When mirrorless cameras were first introduced more than a decade ago, they weren’t considered sufficient for professional photography work. But in recent years, Panasonic, Sony, Olympus, and Leica have released serious mirrorless cameras, putting them in the same league as Canon and Nikon DSLRs, the long-time standard bearers for professional photographers. Fujifilm and Hasselblad have now even released digital medium format mirrorless cameras for serious professionals. It’s no longer a question: Mirrorless cameras are professional tools.
But which system is better for you? Let’s take a closer look!
If you’re already invested in a lens system, this may dictate your choices unless you have money to burn. Lens adapters (like this one from Metabones) are a nice option, but aren’t able to match native autofocus speed and reliability. That being said, I’ve have excellent results with the Panasonic GH5, Metabones Ultra 0.64x adapter, and Canon EF glass. I wouldn’t try to shoot sports or wildlife that way, but I’ve been able to get through portrait sessions without a problem.
Weight & Form Factor
Mirrorless cameras are generally far smaller and lighter than their DSLR counterparts. Once you remove the moving mirror, bodies can lose a lot of weight.
For example, the Canon 5D Mk IV body weighs in at 1.76 lb (800g), while its mirrorless competitor, the Sony a7R III, weighs 1.45 lb (657g). That may not seem like a lot, but when you’re schlepping gear up a mountain or even around the city, every ounce counts. The difference gets even more dramatic when you consider the weight of cropped sensor mirrorless cameras like the Olympus OM-D E-M1 (1.26 lb / 574g) or the Sony a6500 (15 oz. / 453g).
However, lighter bodies are often smaller, and folks with larger hands may enjoy the large and solid feeling of a traditional DSLR. Your mileage may vary, and it’s always good to rent a new body before making a big purchase. Ergonomics matter, and you’re better off discovering any problems with a rental than with a new purchase.
This one is a bit tricky. DSLRs have been around since the late 90s. They’re a known quantity and new releases are generally incremental updates over what has come before. They’re also easy to get locally serviced if you live in an urban area. If you don’t, you can always mail it to the manufacturer (though that applies for mirrorless cameras as well).
That being said, the moving mirror and shutter inside of the DSLR is designed for a limited number of actuations. Most professional and prosumer DSLR shutters are rated for ~150,000 actuations before needing a replacement, but if you’re a frequent shooter, this repair is inevitable and will cost you around $300.
Mirrorless cameras are a bit more of a mixed bag. Sony’s Alpha series has a fairly well-documented overheating problem, especially when shooting extremely long takes for video. Also, since there’s no mirror between the sensor and the outside world, dust on your sensor can lead to costly cleanings. Folks who shoot in the wilderness and change lenses in the field frequently will encounter this problem more often. To save money, mirrorless owners can buy a cleaning kit and handle it themselves. YouTube tutorials are your friend here.
To be blunt, mirrorless battery life is notoriously worse than that of DSLRs. If a mirrorless camera is on, it always has at least one screen active (either the electronic viewfinder or LCD screen), and this leads to prodigious battery drain. The newly-released Sony a7 III, with its improved battery life promises ~710 shots per charge, while the older Canon 5D Mk IV can deliver ~900 shots.
The situation gets worse for slightly older mirrorless cameras. Panasonic’s flagship GH5 can only manage 400 shots per battery. Even the very recent Sony a7R III only gets 530 shots! You can solve this problem by purchasing more batteries, but that cost can add up.
One of the most valuable advantages of mirrorless, in my experience, is “constant preview”. Because a mirrorless camera’s sensor is always on, you can preview what your exposure is going to look like. Rather than shooting and chimping, or counting on your exposure meter, you can see what you’re going to get just by looking through your viewfinder or at your rear screen.
That being said, I wouldn’t trust this for sports or fast action. Your shutter speed might be fast enough for a good shot of still subjects, but basketball players or sprinting cheetahs might be a different story. Keep in mind that constant preview will not help you if you’re shooting with strobes or speedlights – your EVF and back screen will most likely be extremely dark, because constant preview won’t take into account the additional light.
One drawback of this feature is that if you’re in dark conditions, composition becomes very difficult because all you’ll see is a dark screen. But you can always deactivate constant preview and meter your exposure the normal way.
Many recent mirrorless cameras feature internal image stabilization. This system keeps the image sensor steady when shooting handheld, allowing you to use slower shutter speeds. Even better, some mirrorless cameras can utilize image stabilization in both the lens and the sensor, providing multiple stops worth of stabilization.
This particularly comes in handy when you’re shooting handheld video. It’s not quite gimbal-equivalent, but if you’re good at doing the ninja walk, you can get pretty decent results.
Without a doubt, the best video-oriented, small-body cameras are mirrorless. The Panasonic GH5, GH5s, and Sony a7S II are two incredible standouts. While the early-millennium video revolution started with DSLR cameras, mirrorless cameras have picked up where they left off, with focus peaking, zebras, internal stabilization, and very good low light capability.
The DSLR market has been around forever, and thus there are tons of used, new, and third-party lenses and accessories available. It’s very easy to build your DSLR lens collection and never, ever pay full price. Want a discount TTL-capable speed light? Godox and Yongnuo have you covered for less than $200. You can find decent used professional-grade constant aperture zoom lenses for under $1000 from Tamron and Tokina. Sigma has a full range of tack-sharp, wide aperture prime lenses for a fraction of the price of comparable Canon or Nikon glass. DSLR users are spoiled for choice.
Despite the increased weight, a DSLR just feels great in your hand. It’s easy to feel like you have a firm grip on your camera, which is great for risky shots at high altitudes, wet conditions, or dangerous situations. On a mirrorless camera, your pinky finger may end up floating off in space, which feels very weird.
For Canon shooters, the user-created Magic Lantern firmware hack adds tons of features for video and stills shooters. While this is an unofficial, unsupported hack that could possibly brick your camera, I’ve had very good results with it on my Canon 60D. There is an incomparably large community behind Canon cameras, and that’s a hard thing to put a price on.
It’s very hard to buy a bad camera in 2018. Camera shopping is no longer about avoiding bad cameras, but rather ensuring that you prioritize the features that matter the most to you, while minimizing compromises on battery life, weight, and video performance. Whatever you choose, good luck and happy shooting!