Should You Drop Your DSLR and Go Mirrorless?

By on May 2, 2016 in How To
Should You Drop Your DSLR and Go Mirrorless?

"Mirrorless" cameras are getting good. Really good. While we've all been discussing the death of the point-and-shoot at the hand of the iPhone, mirrorless cameras have gradually been making their way into the professional category by boosting quality and performance. But how far have they really come? Can a professional photographer really scrap DSLRs and go mirrorless?

I'm a Skeptic

I've been shooting with my DSLR for years and I simply love it. Aside from maybe one day dropping my 5D Mark II in favor of a Mark III, I didn't think any argument would have me questioning my choice in gear any time soon. That being said, I've seen a lot of top-notch shooters singing the praises of cameras like the Sony a6000 lately, and it has my interest piqued to say the least.

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The Sony a6000

What is a "Mirrorless" Camera?

DSLRs take light in through the lens, bounce it around in a box, then direct it to the viewfinder so you can see what your camera sees.

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Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

In contrast, a mirrorless camera simply displays what the sensor is recording, doing away with the need for a mirror assembly (DSLRs also have this option, but still need the mirror for the viewfinder).

What's The Benefit of Going Mirrorless?

So there's no mirror, big deal right? What's the tangible benefit here? There are a few actually.

Size and Weight

If you've ever had a shoot last 8-10 hours, you'll know that lugging around a DSLR that seemed light at the beginning of the day gets old pretty fast. Mirrorless cameras tend to be smaller and lighter than their DSLR counterparts, saving room in your camera bag and postponing that inevitable neck surgery by a few years.

Price

Mirrorless cameras are also typically cheaper than a DSLR by a few hundred bucks or more, and as we'll see later, you can often achieve comparable specs. That being said, like DSLRs, there are mirrorless cameras for every budget and you can certainly find high end models north of $1,500.

Live View Only?

Since you're ditching the mirror, there's no viewfinder, which means you can only do live view shooting. Some sites list this as a pro for various reasons, but I'm not exactly convinced that taking away a feature constitutes a benefit. DSLRs have live view shooting and viewfinders, so I'm giving this one to the DSLRs. Feel free to disagree!

It Can't Possibly Match My Specs, Can It?

Here's the real question. If you're used to DSLR quality photography, will you have to sacrifice your expectations to move to a mirrorless camera?

Megapixels

My beloved Canon 5D Mark II has 21.1 megapixels, the upgraded Mark III has 22.1. Beat that mirrorless! Not so fast, the Samsung NX1 is cheaper (around $1,500) than either of those cameras and has a whopping 28.2 MP. Heck, even the Sony a6000, mentioned above, has 24.3 MP and can be found for about $600.

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The Samsung NX1

ISO

Frankly, I don't give a rip about megapixels. For me, it's all about the low light performance, which means we're talking ISO. The standard ISO range on my 5D Mk II is 100-6400, expanded up to 50-25,600. Cheaper mirrorless cameras typically have around a 100-25,600 range while the more expensive models like the Sony Alpha a7 match my DSLR at 50-25,600 (some of these cameras can even extend that to 51,200!).

Note that ISO range ≠ ISO performance. Some cameras perform better at ISO 3200 than others at ISO 800. For that, Photographylife has a nice color noise comparison of shots taken with various mirrorless models.

Video

I've got it! My 5D Mark II doubles as a video camera! It shoots full HD video. There's no way your dinky little mirrorless models can do that, right? Wrong. Most good mirrorless cameras can tackle HD video. In fact, some of them, like the Samsung NX1, even shoot 4K video, with tracking autofocus to boot.

Going Mirrorless: The Cons

By now it probably looks like I'm only going to sing the praises of mirrorless cameras, but as I mentioned, I'm a deeply skeptical person when it comes to giving up my Canon, so I was eager to dig into the downsides of going mirrorless. Here are a few.

Battery Life

Smaller cameras equate to smaller batteries. Some of the more affordable mirrorless cameras boast a 320 shot battery. Hold the phone. 320 shots!? I take more than 320 photos at a wedding before I ever even see the bride and groom.

I can shoot all day on my 5D Mark II. 90% of the time, I make it through an 8 hour wedding on a single battery, and we're talking 2,000+ photos. The mirrorless Panasonic GH4 is supposed to get 500 shots per battery, which is admittedly better than 320, but still far from ideal in my book.

Lenses

One thing that makes "professional" mirrorless lines better than your mom's point-and-shoot is the fact that they have interchangeable lenses. For major brands like Sony, you'll definitely be able to find some beautiful, high quality lenses. That being said, these cameras simply aren't as established as major DLSR lines like Canon and Nikon, so you're not going to find the depth or breadth of lens options that you're used to. And no, your current lenses aren't going to work, so you'll be starting from scratch.

You Might Not Look as Cool

This one is totally superficial, but many photographers secretly think of it right away. When I walk into a wedding with my 5D Mark II with a Canon 70-200 on the front, I get lots of oohs and ahhhs. It's a huge setup and it makes me look like I know what I'm doing, even if it does kill my back to the point that I'm limping by the end of the day.

Now, if you walk in with a mirrorless camera, odds are, the guests at the wedding will have cameras that are bigger than yours. This might cause you to feel inferior, or worse, cause your clients to make you think you're really just an amateur.

As far as I'm concerned, if I think a camera is the best tool for the job, I'll use it and let my photos do the talking.

Which Mirrorless Cameras are the Best?

Tomsguide has a great comparison of some of the best and most affordable mirrorless cameras on the market. Here are some of the models that they favor in that review:

  • Samsung NX300 (Best Mirrorless Camera for Beginners)
  • Sony Alpha a6000 (Best Intermediate Mirrorless Camera)
  • Samsung NX30 (Best Mirrorless Camera for Enthusiasts)
  • Olympus OM-D EM-1 (Best Rugged Mirrorless Camera)
  • Sony Alpha a7 (Best Pro Mirrorless Camera)
  • Panasonic GH4 (Best 4K Mirrorless Camera)
  • Samsung NX1 (Best Pro/4K Mirrorless Camera Candidate)
  • Sony Alpha a5100 (Best Midrange Mirrorless Camera Candidate)

Who's Talking About Mirrorless Cameras?

Mirrorless cameras sound all well and good, but can a pro really consider replacing his/her DSLR kit with a mirrorless setup? Here are some videos of pros talking about how much they love mirrorless cameras.

10 Reasons Why a Professional Photographer Left Nikon and Started Shooting with Sony

In this video, photography Jason Lanier discusses why he switched to mirrorless cameras. I highly recommend giving this a watch as it was the catalyst for my endeavor to delve into the world of mirrorless cameras.

The Mirrorless Revolution

In this video, Michael Reichmann & Kevin Raber discuss how they believe the DSLR market will begin shrinking as the mirrorless camera segment grows.

(This video was not embeddable, go here to watch.)

Studio Portraits with Mirrorless Cameras and Off-Camera Flash

Worried about what mirrorless means for your off-camera flash shots? Me too. Here Joe Brady with Picket Wizard gets some awesome results with a mirrorless/off camera flash setup.

What Do You Think?

Whether you shoot with a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Do you think mirrorless cameras are the future? Would you consider buying one any time soon? In ten years, will the DSLR still hold its position as the number one choice for professional photographers? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.


Header image created using Nature photographer..

Josh Johnson is the Inbound Marketing Manager for Creative Market. He's equal parts writer, editor, designer, and photographer.

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20 Comments

  1. Good article. I do alot of professional shoots with my 5DMKii and like you said. I show up with a 5DMKii and a 70-200mm and people always take me seriously haha. (It is a serious piece). But I recently bought a Sony A6000 for video work because I like that it can do 60fps for slow mo. I also bought a Metabones speedbooster to attach all my canon lenses. The issue here is that the autofocus through the adapter isn't good enough for quick auto focus and isnt 100% on sometimes. So I caved and bought two Sony lenses. 50mm f1.8 and 35mm f1.8. Holy crap! This camera is fast! The autofocus is instant and locks on tracking moving subjects like it's nothing. Those lenses also have IS. So you can drop the shutter a bit. The thing I'm tyring to get use to is the live view finder as it's just a digital screen in the eye piece. It feels weird but isn't laggy. It's just something to think about if you want to switch or pick up a mirrorless camera.

  2. Awesome article @Josh Johnson! I'm in the market for a serious camera body upgrade and have been wondering about all these points. Honestly, my current camera is bad enough that any mirrorless camera would be way better. I just don't like the fact that I have a bunch of lenses that I wouldn't be able to use anymore.

  3. Thanks Josh, I'm in the market for a new camera right now. Is it possible for you to show some comparison photos so we can get a better idea of the quality of mirror vs mirrorless?

  4. @Derek - Creativenauts in regards to mirrorless versus DSLR, the same general photographic principles would apply. If you take the same lens and same sensors, iso etc. the photo should technically turn out the same. You'd basically want to determine how you will be shooting and make sure the mirrorless meets the same criteria you have for a DSLR.

  5. @Stephen Hallgren @Josh Johnson thank you both. I'm a newb and would like to improve my photography skills so I can start creating more products geared towards textures and brushes. Currently I have a cannon rebel but I'm not 100% satisfied with the outcome of my photos. I have tried to not use any of the automatic settings but still having a rough time getting shots that have a professional grade look to them. Going to checkout these comparison links. Thanks!

  6. @Derek - Creativenauts I have a very old Rebel and would have to say that the lens used is a much bigger determining factor than the body used. Also, the ISO speed is the other thing that bites me in the rear with my old camera since it means that I'm extremely limited to how good the lighting is. I think any decent body nowadays will get you want you want from an ISO/sensor perspective and picking a good lens will get you the rest of the way.

    Of course having nice equipment won't help if you don't know how to use it properly and then there's composition and post-processing. Those things are just something you have to perfect over time and through practice.

  7. Sorry for the amateur question but: won't a super- high ISO result in a ridiculously grainy/noisy photo?

  8. @Shelly Laslo depends on the camera (really, the camera's sensor). For instance, I have a cheap camera and an expensive camera. My expensive camera performs better at 1600 ISO than my cheap one does at 800. Generally, a camera with terrible ISO performance won't even bother letting you go into super high ranges because there would be no point. In the case of the mirrorless cameras here, they actually have some pretty awesome sensors given their low price point.

  9. Camera/technology has developed immensely and is only going to get better. I like the fact it's now more accessible, less bulky equipment to carry about!

  10. Well no thanks, I would stick to my DSLR for a long time as it seems now. Thanks for this great article :-)

  11. After using 4 different Canon DSLRs, I purchased a Sony NEX5 of the first series. Soon I got two of them for video recording. I now switched to the "older" Sony Nex7 for the viewfinder and the dials and mostly because it is on sale here at the moment. Soon afterwards I sold my whole DSLR equipment.
    This is the camera I will have always with me incl. 3 lenses and thus never miss a moment. The Quality of this 24MP APS-C Sensor is brilliant and the possibility to use old M42 lenses is giving special results in a small package. I still think for clients it might look a bit like a toy, but I don't do weddings any more. The next step would be the Sony A7 with full format sensor.
    I started to take video footage at night now for the stockmarket and the camera has very little noise. Example: http://vimeo.com/114499499

    See my photos here at CM for other examples if you are interested in the output.

  12. Great article! I wonder why Fujifilm cameras don't show up here. I have read some reviews and testimonials of photographers going mirrorless (they agreed with this article as well). Fujifilm's color rendition is great, and the xt1 model (clearly their most ambitious dslr-like camera) comes with some impressive features as well.

  13. I made the switch from Canon DSLRs to the Fuji XE-1 and I couldn't be happier. Newer and better models in the Fuji x series have come along since I purchased, but I'm so happy with what I have that I don't plan to upgrade for awhile. Their lenses are absolutely superb.

  14. Would love some input from the authors of this column, or other readers. I own a 15 year old Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT. I have three lenses - a 75-300mm, 28-80mm, and a 50mm 1.8. I have gotten lots of pleasure out of the camera but find lately I just never want to lug out and always end up taking pictures with my phone. I'm not a professional, but I like good photos and enjoy fiddling with manual settings when I can. First question: do you think I will get a lot of value out of buying a new camera? My old one works JUST FINE and I have no complaints other than that it's heavy.
    Second, if I do replace it do you think I should go with a new Canon Digital Rebel body (SL1 probably) so I can use my old lenses? OR, should I go with a mirrorless camera maybe the Sony A6000. I know that's lighter and I like that it's more modern, has wifi. But, I have gotten so used to my DSLR and I hate to lose my lenses. Any suggestions?
    Thank you!!!

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