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Holy cow that is a loaded headline! I could be swimming in shark infested waters right now. But I will try not to splash about too much 😉 First off, anyone following this blog already knows, I am a Canon user by and large, that said, I will try to avoid any fan-boy isms or favoritism. I am also here to focus on the still photography aspects of cameras with video being secondary. One can easily find scores of YouTubers that can talk up the video side of cameras with far more experience and knowledge than I can. I’ll leave the video to the experts real or imagined 😉 I intend to focus on interchangeable lens cameras and not fixed lens cameras.

Image taken from Wikipedia

By now most people that are into photography know that mirrorless cameras are quickly taking over the serious gear market. What is a mirrorless camera then? Well, actually if we are really honest about it any camera that is not a reflex camera like a DSLR is technically mirrorless. To understand mirrorless better, looking at the well know SLR design first may help.

There have been many variations on reflex camera designs, but modern cameras are based primarily on the SLR design. An SLR is a “single lens reflex” system. It dates back to the 19th century but in practical modern use it is a post war (WWII) product. The idea was to allow the photographer to compose the shot looking through a viewfinder that was optically connected to the lens, thus the viewfinder was looking through the taking lens. In modern cameras including all modern DSLRs this is accomplished using a polished penta-prism and a mirror in front of the shutter. Light passes through the lens and is reflected up through a Fresnel screen providing a focus point equal to the distance to the film or sensor plane. A penta-prism then directs the focused image to the viewfinder correcting the mirror image.

SLR designs have been very popular because they allow for a bright crisp image, easy to focus and the composition in the viewfinder is typically very close to or even exactly representative of what the film or sensor will capture. The notion of a mirrorless camera with a electronic viewfinder is NOT new in fact consumer grade video cameras in the 1980s used them. But those cameras had small sensors and relatively deep depth of field making focus a less precision exercise. Film cameras with 35mm (full frame), needed to be more precise and the low resolution screens of the 1980s didn’t cut it.

But this is not the 1980s, is it? Today manufacturer’s can create a super high resolution electronic viewfinder that is fast and responsive even in low light. These modern high resolution screens are superior to an optical viewfinder in almost every measurable way. Furthermore computer technology has advanced to the point that the camera can process data fast enough to give accurate real time exposure preview even with a 5 mega-dot display! Back in the day when rangefinder cameras were competing against SLRs for supremacy there was an advantage to the rangefinder cameras because they didn’t have to design lenses around a large clunky mirror box. The lens flange distance to the film plane (sensor plane) was much shorter for rangefinder cameras. This allowed lens designers to create compact lenses that were faster and sharper than the SLR equivalents. Eventually engineers figured out clever ways to make SLR lenses better and better but they were never as small in physical size as rangefinder glass.

Today the modern mirrorless cameras have that same advantage with the short back focus. We are seeing miracle lenses appear that seem to break the boundaries of physics, they don’t break the boundaries of physics of course, but they are amazing. Now Canon and Nikon are all in on mirrorless as well and the SLR is facing extinction. Although Sony was not the first, they took the lead role in the mirrorless space with a solid line up of APS/c cameras starting in 2010 with the NEX models. Just two years later they would introduce the a7 with a full frame sensor. Nikon and Canon did jump in but not with the same vigor and determination as Sony. Nikon had the rather uninspiring Nikon 1 cameras with a small 1 inch sensor system launched in 2011. Canon had the EOS-M camera that had a better sensor system than Nikon but was slow and clumsy to use. Canon kept up with the EOS-M line however tweaking it till they actually got a contender with the EOS-M3 in 2015. Both Nikon and Canon launched their first full frame mirrorless cameras in September of 2018 just a week or so apart with Nikon first. Sony had a five year head start but both Nikon and Canon launched solid products.

Today a camera buyer has so many options from a slew of micro 4/3 cameras from Fuji, Olympus, and Panasonic among others to APS/C and full frame. How to narrow it down is a daunting task. I will try to make some sense of it but in the end much of it will be determined by how the camera feels ergonomically and functionally. There really is a camera for everyone in this category.

At this stage in the article I am going to post an opinion that some may not like but here is is anyway. A smaller format such as 1 inch or 4/3 makes complete sense if the camera is physically smaller or has some other performance advantage. Some smaller cameras in 4/3 shoot really fast like 20 plus frames per second which is a great thing for action photography and those types of speeds are only reserved for the high end stuff in larger formats. I have noticed that most of the 4/3 cameras with interchangeable lenses these days are about the same size as the Sony and Canon APS/c cameras. An APS/c sensor is 50% larger than 4/3, larger sensors have real advantages in still photography, less so in video applications. My opinion is simply that all else being equal, take the larger sensor. So far none of the full frame cameras are anywhere near as compact as their APS/c counter parts so when compact size is important the APS/c and 4/3 are clear winners. Some people actually prefer a bigger camera as they feel it is easier to grip and hold steady, this is a real thing I tend to agree with and the full frame cameras as well as some APS/c cameras like the Nikon Z50 are a bit bigger than cameras in the 4/3 arena or Sony’s compact A6000 series and Canon EOS-M line.

Now on to the real topic, which mirrorless camera should YOU buy. Lets start with this question: which camera do you have now? If you are using your phone as your camera then your options are wide open. If you currently have a high end ($300 plus) compact camera then there may be a slight bonus to sticking with the brand as many brands keep the menu systems across the whole line similar and there could be a familiarity advantage. After this intro by brand I have a chart at the bottom going over various cameras and basic features and such to compare.

If you are currently using a Canon or Nikon DSLR then there should be a strong inclination to stick with those brands for the aforementioned familiar operation and you will very likely benefit from being able to use your existing compatible lenses and accessories. Although adapters are available to use Canon and Nikon glass on a Sony A series camera those modern lenses will not have the same level of performance on the Sony body.

Canon DSLR users have the most to gain by sticking with Canon. Canon has been using a 100% electronic lens mount since 1987. All EOS EF lenses will work on Canon mirrorless bodies with 100% compatibility. The EOS-R bodies take EF lenses with no loss of performance whatsoever. On the smaller EOS-M cameras I notice a smidgen slower AF when EF lenses are mounted to an EOS-M camera. On the current lineup of M cameras this is negligible.

Canon:

Canon decided to change the lens mount when they went full frame. They could have kept the M mount for full frame and they could even make a full frame EOS-M camera if they wanted. The EOS-M mount is very similar to the Sony E mount, in fact almost a clone. Sony has done quite well with full frame cameras and that sized mount. The reason Canon went to a new mount is almost certainly due to a desire to push lens technology further in the pro range of lenses. There are limitations to lens mounts beyond the flange distance and back focus. A wider mount like Canon’s EF mount also allow lens engineers to make super sharp and well corrected high speed lenses when offered more space to work with. Canon’s RF mount is 54mm wide just like the EF mount which makes the transition between native RF lenses and EF lenses easy to handle. EF lenses tend to be a bit awkward on the smaller sized M series camera bodies and even on earlier Sony A7 bodies. At this point in time Canon offers the choice between two systems and the choice really comes down to compact size versus professional grade optics and cameras. I own both an EOS M5 with 6 native EF-M lenses and other third party glass and a Canon EOS-R with one native RF lens and a whole slew of EF glass. I like taking the M5 out when traveling because it is so small as well as when I am just out having fun. My more serious photography is typically reserved for the EOS-R. Unlike Nikon, Canon pushed glass first. They have a huge lead on Nikon in the professional lens arena for full frame mirrorless. Canon however is just now starting to bring to market pro-grade cameras to go with it. The EOS-R was a pro-sumer camera and the EOS-RP is a high end consumer camera. The recently announced EOS-R5 will be a pro grade camera (not to be confused with a “flagship” model) and the EOS-R6 a pro-sumer model. If you buy a Canon M series camera be advised that the M lenses will NOT adapt to the RF or EF mount at all. The EOS M cameras like the RF cameras will seamlessly accept EF lenses with an adapter and EF-S lenses will work in crop mode on RF bodies. People thinking about a high end mirrorless Canon is launching the R5 sometime this summer.

Nikon:

Unlike Canon which had reasonable options on lens mounts, Nikon had no choice but to change their lens mount. The Nikon F mount has been outdated since 1987 but Nikon has done an admirable job of adapting that old 1959 dinosaur to modern cameras and technology. But the Z cameras needed to compete with Sony and Canon so Nikon came up with a wide 55mm mount and the shortest back focus and flange distance for full frame on the market at 16mm. In theory Nikon’s mount gives them the most opportunity to create new and exciting pro-grade glass. For some reason they have been a bit slow to push out that pro glass, but I am certain it is coming, Sony and Canon should not get too comfortable. Nikon has a full frame pro-sumer camera the Z6 and a pro-grade camera again not a flagship, but pro-grade Z7. They also launched an APS/c camera with the Z mount. The Nikon Z50 is notably smaller than the Z6 or Z7 but notably larger than the EOS M cameras or the Sony A6000 models. But the Z50 is affordable and uses the same mount. So that will make for an easy step up to full frame later. Even if you buy the Z50 with crop sensor glass that glass will work on the full frame bodies in “crop mode.” If you already own a Nikon DSLR with more than just the kit lens, the logical choice is to stick with Nikon. Nikon F mount lenses can be adapted to fit the Z series bodies but there will be varying levels of compatibility depending on the vintage of the lens. It is not quite as seamless as the Canon but it is worth staying in the line especially if you bought nice F/2.8 glass or any expensive lenses. Nikon has always made great lenses with optics that rival the best in the world.

Sony:

Sony is the mirrorless veteran in the full frame space. They have the biggest native lens catalog although one can make a case for Canon since the EF lenses are a seamless match with Canon’s excellent adapters. Sony is still the most polished in the space because they have already had two dozen iterations using the E mount. For people that like to use vintage glass the Sony does hold an advantage since they have been on the market longest the availability of crazy adapters for nearly any lens ever made is much better than the newer Nikon and Canon mounts. That will change with time, but for now Sony has the edge on classic glass adaptations. Sony also has by far the best line up of models. Currently there is the A6000, A6300, A6400, A6500, A6600 cameras in APS/c and the a7 II, a7R II, a7S II, a7 III, a7R III, a7R IV, a9, and a9 II in full frame with more models coming like an a7 IV and a7S IV. Sony’s line up is the undisputed king but they have a tendency to keep older models around.

The Bottom Line:

For people coming in with no loyalties it really comes down to preference. Go to a camera store and handle the cameras, run through the menus, and just decide on which “feels” best. I believe that Sony, Nikon, and Canon are the best choices for still photographers looking for the most options and system versatility. For people intending to adapt vintage glass Sony has an advantage for now because so many adapters are already out for that long established system. Furthermore, Sony has many models with IBIS (In Body Image Stabilization). This allows image stabilization for any lens regardless of whetehr that lens has a stabilizer built in. Excellent for adapting vintage glass.

For people that want to use modern glass Sony and Canon have a clear advantage over Nikon because Nikon’s older F system lenses have variable functionality on the new Z bodies. All Sony E mount lenses work on all Sony E mount cameras seamlessly. All Canon EF lenses ever made dating to 1987 work perfectly on RF bodies with the adapter and near perfect on EOS M cameras as well. For modern AF lenses the Canon system has the biggest catalog of glass by far with more than 140 million fully compatible lenses made by Canon alone and millions more from third parties. Both Nikon and Canon in my opinion are more comfortable and ergonomically built than Sony and that seems to be a common thread from other reviewers as well.

By price point body only no lens, here are my favorites for still work:

Less than $500

  • Sony a6000 older design but fast and effective 24mp APS/c

Less than $800

  • Canon EOS M5 still a solid shooter Built-in EVF 24mp APS/c
  • Canon EOS M6 II fast, compact, EVF optional, hi res 32mp APS/c

Less than $1000

  • Sony a7 II older design but still solid IBIS 24mp Full Frame
  • Canon EOS RP newer design but no IBIS 26.2mp Full Frame
  • Nikon Z50 new design ergonomically nice, 21mp APS/c

Less than $1500

  • Sony a7R II older design but hi-res and IBIS 42mp Full Frame
  • Sony A6600 updated design fast and compact IBIS 24mp APS/c

Less than $2000

  • Canon EOS-R ergonomically the best in class, no IBIS, fully articulating screen 30mp Full Frame
  • Sony a7 III fast, dual card slots, IBIS, 24mp Full Frame
  • Nikon Z6, fast, ergonomic, well built, 24mp Full Frame

Less than $3000

  • Sony a7R III one of the best values, IBIS, hi res, 42mp Full Frame
  • Nikon Z7, great ergonomics, hi res, 46mp Full Frame

$3000 plus

  • Sony a7R IV highest res in mirrorless space, 61mp Full Frame
  • Sony a9 super fast, flagship performance, 24mp Full Frame
  • Sony a9 II latest flagship specs, pricey though, 24mp Full Frame
  • Canon R5 not out yet, but looks like a monster camera and game changer…

Comparison Chart

The left side of the chart is technical specs from the manufacturer. The right side of the chart is my subjective rating of the cameras. (full disclosure: some of these I have not actually “used” but only handled in a store or at a show) I have also added to my subjective viewpoint the review data from a variety of trusted sources. Click the chart to enlarge.

Last fall at a PhotoFair show I bought this vintage Super Rokkor 45/2.8 for Leica Screw Mount rangefinder. In reality this was designed for a Minolta Rangefinder camera that utilized the LTM mount as did the Canon’s at the time. I was not real familiar with this lens but I did some research and found that Minolta had 3 versions of the 45/2.8 and they also had 50/2 which was bigger and heavier but not “better.” These early lenses were branded under the name “Chiyoko” prior to using the Minolta name on lenses. I have mine adapted to Leica M mount so I can use it on my EOS R or my EOS M5 with a cool helicoil adapter.

These old LTM lenses have the disadvantage of only focusing to 3.3 feet (1m) Many companies are now offering adapters equipped with a helicoil to allow for close up focusing with these older lenses. This particular lens is very small even for LTM. It is almost a pancake design and it looks odd mounted to my full size EOS-R. I also shoot it on my much smaller EOS M5. It is better scaled to this lens’  small size. On that camera with the 1.6x crop the lens shoots like a 72/2.8 and works nicely for portrait work.

The lens is beautifully made and optically quite nice. You can find these in very good shape for around $200 give or take. I mentioned 3 versions above and primarily these were tweaks to the mechanical design not the optical formula. This lens is a bit of a hybrid design it is not a Tessar like the fixed lens Minoltas of the era. The final version was just the version II with a thin optical coating. All three are the same formula of a cemented triplet up front and two elements behind the aperture.

The lens has a bit of a cult following and I’m seriously thinking about joining the cult. As long as I don’t have to chant in a circle of candles, I’m in. This seventy year old lens is razor sharp and has rather pleasing bokeh. It is also tiny, I mean super tiny. It isn’t as light-weight as its size would suggest because it is built to last and that is likely why it still focuses smoothly and operates like it did when Harry Truman was President.

The results of this lens are rather pleasing. Some say it is better suited to black and white, but it renders color in modern cameras very well. Those who follow this blog know, I like to get up real close and isolate my subjects. This lens at f/2.8 struggles at mid range focus to isolate the subject, but does a decent job at the minimum focus distance of 3.3 feet (1m). I used it with a helicoil adapter that allowed me to focus inside of 1 foot (30cm) and really blow out the background. This is one of those lenses that never got its due respect what with all the Leica this, Leica that. I however have owned nearly every Leica standard lens in this era (late 1940s-early 50s) and this Super Rokkor is as good or better than any of them. You need a Summicron the best this lens and the Summicron wasn’t introduced until the mid-50s. Leica designed the Summicron largely in response to superior optics coming out of Japan like these Rokkors and Canon’s famed Serenar 50/1.8. You’ll pay an extra $100 for a Leica Elmar 50/2.8 and will NOT get images this good from it. Hmm, I wonder what kind of chants they require in the Chiyoko cult, I don’t have to climb Mount Fuji, do I? I’m too old for that 😉

Betsy relaxing in the sun, EOS-R, Super Rokkor 45/2.8 and helicoil adapter. 1/800 sec @ f/2.8 ISO 400

Wifey’s bird ornament in the yard. EOS-R, Super Rokkor 45/2.8 and helicoil adapter. 1/125 sec @ f/2.8 ISO 400

Wifey’s bird house feeder, EOS-R, Super Rokkor 45/2.8 and helicoil adapter. 1/640 sec @ f/2.8 ISO 400

EOS M5, Super Rokkor 45/2.8 and M adapter. 1/400 sec @ f/2.8 ISO 400 (I missed focus just a bit behind the eye, my bad)

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