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Mirrorless Not All It's Cracked up To Be? What a Crack-Up!

Mirrorless Not All It's Cracked up To Be? What a Crack-Up!

One of my Fstoppers counterparts recently wrote that mirrorless cameras aren't all they're cracked up to be. I'm sure there was an element of playfulness in his article. However, for the record, I think he was very wide of the mark. Here's why. 

As I wrote in a recent article, I have made the move to a mirrorless setup, in the form of the Canon EOS R5. As I expounded in that article, my first impressions of the EOS R5 were magnificent, and in the time since, my admiration for the camera has continued on an exponential incline. However, I wasn't always convinced. Indeed, in an article here on Fstoppers two years ago, I wrote that I thought the hype surrounding mirrorless cameras was a bit misguided. At the time, I think my stance was warranted, but in the 28 months since that article was written, a lot has changed. Therefore, I have changed tune, too, which is exactly why I made the switch from my DSLR Canon 5D Mark IV to the EOS R5.

I won't touch on every issue my colleague had with mirrorless cameras such as those associated with EVFs, overheating, and new lenses, as it was his claim that mirrorless cameras are just as limited as DSLRs that really inspired me to write this. A new mirrorless setup is as limited as a DSLR. Really? The article made no mention of any specific cameras, so I'll go with some Canon cameras just to make my point. I'm sure you could do the same with other brands, but I'll stick with what I know and what I own.

Let's start with frames per second (fps) and go with apples and apples. In the two images below, you can see the Canon 5D Mark 4 first and its fps burst rate, followed by the EOS R5 and its fps burst rate. 

You can see from the image above that the Canon 5D Mark 4 has a maximum burst rate of 7 fps at 30 MP. That's not bad, but not particularly fast if you're shooting sports or wildlife, in particular.

Compare that with the EOS R5, which shoots at up to 12 fps on the mechanical shutter at 45 MP, and up to 20 fps on the electronic shutter at 45 MP. Thus, on the mechanical shutter, the EOS R5 shoots at nearly double the fps burst rate of the 5D Mark IV, and almost three times as fast using the electronic shutter. On top of that, you get an extra 15 MP on your sensor to play with in cropping capabilities. Anyone shooting moving subjects, be it children, sports action, or wildlife can do nothing but acknowledge that the mirrorless EOS R5 is far superior to its DSLR counterpart in terms of burst rate capabilities and capturing far more action in the same amount of time.

Let's move on to autofocus. Again, I'll go with apples and apples and compare the autofocus specs of the EOS R5 and the 5D Mark IV, and I'll also throw in Canon's flagship DSLR model, the 1D X Mark III for good measure.

In the image above, you can see that the Canon DSLR 5D Mark IV has 61 Phase Detection Autofocus points. I can tell you from years of using the camera, those 61 points cover about 60% of the frame, if I'm being generous.

Above are the AF specs for the flagship Canon 1D X Mark III. You can see that it has 191 phase detection autofocus points, which amounts to just over three that of the 5D Mark IV. What about the EOS R5?

I don't think I even need to say anything here, do I? Ah, what the heck, I will. It is an absolute joy to use the AF on the EOS R5, not only because of its incredible accuracy but also because the AF points cover the entire frame, from corner to corner. I never thought this would be so useful, but having it at my fingertips, I have to say I love it unconditionally and have found that it opens up a whole new world of creative opportunities and choices that I never had with the 5D Mark IV.

In summation, the burst rate of the EOS R5 puts that of its 5D Mark IV DSLR counterpart to shame, as does the AF capabilities and frame coverage. For many photographers, these two points alone are, arguably, the two most important features in a camera. I could probably stop here and rest my case, but I'll go one step further.

Finally, let's compare some AF menu items on the EOS R5 and the 5D Mark IV to really highlight how the mirrorless EOS R5 does not face the same limitations as a DSLR. When you go to the purple AF menu category on the EOS R5, there are two new sections that don't exist in the same purple AF menu category of the 5D Mark IV.

The camera on the left is the 5D Mark IV. On the right is the EOS R5. You can see they are both on menu item one in the AF category. The menu list on the EOS R5, on the right, is different. Why? Because it now has eye detect for people and animals and the touch and drag option for the screen. They don't exist in the 5D Mark IV AF menu, because the 5D Mark IV doesn't have those capabilities.

Moreover, if you go to the number two list of items on the EOS R5 AF menu, you'll also get some new item entries, as seen below.

Under number two on the EOS R5, you have manual focus peaking and the focus guide. Very briefly, these features used together are almost like autofocus while you're using manual focus. Specifically, when you look through the EVF on the EOS R5 and manually adjust your lens, the parts of the frame that are in focus light up bright red on your screen, like Christmas lights. That gives you a general guide as to the area of the frame that's in focus. Then, if you want to zone in on a specific element in the frame, you turn the Focus Guide setting on and choose the element you want in focus, and the camera pinpoints exactly when it's in focus and lets you know by turning green on that point. It's outstandingly accurate and precise. Again, that doesn't exist on the DSLR 5D Mark IV.

This is an understated feature but hugely helpful. In my circumstance, for example, my eyes aren't perfect, but I hate wearing glasses or contact lenses, especially when I'm taking photos. What that means when I'm trying to focus manually is that even though I'm pretty darn sure I'm spot on with my manual focus through magnification, I can never be absolutely certain. The new features on the EOS R5 now ensure that I can be.

Getting back to the menus of both cameras, eventually, when you get to number three in the EOS R5 AF menu category, you then get the same screen as number one on the 5D Mark 4, as seen below.

From these direct comparisons, I think it's abundantly clear that the EOS R5 is a far, far more capable camera than its DSLR counterpart, the 5D Mark IV. To suggest that mirrorless cameras like the EOS R5 are as limited as DSLRs such as the 5D Mark IV is a bit hard to swallow.

But what does all that mean in terms of real-life use? Sure, the spec sheet of the mirrorless EOS R5 might be like a heavyweight Mike Tyson knocking out a poor little 5D Mark IV bantamweight, but how does it help you in the actual practice of taking better images? Let me give you one example.

This is my eldest daughter at home on the sofa. At the time, I was using the EOS R5 with AF eye detect on the RF 24-105mm f/4 lens. The shutter speed was set at 1/160th, as I wanted to keep the ISO low and test the in-body image stabilization (IBIS) capabilities. As I've mentioned before, I also have a two-year-old daughter who is currently the (sweetest) devil incarnate. As I was trying to take this shot, my youngest daughter was on my left, intent on getting to the remote control, which was sitting in my lap. Therefore, I moved my body towards her, took my face completely away from the camera, and fully extended my right arm, which was holding the camera, to keep it in front of my smiling daughter. I had no idea how good my composition was because I was using my body and my left arm as a buffer between Ms Lucifer and the remote control.

As you can see from the image above, the camera kept focus nicely, even at a relatively slow shutter speed, and allowed me to fire off a number of shots that I could keep and edit. The idea that I could do this with the 5D Mark IV is unthinkable. I wasn't even looking at my daughter posing on the sofa half the time, such was my preoccupation with my wannabe commando climbing all over me.

Thus, it's precisely this kind of scenario which puts the EOS R5 light years ahead of the 5D Mark IV, in my opinion. Sure, if you're out shooting landscapes in good light, with a tripod and ample time to set everything up as you please, then the differences between the EOS R5 and the 5D Mark IV might not be so pronounced. But in scenarios where you have moving subjects and you need AF to work in your favor, it's no longer apples and apples. The AF accuracy and the coverage of the EOS R5, as well as the IBIS capabilities, put it in an unquestionable league of its own.

Summing Up

It took me a long time for the mirrorless (r)evolution to convince me. However, the fact is that mirrorless cameras are the future, and they can do everything DSLRs can do, and so much more. That is undeniable. Add to that the fact that Canon has admitted there might not be any new iterations following the 5D Mark IV DSLR model, and it was clear as day to me that my next move had to be mirrorless. I think I'll give my colleague the benefit of the doubt, but now that I've made the move to the mirrorless EOS R5, it's not even contentious as to which is the better camera or where the future lies.

What are your thoughts? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.

Iain Stanley's picture

Iain Stanley is an Associate Professor teaching photography and composition in Japan. Fstoppers is where he writes about photography, but he's also a 5x Top Writer on Medium, where he writes about his expat (mis)adventures in Japan and other things not related to photography. To view his writing, click the link above.

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I don't know if any camera manufacturer will ever bring out a new model with inferior or just equivalent to the 4 year old model it replaces. To suggest that we all have an immediate need to replace what we have would have been good 20 to 10 years ago but would be way over rated today. Personally, when Canon announced the R6, I imagined it would be a 45 mp R5 with very simplified video features but that marketing trap has no attract to me.

I made the same switch as you, from the 5DMIV to the R5 and I couldn't agree more. I still use the MIV for work stuff and I feel like I'm shooting on an antiquated camera compared to the R5.

Of course, it's not to say the 5D4 isn't still a great camera. It is. I just felt compelled to respond to my fellow writer's claim that mirrorless cameras are as limited as DSLRs. Owning both the 5D4 and the EOS R5.....that's just not the case.

I feel like this article would have benefited from focusing on comparing the R5 to Canon's most recent flagship DSLR, the 1DX3, rather than the older model of the 5D4.

The 1DX3 does have a higher mechanical shutter burst rate (16 vs 12), which would make sense because the shutter has to do less work on each shot. The 1DX3 also has an optical viewfinder, which some people prefer. DSLRs are likely to have substantially better battery life because they don't have to do anything except when you're taking a shot. The 1DX3 also has decent video features, though they're limited in the way DSLRs inherently are with video--you can't use the viewfinder during video because the mirror is flipped up.

However, you're right that Mirrorless cameras actually have a lot of inherent benefits over DSLRs. Through the EVF, you can preview your exposure before shooting, and even have a histogram and other guides visible in the EVF. Backfocus is inherently solved by mirrorless cameras. You can make use of AF points across the whole sensor rather than the fewer points that are placed in the viewfinder. You can adapt the camera to a wider range of lenses (and use those nifty RF-EF adapters) due to the smaller flange distance. You can magnify the image in the viewfinder to check focus with manual lenses. You can use the viewfinder while shooting video. DSLRs do have a "live view" mode, but it essentially eliminates all advantages that DSLRs have, while not letting you use a viewfinder.

The 1DX3 is Canon's flagship DSLR but I don't think it's apples and apples. I think the EOS R5 is the mirrorless version of the 5D4. Plus I don't own the 1DX3, so I couldn't do an accurate, side-by-side comparison

The 1DX3 is a closer reflection of what DSLRs could be in their best form, whereas the 5D4 is somewhat dated, though more similar to the R5 in terms of its intended use case. I totally get it if the 5D4 is what you have on-hand, no problem with that. My point was more that in a discussion about mirrorless and DSLR systems as a whole, it would probably be ideal to compare the best possible version of each design.

Yes I think if you’re going with current best vs best, you’d go EOS R5 vs 1DX3. But I was more compelled to write in response to my colleague’s blanket statement that mirrorless are as limited as DSLRs, which I strongly disagree with.

Also, rumours have persisted for a long while now that a mirrorless version of the 1DX3 is slated for 2021 release, perhaps in time for the Tokyo Okympics

Spec sheet comparisons are quasi-useful, but how about real world experience? Every modern camera has good AF in easy situations. Is there anyone NOT doing eye AF anymore, at least on humans -- that was a nice idea six years ago when it barely worked, but these days, even some new DSLRs can do it. And yeah, of course, lots of points can be good. But for PDAF/DPAF, does the R5 actually have cross-point sensors, or are they all one-way, like practically all mirrorless?

I'm a big fan of mirrorless, but like any tool, it's critical to know both strengths and weaknesses.

There's a real world experience in the article.

Lil bit... but more than half was your real-world verification of things it says on the spec sheet. How about a some dicey scenarios that actually challenge an AF system -- again, they all pretty much work on the easy stuff. How about what the difference actually meant in your day to day shooting, if anything. That's what I'm taking about. I trust the published numbers to actually work in the field. And I understand, it's a super-short article, as F-Stoppers articles tend to be, even with all the space in the world to make them longer. More content, less click-baiting, would set you guys apart from the crowd.

Well, for me, the EVF is still a problem - i still prefer direct viewfinder (is there any digital camera better than x100?) to SLR to any EVF. Not only I feel disconnected from the scene using EVF (and I am using mirrorless since Sony Nex5), it literally hurts my eyes. I even prefer Ricoh GR and it's screen (even considering all disadvantages of screen) to EVFs.

That said, for studio / tripod work, there is sadly no comparison even between Eos R and 5DMkIV - the R blows the DSLR out of the water due to much (incomparably) stronger focusing performance. Even using something like 16-35 at 16mm at f11, you can rely on the R's autofocus - but the DSLR, even calibrated, tends to perform unevenly. (It's debatable, though, whether pixel peeping and accurate focusing is a big deal - it depends on your needs of course.)

(Edit: I would even presume that the fact mirrorless cameras focus accurately using the sensor contributed to the raving reviews and popularity of Fujifilm cameras and other mirrorless by the flock of adopters few years ago, amazed by the Fuji aps-c performance in comparison to FF Cannikons...)

For portraits, it's more complicated: you have the eye focus, which is quite liberating, but on the other hand, through the EVF you stare at what has already happened - therefore you are more likely to miss the moment.

I still prefer SLR for handheld work /personal work etc. (For the record, I am 37 years old - no Luddite nor a dinosaur.) And also for manual focusing (Zeiss Milvus etc.) - I hate focus peaking and other digital help and I can see the plane of focus much clearer via OVF.

(Edit: I would argue that even the original R is probably a much better camera than 5DMkIV for most people - especially paired with something like 35/1.4L... it's a sadly underrated camera, in most cases probably on par or better than the DSLR IF the EVF is okay with you.)

The other guy seems to mostly be writing mostly for quantity so I wouldn't fret much if I were you.

Not sure I agree with the part of the first paragraph where you claim your article was justified then a lot has changed... my mirrorless camera is well over 28 months old and was just as brilliant back then as it is now.

It’s all subjective of course.

I would say most non-Sony brands have had huge changes (for the better). Sony, too has had quite a few updates in the last 2.5 years. That doesn't mean cameras older than 2.5 years aren't still superb, of course

One important note for potential buyers on the R5/R6 (I own the R6), the 20fps causes warping in sport on bats mid swing, baseballs mid air, as well as footballs, and I would assume hockey sticks although I have not shot hockey yet with the R6. It is manageable with basketball but still risky. The 12fps on the mechanical shutter will not work on all EF glass, I had to buy a new 70-200 vIII because the R6 cannot shoot at full 12fps with older glass like my former 70-200mm v1 non IS. The FPS also go down to 8ish once battery levels go below either 60 or 50% i'm not sure which but regardless that's not great. A lot of issues here for a sports photographer like myself, It's amazing when I can use it to it's fullest potential but a bummer finding this out on my own through experience.

Interesting. I've shot quite a bit of surfing with both mechanical and electronic shutter on the R5 and haven't had any such problems yet. Not to say they don't exist, of course, just I haven't encountered anything like that, yet. Though I have only used RF lenses

It may be a non-native lens issue but can't say for sure. Also the shutter warping is more noticeable with things like bats/balls mid-motion so I don't think you should see it in surfing. Another issue i've had is when im not shooting the AF is still searching and when there's a point of no contrast the focus locks up. I usually just restart it or turn the MF ring to fix the problem. Small annoying issues.

You can turn the AF hunting off in the menu. AF Menu (number 1) > Continuous AF > Disable

Thanks for the article!

I started with a Canon A1, moved to a first-gen 7D and now have a 5DmkIV, and I can certainly see an R5 in my future! Mirrorless cameras are indeed the future.

This is mostly (not entirely) about an old camera vs. a new one. How many of these "mirrorless advantages" could just as easily been deployed to a DSLR had Canon chosen to do so?

And more to the point, if your current gear setup is not limiting your shooting, there is no debate to be had. And if you have to eliminate some disadvantage in your gear, you shop by capability and (generally by) ecosystem, and if those capabilities happen to only exist in a mirrorless body, then you switch. Back-and-forth driven by the "mirrorless" attribute degrades the discussion.


Not one word on the great advantage of shooting raw 8k with mirrorless?

I don’t shoot video (on any camera, seldom on my iphone either) so I’m not in a position to comment.

That's a smart reply considering it's basically useless. I'm pretty sure with all the fuss, any R5 owner would be testing that function at least out of curiosity. I know I would and I don't shoot video either.

Honestly, I haven’t opened the video menu in the 3 weeks I’ve had the camera. I don’t have video editing software and I really don’t care to download any just for the sake of curiosity. That’s not why I bought the 5R. Shooting 4k, 8k whatever k, it would just be extra work for me to deal with for the sake of no return. Again, I’m not taking any position here whatsoever, just talking about my specific life and my habits.

If I were a younger man.....

Despite having the intension to move to mirrorless as soon as I can, the current line is definitely not for me. Had Canon raised the R6 to 35mp, I would have joined but the R5 heat issue and imposed 8k capabilities push the price to the "can wait" category for me and mostly because I would buy 2. Also a 35mp R6 would probably have helped them sell and deliver more cameras right away and reduced the back log issue they are currently stuck with. Just my opinion. In the end, while I am not in agreement with all the details in his article, I feel Jason has more convincing arguments for someone who hasn't made the jump yet and doesn't have a need to rush. That mean Apple is getting my budget for now, Canon will wait.

Yes, a 30-35MP 6R would’ve got my money too

I might be wrong, but let me try to say this. Im sure no one can or will say Mirrorless is not acurate or AF is bad. What people can argue is that looking thru glass and looking thru screen creates different usage and visibility for photographer. One has no lag and other has some lag (some have a LOT of lag even being top of the line models), but issue is what photographer prefers. Me, I prefer optical viewfinder for fast moving stuff. For my slow (if at all) moving stuff i use LIVEVIEW (aka mirrorless mode) on my 5Dmk4. Yes its precise and convinient and there is no need for optical viewfinder at all.

Besides, article You wrote sir is nothing but show and tell of spec sheets. This camera on this here paper has more of xxx units then camera on that there paper. That tells just numbers, not real world experiences. Just fuels gear junkies (which from what i see in the field are people who want to brag the have latest and greatest camera, to take photos instead of them), not users of gear who have first hand experience with said gear.