Are Mirrorless Cameras Better Than DSLRs for Landscape Photography?

mirrorless vs dslr for landscape photography

Let me begin by saying that – as a photographer who is fascinated by all brands and formats of cameras – I strongly dislike the trend of social media “influencers” who loudly proclaim that they’ve “dumped their DSLR” and “couldn’t be happier” with their new mirrorless system, without any context of shooting habits, subject matter, or of course their experience level.

Such clickbait headline statements can be unhelpful – or downright bad advice – if they don’t expand on what the photographer shoots, and how they shoot it.

mirrorless vs dslr for landscape photography
Calm morning in the White Mountains, California
Sony A7 mk2, Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art, Slik 700DX tripod

So, the question we face today is this: as landscape photographers, should we sell our DSLRs and switch to a mirrorless system? Then more to the point, what do mirrorless systems have to offer a traditional landscape shooter?

This article will answer that question by breaking down some of the practical, real-world advantages and disadvantages to both DSLR and mirrorless systems, to help you make a wise decision. You may find some of the selling points to be familiar knowledge already, so I will try and avoid beating a dead horse and simply provide useful information.

mirrorless vs dslr for landscape photography

Do Mirrorless Cameras Offer Better Image Quality than DSLRs?

First and foremost, the biggest concern a landscape photographer has is image quality. As long as you have a solid tripod and a great lens (and maybe weather sealing!), the camera body just needs to deliver great images.

The answer depends on which camera system you currently use, and how its image quality compares against the potential alternatives. Here’s the quick-and-dirty verdict, that is bound to start all manner of arguments in the comment section:

A traditional landscape photographer spends almost all of their time at ISO 100. With that in mind, Nikon FX and DX DSLRs are king, Sony’s FE and E mirrorless cameras a close second (or equal/better, if you shoot nightscapes), and Canon – both full-frame and APS-C, DSLR and mirrorless – a distant third.

However, that is considering only dynamic range at ISO 100. Canon is right up there with the rest of them for nightscapes at higher ISOs. Pentax has some awesome DSLRs too, whereas Fuji and Olympus mirrorless cameras are pretty good at ISO 100, if you truly desire a highly portable yet durable (even weather sealed) setup.

mirrorless vs dslr for landscape photography
Sunset in Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona, 2016
Nikon D750, Tamron 90mm f/2.5 Adapt-all, Slik 614CF Tripod

Admittedly, there is far more to image quality than just dynamic range at ISO 100. Discerning photographers of all kinds – not just landscape – highly value a sensor’s color reproduction, and this highly subjective topic is the source of much debate.

To forego tact: many Canon users will say that Sony’s colors look disgusting, and Nikon’s too for that matter. Indeed, Canon sensors do offer some fantastic colors. However for me, the choice of raw processing software is a much more important factor in color, and in that regard I’ve found that literally all cameras give beautiful colors when edited in Capture One Pro instead of Adobe. Nikon NEF files look downright gorgeous, and for Sony files, the worst I can say is that they look different – but certainly not terrible.

mirrorless vs dslr for landscape photography
First Light on Arrowhead Lake, California, 2014
Sony A6000, Rokinon 12MM F/2, Slik 700DX Tripod

But I digress. The bottom line is, if you’re thinking of selling your DSLR and getting a mirrorless kit, there probably need to be more reasons – image quality alone may not be enough to make the decision for you. Especially if you’re a Nikon shooter – A D810, D850, or D750 owner would be hard-pressed to find a Sony A7 II or A7R II (or even the new A7R III) tempting for their image quality alone.

If you’re a Canon DSLR shooter, you probably already know where you stand on the ISO 100 image quality debate. You’re either happy with what you’ve got, or you’re seriously considering jumping ship.

To the latter crowd, here is my advice: just know that it may be one or two more camera generations before Canon’s sensors finally match or beat Nikon and Sony’s – for dynamic range at ISO 100. Again, this alone is probably not the reason you’ll switch – especially if you’re already skilled at bracketing and creating HDRs.

Does Mirrorless Offer Useful Features to Landscape Photographers?

For traditional landscape photography, the burning desire to sell one’s DSLR and “go mirrorless” is less about the exciting new bells and whistles that are tempting so many other types of photographers, and more about a select few features that actually benefit a landscape photographer.

mirrorless vs dslr for landscape photography
Smoky sunrise in the White Mountains, California, 2016
Sony A7mk2, Canon 24-105mm f/4, Slik 700DX Tripod

For example, electronic first-curtain shutter (EFCS) is a fantastic tool for any landscape shooter who has a high-resolution camera; fine detail can be destroyed by the slap of a shutter, let alone a mirror. In fact at certain shutter speeds – and especially on a lightweight travel tripod – electronic shutter is downright critical to getting the most out of all those megapixels you’ve paid so much for.

Some Nikon and Canon DSLRs have EFCS, whilst others don’t. Most mirrorless cameras have EFCS, but a few still do not. More importantly, some cameras’ image quality is slightly harmed by using an electronic shutter, while others are not.

You’ll need to do some research on your specific camera, or whichever camera you’re thinking of buying. That said, EFCS is definitely a useful tool for a landscape photographer to have, even if you use a cable release.

There are a few other features which are mostly exclusive to mirrorless cameras, such as in-body stabilization, which might benefit landscape photographers that shoot more actively (while hiking or traveling for example).

mirrorless vs dslr for landscape photography
Kit Carson Pass, El Dorado National Forest, California, 2015
Nikon D750, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 VR, Slik 700DX Tripod

Focus peaking can be useful for quick manual focusing, which the new Nikon D850 offers, but most other DSLRs do not, at least for still photography. Meanwhile, almost all mirrorless cameras offer focus peaking.

Personally I find the optical viewfinder of DSLRs to be a beneficial feature for both active shooting and wilderness travel. It’s an efficient, simple way to view a scene without even turning the camera on!

mirrorless vs dslr for landscape photography
Morning at Reflection Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Nikon D750, Rokinon 14mm, Slik 614 CF tripod

Does Mirrorless Offer Better Lenses For Landscapes?

Considering that lens adapters exist for all manner of lenses on most mirrorless platforms (as long as you are okay with not saving much weight if you trade your DSLR for a mirrorless body), you’ll have no problem with lens selection. Landscape photographers typically use manual focus, and shoot stopped down quite a bit, so lens choice is often about one thing alone: sharpness.

mirrorless vs dslr for landscape photography
Meditation Circle near Tucson, Arizona, 2015
Nikon D5300, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, Slik 700DX Tripod

It should also be noted that if you’re hoping to shoot exclusively with native-mount lenses, the options for mirrorless systems have improved significantly in recent years. Again – if you’re shooting your landscapes mostly stopped down – mirrorless systems have native lenses that are ultra-sharp all the way to 12mm.

There’s also at least one 11mm and one 10mm prime available for mirrorless, but the real champion in that range is the Canon 11-24mm f/4 – its sharpness at 11mm is phenomenal. Or, if you want something that doesn’t weigh two-and-a-half bricks, the classic Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 is available for both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, and is a flawlessly sharp lens at f/8-11 – if you get a good copy, that is.

mirrorless vs dslr for landscape photography
Japanese Garden, Portland, Oregon
Sony A7R2, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 (via adapter)

One notable difference? The full-frame mirrorless-only Sony 12-24mm f/4 G is almost 600g lighter than its competition – the Sigma 12-24mm f/4 and Canon 11-24mm f/4. On the other hand, the Sony 16-35mm f/4 is only around 100g lighter than its Canon and Nikon competitors, and sharpness is not necessarily equal between the three, so that’s a toss-up.

Either way, whether your bread and butter landscape lens is a modest and portable 16-35mm f/4, or a more exotic zoom or prime, switching to mirrorless can only serve to increase your available options. It can also possibly save you some weight if you “go native”, though it’ll cost you.

mirrorless vs dslr for landscape photography
“The Wave”, from a distance, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Nikon D750, Nikon 50mm f/1.8 E, Slik 614CF Tripod

Mirrorless Battery Life vs. DSLR

The achilles heel of mirrorless cameras has always been power consumption. How many batteries does it take to get through a day hike, let alone an overnight camping or backpacking trip out in the wilderness? In this regard, DSLR cameras win bigtime, and almost all mirrorless cameras have a lot of catching up to do.

If you rarely use live view on your DSLR, you can get over a thousand clicks on nearly any camera. By comparison, most mirrorless camera batteries put out an unfortunate 200-400 clicks, depending on how efficient you are with your LCD brightness and usage. That’s the rated lifespan, although many real-world reports list numbers nearly double this. Then again, some real-world DSLR reports go as high as 2,000 clicks per charge!

mirrorless vs dslr for landscape photography

If you never hike more than a short distance, it’s no problem to carry a whole bunch of spare mirrorless batteries, since they’re so incredibly lightweight.

Unfortunately, the name-brand batteries aren’t cheap, ranging anywhere from $60 (Sony A7 battery) to $80 (Sony A9 battery). So, you’re either stuck forking out $120-$160 for just two spare batteries, or taking the risk of buying generic brand batteries. Alternatively, you can try one of the external battery solutions, which are expanded upon more in a previous article here.

In short, battery life is still a huge negative for landscape photographers considering a mirrorless switch. However, given the slow pace of landscape photography, it’s less of a deal-breaker if you’re willing to spend a little more money on a bunch of spare batteries or an external battery solution, and if you aren’t away from a wall socket for more than a half-day or so.

mirrorless vs dslr for landscape photography
Stormy Sunset at Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Nikon D750, Nikon 50mm f/1.8 series E, Slik 614CF Tripod

Are Mirrorless Cameras Lighter than DSLRs?

Unfortunately, the more high-end full-frame mirrorless lenses and bodies we see, the more we are realizing the truth about what it takes to achieve the highest quality images.

In short, when using big sensors and super-fast apertures that are as sharp wide open as yesteryear’s lenses were at f/8, there is no free lunch. The lenses are going to be huge. Also, if you want a robust, well-built body with weather sealing and great battery life, that too is going to be nearly as heavy as some of the lighter DSLRs on the market.

For example, a Sony A9 or A7R III with a 24-70mm f/2.8 GM and a Nikon D750 with a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 have only about 6 ounces (176g) difference between them. If you feel compelled to complain about that difference, you need to hit the gym!

mirrorless vs dslr for landscape photography
Winter sunset at Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah
Nikon Df, Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 ( 1400g / 50oz total kit weight)

You may ask, why juxtapose the $4500 Sony A9 with the $1500 Nikon D750? They are in completely different classes to many photographers, especially action sports shooters. Surely this is a terrible comparison?

Landscape photography is actually a great equalizer when it comes to shooting speed: a D750 and a Sony A9 actually offer quite the same: a solid sensor with great image quality, decent weather sealing, solid overall build, good battery life, and dual card slots for professionals.

If you’re still not convinced, consider this: at the time of this writing, Sony is likely currently working on an A7mk3, which will probably weigh about the same as an A9, have a similar 24 megapixel sensor, and cost only $2200. That will be a much more fair comparison to the Nikon D750. We’ll see in 6-12 months, probably.

On the other hand, what if you want more resolution than 24 megapixels? A Nikon D850 is indeed quite a bit heavier than a Sony A7R mk2, as well as the new Sony A7R mk3. Same thing with the Canon 5DsR: you save a substantial amount of weight by going full-frame mirrorless. Make no mistake, though, this is partly because Canon and Nikon have not put their highest-resolution sensors in their lightest DSLRs, and they may never do so.

Further Reading: Nikon D850 Review

Personally, as an adventure and timelapse photographer, I’m really happy with 24 megapixel images. However those folks who prioritize resolution and sheer print-ability will indeed find that mirrorless camera bodies currently offer great weight savings.

Additionally, some mirrorless lenses have the potential to be lighter weight, despite the fact that an f/1.4 lens will always be a pretty sizable chunk of glass – especially at longer focal lengths.

In short: the wider and slower the lens, the more opportunity there is for weight savings. For example, the Sigma 12-24mm f/4 Art is more than a pound heavier than the Sony 12-24mm f/4 G, and both lenses are roughly the same with regard to optical quality. The same is the case with some of the f/2.8 prime lenses available for mirrorless cameras, in the form of Zeiss Loxia and Batis.

mirrorless vs dslr for landscape photography
Winter in the Eastern Sierras, California
Sony RX10 mk2, Slik 700DX Tripod

Last but not least, let’s be honest about which kits are really the lightest of all. If you truly want to save weight with a mirrorless system, you should switch to a smaller sensor format. The absolutely lightest kits are the likes of the Sony A6000 series, or the Olympus Micro Four Thirds series. A 1.5-2x crop sensor, in short, is where the real weight-savings happens.

Thankfully, the latest sensors in these cameras are actually pretty impressive at their base ISO, which is where all daytime (and sunrise / sunset) landscape photography happens.

Keep in mind, of course, that if you’re willing to go down a sensor size, DSLR cameras can get a whole lot lighter too. A Nikon D5300, D5500, or D5600 all make fantastic travel landscape cameras, if you don’t mind the limited controls and lack of weather sealing, because they share similarly incredible sensor technology to their full-frame siblings,  and offer image quality so good at ISO 100, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between their 24 megapixel images and any full-frame 24 megapixel image.

mirrorless vs dslr for landscape photography
Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Nikon Df, Nikon 55mm f/1.2 S

Mirrorless VS DSLR: You’ve Probably Already Made Your Decision

Overall, despite the need for an annoying number of spare batteries for longer days or overnight trips, and the fact that the best mirrorless bodies and lenses aren’t exactly affordable, it’s still highly likely that the more traditional your landscape photography is, the more you’re likely to see some advantages in either the overall portability of a mirrorless kit, or the image quality itself, or both.

As landscape photographers, we do have the luxury of being able to capture most of our images at an easy pace, without a critical need for too many special features in a camera body.

mirrorless vs dslr for landscape photography

Your personal decision will ultimately depend upon things like your specific shooting needs, such as slow vs. fast lenses, or low vs. high ISOs. Plus, your satisfaction/frustration with your current system’s features, image quality, and last but not least your budget of course.

Good luck deciding! If you have any questions about a particular shooting need, or a specific system you’re considering, please don’t hesitate to comment below!

 

Matthew Saville is a landscape and timelapse photographer based in Southern California. He is an avid astro-landscape shooter who enjoys backpacking and camping. Matthew’s goal is to use photography to promote conservation-minded enjoyment of the great outdoors. His website, astro-landscapes.com, is dedicated to his adventure stories and DIY camera gear for timelapse and nightscape photography.

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  • Just Me

    A lot of words to say, “Use whatever suits you.” I think it’s a good conversation to have for someone buying into one system or another but they probably won’t understand the issues. At this point, if someone needs to be nudged to switch to a DIFFERENT system, they should probably stay where they’re at. It’s like saying, should you ditch your Porsche to buy a Ferrari.

    • Pete Mueller

      Yes.

      • Just Me

        Yes, you should ditch your Porsche to buy a Ferrari? I would rather have a Bugatti!

    • Indeed, that is approximately all there is to say on the matter of “what to buy”.

      This post was definitely meant to be read by folks who are simply curious about switching, and would like to feel that they’ve made a more educated decision, WHICHEVER decision they decide to make.

      Simply put, there is a lot of hype out there, which is often very short on specifics. My goal in writing this article was to simply put forth as much buyer facts as possible.

  • Rohinton Mehta

    Could you please explain this statement – “More importantly, some cameras’ image quality is slightly harmed by using an electronic shutter, while others are not”. ? I often use the electronic shutter on my Nikon D810 and D500, and that’s why I was concerned to read that statement.

    • Thankfully, Rohinton, if you’re on a Nikon I think you’re OK. The quality issues I’ve heard of have mostly come from Sony and other mirrorless brands, and older ones at that. If you’ve got a modern Nikon, or one of the absolute newest Sonys, you should be OK!

  • SDHarleyguy

    Les Paul, Stratocaster, Telecaster… The Nikon D810…
    If you can’t get terrific results, it’s you…

    • Agreed! Terrific results are possible with literally any high-end camera that has been released in the last 10+ years. In fact, even by the absolute latest 2017 standards it’s hard to deny that cameras just ~5 years old can’t do roughly the exact thing.

      However, the world of landscape and outdoor photography is not entirely about results, it’s also about convenience. Many folks simply decide not to lug a giant camera on a longer hike, because a lighter weight one does the job just as well, or good enough for what they need.

      Therein lies the “fun” of considering newer camera systems, such as mirrorless. Your long hikes might possibly become a lot more pleasant, with a kit that weighs only a few hundred g instead of a few kilograms. 🙁

      • Just Me

        If you compare apples to apples, there’s very little difference between a DSLR and mirrorless with the same sized sensor. I hope you’re not trying to argue a MFT can successfully compete with the same generation DSLR.

        • That is exactly what I’m trying to STOP people from doing, without the context of how they’re using / viewing their photos. Because if all you’re doing is throwing your photos on Instagram or Facebook, then yes a M4/3 system will “do the job just fine”, even though there’s certainly a discernible difference between its image quality and that of a same-generation full-frame camera.

          Unfortunately, left and right you hear of people “dumping” their 5+LB Canon 5-series kit, and opting for an Olympus kit that weighs just 1-2 LBS total. They think that just because they have the same solid quality and weather sealing, and the “same” aperture of f/2.8 in the lenses, that they don’t need to caveat anything else about their shooting needs when encouraging other full-frame DSLR shooters to “jump ship”… Which is, of course, an apple insulting an orange.

          • Just Me

            Agreed. Well, that was a long way to go to get here. 🙂

  • waxart

    Have you not heard of Panasonic? They make a very fine mirrorless GH5 with some excellent Leica lenses!