and enthusiasts both in terms of quality and features, while the PEN series provides more compact cameras that are known for their fashionable reputation.
- Sony may lag behind more dedicated camera brands in terms of DSLRs, but they’ve secured a confident position for themselves as the leader in mirrorless technology. Sony mirrorless cameras by and large offer the best features and most cutting edge technology in the field. Despite this, they manage to offer their models at reliably mid-range prices. This isn’t a company afraid to take risks, and that’s paid dividends with the quality of both their autofocus and enhanced image stabilization systems.The Sony Alpha series is the most notable set of products in the company’s catalog. It’s a broad and diverse line with a decent pricing range. What’s consistent across the full range of Alpha cameras is how they pack great sensors into remarkably compact frames and manage to deliver all of that at reasonable price points.
Mirrorless Camera Maintenance
Now that you know why to choose mirrorless cameras, it’s time to discuss maintenance. These are expensive pieces of equipment, and if you want them to last, you’ll need to follow some basic maintenance procedures. Fortunately, things aren’t too complicated.
Mirrorless cameras attract dust easily, and that means that they need to be cleaned regularly. Particularly sensitive to detritus is the sensor. We recommend that you clean your sensor at least once a month or hire someone to do it for you, but be careful so as to not damage it. This video can show you how to clean a mirrorless camera sensor.
Apart from regular cleaning, good camera maintenance ultimately comes down to due diligence in your everyday activities. Have procedures in place for packing your camera in your bag, and always be sure to use straps when carrying it out in the open. Also be cautious about where you store your camera. Keeping your camera and other gear in a dry and dust-free environment will ensure it lasts longer.
So what are mirrorless cameras good for? Just about everything. Whether you’re an established professional or an aspiring photographer, a mirrorless camera offers just about all the advantages you’d find from a DSLR while minimizing many of the disadvantages. And as the tech develops further, mirrorless cameras are only going to become more sophisticated.