It is interesting how just a few years back, one way to spark a debate was to talk about Nikon vs Canon. Websites and forums would be filled with endless discussions when someone would dare to post something like “I dumped my Nikon gear and switched to Canon” (and God forbid if you said anything against Pentax, it would be a quick shortcut to get death threats). Today, it seems like the gears have changed – people are much less enthusiastic about talking about DSLR brand differences. The much bigger war it seems like is now between DSLR vs Mirrorless. On one side of the fence, we’ve got DSLR shooters who defend their choice with statements like “you will only be able to take my DSLR when you pry it from my cold, dead hands” and on the other side of the fence, we now have people who say things like “mirrorless is the future, it is time for flapping mirrors to go”. Both sides have their points and arguments that make sense, but once mixed with emotions, such discussions often end up being inconclusive and meaningless. And now we have manufacturers engaging in direct attacks against each other. Sony, Fuji and a few others often compare their systems to DSLRs as part of their marketing campaigns, indicating weight / size and other advantages, whereas DSLR manufacturers keep recycling the same AF speed, reliability and system advantages. But one thing for sure – DSLRs are losing market share and interest in mirrorless technology is steadily growing. Let’s revisit the topic of DSLR vs mirrorless one more time and analyze a few more important factors.
Recently, as part of the launch of the X-Pro2, Fuji presented a slide that showed a mirrorless Camera on a scale with 2 cans of beer on one side, and a single DSLR on another, with text above stating “Extra 2 cans of 500ml beer”:
Which shows the level of absurdity and ridiculousness the subject of DSLR vs mirrorless is reaching today.
Nikon is obviously not happy with its financial performance, blaming the global state of the economy for not being able to reach its financial forecasts, quarter after quarter, year after year for the past few years now. While that is certainly one of the reasons for disappointing sales, both Nikon and Canon surely feel threatened by the mirrorless competition, which is moving faster and more aggressively. In a recent video, Nikon also compared its D500 with Mirrorless Cameras, specifically pointing out the faster and the more reliable AF system in comparison, so the rise of mirrorless cameras is definitely something Nikon is afraid of.
Do mirrorless cameras really have size and weight advantages? Are DSLRs still the way to go for faster and more reliable AF system? What are other considerations to keep in mind? Let’s take a look at these in a bit more detail.
Weight and Size Considerations
Having owned and used Nikon DSLRs for close to 10 years now, I relate to DSLRs more than mirrorless cameras: it is a system I can trust, build and expand on. DSLRs satisfy pretty much any kind of photography needs and genres. At the same time, during the past few years I have been shooting more and more with the new generation mirrorless cameras and I can see their appeal as well. One of the advantages of switching to mirrorless we see repeated over and over again, is related to weight and size. The big question is, are mirrorless cameras really that much smaller and lighter than DSLR cameras to make them that much more appealing in comparison? Our very own Bob Vishneski has already addressed this question in his in-depth analysis and his conclusion was that one should not look at size and weight advantages as the main factors when comparing full-frame mirrorless to DSLRs. True, mirrorless cameras are always going to be lighter than their DSLR counterparts – after-all, there are less parts and the cameras have thinner profiles, but the differences are not as significant as one might expect, and those differences are only relevant to camera bodies. Full-frame mirrorless offers zero advantages compared to full-frame DSLRs in lens size and weight! So if you have a bag full of gear, the only area where you can save space and weight is the camera body alone. And once you add a few more batteries to the mirrorless arsenal, those differences will decrease even further.
At launch, Sony’s original message was “lighter and smaller” too, but as of the Sony A7 II and the latest Sony G-series lens announcements, we can clearly see that Sony is no longer heavily pushing weight/size advantages anymore, focusing more on superior handling/ergonomics and delivering professional-quality lenses – the two areas where Sony has been struggling so far. Well, those new G-series lenses are no lighter than their DSLR counterparts, simply because you cannot defeat the laws of optics; after-all, the image circle of the full-frame system is the same on both. While shorter flange distance might allow for specific lens designs that might offer some size and weight advantages, in the grand scheme of things, they are not as significant at the end of the day.
Where mirrorless does in fact offer weight and size considerations, is if we look at smaller APS-C sensors. Sadly, DSLR manufacturers have been very slow at offering compelling lens choices for their APS-C DSLR cameras. For example, if we compare Fujifilm’s lenses to Nikon’s DX lenses, we will see that the former offers far better lens choices that are specifically made for the Fuji X mount, whereas most of Nikon’s DX lenses are slow, consumer-grade zoom lenses, which makes the Nikon DX shooter opt out for the more expensive, bulkier and heavier full-frame / FX lenses. In such situations, mirrorless is the obvious winner, because lenses designed specifically for the smaller sensor are always going to be lighter and more compact. Canon is not better in this regard either – most of Canon’s APS-C lenses are limited to slow zoom lenses as well.
APS-C DSLR Future
And this is why I have been saying for years that APS-C DSLRs do not have a future. Without a solid line of APS-C lenses, neither Nikon nor Canon can offer a truly equivalent system to mirrorless. Four years ago, I wrote an article titled “why DX has no future“, in which I argued about this exact point: lack of high-quality glass, leaving DSLRs at a disadvantage in terms of weight and bulk when compared to mirrorless. In between and especially after the Nikon D500 announcement, a number of our readers have questioned my article, saying that I was wrong with my prediction back then. I must admit, I definitely thought that things would happen quicker than they have been, but I am still holding on to my prediction – I believe that APS-C mirrorless will take over APS-C DSLRs in the future. Mirrorless camera manufacturers like Fuji, Olympus, Panasonic and others have been focusing heavily on building lenses specifically for their mounts and the size / bulk advantages are clear: they certainly do offer a large selection of lenses which now surpasses the selection of lenses that both Nikon and Canon offer for their APS-C cameras. And not only in quantity, but also in quality! Nikon and Canon failed to make truly attractive APS-C lenses, focusing much of their efforts in making full-frame lenses instead, and at this point, I believe it is too late for them to catch up. Here, mirrorless already has the undeniable advantage. Why would you choose a Nikon D3300 kit, if you can pick up a Sony A6000 kit for the same price, ending up with a more compact and innovative camera? And this is just the beginning – cameras like the new Sony A6300 will be leading in AF performance and reliability, which DSLRs soon won’t be able to compete with.
While Nikon did indeed do a phenomenal job with the release of the D500, this high-end DX camera only interests a specific niche of photographers who are into sports and wildlife photography (keep in mind that I have predicted this camera back in 2012, as it states in the above-mentioned article, in reference to a D400) – not everyone is interested in spending $2K on an APS-C camera that can shoot 10 fps, when a full-frame DSLR or mirrorless can be bought for less money. DSLR manufacturers successfully continue to sell such gear, because of system superiority – no mirrorless manufacturer today has equivalent super telephoto lens choices.
Buying into a “System”
When we look at the sales data from the past few years, things look pretty confusing – if mirrorless is the future, why do DSLRs still dominate the sales charts globally? In my opinion, there are several reasons for this. First, it takes a while to influence the potential buyer with the message “bigger is not always better”. The word “mirrorless” is relatively new and educating people about its advantages is taking time. Second, people generally resist switching systems due to existing investments. If one already owns a bunch of lenses and accessories, they avoid going through the hassle of selling everything and re-acquiring gear. It is an expensive process both in terms of gear expenditures (selling used gear, especially cameras and accessories, generally does not yield much money to reinvest in an equivalent system from another manufacturer) and time to learn and adapt to new tools. And lastly, before making the move, photographers often assess the camera system as a whole and put deep thoughts into what pros and cons they will have to go through when buying into a new system. That right there is a huge disadvantage of the mirrorless system today: it does not offer the same number of tools, accessories and lenses when compared to DSLRs, which puts off many enthusiasts and professionals from making the jump.
A DSLR shooter has a lot of options. One could start out with portrait photography, then move to macro photography, then perhaps landscapes / architecture and if they ever wanted to, they could also get into wildlife photography; lens choices are there for pretty much every type of photography. The same goes for accessories – chances of finding compatible flash guns, TTL speedlights, triggers and many other accessories are higher for DSLRs than they are for mirrorless cameras, just because they have been out much longer and have been widely accepted as the gold standard among professionals. Because of these system advantages, many photographers have been quite cautious about moving to mirrorless.
But things are changing fast. If a couple of years back mirrorless had a very small selection of lenses, today that list has grown tremendously, covering many photography needs. The biggest holes to fill are still in specialized lenses like tilt/shift and super telephotos, but that will be coming fairly soon, especially once mirrorless catches up in the autofocus department.
Mirrorless vs DSLR AF Performance
Speaking of which, if a couple of years back one could laugh at how bad autofocus was on mirrorless cameras, things are changing rapidly today, in favor of mirrorless. Unless DSLR manufacturers find ways to convert optical analog output into digital for further analysis, mirrorless will soon surpass DSLRs in AF performance and especially AF accuracy. How? It is quite simple: data derived directly from the recording medium (camera sensor) cannot be analyzed on a DSLR, because that path is blocked by the mirror and the closed shutter in front of the sensor. Autofocus is performed via the AF module, which receives light / analog image from the secondary mirror, as described in our Phase Detection Autofocus article. In comparison, mirrorless cameras have to see through the camera sensor, which allows information projected on the sensor to be scanned and analyzed before capture. Today, mirrorless cameras have phase-detection sensors built right on the imaging sensor and once that information is combined with exposure and other relevant data, the possibilities are practically endless. We have already seen how effective face recognition can be on mirrorless cameras, and if manufacturers continue to make improvements in that area, soon enough every image you take will be tack sharp, with the camera automatically focusing on the nearest eye of the person. Some cameras are already capable of recording images before the shutter is released, to avoid taking pictures of subjects with their eyes closed, and we have already seen cameras taking a picture at the moment the subject smiles. You cannot have such advanced intelligence on DSLRs, not until light continuously reaches some kind of imaging sensor. Tracking subjects gets easier with advanced analysis of the scene and the camera can even potentially predict subject movement and its direction.
In fact, check out the AF capabilities of the latest Sony A6300 and how it does with capturing fast moving subjects:
With a whopping 425 focus points, the A6300 can analyze a lot of information to accurately focus and track a subject. While this kind of technology has not made its way into other, more advanced / higher-end mirrorless cameras, the A6300 can be looked at as a “test bed” for what we will see in the future. This kind of intelligence will bring superiority of mirrorless cameras over DSLRs rather quickly. It is just a matter of time – we can expect the next iteration of Sony full-frame cameras to have such amazing AF capabilities.
In addition, mirrorless cameras do not have to be restricted in terms of focus point coverage like DSLRs do – focus points can exist all over the sensor, not only allowing the photographer to choose any part of the frame for focusing, but also give the ability for the AF system to utilize more focus points for subject tracking.
Battery Life Challenges
Most mirrorless camera manufacturers shot themselves in their feet by trying to make mirrorless smaller and lighter. Because of that, companies like Sony have been recycling the same lightweight batteries that do not have enough capacity to shoot more than a few hundred frames. For mirrorless to truly compete with DSLRs, manufacturers need to start offering cameras with much beefier batteries. Until we see some real advancements in battery technology and power usage, the best thing to do at this point is to increase battery capacity. If battery life can be doubled now, it will surely make mirrorless cameras much more attractive to current DSLR shooters. And if that increases camera size a little, so be it – a lot of DSLR shooters complain about mirrorless cameras being too small for their fingers anyway.
Lack of Innovation
If we compare DSLRs to mirrorless cameras in terms of technological advancements, it is clear that DSLRs do not deliver as much innovation anymore. We can perhaps get better resolution, fps, better video features, better AF modules and perhaps more built-in features like WiFi and GPS, but that’s not enough to truly excite the younger generation of photographers. Mirrorless cameras will continue to provide many more features to be excited about, because possibilities are truly endless. A lot can be done with EVFs and sensor output alone. With advanced data analysis, we could soon start seeing sensors capable of delivering practically unlimited dynamic range. What if a camera could capture images continuously, adjusting exposure on different parts of the scene, then stitching all of that information into a single RAW file? No more burned highlights to deal with or harsh shadows to recover! Like I’ve said, endless possibilities.
Conclusion – Are We There Yet?
While mirrorless is definitely advancing fast, there are some real issues that still need to be addressed before I can recommend them fully over DSLRs. Better battery life, more reliable autofocus system (particularly for shooting fast and unpredictable action), larger buffer, better lens choices (especially super telephoto), improved / smoother EVFs, WiFi + GPS and better ergonomics are all areas of improvement for mirrorless cameras. The gaps are still there, but they are closing fast. Within the next few years, we should see camera manufacturers offer mirrorless options that can truly compete with modern DSLRs in every way, but it has not happened yet. Developing super telephoto lenses will take some time too, so it will probably be a few more additional years until we see fast 400mm+ prime lenses.
No matter how we look at it, I believe that the clock for DSLRs has already been ticking. Unless Nikon and Canon get into the mirrorless game now, they will lose out heavily later. DSLRs might be selling better than mirrorless today, but the situation will surely change, it is just a matter of time. While both companies currently offer mirrorless systems, neither CX nor EOS M can compete directly with other mirrorless systems on the market today. Plus, both mounts seem to be heavily underdeveloped and more or less abandoned. Canon has been staying away from the US market with its mirrorless updates, whereas Nikon’s foray into the mirrorless world seems to be coming to a halt – the last time the company released a CX lens was two years ago…
I am not suggesting Nikon and Canon to develop new mirrorless mounts. In fact, I believe it would be a mistake now, because they would have to start over with lens development, which they are already pretty late in the game for, as it takes years to develop a solid line of lenses for a new mount. My suggestion would be to start out with a DSLR-like mirrorless camera with the same flange distance as the current mounts. If Nikon and Canon can get their feet into the mirrorless market and invest more time and resources into making solid cameras, they will be able to keep their existing customers for a while and continue enjoying their market dominance. But if they act too slow, they risk of becoming the next Kodaks of the photography world.
What do you think about this? Please share your thoughts below!
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