Mirrorless options have proliferated in the past year, and trends have become clearer. Canon and Nikon have shown their initial hands and Leica’s L mount has moved off the fringes as Sigma and Panasonic join in. Fujifilm has made it very clear that their answer to high pixel-count full frame cameras is medium format. Micro 4/3 is clearly moving in a more specialized direction, towards action, video and the smallest size and lightest weight. Sony continues on a path of gradual innovation and adding lenses to their full frame system, while continuing to effectively ignore APS-C.
Depending on what you are currently using, and what your goals are if you choose to change, many paths can make sense. Most photographers invested in a mirrorless system have seen a substantial commitment from their manufacturer to support and expand that system, and there is little reason to change. Photographers who are using DSLR systems and interested in adding a mirrorless system, or moving from DSLR to mirrorless, whether for size and weight, video or new lens designs, have clearer choices. Students and new photographers buying a first “serious camera” or upgrading from a phone have a wide range of choices. Even as fewer and fewer cameras are sold each year, it is an exciting time to be a photographer. A few common scenarios are below, with some options in different cases.
If you are buying a first serious camera:
If your budget allows a Fujifilm X-T30, X-T3 or X-E3 (or an older X-T2, X-T20 or X-E2), or a Sony A7 II or any other Sony full-frame body and a decent lens for either one, you have an excellent entry into a mirrorless system that will serve you for years. Choose Fujifilm if the feel of the controls and the quality of your first lens or two is most important. Choose Sony if you might want to make huge prints some day – the image quality of an entry-level Sony full-frame body is not significantly different from the Fujifilm body – both are excellent, and will use all that a desktop printer is capable of, but the Sony does allow you to move up to the r bodies with their stunning images at a later date. Try the two out at a camera store and choose the one you prefer! A Nikon Z6 will be significantly more expensive unless there’s a huge rebate on, but is an excellent camera as well. A Canon EOS-RP is well worth considering if Canon starts releasing more lenses suited to the newer photographer. Nikon may very well introduce a lower priced Z series camera, which could be an important consideration.
At a lower price point, you are likely to find that most of the options are either Sony APS-C or Canon EOS-M, both dead-end systems with generally poor lenses. Sony APS-C bodies will accept Sony full-frame lenses, but not the other way around (the lens will mount, but the image will either be cropped or will have severe dark corners). As much as mirrorless is the “hot new thing” right now, do not neglect APS-C DSLRs from Canon and Nikon. They have much broader lens compatibility than Sony APS-C or Canon EOS-M, including much better lenses, and the huge number of these cameras out there means that they are likely to be well supported into the future.
Micro 4/3 is the wild card here. If you are interested in sports or photojournalism, the speed and exceptional image stabilization of an Olympus E-M5 mk II (or even an E-M1 mk II, especially when there’s a sale on) is going to far exceed anything else in remotely the same price class. An E-M1 mk II is the closest thing you’re going to find to shooting a $5000+ Nikon D5 without paying for a Nikon D5. If you have smaller hands or want an especially compact camera, some of the diminutive options from Olympus and Panasonic are worth a close look, many of which are cheaper than the E-M5 mk II. If you are a serious outdoorsperson looking to document your adventures, an E-M5 mkII and a weather sealed lens will be far more durable than any camera under $2000 except its E-M1 mk II stablemate. If you are interested in video, a Panasonic may be a great choice.
The downside is that small, older sensor. Even a $1500 E-M1 mk II will actually have lower image quality than a $400 Nikon D3400 DSLR. If you are photographing in bright sunlight with deep shadows, the restricted dynamic range can show up even in an image shared on the web. If you are aware of the limitation, you can certainly work around it, but the more expensive Micro 4/3 cameras that have the attractive feature sets are as expensive as Fujifilm APS-C and Sony full-frame cameras that are not limited in the same way. The choice between the best possible image quality and a capable, rugged camera with a specialty in sports and action will depend on what you want to do with it.
If you are moving from DSLR to mirrorless:
First of all, what is driving your move? If you have an APS-C DSLR and are frustrated with the lens quality without moving to bulky full-frame lenses, Fujifilm may be a special consideration, because their lenses are generally similarly sized to other APS-C lenses, but they’re excellent. If you’re interested in video, pay attention to the makers with a focus on video capability such as Panasonic (either Micro 4/3 or L-mount) and some newer Fujifilm and Olympus bodies. Keep an eye on Nikon, who are promising a firmware upgrade for the Z6 (only) that will enable high-end raw video recording, and on whether Sony releases a new video-centric body. If you are looking to shed size and weight, look at systems that are significantly smaller and lighter than what you have (pay attention to lens weights as well). If you’re looking for a camera for fast action, look especially closely at Sony and Micro 4/3, and perhaps at the Fujifilm X-H1. If you’re looking for a
big image quality upgrade, make sure the system you are moving to offers the quality you want now and a plan to keep image quality improving in the future, and make sure that the lenses you are considering satisfy your standards.
If you are coming from a Canon DSLR system:
The Canon EOS-M system is a dead end, and the EOS-R system is in a state of flux. Adding an EOS-R or EOS-RP body with an adapter for your existing lenses is a viable strategy. The 24- 105mm f4 EF-R is an excellent lens, well suited to the EOS-R in particular, if you want a native lens for some frequently used focal lengths…You may very well also want to wait and see where the EOS-R system is going, and whether you like its direction over the next year or so.
Moving to a non-Canon mirrorless system is a major investment, since adapted Canon lenses on a Sony body (or anything else) will not perform as well as the same lenses on your Canon body in many cases – the image quality will be excellent, but there may be glitches with focus, exposure or simply the quality of the adapter. Outside of Sony, other systems don’t even offer the option to use your Canon lenses with full features. In most cases, it’s probably well worth waiting to see what Canon does with EOS-R before abandoning them. If, a year from now, the EOS-R bodies on the market don’t meet your needs, you will have more information to choose Sony, Nikon, Fujifilm or L-mount as a direction forward,
If you are coming from a Canon APS-C DSLR with primarily EF-S (APS-C) lenses and specifically want to move to full-frame for higher image quality (and you have a way of displaying the higher quality images – probably large prints), that may be one case in which a system switch makes sense in the short term. An EOS-R or EOS-RP won’t use your EF-S lenses, so you’re looking at new lenses whether you stay or go. Both Canon mirrorless bodies are relatively similar in image quality to the best Canon APS-C DSLRs (although better than older models), so the image quality upgrade of staying within Canon’s line may not be huge, depending on what you have. If you like the way that Canon cameras work and you like Canon colors and lenses, waiting to see what the next EOS-R bodies are like is a great option, especially if you think you might eventually buy some of the higher-end EOS-R lenses that don’t make sense on the current bodies. Moving to Sony, Nikon or possibly L-mount may not cost much more than moving to EOS-R, since you’re replacing lenses either way, so it is another viable option.
If you are coming from a Nikon DSLR system:
Your best mirrorless option is clearly the Nikon Z system unless it is disqualified for some reason. Any full-frame lenses you have will work well on the FTZ mount adapter, any relatively modern Nikon flashes are compatible, and even your batteries may transfer. As of late July 2019, Nikon is giving away the FTZ adapter with each body purchased. You may very well want to consider the 24-70mm f4 lens with the body (it comes with a substantial discount) if you like zooms. It is an excellent, sharp, compact lens (far higher quality than any F-mount standard zoom except a recent 24-70mm f2.8, and half the size of the f2.8 DSLR lenses). Even if you have a 24-70mm f2.8 you intend to keep, the little 24-70mm f4 Z lens will be a useful travel companion.
If you want a very fast mirrorless body (in the speed class of a Sony A9), it’s worth waiting before making the jump to Sony. Rumors are swirling about Nikon introducing a speedy “Z9”, which would keep your lenses and accessories. If the Z system is too expensive, there are also rumors of a lower-end Z body.
There is one specific case in which a move away from Nikon may make sense. If your Nikon system is almost exclusively APS-C (both bodies and lenses), and you have little or no investment in Nikon flash or other accessories that will transfer to the Z system, a jump may be appealing. The most likely destinations are Fujifilm APS-C or Sony full-frame. Unless you regularly print above 16×24” and are looking at a Sony A7r II, III or IV, Fujifilm is worth a close look alongside of Sony. If you are looking at a Sony A7r series camera with an investment in Nikon, be sure to consider Nikon’s own Z7 as well.
Even if you have an exclusively APS-C Nikon system, the Z system is a very strong consideration, because it will work a great deal like the modern Nikon gear you are used to. If you are happy with the Z lens roadmap plus adapted Nikon DSLR lenses and you are looking in the Z price range, it is probably the leading contender, simply because of familiarity. Either Fujifilm or Sony will have a significant learning curve. Oddly, if you have older manual Nikon film gear, or remember it well, you might feel right at home with Fujifilm – there is quite a bit of commonality between an X-T3 and what an FM2 might have become had Nikon not changed design strategies in the 1990s.
If you have a DSLR (or film SLR) system that isn’t Nikon or Canon:
It’s very likely to be old enough that a modern mirrorless system will be a significant image quality upgrade. The most likely possibilities for your next system are Fujifilm APS-C and Sony full-frame, although Nikon, L-mount, Canon and even Micro 4/3 are all possibilities as well, depending on individual needs. An odd-brand SLR system is pretty much a blank slate – very little of your investment will transfer to any current system, unless it’s Leica R, where a Leica- made adapter to L-mount is an important consideration. With Minolta (or Sony) SLR equipment, there is an original Sony adapter to Sony full-frame, although many of those lenses are not up to current standards.
If you have older, manual gear, Fujifilm will probably feel more familiar than other options, and this is well worth considering. Pentax has a small line of modern DSLRs, worth considering for owners of extensive Pentax film (or early DSLR) systems, although it is likely to be a dead end. There are a broad range of manual adapters for various lenses to Sony and Micro 4/3 bodies, and some to other bodies as well. In most cases, all automation disappears with these adapters – not just autofocus, but some metering and exposure modes as well.
Unless you are looking to print larger than 16×24”, the image quality difference between Fujifilm and full-frame should not be a primary consideration. It’s there, but it shows up primarily in large prints. If you eliminate Fujifilm APS-C from consideration based on image quality, the cameras you should be considering are the >40 MP pixel monsters – the difference between 24 MP APS-C and 24 MP full-frame is trivial.
Look at the Fujifilm and Sony systems and others as well – make a list of what systems offer the gear you need for the type of photography you prefer. If you have unusual needs, remember the Nikon and Canon adapters that allow their DSLR lenses to be used with few restrictions. Once you have a list of contenders that would work for your photographic vision, go to a camera store that stocks them, and try all of them. A big part of the decision, in a case like this where your existing gear makes little difference, will be what feels best to you.
Moving from one mirrorless system to another:
If you are contemplating a move between mirrorless systems, the reason for the move becomes even more important. Unless you are coming from a dead-end system (Nikon 1, Pentax Q, EOS-M for serious photographers), you are moving away from a system that is under active development. Most of the changes of the past year have been about adding new, viable systems, not about existing systems leaving the market. If you aren’t clear about exactly what about your current system is frustrating your photographic ambitions, you may move to something no better for your needs.
Leaving a dead-end system:
This is almost the exact same situation as leaving a SLR system that isn’t Nikon or Canon, except that your current bodies and lenses are tiny (in all three obvious dead-end cases). If you have a SLR system in addition to the dead-end mirrorless system, consider what that is and how it affects your mirrorless decision. If your SLR system is Nikon, do you want to move to a mirrorless system that is heavier than what you had, but has excellent compatibility with your SLRs, superb image quality, and will feel a lot like your SLRs? If so, Nikon Z is the obvious choice. If, instead, you are looking for a much smaller camera to complement your Nikon SLRs, the Z system may be too big, especially if you are used to the diminutive Nikon 1. How about an E-M5 II or E-M10 III, or one of the smaller Fujifilm bodies? Micro 4/3 will have significantly better image quality than Nikon 1 or Pentax Q, and Fujifilm will be better than EOS-M as well. If your SLR system is Canon, the choice is similar, except that EOS-R is in a more confused state than Nikon Z at present. Complementing your Canon SLRs with a smaller system is exactly the same as complementing Nikon SLRs, but integrating with them may be somewhat harder.
If you don’t have an SLR system that you are concerned about, or it is neither Nikon nor Canon, then you are in a blank slate situation. Look at Fujifilm and Sony for sure, and at anything else that interests you. Pay attention to Micro 4/3 if you are interested in fast action, Nikon if you want a relatively compact, rugged full-frame system with excellent image quality, and anything by Panasonic (Micro 4/3 or L-mount) if video is a prime concern.
Leaving Sony APS-C
This is a somewhat similar case to leaving a dead-end system (Sony APS-C barely counts as “under active development”), except that there is an obvious migration plan to Sony full-frame. Your APS-C lenses will not work well on the new full-frame body (they will mount, but both possible behaviors are unsatisfying). If you haven’t changed anything in the menus, the body will switch to APS-C crop mode, and the result will be a lower pixel count image with exactly the same field of view as using the APS-C lens on an APS-C camera. If the camera is 24 MP, the image will be about 10 MP, if it’s 42 MP, the APS-C crop is about 18 MP, and if it’s an A7r IV, the image will be around 26 MP. If you adjust a menu setting, the camera will record the whole full- frame image area, probably with severe vignetting in the corners. Very few Sony APS-C lenses are worth using on full-frame cameras with those limitations.
What will work is that your new full-frame lenses are compatible with the older APS-C body. Depending on the full-frame body, it may share batteries with your APS-C body. Flash systems are perfectly compatible. The crop body is a capable backup within the Sony full-frame system. Unless you are really frustrated with Sony, the obvious choice is Sony full-frame.
Leaving Micro 4/3:
At this point, you are getting into switching among actively developed mirrorless systems, even if Panasonic’s effort is likely to move more towards L-mount. What is driving the switch? If you are simply concerned about whether Micro 4/3 is viable any longer, the next year should bring some real answers. If Olympus comes out with an E-M5 III, an E-M1 III or both with more modern sensors, that is a real sign of continued viability. If Panasonic comes out with a GH6, does it have any improvement in still image quality, or does it become more of a dedicated video camera? Why not stay until these things become clearer?
If you are moving for image quality, what aspect of image quality do you want to improve? Are you after more pixels, or is it mainly improved dynamic range? What are you willing to lose to gain that image quality? If your Micro 4/3 camera is a recent upper-end Olympus, you aren’t going to replicate that image stabilizer. Anything except a Sony A9 or perhaps a Fujifilm X-H1 will be slower than an E-M1 II. If your camera is a GH4 or GH5, very little except a S1 with the video firmware upgrade will match the video flexibility you currently have.
If you’re running into dynamic range limitations, but don’t tend to print big, just about anything with a modern sensor is a consideration. Fujifilm and Sony have been around a while and have full lens lines, but newcomers Nikon and L-mount may be worth looking at as well. Fujifilm will be almost as compact as what you’re used to, depending on body and lens choices.
If you are frustrated with larger prints and printing is an important craft to you, consider making a bigger jump than simply going to 24 MP. How about a Nikon Z7, a Sony A7r II, III or IV, or a Panasonic S1r? These cameras provide image quality in the range of 4×5” film and are the (nearly) the ultimate tools of the printmaker’s craft.
At least a few photographers have kept their Micro 4/3 system and added medium format for a more contemplative style of photography. Fujifilm GFX is a real consideration here – it offers much of what Micro 4/3 doesn’t, with exceptional image quality. It is also weak where Micro 4/3 is strong in speed, video and long lens reach. With the proliferation of 40+ MP full-frame options, any of those could be an equally viable addition as a different tool for a different job. They offer similar image quality to a GFX 50 in a different package
Leaving Fujifilm X:
Why? About the only reason to move on from a system with excellent image quality, one of the best lens lines on the market, and bodies that are a joy to use is extra pixels for large prints. If you need better video than Fujifilm offers, dedicated video cameras should be on your radar screen.
Unless you have access to a 24” or larger printer, the differences in image quality are barely noticeable. If you do print big, a move to 24 MP full-frame isn’t enough to make a satisfying difference. There are two choices – a 40+ MP pixel monster (any of them), or medium format. Fujifilm’s own option, adding a GFX system, is a well thought out course, and deserves serious consideration. A GFX system will behave much like a bigger version of what you’re used to, and entering with the GFX 50 (R or S) offers a further upgrade path to the GFX 100. The other option is to choose a high pixel count camera from Sony, Nikon or Panasonic – try them all if you’re interested.
Moving among full-frame mirrorless systems:
In general, there is no reason to go chasing back and forth among the full-frame systems. Whatever one of them does, the others will do soon enough. If you have a specific frustration with any of the systems, it’s worth examining exactly what’s wrong, so you are sure that your new system won’t have the same flaw, or another flaw that is no better…