The Dreaded Battery Life of Mirrorless Cameras

Sony started shipping two batteries with the A7R Mark II for some reason. I write “for some reason” because the CIPA numbers for the camera are 350 shots per charge, which, while lower than a DSLR, is respectable. Generally I’ve been getting something near the CIPA number (typically just above it and rarely below it) for every camera I’ve tested to date. 

Let’s roll back to the old days of film for a moment. 

36 shots a roll of film. Many film cameras were getting 5 to 10 rolls per set of batteries. Of course, the F5 was an exception using 8 AA batteries and generally rarely reaching 5 rolls per set. Still, we were in the 250+ shots per battery set with most cameras, just as we are today with almost all digital cameras.

So why the complaints about the miserable battery life of the mirrorless cameras?

Several reasons:

  • Power suckers. If the mirrorless camera is on and either display active, battery power is being consumed at a reasonably high level. It is entirely possible to get far fewer than 250 shots per charge if you do a lot of careful composition (EVF active) and a lot of image review (rear LCD active). Couple that with letting IS be constantly active and you can suck down a battery without taking a lot of shots. Shoot with a lot of internal flash, and the numbers go down further. One thing to watch: automatic EVF eye activation: if you carry a camera on a shoulder strap you might be triggering this all the time, using battery life when you’re just walking around.
  • DSLRs do better. We’ve gotten a lot of talk recently about mirrorless/DSLR comparisons where the person doing the comparing starts adding batteries to the mirrorless kit to “equalize” to the DSLR kit’s shooting capability. It’s a matter of practice that DSLRs just have larger batteries and mirrorless cameras have tended towards being smaller cameras. Smaller camera = smaller battery. So you get a benefit (smaller/lighter camera) and a drawback (shorter battery life). I’ve long tried to be clear about mirrorless: you buy a mirrorless camera because the benefits outweigh the drawbacks for you. The benefit might be smaller (including battery), while the drawback might be shorter battery life. Note that the recent Sony A7/A9 cameras now use a bigger battery, and perform closer to the DSLR standards.
  • Convenience. I remember back when portable computers didn’t have batteries (yes, that is correct; I helped design several of those only-AC power beasts). Then we put batteries in them and people complained about battery life. Then we put bigger batteries in and took power consumption out, and people still complained. Ditto with phones, tablets, you name it. As it turns out, the basic target hardware needs to hit is this: people are okay with charging overnight for a full day’s use. That’s the metric you have to meet to stop complaints. If you give them less than a day’s use, they'll get grumpy and start complaining. Think about it for a moment. If you give someone less than a day’s worth of capability in a portable digital product, they either have to carry extra batteries or a charger, or both. That’s inconvenient. Or to be perfectly fair: less convenient. Convenience is something that always sells. If you’re taking only dozens of shots a day, any mirrorless camera is going to be fine. If you’re taking hundreds, you need to pay attention to the exact battery capability. 

The question at hand is whether or not the mirrorless cameras are actually inconvenient by downsizing so much that they also downsize their batteries. Simple answer: for serious shooters, not overly so. 

African safaris are a great test for batteries. First, power sources aren’t abundant. Even though I use vehicles with power converters in them and can charge pretty much any and everything during the day, it’s inconvenient and I’m sharing that capability with others most of the time. Second, I’m constantly shooting on safari. A day with less than a thousand images taken is an off day for me. 

My DSLRs handle Africa just fine. My DX DSLRs tend to make it through at least a day of shooting (as long as I’m not heavy in to VR that day or doing a lot of image review). My D4 or D5 battery lasts many days, while my D500 or D7500 battery maybe a day or two. Most every other DSLR I use falls in between that range. So all I typically need is one extra charged battery at any given time, and that’s not at all inconvenient. 

My mirrorless cameras have been much more problematic in Africa. I generally need three or more batteries for my m4/3 cameras if I’m going to shoot with them all day, and lots of IS or image review use will bump that up some more. Then there’s the problem of charging. Some mirrorless companies aren’t providing a dedicated charger with their camera, meaning I either have to buy a charger or put up with charging with the battery in camera. In a safari vehicle, that latter one ain’t happening. Then there’s this: Olympus chargers are notoriously slow. I mean dog slow (and it’s an old, tired dog). Good luck trying to charge three or more batteries overnight with them (hint: buy the Watson charger from B&H as it’s far faster charging the same battery; see bottom of page). 

The funny thing is this: mirrorless camera makers are selling convenience (smaller, lighter, better preview of what the final photo will look like), yet their battery strategies sometimes tend to create a friction of inconvenience. Balance is a tricky thing, but if the goal of the mirrorless makers is to get people to switch from DSLRs, they need to be careful not to add too big a negative to a positive. Sony figured that out with the most recent updates to the A7 models, basically doubling the battery capacity.

This is only going to get worse as power demands grow. For example, try turning on the WiFi of your mirrorless camera (Sony, why is that the default?!?!). Now run the iOS or Android app and start running your camera from the phone. Which will die first, your phone or your camera? 

Oh you cynical folk, you knew I was going to write “camera", right? ;~)

Imagine what would happen with those small batteries and Wi-Fi turned on if you were really maxing out the use of your camera connected to your social network. Well, I’ve tried it, and the results are grim. Suddenly I’m getting less than a 100 shots per camera charge, yet my iPhone 7 is still humming along just fine. Yep, camera makers need to buy better low power parts and learn how to use them more effectively.

So what can you do about all this:

  1. Keep power sucking features off unless you absolutely need to use them. That includes Wi-Fi, IS, continuous AF, simultaneous EVF/LCD display, and eye detect EVF/LCD switching. It might include things like dual card slot use, automatic lens corrections, wireless remote control, beeps, exposure delay modes, and more. This latter list is “might” because some cameras use more power doing these things, some don’t. Example: assign continuous AF to the AF-On button (or other button; called “back button focus” technique). Why? Because you can control when the camera is actually focusing. If you’re not pressing the button, it isn’t using power for focus. 
  2. Start with full batteries. I don’t know how many times this one trips me up. It tends to trip me up a lot because I’m not always using the same camera all the time, so batteries do tend to sit around the office for awhile, and most will lose their charge in camera, even when the camera isn’t being used. It’s a good habit to finish a shooting session and take the battery out of the camera and put it on a charger if you’re going to use the camera again any time soon. Tip: If you’re not going to use the camera soon, lithium-ion batteries store best with a mid-range charge in them, not empty or full.
  3. Have extra batteries up to the number that you’d need for a full day’s shooting. I can’t tell you how many that is. For some of you, performing #2 above plus one extra battery is enough. For most of you serious mirrorless users probably #2 plus two batteries is enough. If you’re shooting video or taking huge numbers of shots, the number of batteries you need is going to creep up fast. Indeed, I’ve got one mirrorless camera that will run a battery down in 20-30 minutes shooting video. A day’s worth of video with that camera could require 16 batteries or more. Organizing your batteries is a good idea. Label them 1, 2, 3, etc. Use them in order so that you spread out your battery use. Charge the ones labeled lower than the one in the camera. 
  4. Buy a fast, reliable charger. For mirrorless cameras, I’d recommend a multiple-battery charger such as the Watson (see bottom of page). Not only is this a fast charger for multiple batteries, it’s an informative and flexible one (it can charge batteries from different cameras with low cost custom plates). This charger is way faster than the Olympus-supplied chargers, for example, but it also tends to be faster than my Sony chargers. It works throughout the world. A good double charger allows you to charge multiple batteries simultaneously (a bad one does them in sequence). A single charger is an inefficient sequential solution, as you have to pay close attention to when it finishes a charge. 
  5. Store your batteries properly: keep the end cap that was supplied by the maker on them,  store them with a mid-range charge (definitely don’t store them with little or no charge), keep them in a cooler, dry environment, and even consider putting them where they won’t cause a problem if they split or worse, catch fire. In other words, don’t store them in your camera (see #2). While I’ve not seen corrosion issues with Lithium batteries, it’s still possible, and that can damage a camera in a way that it needs repair. Because most cameras still suck a bit of power when batteries are in the camera, even with the power off, long term storage means you’ll end up with a lithium battery that’s been completely exhausted, something you should tend to avoid.

Update: there are now many current mirrorless cameras that don’t really have a battery problem: the Canon R6 and R5, the Nikon Z series, the Panasonic GH4 and GH5 and the S series, the Sony A7 Mark III, A7R Mark III and Mark IV, and A9. These are bigger mirrorless cameras with a bigger battery to start with, but the camera makers have also managed to mitigate a lot of the battery issues I mention above in recent cameras. 

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