In the last decade, mirrorless cameras have grown from new-tech-on-the-block into competitive. Mirrorless cameras go to great lengths to take great photos, and they do leave behind optical viewfinders in favor of electronic, and sensor-obstructing mirrors. But this raises the question: in light of these technological advances, why do mirrorless cameras still use mechanical shutters instead of electronic shutters alone?
Why do mirrorless cameras have a mechanical shutter? With both mirrorless and DSLR cameras, photos taken with the mechanical shutter function benefit from the effects of a total, immediate exposure instead of the line-by-line exposure (rolling shutter) utilized by electronic shutters.
As recently as three years ago, mirrorless cameras were being made with electronic shutters only, but check out this interesting trend below. This is a comparison of the best camera brands of 2017 and 2020.
|Panasonic Lumix G5 (2017)
|Panasonic Lumix G9 (2020)
|Canon EOS M6 (2017)
|Canon EOS RP (2020)
|Fujifilm X-T20 (2017)
|Fujifilm X-T30 (2020)
|Sony A7 RII (2017)
|Sony A7R IV (2020)
As you can see, aside from Fujifilm, the transition from electronic-only shutters to both electronic and mechanical was rather recent for many of these large brands. Considering the fact that electronic shutters can offer faster shutter speeds, silent shutter, and a shutter shock-free experience, why would these companies “revert” back to including mechanical shutters?
If you’ve finally taken a turn at a crossroads, and decided to get a mirrorless camera, it’s valid to question why this famously lightweight camera would include the extra bulk of a mechanical shutter. First, let’s see how mechanical shutters work, and that will help you get a grasp on how they may further develop your photography.
Table of Contents
How a Mirrorless Camera Works with a Mechanical Shutter
As you know, mirrorless cameras revolutionized the world of photography when they entered the scene as lightweight cameras that could pack a punch.
When viewing the structural differences between a DSLR and a mirrorless camera, it’s obvious that mirrorless cameras cut out much of the bulk, safe space, and moving parts that are needed in cameras with mirrors – mirrorless cameras cut out the “middle-mirror”, if you will.
So, it makes sense to wonder why companies would add a physical feature to this camera with an electronic viewfinder, and, in many cases, an electronic shutter. What’s so special about a mechanical shutter? Let’s find out.
How a Mechanical Shutter Works
Think back to when you first learned about inner workings of a camera – the image sensor is the eye, and the shutter is the eyelid. When you press the shutter button of your mirrorless camera, the mechanical shutter closes, opens for the sensor’s exposure to light, and closes again.
This process is unique when compared to DSLR cameras, because when pressing the button of a DSLR, there is a split-second of a pause before exposure (a blackened screen in the optical viewfinder) as the mirror lifts in preparation for the sensor to expose.
In both cases, the entire image sensor is exposed to light all at once, which affects photo quality in different ways compared to electronic shutters. As promised, let’s see what makes the mechanical shutter so desirable.
The Benefits of Mechanical Shutters
The differences between mechanical shutters and electronic shutters come down to how they operate, and this largely affects differences in photo quality. Depending on what you’re shooting, this is why it’s helpful to have the mechanical shutter option:
- Capturing movement – Because of the nature of mechanical shutter exposure, mechanical shutters captures movement, especially fast movement, better than electronic shutters. These are the photos that come to mind with the words “freeze frame.”
Such motion is captured because with the immediate exposure of the entire sensor, the sensor’s recording happens all at once, capturing a single moment, instead of capturing the same subject at different points in time (as in the case of the rolling shutter effect with electronic shutters).
- Flash synchronization – From Flash Sync Speeds… No Experience Necessary:
“One burst of light from a flash begins and ends in 1/500th of a second or faster. The trouble with flash is that, if a shutter speed of over (or faster than) 1/200th of a second is used, the flash can only illuminate the portion of the image that is not covered by the sliding shutter.”
To put it simply, mechanical shutters have faster flash synchronization speeds, so such photos will exhibit clear, even lighting, especially for environments with artificial lighting. In fact, in some cases, electronic shutters don’t work with a flash at all.
Mechanical shutters can freeze a moment in time, turning into a moving person, object, or force of nature into a static expression ideal for visualization. But depending on the subject, the effects of an electronic shutter may be preferred.
Here’s are a few pointers to give you an idea of the disadvantages of mechanical shutters.
Limitations of Mechanical Shutters
By nature, as new technology develops, it resolves the past issues and inconveniences of its predecessors. Of course, mechanical shutters are decades older than electronic shutters, so many of their features have been improved upon by electronic shutters.
Some of those limitations include:
- Shutter shock – That iconic clicking noise that a camera makes when pressing the shutter button? It’s part of the problem. Any sort of movement, as slight as it may be, can cause blurring in a photo if the photographer isn’t careful. As moving parts, mechanical shutters add to that risk.
- Fewer fps/slower shutter speeds – In the split second that it takes mechanical shutters to open, time is lost, and this results in fewer frames per second during exposure. A split second may not sound like a lot of time, but it can mean the difference between catching the perfect expression or circumstances with special natural lighting.
- Wear and tear – As to be expected, the shutter curtains can wear down over time and require maintenance if not replacement. From Electronic vs. Mechanical Shutter:
“Use your electronic shutter to avoid more wear on your camera. Mechanical shutters are often rated for actuations, such as 1/250,000 or more.”
Later, we’ll take a look at the electronic shutter to see how it matches up to the mechanical shutter. For now, you may be curious about how to use mechanical shutters. This will likely come as no surprise, but technically, you’d use it the same way that you’d use a DSLR.
Let’s explore how mechanical shutter features can come in handy.
How to Use the Mechanical Shutter Function
It’s easy to point-and-click, but as an expert in any field knows, the proper knowledge and application of your chosen device will ensure that you perfect your trade.
If you’re hesitant to try the mechanical shutter function, here’s an opportunity to get more comfortable in unfamiliar territory. This way, if you have a preference for electronic shutters, you can say goodbye to your one-trick pony usage and become a more well-rounded photographer.
Here’s a quick recap of settings that mechanical shutters are suited for: freezing a fast-moving object in time, producing even lighting, and reducing the rolling shutter effect.
Now, based on these requirements, have a look at a few types of photography that mechanical shutters are optimal for.
Portrait Photography – In general, mirrorless cameras are excellent for portrait photography sharp pictures (related: But are Bridge Cameras Good for Portraits?). Flash photography is synchronized with mechanical shutters, so this will protect your photos from uneven shading.
Nighttime/Sports Photography – Prevention is the best way to get rid of banding or obnoxious light. Most experts recommend using mechanical shutters because whether the light source is flickering or not, the mechanical feature will capture city lights, LED scoreboards, indoor lighting, neon lighting, etc., with a crisp presentation.
Fast-moving subjects (wildlife/documentary) – If you do a quick online search of the rolling shutter effect, the images that come up can be pretty amusing. Examples of warped propellers and slanted towers have been called “artistic” by some optimistic photographers.
But if you’re not willing to develop that sort of portfolio, learning how to use your mechanical shutter feature is your best bet for capturing a clean image of an in-motion subject.
Once you’ve become a mechanical shutter wiz, you may find that this old-school style may be better suited for your type of photography. So, what should you do when problems crop up in your photos, but you’d prefer to stick with the mechanical shutter function?
Settling into this style of shooting may be a rough adjustment, made even more so by issues unique to mechanical shutters.
In the case of shutter shock, without using an electronic shutter there’s no way to erase it completely, but the inner workings of cameras are evolving to better handle slight tremors. The 2020 versions of the Canon, Panasonic, and Sony cameras in the table above all highlight body stabilization features.
It’s more difficult to address the issue of slower shutter rates and eventual wear-and-tear, and this will likely vary from camera to camera, and by shutter actuations. But you’re likely thinking of the obvious option to cut down on this issue: the electronic shutters.
If you’re new to electronic shutters, there’s no need to shrink away at the fear of rolling shutter effects. Thanks to the evolution of mirrorless cameras, today photographers usually don’t have to choose between mechanical and electronic features. For whatever brand you choose, you’ll likely have the opportunity to try both shutter styles.
So, using the incorrect shutter type and producing “creative” photos can be a result of operator error – and some photographers actually enjoy leveraging these effects to create unique images.
For our purposes, we will explore how to use electronic shutters the right way, and use this technology to create real-world images instead of abstract art.
When to Switch Over to the Electronic Shutter
Electronic shutters rely on digital power; once you press the shutter button, lines of pixels in the image sensor are activated to begin absorbing light/exposing. This is the electronic shutter, and the way it progresses with pixels activated row by row (either horizontally or vertically), causes what is called the “rolling shutter effect” when there is the slightest, gradual delay of exposure.
As mentioned, this doesn’t work for certain types of photography, but it can be desirable for others. To see how electronic shutters perform, let’s explore the benefits and setbacks to this popular feature.
The Benefits of Electronic Shutters
Electronic shutters are the snazzy, relatively new camera updates that have rolled out over the last few years. As the table above displayed, when mirrorless cameras first came onto the scene, many models only had electronic shutters because, presumably, the new technology would improve upon the old.
So, here’s a quick rundown of the abilities you may already know and love:
- Fast shutter speed/more fps – It may be difficult to wrap your mind around the idea of a camera shooting at 1/32,000 of a second, but the results speak for themselves. And thanks to the high speed, electronic shutters also have a high fps rate.
For instance, the 2020 Fujifilm featured on the above table shoots 30 frames per second, which can facilitate a smooth videography experience.
- Silent Shutter – This great perk ushered in a new era. Electronic shutters don’t make a sound as they activate, allowing for photographers to blend into their surroundings while they work. This feature is both highly valuable and vital to certain settings.
Mirrorless cameras joined the gadget march of progress with their multiple electronic features. We all know that digital features tend to be smooth and easy to operate.
But let’s talk about the issues that your amateur colleagues may be having with electronic shutters… issues that you can assist with now that you know how to utilize the mechanical shutter function.
Limitations of Electronic Shutters
Mechanical shutters made a comeback for a reason, and I’ve gone into detail finding out where mechanical shutters cover for electronic. Here is a brief review of where electronic shutters fail:
- The “Jello” effect from rolling shutters – This is the biggest complaint for electronic shutters, but because newer cameras have both mechanical and electronic shutter options, there is no need to use an electronic shutter feature to photograph subjects that it’s unfit for.
- Artificial and low-light settings – Because of the rolling shutter process, the image sensor can catch real time light pulses that our own eyes can’t see. This can result in unpleasant banding or significant blurring of light sources in photos.
How to Use the Electronic Shutter Function
In environments where the mechanical shutters are unsuitable, the electronic shutters will likely make up for it. Here are a few fun ways that electronic shutters can help.
- Events/Wildlife – For obvious reasons, the silent shutter is an absolute must for these genres. With the higher shutter speed, an electronic shutter function will also help you catch the tiny moments that may be missed while mechanical shutters are opening and closing.
- Landscape/Exterior Architecture – Electronic shutters are well-suited for dynamic range and perform well with natural light, but another advantage involves both short and long focal lengths: without shutter shock, blurring will be reduced to a minimum, if not erased. Check out the images in the Shutter Vibration section of Mechanical vs. Electronic vs. EFCS, and you’ll see a perceptible difference.
Now, in the case that you need to catch a cheetah in action, you may want a blur, but you don’t want distortion. And in the case that you have to take interior photos alight with fluorescence, you’re going to want illumination, but not glare.
You may have trouble in these situations; here are your options for dealing with the setbacks of electronic shutters.
Mechanical shutters and electronic shutters share a similarity in their failings: prevention is key. As unhelpful as it may sound, the good way to combat future photo dilemmas is to avoid problematic shooting conditions in the first place.
But all is not lost – photographers in your shoes have wrestled with these issues before, and have tips for avoiding them. And if the photos are already taken, there may be a few ways to rescue them from the negative effects of electronic shutters.
For the rolling shutter effect, here’s a preventative suggestion from 3 Tips for Dealing with Rolling Shutter:
“While you’re on set, the only option you have (other than shooting on a different camera) is to change your angle. Instead of shooting head on, you could opt to shoot from a 3/4 angle or any number of other positions that would help you avoid the skew entirely.”
After the fact, it might help to look up photo editing programs and tutorials for reducing distortions, including banding and light blurring.
But, to press the point, prevention in the initial shooting will save you a lot of time and frustration when developing the perfect photos.
Now that you’re armed with the knowledge you need to use mechanical and electronic shutters for their intended purposes, hopefully, you won’t need to deal with any unintended setbacks.
Next time you’re fiddling around with your camera, don’t hesitate to open your menu and try the mechanical shutter feature.
Teach yourself to use it properly, and should you need to, you’ll know when to switch back and forth from mechanical to electronic shutters.
Consider this: an excellent chef masters the use of multiple ingredients, and artists often master more than one medium. As a photographer, you can enhance and improve your own artistry when you expound and perfect your skill set.