Why My Next Camera Will be Mirrorless: Part 1


Sony NEX-7

Sony NEX-7

I’ll admit I was a little late to the mirrorless party. I’d heard about Micro 4/3rds, EVIL, MILC, etc. and I was just too busy or too arrogant to pay attention. I figured anything with a small sensor wasn’t worth my time. In truth, my next camera will be the Canon 5D MKIII; I still need the full frame capabilities for my profession.

My interest in mirrorless cameras came from a desire for a system I can use for my personal use. I hate lugging around a big DSLR when traveling and a point-and-shoot or iPhone just doesn’t get me the quality I need. Enter mirrorless cameras: small form factor with a sensor larger than point-and shoots; in some cases just as large as a DSLR.

In case you’re new to this too, let me go over a few things. First, terminology:

  • Micro 4/3 (four-thirds) refers to the size of the sensor. Check out “Size Matters in Photography” for an explanation on sensor sizes.
  • “EVIL” stands for “Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens”. Most mirrorless cameras do not have an optical viewfinder, but an electronic one instead.
  • MILC stand for “Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera”.

In case you don’t know how a DSLR works, check out the diagram below:

DSLR Cross Section

Image from Vimeo Video School

When you look through the viewfinder, you can see through the lens because light bounces off a mirror which gets reflected off a prism and then through the viewfinder. When you click the shutter, the mirror flips up and light hits the sensor directly. This is why your viewfinder goes black when you press the shutter.

The prism inside a DSLR is also what makes it so bulky. The mirror is, of course, a moving part which fails after time. That’s why cameras are rated at certain “shutter actuations” or the number of shots you can take. Most are in the 50,000 to 150,000 range. Some high-end DSLRs are rated at 200,000 actuations.

So naturally, a mirrorless camera does not have a mirror or a prism which allows for a more compact body. It also means super fast frames per second, because there is no mirror that needs to flip up and reset before the next shot.

As I mentioned before, I am looking for something I can travel with that’s small enough to pack but that has DSLR-like quality. The guy who created the Instapaper App recently blogged about transitioning from DSLRs to an iPhone. When he wanted high-resolution images for his retina display he found the iPhone images just were not good enough. My first reaction was “did you really think the tiny sensor in an iPhone would give you quality good enough for a retina display?” My thoughts were echoed in this Cult of Mac article. But I also felt empathy.

On a recent trip to St. Thomas I decided not to bring my DSLR. I took pictures with my iPhone primarily so I could quickly share photos on Facebook. I also used a Canon Powershot 310HS when I wanted a little better quality. Below is an image from my iPhone 4S:

Charlotte Amalie Harbor

iPhone 4S:  f/2.4, 1/15, ISO 800.

I find the noise from the iPhone to be unacceptable, even in broad daylight at ISO 64.

St. John

iPhone 4S:  f/2.4, 1/3000, ISO 64

Look at all the noise in the sky. It’s only slightly better on the Powershot (granted it was at ISO 1600).

St. Thomas

Powershot 310HS:  f/3.2, 1/8, ISO 1600

It all has to do with the size of the sensor. A bigger sensor, among other things, will allow for less noise (up to a point). The Sony NEX-7 (pictured at the top of this post) has a 24-megapixel APS-C sized sensor; the same size found on most consumer Canon and Nikon DSLRs.

I really believe we are at a point where the market is going in three directions: One is DSLRs, the other is small cameras with larger sensors. Everything else is taken by camera phones because they are so accessible. But anyone who wants quality photos will fall in one or both of the other camps. Check out this blog post about a CNBC reporter forecasting the death of point-and-shoots.

The New York Times recently reviewed the new Sony RX100 and David Pouge raved about the 1-inch sensor on a tiny body. Some of the comments and even a blog attacked him for his praise; but they miss the point. What Pouge is saying is that a sensor that big on a camera small enough to fit in your pocket is going to rival other point-and-shoots with smaller sensors.

Now, mind you, you can’t fit most mirrorless cameras in your pocket due to the size of the lenses. But that’s something I like: big sensor, big lens, small body. Small and light enough for me to pack on a trip.

I credit well-known photographer Trey Ratcliff for enlightening me to the possibilities of mirrorless cameras. He makes a very good case in his “DLSRs Are a Dying Breed” blog post. Definitely worth a read.

You have a lot of choices when it comes to mirrorless cameras; from Olympus to Sony and even Nikon. Fuji made a big splash with its X100 and X10. Now, Canon is rumored to introduce a mirrorless later this month. Some have interchangeable lenses and others do not. The sensor sizes also vary, so you’ll have to do some research.

For a good primer on mirrorless cameras, check out this guide by Neo Camera.

So if you’re looking for a camera that’s small enough to carry around but will still deliver DSLR-like quality, I suggest you take a look at mirrorless cameras. It’s what I’ll be carrying on my next trip.

You can read Part 2 of this blog by clicking here

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Size Matters in Photography: Choosing the Right Camera/Lens Combination


Chart of Sensor Sizes

I was watching a recent episode of D-Town TV with Scott Kelby and Matt Kloskowski and they were explaining why you want to use “full frame” lenses on full frame cameras. It’s the difference between DX and FX lenses for Nikon and EF or EF-S lenses for Canon.  But they kind of glossed over something for Canon users: EF-S lenses will not fit on a full frame body. So why does any of this matter?

Take a look at the image above. The “Full Frame” line shows a full-sized sensor. Pictures taken with this sensor will give you the equivalent of  a standard 35mm film camera. Canon only makes two full frame cameras: The 5D MKII and the 1Ds MKIII. Nikon has four: the D700, D3, D3s and D3x. 

The next line is APS-H. Canon’s 1D MKIV and 1D MKIII have this sensor. Here is where the “crop factor” or “focal length multiplier” comes into play. With these cameras any lens you put on, you have to multipy by 1.3 to get the actual focal length. So your 50mm lens on a 1D MKIV would actually be a 65mm.

The next two lines are APS-C. The majority of Nikon and Canon cameras use this type of sensor. Nikon’s APS-C sensors have a crop factor of 1.5 and Canon’s is 1.6. That means a 50mm on most Nikons is 75mm and on most Canons its 80mm.

The only way to get a true 50mm is to use an EF lens on a full frame Canon or an FX lens on a full frame Nikon. Check out this video to see the difference on a 5D MKII and 7D.

As you can see, the difference is pretty telling. This all comes into play depending on the type of photography you do. If you shoot landscapes or interiors, then you want as much information as possible on your sensor. That’s why I use a full frame camera and a wide-angle lens for my interior and architecture images. If you shoot sports, then you might want the benefit of the crop factor. My 70-200, for example, on most Canons is actually, 112 to 320. I can get an extra 120mm on the long end by using a cropped sensor.

I mentioned DX, FX, EF and EF-S lenses. Canon’s EF lenses will fit any Canon camera. The EF-S lenses are made specifically for APS-C sized sensor cameras. On the body, where the lens attaches to the camera, you’ll notice a white or red dot. The white dot is where an EF-S lens attaches. The red dot is where an EF lens attaches. As mentioned earlier an EF-S lens will not fit on a full frame camera. If you try, the rear lens element will break your mirror. So if you have EF-S lenses and you upgrade to a full frame camera, then you’ll need new lenses too! As I understand it, a DX lens will fit on an FX camera but you can’t really use it on the wide end of the focal length without getting some severe vignetting. Also, your image size is decreased. Click the D-Town link above and watch the video for a more detailed explanation on that point.

Well I hope this helps. I’ve found a lot of DSLR owners never know that the lens they’re using isn’t giving them the focal length they think. Some people also ask what camera or lens they should buy. I always say to think about what you want to shoot and then take the sensor size into consideration.