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Mirrorless versus DSLR
Which camera is best?
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May 2014   Better Pictures   Nikon   Canon    Fuji    LEICA   All Reviews


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What's What?



A DSLR is a Digital Single-Lens Reflex camera, today's most popular serious camera for everything.

"Reflex" means a mirror that reflects the image from the lens onto a screen which allows us to view the live optical image through a prism to compose and focus.

The mirror flips out of the way at the instant of exposure so the light can hit the image sensor to take the picture.

DSLRs offer the highest performance, shooting and autofocus speed and battery life, but are usually bigger and heavier than mirrorless cameras.

TLRs, Twin-Lens Reflex, use two similar lenses with one to view and the other to shoot. They were popular in the 1950s and 1960s, with one lens a few inches on top of the other. I'm not discussing these here.



"Mirrorless" cameras are a broad range of small new cameras that have DSLR-sized image sensors and often have interchangeable lenses.

Mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter because they have no reflex mirrors, which is why they're called mirrorless. They also have no glass screens, no Fresnel lenses and no prisms.

Instead, mirrorless cameras use a rear LCD or electronic viewfinder to show us an electronic image directly from the image sensor before the picture is taken.

This is swell, but it takes a lot of battery power to keep all the electronics up and feeding images to screens, and those images are often slightly delayed and therefore take longer to autofocus than with DSLRs.

Most DSLRs today offer a Live View function, which also lets us view the image directly from the sensor — but we still have to carry the whole camera, and DSLRs have no electronic finders yet; we have to look at the rear LCD during Live View.


Which is best?

I love my mirrorless Fuji X100S and new Fuji X-T1, but they don't replace my DSLRs. Just as men are very different from women, each is better at different things. Neither replaces the other, and you need both to make the world go around.

The Fujis are much better at skin tones and nailing perfect auto white balance under weird conditions, as well as getting perfect fill-flash rendition the first time without fiddling. Mirrorless weigh much less and let me set the menus and see what I've shot without ever having to take the camera from my eye. Bravo!

On the other hand, for serious nature and landscape shots, my DSLRs offer me a much broader range of lenses as well as my preference for the way Nikon and Canon render colors for these kinds of shots.

Mirrorless batteries die after a few hundred shots, while my battery is still running strong after a thousand shots on my DSLR.

If I'm working in my studio, my DSLR wins with no shutter delay and direct ground-glass manual focus.

For sports and action, nothing can keep up with a DSLR's AF system.

And so on and so on.

Whether we like it or not, we still have to pick the best camera for the job, and if we shoot more than one kind of thing, need more than one kind of camera if we intend to stay on top of an increasingly competitive photo market.

For fun and family trips, I love the light weight of my mirrorless X100S. I'm not going to carry a DSLR and lenses when a mirrorless camera works so well with one lens — but no mirrorless camera except the discontinued Canon EOS-M gives the color rendition I demand for dedicated nature and landscape shots.

For when I have to get serious, I grab my Canon 5D Mark III (best overall), Nikon D7100 or D610 (my favorite Nikons) or Nikon D800E (foolishly high resolution) and my big lenses.

Neither kind of camera replaces the other. Each is for something different. Heck, I grab different DSLRs depending on what I'm shooting. I use my Nikon D3 in my studio and my Canon 5D Mark III in the field — usually.

Neither kind of camera is better any more than men are better than women. It all depends on what you want to accomplish. Mirrorless are superb fun cameras, and DSLRs are the go-to camera for serious work. You can use a fun camera for serious work if you're less picky about color rendition than I am, and you can ruin your vacation lugging a DSLR and lenses around with your family — but it's always better to have the right camera for the job. Ultimately you need both a mirrorless and a DSLR system.

The good news is that you don't need to stay with the same brand, since lenses for one format don't work well on other formats, and even if you wanted to keep the same brand, no maker does a good job (or any job) in both kinds of cameras.

What's the best compromise if you only have one camera? The Nikon D3300 or Canon SL1! Each are as small and light as mirrorless cameras, and each offers full DSLR image quality and autofocus and handling speed for serious work and action.

Ten years ago we needed full-frame for optimum quality since digital cameras were so primitive, but today, DX and APS-C DSLRs are so good that the only real difference is that full-frame has narrower depth of field and bigger viewfinders than DX or APS-C DSLRs. I'm serious: tiny DSLRs today can make superb images indistinguishable from full-frame cameras. The results are the same except for depth of field!

I use fancier DSLRs myself because I demand direct-access buttons (not menus) to control my settings for each shot, but these tiny DSLRs all do the same things — and the picture quality is just as good — but they work a little more slowly and take a little longer to set up for each shot. Most people have no idea what all the buttons do on fancier DSLRs, so the small DSLRs are perfect for most people.

I hope this helps. You'll want both kinds of cameras, but never take more than one with you at a time. If you only have one camera and want the benefits of both DSLR and mirrorless, new DSLRs offer full performance in the tiniest packages ever. You win in every case; digital cameras are superb today.

Good luck!



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Mr. & Mrs. Ken Rockwell, Ryan and Katie.


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