Serious photographers have traditionally turned to SLR and, later, DSLR cameras to capture their images. However, DSLRs have been fending off competition from mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras. How do Sony, Canon, and Nikon compare when it comes to their mirrorless options? Which system is best for you? Should you migrate to a full frame mirrorless camera from a DSLR setup? Read on for answers to these questions and more. We provide an in-depth look at some popular full frame mirrorless cameras and our top camera choices ranging from Sony to Nikon to Canon and more!
Mirrorless Digital Cameras Explained
SLR and DSLR cameras are defined by how one sees the image they’re about to take. Light comes through the lens, is reflected by a mirror and then twisted by a pentaprism to exit the viewfinder. Mirrorless cameras eliminate the mirror and pentaprism and instead use an electronic viewfinder that shows what the sensor is recording.
Mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras are certainly not new. The first versions, technically speaking, came out as early as 2004 but they were rangefinder style as opposed to SLR style and only used smaller sensor designs. As early as 2002, DSLRs boasted full frame models, like the Contax N and Canon EOS-1Ds.
In 2009, Leica released the full frame, rangefinder style M9. It wasn’t until 2013 when Sony released the a7 – a full frame mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera that used an SLR approach of viewing the image (as opposed to the rangefinder approach). Finally, consumers could get the benefits of not having a rapid-return mirror – which is noisy, bulky, and can cause unwanted shake – without having to use a rangefinder, which involves aligning two separate images to secure focus (which some people find intuitive, while others find cumbersome). Today, when people talk about mirrorless cameras (especially full frame ones), they almost exclusively are referring to this newer SLR style of camera.
DSLR vs. Mirrorless Cameras
At their heart, DSLR and mirrorless cameras are incredibly similar. They both offer the photographer the ability to change lenses to best match their needs and see the image as the sensor sees it. Perhaps because mirrorless cameras are targeting DSLR shooters, their design is often heavily influenced by traditional SLR/DSLR form factors. While there are certain features that have traditionally been stronger in either DSLRs or mirrorless cameras, both styles of camera have adopted many of the functions of the other, resulting in fewer and fewer differences in the capabilities between the two.
However, there are some innate differences that will likely always remain between DSLR and mirrorless cameras. Because mirrorless cameras eliminate the mirror and pentaprism, they are almost always smaller and lighter than an equivalent DSLR. And because this requires using an electronic viewfinder over an optical one, mirrorless cameras are able to show the exact exposure and depth of field that will be recorded by the sensor. But there are other features to consider when choosing between DSLR and mirrorless cameras.
As of now, mirrorless cameras tend to have some more advanced features over DSLRs. Perhaps most notably, many mirrorless cameras have in-body image stabilization, a feature that few if any DSLRs have adopted so far. They also often have more practical video features, such as advanced exposure monitoring and focus peaking. However, the electronic viewfinders that mirrorless cameras rely on eats up way more battery than standard DSLR operation. While mirrorless battery life is certainly improving, the power demands of the electronic viewfinder mean that batteries will probably never last as long as using the optical viewfinder on a DSLR. But if you use a DSLR in Live View mode, that advantage goes away.
High-end SLR and DSLR cameras have been renowned for their ruggedness and reliability. Exceptional build quality and weather sealing allows them to withstand even the worst conditions. To date, mirrorless cameras haven’t been as rugged, but they are rapidly improving and it’s likely only a matter of time before this difference disappears.
Sony a9 ($154 for a 3 Day Rental)*, Sony a7R III ($88 for a 3 Day Rental), and Sony a7 III ($70 for a 3 Day Rental) – See All Sony Full Frame Mirrorless
Sony kicked off the full frame mirrorless revolution with the a7 and has continued innovating, issuing regular updates, adding new lines, and introducing a full frame mirrorless flagship body. Sony has earned a devoted base of fans, not just because they were the first to market but because they consistently cram as many exciting features (especially video features) into their cameras as possible. On paper, the top three models look almost identical, but there are certain features that make each stand out to certain types of shooters.
The Sony a9 was designed to be Sony’s flagship, trying to compete with the Canon 1D X Mark II and the Nikon D5. Its electronic shutter has an incredibly fast 20 FPS burst mode and up to 1/32,000 second shutter speed, making it a strong contender for high-speed shooting. It has a massive autofocus system, covering over 90% of the sensor. However, the premium features of the a9 translates to a premium price, setting you back roughly twice as much as the Sony a7 III.
The Sony a7R III is designed for photographers who want large prints with tons of details. You get a much higher resolution sensor (42MP as opposed to 24MP in both the a9 and a7 III) with no anti-aliasing filter, resulting in giant images with a lot of sharpness and incredible detail. It does compromise on both maximum ISO and max FPS, but this is because it’s targeting landscape and portrait photographers (less wildlife and sports like the a9) who are likely shooting under specific lighting conditions.
While it is the “base” full frame mirrorless model that Sony offers, the a7 III is, in some ways, the best all-around camera out of the bunch. It strikes a delicate compromise among features that would appeal to a wide base of users. It also offers what are arguably the best video settings, specifically 4k/30p video with only the smallest of crops (1.2x). If you’re wanting a Sony full frame mirrorless camera that will handle the most different shooting scenarios, the a7 III is probably for you.
Nikon Z7 ($117 for a 3 Day Rental) and Nikon Z6 ($87 for a 3 Day Rental) – See All Nikon Full Frame Mirrorless
If you look at the specs on paper, what you see with Nikon’s Z6 and Z7 is going to look very familiar. They are, in many respects, following the example that Sony set with the a7 III and a7R III, making the cameras all line up in much the same way.
The Nikon Z7 is Nikon’s high megapixel (45.7MP) camera targeting photographers needing ultra high resolution images. It has a lower maximum ISO than the Z6, but landscape and portrait photographers are far more likely to be drawn to its ISO 64 capabilities. It has a more advanced focusing system than the Z6, but because of the extra pixels its maximum FPS is slightly lower. The Z7 appears to be directly targeting the a7R III and will likely be attractive to the same types of photographers.
The Nikon Z6, on the other hand, follows the a7 III’s approach of having a more modest set of features that actually make it fit into a wider range of applications. While it only has a 24.5MP sensor, it does offer a higher maximum ISO and more frames per second in burst mode. If you’re shooting fast action, it’s something of a tossup between whether the better autofocus of the Z7 or the higher FPS of the Z6 will be more advantageous. Regardless, the Z6 offers a lot of strong capabilities in a package significantly cheaper than the Z7.
Both Nikon mirrorless cameras offer far better video capabilities than any DSLR that Nikon has previously offered. Most notably, both Z cameras finally offer continuous AF during video recording, capable of competing with Sony and Canon – something that Nikon had been missing out on. While both cameras offer similar video capabilities, the Nikon Z6 has better video performance largely thanks to its lower pixel count, making downsampling to 4K far more efficient.
Of important note for Nikon shooters is that the Z series offers a new, larger mount type. When paired with Nikon’s Z mount lenses, you can enjoy the perks of having very large optical elements very close to your sensor’s surface. This means fewer aberrations, greater light-gathering ability, and better image performance overall. If you already own Nikon F mount glass, be sure to pick up the Nikon FTZ Mount Adapter,
Canon EOS R ($83 for a 3 Day Rental) and Canon EOS RP ($47 for a 3 Day Rental) – See All Canon Full Frame Mirrorless
Canon took a significantly different approach to its initial full frame mirrorless offerings than Nikon. While Nikon’s cameras were clearly designed to line up head-to-head with Sony’s a7 series, Canon essentially made a mirrorless version of one of their existing cameras.
The EOS R is pretty much just a mirrorless 5D Mark IV. It shares the exact same sensor, so many of the capabilities between the two will be identical. However, it does benefit from an updated processor (DIGIC 8 as opposed to the older DIGIC 6+) which allows, among other things, a larger buffer and more advanced autofocusing. It loses some FPS when shooting with full autofocus and has a maximum video resolution of 4K (3,840 x 2,160) as opposed to DCI 4K (4096 x 2,160) that the 5D IV offers.
While many were upset that the EOS R didn’t push the envelope in what it offers to photographers, what Canon has done is take what is already a fantastic camera and give it the advantages inherent in a mirrorless system at a significant savings over the original camera.
The Canon EOS RP is set up for functionality and versatility and is more affordable than the R. It is Canon’s smallest full frame camera (at the time of this writing) while still retaining a large 54mm mount diameter (the EOS R series, like Nikon’s Z series, introduces a new, larger mount type – RF – with adapters available for EF mount users). Both the EOS R and the RP feature Dual Pixel CMOS AF (though the RP doesn’t offer it in 4K), face detection, 50-102400 (extended) ISO, and useful ports (3.5mm mic jack, 3.5 headphone jack, and HDMI).
The RP tops out at 5 FPS in single-shot AF mode and offers only a sluggish 3 FPS in continuous AF mode (vs 8 FPS in the EOS R). It has fewer megapixels but not by a lot (26.2 vs the R’s 30.3). The RP also has fewer AF points but, again, it still has a lot (4,779 points covering approximately 88% of the image horizontally and 100% vertically). Unless you’re shooting sports or wildlife, the RP is a great, more affordable option that’s ideal for travel.
Which Full Frame Mirrorless Camera is Right for You?
Sony has a strong track record in this area and, in reality, most photographers could probably find everything they want in one of Sony’s offerings. And for the patient photographer, it’s likely that the a7/a9 lines will get their next updates before a new offering from Canon or Nikon. Sony’s EyeAF is very impressive. Their in-body image stabilization is fantastic. In short, Sony has been able to wrap up all of the best features into their cameras.
Spec-for-spec, Nikon lines up almost directly with, and in some cases exceeds, Sony. They don’t have EyeAF, but some casual tests have shown that their video AF actually beats out Sony’s, making them competitive in the video space for the first time. The Z cameras have Nikon’s first in-body image stabilization, but it’s not as good as Sony’s.
Canon has received the most criticism for not having pushed the envelope with its EOS R. It’s missing in-body image stabilization, it only has one SD card slot compared to 2 in the Sonys (the Nikons also only have one XQD slot), and it can only shoot full HD in 60 FPS as opposed to Sony and Nikon’s 120 FPS. But Canon’s Dual Pixel AF is still considered by many to be the best video autofocus available. And perhaps the most exciting part of the EOS R is the absolutely stellar new RF lenses.
Recent Additions and New, Exciting Series from Panasonic
For those intrigued by the a7R III, please note that we now also have the a7R IV. It offers an astounding 61 megapixels but otherwise offers a lot of the same features as the a7R III, including a super-flexible ISO range, 5-axis sensor-shift image stabilization, and dual UHS-II SD card slots.
We also very recently received the Sigma fp, now available to rent as low as $110. This tiny, unique full frame mirrorless camera (the smallest and lightest on record for a full frame sensor, at least as of right now), borrows design elements from pro cinema cameras that allow it to dissipate heat very efficiently.
This is also the first (as of this writing) interchangeable-lens mirrorless digital camera to support external recording in 12-bit CinemaDNG format up to 24p 4K UHD with support for All-I recording. It offers a Director’s Viewfinder function, which allows you to simulate different angles of view from the perspective of other cinema cameras, including the ALEXA Mini, the RED MONSTRO 8K, and more. This camera uses L mount lenses – the same as the new Panasonic S system, which we’ll discuss next.
Another newcoming to the full frame mirrorless world, Panasonic’s Lumix S system combines the high demands of advanced photographers with robust video recording options. Like with the EOS R and Nikon Z systems, the S system has a large-diameter mount that allows for new L mount lenses to be equipped with large, light-gathering rear elements and ultra-fast apertures. There are currently 3 models:
This “base” model has good overall specs for both photographers and videographers. It offers pro-level video performance that allows internal 4:2:2 10-bit recording in 4K 24p, 4K 60p/50p HDMI Out, and V-Log. You can also capture high-speed video up to 180 FPS in Full HD. Enjoy full pixel readout (no line skipping) using the entire width of the sensor in 4K 30p, which is supported by a new Venus Engine that is specifically tuned for full frame capture with the most minimal noise even at the highest ISOs.
Photographers can shoot an extended 30 FPS burst and choose the exact set of frames needed for stunning results in 6K Photo Mode, or opt for a high-speed 60 FPS capture in 4K Photo Mode. For low-light shooting, not only does the S1 offer an expansive ISO range, but the 5-axis in-body stabilization works in tandem with the optical stabilization inside the new Lumix S series L mount lenses, giving you 6.5-stops of compensation when shooting with slower shutter speeds in low light. Special note: Some of these specs are only available once you upgrade to the latest (as of this writing) firmware, which all of our rental units have.
The S1R follows the pattern of the a7 III/a7R III and the Nikon Z6/Z7 in that it’s a high-megapixel version of the base model. It is not as robust in the video specs. The S1R records with a slight crop, with pixel binning, and has a recording limit of 30 minutes in 4K. In short, the S1 is a better choice for certain expanded video capabilities, while the S1R excels in overall resolution that is well suited for portraits and landscapes without sacrificing some good video options and slow motion capabilities.
For video shooters, the S1H is the camera for you. It borrows tech from Panasonic’s broadcast line of cameras for outstanding image quality and minimized noise in low light thanks to Dual Native ISO. First introduced in Panasonic’s flagship VariCam series, Dual Native ISO allows the sensor to extract more information without degrading the image. Now you can use less artificial light on set while expanding your options for natural, ambient lighting.
At the heart of this camera is its massive range of recording capabilities, from unlimited 10-bit 4:2:2 4K, to 6K up to 24 FPS, anamorphic recording, and various High Frame Rate options in Full HD. Enjoy simultaneous internal and external recording via HDMI: DCI/UHD 4K at 59.94p with 4:2:2 10-bit output and 4:2:0 10-bit internal or DCI/UHD 4K at 29.97p/23.98p with 4:2:2 10-bit output and internal recording. Other features include in-camera time lapse creation, SMPTE-compliant time code, and pre-installed V-Log in addition to a High Dynamic Range mode and Hybrid Log Gamma. V-Log/V-Gamut has an ultra wide 14+ stop dynamic range similar to that of the Panasonic Cinema VariCam.
For somebody wanting a full frame mirrorless camera and starting from scratch, it’s still hard to argue against the Sony a7 III. All of the pieces are there for them. But if you have an extensive kit of Nikon or Canon equipment, do Sony’s cameras offer enough to justify scrapping your entire kit? That’s a harder question to answer, especially since both the Nikon and Canon offerings would require adapters to use with your existing glass anyway.
Mirrorless cameras are here to stay. Between Canon and Nikon’s newly-introduced lines, Sony’s existing models, Panasonic’s powerful full frame cameras, and Sigma joining in with their small and utilitarian fp model, photographers, videographers, and hybrid shooters have more options than ever before!
*All pricing is as of this writing and subject to change.