In today’s world of digital photography, the technology is changing fast, sometimes faster than you can buy it. Yet our modern dSLRs use mirrors that are no longer essential for the operation of a digital camera. Mirrorless cameras are gaining traction quickly, with many professional photographers dropping their Canon or Nikon dSLRs to pick up a Sony or Olympus mirrorless system. Others are claiming that mirrorless is a fad, or is simply inferior to their dSLR cousins.
To be frank, neither type of system is perfect, and picking between the two should be based on the photographer’s style, subject, and other needs. Within the last year I switched from a Canon dSLR to a Sony mirrorless camera system, and I’m here to explain the reasons why. I’ve actually been so impressed with my mirrorless system that I’m soon upgrading my Sony a5000 to a Sony a6300!
But before I get into the reasons, let me explain my situation as a photographer. First of all, I’m a landscape photographer that regularly hikes miles into the backcountry to take photos. Often I am backpacking on an overnight hike, and with my shelter, sleeping bag, food, and other essentials, I can be carrying 40 pounds of weight. That’s before you even add in the camera gear. For me, size and weight of my camera gear is highly important.
I also shoot a lot on a tripod doing long exposures, and rarely am I firing shots at a fast rate. 98% of the time I use manual focus, and couldn’t care less how many autofocus points the camera has. Because I sell fine-art prints, I do need my camera to produce quality images that can be enlarged. That’s what I need from my camera, and here’s why I think mirrorless works best for me.
1. Size & Weight of Camera Body
Up to the present I have always used crop-sensor digital cameras, which are smaller and weigh less than a full-frame dSLR. For years my work-horse dSLR camera was a “relatively” small Canon T1i. It’s smaller than the vast majority of dSLRs, especially the ones professionals tend to use, weighing in at 1.1 pounds. Of course, that old Canon dwarfs the mirrorless camera I have now! My Sony a5000 body weights .6 pounds, nearly half the weight. It is also much smaller in size, and when equipped with the standard 18-50mm kit lens, it can fit into a coat pocket! Below is a side by side comparison of the camera bodies.
2. Size & Weight of Lenses
Mirrorless cameras are designed to save weight, and as a result, the lenses designed for these cameras are also designed to save weight! As a landscape photographer, I often shoot ultra-wide angle, so I purchased a Rokinon 12mm F2.0 lens that’s designed for crop-sensor mirrorless cameras. The field of view is BIG, and being a prime lens, it’s pretty darn sharp. It also has a fast f/2.0 aperture that is great for me when I shoot night sky shots and want to let in a lot of light. The lens is manual focus only, but that’s how I prefer to shoot anyway! So yes, I have an awesome, fast, ultra-wide lens that is perfect for what I do. Now get this: it only weighs .6 pounds! If I strap it on my a5000, their combined weight is basically the same as my old Canon body, BY ITSELF.
By going mirrorless, I’ve literally cut my camera weight IN HALF!
(Assuming that I’m only carrying one lens, but all my mirrorless lenses are smaller than the ones built for dSLRs!)
Below is a size comparison of the camera bodies with ultra-wide lenses attached.
3. Sensor Quality
As a qualifier, I’ll say that this has less to do about dSLR vs. mirrorless, and more to do about who makes the sensor. Sony produces their own sensors, as well as the Nikon sensors, and they generally produce sharper images than their Canon counterparts. Check out this comparison page on sensor quality at dxomark.com and see for yourself. You can also use the magic of Google to find more information.
How about some anecdotal evidence from my own experience:
To be completely honest, I had no idea about the difference in sensor quality until after I got my Sony a5000. My first indication was the first time I opened some RAW images from my Sony. I immediately thought that they looked much crisper than my old Canon images. Yes, the Sony is a newer camera. But the sensor sizes are the same, the the Sony is only a few megapixels larger in size. Sure enough, I toggled back and forth between the two types of images in Lightroom, and Sony definitely had the edge in sharpness. Literally straight out of the camera.
After some research, I found out why. The big factor among others, is that Canon puts an unnecessarily large anti-aliasing filter on their sensor. But if you’re skeptical, do your own research, and make your own call.
4. Easier Manual Focusing
As someone that does an incredible amount of manual focusing, any features that can assist me in doing this better are highly valued! Sony has a feature called Focus Peaking. When it’s enabled, Focus Peaking adds colored outlines (your choice of yellow, white, or red) to the edge of objects on the camera’s LCD, indicating which parts of the frame are in focus. It’s a godsend that helps me quickly focus my shots without needing autofocus!
5. Increased Depth of Field
As a landscape photographer, almost all of my photos require a depth of field that covers everything in the image. Because a mirrorless camera has no mirror, the lens attaches very close to the sensor, allowing for a greater depth of field, even at smaller apertures. On my Canon, I was constantly shooting at f/11, f/14, or f/16 to achieve the depth of field I needed. Nowadays, I can shoot f/8 or sometimes even f/5 and still the DOF that I need. This also makes my images sharper because there is less defraction, and also allows me more leeway to shoot handheld because my shutter speeds can be faster. The image below showcases how the Sony camera allows me to get excellent results.
For what I do, I’ve found a mirrorless camera system to be superior to a dSLR. However, I do not intend the purpose of this article to be to convince YOU that a mirrorless camera is the way for YOU to go. That’s for YOU to decide. I’m simply showing why I place such value on my Sony mirrorless system, and I hope that you can pull some value from it to relate to your own photography needs!
For those of you shooting full-frame, note that many pro photographers are currently switching to the Sony a7R II.