Gear Talk

Mirrorless or DSLR?

So, I switched from Canon to Fujifilm, now using Fujifilm’s X-T3 for my photography. This is a decision which can call for strong reactions, both positive and negative, depending on which brand-fanboy sees it. And it is a big decision, which has a lot of consequences. After all, while people are often trying to make analogies to cars, when explaining cameras, there’s more to this switch, than merely changing from Toyota to Kia. However, with all that in mind, I think the biggest issue of my switch is more connected to my switch from a DSLR to a mirrorless camera.

For those of you, who don’t know what DSLR and mirrorless cameras are, or the differences between them, let me give a quick explanation:

DSLR stands for Digital Single-Lens Reflex camera, which basically means that when you look through the viewfinder on the camera, you see what the lens sees. The image (or the light) goes through the lens, hits a mirror inside the camera, which reflects the image up into another small mirror in the viewfinder, which again reflects the image through the viewfinder.

This design, which is just one of different camera designs, became popular during the analog film era, allowing the photographer to see exactly what the camera sees. The other most common design was the range finder camera, which had the photographer view through a different angle of the camera, and hence not being able to see exactly what the camera saw. This could make composing the shot a challenge, and took a lot of practice and experience to get right. The single-lens reflex cameras of this era were called SLRs, Single-Lens Reflex. The D, digital, was added with the arrival of the digital SLRs around 2000, which also heralded the digital era. They quickly became popular, and are being used by by far the most photographers, from beginners to experienced photographers alike.

However, the mirror in the DSLR camera took a lot of space, and the larger the sensor was, the larger the mirror would have to be. This meant that DSLR cameras could be pretty big, and also heavy. Not only that, because the lenses would have to be built to fit to this design, they in turn would also often end up being rather big and heavy, particularly the high-end lenses. This meant that if you would go for a trip, and carry a DSLR camera with two or three lenses, you could be carrying a couple of kilos of equipment. And while this might not feel of a lot, when just lifting it, having to carry it around for a long time could be felt soon enough.

In comes the mirrorless camera design. As the name reveals. the mirrorless camera does not have a mirror. Instead the camera takes the image, which goes through the lens and hits the sensor, and displays this image in the viewfinder. This means that the image you see through the viewfinder is a digital reproduction of what the camera sees. With that comes a number of benefits:

1. The camera can be smaller, since it doesn’t need the mirror, which otherwise was an essential part of the DSLR camera.

2. This means that the lenses also can be made smaller, reducing weight and room need for the equipment.

3. You can see the image as it will be in the viewfinder, not having to check that the exposure is as it should be after each shot. Whichever change you make, will be shown real-time in the viewfinder.

4. Since there isn’t a mirror, which need to be lifted up when making a photograph, the shutter speed can be faster and you can shoot more frames per second.

5. Manual focus is easier, since the sensor can display what is in focus better, even given certain focus assistance features, such as focus peaking.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t benefits to using DSLR cameras:

1. Because of the age of the SLR and DSLR cameras, there are a wide range of lenses existing, allowing easier access to good and cheap high-end lenses, which, even if they’re of older generations, will work amazing even by today standard’s.

2. The auto focus systems of the DSLR cameras are generally more reliable and faster than the mirrorless systems.

3. Because of the larger bodies of the DSLRs, the batteries also tend to be larger, giving more power.

4. Further for the batteries, since the DSLRs don’t have as many power-demanding features, they don’t use as much power as mirrorless cameras.

5. Up till today DSLRs have generally been of better built, being more robust than previous mirrorless cameras.

However, it’s important to note that the newer generations of mirrorless cameras have been improved to the extent that the benefits of the DSLR cameras are not as big, as they have been. In general, mirrorless cameras are pretty robust, the batteries have become better, and the lens selections have become much better, just as the mirrorless systems also are easy to adapt lenses to, particularly manual focus lenses. 
For example Canon and Nikon both have special adapters for their mirrorless cameras, which allow them to use their older DSLR lenses, and there are a range of different adapters for the Sony system, which allows you to use Canon lenses. Even for Fujifilm can you find a number of adapters, both “smart” and “stupid” adapters – the former allowing auto focus, the latter only usable for manual focus.

When I switched to Fujifilm, I switched to a mirrorless system, and even if it sounds a bit dramatic, my – photographic – world did change. The most notable change it made, was allowing me comfort to get closer to my subjects. With the Canon 80D I had a camera people would notice. It was very much “in your face”. However, the X-T3 allows me to be much more anonymous, and thus allowing me to act more inconspicuous. This means that I suddenly moved much closer to the action, allowing my self less worries. 

But also the lenses I got access to changed. With the DSLR cameras I would never dream of using manual focus. Any lens I saw, which was only manual focus, seemed irrelevant to me. Now I rarely use auto focus, enjoying the experience and feel of the manual focus, feeling much more in control. It slows me down a little, not as much as you would expect, but in a good way.

And best of all, I can have a number of lenses with me, without feeling the weight of them by the end of the day. I feel more flexible, more free to do what I want. And I can compose and adjust exposure for the first shot, not having to go through several images for each shot, in order to choose the right one, all the time having to adjust a little to make sure that the shot was in focus, the exposure correct, and the composition done well.

The future is with mirrorless cameras. It’s a statement that is hard to verify, of course, but the technology has finally brought us to a place, where mirrorless is something to be considered on all levels of photography. It took a long time to get here. Many people forget, or just don’t know, that if we consider mirrorless cameras to be any camera without a mirror, which reproduces a digital image of what the sensor sees, then compact cameras, or “point and shoot” as they are also known as, mirrorless cameras, and they have been in existence for a long time, and for most of this time the DSLR has been the king of cameras. 

But now, with the technology to make mirrorless cameras which perform as good, if not even better, than DSLRs, the reason to get a DSLR over a mirrorless camera has disappeared. Or to say it differently, from a technical standpoint there really isn’t a reason to choose DSLR over mirrorless. However, from a subjective and experiences standpoint, there still might be lots of reasons to choose DSLRs. For example the feeling of the camera in your hand. Some like the more heavy and bulky body of a DSLR. While mirrorless cameras now can be built small and compact, even with full frame sensors (see for example Sony’s new A7c), not everyone likes their cameras in compact sizes. It is interesting to note Canon’s new R6 and R5 cameras, which are somewhat substantial in size, compared to other mirrorless full frame cameras. There obviously are technical considerations impacting the size, but still. 

Another reason you might prefer the DSLR is the viewfinder. Yes, the electronic viewfinder (EVF) has gotten to the point, where the image you see feels very lifelike and the frame rates are high enough to refresh at a speed, which doesn’t make the image lag. But this isn’t the case in all conditions. Take low light scenarios, where the image will have a lot of noise introduced, in order to keep the image bright enough. You won’t have that issue with the optical viewfinder. 

Or you might have a specialty lens, which still only has been built for DSLRs. Here I’m particularly thinking about tilt-shift lenses, which you will need to adapt to mirrorless cameras, which obviously is an option, but which at the same time will make the weight and size of the camera and lens be very front-centered. For most this probably isn’t an issue, but for some it might be. This is of course the case with all DSLR lenses, but most of them are also found in a mirrorless version.

Or maybe you just like it “old-school”. There are people shooting with film, and the same way others might prefer to keep shooting with DSLRs. But all these reasons are subjective considerations, however valid they might be. The crucial thing here is that photography is a subjective experience, so obviously subjective considerations should be at the crux for your decision when it comes to which camera you choose to use.

But mirrorless is the future, at least until something else comes around. And for me, personally, I am happy that I changed to mirrorless. The compact size, the option to see the image as it will be in the viewfinder, the option to do effective manual focusing, allows me to experience photography the best way possible for me. Would I be a worse photographer with a DSLR camera? No, I would learn to use it. But the accessibility to certain features in a mirrorless camera makes it more enjoyable and easier for me, to get what I want. 

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