What You Need to Know About Mirrorless Cameras

Mirrorless camera with lenses

Mirrorless camera with lenses

Mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, more commonly referred to simply as mirrorless cameras, are cameras that combine the small size of compact point-and-shoots with the superior image sensors of digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras. As their image quality improves, they are becoming increasingly popular among photographers.

What’s the Difference Between a Mirrorless Camera and DSLR?

To understand exactly what makes a mirrorless camera a mirrorless camera, it’s easiest to compare it to a DSLR, which, at least until recently, was thought of as the industry standard for high-quality cameras.

When it comes to image quality, mirrorless cameras are starting to compete with DSLRs. Most mirrorless cameras are equipped with the same APS-C sensor as consumer level DSLRs. Since the debut of the first mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, the Epson R-D1, in 2004, the technology has improved tremendously. Though the subject is certainly open for debate, many philosophers of the photography world predict that mirrorless cameras will eventually make DSLRs obsolete. Until that happens, though, it helps to understand the notable distinctions between the two camera systems.

DSLR Cameras

A DSLR has a mirror in front of its sensor that flips up when you press the shutter button. The mirror serves to show you what your image looks like through the lens by reflecting your scene up into the optical viewfinder. In order to give you an appropriate, right-side-up, through-the-lens view, the mirrored image must be reflected through a prism that’s housed inside the camera body.

To accommodate the mirror and prism that enable an optical viewfinder, the camera’s body must be rather spacious. The space makes for a long flange to focal distance (i.e., the distance between the image sensor and the lens mounting ring). More glass and specialized components are necessary to correct for the added space between the lens and the sensor. In addition, fancy and costly lens designs are required to correct for distortion, chromatic aberration, sharpness throughout the frame, etc.

Mirrorless Cameras

As the name implies, mirrorless cameras are not equipped with the flip-up mirror that makes an optical viewfinder function in a DSLR. Mirrorless cameras have no go-between component between the lens and the sensor. Instead, these cameras are outfitted with an electronic viewfinder or have no viewfinder at all. Photographers look at the LCD or look through the EVF to compose images. The shorter flange to focal distance in a mirrorless system means that lens designs are simpler and the lenses tend to cost less to manufacture.

Mirrorless cameras often fit into two different design categories. Many of the newest models have a rangefinder-inspired aesthetic, usually with no electronic viewfinder. Other models are miniature DSLR look-alikes. This latter design generally includes an EVF.

Some of the most popular models in both categories of mirrorless systems are the Canon EOS M, Fujifilm X Pro1, Nikon 1 V2, Olympus OM-D EM-5, Panasonic Lumix GX-1, Pentax Q10, Samsung NX1000, and Sony NEX-7. In a race to the top, camera manufacturers are coming out with better features at lightning speed.

Because new technology is being released for mirrorless cameras every day, it’s difficult to compile an accurate, up-to-date rundown of general pros and cons, let alone the latest specific models. With that in mind, below are some of the current advantages and disadvantages of mirrorless cameras:

Pros of Mirrorless Systems

  • Electronic viewfinders can be used, rather than the LCD, to review photos on sunny days
  • Small size is less intrusive/intimidating for subjects
  • Lighter and smaller than DSLRs
  • Potentially less expensive than DSLRs of comparable quality, though price ranges vary
  • Interchangeable lenses (adapters are available for using old, manual focus lenses)

Cons of Mirrorless Systems

  • Slower autofocus times, compared to DSLRs, particularly when tracking moving subjects
  • Fewer new lens choices due to the relative newness of the technology
  • Few options for wireless TTL control of off-camera flash
  • Shorter battery life due to the constant use of the LCD or electronic viewfinder

As with any technology, consumers must weigh the pros and cons to determine what’s best for their needs. For great image quality from any kind of camera, it all comes down to a good quality lens and a good sensor. Mirrorless cameras are making waves in the photography world as new models give them advantages over other types of digital cameras. They are certainly worth consideration when you make your next camera purchase.

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Profile photo of Nicoal Price About Nicoal Price

​Nicoal is a New England photographer with a penchant for learning. Her work ranges from nature-inspired portraiture to outdoor product photography. Visit nicoalprice.com for more info.

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