Most people who shoot action photography are used to operating DSLR cameras. However, as mirrorless cameras become increasingly more popular and come with more enticing features, you might be wondering if mirrorless is the way to go when it comes to taking actions shots.
The fact is, mirrorless cameras work great for taking action shots! Mirrorless cameras have phase AF points, can shoot over 8 frames per second, are typically lightweight and compact, and some mirrorless cameras (like the Sony models) have full frame censors. All these factors make mirrorless cameras viable for shooting action photography.
Where they might have left little to be desired in previous years, mirrorless cameras have stepped up their game and are going toe-to-toe with DSLRs when it comes to action photography. In this article you’ll learn the criteria that makes a camera ideal for taking action shots, as well as the best mirrorless cameras capable of action shots on the market today.
What Criteria Make a Camera Ideal for Action Shots?
When looking for a camera that takes great action or sports shots, you’ll be looking at the following important criteria:
- Auto Focus – when it comes to action shots, you ideally want as many autofocus (AF) points as possible. Any camera that offers more than 50 AF points, and has them spread out across the view finder, is a winner! Mirrorless cameras often come with both phase and contrast type AF points. Phase AF points are more accurate when it comes to taking great action/sports shots. But ideally, you want a camera with multi-function, so you want access to both types of AF (which most mirrorless cameras have).
- Frames per Second – the more shots you can take per second, the more likelihood you have of getting the exact shot you want, at a high quality. Countless mirrorless cameras can shoot over 8fps, some even exceed that.
- Sensor Size – sensor size is worth considering when looking at action photography. Where the DSLR dominates is the prevalence of full-frame censors. Why are full-frame censors important? Because FF offers zero crop factors. Which means your images won’t be cut off, which happens when camera sensors are too small to capture an entire image. While not all mirrorless cameras offer the FF feature, Sony mirrorless does. The next best after FF is APS-C sensor, which only multiple the lens by 1.5x, meaning less of a crop than that of the MFT sensors. Sony, Canon and Fujifilm mirrorless offer APS-C sensors.
- Buffer – the buffer size of a camera determines the number of images that can be taken before the camera needs to recharge or pause, before more images can be captured. It’s essentially the amount of time your camera needs to ‘catch up’ when taking rapid amounts of photos. A smaller buffer is ideal when taking action shots, because you don’t want to have to wait long for your camera to catch up, and potentially miss the action (so to speak.) Mirrorless cameras rival DSLRs when it comes to fast buffer speeds.
- Battery Life – naturally the battery life of a camera is important in general, but it is especially important when shooting action photography as you don’t want to miss a second! Nothing is more frustrating than seeing that red-blinking-light-of-death as someone makes the craziest effort in sports history. Unfortunately, mirrorless cameras use a significant amount of power, more so than even DSLRs, and for this reason mirrorless cameras tend to have a shorter battery life. This isn’t ideal of course when shooting sports/action shots.
- Body size, design and weight – when taking action shots, you want a camera that is lightweight, easy to maneuver, easy to hold for long periods of time, and somewhat compact. This is where mirrorless cameras really shine. They are tremendously lightweight compared to DSLRs (like the Canon Mark III).
Mirrorless Cameras vs. DSLR Cameras
You can achieve excellent action shots with either type of camera, but they do differ in certain features. Below is a list of pros and cons for both types of cameras, when it comes to taking action shots.
DSLR cameras do have a mirror inside that reflects light through the lens up to a prism, then into the viewfinder for you to preview. When the shutter button is engaged, the mirror flips up, the shutter opens, the light hits the image sensor, and the image is captured.
- Superior Auto Focus – DSLRs have and always will be the reigning champs of AF. Their low-light shooting capabilities make autofocusing impeccably fast and accurate.
- Easier to Preview Images – DSLRs are easier to view in most conditions due to their capability to capture low-light images. If you are looking at your camera’s viewfinder or screen, even at night, a DSLR image should still be visible.
- Uses Less Battery Life – DSLRs do not use up as much battery life as mirrorless cameras, therefore you do not have to change your battery quite as often.
- More Lenses and Accessories – because DSLRs are manufactured by many camera makers, they also offer plenty of lenses and accessories to boot.
- Size – DSLRs are naturally bulkier, since they need to accommodate space for the mirror and the prism inside.
- Adequate Film Quality – one of the aspects of filming that DSLRs do so well, is filming in low-light (are you noticing a pattern yet?). Not only that, but full frame sensors are ideal when filming, so that your shots aren’t cut off. However, DSLRs have to detract their mirrors while filming, and as such, take a longer time to find focus while filming as opposed to photographing.
- Slower Shooting Speed – while DSLRs still shoot pretty fast, they can’t quite compete with mirrorless shutter speed and capture.
Mirrorless cameras…if you can believe it… are mirrorless.
They function by allowing the light to pass through the lens, directly to the image sensor, capturing the preview of the image (rendering the need for a mirror unnecessary.)
- Size – mirrorless cameras are traditionally smaller, more easily maneuverable, and compact. They do not have to accommodate the mirror and prism, and as such, are able to be constructed in a more compact fashion. This makes them ideal for action photography.
- Speed – mirrorless cameras are fast as all get up! Their shutter speeds are lightning fast and they can catch a lot of images in a short amount of time. This is paramount for shooting action photography. The simpler design and mechanics of the mirrorless camera allow the camera to shoot more photos per second, at a quicker shutter speed.
- Excellent Filming Quality – since mirrorless cameras do not have to bypass a mirror while recording to hunt for focus, mirrorless cameras tend to offer higher video quality. You’ll see a whole lot less blurriness when filming with a mirrorless camera than you will while filming with a DSLR.
- Adequate AF – there are mirrorless cameras that are made to shoot low-light exceptionally well (like the Sony and Canon models), and some might argue these models might actually hold a candle to other DSLRs. But they have yet to surpass the autofocus speeds of DSLRs.
- Not Always Easy to Preview – mirrorless cameras offer great preview capabilities… in specific lighting. In the dark, it will definitely be harder to view since most mirrorless cameras still don’t shoot low-light as well as DSLRs.
- Short Battery Life – due to the use of LCD screens and EVF, which use a lot more power than the DSLR, mirrorless cameras eat up battery life much quicker, which means you’ll need to swap the batteries out more frequently. Which is pretty annoying when trying to capture the perfect action shot.
- Less Lenses and Accessories Available – mirrorless cameras offer less lenses at this current point in time.
Best Mirrorless Cameras for Taking Action Shots
When you’re getting ready to take action shots, you need to be sure that you have the best camera you can get your hands on. While this will look different for everybody, these are some of the best contenders on the market today.
Olympus OM-D E-M1 II
This Olympus mirrorless camera is one of the best on the market. It’s super-fast and incredibly lightweight, and relatively affordable as well. It runs around $1200.
- MFT sensors (offers camera views twice as long as FF cameras)
- Super light-weight (20.4MP sensor that only weighs 20 oz!)
- Tightly weather-sealed
- Contains IS (image stabilizer) to prevent shaky images or footage
- Shoots up to 18fps
- Buffer speed of 118 shots
- Low battery life (can only do up to about 350 photos before dying)
Fujifilm GFX 50S
This Fujifilm mirrorless camera is so many bells and whistles, it’s a surprise it isn’t performing at Carnegie Hall. Its face detection helps maintain solid Autofocus, which is key for action shots. The biggest downside to this bad boy is of course the price. If you are a novice action photographer, shelling out a whopping $5500+ for a mirrorless camera might be a little out of the realm of reality.
- Has 51.0MP sensor
- Built-in Wi-Fi
- Tightly weather-sealed
- Capable of utilizing time-lapse
- Face detection
- 51.0MP sensor
- Lacks IS feature (image stabilization)
- Rather heavy at about 740g
- Slow shooting (3.0fps)
- Shorter batter life (fizzles out around 400 photos)
- Pricey, runs around $5500
This particular Nikon mirrorless camera is one of the best inexpensive mirrorless cameras available (you can get one of these babies for less than $1000). Pretty incredible. Not only that, but it shoots relatively fast and has a unique chunky handgrip that makes it very easy to maneuver when hand held (as opposed to on sticks).
- Excellent handling (light and easy to maneuver) with chunky handgrip
- Inexpensive, hard to beat a high-tech mirrorless camera for less than $1000
- Shoots in 4K
- Offers a more advanced full-frame sensor than the previous Nikon models
- Amazing 11fps burst shooting for shooting action photography
- Super low battery life. We’re talking 300 pictures and you need a new battery. That’s pretty unexceptional.
- Only offers one card slot
This is definitely one of the most exciting mirrorless cameras on the market, because it’s got all the gadgets and gizmos of the Sony A7RIII – which means it comes fully loaded. The Sony A9 mirrorless camera may not be as expensive as some of its competitors, but it is still pricey, running you around $3400.
- Has a 24MP sensor (ideal for wildlife and sport shots)
- Can capture 20fps
- 696 phase-detect AF points
- Also has super cool AF joystick to easily toggle and pull focus
- No blackout on the LCD screen
- The electronic shutter allows for you to shoot 1/32000
- Heavy body, coming in at about 639g.
- Pricey – unless you’ve got a spare $3000 lying around.
This Nikon Z6 mirrorless camera is one of the more exciting thanks to its full-frame sensor and Z mount and its ability to film in 6K. It’s reasonably priced around $1700 as well. It is also one of the more weather-proof mirrorless cameras, making it an ideal tool for shooting wildlife photography (no need to duck for shelter – this camera can take some rain or snow like a real champ.)
- Full-frame sensor
- Z mount for revolutionary performance
- Tightly weather-sealed
- Shoots up to 12fps
- Can shoot both 4K and 6K video
- Has time-lapse feature as well as shoots in slo-mo
- Provides face detection for AF
- Has the IS (image stabilization) feature – key for action shots
- Large video size (3840 x 2160)
- Low battery life (about 330 shots)
- Heavy body (675g of weight)
Canon EOS RP
This EOS RP Canon camera is by far one of the smallest full-frame sensor cameras on the market. Leave it to Canon to make a mirrorless that can shoot in such low-light. Not only that, but this camera is less than $1000, making it Super affordable.
- Full-frame sensor
- Affordable camera
- Easy to maneuver (very compact)
- Fully articulating screen
- 4,779-point Dual Pixel CMOS Autofocus (amazing)
- Slow burst speed, of 5fps
- Max video resolution is only 4K
- Low battery life (380 photos)
Sony A7R III
This particular Sony model delivers on pretty much all fronts. It’s mid-range price (less than $3000) doesn’t bother us too much because this camera comes fully loaded.
- Offers 42 megapixels (so you can crop to your hearts content without sacrificing image quality)
- Built-in IS (image stabilization)
- Improve Autofocus (compared to other Sony models)
- Full frame BSI-CMOS
- Shoots 10fps
- Allows for 2 SD cards
- Heavy body – weighs about 657g
- Can price someone out if they need a camera less than $2000
- Buffer speed is 82 shots, but only 30 in RAW
By far one of the shining stars of mirrorless Fujifilm line. Its camera body looks sleek and vintage, like the cameras of yore. But don’t let its appearance fool you. This camera means business. It’s also relatively affordable as well (you can get one for under $1000).
- Impeccable Autofocus and accuracy
- 325 AF points
- Has two SD slots and supports UHS-II
- Can shoot at 11fps or even 14fps by changing the shutter to electronic
- Affordable camera
- Doesn’t have full-frame sensor (is instead APS-C)
Another very sleek looking mirrorless from Sony, with much improved features from its predecessor. The best thing? The price. This Sony is by far one of the most affordable cameras on the market.
- 5-Axis built-in IS (image stabilization)
- Touch-screen LCD
- Bigger JPED and RAW buffer size
- Super lightweight
- 24MP sensor
- Shoots 11fps
- 425-phase detection AF points
- Super affordable
- Doesn’t have excellent grip (due to small size)
Panasonic Lumix GX80/GX85
If you are looking to travel light, then this Panasonic mirrorless is the one for you. Not only that, but it won’t break the bank. You can get this camera for less than $500.
- Excellent for the beginner action photographer (as its super easy to use)
- Built-in electronic viewfinder (makes the camera easy to use in harsh sunlight or in darkness)
- Micro Four Thirds lens
- Films in 4K video
- You literally can’t beat this camera’s price
- Lightweight and compact, making it the perfect camera for traveling
- Only shoots 16MP
- Has less bells and whistles than other cameras
- Restricted tilt-screen range
- Maximum burst speed is 8fps
The Key Take Away
Mirrorless cameras are an excellent option to consider when looking to purchase a camera for taking action shots. They are lighter, easier to maneuver, take up less space, have faster shutter speeds, and are excellent at capturing video. However, DSLRs come with superior auto focus features, more lenses and accessories, and can capture superior images in low light.
While both styles of camera offer different advantages and disadvantages, both will do the job when it comes to sports or wildlife photography. Any number of the mirrorless cameras mentioned in this article will shoot amazing action shots, but do not be disheartened if there’s a mirrorless camera you’ve got your eye on that isn’t mentioned on this list.
There are countless mirrorless models that will fall within your personal budget and ideal specifications. Now that you know what makes for a great action shot camera, and which areas mirrorless cameras excel in, you should feel empowered to buy a mirrorless camera that will meet all your needs!