There is great angst in the Canon camera 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. Major decisions await, perhaps the most consequential of which is whether to 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 EF lineup and adapters to accomodate EF mount lenses. 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 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. 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 mirrorless segment has grown, and some Canon users have switched, citing substantial advantages over DSLRs.
Deciding on a System
MILCs in the APS-C format were of little 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:
The summation of all these factors taken together provides direction
as to which system to buy into.
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 a lineup of image stabilized lenses, and their introduction of fluorite into their supertelephotos has reduced the image quality difference to the point where Canon only has a significant advantage – with their 600mm f/4 at least – when using the 2X extender. Nikon high end bodies are generally conceded to be better at motion tracking, although Canon is still the frame rate champ. Sony, of course, does not offer a 600mm lens for their MILCs, which eliminates their product line from consideration except through the use of adapters, other possible advantages notwithstanding. Below is my decision matrix comparing the current Canon and Nikon lineups.
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
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.
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.
Here are the tradeoffs, as perceived at present.
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 smaller because of the shorter flange distance. Longer lenses remain he 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 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 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 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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