Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I'm an amateur photographer looking to buy a camera for my home use. I called myself "photographer" just because I actually can press the button and take a photo! My first digital camera was VGA resolution (640×480px) and didn't even have a display (!), and after that I just used my phone as my camera.

Anyway, when I compare photos that taken with a professional camera (DSLR) and point-and-shoots, I can see that the difference is huge in terms of quality! Even DSLR cameras with fewer megapixels give better pictures than a higher-megapixel point-and-shoot.

I was considering the Canon Rebel T3 (18MP) DSLR, but when my wife saw that in Best Buy, she was scared of the amount of buttons and options on it. She said we need to take some classes to use it! I know this camera should have an "auto" mode that would be easy to use, but she still didn't like the camera and was scared of not being able to use it.

Then I researched around, and found "mirrorless" cameras interesting because they have DSLR quality in point-and-shoot form factor. But they seem to be "beta versions" of a concept. Most of them don't have flash or microphone, and are very expensive. I liked the Sony NEX-5 but as I said, the camera does not seem perfect.

Are the mirrorless cameras are limited by their nature, and we can't have all DSLR features in a small camera, or we will see some models that are perfect?

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Quite a few question here. Lets stick to answering "what downsides do mirrorless cameras have as compared to single lens reflex cameras?" –  dpollitt Sep 13 '11 at 23:25
    
Possible duplicate of photo.stackexchange.com/questions/8159/… –  dpollitt Sep 13 '11 at 23:25
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I agree with @dpollitt, it's basically the same question. I have to say, though, if the T3i is a scare away, then you're probably out of the dSLR market because it's as consumer friendly as it gets really. –  John Cavan Sep 13 '11 at 23:55
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The proposed duplicate deals with 4/3 cameras. The OP is addressing the question to mirrorless in general. Thus some of the drawbacks mentioned there may be irrelevant or incorrect here. –  ysap Sep 14 '11 at 0:03
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@mattdm - Yeah, I can buy that. It's only fairly recent that there's been a move away from the 4/3rds in the mirrorless or, at least, non-reflex so I think many of us tend to think that the EVIL cameras are all in that realm. –  John Cavan Sep 14 '11 at 2:54

2 Answers 2

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Those cameras are only limited by the fact that they lack a reflex mirror to form an image through an optical viewfinder. By the same token, DSLRs are limited by the fact they need a reflex mirror in the optical path.

What does that mean?

  • In terms of image quality, nothing. There are currently mirrorless cameras using the same sensors as DSLR. Even those with slightly smaller sensors (all except the Pentax Q) are not far behind.
  • In terms of speed, not much. Current DSLRs are faster than mirrorless cameras at autofocus because they use Phase-Detection rather than Contrast-Detection. This is not an an intrinsic characteristic, as phase-detect can be implemented on the sensor (as in the Fuji F300 EXR) or in the optical path using a semi-transparent mirror (as in the Sony Alpha SLT-A55). Other aspects of speed such as shutter-lag, continuous drive are very similar.
  • In terms of versatility, mirrorless cameras have more potential. The shorter flange-distance lets mirrorless cameras use more types of lenses via adapters than any other type of camera. One neat trick is that you can buy a tilt-shift adapter that adds that capability to a DSLR lens when mounted on a mirrorless camera.
  • Mirrorless cameras are presently limited. They key is presently. They are limited in number of native lenses which are relatively new compared to DSLR lenses. They are also limited in functionality because there are not that many models. For example, there are no weather-sealed mirror-less cameras and there are none with a built-in GPS.
  • In terms of size, mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter. This is an intrinsic advantage of the form-factor. Even those with a built-in EVF can be made very compact.

Mirrorless cameras also have advantages for video as they can be used at eye-level with a built-in or optional EVF. You are right that a few models do not have a built-in flash but some DSLRs don't either. Those particular models are trying to show how small a mirrorless camera can be, but that does not mean you have to buy the smallest. A Panasonic GH2 for example is reasonably ergonomic and quite full-featured.

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Where do you stand on EVF versus OVF? You didn't really talk to the viewfinder but not a few of us see the electronic option as a drawback at this time (future there may change). –  John Cavan Sep 14 '11 at 2:56
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Most EVFs are terrible but the best EVFs are somewhere between entry-level (T3i) and pro OVFs (7D / 1Ds). The one thing that is awesome with Sony EVFs is that there is no more need to chimp because they are exposure-priority. It's a tough habit to break but is liberating as it allows faster-paced photography. Focus check is tougher on an EVF but with electronic magnification is it quite accurate, although a little slower. –  Itai Sep 14 '11 at 3:13
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Yeah, that's what I've been hearing. The EVF is besting the pentamirror, but not quite up to the pentaprism for now. Of course, the operative word(s) are "for now." ANd then there will just be us dinosaurs holding onto our OVF in the same way many held onto film... ;) –  John Cavan Sep 14 '11 at 3:55

The straight-out answer to the basic initial question (Are mirror-less cameras good enough to buy instead of a DSLR for home/amateur use?) is simply yes, for most purposes they certainly are. Your observation that the form factor is new and not yet perfected seems spot-on to me. Certainly things will get even better in the next few years — but the current models can give pretty impressive results.

Itai's answer very nicely outlines the practical, technical differences. You can weigh how much those matter to you, but if your wife likes it better and is more likely to use it, that's a huge plus that's hard to outweigh with technical factors. And that doesn't just apply to spouses — if it's smaller and more likely to go with you and get used, that's a big deal.

The fact is that the current feature set is pretty good, and image quality can be excellent. So, yeah, the can certainly be good for home/amateur (or even out-of-the-home/professional) use.

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I just wondered why there is no Canon or Nikon mirror less camera? Maybe something is wring with the form factor that they don't make mirror less. –  Mohsen Sep 14 '11 at 16:54
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Nikon is likely to make one soon since they said they will. Also remember that the biggest players in any market have less incentive to shake things up. That is why plenty of highly innovative solutions come from smaller players: Mirroless, Translucent Mirrors, Sensor-Shift Stabilization (RIP Minolta), Dust-Reduction, Automatic Horizon Correction, GPS etc. Eventually some get adopted by the bigger ones (as several of these examples). –  Itai Sep 14 '11 at 19:31

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