There is great angst in the traditional digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR)blogosphere, and it's all due to the rise of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (MILCs). The problem is, how to respond to the disruptive impact on reflex cameras (mirror-based) that has resulted from Sony’s success with MILCs. Literally decades of investment and expertise are said to be up in the air as Canon, after having launched its own successful “M-mount” line of APS-C MILCs, now contemplates adding full frame MILCs. Nikon is caught in a similar dilemma. Major decisions await, perhaps the most consequential of which is whether Canon will retain the EF full frame mount (with over 130 million lenses sold) or move to the shorter flange distance that mirrorless enables -- a change that would require a whole new line of full frame lenses comparable to the current EF lineup -- as well as adapters to accommodate lenses in the EF mount
. Nikon, faced with the same choice, appears to have opted for a new mount. Herein we give our personal perspective as a long time Canon (full frame) user.
The Sony MILC Effect
For a few years now, Sony has had considerable success with its MILC lineup. After taking over Minolta’s camera product line, Sony found that it could gain little sales traction vs. the Canon/Nikon DSLR duopoly. Although not the first to the MILC table, Sony soon launched a line of physically small mirrorless APS-C cameras, with a highly advanced feature set and imaging sensors that captured photos exhibiting a very high dynamic range and reduced noise at high ISO values. Sony's most recent full frame MILCs have set the bar very high. The A9, for example, offers professional quality specs, including a maximum shooting rate of 20 frames per second, a virtual impossibility for DSLRs due to the mechanical limitations on flipping a reflex mirror at high rates.
The Sony MILC line has been especially popular with those who value small and light, in some cases despite the rather cramped ergonomics that result therefrom. And, the fact that other brands of lenses can be used via adapters hasn't hurt sales either. The mirrorless segment has grown to the point where it constitutes about one-third of the ILC market, and some Canon and Nikon users have switched, citing substantial advantages over DSLRs. Most people now concede that MILCs will continue to make inroads into the total ILC marketplace, although at what pace and in which segments remains very much uncertain.
The Personal Equation
MILCs in the APS-C format were of little personal interest, but now that high quality full frame MILCs are emerging, it is time to take a look at what they offer. The sensible view is that -- from a gear and technical perspective, leaving entirely aside the artistic aspects of photography -- one should view cameras as a system, including bodies, lens lineup, flashes, accessories, ergonomics, support, etc. -- realizing all the while that some aspects are subject to quantification and others are matters of preference. Needless to say, answers will vary greatly depending on individual use cases and how each photographer judges it best to fulfill the requirements of those uses. This entails a careful comparison of capability vs. personal need. The following list encompasses my photographic interests, in rough priority order.
In concept at least, the process of matching personal priorities against alterntive brand choices consists of the following steps:
The combination of all these factors taken together provides direction
as to which system to buy into. All of the potential benefits
must, of course, be
weighed against the costs involved.
All of the potential benefits must, of course, be weighed against the costs involved.For example, having finally become financially able to do so, in 1999 I decided to go into bird photography in a big way. I was using Minolta at the time, and I realized that the Minolta product line was not the best choice. The products I put the most weight on were supertelephoto lenses, a prerequisite for bird photography -- for which the 600mm f/4 is the gold standard. At the time, only Canon had image stabilized versions, a major differentiator vs. Nikon and Minolta. But also Canon had decent image stabilized zooms, including 100-400mm and 28-135mm products, as well as a full line of tilt-shift lenses.
At the time Canon clearly best met my new interests and preferences. But equally importantly, the cost of changing brands was relatively small since I had only a limited investment in Minolta gear. The cost of a change now would be much higher. But, is a change warrented? And are MILCs ready to displace DSLRs for my applications?
The following analysis provides a quick and perhaps incomplete view of the tradeoffs between DSLRs and MILCs -- all with respect to my particular uses. Here are the tradeoffs between DSLRs and MILCs, as perceived at present.
Within the above use cases, DSLRs continue to be the most responsive performers where quick reaction and minimal lag is vital, areas such as sports and action photography. With their light weight, compact size, high DR, low noise and ample viewfinder extras (zebras, focus peaking, histogram, etc.), MILCs appear well matched to travel, hiking, etc. Landscapes are an oft-touted application, but that is more a result of Sony's high dynamic range sensors than the utility of mirrorless specifically for landscapes -- live view works quite well. Obviously, there is a great deal of overlap, and neither is excluded from any application -- although DSLRs still seem to have the advantage for professional action photography.
Mirrorless fans project the impression that MILCs solve all photographic gear problems. And, DSLR die-hards seem to resist all encroachments. (Much of the sometimes acrimonious noise on Internet results from ignoring the fact that photographers vary widely, both in wants and means -- one size definitely does not fit all.) Given my particular interests and uses -- as well as the technical characteristics cited above -- it is worth asking, what features characteristic of current MILCs would be most useful personally? This list will vary by individual, so the list below is not meant to apply to anyone else, especially those who hike, travel or do street photography, where size and weight are critical.
As may be seen, mirrorless checks many boxes, but not all -- especially action based sports and wildlife photography, which are among my most important applications. And, EVF is not an exclusive favorite for tripod-based setup imaging, such as landscapes and architecture; rear screen live view is a more than adequate choice. Thus, for the present there seems to be little to be gained by a switch to mirrorless -- although it seems clear that mirrorless has a very promising future and cannot be summarily dismissed as a choice down the road.
Having bypassed MILCs for the near term, any possible system change would involve the top DSLR brands, i.e the CaNikon duopoly. The short answer is, if I were to go through the same decision making process today the overall answer would be the same. However, today's comparison would produce a much more balanced result. Nikon has long since added image stabilized lenses to its lineup, and their introduction of fluorite into their supertelephotos means that Canon's most significant differentiator is their exceptionally high quality 2X extender -- which just happens to be an important part of my gear setup for bird photography. Nikon high end bodies are generally conceded to be better at motion tracking, although Canon is the frame rate champ and also makes all AF points available with f/8 lens combinations -- ideal for f/4 supertelephotos with 2X extenders.
Canon has finally incorporated on-chip ADCs, thus increasing dynamic range -- but Sony and Nikon are still the best in that regard. Sony, of course, does not offer a 600mm lens for their MILCs, and their small size ergonomics as well as the EVF viewfinder delays and high battery drain characteristics of MILCs are negatives for my uses. Thus, there is no compelling reason to adapt Canon lenses to Sony bodies, other possible advantages notwithstanding -- especially considering that adapters may compromise some functionality. It should be noted that all three systems give excellent results for many, perhaps most, applications, even though one product or another may have an edge in specific areas, advantages that often are not significant in practice, especially for general purpose photography. Below is my decision matrix comparing the current Canon and Nikon lineups.
An astute reader might note that Canon's advantages in the above table mostly come down to a better 2X teleconverter, a higher quality lineup of tilt-shift lenses and the exceptional 11-24mm f/4 wide zoom -- a thin margin indeed. However, and perhaps most importantly, unlike my switch from Minolta to Canon decades ago, the cost of switching now would be extremely high -- and for my uses the benefits engendered by superior camera bodies would be countered by sacrifices I am not prepared to make in the lens lineup.
Which is Best?
In summary MILCs have advantages in some metrics and DSLRs have advantages in others. On the MILC side, not only can bodies be lighter and smaller, but wide angle lenses can be made smaller because of the shorter flange distance. Longer lenses remain large and heavy. Reduced size and weight will be important to some, but the cramped real estate and small grips resulting therefrom are actually a disadvantage to others. Perhaps the most important advantages for MILCs (at least for what I do) derive from removal of the mirror and direct use of the sensor for certain functions. Two factors leap out. Frame rates can be faster with removal of the reflex mirror, and autofocus coverage can approach full frame -- as opposed to the limited center-of-frame AF arrays present in DSLRs. Electronic viewfinders can be populated with all sorts of enhanced information, but they will have to overcome the lag involved, although that will diminish as technology matures. Because of the EVF power draw, battery life will be a concern for a long time.
In the final analysis, the underlying technology isn't what's
important. Any decision should rely on quality metrics and functional capabilities that
contribute to capturing the kind of images one wants. At present,
DSLRs are better at some things and MILCs are better at others. Over
time, indications are that the playing field will tilt more and more toward mirrorless. At any point in time different photographers, with
different needs and use cases, will make different choices. So long as
the choice is a rational one, neither is wrong.
In the final analysis, the underlying technology isn't what's important. Any decision should rely on quality metrics and functional capabilities that contribute to capturing the kind of images one wants. At present, DSLRs are better at some things and MILCs are better at others. Over time, indications are that the playing field will tilt more and more toward mirrorless. At any point in time different photographers, with different needs and use cases, will make different choices. So long as the choice is a rational one, neither is wrong.
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