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Step 4Mirrorless Buying Guide - 2015 Edition

Buying

To buy or not to buy, that is the question addressed in Step 3 - this page - of the Mirrorless Camera Guide. For general information on what mirrorless cameras are and compare, start reading from Step 1.

Deciding to Buy a Mirrorless Camera

The biggest question potential buyers have is whether they should buy a mirrorless camera or another type of camera. Of course, this depends on the intended use and what one already has. In general, photographic gear someone owns greatly influences their interest in mirrorless cameras. Hence this section is divided according to various scenarios. Pay attention to the one closest to your current situation.

First-Time Digital Camera Buyer

Those with no camera at all or with something rather inconvenient for day-to-day use such as a film camera.

Who you are

Perhaps you cannot borrow your neighbor's camera each time your kids have a play or when your parents left on vacation, leaving you without a camera. You are now camera-less and want something to capture moments around you. Among various types of cameras to consider, mirrorless cameras stand out due to their high image-quality without the large bulk of a DSLR.

What you will like about a mirrorless

The image quality from most mirrorless cameras is comparable to that of a DSLR. With larger sensors, it even remains comparable in relatively low light. Shots in typical indoor social situations such as parties, gatherings, dinners out, etc. fall into this category.

Mirrorless cameras are very versatile and they have manual controls for you to experiment with photography but work quite well in fully automatic mode. There is room to grow as you may add lenses as needs arise.

What you may not appreciate

Despite being relatively small, a mirrorless camera has trouble fitting even in the largest pockets. If you usually carry a purse or small pack with you, this will not be a problem. However, if you are not used to carrying anything outside of your pockets, it will take some time to get used to.

Those with no inclination for learning photography may find a mirrorless too complicated. There is sensor-dust to worry about and you have to be careful while changing lenses. Learning your way around the interface is necessary as well. For a purely point-and-shoot experience a quality compact can feel less intimidating.

Cellphone Lens

Cellphone or Ultra-Compact Owner

People taking photos with something that is not a camera or a pocket-size ultra-compact with a tiny sensor.

Who you are

You take pictures, probably a huge number of them because you always have a photo-capable device with you. The main issue though is image quality which goes from low - in good light - to abysmal - in low-light. You also often get shots of people moving out of the frame because of the slow shutter-lag.

What you will like about a mirrorless

A compact mirrorless camera can dramatically increase the quality of your images. Even the slowest ones are faster than your phone and plenty are significantly so. The shallow depth-of-field lets you isolate subjects better and make images that have a greater impact.

You can be far more creative with a mirrorless and having different lenses to choose from really adds variety to your images. Photos of people can look much more natural with the right lens compared to a fixed focal-length cellphone lens.

What you may not appreciate

It is big compared to what you are used to. Even the smallest models are larger than what you have and will not fit in your pocket. However, any of those has better quality and more versatility.

For cellphone users, particularly of Smart-Phones, you probably like having one device that is your phone, MP3 player, GPS, camera, video game, etc. The mirrorless camera however will be one more thing to carry and keep charged. Most also are not able to share images right away, so you may want a mirrorless camera with WiFi or to buy one which is compatible with an EyeFi or FlashAir card.

Pentax K-5 IIs

DSLR Owner

Anyone with a decent DSLR already. Either a full-frame or APS-C DSLR of the last five or so years.

Who you are

Image quality is very important to you and you got a DSLR just for that reason. It feels big and even more bulky with a bag full of lenses. You shoot a wide variety of subjects and are used to a camera that responds instantly and outputs quality images under the most demanding conditions.

After owning a DSLR for a while, you realize that plenty of photo opportunities pass you by because you often leave your gear at home since it is so cumbersome. There is no way you would give up much on image quality, so you have been waiting for a breakthrough among mirrorless cameras.

What you will like about a mirrorless

Image quality. Unless you have a recent full-frame DSLR, image quality can be just as good or even better than your current gear. You should probably go for a model with a large sensor and look at higher-end optics when you choose lenses.

Mirrorless cameras can become quickly familiar to DSLR users. The higher-end models have dual or triple control-dials, a mode-dial and highly customizable interface. You are already comfortable with changing lenses and cleaning sensor-dust, so these will not surprise you.

What you may not appreciate

The electronic viewfinder or - god forbid - having no viewfinder at all takes the most time getting accustomed to. The view is different and more tiresome to the eye. It can lag behind fast action and the contrast is troublesome for some scenes. At least, there are better odds of knowing what an exposure will look like and you can frame with an ND-filter in place.

Autofocus is generally slower, particularly in low-light. While a number of mirrorless cameras focus extremely fast, finding one with both outstanding image quality and ultra-fast autofocus is rare. Be prepared to accept a compromise.

Lenses quickly become the majority of your investment in a system. Unless you sell your DSLR gear, you will have another system to buy for. You may consider one which is compatible with your existing lenses - usually via an adapter - but going that route removes a non-trivial portion of the size-advantage.

Think Tank Retrospective 50

Professional Photographer

Working professional, who in all likelihood has a DSLR system or he would not be reading this!

Who you are

Making a living from photography means that image quality is critical. Just as important is reliability. You need a system that is durable and keeps performing at all times. You are now used to the incomparable versatility of a DSLR and chose every piece of gear you already own according to your specific needs.

You already know that a good mirrorless can closely match the image quality of a DSLR and you only consider class-leading models with plenty of external controls. You are looking at reducing bulk and - to be safe - you will start by replacing your backup system with a mirrorless one.

What you will like about a mirrorless

This depends largely on the environment surrounding your work. The two greatest things to appreciate about a mirrorless camera are its size and the discretion it affords. By being so small, a mirrorless camera draws less attention than a DSLR. It is also much quieter since thre is no mirror to move between each shot. Together this can be used to your advantage for getting more candid images and working better in restricted spaces.

The size advantage gets multipled when combined with short to medium lenses designed for such cameras. This will let you carry a more versatile setup within the limits of the system. If you have legacy lenses from other film systems, mirrorless cameras are much more adaptable to using them. It takes more effort and everything does not work, but it just may be the right tool from time to time.

What you may not appreciate

Just like anyone accustomed to a DSLR, a period of adaptation to the EVF is needed. There are both pros and cons over an OVF but it takes time to get over disadvantages and see improvements.

Autofocus speed may be an issue depending on your style of photography. Prefocusing is available and plenty of mirrorless cameras can decouple autofocus from the shutter-release. This gives you time to focus once for multple shots and avoids having to constantly wait for autofocus to lock.

Mirrorless systems are comparatively limited. There are plenty of lenses which have no native equivalent. Some systems only have a handful of lenses at their disposal. Luckily as a professional, you are in a great position to know which lenses are most useful to you. If you need some that are unavailable, you must deal with limitations imposed by adapters or fall-back on your DSLR system from time-to-time.

Choosing a Mirrorless Camera System

Having decided to go for a mirrorless camera, the time comes to sort through mirrorless systems and camera models. There two main scenarios to consider:

  1. Mirrorless as primary camera. A primary camera must satisfy your photographic needs and requires most investment in the system.
  2. Mirrorless as secondary camera. A secondary camera however is for the cases when the primary system is inconvenient. It therefore does not need to be so versatile. It may serve as a backup body if compatible with lenses for your primary system.

Mirrorless systems are defined by their lens mount which dictates one or two possible sensor-sizes. The larger the sensor, the higher the potential for image quality, especially performance at high ISO which is necessary for hand-held low-light photography.

Larger sensors generally require larger lenses but the correspondence is not linear. Balancing image quality with size presently favors Micro Four-Thirds with quality being very high and lenses being among the smallest. Still, with few exceptions, there is a price to pay in terms of dim maximum apertures to minimize size.

The smaller Nikon 1 system delivers nice image quality in good light while saving more in terms of size. Those who shoot mostly in moderately bright light may favor this system which features an ultra-fast autofocus system and the most quiet operation among digital cameras. You do have to be content with the restricted selection of lenses though.

The Fuji X system offers extraordinary image quality with a reasonable number of lenses. They cover from ultra-wide to medium telephoto. There are no very long lenses nor many specialty ones. Should those lenses cover your needs, Fuji mirrorless cameras make excellent choices for advanced users due to their highly tactile interfaces. Autofocus remains behind that of most DSLRs, so be carefull if your photography involves action.

Sony NEX-6

A strong contender is the Sony NEX system. APS-C models, being compatible with an extensive lens lineup, manage to deliver high image quality and versatility. Recent models offer fast autofocus thanks to focal-plane Phase-Detection. Without an existing investment in Alpha lenses, this one is less versatile than Micro Four-Thirds but shows stronger low-light performance on average.

Full-frame models offer class-leading image-quality but have much fewer lenses on offer. While these cameras are surprisingly of similar size, compatible lenses are certainly larger. That still offers an advantage in total bulk compared to full-frame DSLRs, even being close to APS-C ones with short focal-length lenses.

The remaining systems respond to more specialized needs:

  • Sony SLT to reuse Alpha-mount lenses and even maintain full-frame coverage with the Alpha A99V
    Sony Alpha SLT-A99V
    . Image quality is comparable to NEX cameras but autofocus is faster thans to traditional Phase-Detect AF.
  • Pentax K to reuse K-mount lenses and Canon M to reuse EF-mount lenses. With no current model or only one, respectively, and very few specific lenses, commitment is risky. Nothing is wrong with either camera and image quality is on-par with that of a DSLR. The main issue is that mirrorless advantages are limited with these systems at this time.
  • Pentax Q for the fun-factor of being highly creative with a very compact camera. While the Q system brings versatility, it does not offer an advantage in image quality over compact cameras since it uses a sensor of similar size. In fact, most premium compact models use slightly larger sensors and feature a bright lens built-in which gives them the advantage.

The lens lineups available to each system is its most significant restriction. The one that matters most is the one that best suits your needs. To evaluate available lenses, go to the corresponding lens list page and look for lenses that cover focal-lengths and apertures you commonly use. Pay particular attention to specialized needs such as macro lenses or bright maximum apertures.

Note that when looking at lenses you must take the difference in crop-factor into account. Between an APS-C DSLR and APS-C mirrorless, all the numbers stay the same but between Micro Four-Thirds and Full-Frame, all numbers have to be multipled by 2X. Aperture is a special case for which the light gathering ability remains the same but not the depth-of-field.

Next

Go to Step 4 - Mirrorless Cameras to browse cameras by mirrorless system.

For general advice on buying a digital camera and how to make sure you get the right one, consult Step 4 of the Digital Camera Buying Guide.

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