Going mirrorless

Time to make the leap!

I’ve been a Nikon photographer for nearly forty years – first with an SLR and then a DSLR – but decided to upgrade to mirrorless and settled on a Canon EOS R5 after extensive research. Here’s why.

I first became a Nikon shooter in 1984 when I received a Nikon FG-20 SLR for my birthday. It soon went everywhere with me, documenting my hiking in the Whites, Adirondacks, Olympics, Smokies, and more – well into the 1990s. At that point I briefly used one of the earliest digital cameras – an Apple QuickTake – before purchasing a point-and-shoot Panasonic digital camera small enough that I used an Altoids tin as a carrying case!

But it was in 2008, when we moved to India, that I finally set aside film cameras and switched to digital SLR (DLSR), with a hand-me-down Nikon D70. I took thousands of shots across India, Europe, and Africa. I upgraded to a hand-me-down Nikon D300. Things got really serious in 2016 when I upgraded to a Nikon D500 before climbing Kilimanjaro, and in 2018 when I purchased a second D500 body before a wildlife trip to Costa Rica.

So, this year when I decided to upgrade to mirrorless – leaving behind the SLR for the first time since 1984 – my first inclination was to stick with Nikon. Nikon has been slow to the mirrorless game, however, and only recently came out with a high-quality mirrorless camera body, the Z9. It has reviewed well, but is still difficult to obtain (they are only now (August) shipping orders placed in April!) … and even if I could get my hands on one, the reviews show it’s not quite up to par with the competition.

So I set out research the competition. I focused on three top-quality full-frame mirrorless cameras: Canon R5, Nikon Z9, and Sony ⍺1. Mirrorless cameras are the future, and they offer the opportunity for me to jump to full-frame cameras without the weight and bulk of the DLSR full-frame cameras like the Nikon D850. Although every photographer has different needs and different criteria, mine were the following:

  • Suitable for general use – travel, landscape, wildlife photography
  • Primarily for photography, with videography as a distant second
  • Small size and lightweight, because I often hike with my camera and lenses
  • Sufficiently inexpensive so I can afford two bodies; for some travel I want a backup body, and for some outings I want two active bodies
  • Full-frame sensor, if possible, to bring me to a new level of quality
  • Readily available body and a good selection of mirrorless lenses
  • Easy to learn and to use

Backward compatibility with my Nikon kit was not very important, because my lenses are nearly all DX (crop-frame) lenses and I was now aiming for full-frame bodies. This reduced the value of sticking to the Nikon ecosystem.

Choosing the Canon R5

Ultimately, I chose the Canon R5, and here’s why:

  • + best overall for landscape and travel, and good for wildlife, per reviewers
  • + lightest body (same as the Sony, but far lighter than the Nikon)
  • + 45 megapixels, comparable to Nikon (46mp) though less than Sony (50mp)
  • + 20 fps, double that of my Nikon D500, though not as good as Sony 30 fps
  • + menu system noted for clarity and ease of use
  • + EVF lag is small and barely noticeable
  • + AF tracking very good
  • + excellent animal-eye AF, human-eye AF – simple and effective; better than Sony, especially at close range; even better for insects and birds
  • + video AF supports human-eye or bird-eye AF, even with 100-500mm lens
  • + easy to switch between photo & video mode
  • + more stable for video recording
  • + supports both faster (CFexpress-B) and cheaper (SD) cards
  • + fully articulated screen
  • + better/safer lens release mechanism
  • + 800mm f/11 lens is light, small, and inexpensive
  • + least expensive, and I wanted to buy two bodies
  • + it is well-established and many anticipate Canon R10 will emerge as its “flagship” body and eclipse the Nikon Z9 and Sony ⍺1 bodies.

On the other hand, I noted some possible complaints:

  • – exhibits rolling-shutter problems when using only electronic shutter
  • – worst buffer of all three (only 2 seconds at full speed)
  • – 20fps may be achievable only when battery > 50% charge?

The Nikon Z9 has several advantages and disadvantages:

  • – extremely difficult to obtain (months-long waitlist)
  • – it is the heaviest and largest of the three
  • – battery grip cannot be removed (poor for hiking or travel!)
  • – in comparing all three paired with a 600mm lens (common for wildlife), it is by far the heaviest (3 pounds heavier!)
  • + 46 megapixels
  • + native ISO = 64 rather than 100
  • + pre-release capture, an unusual feature likely to be copied by others
  • – AF not as good as the others, especially with smaller f-stops
  • – AF less often successful on flying birds than the other two
  • – EVF less good than the others
  • + illuminated buttons
  • + sensor shield
  • + two CFexpress-B slots
  • ± wide selection of older glass, but slower AF on mirrorless
  • – no mechanical shutter… and maybe more trouble with rolling shutter

The Sony ⍺1 has several advantages and disadvantages:

  • – most expensive – close to double the cost of the Canon R5
  • + 50 megapixels
  • + 30 fps in RAW, the only one of these three cameras to do so
  • + 30 fps with silent electronic shutter – better for sports (at a distance)
  • – its menu system is noted as complex and hard to use
  • + big memory buffer
  • + no rolling shutter
  • + best AF tracking capability of all three… but Canon R5 almost as good
  • + eye focus performs well, but must choose animal type manually
  • – video AF only supports human-eye AF
  • + more reliable at spot-AF tracking, less so for bird-eye AF tracking
  • – CFexpress-A cards (not CFexpress-B) … more expensive, less capacity
  • – least versatile flip screen
  • + EVF has no lag, no blackout, and best resolution of all three cameras
  • + wide selection of native glass (best across all three vendors)

Detailed reviews

Before making my choice, I read many websites and watched countless YouTube reviews; the above observations derive from that reading. The most helpful were from Tony & Chelsea Northrup, as well as a few from Jan Wegener and Jared Polin. I found the following videos/pages to be most helpful.

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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