Curious About Mirrorless?

By Paul Nguyen

Nearly two years ago, I made the decision to switch to shooting with a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, the Sony A7r II, as my main camera body for landscape photography, and relegating my reliable veteran Canon 5D Mk III to the role of benchwarmer. I had shot with other mirrorless systems before, like the Lumix and Olympus Micro-Four-Thirds cameras, but I had always seen them more as my fun, leisure-time cameras, more akin to a point-and-shoot than a serious workhorse. But, with the Sony, my eyes were opened to the future of photography for both amateurs and professionals, and I saw that, in the rapidly changing world of camera technology, “traditional” digital SLRs from the likes of Canon and Nikon were soon going to be more likely found in museums than in camera bags. 

What makes a mirrorless a mirrorless?

These things have been around for ten years give or take, and people used to call them Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras (MILCs) when they first came out ten years ago, but quickly found out that that was too complicated, so now if you say “mirrorless” people know you are referring to one of these, even though point-and-shoots, action cams (like GoPro) and smartphones are also technically mirrorless cameras.  So in our modern world, what we call a mirrorless camera is just like a DSLR, in the sense that you can swap out the lens, but there is no optical viewfinder and mirror apparatus, so you can only see a live digital representation of your scene on the back of the camera, just like when you take pictures with your smartphone. Even though a mirrorless can have a viewfinder, when you look through it, you will also see a digital view of your scene, much like the one on the rear LCD screen of your camera.  You can also use the viewfinder to review your images, see the histogram, and make changes to menu settings. 

Why is this good?

Without a mirror and optical viewfinder, a camera can be a lot smaller and lighter. 

We may think of a DSLR as being based on a film SLR, but actually my Canon 5D mkIII full frame DSLR (left) dwarfs my old Nikon FE2 film camera (middle).  All those electronics make a camera bulky.  But without an optical pentaprism apparatus, my Sony A7r II (right) has brought cameras more or less back to the size of their ancestors, despite having over 30 extra years of technology under the hood. Strange how some things come full circle.

Also, for beginner photographers who have become really used to taking pictures with their smartphones, transitioning to a mirrorless is easier than trying to get used to seeing the scene optically and thinking about how that would look as a photograph.  With a digital view, what the picture looks like before you take it is more or less what it looks like after you take it.  You can preview the effects of exposure compensation, white balance adjustments, color settings, depth of field, etc, all BEFORE the picture is even taken, which you can’t do with an optical viewfinder.  If you are a DSLR user, think of this as like using the “Live View” feature, but you also get to use it in the viewfinder. 

If you take pictures outdoors a lot, one of the most frustrating aspects of digital photography is trying to look at your captured images on the LCD on a bright sunny day.  But with a digital viewfinder, you can review your images, histograms, and shooting data in the viewfinder where the brightness of your environment is a non-factor. This might actually be the most useful aspect of mirrorless cameras for me, much more so than the weight and size savings.

Why is this bad?

Coming from a DSLR background, and before that a film SLR background, looking through the viewfinder of a mirrorless and not seeing the “natural” view of the scene that I was used to was a huge adjustment - and dare I say a disappointment?  A shock even?  And I’d imagine that many traditional shooters would feel the same way.  But like with many things, true bliss comes from meeting things halfway.  Technology wasn’t going to adapt to me, so I figured I would adapt to the technology. So I came to realize over time that the unique properties of mirrorless cameras were not necessarily bad features at all, but just something to get used to, and then later embraced.  Like the bitterness of a fine craft beer, mirrorless is an acquired taste, and those that never learn to appreciate it - well they’re just missing out!

Okay, then there’s the part that’s still really, really bad:  The battery life of mirrorless cameras is horrible, sucky, and atrocious. There are two reasons for this:  1) The digital LCD and/or viewfinder need to be on all the time, for both image preview and image review, so this drains batteries much faster than DSLRs, which only need the LCD for image review, while composing images with the optical viewfinder is a more passive process.  2) Not having an optical viewfinder and mirror enables mirrorless cameras to be physically smaller overall, but a smaller body size also means the battery itself needs to be smaller, and thus has less capacity.  The good news is this is surely a fixable problem.  As engineers continue to find ways to cram more battery capacity into smaller and smaller cases, we’ll see the battery life of mirrorless cameras improving.

What are my workarounds for the difficulties of switching to a mirrorless system?  

Having been established in the Canon DSLR system for years, I naturally had a pretty good arsenal of lenses for the Canon EOS mount. You’d think that switching to Sony mirrorless would mean spending yet more thousands of dollars to buy all Sony glass, and selling all my awesome Canon L glass to fund my defection. But fortunately there’s a great adapter made by Metabones that let’s me use all my Canon EOS lenses on my Sony, AND retains electronic communication between the lens and the body, so I can still use Autofocus and electronic aperture control.  The adapter costs about $400, and the Autofocus operates a bit more slowly than it would for a native lens.  But when thousands of dollars are saved, there’s a lot I can make do with.  So I have in effect created a hybrid system, with a Canon front end and a Sony back end.  A chimera, if you will. 

And how do I deal with the fact that mirrorless camera battery life sucks?  The same way the evil empire in Star Wars deals with its inadequacies:  Sheer numbers.  I now carry six batteries for my Sony, which last as long as two batteries would for my Canon.  You can buy batteries from Wasabi power which work as well as the real Sony batteries but cost much less.

So what clinched it for me?  And is mirrorless actually better?

I now shoot exclusively with my Sony A7r II for landscape work, and never touch the Canon anymore for that particular discipline.  To be clear, there is nothing inherent to mirrorless cameras that makes them better than their mirrored cousins. I just choose the best camera for the job, and, with the A7r II, Sony has created an overall better camera for the task of capturing challenging landscape images, and it’s all about the quality of the sensor and not much else. The Sony has better dynamic range, so I can capture all the bright and dark areas of a sunset scene without having to take multiple exposures. And the low-light performance of the Sony is better, so I can take high-ISO shots of the night sky with less noise than I would with the Canon.
The things that surprisingly did not factor into the decision much, or actually counted against Sony were:

  • The Sony’s 42 Megapixel file size.  Rarely does anyone need this much resolution.  I made use of this much resolving power for exactly 6 images that I made for the Museum of Science in Boston, that were enlarged to 10-foot murals.  For pretty much every other image I’ve made, I’ve cursed at how much space it takes up on my memory card and hard drive, how long it takes to transfer and load the file, and how laggy it makes my  Lightroom software. 
  • The size and weight savings of the mirrorless. After adding the lens adapter, and still using my enormous Canon L series lenses, I’m not really working with much smaller of a camera kit than I was before. 
  • Ergonomics and ease of use.  Canon would still win out on this one. The controls on Canon cameras are easier to reach and are placed more sensibly than the Sony’s.  And if I were to assess Sony’s menu system while trying to be nice, I would say it takes some getting used to.  And if I were to be honest, I’d say it’s atrocious. But the fact that I’m willing to compromise here tells you just how amazing the Sony’s sensor really is.
  • Robustness.  The build of the Canon is still tougher, and the weather sealing more thorough.  There still isn’t a truly rugged mirrorless out there. And the fact that the Canon batteries last much longer also makes it a better camera for extremely cold weather shooting (which depletes batteries like you wouldn’t believe). But I was willing to compromise again on these points, which is another testament to the superiority of the Sony’s sensor.  

The great news about the photography scene these days is you really can’t buy a bad camera anymore.  Every camera out there, mirrorless or mirrored, creates great images in the right hands. You just have to pick the right one for your needs.  Not all mirrorless cameras have the incredible dynamic range or low-light capabilities of the Sony’s, but not all of them have the inane ergonomics or menu system either. And many DSLRs are now incorporating Sony sensors into their technology, so you can have a great sensor in a traditional-styled but bulkier body. You just have to pick what features you want to have in your next camera and which downfalls you’re willing to work with or adapt to. The key is to do your research in advance, and ask the right people for advice.  Yes, I am willing to answer camera questions for you!  

Has mirrorless finally “arrived”?  

Not quite, but it’s close.  The selection of lenses available for mirrorless cameras is still not as comprehensive as what you can choose from for your Canon or Nikon DSLR.  But as mirrorless is becoming more and more popular every year, the demand for lenses grows, and manufacturers are steadily filling the gaps in lens selection.  Soon you gearheads can buy that enormous 600mm prime lens for your mirrorless body, and negate all your size and weight savings.  But as it stands now, mirrorless seem to be the next step in the evolution of the camera, as traditional shooters seek to continually minimize the size and weight of their kits while retaining a high image quality, and new and younger shooters who have only ever used smartphones and have no longing for optical viewfinders look for a more fully-featured camera to explore their photographic passion. 

The proof is in the pudding

Here are some of my favorite images taken with my mirrorless Sony A7r II: