Gear

Mirrorless vs Enthusiast Compact: What To Consider

With a number of mirrorless models now rivalling enthusiast compacts for size, it’s quite possible that some people may be puzzled as to the best option for their needs. Over the following article we’ll look at the main things to consider if torn between the two.

Lenses

It used to be that mirrorless models were only comparable in size to compacts when partnered with a pancake lens, one that didn’t add much to the overall profile. While this is often still the case, manufacturers have been busy developing lenses for mirrorless systems with retractable barrels to make them much more portable than they used to be.

The most obvious candidates for this treatment are kit lenses. Not only are these more likely to be used by the general market than more exotic options, but this may also prove to be the deal-maker in the first place when people see how compact the combination is. Some of these lenses are conveniently designed while others need to be unlocked before use, which introduces a small but annoying additional element to turning on the camera (although you can generally keep them unlocked and extended if you like).

A number of mirrorless camera manufacturers have experimented with retractable inner barrels to make some of their lenses smaller when not in use

Of course, all of this highlights one of the main advantages of interchangeable-lens cameras, namely that you can use all kinds of optics – and just those within the native system. It’s rare to find pocketable enthusiasts compacts with large sensors and long lenses that can cover every eventuality – although Panasonic’s Lumix TZ100, with a 1in sensor and 25-250mm lens (in 35mm equiv. terms), is a notable exception.

So, if telephotography is your thing, you may be better served by a mirrorless model, or alternatively a bridge-style camera such as the Sony Cyber-shot RX10 Mark III or Panasonic Lumix FZ2000/FZ2500.

Sensors

As a general rule, the larger the sensor inside a compact camera the shorter the focal range of the lens will be. Indeed, compacts with the largest sensors – that is, full frame and APS-C types – only offer fixed-focal-length lenses.

You can see this trade-off in the table of compact cameras below, with cameras (roughly) ordered by the size of their bodies and sensors in descending order. There’s a general correlation between camera size, sensor size and effective focal length, although some compacts manage to break from convention.

Sensor sizeFocal length (35mm equiv)
Sony Cyber-shot RX1R IIFull Frame35mm
Sony Cyber-shot RX10 Mark III1in24-600mm
Fujifilm X100FAPS-C35mm
Fujifilm X70APS-C28mm
Panasonic Lumix LX100Micro Four Thirds24-75mm
Sony Cyber-shot RX100 Mark V1in24-70mm
Canon Powershot G9X Mark II1in28-84mm
Sony Cyber-shot WX5001/2.3in24-720mm
Canon IXUS 185 IS1/2.3in28-224mm

Large sensors are typically paired with fixed focal length lenses. Long lenses are typically found in smaller bodies with smaller sensors. Cameras that attempt to pair relatively large sensors with relatively long lenses (and relatively wide apertures) are considerably larger because of it.

Perhaps if there is a sweet spot that works for most people it’s a camera with a 1in sensor. This allows for typically better image quality than the average compact can manage, together with a moderate focal range and more control over depth of field than a camera with a smaller sensor provides.

In recent years, the 1in-type sensor has upped the level of image quality expected from a compact camera, which has helped to bridge the gap between these and interchangeable-lens cameras that sport larger sensors
The Panasonic Lumix FZ2000/FZ2500 is fairly bulky for a ‘compact’ – i.e non-interchangeable-lens – camera, but that’s the price you pay for a 1in sensor paired with a 24-480mm f/2.8-4.5 lens

The other key advantage of compacts is that they are not as prone to letting dust inside their bodies as interchangeable-lens cameras as their lens always stays on the camera. That’s not to say that compact cameras don’t develop issues with dust, because they do, regardless of whether they have fixed-focal-length or zoom lenses. It’s just less likely of an issue.

If, however, they do, it’s harder to rectify here than on a mirrorless model as there is far less of a need to fit such cameras with any kind of dust reduction system. In such a situation, you’ll likely need the help of your camera’s manufacturer, or a repairer acting on their behalf.

Handling and pocketability

Compacts are typically designed for portability than anything else, and this typically means that they fail to offer the same degree of comfort that mirrorless models allow.

Sony’s RX100 line of compacts, for example, has long been criticised for the fact that there’s just nothing on the front plate to get your hand around. This in turn has led to grips being made available for these models, both from Sony and third parties. And even when compacts like these do offer grips, they’re pretty small and only make so much difference.

Clearly, a camera that can slip into your pocket is one that you’re more likely to use in a wider range of situations. Some mirrorless models can slip in a roomy coat pocket, providing they don’t have much more than a pancake-type lens attached, but for the majority of combinations this won’t be practical.

System support

In order to gain a better footing in the mirrorless sector, many manufacturers have raced ahead to develop lenses and accessories compatible with their models. These range from the modest offerings in Canon’s EOS M line to the vastly populated Micro Four Thirds line, with the likes of FujifilmSony and other steadily filling up their lens and accessory stables too.

When you buy a compact you don’t really need to think too much about the wider system in which it sits as you’ll typically be limited to a handful of accessories. Very few people construct a whole system around a compact camera as they would an interchangeable-lens camera.

That said, if your camera has a hotshoe you may be able to use an external flash or an electronic viewfinder (if it doesn’t have one built in), or maybe an external microphone, for which a port may be provided around the side. In some cases, you may also be able to use a different focal length to that provided as standard with conversion lens of some kind, which can change the effective focal length (although the option to extend effective focal length by cropping away the peripheries of the frame is also something some compacts provide).

Fujifilm’s X100-series of models may have fixed-focal-length lenses, but you can use them with wide and tele conversion lenses to achieve a different effective focal length

Video

Cameras in both compact and mirrorless camps now boast 4K video recording with advanced functionality, but just because two cameras are able to record video at the same resolution, the results may be very different.

Cameras with larger sensors typically have a handful of advantages here, both in terms of the clarity of the footage they output as standard and also with the level of control they offer. And, of course, in the case of interchangeable-lens cameras, that’s on top of the option to use a wider range of focal lengths.

More advanced compacts are helping to bridge the gap somewhat, with high-frame rate recording options (for slow-motion footage), zebra and the ability to use separate microphones, but the majority of compacts do not offer this yet.

Features such as Log shooting are more often found in pricier mirrorless models than in compacts