Not too long ago, the path to choosing your gear was very clear. If you wanted to take professional quality images, the DSLR reigned supreme. Yet, the landscape of available camera gear is constantly evolving, and today there are more options than ever before. Instead of just one or two dominant companies, you now have outstanding systems from no less than seven manufacturers. Mirrorless cameras have matured from a niche product to a complete solution, while DSLRs have been further refined. This may sound daunting at first, but with a bit of research, it’s possible to find a model that meets your specific needs. Here are the main points to review when considering whether you get a DSLR or mirrorless camera next.
1) Availability of Lenses
Buying a high megapixel camera body won’t spare you from the the negative effects of a poor lens. In fact, more resolution can bring greater attention to the lens’s optical flaws. For example, if you pair a full frame sensor with a kit lens you’ll have soft corners and mushy detail. Alternatively, high quality lenses can maximize every pixel of your camera’s sensor providing tack sharp focus from corner to corner. There may be some who will argue this theory and point to studio tests and technical charts. Yet in practice, a camera with a smaller sensor and less megapixels paired with a stellar lens can provide more clarity than a high resolution full frame coupled with an average lens. For this reason, the selection of available lenses is the first consideration when deciding on a camera.
Sharpness is not the only part of this decision, but also the speed in which the lens achieves focus. A constant aperture is also a nice convenience for low light shooting as opposed to slower variable aperture lenses that span from f/3.5 to f/5.6. Finally, if you envision a super shallow depth of field in your images, f/5.6 will not be as desirable as f/2.8. Map out your kit with each manufacturer using your dream scenario. For example, can you build a system with f/2.8 lenses that span from ultra wide to super telephoto? How much would this cost for each manufacturer, and what would it weigh? While it’s true that DSLR users once enjoyed a significant advantage in lens availability, that gap is quickly closing. Most mirrorless systems now offer a complete line of professional quality glass that is of equivalent quality to a DSLR counterpart.
2) Image Quality
Ultimately, the image quality from a camera is only as good as the person controlling it. The best photographers in the world can capture stunning imagery, with the most basic cameras. Simply put, they know how to maximize the potential of any situation, and work around the limitations to get the shot.
Ideally, you want to find a camera that doesn’t get in the way of your creative process. If you’re fumbling with confusing menus and buttons, chances are you will miss a number of fleeting opportunities. Still, photography is also a game of confidence, and you want to feel as if the photo you are capturing will have all of the detail you need it to. I have good news for you! Nearly every DSLR and mirrorless camera today has more than enough resolution for professional work. Whether you are shooting for large prints, billboards, magazine spreads, stock submissions or your own personal satisfaction, today’s modern cameras are up to the task. This is a game changer, as a DSLR is no longer a prerequisite for professional work.
3) Sensor Size
At the same effective focal range and aperture, the actual depth of field each format provides will appear different based on sensor size. For example, a full frame camera at f/2.8 dramatically throws a background out of focus. This is ideal for reducing distractions and bringing attention to the subject. To achieve the same look with an APS-C sensor you would need to open the aperture to f/1.8. With micro 4/3, you’d need f/1.4. Clearly, this makes shallow depth of field easier to achieve with a full frame. Having said that, micro 4/3 users can create similar results with fast lenses like the Voigtlander 42.5mm f/0.95.
While larger sensors enjoy a slight advantage for shallow depth of field, the opposite happens with great depth of field. This means f/5.6 on a micro 4/3 camera provides the equivalent depth of field to f/8 on APS-C and f/11 on a full frame model. This provides the micro 4/3 user with 1-2 extra stops of light while still creating sharp focus from near to far. As a result, the ISO doesn’t need to be as high, providing better image quality. For the same exposure and equivalent depth of field, here is an example of how the sensor size would affect the settings.
- Micro 4/3: 1/125, f/5.6, ISO 200
- APS-C: 1/125, f/8, ISO 400
- Full Frame: 1/125, f/11, ISO 800
This is summed up nicely by Cambridge in Colour who noted, “Larger sensors (and correspondingly higher pixel counts) undoubtedly produce more detail if you can afford to sacrifice depth of field. On the other hand, if you wish to maintain the same depth of field, larger sensor sizes do not necessarily have a resolution advantage.”
4) Features and Functionality
The technology you’ll find, in even the most entry level mirrorless camera, can make a DSLR feel like stepping back in time. This is not solely due to the weight, but the glaring absence of useful features that make simple tasks more convenient. No longer do you need to stand beneath a shaded tree to check your images on the LCD. The quality of EVF in today’s mirrorless cameras is astonishing. It’s similar to using live view, but the image appears in the viewfinder where the display is not affected by harsh sunlight. Without removing your eye from the viewfinder you can check critical focus and exposure while viewing the histogram, highlight alert, and exposure settings.
With in-viewfinder image magnification and focus peaking, manual focus has never been easier or more accurate. Tapping the shutter lightly will activate the shooting mode so you’re always ready to capture the action. This can certainly reduce time spent chimping, and helps one remain focused on the subject in front of them. Depending on the model, you may enjoy other features like double exposures, silent electronic shutter, keystone correction, live time, time-lapse, touch screen autofocus that covers most of the frame, and built-in wifi. It’s these little things that ultimately make the shooting experience more enjoyable.
For those who are struggling with depth of field, the EVF on mirrorless cameras offers a huge advantage. As you look through the viewfinder and adjust your aperture, you will see a real-time look at how the depth of field will alter your image. This makes it so convenient to establish your settings for any given shot. In fairness, some DSLRs have a DOF preview button, but its functionality is far from ideal. Using that method the screen gets very dark, and you have to really look hard to determine what will truly be sharp. The EVF simplifies all of this as what you see is what you get.
5) Size and Weight
A DSLR is a commitment. You make a decision to take pictures, pack your gear, and head out. This has proven to be an effective formula for a very long time. Yet, I’ve spoken with countless photographers who leave their DSLR home to avoid carrying extra weight. Some even purchase expensive telephoto zoom lenses only to complain they’re too much of a hassle to bring along. If you do the math, DSLRs are about twice as heavy as mirrorless cameras and approximately 40% bulkier. When you’re traveling to distant places, or hiking deep into the woods, every ounce matters. I’ve been on small international airplanes with a strict 25 pound luggage limit, which included personal items.
Advances in technology can allow us to go places that were previously inaccessible. No longer do you need to leave important things behind. That’s one of the reasons carbon fibre tripods have become the preferred choice for many. Since they are much lighter than aluminum models, you can go further. Couple this with a lighter camera system, and it’s possible to reach remote locations faster, giving you the competitive edge.
15 years ago, on countless pages of photography magazines, experts debated the topic of film versus digital. What followed was undoubtedly one of the biggest revolutions in the history of photography. Despite some of the early limitations, digital imaging forged ahead, ultimately winning over many of the initial naysayers. While this current shift in camera gear may not be quite as dramatic, there are many who are still resistant to change. Yet, as George Bernard Shaw said, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” If you’ve never tried a modern mirrorless system, you are short changing yourself. Visit a local camera store and have a look, or better yet, rent one for a weekend photo adventure. It may take a real world test to experience the benefits that don’t translate well on paper.
7) Durability and Battery Life
DSLRs take the crown when it comes to battery life. Where one DSLR battery can go a full day with 1000 plus shots, a mirrorless camera will require approximately three batteries. The obvious workaround is to carry several spares, but it’s worth noting as it is one definitive area that requires improvement. The issue is largely due to the heavy power demand from the EVF. As a result, it’s a concern for all mirrorless manufacturers with no one brand having a distinct advantage.
If you’re looking for a camera that’s weather sealed and built like a tank, both types of cameras have models to check out. Still, in order to enjoy a fully weatherproof system, the lenses need to have the same level of durability. With a DSLR this build-type is often reserved for the professional models. These are typically more expensive and heavier than non-sealed lenses. Alternatively, Sony, Fuji and Olympus all have rugged systems that boast features like splash, dust, and freeze resistant. If you find yourself in extreme situations often, this may be the better option for you.
8) Cost Savings
Do you rely on image stabilization as part of your photography routine? With a DSLR, this convenience comes at a significant cost. Lenses with this feature are often priced hundreds of dollars more than a non-stabilized model. Perhaps a more cost effective method would be a camera with built-in 5-axis stabilization. This will work on any lens you mount, making it possible to capture sharp hand held images at 1/15th of a second or slower. If you’re skeptical, as I certainly was, there are a myriad of tests that prove its accuracy.
This is an important development that changes the way you works in low light scenarios. For example, if you’re photographing a dark interior where tripods are not allowed, a typical setting would be around 1/125, f/4, ISO 6400. That same shot with 5-axis IS could be captured at 1/15, f/4, ISO 800. Noise won’t be nearly as prevalent at the lower ISO, and you’ll still have a tack-sharp image. This cutting edge feature gives photographers yet another tool to solve common everyday problems.
There have never been as many viable options as we have right now. It is indeed a great time to be in the market for a new camera. The system you decide on will certainly have a big impact on your work, so do thorough research and choose wisely. Remember, the ideal selection should not be based on what everyone else is doing, but what will allow you to realize your unique vision. This can only be decided by you, not a salesperson, or forum chatter. Above all, your next camera should be one that inspires you to pick it up and use it more often.
As for my gear, I don’t leave the house without my Olympus OMD EM1. Sometimes I also carry an EM10 as a backup body. I recently sold a Canon 40D, retired the old 10D, and am still determining the fate of my Canon 6D.