Mirrorless cameras were built to be compact, so why have they gotten so heavy?

Why are mirrorless cameras so heavy? | Olympus OM-D E-M1X
The Olympus OM-D E-M1X. Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends

The reason for the advent of the mirrorless camera is right in the name — the rise of digital photography meant the mirror and associated optical viewfinder of an SLR was no longer necessary, and cameras could be made smaller and lighter without it while still offering the flexibility of interchangeable lenses. Mirrorless cameras entered the world as the pint-sized, beginner-friendly alternatives to big and complex DSLRs, but a decade later, they’ve earned clout with enthusiasts and professionals and taken over the role of the DSLR in many cases. So is mirrorless still about making cameras lighter and smaller? Looking at some of the latest models, the answer would appear to be no.

Take the recently launched Olympus OM-D E-M1X, a $3,000 flagship mirrorless camera targeting professional photographers. While packing in a relatively small Four Thirds sensor, the body features an integrated vertical grip that puts it in league with the largest DSLRs like the Nikon D5 and Canon EOS-1D X Mark II that use much larger full-frame sensors.

The mirrorless cameras that the pros are more likely to pick up are often significantly heavier

The body alone weighs more than two pounds, which is more than half a pound heavier than Sony’s full-frame, sports-focused mirrorless camera, the A9. In fact, the E-M1X weighs more than full-frame DSLRs without integrated vertical grips, like the Nikon D850. Olympus says the focus of the new body design is durability and performance, things professional shooters look for. And the smaller sensor does grant one advantage: Smaller lenses, and, therefore, an overall smaller package than an equivalent full-frame system.

Even within the same series, some mirrorless cameras have been slowly packing on the ounces. The Sony A7R III is roughly seven ounces heavier than the original A7R, but now sports better build quality and weather sealing. The Panasonic Lumix GH5 is more than five ounces heavier than the Lumix GH4. The weight gain isn’t universal: Some models, like the Fujifilm X-T20 and X-T30, weigh nearly exactly the same from generation to generation, but many others have grown in both size and weight as manufacturers build in more features and seek to appeal to higher-end customers.

The Panasonic Lumix GH5S. Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

To be fair, DSLRs still tend to be heavier than mirrorless cameras, in general. The Nikon Z7 weighs 20.7 ounces while the DSLR with the most similar features, the D850, weighs 32.3 ounces. That’s not always the case, however. Panasonic’s new S1 and S1R full-frame mirrorless cameras weigh about 36 ounces with the battery and memory card loaded.

Examining these heavier models offers insight into why newer models don’t necessarily stick with the same recipe as their lighter weight forebears. The trend towards heavier mirrorless cameras follows the trend toward higher-end models and away from consumer-oriented ones.

Mirrorless is pushing photography forward with the latest technology at the expense of its physical footprints.

The mirrorless cameras that the pros are more likely to pick up are often significantly heavier thanks to better build quality, bigger grips for improved ergonomics, larger viewfinders, and more physical controls. And with casual photographers ever more likely to simply shoot on their phones, camera makers are putting less emphasis on the lower end of the market where compact mirrorless cameras would make the most sense.

“Lightweight” and “compact” may no longer be part of the main marketing speak used to sell mirrorless cameras, but that’s not to say all manufacturers are neglecting customers looking for a slimmed-down system,  The aforementioned Fujifilm X-T30 weighs just 13.5 ounces, and even the more advanced X-T3 is just 19.

canon eos rp review 8
The Canon EOS RP.

At a hair over 17 ounces, Canon’s just-announced EOS RP is the lightest and most compact new full-frame camera on the market (it’s also the cheapest, at $1,299). But the RP ditches several features found in more advanced mirrorless cameras, including in-body image stabilization and professional-level weather sealing. It also makes do with a smaller battery and viewfinder.

But the mirrorless cameras pushing photography forward with the latest technology no longer seem to care about about their physical footprints. Manufacturers aren’t choosing to adopt mirrorless because it’s smaller, but simply because it’s better. The trade-off is more advanced features that most photographers are happy to have. Build quality and weather-sealing is improving. Stabilization is moving from the lenses to the body (in some cases). Batteries are getting bigger. Electronic viewfinders are growing larger. Control schemes are favoring more physical buttons and dials, while beefier handgrips mean added comfort even with the extra weight.

When does the extra weight become a bigger con over the pros of added features and improved quality?

And this trend isn’t exclusive to just camera bodies. A recent study by Photography Life suggests that the average weight of all new camera lenses — DSLR and mirrorless included — have increased since around 2013. We’ve seen this even in traditionally very compact focal lengths, such as 50mm primes — the Pentax Star-series 50mm f/1.4 weighs 2 pounds, over four times as heavy as the older Normal 50mm f/1.4.

Even the average weight of Micro Four Thirds lenses, which are still praised for their compactness, has increased. As with cameras, this increase in lens size is a result of a shift toward higher-end designs, with improved optics to meet the demands of today’s high-resolution image sensors.

With the increase in full-frame mirrorless production (three companies have joined the fray in the past 6 months), lenses are likewise not getting any smaller — for the most part. The Nikon Z-mount 50mm f/1.8 and 35mm f/1.8 lenses are heavier than their F-mount counterparts for DSLRs, but the upcoming Z 24-70mm f/2.8 is lighter and smaller (partially thanks to not including image stabilization, which Nikon Z cameras have in the body).

Nikon S 35mm f/1.8 lens
The Nikon Z 35mm. Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends

Canon’s 24-105mm f/4 is slightly heavier for the mirrorless RF mount compared to its EF-mount cousin for DSLRs, and the RF 50mm f/1.2 prime is also heavier than the EF version. Canon did show off an upcoming RF 70-200mm f/2.8 recently that is considerably shorter than the EF version.

The question is — when does the extra weight become a bigger con over the pros of added features and improved quality? It seems many companies are racing to see who can reach that high point first, but cameras like the Canon EOS RP may yet prove there’s still demand for lightweight alternatives. For now, if you’re in the market for a lightweight camera, don’t make the assumption that mirrorless is your best bet — read that spec sheet first.


Photography News: Taking a smartphone photo probably saved this guy’s life

A man was snapping a photo in Australia when the smartphone stopped an arrow shot at his face. In this week's photography news, see Canon's plans for a stabilized mirrorless, Hasselblad's newest accessories, Samyang's latest lens, and more.
Home Theater

Apple AirPods 2: Everything we know so far

Apple may release new AirPods in the first half of 2019. A wireless charging case, health sensors, water resistance, and better Siri integration are some of the improvements rumored to be part of the new package.

The mid-engined Chevrolet Corvette is so powerful it mangles its own body

Chevrolet has major changes in store for the eighth-generation Corvette. The coupe will arrive in 2019 with a mid-mounted engine. We won't see it at the Detroit auto show, but spy shots and rumors give us a good idea of what to expect.

Forget folding phones, the Insta360 EVO camera folds in half to shoot 360 video

The Insta360 EVO is a...flip camera? Unfolded, the Insta360 Evo shoots 3D in 180 degrees, folded, the new camera shoots in 360 degrees. The EVO launches with what are essentially a pair of 3D glasses for your phone, not your face, the…

From 4K powerhouses to tiny action cams, here are the best video cameras

Although not as popular as they once were, dedicated video cameras still have their benefits. From travel vlogging to home movies to recording your kid's little league game, here are the best video cameras you can buy right now.

Six essential apps for improving your mobile photography

Across both Android and iOS, there's no shortage of photo-editing applications on the respective app stores. To make your life easier, we've rounded up seven of the best apps available, whether you want to add a filter or create complex…

CorelDraw Graphics Suite 2019 learns how to play nice with Macs

The design software CorelDraw Graphics Suite 2019 is here, bringing new features now to both Mac and Windows users. The update adds new tools for better organization, along with features to help creatives design sharper digital graphics.

The new HP OfficeJet Pro’s smart app cuts your time spent scanning in half

The new HP OfficeJet Pro series offers faster print speeds, but the company says a new app with shortcut options allows users to cut the time spend working on scanning files in half.

Amid confusion, the Red Hydrogen team promises a pro in-device camera

Learning from the Red Hydrogen One, the company is gearing up for a pro-level device. In a forum post, Red's founder shares how the team is designing a Red Hydrogen with a pro-level in-device camera.

Sony FE 135mm f/1.8 is sharp enough to handle futuristic 90-megapixel cameras

Lens launches come with a lot of hype and marketing speak but a recent test confirmed some of the initial claims around the Sony FE 135 f/1.8. A rental company says that the Sony 135mm is the sharpest lens that it has ever tested.

Obsbot Tail camera uses A.I. to follow the action (or a pet) for you

Want to capture more epic action selfies, or see what your pet is doing while you're gone? The Obsbot Tail is a camera-gimbal combo that uses artificial intelligence to follow the action.
Social Media

Twitter takes a cue from Instagram and Snapchat with new quick-swipe camera

Twitter is giving the "what's happening" treatment to photos and video by allowing users to access the in-app camera fast enough to catch and share the moment. The new Twitter camera is now accessible with a swipe.

The Lensbaby Composer Pro II with Edge 35 mimics tilt-shift blur for less cash

Want to create a tilt-shift image on a budget? The new Lensbaby Composer II with Edge 35 mimics the look of a tilt-shift lens for under $500. The new Edge 35 optic is part of the Composer Pro II optics system.

Loupedeck Plus can now edit video, audio with Final Cut Pro

The list of Loupedeck Plus-compatible software is growing. The photo-editing console now works with Final Cut Pro and Adobe Audition for video and audio editing. The controls can be configured to be used on either platform.