Are DSLRs Justifiable in an Increasingly Mirrorless World?

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I am not a stranger to large or heavy camera systems. For more than two decades, I seldom went on assignment with anything less than two Nikon F3 film cameras with motor drives, a third F3 with a dedicated Polaroid back, and anywhere from three to twelve lenses. And if that wasn’t enough fire power, I also had comparably equipped medium-format and 4 x 5" camera systems for projects that demanded more than my Nikons could deliver. Like I said, I’m no stranger to ham-fisted photo gear.

When digital cameras appeared, I worked my way through a progression of DSLRs, beginning with a Fujifilm FinePix S2 and S3, followed by a Canon 5D, which was in turn followed by a Nikon D600 and a D800. And then, one day, Sony introduced the original Alpha a7 and, since then, nothing’s been the same.

The Sony a7 wasn’t the first mirrorless camera to pass through my hands, but it was the first mirrorless camera that made me pull over to the side of the road and reassess what I truly want and need in a camera.

Size, Weight, and Form Factor

One of the bigger selling points for mirrorless cameras has to do with size and weight. Mirrorless cameras are typically smaller and lighter than their DSLR counterparts, and depending on the make and model, these differences can be great. Though I’ve always preferred heftier cameras for reasons of image stability, most pro-quality mirrorless camera systems contain more than enough mass to steady my hands. The added mass and weight of comparable DSLRs is superfluous for my needs.

Viewing Systems and Image Clarity

The resolving power of the LCDs and electronic viewfinders (EVFs) found on the earliest mirrorless cameras were pitifully low. Boasting as few as 230,000 dots, the EVFs and LCDs found in earlier-generation mirrorless cameras made critical focusing difficult, especially when shooting in high-contrast lighting. Having grown used to composing photographs through high-quality optical viewfinders, dealing with blown-out highlights, plugged shadows, and motion-induced image smear made composing photographs with early-generation EVFs and LCDs an eye-straining experience.

The EVF and LCD on Sony’s original a7-series cameras addressed this problem by increasing the resolution of the camera’s EVF and LCD to 2.36 million dots and 1.44 million dots, respectively. The a7’s vastly improved viewing system, combined with the camera’s svelte size, weight, and form factor, was enough to win me over. I’ve since owned a Sony a7S and an a7R II, and though each of these cameras has its foibles (all cameras do!), they sealed the deal for me in terms of camera preferences. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that the resolving power and ease of use of the viewing systems currently found in mirrorless cameras from companies other than Sony have made equal strides in improved image quality and user-friendliness.

Real-time Image Preview and Fine Focusing

A huge plus of shooting with mirrorless cameras concerns real-time image preview. When focusing through a DSLR, unless you engage the depth-of-field preview button (assuming your camera has a preview button) you have no idea how much of the image area fore and aft of your subject is truly in focus.

Mirrorless cameras enable you to preview exactly what is and isn’t in focus, and you see it in real time, not after the fact. What’s more, unlike DSLRS, in which the viewing field gets darker when you stop the lens down, mirrorless cameras compensate for the reduction of light by automatically brightening the viewing screen. These are important attributes, in my book.

Unless you’re using Live View, DSLRs do not give you any visual clues concerning exposure times or white balance. Conversely, when viewing images in mirrorless cameras, you can clearly preview any white balance or exposure problems that might exist.

The viewing systems in mirrorless cameras immediately tip you off if your exposures and/or color balance isn’t correct—if the image is too light, too dark, too warm, or too blue, you know immediately. If your exposure or color balance is off in a DSLR, unless you’re chimping as you shoot, there’s a very good chance exposure and white-balance issues can be off, and you may not find out about it until it’s too late.

Fine Focusing

Most mirrorless cameras also feature a zoom function for fine focusing on your subject at up to 10x magnification, using the camera’s EVF or LCD. This is a feature I greatly miss when shooting with a DSLR, especially when shooting with wide-angle lenses or focusing on distant subjects.

Mirrorless cameras offer the ability to zoom-in to your image for fine focusing. This is a huge benefit when shooting under low light or when shooting at wider apertures at closer distances.

Lens Choices

Early on, there were limited options for dedicated lenses designed specifically for use with mirrorless cameras. This is no longer the case. In addition to an ever-increasing number of smaller, lighter lenses designed specifically for mirrorless cameras, having the option of adapting just about any lens ever made to your mirrorless camera—regardless of make and model, is a valuable creative asset many shooters, including myself, have taken advantage of. If anything, I’m always on the lookout for new lens options to try, especially some of the stranger lenses out there.

Autofocus Issues

In addition to skimpy lens choices and low-resolution viewing systems, the responsiveness of earlier-generation mirrorless camera AF systems was universally underwhelming. Here, too, technology has caught up and, while the top guns from Nikon, Canon, and Pentax might still have a slight edge over their mirrorless counterparts in terms of AF response times and accuracy, the gap has narrowed to a point where, for most photographers, it’s a moot point.

The attributes of mirrorless cameras versus reflex cameras mentioned above holds equally true for medium-format cameras. Pentax 645Z, Mamiya Leaf Credo, and Hasselblad H-series cameras are extremely able camera systems but, compared to the Fujifilm GFX 50S and Hasselblad’s X1D-50c, they’re large, bulky beasts. Are they better tools for specific types of assignments? Absolutely, but for most photographic applications, the svelte offerings from Fujifilm and Hasselblad are well suited for almost any challenge you can throw their way.

Power Consumption

When Sony began including two batteries with every a7-series camera sold, the manufacturer wasn’t doing it to be nice—Sony did it because earlier cameras burned through batteries faster than a bag of toasted marshmallows at a family picnic. Unlike reflex cameras, which contain energy-passive optical viewing systems, batteries in mirrorless cameras power not only the shutter, the autofocus system, and metering system, but they also must power the camera’s EVF and LCD, both of which add heavy demands on battery output.

Thankfully, battery technologies have improved, along with better power management on the part of the cameras. Sony’s latest a7 series III cameras ship with a single battery that delivers more exposure cycles than the batteries supplied with earlier models.

What’s your experience with mirrorless and reflex cameras? Do you find yourself thinking about changing your choice of camera system? Let us know about it—we’d love to hear your take on this issue.

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