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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.

DSLRs vs Mirrorless Personal Case for Mirrorless Canon vs Nikon

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.

  • Nature & wildlife, especially birds

  • Sports, especially professional tennis

  • Family and portrait photography

  • Travel, especially historic architecture

  • Landscape and scenic photography

  • Macro, setups, tabletop

In concept at least, the process of matching personal priorities against alterntive brand choices consists of the following steps:

  • Deciding which of each maker’s products might be useful,

  • Evaluating the quality of each product,

  • Assigning a weight to how important that product is personally, and

  • Assessing the cost tradeoffs associated with all choices.

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.  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?

Comparing DSLRs and MILCs

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.

DSLRs and Mirrorless Compared
Attribute DSLR MILC
Body style Large and heavy due to mirror, pentaprism & flange distance Smaller & lighter due to reduced flange distance; however long, fast lenses just as large as DSLR lenses
Viewfinder Optical: Scene brightness only, limited overlays Electronic: Advanced but with lag and high battery draw
Autofocus Fast but needs microadjustment, central AF array Near full sensor coverage, more accurate but not as fast
Frame rate Limited by mechanical reflex mirror Potentially much higher due to absence of mirror
Battery life Long life due to OVF Reduced life due to EVF
Lenses Limited to OEM and third party w/ same mount Many brands available via adapter; wide angle smaller
Shutter noise Always present Can be noiseless
Video Limited, by mfgr choice rather than technology More video oriented, but not inherently better
Ergonomics Very mature user interfaces and ergonomics Still maturing, at least with Sony
Support Canon and Nikon excellent Still maturing, at  least with Sony

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.

The Personal Case for Mirrorless
Mirrorless Feature Photographic Benefits Value
Higher frame rates Better action capture in sports and wildlife High
Lighter, smaller body styles Lighter is good, smaller can be a negative Med
Full sensor AF coverage Good for composition, if and only if fast enough High
EVF focus peaking, zebras, histogram, etc. Beneficial for image technical quality High
Eye tracking for action Useful but does it work for birds and wildlife? Med
No need for AF microadjustment Useful, but high-end DSLRs AFMA very well Low
No mirror flip sound Prevents bird/wildlife startle reflex (rare) Low
Smaller wide angle lenses Beneficial, but long, fast lenses not helped Low
  Photographic Negatives  
 High battery drain due to EVF Reduced battery life, especially if long waits Med
EVF display lag Negative for action, sports, wildlife, etc. High
EVF for tripod-based landscape & architecture Irrelevant, rear LCD live view better Low

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. 

Current Tradeoffs

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.

Canon & Nikon Comparison vs. Personal Uses

Gear

Canon

Nikon

Best

Comment

Use Cases

Value**

Action camera

1DX II

D5

-

D5 better AF tracking; 1DX II 14fps & all AF points w/2X *

Birds, sports

High+

All-around high MP

5D IV

D850

N

Both excellent but D850 better in many areas

All-around

High

600 f/4

600 f4L II

600 FL VR

-

Canon better image quality w/2X *, No same site res. test

Birds, Nature

High+

1.4X, 2X extenders

v. III

1.4X, 2X

C

Canon 2X * yields better image quality on all supertelephotos

Birds, Nature

High+

500 f/4

500 f4LII

500 f4 FL

-

Both versions excellent, Canon better w/2X

Birds, Nature

Low

500 f/5.6

400DOII+1.4X

500 f5.6 PF

-

Nikon announced, no info; Canon 400 DO II excellent w/TCs

Birds, Nature

Low

200-500 f5.6 zoom

100-400 1.4X

200-500 f5.6

-

Nikon one stop faster, Canon slightly sharper

Sports, wildlife

Low

400 f/2.8

400 f2.8LII

400 f2.8 FL

-

Both versions excellent, Canon better w/2X

Sports, wildlife

Low

400 f/4

400 DO II

300 + 1.4X

C

Canon sharper & w/1.4X vs Nikon & w/2X, Nikon no 800mm

Flight, wildlife

High+

300 f/2.8

300 f2.8LII

300 f2.8VR

-

Both versions excellent, Canon better w/2X

Sports, wildlife

Low

200-400 1.4X zoom

200-400 f/4

180-400 1.4

-

Nikon 180-400 TC1.4 FL not yet comparison tested

Sports, wildlife

Low

xxx-400 zoom, 1.4X

100-400 II

80-400 II

C

Canon sharper bare & with 1.4X, Nikon wider

Sports, nature

High+

70-200 f/2.8 IS

70-200L IS II

70-200 FL

-

Both versions excellent, Nikon FL a bit sharper but much > $

Portrait, all

High

24-1xx f/4 IS zoom

24-105L IS

24-120 VR

S N

Both versions OK @ f8, Nikon longer, Sigma best

All-around

High

24-70 f2.8 zoom

24-70 f/2.8LII

24-70G VR

N

All versions good, Nikon flatter field and has VR

All-around

Low

xx-35 f/2.8 zoom

16-35 f/2.8 III

17-35 2.8D

C

Canon much sharper

Scenic

Low

xx-24 wide zoom

11-24mm f4

14-24 f/2.8

C

Canon wider, Nikon f/2.8 vs Canon f/4 (usually stopped down)

Scenic

Med

Tilt-Shift 17/19 mm

17mm TS-E

19mm PC-E

-

Canon wider, no same site resolution test

Scenic,Architec.

Med

Tilt-Shift 24mm

24 TS-E II

24mm PC-E

-

Both good optically, Nikon tilt & shift not independent

Scenic,Architec.

Med

Tilt-Shift 45/50mm

50mm TS-E

45mm PC-E

C

Canon sharper, Nikon tilt & shift not independent

Architecture

Med

Tilt-Shift 85/90mm

90 TS-E I/II

85mm PC-E

C

Canon sharper, Nikon tilt & shift not independent

Macro, setup

Low

Tilt-Shift 135mm

135mm TS-E

-

C

No Nikon equivalent

Macro, setup

Low

Tele-macro

180mm

200mm

N

Both good optically, Nikon sharper

Bugs, blooms

Med

Flash, accessories

600EX RT

?

-

Anecdotally, Nikon flash better metering, Canon radio control

Flash Fill

Med

Live View

 

 

C

Canon's Dual Pixel Autofocus (DPAF) better, faster

Scenic,Architec.

Med

Video

 

 

-

Not evaluated; however DPAF is highly useful for video

Action

Low

Ergonomics,controls

 

 

-

A matter of personal preference and familiarization

Usability

Med

Support

 

 

-

Anecdotal accounts favor Canon slightly

Info, repair

Med

"Best" reflects properties that significantly impact image quality (MP, DR, noise, MTF, teleconverter, zoom range) or functionality (AF, IS/VR, tilt-shift)

* Most of my bird images are made w/600mm & 2X

** Value = importance to me for my uses (birds, nature, sports, portraits, scenic, travel, macro)

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.

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