The camera market is changing a lot at the moment. The big two—Canon and Nikon—have just launched mirrorless cameras with loads of fanfare, press, and drama. So, is now the time for you to switch to mirrorless? Let’s take a look.
What Does Mirrorless Even Mean?
A digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera contains a mirror that redirects light up to the viewfinder. When you press the shutter button, the mirror snaps out of the way, and the light hits the photosensor instead.
A mirrorless camera doesn’t have a mirror (mirror-less, geddit?). Instead, light is always hitting the sensor. When you take a photo, it just gets recorded. If there’s even a viewfinder, it’s an electronic one.
By removing the mirror, camera manufacturers save a bit of weight and space (though we’ll discuss how much in a moment). Canon and Nikon have also used it as an opportunity to develop new lens mounts.
Crop Sensors and Full Frame Sensors
Right, now that we’re all up to speed on what a mirrorless camera is, there’s one more thing we need to look at before diving in: full frame and crop sensor cameras.
In brief, there are two main sensor sizes: 35mm (or full frame) and APS-C (or crop sensors). 35mm sensors are the same size as 35mm film and are used in high-end professional cameras. APS-C sensors are about two-thirds the size and are cheaper to produce. Generally speaking, larger sensors are better.
Mirrorless cameras, or at least the successful ones, also fall into these categories. Canon and Sony both make full frame and APS-C sensor mirrorless cameras; Nikon currently only makes full frame mirrorless cameras.
The Low-End Mirrorless Market Isn’t Competitive Yet
There has been a lot of press and noise about Canon and Nikon’s entry into the mirrorless market since so far it has been mostly a Sony-only show. So, you’d be forgiven for not realizing that Canon and Nikon’s new cameras are all expensive, full frame offerings. To be a bit unfair, they’re just repackaged versions of their existing high-end cameras, but without a mirror along and with a line of new lenses.
This means that the low-end mirrorless market still isn’t particularly competitive. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great cameras like the Sony Alpha a6000, which I wrote more about over at Review Geek, but bodies like Canon’s EOS M50 still leave a lot to be desired.
If you’re in the market for a new high-end camera and have a few grand to drop, then there has never been a better time to go mirrorless, but if you’re looking for something cheaper, then the options just aren’t as good—especially if you already have a decent camera.
You Don’t Save Much Size and Weight
One of the early hopes for mirrorless cameras is that you’d be able to get the same high quality gear in a smaller, lighter package. That hasn’t really happened.
Mirrorless cameras are a little bit smaller and lighter than the equivalent DSLR—the Canon 5D MKIV weighs 890g, the Canon EOS R weighs 660g—but the lenses haven’t changed size.
As photographer Dan Carr writes over at Shuttermuse, if anything, camera manufacturers are making bigger and heavier lenses now than they were a few years ago. For example, the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L II weighs 805g; the Canon RF 28-70 f/2 L weighs a whopping 1430g. Whatever weight savings are gained by the camera are lost by the lens.
It’s the same across the board. Lenses are limited by how much smaller and lighter they can be because of the physical properties of light and lenses. Instead, camera makers are making them better, which also means making them bigger.
The Lens Ecosystems Are Less Mature
One of the best things about mirrorless cameras is that by removing the mirror, the distance between the lens and the sensor is shortened so you can use an adapter to mount lenses developed for different cameras.
Both Canon and Nikon have launched their cameras with adapters so that their existing set of lenses will mostly work with their new cameras, at least until they’ve developed and released enough new lenses to fill in all the holes in their line up. There have been adapters for Sony’s cameras for years.
The problem is that an adapter is kind of a stop-gap solution. Stuff like autofocus is always worse when using an adapter than a native lens. They also add yet more size and bulk.
Right now, there have never been more or better DSLR lenses available. The mirrorless lens ecosystems are getting better, and all the manufacturers have promising looking roadmaps, but they’re not there yet.
A Lot More is Coming Down the Pipeline
The EOS R, Z6, and Z7 are Canon and Nikon’s first serious forays into the mirrorless market. You can guarantee they have a lot more in the pipeline.
There’s always a risk with jumping on a trend early. The first version of something typically has the most bugs that need to be ironed out. Mirrorless cameras are no different.
Sony has been making mirrorless cameras for almost a decade, and their ecosystem is finally maturing. For a long time, people were relying on adapters and Canon lenses to fill the gaps in Sony’s lineup. Canon and Nikon are throwing a lot of weight into their mirrorless programs, so I wouldn’t expect to have to wait that long.
I also suspect—and this is pure speculation—that both have crop sensor mirrorless cameras that use their new mounts in development. That would be very interesting since an affordable, small mirrorless camera is an important stepping stone for people switching to a new system.
Should You Switch?
So, back to the question that started this whole article. Is now the time to switch to a mirrorless camera?
While the decision is up to you and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I’d been considering it, realistically, there’s not a huge reason to switch just yet. With Canon and Nikon finally entering the market for real, we’re probably going to see a lot of rapid change in the next two or three years. Unless you want the (tiny) weight and size savings of a mirrorless camera or have to upgrade anyway, you’re better to wait and see what happens next.
I know that’s my plan.