We all know that the best camera is the one that you have with you, and this can be particularly true when you are on the road. Airplane luggage restrictions when flying overseas often means that you have to make compromises with regards to your choice of gear. However it is not just the logistics of reaching your location which you need to consider. If your choice of equipment is too heavy, cumbersome or expensive, you may not feel comfortable exploring your destination with your camera and may choose to leave some of it in your accommodation instead. And we all know inevitably that will be the day that you missed that killer shot!
I regularly travel overseas (I happen to have a soft spot for New Zealand!) so the relatively recent development of mirrorless cameras, and the benefit of their reduced size and weight when compared to a traditional DSLR, has been something of a revelation. No longer do I need to struggle through the airline checkin with a camera bag full with a bulky camera and a selection of heavy lenses, hoping that nobody notices my increasing signs of fatigue and decides that perhaps they should check the weight of my carry on bag!
But as with all advances in technology, actually deciding what mirrorless equipment to buy is not simple. There are a plethora of mirrorless options available from all of the major manufacturers and all seem to have their own pros and cons. The good news is that any current mirrorless camera available on the market will produce images which are comparable, or probably superior, to the camera gear we were using ten years ago. The bad news is that the experience of actually using the gear may not be as pleasant.
The major difference between mirrorless cameras and the traditional DSLR is the lack of an optical viewfinder. The design of a mirrorless system dictates the use of an EVF (electronic view finder) which displays a live feed direct from the sensor of the camera, as opposed to looking at the image through the lens which is reflected via the cameras mirror to the traditional viewfinder glass. To be blunt, the first mirrorless EVFs were quite poor and were a good enough reason for people to hang onto their DSLRs. However they have now improved drastically and I personally much prefer using an EVF. Being a digital viewfinder, camera manufacturers have devised ways to make the user experience far more creative and productive such as the inclusion of a live histogram, electronic level and picture style previews. In addition, it is also possible to have an instant review of your image in the EVF immediately after taking the shot which can lead to less time spent chimping (reviewing your images via the rear screen) and more time shooting.
Auto focus performance, or lack of, was another stumbling ground for the first few generations of mirrorless cameras. The main reason for this shortcoming was the way that the cameras actually determined focus, with early mirrorless cameras using a contrast based autofocus system which whilst was actually very accurate and quite reliable, it was simply very slow compared to the phase detection system of the traditional DSLR. Again this situation has changed drastically and now most mirrorless systems utilise a phase detection system alongside a contrast based method which not only offers more focus points and focussing accuracy and reliability, it can also in some cases actually be quicker that a traditional DSLR.
One major consideration for choosing a mirrorless system for travel photography is size – not just the size of the camera body but also of the lenses available for the system. In general, the smaller the physical size of the sensor will result in smaller lenses for the system, but will result in a drop in image quality especially when used in low light situations. However, this drop in quality can also be negated by the use of faster prime lenses (such as f1.4). My first experience of mirrorless equipment was using an Olympus M43 system which uses one of the smallest sized sensor available in an interchangeable lens system. At the time I was also using a Canon full frame DSLR and I thought it could be interesting to compare the image quality between the two systems. I was quite surprised to discover that at the lower ISOs, the image quality was very similar although the Canon files definitely held up better in low light utilising a higher ISO.
If you are currently using a full frame DSLR, you will probably find that the majority of the mirrorless cameras available are quite a lot smaller than your current camera. However one area where you current camera is probably more efficient is battery life. Mirrorless cameras simply require more power to operate due to the use of an electronic viewfinder. Whilst the battery life of a mirrorless camera is not drastically worse that a traditional mirrored camera with a glass viewfinder, there is no way that you will avoid having to carry extra batteries on your photography trips. Interestingly the full frame mirrorless options generally seem to have better battery life performance compared to the APS-C and M43 models.
One final word on choosing a system is to not base your final decision by reading reviews and comparing specifications. The mirrorless revolution has empowered the camera manufacturers with the means to design a new breed of camera system. No longer do all camera have to appear physically the same which means that one manufacturers model may handle very different to another. I really recommend that you visit a camera shop and actually try holding and using the various different cameras as one persons ideal camera may simply not feel comfortable for you to use. Personally I now exclusively use Fujifilm gear as I find the system to be the perfect compromise between image quality, performance and physical size. I still have a soft spot for the Olympus M43 system but I tended to find that the cameras were a little bit too small for me to enjoy using over an extended period. Your needs may well be different and the small size could actually make it your ideal camera system. One thing for sure is that the image quality of the Olympus, and all other camera systems, will probably make you wonder why you didn’t make the switch to a mirrorless system sooner.