Smoke and mirrorless

A Sony A7C digital mirrorless camera. COURTESY SONY

I haven’t talked much about digital mirrorless cameras in this space for the simple fact that I haven’t had much experience with them. I’ve read about them and even held one in my hands but that’s it. Mirrorless cameras were first introduced around 2008. By 2018 they accounted for nearly half of all camera sales. While Canon is the leader in total camera sales, Sony was the first to dip their toes into the mirrorless waters and still leads that segment of the market. The other companies, including Canon, were late to the game and are playing catchup.

A Nikon D5 DSLR camera, left, and a Nikon Z6 digital mirrorless camera, right. COURTESY NIKON

DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are similar in layout and function and both incorporate interchangeable lenses. Image quality are nearly indistinguishable between the two.


First, a primer on how a DSLR works. DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex. The basic design harkens back to the old film Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras. The way they work is light comes into the camera though the lens. In the camera body a small mirror bounces the incoming light and image straight up. The light is then bent again in the pentaprism, that big bulge at the top of the camera, and out where it can be seen through viewfinder. When a picture is taken, the mirror quickly swings up and out of the way, the shutter opens and the light strikes the film. In today’s DSLRs it’s much the same except the film and film transport mechanism have been replaced by a digital sensor, electronic circuitry and algorithms.

The NIKON Z6 II digital mirrorless camera. COURTESY NIKON

As the name suggests mirrorless cameras eliminates the mirror and pentaprism resulting in camera that’s smaller and lighter than a DSLR. Its size is somewhere between a point-and-shoot camera and a DSLR. The small hump at the top some mirrorless cameras house a small digital monitor in the viewfinder.

The Sony Alpha 1 digital mirrorless camera. COURTESY SONY

Frame rate, or how many frames per second a camera can shoot, is important to sports photographers. As you might suspect a mirror/shutter physically can only travel so fast. The Canon 1Dx’s 14-fps is probably close to that mechanical limit. Sony’s Alpha 1 mirrorless electronic shutter can shoot up to a phenomenal 30-fps.

The Canon EOS R5 digital mirrorless camera. COURTESY CANON

You’ve probably heard the clicking of cameras while watching a news press conference on TV. Much of that sound is what’s known as mirror slap in a DSLR. A mirrorless camera eliminates much of that sound. In fact, many mirrorless cameras can be completely silent, an advantage when shooting in quiet courtroom or funeral situations.

The Canon EOS M50 digital mirrorless camera. COURTESY CANON

The lenses are not compatible between DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. And, because mirrorless cameras are relatively new, their selection of lenses are limited when compared to DSLRs, so far. However, most manufacturers have made adapters to that you can use your old lenses with the new mirrorless bodies.

The Sony A7c digital mirrorless camera. COURTESY SONY

Early models reportedly suffered from “viewfinder lag” resulting from processor lag and slow display refresh rates. This meant that the images seen in the viewfinder lagged slightly behind what was actually happening. Newer cameras have improved so much so that this doesn’t seem to be much of a problem anymore.

The NIKON Z6 II digital mirrorless camera. COURTESY NIKON

Mirrorless cameras’ smaller size can be a boon for those with small hands, but photographers with big mitts can find the small cameras too small and controls hard to manipulate.

The NIKON Z7 digital mirrorless camera. COURTESY NIKON

Mirrorless cameras have challenges with battery life. Because the sensor is constantly on, mirrorless batteries don’t last as long between charging as DSLRs do. I can go for more than a week before charging up my DSLR. Depending on the model, mirrorless cameras can shoot from 300 to 700 frames on a charge. That may sound like a lot, but I can shoot more than 700 frames during a single sporting event.

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