It used to be that if you wanted to take the best quality images on a digital camera you purchased an SLR and if you wanted portability you bought a compact. Then came the rise of the camera phone, which delivered images that meant you didn’t have to take a separate camera out with you. Those wanting a camera were now demanding image quality, but the physical size of a DSLR was a barrier as it meant you needed to carry a bag just for your camera. We are in the digital age, everyone wants things smaller and of higher quality. The camera industry has answered this issue with the mirrorless camera. A compact camera with the image quality previously associated with DSLR complemented by an interchangeable lens system.
The rise of the mirrorless camera system has now been played out in full. Canon has launched the EOS M and now all major manufacturers have placed their mirrorless camera systems on the table just in time for Christmas.
But which do you buy? DSLR or mirrorless? What do they even mean? It can be daunting, especially to those of you who consider yourselves a beginner or looking to buy your first camera. Hopefully we can help to give you some information to help you make the right decision.
Firstly let’s look at each of these systems in a little more detail.
Until recently if you wanted the best image quality you bought a DSLR, if you wanted portability you had a compact, in the understanding that image quality would be compromised. The optical system of a DSLR is pretty much still the same as the days of film. It relies on a pivoting reflex mirror to allow the viewfinder to show the view through the camera lens. The lens mount is also the same as that used in the film days. This allowed a smooth transition for photographers who made the switch from film to digital, but also means that the system has remained unchanged size wise since the days of film.
This system works great but the problem of size is a major one and for those of us who didn’t mind the bulk, it provides great images, but there has been a gap in the market. Taking a big bulky digital camera is fine when you are “going to take pictures”, what about when you want to get great images, but don’t want the associated bulk of carrying a DSLR kit? Camera manufacturers saw this problem and introduced the mirrorless systems.
Full set of Test shots from the DigitalRev TV Canon 1Dx vs Nikon D4 video – http://www.digitalrev.com/album?id=8962037
Full set of Test shots from the DigitalRev TV D600 vs D800 vs 5D III video – http://www.digitalrev.com/album?id=11373576
Mirrorless (AKA Compact System Camera)
The new kid on the block. A more compact size camera that generally includes a sensor of a similar size to that of a DSLR as well as an interchangeable lens system that allows you to get the image quality associated with a DSLR in a much more compact package. By using this larger sensor the mirrorless system has two main things that separate it from a compact camera. The fact that the image quality in low light is much better and also the large sensor allows a much greater control over depth of field in your images. This allows you to explore more creative opportunities.
Full set of Test shots from DRTV’s Canon EOS M Review – http://www.digitalrev.com/album?id=11567532
Full set of Test shots from DRTV’s Fujufilm X-E1 Review – http://www.digitalrev.com/album?id=11044484
Why should I buy a DSLR
The main advantage of a DSLR over the mirrorless is the ability to autofocus. Taking a standard portrait or photos of static objects you will notice virtually no difference, but when it comes to keeping a moving subject in focus then this is handled much better by a DSLR.
Obviously this means that if you are planning to photograph sports then your choice becomes a lot easier. But think about children running around the yard, this will also rely on the ability for the camera to keep the subject in focus. Autofocus can struggle with lower light situations, so if you happen to be photographing fast moving children indoors then your problems may be even worse.
There is also no shutter lag. This is the amount of time taken between pressing the button and the camera actually taking the shot. This is something that mirrorless manufactures have been trying to reduce. Some are now almost on a par with a DSLR but generally you will have a quicker trigger finger using a DSLR. This is essential in catching the “moment” in things such as action sports so although not a deal breaker in most everyday situations, it is something you may want to think about.
You will have more control over the camera. This means you can tweak settings to your hearts desire. This gives you more overall control than a mirrorless system, but it can also over complicate where there is no need to, and make the camera intimidating to use as the amount of options can be overwhelming to a newcomer. This is the biggest reason I see people buy their first DSLR and then not use it. They tweak a setting by accident and then cannot understand what they have done. Rather than wrestle with the settings to get it back, they just put it back in the box and use their phone again as it always gives a reasonable image.
The DSLR brands have a huge variety of lenses and accessories, both native and third-party, to choose from and the depth of the system is much greater than any current mirrorless system. Obviously this is due to the fact that the mirrorless system is a relative newcomer to the camera world and this will change as the format grows. Some companies, such as Canon with the new EOS “M” series have made adaptors to allow the whole range of DSLR lenses to be mounted onto their mirrorless system. If this is your first camera though, the lack of lenses is going to be somewhat of a moot point. There is a huge percentage of DSLR owners who have never taken the lens off their camera from the day they bought it.
Lastly with a DSLR you will have an optical viewfinder. This is something that may not bother many as shooting with live view is the norm in a lot of compact cameras these days and you can purchase a viewfinder accessory for most models should you want it.
Why should I buy a mirrorless system.
There is the one main advantage that will swing it for a lot of people. The size. The DSLR is still a bit of a brick size wise. It hasn’t changed since that days of film and in the digital world many people find the size of a DSLR cumbersome. It is heavy, it is ugly and it will easily attract attention. A mirrorless system on the other hand is much smaller in size and many have gone the route of retro chic with the looks, a much more stylish option for many. They fit in the hand well and are a lot lighter than carrying around a DSLR and a couple of lenses. They are not quite pocketable in the same way as a compact though, especially with a lens attached, but they fit easily in most handbags or messenger bags etc. This means that you can carry around a camera, with DSLR quality images, much more easily as well as it being less intrusive.
Live view, although not technically as good as a proper optical viewfinder does have its advantages. It means you do not have to be up to the camera to frame the photo, you can still be involved with the subject. This is ideal when shooting photos of children. It also helps to remove the intimidation associated with a DSLR and can allow you to shoot more candidly, which is one of the reasons the mirrorless system is popular with a lot of street photographers.
The lesser amount of settings than a DSLR means that getting to grips with the camera for the first time tends to be more intuitive and less fearsome for the newbie. This means less time reading the manual and more time taking pictures.
The mirrorless cameras most important selling point is the image quality it delivers. Packed into it’s small size is a quality of image that stands up to many DSLR’s. There may be a tiny advantage in quality to the DSLR if you analyse images zoomed in to 1000% but in the real world, which are generally small prints and online sharing, you will be hard pressed to tell the difference. You will also be able to use depth of field to blur the background and get nice bokeh (the quality of the out of focus area) that will compete with a DSLR. This is especially useful when shooting people against busy backgrounds as you will be able to make the object you are shooing the focus of the image.
So which is better?
Well almost 1500 words to tell you that there is no specific answer. The camera that is best for you depends on what you want to do with it.
Mirrorless is for you:
If you want something that is stylish, compact and doesn’t involve lugging about a separate bag strictly for your camera, yet still gives great image quality.
Mirrorless delivers great image quality and is simple to get to grips with.
It does have disadvantages in the range of lenses and accessories currently available and speed that doesn’t tend to match DSLRs. The lack of optical viewfinder can also be a disadvantage for some, but quality Live View goes a long way to making up for this.
DSLR is for you:
If you want to shoot action or don’t mind having to have a bag for your camera and want a massive range of lenses and accessories to choose from
If you want complete control over your images and also have the benefit of an optical viewfinder. There are times though where you will find yourself wanting a camera that delivers quality images but doesn’t mean you need to carry a lot of weight around with you.
Ultimately whichever you choose you will have a camera capable of great images that will feed your photography habit for years to come.