5 Things to Consider When Buying a Mirrorless Camera

Brian Matiash is a Portland, Oregon transplant from Brooklyn who has been shooting for most of the past two decades. A member of Sony's Artisans of Imagery program, with years of experience working with top photographers at Google, Matiash is lending the Wacom Community his wisdom on the topic of mirrorless cameras:

With the December holidays rapidly approaching, a lot of you may be looking for that perfect gift to give the special photographer in your life (hint: that can also be you). It’s around this time of year when you’ll likely find some great deals on the latest generation of camera technology, so why not consider going mirrorless?

While mirrorless cameras aren’t really new on the photography scene anymore, the boundaries of what these svelt devices can do are constantly being pushed. Mirrorless cameras have found lots of love with photographers because of their diminutive size and weight, eschewing the traditional optical viewfinder and prism box found in SLR cameras. Historically, though, there were sacrifices that came along with using these bodies related to performance and image quality. Fortunately, those days are largely behind us and now really is a wonderful time to consider moving to mirrorless.

But before making the plunge into mirrorless, I’d like to share five things that you should consider, especially if you’re planning on buying a camera for a special someone... other than yourself.

One final word: I have first-hand knowledge about what moving to mirrorless is like and have written a free eBook called, you guessed it, Moving to Mirrorless. While my move revolves around Sony’s line of cameras and lenses, the underlying theme and practices I cover are applicable to any manufacturer you decide to move to.

1. Who is the camera for?
In a literal sense, this question should be very easy to answer. It will either be for you or someone else. Figuratively, though, it is important to qualify this. Let’s use my sister, Greta, as an example. I know that Greta is a novice photographer but has a genuinely great eye (based on the photos she has shared on Facebook). I know that she’d like a capable camera but isn’t really interested in growing with it. She just wants a versatile camera that can do justice in a wide variety of situations. I suspect that we all have someone like this in our lives. In this case, I would likely lean towards a mirrorless camera with an integrated lens. The benefit here is that you have a really small, pocketable camera with a lens that has been optimized for the sensor. The primary downside is that there is no ability to grow the system out. The lens you have is the only lens you can use. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it is something to really consider. On the other hand, if you know that the recipient really is into photography and is looking to grow, then I would recommend going with a mirrorless camera that supports interchangeable lenses. The initial investment will likely be more expensive, and you’re committed to spending more on additional glass, but there is no better way to grow with your camera than by being able to use different lenses.

2. What is your budget?
This is both an obvious and important question to answer. The good news is that there are so many wonderful camera options covering a broad range of budgets. What’s important to know is that the phrase, “you get what you pay for,” doesn’t necessarily apply. What I mean is that there are plenty of amazing cameras that can be purchased for really great prices. However, your needs will dictate what sort of camera you should consider getting and your budget will finalize whether it is a feasible choice. The cost of cameras will vary primarily on one thing: the sensor size and density. Quickly following that will be whether a lens is included (or integrated) and then what defining features are built in. Fortunately, there are plenty of options for photographers looking for a lens system camera that range in price. Typically, camera bodies that have cropped sensors (think APC-S or Micro 4/3) will be less expensive than their full frame counterparts, but can still produce absolutely wonderful results.

3. How do you plan on using your camera?
Another way to ask this question is: What do you plan on doing with your photos? If you intend on making lots of a large-sized prints (24”x36” or greater) or you typically do a lot of heavy cropping and zooming in post production, then you’ll probably want to lean towards a higher megapixel sensor and ideally one that is full frame. If the bulk of your photos are destined to be shared online or just kept on your computer, then the megapixel density isn’t as big of a factor. Yet another way to ask this question is to ask whether you do a lot of handholding or are you primarily a tripod shooter? If you prefer the more intimate control of handholding your camera, then you’ll want to look into whether your camera and/or lenses have built-in image stabilization. Lots of newer lenses come with gyros that helps mitigate the shaking associated with handholding your camera. Topping that are the camera bodies with these gyros built right, thereby extending the stabilization benefits to any lens you mount on.

4. Finally, a good question to ask is whether you plan on photographing lots of things in motion and/or in low light?
Do you plan on freezing your kid as they blow out their birthday candles? What about capturing the milky way as it brilliantly shines its millions of stars in the night? These scenarios have two common attributes: they are benefitted by fast lenses with wide apertures and strong low-light performance at high ISO settings. If you do plan on spending a lot of time trying to capture fleeting moments in motion, you’ll need to make sure that you have glass that can support that. Fortunately, there is a steady supply of lenses made for mirrorless cameras that open to f/2.8 and wider. Additionally, there are camera bodies, like the Sony a7S, that are fantastic in low-light/high ISO conditions.

5. Do you already have other camera bodies and/or lenses?

Let’s take me as an example here. Before switching to Sony, I had a full array of Canon cameras and lenses. I wasn’t in a position to just dump all of my Canon gear in one fell swoop but I knew that I wanted to see whether the Sony cameras were right for me. Fortunately, I was able to use every single lens I owned thanks to readily available adapters that bridged the gap between the Canon and Sony lens mounts. If you are already invested in a camera family, even if it’s an SLR, and are looking to move to mirrorless, do some research to see whether vendors like Fotodiox, Metabones, Novoflex, etc have a compatible adapter for you. This will help tremendously with allowing you to gradually ease yourself from one system to another and allow you to salvage any older lenses that you may have.

Can you wait? I hate asking this question because my personal answer is always, “NO!” I have no patience and a ridiculous compulsion to not wait. However, the devil’s advocate in me feels obligated to point out that there is always something better coming. Manufacturers would be out of business if they weren’t constantly iterating and improving on their camera technologies. So, sometimes, it is worth asking yourself whether you can wait. While the holidays are rapidly approaching, waiting may not be in the cards but it also means that your chances of scoring a sweet deal on a new camera is very high. The argument to wait, especially at this time of year, mostly applies to photographers who like being on the bleeding edge and want to invest in the latest tech. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is scheduled for the first full week of January. This show is massive and is usually where lots of manufacturers announce their newest gear. If you are looking for a camera and budget isn’t an issue, it may pay off to wait a bit and see what’s around the corner. Mind you that new gear is very rarely discounted, so you won’t likely find many deals for them.

No matter what you decide, you should rest comfortably knowing that there are so many exceptional cameras on the market today that can be purchased for very reasonable prices.  Just remember: whether it is for you or for a loved one, the next best gift you can give beyond a camera is the support and encouragement to use it and grow with it every day. 

To see how I made my shift to the Sony mirrorless family, you can download a copy of my eBook, Moving to Mirrorless by clicking here.