“Should I go for a DSLR or a mirrorless camera?”
This is a question that I see almost everyday on the Facebook forums, and there are a variety of often simplistic answers. Like most things in life, this is a complex decision that needs some thought and planning. I currently use two mirrorless systems: Fuji FX and Sony E; and two DSLR systems: Nikon and Canon. The views in this article are personal and based on my own experiences with 8 camera bodies that I own or have borrowed, and over 100 lenses manufactured between 1952 and 2021. Any opinion on cameras and photography draws heavily from subjectivities such as aesthetic preferences, phallic inadequacy, budgetary factors, and the tone of service personnel. Feel free to disagree.
Let me say this up front – I believe that mirrorless cameras have a number of decisive technical advantages over DSLRs. The future is Mirrorless.
Mirrorless cameras are smaller, lighter, and quieter – they are compact and make for great photography in crowds and fast moving environments. My favourite digital setup for casual shooting is my Fujifilm mirrorless with the 7Artisans 25 mm F1.8 or Fujinon 27mm F2.8. It’s quiet, discreet, and makes great images.
Mirrorless cameras also have features such as focus preview and focus peaking that are invaluable for photographers – regardless of skill level, and improve the chances of getting sharper images. If you’re planning to shoot sports or fast moving objects with an autofocus lens, then the burst-mode speeds of mirrorless cameras exceed DSLRs. Sony’s flagship Alpha 1 has a maximum frame rate of 30 shots per second. Canon’s flagship DSLR – the 1 DX Mark III does 15 FPS with the mirror locked up, meaning that you will not be able to use the optical viewfinder. This difference widens with the cheaper options: the Canon EOS 6D does only 4.5 FPS. Of course, skill trumps gear almost every time. A photographer I know has shot Formula 1 races and Ski Jumping competitions with a Nikon F3 and 300 mm manual focus prime.
If you’re looking to add a vintage aesthetic to your images, a Mirrorless camera is probably your best option because inexpensive adapters that can be bought for as little as USD 5, open up the world of vintage manual focus lenses. From the ubiquitous “swirly bokeh” Helios 44 and the “bubble bokeh” Pentacon lenses, to the “tack sharp” Takumar, Nikkor, Minolta, and Yashica lenses, there are thousands of options from about USD 20 upwards. Here too, features such as focus peaking and focus magnification are invaluable to getting a great shot.
One huge disadvantage of mirrorless systems is the poor battery life. My Fuji and Sony go through two or three batteries with a day’s worth of shooting. On the other hand, my Nikon D700 easily gives me 900 to 1000 shots on a single battery charge.
Another important point to consider is changing lenses. When you change lenses on a DSLR, the sensor is shielded by the shutter and the mirror. This helps protects the sensor from dust and debris if you’re changing lenses outdoors. With mirrorless cameras, your sensor is exposed to the elements for several terrifying seconds during this process. I have noticed that my mirrorless cameras pick up sensor dust much faster than my DSLRs.
If Mirrorless cameras are so amazing, why would one consider DSLRs?
DSLRs represent great value. Certain cameras such as Canon’s 1D and 5D series and Nikon’s D7XX and D8XX lines were designed for serious professional (ab)use. They are great cameras, that have been put through wars, natural calamities, mosh pits, and beach photoshoots for two decades. My 1DS Mark III was manufactured in 2007 and produces amazing images even today. When used with EF lenses such as the Canon 50mm F1.8 “plastic fantastic” or the Yongnuo 35 mm F2, you get snappy autofocus all day every day.
Today, it is possible to find a used full frame Nikon or Canon DSLR that sold new for $3000 for around USD 300. The cost advantage doesn’t stop at the bodies. You can get a brand new 50mm F1.8 lens for Nikon or Canon DSLRs for $85. A similar lens from Sony or the equivalent focal length from Fujifilm costs three times as much. With many photographers switching from DSLRs to mirrorless and the gear snobs renewing their bragging rights each quarter, it is possible to score some amazing deals on used equipment.
Then there is durability.
My D700 was manufactured in 2009. It feels like a block of granite – something that I could use to bludgeon my way out of a zombie attack if the need ever arose. Though it bears the scars of extreme abuse by its previous owner, it works perfectly. Paired with commonly and cheaply available Nikon AF-D lenses such as the AF Nikkor 50mm F1.8D, the 28-105 F3.5-4.5D, or 35 mm F2D, the D700 yields great results – even 13 years later.
Based on my experience with these systems, I fully expect my ancient Canon and Nikon bodies to outlast and outshoot ANY mirrorless camera in production today. Yes, people are full of praise for the pro bodies such as the Nikon Z9 and the Sony Alpha 1, but I expect these cameras to have planned failures engineered into them to support the flagging revenues of their manufacturers.
Size and weight.
The heft and bricky construction comes at a cost. Carrying my D700 with a zoom lens for a whole day gives me sore shoulders. With both the D700 and the Canon 1DS Mark III, the loud clap of the camera’s mirror announces to the world that you’re there and taking pictures. If you’re of small build or have persistent neck and shoulder problems, a mirrorless system should be your primary choice. Though my D700 has given me some brilliant portraits and street shots, every time I think of heading to a photowalk my mind struggles to choose between the Sony with the 28-70 and the D700 with the 28-105.
So, there you have it. As an enthusiast on a budget, shooting both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras has helped me enjoy a wide variety of equipment. Most of the Nikon lenses that I use on the D700 are compatible with my Nikon film bodies. The mirrorless systems that I use have allowed me to take images with vintage character on older lenses from the film era. There’s no right answer here – choose your journey and choose your kit.
Nice article!! However you write “focus preview and focus peaking that are invaluable for beginners”.. These features are not only for beginners, as to focus precisely a manual lens without them is just impossible…
Thanks Ivo, you’re right – those features are essential – I couldn’t do without them shooting wider than F2.8.
Battery life is much improved in recent mirrorless cameras. And how difficult is it to carry a spare battery? This is a bogus argument.
Why would mirrorless cameras have built in failures to sell more cameras any more than DSLRs would have in the day? In fact, with less mechanical parts to fail, I would expect mirrorless bodies to last much longer than DSLRs, especially the shutters. An unfounded supposition.
Thanks for your comment Toby,
On the battery life – yes, it may not be a terrible inconvenience to carry a spare battery, but from a purely logistical perspective, not having to worry about a depleting battery is a great advantage.
On your point about mirrorless cameras being more durable:
I have seen a Nikon D700 with 476,000 shutter actuations that’s still being used. I have also seen a Nikon D3 with 560,000 shutter actuations.
Sony already faces a class action lawsuit for shutter failures on the A7III. As per court documents, filings, most failures occur between 10,000 and 50,000 exposures. Fujifilm has also been having stuck shutter issues and the battery drain problem with the XT3.
Nikon has actually done away with the shutter for the Z9, which seems to be a step in the right direction.
As to the built -in failures:
According to Nikon’s financial statements, the company is focused on increasing the “lens to body” ratio – indicating that they are employing strategies to make people buy more Z lenses. This is apparent in their refusal to support AFD lenses on the Z system. It is not a huge technical challenge to design an adapter with a built-in motor to run these lenses. It would help Nikon shooters who have been faithful to the system for 40+ years. But no – high quality glass ends up on the second hand market because a pro switching to the Z system must replace his $70 AF50 mm F1.8D with a Nikon Z lens that costs $500.
So yes. I expect “planned obsolescence” to be built into these cameras because the sense of pride and honor that gave us the great Japanese cameras of the past has faded.
Happy I found your blog! Just entered the world of mirrorless Fujifilm last week after 10+ years of shooting DSLR. It’s been fun seeing the differences.