Phone cameras have gotten stupendously better since their inception. We’ve come a long way from the laughable 0.3 megapixel VGA shots that people took on their Nokia 7650s. Today’s smartphone cameras can definitely go toe-to-toe with many compact cameras, and can even take extremely good shots in daylight that could rival some older DSLRs.
However, no matter how good their image processing technology, fake background blurring, and beautiful colors, smartphone cameras will always be constrained by the sacrifices they had to make to be crammed into such a small space. It’s simple optical physics – larger sensors, bigger lenses, better image.
Many people think that upgrading from smartphone photography requires a bulky, intimidating, and very expensive DSLR. That is still an option, of course, but these days, a variety of affordable, portable yet performant options have been making their way to the top spots of budding photography enthusiasts’ wish lists.
Let’s take a look at the world of mirrorless cameras, and how they can elevate your photographs.
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What Are Mirrorless Cameras?
To understand what mirrorless cameras are, you have to understand what the missing “mirror” is in the first place.
The term “DSLR” means “Digital Single Lens Reflex.” Of course, “digital” is easy enough to understand – but “single lens reflex” seems a little more alien. Basically, in DSLRs, a reflex mirror reflects light from the lens into the viewfinder. What you see through the eyepiece becomes exactly what you get from your camera. When you click the shutter, the mirror flips up and exposes the camera’s image sensor, creating the image.
The presence of the reflex mirror requires a large, heavy mirror box that contributes to the bulk and weight of DSLRs. But what if you could do away with the reflex mirror? That means you don’t get to see through your lens, but in the era of digital, you could just use your camera’s screen to take the photo. We’ve been doing this with phones and point-and-shoot cameras for almost two decades now, after all.
And that is the definition of a mirrorless camera — a digital camera that lacks the reflex mirror that characterizes DSLR technology. Mirrorless cameras are lighter, less complex, and mostly cheaper than equivalent DSLRs.
But what makes mirrorless cameras different from other non-mirror compact cameras?
That’s another part of the mirrorless advantage equation. The term “mirrorless camera” is short for “mirrorless interchangeable lens camera,” highlighting the other major advantage DSLRs have over regular cameras – you can swap out your lens with whatever you need for a given scene.
Finally, a feature that’s common to both mirrorless cameras and DSLRs is the use of large, high-quality image sensors. Larger sensors often mean better image quality overall, whether that means performance in low-light situations, or the ability to see details in both very dark and very bright parts of scenes — a metric known as dynamic range.
The average budget to midrange mirrorless camera contains a sensor that’s 26-28 millimeters measured diagonally. Meanwhile, the average smartphone has a sensor that’s only 7 millimeters measured diagonally. That’s 16 times the surface area for a mirrorless camera compared to a phone!
Mirrorless cameras have been around for quite a while now. However, it’s only been in the last three to four years that the market has truly come up with some interesting offerings. Let’s dive into some of the best midrange mirrorless cameras that you can buy if you want to get more out of your photography.
1. Canon EOS M100
Price: Php 21,599
Pros: Very small and compact, excellent touchscreen interface, very simple to learn, excellent autofocus
Cons: No 4K video, “too simple,” EF-M lens mount doesn’t have a lot of options
The 2017 Canon EOS M100 is a remarkable creature. Using an excellent image sensor that wouldn’t be out of place in a 2015-2016 midrange DSLR, but cramming it into a very pocketable form factor, it’s a tiny and affordable little mirrorless camera that packs a hefty punch. Smartphone users upgrading to a more serious camera option will feel right at home with the touchscreen interface, and it offers all the manual controls that a “real” DSLR would have.
It has amazing image quality as well, certainly vastly better than a smartphone camera, especially when you mate it with even a budget 35 or 50mm lens and an adapter.
Now for the downsides. One caveat is that all of the manual controls in the camera can only be used through the touchscreen interface, as the device lacks a mode dial. While this sounds very accessible to new users, it also means that if you ever decide to take photography more seriously, it becomes awkward to access more advanced controls.
On top of that, the device lacks 4K video, which is rapidly becoming standard on many smartphones. There’s also the fact that the options for mirrorless Canon EF-M lenses are extremely limited and relatively expensive, often forcing you to go with bigger Canon EF lenses with an adapter that are rather unwieldy, somewhat diminishing the portability of the mirrorless platform.
All in all, though, it’s a wonderful choice to upgrade to from a smartphone. Here’s an image I took with an EOS M100 that I bought for my mother as a birthday present.
I used the EOS M100, a lens adapter worth about Php1,500, and a cheap Chinese 50mm lens designed for Canon DSLRs, that I got for just Php2,799. Taking portraits is incredibly fun and easy with this affordable setup.
2. Fujifilm X-T100
Pros: Electronic viewfinder, awesome low-light image quality, great selection of lenses, solid battery life, can be charged with a USB power bank
Cons: “4K” video support might as well be non-existent, autofocus is only average
Fuji’s X-T100 is a very palpable step up from the EOS M100, with a more DSLR-like interface featuring several wheels and dials, including a mode dial. This mirrorless option will have DSLR users feeling very comfortable fiddling with the features.
It’s also one of the cheapest cameras to feature an electronic viewfinder (EVF), which attempts to emulate the viewfinder experience of DSLRs. The EVF has a much higher resolution than the display on the back of the camera, and it also generally feels much more natural to use a viewfinder on a camera, as it feels like the camera is an extension of your eyes, rather than a separate device you use to frame your images.
The X-T100 also benefits from the wide variety of Fuji X-Mount lenses that are available on the market. Almost every lens you could need is available for the X-T100, whether they’re original Fujinon lenses or produced by third-party brands.
The battery life is also excellent, with a rating of 430 shots per branded battery, and you can even extend that by using a power bank.
This could have been a perfect recommendation in every way at the price point, but the X-T100 has a strange shortcoming that seems wholly out of place for a 2018 release — 4K video is limited to a virtually unusable 15FPS. The autofocus is also not quite up to par with options from Canon and Sony at similar prices, and being particularly slow in the “continuous” mode that tracks moving objects.
Overall, though, it’s definitely better than many of the surrounding options in the Fuji lineup such as the X-A5, and indeed at the price point.
3. Canon EOS M50
Price: Php 40,000-45,000
Pros: Excellent image quality, extremely fast autofocus
Cons: Bad battery life, 4K video is severely cropped and lacks the autofocus technology, same limited lens selection.
The Canon EOS M50 is like a bigger, beefier EOS M100 in every single way, ticking every single upgrade box you could think of.
First off, it has better image quality and 4K support, which are direct upgrades from the mediocre low-light image capture of the EOS M100, as well as its 1080p video limit. It also has an electronic view finder, as well as a simple interface that can help transition to more serious shooting.
One of the highlight features of the EOS M50 is its use of Canon’s Dual Pixel technology, which is also present in the M100. This high-speed, high-accuracy focusing tech not only makes focusing on your subject a breeze, but also offers excellent subject tracking for moving objects, allowing you to capture good action shots, or accurately maintain focus in a video.
Sadly, not everything’s all sunshine and roses in this upgrade. The EOS M50 is still limited by the sad EF-M lens selection, and you’d do well to buy an adapter for bigger Canon DSLR lenses.
In addition, the 4K video, while relatively good quality, has an annoying “crop factor” that basically captures a zoomed-in image when compared to 1080p. This makes it significantly harder to get wide-angle shots such as landscapes, or street photography. The headlining Dual Pixel autofocus tech is also unavailable when shooting in 4K, with the camera reverting to a much slower autofocus method.
Finally, the rated battery life is fairly poor, at only 235 shots – just over that of the X-T100, and significantly below the EOS M100’s performance.
That said, while the EOS M50 certainly makes sacrifices, it’s still an upgrade in nearly every way over its peers.
4. Sony a6400
Price: Php 58,999
Pros: Tremendous image quality, brilliant low-light performance, best-in-class 4K video quality, fastest autofocus in the world, diverse lens selection, can be charged with a USB power bank
Cons: Sony menus have too many options and are hard to understand, jello effect in 4K video, E-mount lenses are very expensive
The Sony a6400 is the company’s latest offering in their excellent E-mount mirrorless lineup. A refinement of the 2016 a6300, it brings the same high-end image quality that the series is known for while throwing in a few new bells and whistles.
First up, it retains the tremendous image quality that both the a6300 and a6500 share. Where other cameras’ images would crumble into grainy messes in low light, the a6400’s shots shine through clear as day. The same holds true for its 4K video capabilities — the camera actually captures 6K video and then downsamples it to 4K for crisp video.
Next, its autofocus is billed as being the best in the world, with a rating of 0.02 seconds to focus with Sony lenses. It’s not just fast — it’s also very accurate, and object tracking is exceptional whether you’re shooting photo or video.
The Sony E-mount also has some of the best lenses in the mirrorless world, with Sigma, Tamron, Sony, and others offering great solutions for every need. Though this diversity comes at a price — Sony lenses are very, very expensive compared to their counterparts in Canon and Fuji.
The battery life isn’t anything to write home about, at 360 shots with the viewfinder and 410 on the monitor. However, it can be extended with a USB power bank just like the X-T100. And of course, like with almost all mirrorless cameras, you can buy additional battery packs.
The downsides are almost nitpicky to think about. The 4K video has a significant jello effect when looking at fast moving objects like vehicles, or panning left and right very quickly. The menus can be somewhat unwieldy and long, and you have to navigate them with a directional pad or control dial rather than the touchscreen, which can only be used for tap-to-focus and for looking through captured images.
Neither of these, nor the expensive E-mount lenses, are dealbreakers for what is one of the best cameras you can buy at the price point. It’s certainly an expensive step up from other tiers, but the extra money is worth it. This is the camera I chose for my personal use, and coupled with a good lens, it performs amazingly for photography and videography alike. Check out a sample I captured in Makati with a Sigma 30mm lens:
I also took a requisite malandicat photo using the same lens:
Obviously I favor my own choice of camera, and this photo can be taken by anyone with a decent camera, but maybe I just wanted to show a picture of a fluffy cat.
That’s a lot of words for a camera roundup, but trust me – the kind of quality boost you can get by switching to one of these from a smartphone is nothing short of breathtaking. You don’t need to spend a huge amount of money or lug around a heavy DSLR to get excellent photos.
However, keep in mind that a mirrorless camera is only one part of the equation in improving your photos. A skilled photographer with a developed eye can take magnificent shots with a smartphone, while a beginner with a high-end camera might not have the knowledge to make the most out of their kit, or the artistic capability to effectively frame subjects and compose scenes. If there’s anything you can do right now to get better photos, it’s to practice, practice, practice.