A Check-In on Mirrorless

I switched from Canon to Nikon in 2016 for Nikon’s significantly better dynamic range, 3D autofocus, and the D750’s amazing price-to-performance ratio. Since that time I’ve amassed 15 lenses and added a Nikon D500 for animal and sports photography. Nikon has treated me well and I’ve made a large investment in it, but mirrorless cameras have been significantly advancing photography in the last few years. I think it’s time to take another look.

What is Mirrorless All About?

A mirrorless camera doesn’t have a pentaprism and mirror, a.k.a. the big bump on a DSLR. They use the sensor to focus instead of separate hardware and electronic viewfinder to visualize the image. Not only do mirrorless cameras focus more accurately, they can also offer out-of-this world autofocus that tracks a person (or animal’s) individual eye as they move in and out of the frame. They can shoot faster (10 fps is common, 120 fps is possible) and take awesome video that is as easy to use as on a cell phone. Their electronic viewfinders provide a live preview of exposure, taking the guesswork out of metering, and their electronic shutters can shoot silently. Sony was the first to market but over the past few years Canon and Nikon have joined in. As a result, both companies have halted development of DSLRs – mirrorless is the future.

I’ve read a bit about mirrorless over the past few years but largely ignored it otherwise, waiting for it to mature and waiting for Nikon to join the game. The biggest benefits to mirrorless for me are the autofocus and continuous shutter speed. In auto mode, these can track the face or eye of a subject moving erratically and achieve over 90% accuracy through a burst of images. It takes all of the work out of trying to find focus and nearly guarantees crisply focused shots every time. Focusing through the sensor provided better accuracy than a DSLR, without the need to dial in custom adjustments. Many mirrorless cameras shoot at 10 fps mechanically (like my D500) but can go up to 20 fps with the (silent) electronic shutter. Silent photos at 20 fps is highly advantageous for animal shots.

The Conundrum

Nikon’s 24 MP full-frame Z6, with its brand new lens mount

If mirrorless is so great, then it sounds like it might be time to switch over. There are two problems for me. The first, unfortunately, is Nikon. Nikon’s mainstream mirrorless cameras, the Z6 (24 mp) and Z7 (46 mp), have similar autofocus features to Sony and Canon, but it performs significantly worse. While they can focus on faces, eyes, and animals, they are significantly worse at tracking moving subjects and their keeper rate during bursts is much lower. Given that a major draw for me is autofocus abilities, Nikon is basically not an option. Otherwise they are pretty good cameras compared to their competitors.

Nikon has made many improvements to the Z6 and Z7 in firmware, and even released second-generation models with dual processors, but it’s still significantly behind Sony and Canon. The October release of the $5,500 Z9 seems to do a lot to catch up but its focusing magic has yet to make it down into lower models.

Nikon Z9 Mirrorless Digital Z9 Camera - B&H Photo
The Z9 makes up for lost time in the mirrorless market but it’s designed as a professional-level camera outside of my typical usage.

The second problem is lenses. Nikon (and Canon, and Sony) uses a completely new lens mount for its mirrorless cameras. It’s larger and fully electronic, which allows for higher-quality, lighter lenses, with cool technology built in. It also means that I’d need to buy brand new lenses if I want to get the most out of the camera. Nikon’s Z lens lineup is missing some pretty important lenses for me (like a 70-200mm f/4) and there is no third party support from Tamron or Sigma. Z lenses are also more expensive than my existing F lenses were and there are very few on the used market.

Nikon offers adapters that allow F mount lenses to be used, but they focus slower than they do on the DSLRs they are made for due to Nikons autofocus weaknesses, at least on the Z6 and Z7. Even if I could accept Nikon’s autofocus performance, I would have to buy new lenses to leverage it, otherwise I’d end up with a camera that had worse focus than what I’ve got today. It appears that the Z9 rectifies the issue with adapted F mount lenses, but again, it cost $5,500.

If I really want to move to mirrorless right now and get the autofocus I want, my only option is to change systems again. Maybe it’s time to start researching my options and see how they stack up. If I look at the cameras in the range of my D750 and the Z6 there are two options –  the Canon R6 and Sony A7 IV, both priced at $2500. Time to dig in!

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