What Is Mirrorless?
It wasn’t long ago that you’d have to spend thousands of dollars on a digital Leica if you wanted SLR performance in a small package. Then came Olympus and Panasonic with their micro-four-thirds (m43) system, which offered interchangeable lenses and a better sensor than those typically found in similarly-sized cameras. This brought high-quality compact digital photography to the masses, but early cameras lacked in the autofocus and overall quality department compared to their chunkier SLR counterparts.
Samsung had a crack with the NX mount, before Sony introduced its NEX cameras which used the brand new E-mount. It wasn’t long before Nikon, Pentax, Fujifilm and Canon all had mirrorless cameras on the market, each with their own new smaller mounts. None have been as successful as Sony however, who are the first company to offer affordable full-frame (35mm equivalent) mirrorless cameras in the form of the FE mount.
The term “mirrorless” is pretty self-explanatory. While traditional SLRs (both film and digital) use an optical viewfinder to provide a through-the-lens look at what you’re shooting, mirrorless cameras do not. On a traditional SLR, the mirror sits in front of the sensor and moves out of the way when you squeeze the shutter. On a mirrorless camera, there’s no mirror, no pentaprism, and no true optical viewfinder taking up additional space
That’s why the main advantage of a mirrorless system is their size. Without the need for mirrors and viewfinders, cameras can be much smaller, while still providing great sensors and modular advantages like interchangeable lenses and accessories. Lenses can be mounted much closer to the camera, which means even the lenses themselves can be made smaller without sacrificing quality. This is especially true when you consider that most mirrorless cameras on the market at the moment don’t use a full frame sensor, and thus require a smaller field of view.
With an SLR-quality sensor, high-quality glass, and recent leaps forward in autofocus performance, mirrorless cameras can often match their larger SLR counterparts in terms of raw performance. In some areas, mirrorless cameras surpass their SLR counterparts as is the case with Sony’s dedication to delivering excellent video capabilities on even its cheapest offerings — an area where some digital SLR manufacturers have fallen behind.
Of course, it’s not all roses. Digital SLRs still account for the lion’s share of sales as they can be manufactured cheaply, they’re an established technology with mature interchangeable lens systems, and they still offer tangible benefits to pro-level photographers with very deep pockets. Mirrorless cameras haven’t been around for very long by comparison, and a dearth of lenses is certainly one of the biggest drawbacks.
They’re also slow to startup compared to SLRs, most of which feature startup times of less than half a second. Battery life is another boon, as SLRs are more power efficient particularly when electronic viewfinders are accounted for. But the gap is closing with the latest advancements, and I’m talking about Sony’s A6300 which signals a very bright future indeed. I’ve been blown away by the exceptional image quality and incredible autofocus performance delivered in such a small package.
For Discreet Applications
Aside from the overall impressive performance, the A6300 felt like a breath of fresh air compared to shooting with one of my (admittedly old) larger SLRs. Above all else, a mirrorless camera will make you feel less conspicuous, especially if you’re used to shooting on something much larger. You simply don’t stand out as much by virtue of the smaller camera, and I’d even go as far to say that you seem less “threatening” to potential subjects. This is especially true if you can master shooting from the hip using a tilting LCD screen.
For street photography, this matters. As someone who’s always been a bit shy when it comes to pointing a camera in people’s faces, a smaller and more discreet camera allowed me to get closer and push myself further than an SLR ever has. The amazing thing is that modern mirrorless cameras don’t require you to sacrifice image quality — I’ve been shooting 24.2 megapixel images in RAW format and the excellent low-light performance and 425 points of autofocus on the A6300 allowed me to trust the camera completely.
According to street photographer Eric Kim:
…for street photography you want the smallest, most compact, and inconspicuous camera (that you can always carry with you). I find that with other digital cameras, you end up never carrying them with you 24/7, simply because they are too big.
This hits upon another important point: I’ve been picking up the Sony and throwing it in my bag purely because it’s small and light. This is not the same as shooting with an SLR — you either have to settle for a camera bag, or look like Flavor Flav if you go the neck strap route.
Given the compact nature of a mirrorless camera, this sort of setup is about as compact as you want it to be. While standard kit lenses (think 16–50mm, 18–55mm, and so on) generally take up more pocket space than you might like, smaller “pancake” lenses like Sony’s 20mm f/2.8 prime are about as small as you can get, and the crop factor of 1.5x on an APS-C sensor (or 2x on an m43) delivers an effective focal length of 30mm.
No mirror means less moving parts, which results in a quieter operation. This is great for candid photography, whether you’re shooting in the street or trying to remain invisible among friends or family. One improvement of Sony A6300 over the previous A6000 is the addition of silent shutter mode — though this isn’t exclusive to mirrorless cameras, and the feature has found its way into digital SLRs over the past few years.
Ditching the Mirror
There are a few things to keep in mind if you’re thinking of ditching your traditional SLR. Many of these systems are young, and that means the number of lenses available is low compared to established photo systems from Nikon or Canon. You’re going to have to build up your lens collection again, and much of the time you’ll be stuck with first party lenses which — while generally of good quality — are more expensive.
You may also be wondering if that SLR you’ve had your eye on is actually worth the heft and extra money. At present, SLRs are still more capable cameras. They’ve got far more focal lengths to choose from (especially for sports and wildlife photographers), and they have massive buffers allowing you to shoot large bursts of RAW files (which will put even the latest mirrorless cameras to shame). They have better battery life, and many of them now come with full frame sensors. Sure you can get a full-frame Sony A7 series mirrorless, but you could snag a full frame Canon or Nikon for the same price.
Aforementioned street photographer Eric Kim notes that “ultimately capturing the moment, emotion, and feeling of a scene is more important than how many pixels or how sharp it is.” This could apply to a whole manner of photographic applications, but it’s especially true for street photographers and anyone who wants to get into candid photography. Kim’s top pick for a dedicated street camera is the Richoh GR-II, a compact camera with a fixed lens and an APS-C sensor that retails for around $700.
Considering the flexibility offered by an interchangeable system, Sony’s A6000 is cheaper and ultimately more versatile. The newer A6300 has a groundbreaking autofocus system and full silent shooting for around $1,150 with a kit lens. These are easily two of the best mirrorless cameras on the market in terms of value for money, raw performance, and overall size — so be sure to check them out if you’re planning your next move as a photographer.