8 Factors to Look at Before You Choose a New DSLR or Mirrorless Camera

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8 Factors to Look at Before You Choose a New DSLR or Mirrorless Camera

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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.

6) Familiarity

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.

Conclusion

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.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Chris Corradino is a professional photographer and head student mentor at the New York Institute of Photography. His work has been published internationally with credits including USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Newsday, and National Geographic Online. For more, visit online at www.christography.com.

  • Hugo Leonardo

    I don’t know if its pertinent but I’ve been thinking about selling my 70D. I use it almost never and when I use it, even though I’m familiar with the controls, I’m lacking the patience to make the adjusts. I feel like I don’t take it more often because of the weight and cost (I live in Brazil, stealing is a concern). Should I sell it? Back then I was very excited for photography, but now I feel like I’m losing money keeping something expensive as it and not using. Thanks and sorry for my bad english.

  • Robert

    When i was starting out I found the cnet provided some amazing information that helped me make my purchase. Though I would of honestly loved to be able to go full frame sensor right from the start my nikon D7000 has provided some amazing pictures on a very small budget.

  • Lorri AnnaBananna Carter

    Thanks for an article that gives a good sense of the strengths and limitations of these systems. I’m an Olympus shooter too, having moved into M4/3 after leaving behind my heavy Nikon gear years ago. The weight advantage cannot be over stated. I have a kit I carry literally everywhere I go. I always have my camera and 2-3 lenses with me and that means I shoot more. Live view is revolutionary – truly seeing the outcome of your adjustments before clicking the shutter. Image stabilization also makes for such an improvement in the number of useable shots. Of course there are trade offs – I always have 3-4 batteries with me. I wish battery life was better. The bottom line is that you need a system that you will use and gives you the results that make you happy,

  • Chris Corradino

    Thanks Lorri, I agree battery life could definitely be better. As a workaround, turn the camera off while just hiking as it won’t drain as fast. Using this method I go through about 2 batteries a day with a lot of shooting. I even found a nifty think tank case to hold spare batts and keep the contacts from touching each other.

  • This was a good read. Thank you, Chris. Easy to understand and blunt. While it does have a hint of a mirrorless preference, it does so while using sound logic and keeping personal preference at the forefront.

    I’m currently working with a Canon XSi (450D) and very anxiously looking forward to an upgrade in both glass and sensor technology. While I’ve heavily researched the options that Canon has, I am slowly delving into researching the mirrorless realm. With the pace of the technology advances of mirrorless systems, I feel that if I were to purchase a mirrorless body today it would be obsolete within a year, maybe two. Do you see this as a risk?

    Thanks again for the great post.

  • Chris Corradino

    Hi Josh, thanks so much for the input on the article and for this great question. As you know, there will always be a newer model. Still, over the last year or two, I’ve seen a definitive increase in added features that are made available through firmware updates. As such, it’s unlikely that a body will be “obsolete” for a very long time. The main thing is to make sure it currently has all of the features you need, and maybe a few more to grow into.

  • Lorri AnnaBananna Carter

    That’s a great tip. I probably carry more than I need. I have only gone to the third battery on one outing.

    I love the new pro series lenses. Like your article points out – good lenses combine to level the playing field. I bought into the E-P1 because I could use my old OM glass. It was kind of a gimmick then. With the addition of the OMD line and the EVF it’s not a gimmick any more.

    So many articles focus on the limitations of mirrorless – and most photographers never get to the limitations of the camera they own. It’s like ranking horsepower on sports cars that drive only to the grocery store.

  • Chris Corradino

    Sure, if it doesn’t inspire you to pick it up, maybe something else would be a better fit. Lots of great options to choose from, just be sure to do your research. Sites like this are a wonderful resource with a great deal of info to help you make a careful decision. Good luck!

  • Chris Corradino

    Hey, you never want to be caught without one. I find the Wasabi brand to be pretty good too, it even comes with a wall charger, car plug, and international adapter.

  • Jeri Baker

    What about the new Sony coming out? The lossy compression is a concern for me..

  • Thanks for this article. I learned something new today in “Sensor Size.” I did not know the DOF happens the other way around.

  • Aidan Morgan

    Your point is well taken with battery life, but not every mirrorless camera I’ve used suffers from the 3-batteries-per-day syndrome. I’ve shot weddings on one battery with my Panasonic GH3 – probably because the slightly larger body allows for a bigger battery. I look forward to the day when camera manufacturers figure out how to stuff more power into smaller batteries.

  • Chris Corradino

    Wow, that’s terrific about the GH3. Overall though, improvements are still needed in this department. I’ve even seen some recent models announced where the battery life was rated as equal to or less than the previous body. That’s not the type of advancement one would hope to see.

  • TByte

    How can sensor size affect depth of field?
    That makes no sense. I can take an image on a full frame, crop the result to what would have been taken by a crop sensor, and the depth of field does not change.

  • Chris Corradino
  • Aidan Morgan

    I agree wholeheartedly. I love my mirrorless cameras (I shoot mostly with a Fuji X100T these days) but swapping out batteries every few hours gets old quick.

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  • lbrilliant

    I started out with an Olympus 4/3 SLR but when I was ready for an upgrade, they only had one very expensive body available. I sold all and bought a Sony DSLR but they now they have ONLY mirrorless systems. Don’t know where I will go next if I need to, probably Canon. But I chose the Oly and Sony because of the Live View systems they had that also allowed them to work as DSLRs, not mirrorless. The problem I always had with mirrorless systems is the cycle time between shots. The viewfinder goes blank while the computer processes images and you cannot work during the refractory period. I admit I haven’t tried any of the newer systems but this shortcoming was not addressed in the article. Any good comments welcome.

  • Lleyh

    I use a Nikon D7000 and have compared it for size and weight to several Mirrorless cameras and have found it is nearly comparable in size and weight especially with DX lenses. The D7100 and D7200 are even slightly lighter. There are some advantages to Mirrorless Digital Cameras but I still prefer a DSLR. As things progress this may change for me. I find the balance and grip on my DSLR feels right for me and so far haven’t found a Mirrorless that feels close. Too small and crowded. This is merely my present preference and as with life who knows what the future might bring.

  • Chris Corradino

    Thanks for the input. The overall weight savings will vary greatly depending on the sensor size. A bigger lens is needed to cover a full frame sensor, so it will be heavier. Alternatively, micro 4/3 users can enjoy similar focal lengths without as much weight. Also, you are correct in that some of the mirrorless grips are very shallow. There are a few options with terrific ergonomics though. Many (myself included) find the grip on the OMD EM1 to be stellar.

  • Chris Corradino

    I wonder if the issue you mentioned has to do with the speed of the memory card. For example, I use 800x Lexar SD cards and find very little if any lag. Just the other day I was firing away on high speed continuous while tracking dogs at play and the camera kept up beautifully.

  • Juzam

    Yes, but for the same picture (without cropping) the full frame sensor will use a longer focal length resulting in a shallower DOF.

  • TByte

    That’s altering the focal length. The same lens on with the same aperture should produce identical DOF on both crop and full-frame sensors.

  • TByte

    They appear to be using different lenses on each of those test. My concern is the the implication that the same lens with the same aperture will produce different DOF on different size sensors. I just don’t see how this would work. The sensor is simple a flat plane which intersects the projected image.

  • Chris Corradino

    Here’s more reading on the topic which may be helpful: http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/digital-camera-sensor-size.htm

  • Juzam

    Yes, that’s correct. But the article refers to “effective focal range” not actual focal range.

  • Lyn Hungerford

    Hi
    Corrado, this article offered some useful info for me and I am glad that I
    didn’t read it before buying my new camera recently! I never would have decided
    with so many variables to think about… the good news is that everything I
    have read in your article actually makes me think that I got lucky! Because the
    features in the camera that I bought correspond pretty much to my needs in a
    camera. So, what I need now is help in buying a lens… someone is guiding
    me a bit, but I don’t want to bore an experienced photographer with basic
    questions. And my most basic question at this point is what is the difference
    and what are the advantages of prime lenses versus zoom lenses. Your writing is
    so clear and articulate that an intermediate beginner like me can understand
    everything… I would be very grateful if you could direct me to an article on
    this theme. Many thanks, Lyn

  • Anita Bower

    I’m late to the discussion. I wonder is you consider mirrorless adequate for macro and close up flower photography. My concerns are: lack of 100 mm macro lenses and lack of shallow dof.

  • Chris Corradino
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