DSLR v Mirrorless: The Debate of 2016

DISCLAIMER:  I assume majority of people are making a decision on whether to go with Canon, Nikon or Sony so this discussion will be focussing on the difference between those cameras. I’m a user of Canon, Nikon and Sony systems so my understanding of Fuji, Panasonic or Olympus cameras are limited.

A question a lot of photographers and filmmakers are asking right now is whether to stick with their trusty DSLR’s or migrate to the exciting possibilities of mirrorless. Many hobbyists and professionals alike have a lot to think about when buying a new camera. I’m just going to go out and say that there are some very clear reasons to go either way but as of right now for majority of people the choice is quite clear and there really is no debate at all. 

 

Size & Weight

Firstly, the physical size is significantly different. For some people, myself included - size doesn’t matter (apologies for the willie reference).  I’m usually one of those people that will sacrifice convenience for something that looks awesome. Larger DSLR cameras do that for me. Having said that for every DSLR in my bag, I could fit effectively fit two mirrorless systems. 

The king of mirrorless systems right now are the Sony Alpha cameras but despite the awesome technology in them, it hurts when some people mistake my little A7s for an entry level compact camera. In fact one time while photographing in a bar, I met this other photographer who claimed to use a Canon 1DC but had mistaken my Sony for a very old film camera. Perhaps it was the alcohol but her ignorance made me want to punch someone. 

These reasons aside, size is probably just going to come down to the preference of the individual. If you care about showing off on a pure physical level (which shouldn’t be a factor in your decision anyway) then having a big, cool looking DSLR is your choice. If you need to have a small form factor, particularly if you travel - then mirrorless cameras are the obvious choice. Personally the size and weight of a camera doesn’t matter to me but I know for many others the smaller the better.

Filmmaking is a different story. Filming on a smaller photography camera is no where near as ergonomic compared to shooting on a larger cinema camera. If your a filmmaker and ergonomics is very important to you I would consider getting an actual video camera like a Canon C100/C300/C500 or Sony FS5/FS7 or Black Magic Ursa Mini depending on your budget. For filmmaking, the ergonomic difference between DSLR and Mirrorless is basically nil. Having said that the small form factor and weight of mirrorless cameras is great for Gimbal work and the video below shows just how well it works. 

Shot on the Sony A7S in 4K with the Atomos Shogun. Stabilised on the DJI Ronin M Gimbal. 

Winner: Convenience over vanity, this one goes to Mirrorless.

 

Auto-focus

This is a tough comparison. Typically DSLR’s have been the go to camera if you need fast auto-focus. If your a sports photographer, more times then not you’ll probably go with a Canon or Nikon.

Recently Sony has been pumping out a lot of very fast auto focus cameras like the Sony A7Rii (399 AF points) and the more modestly priced but faster Sony a6300 (425 AF Points).

For a more even comparison I’ll mention the the Canon 7Dii which has 65 AF points. Both the Sony a6300 and 7Dii are APC size sensors and are in a similar price range. The Canon lacks in many awesome features compared to the Sony, which as of now, is claimed to be the fastest AF camera on the market. 

Winner: As of late, Mirrorless. 

 

Previewing the Image

For those who aren’t aware of the difference between an Optical Viewfinder (OVF) and an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF). The former is used in DSLR’s and the latter in Mirrorless cameras. 

When framing a picture on a DSLR, the light will travel through the lens, bounce off the mirror in front of the sensor and travel up to the eye piece which will effectively show you what the camera is pointing at. What you see through the OVF is exactly what your naked eye sees. 

As the name suggests, mirrorless cameras don't have mirrors. Instead the light coming through the lens hits the sensor and the image is sent to the viewfinder electronically. The advantage of this being that the photographer knows not what the eye sees but what the sensor sees. This means you get to see what the exposure of your shot is before the shutter is released.

To preview the exposure on a DSLR before taking an image you basically have to select live viewing on the LCD screen (which is effectively the same process as using an EVF). However you’ll probably notice that focussing will be slower and your vulnerable to glare hitting the screen. 

Filmmakers won’t see much detriment as 9 times out of 10 you will be manual focussing anyway. 

Some mirrorless cameras have both and can be toggled at the flick of a switch. I know Fuji implements this feature in a lot of their cameras. 

Having picked up my Sony A7s, it's really hard to go back to using my Nikon’s optical viewfinder when I could be getting instant and accurate information from my Sony’s EVF. I know for a fact that many photographers have never been fans of EVF’s as historically they have been slow and there are noticeable inaccuracies. But EVF technology has improved to the point where I personally think that you’d be disadvantaged by using an OVF. 

Winner: As of late, Mirrorless.

 

Battery Life

This is fairly straightforward but because mirrorless cameras are smaller and hence the batteries need to be smaller you’ll probably be switching them out and putting fresh ones in more frequently as opposed to DSLR’s. Another reason mirrorless cameras chew through battery life faster is because of the EVF and the amount of power required to keep it going.

I wouldn't mind if Sony made larger camera bodies which could house larger batteries. Even if they implemented a similar system to Fuji where you had the option to switch the EVF to an OVF to conserve battery if you needed to. 

Winner: DSLR

 

Range of Lenses

This is probably the biggest and for many the only reason holding people back from switching to mirrorless cameras and thats the limited amount of lenses that can be used natively. Sony and Zeiss as far as I’m aware are the only manufacturers of E-mount lenses (the mount that Sony uses for their mirrorless and cinema cameras). If you want to take advantage of the fast autofocus on these cameras you’ll need to go with Sony or Zeiss glass. If autofocus isn’t a priority then you shouldn’t worry as pretty much any lens ever made can be fitted to a sony mirrorless system with a third party adapter. 

If you exclusively use prime lenses you wont have any trouble finding some good native glass for sony mirrorless cameras. However for a long time since owning my A7S I’ve been frustrated with the limited amount of fast focussing, stabilised zoom lenses with an aperture wider then F/4. In fact, I can not think of a single lens that fits this bill. However at the time I’ve been writing this, Sony has finally announced two lenses that can rival the 24-70mm F/2.8 and 70-200mm F2.8 range from Canon and Nikon. Although these won’t have image stabilisation built into them (I assume this is because the new A7Sii and A7Rii have 5 Axis Image Stablised sensors) they at least fill a need that pretty much every photographer needs has been screaming out for, and now Sony has delivered. 

It’s safe to assume that Sony will keep putting out good lenses as time goes on but right now there is so much good glass around from Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Tamron etc that considering lenses alone, it makes sense to keep using this old but trusted technology. 

Winner: DSLR.

 

Price

DSLR’s have come down a lot in price if you're a beginner and looking to get an entry level camera (think Canon 600D, 650D, 700D or Nikon D3000 or 5000 series). You can pick one up quite cheap these days but if you’ve been in the game for some time now you’re probably tossing up between a Canon 7Dii, the Canon 5DS, the Canon 1DC, Nikon D810, or Nikon D5 DSLR’s and so on. Or you’re looking at the new Sony mirrorless cameras like the A7ii, A7Sii, A7Rii or the new a6300. 

Typically the DSLR’s mentioned will be more expensive then their mirrorless counterparts. You’ll probably need to account for the cost of switching though as buying into new lenses won't come cheap but if you can get a good return for selling your old glass you shouldn’t be too far from breaking even. You might not even choose to sell and use those lenses on your new mirrorless camera, I don't know, it's up to you!

Winner: Mirrorless.

 

Beneficial Functions

Mirrorless has a definite edge in this department with so much technology being crammed into such a small body. Typically you’ve got features like focus peaking, silent shooting, or in-built sensor stabilisation (in the A7Sii and A7Rii) to name a few. 

You can unlock a whole bunch of functions by hacking into DSLR’s (think Magic Lantern) but this voids your warranty and it doesn’t help that they weren’t included in the firmware to start off with. 

Winner: Mirrorless

 

Video

I’m just going to go out and say this. If you’re buying a new camera for shooting video then you would be making a mistake by not going Mirrorless. A few years ago Panasonic changed everything by releasing the GH4 which could shoot 4K and was a tiny fraction of the cost of a Canon 1DC. 

Flash forward to today and you’ve got the A7Rii and the A7Sii. Both shoot in 4K, have a decent codec in XAVC, can shoot in higher frame rates whilst still maintaining Full HD and have handy picture profiles in SLOG2 and SLOG3 giving you more dynamic range. In my opinion the A7Sii is THE BEST stills camera for shooting video. Couple that with it being pretty much the unrivalled low light king and you’ve got a match made in heaven.  It is the ideal camera for any indie filmmaker, particularly gimbal work and makes a great B camera for the FS7 or even the F55.

Above - WHEN YOU FALL IN LOVE - Jack Keoh Choreography
              Shot on the Sony A7s in 4K via the Atomos Shogun. Stabilised with the DJI Ronin M.

Winner: Mirrorless


Image Quality

This is probably the main thing people are concerned about and if you want an answer on which is better then I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint. There isn’t any clear winner. The most capable DSLR’s take images just as good as the most capable mirrorless cameras. It might be personal preference for some but overall you won’t see any advantage going one over the other regarding image quality. 

Winner: No clear advantage with either. 


Conclusion

Since buying my Sony mirrorless camera it's made my Nikon DSLR and my Canon Cinema Camera effectively redundant. I'm actually worried about the state of Canon and Nikon's inability to innovate. I remember when the Canon 5Dii came out and the storm that brought new possibilities for filmmakers and photographers alike. But that was then and today Sony has the industry by the balls. In my opinion if Canon and Nikon don't innovate and Sony catches up in terms of lenses then I'm afraid every one will move away from DSLR to Mirrorless. 

Sony is bringing out a lot of new and exciting technology after sitting in the sidelines for years watching Canon and Nikon dominate the photography market. You don't have to take my word for it and If you think otherwise then please by all means give your say in the comments. Of course if I've left anything notable out enlighten me!

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