Mirrorless camera hype
I have a confession to make. For the last two years I have owned, and used almost exclusively, a mirrorless Micro Four Thirds Olympus camera, specifically the OM-D E-M5 Mark II. No big deal, I hear you say. Why does that warrant a confession? Let me explain…
Prior to switching to the Olympus mirrorless system, I had been a very happy SLR shooter for 30 years. So why did I feel the need to the switch? Well, to be honest (and I’m almost ashamed to say this) I bought into the mirrorless “hype”. It seemed that every podcast I listened to, and every video I watched, was extoling the virtues of mirrorless cameras. Worse still, many of these “experts” were saying things like: “If you use a DSLR then you’re a dinosaur!”, “The DSLR is dead”, “Mirrorless is the wave of the future” and “I’ll never buy another DSLR”.
Many of the people making these claims were photographers I admired and I fell for the mirrorless argument 100%. I had utterly convinced myself that if I wasn’t shooting with a mirrorless camera, then I was somehow going to be creating inferior images. I weakened, sold all my DSLR gear and purchased the OM-D E-M5 MkII.
I’m not going to lie (this is a confession after all) – it’s a very good camera. Maybe even a great one. But after two years of using the E-M5 MkII, I’ve also come to realize that the initial “hype” surrounding the mirrorless wave was just that - hype. And that rather than being a “dinosaur”, a DLSR system is still the better option for me – and maybe for a lot of people?
6 reasons why a DSLR is better:
I’ve now made the switch back to a DSLR – a Nikon D7100, and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve only had the camera for a couple of weeks, but even in this short amount of time I’ve been able to establish exactly why it is I find the DSLR more user-friendly. What follows are my top six reasons why I prefer the DLSR camera system to the Olympus mirrorless (and most other mirrorless systems by association). Hopefully some of this may resonate with you, and maybe save some of us from going down a path that may not suit our photography and objectives.
Reason 1: Form Factor
My number 1 reason for preferring a DSLR is its form factor and size. I just like it. I like the solid heft, the weight, the volume, the mass that you get with a mid-range DSLR and battery grip attached. They have evolved over the last thirty years into ergonomic masterpieces of design and engineering that fit the hand (mine at least) perfectly. I pick one up and it just feels “right”. It feels like coming home, all warm, snug and cozy. OK, maybe that last one was a bit too much – but it’s also pretty much exactly how I feel about it. The OM-D E-M5 MkII on the other hand…
I’m just going to come right out and say it; it’s too small. I don’t have very large hands, but even so, I found it “cramped” as a camera, sans battery grip. Attach the two-part grip and things do get better – but still nowhere near as comfortable and ergonomic as a DSLR. Having said that, the higher-end mirrorless Olympus OM-D E-M1 has a much better handling than most other cameras, as do the mini-DSLR styled Panasonic DMC-GH3 and DMC-GH4. So it’s not necessarily a failing of all mirrorless cameras, just most of them.
Before I finish with the size, weight and ergonomics part of the equation, I want to clarify some things. My sense of “comfortable” when holding a camera may not equal yours. As I’ve said, I have 30+ years of using the molded polycarbonate style form factor of an SLR, so my muscle memory is geared up to respond to this type of camera design. If the new wave of “retro” styled cameras, like the OM-D E-M5, Fuji X series or the Panasonic rangefinder styled GX series of cameras is your first introduction to a serious camera, then you may not have any issue with the size, weight and ergonomics at all. In fact, what I consider being negative about them may very well be to your liking.
Photographers the world over are reveling in the experience of moving to mirrorless and drastically reducing the weight they carry with them. This is a good thing. But it also needs to be tempered with a touch of practicality. I do think that there is such a thing as “too small”.
Reason 2: Lenses
Number 2 in my preference for a DSLR is lens choice. No matter your allegiances to brand, there are way more choices for your lens arsenal with a DSLR. There just are. This may or may not get better in the future, depending on how many more lenses get rolled out for the different mirrorless systems. But as it stands, DSLR’s offer considerably more lens choice, no matter what your budget.
Reason 3: Bokeh
Keeping with the lens theme for a moment, my third reason is “bokeh”. For more information on the concept of creating beautiful backgrounds with bokeh, see the Nikonians articles “Bokeh revisited” and “What a lens can teach you”. If you are, like me, a fast aperture f1.8 or f2.8 guy (or gal), who likes to use those apertures to create a creamy, out-of-focus backgrounds, then you’re going to achieve this more easily with a DSLR. Again, you just are. Notice I said “more easily” with a DSLR. It’s not impossible to get a creamy, pleasing out-of-focus background with a Micro Four Thirds camera and lens combo, but it is more difficult. This is because the camera, in one sense, is working against you. The smaller sensor in the OM-D’s (and Panasonics) means that the depth of field is effectively doubled compared to the sensor of a full frame DLSR. An f2.8 lens on a full frame is really working like an f5.6 on Micro Four Thirds in terms of creating background bokeh. This is also true with an APS-C sized sensor, which is again smaller than a full frame sensor – giving you about one aperture in difference, so it’s not all roses there either. If bokeh is of prime (excuse the pun) importance to you, shoot full-frame, then APS-C, and then Micro Four Thirds.
Of course, what some see as a negative, others may see as a positive. If you are a landscape photographer, then you are going to get images with everything in crisp sharp focus, from edge to edge, very easily. Shooting at f4 with a Micro Four Thirds system is like f8 on full frame. Because of this, lenses on the OM-D are super sharp. The sharpness of a standard kit lens like the 40-150mm f4/5.6 on the OM-D is absolutely astounding. Even shot wide open, there’s just no image softness to speak of. A plus, or a minus depending on your wants and needs for your images.
Reason 4: Battery life.
4th reason why I prefer a DSLR has to be battery life. You get at least twice the amount of battery life using a DSLR as you do with a mirrorless system. And while I appreciate why this might be – and understand that they are getting better, it’s still nice to know that your camera is capable of taking 2000 shots before the batteries die – and not 200 (Ok, I exaggerate. But only just). Of course, you should always carry an extra battery no matter what system you shoot. But, I know of Sony shooters who need to take four or five spares with them to get through a days’ worth of shooting!
Reason 5: Autofocus Tracking Speed
The 5th reason I prefer DSLR’s to Micro Four Thirds would have to be autofocus – specifically tracking speed. Most mirrorless autofocus systems are still playing catch-up to the DSLR in terms of tracking and follow focus -especially at high speeds. This is, however, changing. Apparently the autofocus capabilities of the new OM-D E-M1 MkII are astonishing and equal the autofocus systems found in the pro-series DSLR’s. If that is true, then that’s fantastic news. At $2k USD for the body only (at the time of writing), you’d think that the EM-1 MkII should be something special in the autofocus department. Fortunately, it sounds like it is. But at the moment, you have to pay a lot of money to get that speed.
Reason 6: Image Quality
The 6th, and final reason I prefer a DSLR to Micro Four Thirds would be IQ (image quality). I’ve left this until last, because it is perhaps the most controversial. But I also think it is just basic, common sense. With some things in life, bigger is always going to be better and this is true with image sensors. I suppose you could argue about what “better” actually means, but when you compare a full frame sensor vs. APS-C vs. Micro Four Thirds sensors on the newest models, the full frame is always going to be “better” in low light, have more dynamic range and probably more resolving power than the APS-C, and then the Micro Four Thirds sensor. It’s not all about megapixels – I’ve said this often enough – but it is about the “quality” of those pixels and the density. At half the size of full frame, the sensors in Micro Four Thirds have plateaued at 20MP. Is 20MP bad? No, of course not. I’ve argued in the past that 10MP is more than enough for 90% of the world’s photographers. But what is the quality of those 20MP like? It’s a bit like the bokeh argument. If you want the absolute best IQ, then shoot with full frame sensors. Next level up is APS-C, and finally the Micro Four Thirds.
This is where the “good enough” argument comes in to play. What are you doing with your images? Are you printing 30 x 40” prints? Are you producing billboards for advertising? Or are you putting all your images online to only ever be seen on a computer screen? I suspect many of us are in that last category. And if that’s the case, then a Micro Four Thirds sensor at 16 to 20MP is plenty big enough. In fact, it’s overkill. Why should you have a 24MP DSLR then? There are two answers to that question; a: because that’s what the manufacturers sell us, and b: for cropping purposes. We can’t do anything about “a”, but if you are someone who crops into your images a lot, then you should seriously consider “b”. And again, that means the bigger the better.
A cautionary tale
A part of me will miss the compactness of mirrorless, despite all I’ve just said to the contrary. We all like to carry around less weight in our camera bags, so moving back to a bag full of DSLR gear will take some adjusting to. But even then, a D7100 body with 18-105mm lens isn’t that much weightier than some of the advanced amateur mirrorless offerings.
And as vain as it might sound, a part of me will also miss the retro-cool hipster look of the E-M5 Mark II. I fell for the whole ‘old-school’ charm of the E-M5 as much as anyone, although in the end it was also its undoing (for me at least). In terms of Nikon, the Df styling excites me as well, even if the Df may end up being a one-off for Nikon. Maybe it’s a possible upgrade path from my D7100, especially considering the Df is full frame.
I’m not trying to tell anyone what you should or shouldn’t buy. Use whatever works best for you. In the end, maybe this should be seen this as a cautionary tale? Don’t fall for the latest hype about camera gear just because such and such a celebrity/podcast talks about it. I spent two years using a camera system I “thought” I should be using, when in reality there was nothing wrong with what I had to begin with. Hopefully, others can learn from my stupidity.
Rather than being a veritable “dinosaur”, upon reflection (and a long sabbatical), I still believe the DSLR to be the superior system. Despite what the weight of “popular” opinion might claim otherwise. There’s plenty of life in the old dog yet.
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