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Can you weigh in on all of the hoopla on mirrorless cameras from a creative standpoint? In other words, will converting to mirrorless help a photographer improve their skills and creativity?

While we regularly see small incremental improvements in camera technology all the time, every once in a while there are advances that change our perceptions of the tools and their uses. I believe mirrorless cameras at their current level are such a change.

Mirrorless cameras have been with us for quite a while, but were never a match for DSLRs in terms of image quality, resolution, focus speed, lens choices, and other qualities normally reserved for semi-pro and pro camera systems. All of that changed a few years ago when manufacturers, such as Panasonic and Olympus, started to introduce mirrorless cameras that addressed all of these issues. Higher resolutions, great lens optics, reduced noise, and amazing EVFs (electronic viewfinder.)

I bought one back then and have loved every minute of using it. Why? Because basically, I had the performance of my large DSLR system in a lighter, smaller package. Sure there were compromises, which is why I didn’t switch, but simply added it to my toolbox. But there’s no question I have captured images I would never have captured if not because it was so easy to bring the Olympus with me everywhere.

Today we have state of the art mirrorless systems from Sony, Nikon, and Canon featuring full frame sensors (up to 46MP!) with pro level lenses to match and adapters for legacy lenses. In my opinion, most of the advantages of a DSLR have disappeared for most photographers. Of course, there are exceptions, but they’re decreasing with each generation of mirrorless technology.

So back to the original question. Is the hoopla real? Yes.

Will it make you more creative? It depends.

If you enjoy carrying and using your DSLR on every outing, then it won’t. But that’s why I bought one – because I often left my DSLR behind when it was inconvenient, too cumbersome, or not worth the hassle (and then wished I had brought it along.)

If you subscribe to the maxim that the best camera is the one you have with you, then a mirrorless will make you more creative – you’re more likely to have it with you at every opportunity, not just expected opportunities.

And that’s what I love about my mirrorless system- I am always in a position to capture the unexpected image; when luck meets opportunity and I haven’t planned for it. And best of all I don’t have to worry about sacrificing quality.

You might call this convenience more than anything else, and perhaps you’re right. But you may also have physical constraints or limited time and space on a family trip overseas. Many of my students have switched for these very reasons and so far none have regretted the decision as far as I know. I often get feedback such as, “why didn’t I do this sooner, it so liberating!”

If a small but powerful mirrorless camera gets you out more often, there’s no denying your skills and vision will improve. Only you can decide what that opportunity is worth in maximizing your creative potential.

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This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. I agree with you 100% Robert! I’ve had the Olympus OM-D E-M1 for a while now, and it keeps on surprising me. I do, in fact, have it with me more often … when I’d otherwise just have my phone. IN ADDITION, it might be worth mentioning some of the awesome features, like Live Composition that allows me to so easily photograph star trails, monitor the photograph as it progresses, and SKIP the stacking in post!! And the in-camera production of time-lapses!! And, one that I admittedly ignored until I handed the camera to my ultra-creative girlfriend on a few outings and saw what she could do with it – the art filters! Filters can be dismissed as ‘kid stuff’, but the variety and range of ‘impact’ of those supplied in this camera are GREAT. I spent a day shooting cosplayers on the street at Dragon Con in Atlanta using a filter that made them all look like comic book drawings, and loved the results!

    1. I don’t disagree with you, John. But your mention of certain features isn’t about mirrorless. They’re just that…specific features that you find particularly helpful!

      I’m more excited to see what Panasonic may be doing with a full frame mirrorless body, than Nikon’s or Canon’s recent releases.

  2. I switched and have not looked back. Went to the Fugifilm XT1 and XT2. Plus several of their very fine lenses. As a still moving 95 year old this was a instant renewal of a desire to continue taking photographs with out the need for a Sherpa. Gave the old Nikon and lenses away and they are not missed.
    Now Nikon and Canon have joined the mirrorless movement too so it should be simply a matter of money to switch.

  3. Robert, thanks for posting this. It was exactly the guidance that I was seeking. You’ve handled the subject from a creativity standpoint in a thoughtful manner. Until now, all of the information that I had seen on the subject is technology based. Cameras are tools. If the tool can help with the creative process then the camera becomes a vehicle.



  4. I switched to Sony two and a half years ago after lugging a heavy Canon camera and lens around Italy for two weeks. At first the Sony lens selection was sparse. Not now. And the marketplace is now recognizing the merits of mirrorless. In the DSLR full frame market, Sony is outselling both Canon and Nikon. And the Canon and Nikon entries into mirrorless are greatly lacking in features at higher prices. I think Sony is winning this race and I’m glad to be a part of it.

  5. I can appreciate the fact that mirrorless cameras have much to offer for those who wish to carry a lighter load and still retain some sense of creativity. And I have marveled at the quality of travel photography from friends who could afford to embrace the Lieca mirrorless cameras. As a travel camera they cannot be beat.

    But I will not be joining their ranks anytime soon. I shoot wildlife with a both cropped and full sensor DSLRs and extremely long lenses, and cannot replicate this in the mirrorless world. Someday this will change I’m sure, but for now the DSLR bodies, long lenses and teleconverters are the tools that I need to capture my type of photos and will do so for the foreseeable future.

    One compelling thing I have found is that hauling this heavy array of equipment forces me to focus more seriously on my type of photography – wildlife photography – as an adventure each time I choose to go out. The heavy backpack and sturdy tripod are reminders that my goals are not those of a snap-shooter, but rather those of a serious enthusiast who is prepared to bear the physical burden to get results that others more lackadaisical will not achieve.

  6. To Mark Thorne. I can really appreciate what you are saying, and the commitment it takes to get out and about with a full frame kit et all, I face the same issues!
    But, as you wisely stated, it’s only a matter of time.
    I come across many “serious enthusiast” who are packing mirrorless kit, and who’s work is far from “lackadaisical”, even brilliant, in some cases – and like you, I’m sweating my 70y.o. butt off trying to be a “serious enthusiast”!
    What gives?
    Guess, like you, I’m gunna haff ta take a serious look at the latest mirrorless gear, and lens adapters, and see what can be done with my stretched glass. There’s gotta be a betta way. ??

  7. In the last 5 years, I have slowly come to embrace the mirrorless camera. Not totally there yet, but getting closer.
    Anyone who started out with film cameras as I did, knows there were different formats of cameras to use, depending on your needs. Ansel Adams started out using the 8×10 view camera, The clarity was amazing, picking up every bit of detail in the subject. The news photographers in World War II used the 4×5 camera with film holders. Cumbersome to say the least, but they were trained to get the shot, without knowing what they got until the negative was developed.
    By the end of the war, the 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 camera such as the Rolleiflex was being used. Great detail was achieved as well with this format. You didn’t need to carry around a 4×5 or 8×10 camera on a tripod, the great Civil War photographer Mathew Brady had to.
    At the same time, many street photographers, such as the masters Henri Cartier Bresson and Andre Kertesz were using the 35mm Leica and Contax cameras. They all have their place in the photography world depending on what the photographer is trying to achieve.
    I could go on about all the different emulsion speeds of film known as ASA which now is called ISO in digital format. I’ve always believed that sharpness is important, but not nearly as EMOTION. That is what every artist should strive for first. As Bresson calls, it The Decisive Moment which happens to be the name of his book. All passionate students of photography should get a copy of this book and study his images. Not all his images are spot sharp…but Emotion in every image.

    Now let’s talk about the digital camera.
    I use the Olympus E-M1 Mark II, which is the top of the line for Olympus.
    It does not have a full chip sensor but relies on the 4/3 system…..meaning a 50mm lens converts to a 75 mm lens. I have a 45mm 1.2 lens (translates to 90mm) that is great for portraits and shooting jazz in intimate dark clubs such as I love to do. Another lens I shoot with for many of my events and editorial assignments is the 40 to 150mm F2.8 lens ( translates to 80mm to 300mm). Also great for photographing music, portraits and those far way subjects you can’t get close to. Is the full chip sensor important? There is no question that in very low light they are better than 4/3 mirrorless camera, but a little noise can sometimes add to an image. It did when I shot film in low light. Also with very fast lenses, such as F 2.8, 2.0 and 1.2 lenses the photographer can cut down on noise. By the way, we used to call it GRAIN.

    To me, the biggest drawback with mirrorless is the electronic viewfinder. There is nothing like looking through a viewfinder where you can continually see the image before and after you take a photo. The engineers still haven’t figured out that one.

    Why do I have a mirrorless 4/3 camera? Size for one. I never go anywhere without a camera, and it’s nice to have something smaller to carry around then my Nikon 750 that I use for most of my professional work.

    It’s whatever works to achieve the best image emotionally as well as technically.

    At the end of the day, it’s all about the light!

    1. Quite agree – EXCEPT the beautiful Fuji mirrorless cameras that offer both electronic and “normal” viewfinders – just find the better one for each occasion. And Fuji lenses aren’t bad either!

  8. To Mark Thorne. I can really appreciate what you are saying, and the commitment it takes to get out and about with a full frame kit et all, I face the same issues!
    But, as you wisely stated, it’s only a matter of time.
    I come across many “serious enthusiast” who are packing mirrorless kit, and who’s work is far from “lackadaisical”, even brilliant, in some cases – and like you, I’m sweating my 70y.o. butt off trying to be a “serious enthusiast”!
    What gives?
    Guess, like you, I’m gunna haff ta take a serious look at the latest mirrorless gear, and lens adapters, and see what can be done with my stretched glass. There’s gotta be a betta way. ??

  9. I was getting tired of carrying 7kg of Canon gear around, so bought a Fuji xt-20 with the 18-55mm kit lens as something I could always have with me. As well as allowing me to take more photos (the flip-out touch screen & silent shutter option is fantastic for discretely taking street shots), it’s also given me a new appreciation for my Canon dsr. The small xt-20 feels right for street, and there’s just something special about getting the Canon set up on the tripod to wait for a sunrise or the right light. I also think it would be useful to use the Fuji for a time lapse while I’m taking photos with the Canon. In short, I think there’s a strong case to be made for having both, you have just got to resist spending on gear for both systems! Thanks for an interesting article

  10. Hi Robert, I bought the Sony Alpha 6000 a couple of years ago at the urging of a friend who had one, loved it, and let me try his out. It’s just as you say, a great alternative to my Nikon DSLRs when I want a portable “advanced” camera (as opposed to a compact with limited capabilities). I wouldn’t give up my DSLRs (at least not until I get too decrepit to schlep them around), but I love having the Sony mirrorless, took it to Rhode Island last week along with the D7100 and was glad I did.

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