Camera Gear, Product Reviews

Sony mirrorless cameras: The best for my photography

Sony A7rSeveral years ago I switched camera formats. I am now a dedicated Sony shooter. Here’s the story of how that happened.

For years I had been shooting with Canon DSLR systems. I was happy with the image quality from my 5D Mark II but always struggled to accept the large size, weight and cost of the components of this system.

I wanted a system that was small, light and portable because I travel frequently and carry my camera with me everywhere.

But for a long time, I couldn’t find a small system that offered the capabilities I needed, especially when it came to the quality of the captured images.

That has all changed with the latest offerings from Sony.

Focusing on what matters most

Image quality is not something I will compromise on. I sell my images as fine art—often printed at very large sizes—so the raw captures must be high-resolution, tack sharp and free of artifacts. (And with my background in digital imaging and printing, I scrutinize my images more than most people do.)

I read reviews and follow developments of professional camera systems, so I had known about Sony’s DSLRs for many years—their Alpha DSLR systems had received excellent reviews.

Sony, a major electronics manufacturer, now appeared serious in their effort to break into the world of professional camera systems.

But again, the SLR systems were not what I was looking for.

Then, in 2011, I discovered the Sony NEX series. My wife, Ruth, needed a new camera. At first, she thought she might want a DSLR, but we quickly decided that was not the way to go.

After exhaustive research across camera systems in all formats and price points, we ended up buying her a Sony NEX-5n with a couple of lenses. When it arrived I did a lot of testing with the camera and different lenses. I was impressed with the quality of the images captured by the 16 MP sensor.

(By the way, the sensors in all the best Nikon cameras are from Sony.)

Field testing in Italy

I led a photo tour of Piedmont, Italy in the autumn of 2012. Our group consisted of serious photographers at all levels of experience. The one thing they had in common? They were all lugging around big, heavy, expensive DSLR systems. Including myself, with my 5D2.

And then there was Ruth, enjoying her Sony mirrorless kit. Everyone in the group marveled at how easy it was to use and how much fun she was having. As the trip went on, I began shooting with her NEX-5n more and more. By the end of the tour I had decided to make the switch to mirrorless.

But even then, I still wasn’t sure that Sony was the way to go. I’d read lots of reviews and heard my photographer friends talk about their great experiences with other mirrorless systems, most notably from Fuji and Olympus. So I spent several months researching, reading and thinking about the options.

One factor that kept me coming back to Sony is that they design and manufacture the sensors for any of the high-end Nikon DSLR cameras. I’ve always loved the look of Nikon raw image files. That’s Sony technology in action.

Big decision, wonderful results

So in early 2013 I bought a Sony NEX-7. My wife already had a full complement lenses for the Sony NEX system; though they were not professional-grade, my plan was to begin working with the system to learn its full capabilities while simultaneously using my 5D2 for ‘serious’ work. This didn’t last long.

After taking both camera systems on a couple of trips, by Spring 2013 I had stopped using the Canon kit altogether. Quite simply, the size and weight weren’t worth the trouble any more.

Also, there’s a phenomenon that occurs when traveling to strange lands and photographing in public places with a big, expensive DSLR: people tend to stare, or even approach to make comments or ask questions. I’ve had strangers walk by and say “nice camera” etc. This bothers me, because when I’m traveling I want to be invisible. Especially when I’m photographing.

Funny thing is, with the Sony kit, nobody seems to even notice. I look just like any other tourist; people take me for a hobbyist photographer and don’t bother me at all. This is a very nice, yet unexpected, bonus of shooting with smaller cameras.

On a side note to that point, I’ve noticed over the past few years that everywhere we go it seems tourists are carrying big DSLRs around their neck. Most have their shooting mode set to full Auto. I suppose some of these people might be dedicated photography enthusiasts, or even professional photographers, but clearly most are not. I think a common misperception is that to make great pictures you need a DSLR.

As Sony is proving, this is simply not so.

Brave new world

Over the past couple of years I have all but abandoned my DSLR system. I’m now planning to sell it and use the money to buy more lenses for the Sony kit.

To that point, recently I and several of my photographer buddies have been exhaustively testing Sony cameras, most notably the A7r and NEX-7, against top-end DSLR systems form Canon and Nikon.

Put simply, the combination of the A7r and lenses from Leica, Zeiss and Voigtlander produce the absolute best quality I’ve seen from any systems smaller than than medium format (e.g. Phase One and Sinar digital backs).

The A7r, with its 36.4 MP sensor, produces very large, crisp, super-clean image files that rival the best from any camera I’ve worked with. (Stay tuned; I’ll be posting much more on the A7 systems in the near future.)

To summarize, working with Sony mirrorless cameras has so many advantages; here are a few that I particularly appreciate:

  • Image quality is truly exceptional, allowing for very large prints with superb detail
  • Small and light means it’s easy to pack and easy to carry
  • Smaller system attracts less attention from gawkers and would-be thieves
  • With a wide range of options at all price points, you can assemble a Sony camera kit that costs less than alternatives, with equal or better quality

Of course, these systems will not be ideal for every photographer. For example, if you shoot sports or wildlife, you will still be better off with a DSLR because of the faster autofocus and the ability to capture more frames per second. Also, if you’re doing lots of video work, mirrorless is not what you want. (My formerly beloved 5D2 is still among the best for DSLR video.) But if you shoot landscapes, studio portraits, street photography, etc. Sony mirrorless might be the way to go.

For me, the only notable downside at present is the relatively limited selection of lenses designed specifically for the Sony Alpha full-frame mirrorless series. However, this is largely mitigated with the use of adapters that allow almost any lens—including the best optics from Canon, Nikon, Leica, Carl Zeiss, etc., and of course the regular Alpha lenses—to be used on the Alpha mirrorless bodies. And Sony is dedicated to expanding the native lens lineup.

Sony is winning the camera wars

It’s clear that Sony has the vision and the technical expertise to make great things happen in the camera market. I, for one, am thrilled to see this, because before Sony came along the professional camera market was becoming polarized and stagnant.

Quite simply, this changes everything.

Sony has rekindled my love of photography in ways I didn’t think could happen.

In some ways, using Sony mirrorless systems reminds me of the excitement of when I was first learning to master any camera, because it’s a process of discovery—the thrill of seeing ‘what’s possible’ is exhilarating.

In a more important way, because of my long background and experience as a professional photographer, working with smaller systems allows me greater creative freedom that results in being able to do even better work.

All the photographs posted on my web site portfolio and archives since early 2013 have been made with Sony cameras.

I love photography more than ever. Thank you, Sony!

32 Comments

  1. Michael Morris

    Completely agree with you regarding the Sony A7R. I have one and the images with the Sony Zeiss 55 f1.8 and my Leica 90 mm Summicron can rival the best pictures I have ever taken. The lack of a complete native lens set will limit the usability of this system. I recently turned to the Fujifilm XT1. Although the image quality is not as good as the A7R, the lenses are fantastic. This has made it my travel camera of choice. I am not giving up my Nikon D800 E anytime soon.
    I hope Sony will wake up and realize that great sensors require even better optics.

    Reply
    • Nat Coalson

      Michael, thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience here. You raise several important points.

      First, I’m in complete agreement about not giving up your D800E; I believe the D800 series and it’s successor the D810 are the all-around best cameras on the market today. But they’re still big, heavy and expensive compared to the A7r.

      That said, one thing I neglected to mention in my article is the issue of weatherproofing. Many DSLRs are built to withstand the elements; several could accurately be considered nearly waterproof (at least in snow and rain). Conversely, current mirrorless systems are, at present, bordering on ‘delicate’. They can’t take anywhere near the punishment that pro-level DSLRs can handle.

      As for native lenses I completely agree. Sony needs to take the issue seriously, because lens options and overall quality is where they come up short against other leading systems.

      However, the currently available lens adapters largely mitigate the shortfall in native glass and allow the absolute best optics on the market to be used on the A7r. In many cases, you may lose some resolution because of variation in the live image circle, so images would require some cropping.

      And I think Sony’s priorities may be in order, as evidenced by their partnership with Zeiss and the excellent lenses they are jointly manufacturing.

      All told, what Sony is doing is very exciting and I’m happy to be on board.

      Thanks again for your comments!

      Reply
  2. Bruce Ryman

    Nat,
    Nice well written article. I have been using the Nikon V1 and have the D700 and D800 and on the fence about the D810. To your point is is sure nice to grab a very small bag with my V1 kit and go shooting. My D700 with the 70-200 on it weighs in @ almost 10 pounds compared to the mirrorless system @ under 3 pounds (bag, body, 3 lenses, 1 extra battery and even the charger)
    I will be looking at the A7 after your review as I need to update my mirrorless system and like you the major players (Canon and Nikon) are not customer friendly and with technology advances I think everyone has to come to the conclusion that you will changed systems to achieve the best results.

    Reply
    • Nat Coalson

      Thanks, Bruce! Keep me posted on your considerations for the A7.

      Reply
  3. Scott Joslyn

    I have a ton of Nikon gear and admit to being a Nikon bigot. I would probably feel similarly if I had gone down a similar path with Canon. Normal human behavior but these two companies have clearly differentiated themselves with the breadth, depth, and quality of their product line that shows remarkable continuous innovation.

    All that said, the market is changing as alternative designs gain traction, sensors improve, and a growing population of more serious photographers that has largely sprung I think from increasingly capable cell phones. A segment of those folks want more – but don’t often dive in to the extent the forego cars for camera gear.

    I think there is a segment of folks – me among them – that has found the weight, bulk, general hassle, and cost of the the “big” gear interferes with just enjoying things, particular travel photography and being ready for that interesting, fleeting shot. Fine when I’m trekking around in my car where I can haul everything, but not for plane, trains,and the like.

    That led me to the A7R which I find absolutely delightful and a marvel of design, capability, and accessibility. I have only limited experience with it to date but find it just plain easier to have with me nearly as often as my phone. And, let’s face it, Sony is making the sensors for a lot of manufacturers and, having lost its way for a while, Sony seems to be doing much better these days across a broad field of technology, cameras included.

    All that said…

    There are the lens limitations noted above. Sony is supposedly committed to bringing out more lenses. Frankly, I am not interested in building up another fleet of lenses. Smaller than Nikon lenses in any particular design, you are soon back to bulk and complexity.

    I first looked at the RX1 and RX100 cameras and intended to have one of them. It was lens interchangeability that led me to the A7R, but only to the extent of the 35MM and 55MM primes. With those, I keep nearly a point-and-shoot form fact (well almost), and I have a nice big sensor so I’m fine with a bit of cropping.

    While I have not experienced it, I am concerned about the A7R shutter. There is lots of debate about it causing blurred images. Has a lot to do with shutter speed and focal length. 1/100 and “long” lenses, like the 70-200. Also, the point of support.

    It is unfortunate and I have to admit being distressed by the fact that some one amazing, serendipitous shot will be spoiled in some way. Everything has a tradeoff. It is worth exploring and understanding before buying something as expensive as the A7R. Knowing what you want it for and how you intend to use it. Works for me; I am very happy with it.

    Finally, I have no intention of abandoning my Nikon D800 (and 700 and 300) as there will be those landscape adventures where I just have to have my 14-24 zoom or other “essential” lens for the job. In fact, I will likely trade the 800 for an 810 E and be done with things.

    Reply
  4. Erik Stensland

    I only have a minute to spare here, but the development of mirrorless cameras is something that I have been watching closely. I shoot with the D800e since I regularly have to print very large but I can see the day approaching when I will be able to switch over to a mirrorless system. That is certainly encouraging as I am getting older with every year and know that in a few years I won’t be able to lug so much weight into the backcountry. For now I am waiting for this system to mature a little more. Not being able to use native lenses but rather adaptors means that I’m not saving any weight on the lenses and they make up most of my weight. I’ve seen the Fuji camera with its amazing little lenses and am hoping that this will be more common amongst mirrorless systems. I am waiting for the day when we can get high resolution images using light-weight tack-sharp lenses with a lightweight camera body. The day is coming, but in my opinion it isn’t fully here yet. The other concern that was mentioned above is weather-proofing and durability. These are essential for the type of photography that I do. I’m rough on gear and need equipment that can handle the abuse.

    Thanks Nat for this thoughtful and encouraging post!

    Reply
    • Nat Coalson

      Thanks, Erik! I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. The issues of weatherproofing and shock tolerance etc. is always a concern for photographers like you who shoot in the wilderness under all kinds of extreme conditions. I’m looking forward to seeing how Sony addresses these issues with future cameras, because they are clearly interested in serving the pro market. While their mirrorless systems might not be very robust for extreme outdoor work, in many respects Sony’s DSLR lineup holds its own with the best from the competitors.

      Reply
  5. Bret Edge

    Great post and observations, Nat. For the most part, I agree with your sentiments. Many of the mirrorless systems are excellent for travel and landscape photography, especially the Sony A7 line, but for other things like motorsports and adventure photography, where lightning fast focus and fast continuous shooting speeds is critical, the mirrorless systems aren’t quite there yet. I don’t anticipate that it will be long before this statement is false but right now, DSLR’s still hold the edge. I’m watching the market with keen interest and when the mirrorless cameras cover the gap in the action market I may well make the transition. As always, enjoyed your post!

    Reply
    • Nat Coalson

      Thanks, Bret! You make good points – in several important areas DSLR is still holding a slight advantage over mirrorless systems. IN this case, the SOny Alpha DSLR lineup is fantastic as well.

      Reply
  6. Gigi Embrechts

    I have been considering the switch myself because like you I travel across the pond several times a year and lugging the big gear is a challenge. My concern is durability. Because I do equine photography I am pretty tough on my equipment when chasing horses through dust and in barns or water. I need my gear to be able to handle the abuse. So until I see these cameras go through the test of time, I am going to stay strong by carrying my heavy Canon gear.

    Reply
  7. William S

    Maybe the new Alpha a6000 would fit for those people who need fast focus: 0006 sec and Frames per Second: 11fps.

    Reply
    • Nat Coalson

      William, thanks for the tip and link. Absolutely – the a6000 addresses many of the former ‘shortcomings’ of mirrorless systems.

      Reply
  8. Terri Watson

    Thanks, Nat, for the very informative post on Sony’s mirrorless systems. I have shot with Nikon as long as I can remember but a year ago bought Sony’s NEX6 for vacation photos. I was wanting a smaller camera (for all the same reasons you mention) but one that would equal the quality of my D300S.

    I love my Sony NEX6 and your post regarding the A7r has me more curious than ever in the possibilities. As always, your profound knowledge and well written guidance, will prove to beneficial not only to me, but other photographers who are willing to learn and be open to new ideas. Many thanks!

    Reply
    • Nat Coalson

      Hi Terri, thanks very much for reading and commenting. Great to hear you’re enjoying the NEX6!

      Reply
  9. Daniel Stainer

    Great decision Nat! About a year or so ago I sold my anvil-sized pro Nikon D4. Although the camera was amazing on so many levels (especially AF system tracking and accuracy), it was less than ideal for my photo-documentary and travel work. Quite literally, I felt as though I was always carrying around a small toddler – especially when I added in a few lenses. It is true, people either wanted to mug me or they thought I worked for TMZ dot com as a paparazzi. There is a lot to be said about blending in, especially when it comes to capturing unscripted and spontaneous street moments.

    Although I still own a Nikon D800e for my landscape work, I have since transitioned to the Sony RX1R (full frame, 24.7 MP mirrorless with stunning 35mm F/2 Zeiss Sonnar lens) for my other work. The optics, image quality, dynamic range and high ISO (up to about 6400) are as good if not better than my previous D4 – all encompassed in a camera that literally fits into the palm of my hand. I still prefer the intuitive Nikon menu system – and my Sony isn’t nearly as robust in AF or weatherproofing – although those are minor nits when contrasted against Sony’s breathtaking image quality.

    While some might argue the point, I contend that legacy camera manufacturers like Nikon and Canon are asleep at the wheel when it comes to mirrorless. I can’t tell you how many pros like yourself have started to transition into Sony, Fuji (or even Olympus) systems, while the big boys continue to follow the same old & tired DSLR product roadmap. Based on what I’m seeing, the momentum is building and the technology gap is narrowing. Buying mirrorless often starts out as a fun travel or backup alternative. But the IQ in such a small and lightweight package is simply too hard to ignore, especially when it rekindles our passion for photography by allowing us to focus on what really matters…freedom, simplicity and the art of telling stories.

    Reply
  10. Steve Scanlon

    Thank you for a very informative blog Nat. As you know, I’ve been running with my Nikon for some time now and have been recently thinking of upgrading. After reading this article, I may have to make the jump to Sony. Sounds like a smart move.
    Keep up the great work and hope to run into you in the field!
    Steve

    Reply
    • Nat Coalson

      Thanks very much, Steve! I look forward to hearing more about your experiences should you get a Sony camera. Keep me posted!

      Reply
  11. Ron Cooper

    This is very helpful (and useful) info. I have been contemplating the merits of mirrorless for some time, and your comments regarding ease of use, coupled with the quality of images from the Sony system are very encouraging. It looks like the new Sony full-frame mirrorless could be an excellent choice for me.

    Reply
    • Nat Coalson

      Hi Ron, thanks for reading and posting your comment. I agree that the a Sony mirrorless system would be a great fit for your photography; let’s talk more about it. I’ll be happy to advise you on your purchase decisions.

      Reply
  12. Franck

    Nice story..
    Because of a shoulder problem, 4 years ago, I switched to a light system.
    First to m4:3 system and next to Sony..
    No regret, I am happy with Sony Nex/ Alpha system.
    Sony Alpha 6000 + 24mmf1.8 Zeiss lens = less than 800 gr

    Thank’s for sharing!

    Reply
    • Nat Coalson

      Frank, thanks for your comment. Glad to hear of your good experience with Sony cameras!

      Reply
  13. Lloyd Williams

    Enjoyed your review Nat. I shoot images and video on a Sony NEX 7 which I am really happy with. Regarding this comment “Also, if you’re doing lots of video work, mirrorless is not what you want” I think that the recently released a7s is a very exciting development that addresses this. It seems to me that in a year or 2 we will be looking at the prospect of a Sony full-frame mirrorless with 16+ MP, fast autofocus, AND internal 4k video recording. A very juicy prospect indeed.

    Reply
    • Nat Coalson

      Hi Lloyd, thanks for your note. I agree that the area of video is probably where we’ll start to see the smaller format cameras really shine in the coming months. And for sure, the A7s proves that pro quality video can be done with smaller systems. Of course, Sony has been one of the leaders in pro video for decades, so it doesn’t surprise me that their efforts in these areas are starting to really pay off.

      Reply
  14. DavidR

    Thanks for the very interesting article. It’s great to hear of your experience with mirrorless.

    I’ve gone down that route myself, switching from DSLR to Sony mirrorless. At first, it seemed like I could completely move away from DSLR for good, but I have recently joined a new breed of professional; the one that is moving from mirrorless to DSLR. (well, sort of) :))

    I still use mirrorless, and indeed one of the excellent Sony RX-series cameras too, for travel and certain times where I want that convenience. But for studio work, landscapes, or paid shoots, the DSLR just works better for me. When I am doing professional shoots, I don’t mind the weight of a DSLR, nor do I mind that people see me. The light rigs or people holding reflectors give a clue as to what I am doing anyway.

    For holiday shots, street shots, events where I am not working, it’s mirrorless or pocketable much of the time. I thoroughly enjoyed using a Sony premium compact RX-100 III for a week abroad recently!

    The latest Sony mirrorless cameras offer a lot in a small package. Are they better than the new Nikon D810 for all pro’s? Well, no. My D810 balances with high quality lenses in a way that I haven’t managed to do with the smaller and lighter cameras. And I am getting better results with it too.

    For the moment, both systems are great to have. If you are a pro and you don’t have both, you are missing out. Like many areas of life, it isn’t a black and white situation.

    Reply
    • Nat Coalson

      Hi DavidR, thanks for reading and commenting. No doubt for many professional and serious enthusiast photographers DSLR still provides the best solution. I believe in using “the right tool for the job”, and it still makes sense to work with a photography kit using several different formats. It’s great to be living in a time when we have so many choices!

      Reply
  15. Tim Visser

    I have been thinking hard and long about switching or not switching from a DLSR for landscape images. The points that Nat make are very compelling. However, I am also a little like DavidR as with the new Nikon D810 and how sharp and crisp this camera is, I may be staying with DSLR for the near future. I shoot a lot of sports and have been enjoying Nikon D4s and its focus system is excellent. I have been wanting a compelling reason to switch but with the lenses I have with my Nikon gear and the costs associated with adding lenses and using two different systems, I am not in position today to make the leap while shooting sports. I will be following the great updates from Nat as he continues to provide us with great information from a photographer I highly trust. Nice article NAT!

    Reply
    • Nat Coalson

      Hi Tim, thanks for your comment. No doubt, the Nikon D800 and D810 are probably the all-round best cameras on the market today. And if your work benefits from the improvements offered with the extra cost, weight and complexity of these systems, they can be the best choice.

      Since I do most of my photography while traveling internationally – and these days, mostly in cities and towns – a smaller format makes more sense for me.

      And when I can produce images with the high quality I’m after, in a smaller kit, I’m all for it.

      Reply
  16. Mark Ferguson

    Over the last 5-10 years I’ve moved to ever decreasing kit sizes. I just got tired of packing so much gear. The Sony NEX series sounds like the next possible iteration for me. What lens are in your current kit?

    Reply
    • Nat Coalson

      Hi Mark, thanks for reading and commenting. On my NEX-7 I use the Sony Zeiss Vario-Tessar T E 16-70mm F4 ZA OSS almost exclusively. I’ve been blown away by the quality and capability of this lens, especially at the price. Fantastic value. Speaking of value, I also use the Sigma 30mm 2.8. This lens is very inexpensive, mostly made of plastic… but produces incredibly sharp images with very little distortion.

      For the A7 kit, the best lenses I’ve found are Voigtlander and Leica. Most require an adapter but there are several on the market that produce excellent results, including the dedicated adapters made by the lens companies.

      Reply
  17. G. Brad Lewis

    This is an informative and important article, Nat, and I thank you for sharing your thoughts. I am a dedicated Nikon shooter, always having one, (or five) on hand for the last 40 years. About a year ago, I did some extensive research on the best compact (pocket) camera available, and came up with the Sony RX100M2, which I purchased and have been using every since. I still lug along my heavy Nikon pro-body, but on long adventures, which I have been doing every week for the last three months in Hawaii, I take just the Sony, and get incredible results without all the weight. I suspect that Sony is going to take some serious market share away from the other two big players soon. Thanks again, Nat.

    Reply
    • Nat Coalson

      Brad, thanks for your comment. Great to hear about your results with the RX100M2. I’ve really been enjoying your latest images and it’s nice to know you are able to get the necessary quality without having to lug around all the heavy gear. Hope to see you in Hawaii, Utah or Alaska soon! Let’s talk about partnering on a workshop.

      Reply
  18. kassiem pope

    How are you doing? I am starting out with photography and have a canon 7d. I’m thinking bout going mirror less (sony a6000). Any thoughts on the camera?

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get Photography tips, techniques and
tutorials FREE to your inbox

We value your privacy and will never share your details with anyone.

Almost there... Check your inbox to confirm.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This