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There is great angst in the traditional reflex camera (mirror-based) 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 digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) that has resulted from Sony’s successful introduction of 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 accomodate lenses in the EF mount.  Nikon has to make the same assessment.  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.  In essence innovating to survive, 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.  More recently, Sony began offering multiple lines of full frame MILCs, the most recent of which, the A9, 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, and some Canon 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.

Deciding on a System

MILCs in the APS-C format were of little personal interest, but now that full frame MILCs are emerging, it is time to take a look 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.  My approach entails a careful comparison of capability vs. personal need.  Conceptually, it consists of:

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

  • Evaluating the quality of each product, and

  • Assigning a weight to how important that product is personally. 

The combination of all these factors taken together provides direction as to which system to buy into.  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 perferences.  (Much of the sometimes acrimonous noise on Internet results from ignoring the fact that photographers vary widely -- one size definitely does not fit all.)  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 set.  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 inceasing 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 involved are negatives for my uses.  Thus, there is no compelling reason to adapt Canon lenses to Sony bodies, other possible advantages notwithstanding.  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+

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

Both versions fair/sharpness mixed, 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 suggest Canon is more responsive

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)

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.  Briefly, those uses, in loose priority order, are listed below.  As may be readily seen, the list is telephoto-centric, headed by, in order of importance and frequency of use, 600mm f/4 (with 1.4X and  2X teleconverters), 400mm f/4 (with teleconverters) and 100-400mm zoom.  Needless to say, availability of quality versions of the three frequently used fixed aperture zooms -- f/2.8 and f/4, wide angle to 200mm telephoto -- are a given.  The availability of tilt-shift lenses is also an important consideration.

  • Nature & wildlife, especially birds

  • Sports, especially professional tennis

  • Family and portrait photography

  • Travel, especially architecture

  • Landscape and scenic photography

  • Macro, setups, tabletop

Here are the tradeoffs between DSLRs and MILCs, as perceived at present.

Attribute DSLR MILC
Body size, weight 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 excellent, Nikon very good 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 landscapes, travel, hiking, etc.  Obviously, there is a great deal of overlap, and neither is excluded from any application -- although DSLRs still seen to have the advantage for action photography.

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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