Mirror less or DSLR Cameras – Which are Best?

If you look very broadly at camera technology over the years the SLR or Single Lens Reflex Camera has been the most popular type of camera for decades. If you pick up an SLR camera from the 19070’s and compare it with a current model they are, essentially the same thing. It’s very much the same basic technology and works in the same way. The light goes into the lens, is reflected via a mirror into the viewfinder and, when the shutter is depressed the mirror flips out of the way and the light hits either the digital sensor or film and the image is recorded.

This is always the way it has been for decades.

There is, of course, a good reason for this. SLR cameras are extremely good at what they do, they are reliable and extremely versatile. As technology has advanced camera manufacturers have improved the basic SLR design with a huge number of modes, metering methods, focus zones etc and have particularly focussed on increasing the light sensitivity and detail rendering of digital sensors. But, there hasn’t really been a significant, fundamental development or breakthrough in camera design since the dawn of digital almost 20 years ago.

That is until the last few years where the supremacy of the DSLR has been challenged by the new kid on the block – the mirror less camera. The mirror less camera is completely different. It works in a completely different way. In some ways it’s similar to the invention of the transverse engined car in the 1960’s. Up until then all cars had the engine pointing backwards and driving the back wheels. In the 19060’s transverse or cross engined cars which drove the front wheels became popular. There are several advantages to the front wheel drive system and today almost every car you buy is front wheel drive.

I think a similar thing will happen over the next few years in camera technology. To a certain extent SLR technology has come as far as it can and I think mirror less will take over. It’s a new fresh technology at the start of it’s development and mirror less cameras will continue getting better and better as the technology develops. To a certain extent the DSLR has come as far as it can.

So, which to buy? What are the new mirror less cameras like in real life use and are there any advantages to still having a DSLR?

I’m going to talk about my own experiences as that’s really all I have to go on! Other people may well have a different point of view and come to different conclusions but hopefully reading this will help you on your way to making the right mirror less/DSLR decision for you.

I started out photographing on Nikon DSLR cameras professionally as a wedding photographer in 2003. Since then I’ve photographed hundreds of weddings on Nikon equipment and never, ever been let down by a piece of Nikon equipment. I’ve dropped Nikon cameras, shot with them in the pouring rain and the freezing cold and never given it a second thought. I’ve always thought of the camera as a tool and the Nikon was like a spade in my hand. A rather dull, predictable tool!

I should probably also say that, prior to my professional photography, I had a long history, going back to my teenage years of photographing on film, processing and printing film myself and shooting with what are now vintage cameras. To my mind this process has a lot more soul and personality than shooting on digital and I spent a number of years really thinking of the Nikon cameras as being a computer rather than a camera in my hand.

So, after shooting Nikon for about 10 years along came the Fuji x100. I bought one as I was attracted by it’s looks, size and the fact that it was essentially silent in operation which is great for my type of documentary photography. I loved it in many ways but found the slow focus unusable. I tried and tried to get it tow work for me but I just couldn’t get along with it. It felt so nearly a great camera but wasn’t really usable for me for shooting weddings.

I kept an eye on the market. Bought an Nikon full frame and waited.

Then the Fuji XT1 came out. Much improved focussing I heard and a large number of wedding photographers made the switch. It sounded as though it still wasn’t as quick as my Nikon and didn’t have dual cards slots which I feel is important so for me it was a “no go”. Then Fuji introduced the X Pro 2 – dual card slots, very fast focus etc etc. This sounded to me like fairly much the perfect camera for me. I didn’t want to commit myself to spending the $1300 for the body plus lenses straight away so I decided to dip my toe in the mirror less water again and try a very reasonably priced XT10. My plan being that if it worked for me I could quickly upgrade to the dual card slot Xpro 2.

It was a revelation. I’m currently shooting with 2 XT10 bodies and using the Nikon DSLR as back up. I will shortly trade the Nikon in for an Xpro 2 or possibly XT2 when it comes out and go fully mirror less.

Why?

Firstly because the XT10 is a magnificent camera. My primary reason is that it feels right, it makes me shoot more creatively, it has soul, it feels like my friend, it works with me rather than for me. In short it’s a pleasure and a joy to work with. It literally gives me pleasure using it – I never felt that for my DSLR. I love having the dials on the top and it is instinctive for me to use in a way that the DSLR isn’t.

There’s also all of the usual things about size and discreetness which are true but, more importantly for me, I can use the electronic shutter and it’s essentially silent. Even the lovely mechanical shutter is very very discreet. In comparison the sound of a DSLR mirror slapping up and down is like a cracking whip every time you depress your finger.

This alone is awesome for me as a documentary wedding photographer.

The auto focus is faster than my Nikon using a Nikon 50mm lens. This is a fact. I have shot them next to each other and the XT10 locks focus in good light faster and more decisively than my Nikon. It’s not as good in poor light though.

Then of course you have the EVF. Other people have waxed lyrical about it and I’m not going to repeat all of that but it is completely revolutionary in most circumstances. It saves me a lot of time. It gives me confidence, it makes me more creative. With the best will in the world weddings are fast moving and chaotic. If I shot in a different way the EVF would be less important but for shooting rapidly changing documentary imagery in a wide and fast moving variety of light it’s amazing.

Amazing…..did I say amazing?

The image quality is better than from my DSLR. The images are sharper more of the time. They are often decisively razor sharp over and over again despite the fact that I can be a bit sloppy with my focussing. The lenses are beautiful, the quality of the final images is amazing, beautiful and consistently surpasses what I can personally achieve with my DSLR.

The colour and files are beautiful. I mean literally straight out of camera beautiful. My post processing time has been reduced, I now just use auto white balance and it’s 99% spot on all of the time. I have always been a RAW shooter – I’m questioning why I need to do that with this camera any more and am seriously considering shooting just Jpeg – the files straight from the camera are simply that good.

There are, however some areas where the Nikon wins. The Fuji isn’t great at focussing in low light and I’ve heard that the flash system isn’t that good. I shoot mostly natural light but often use flash on the wedding dance floor. In fairness I haven’t as yet got a Fuji flash so I am still using the Nikon equipment for this part of the day but my suspicion is that the Fuji may not be quite as good but I am sure that I will create a work around for this. Some people may currently find that there’s just simply more accessories and lens choices for a traditional DSLR but this may well change as things develop and the mirror less camera systems mature over the next few years.

One aspect of the cameras that does lag behind I think is the decisiveness of the shutter action. On my Nikon I can gauge the exposure to a fraction of a second – the shutter is fast and decisive and I don’t get quite the same positive action on the Fuji. This may be partly psychological and to do with not hearing a shutter click/mirror slap and it may be that it’s just different rather than not as good. However my sense is that it’s not quite as decisive.

I have found the focus tracking and focus system generally to be the equal if not, in some ways better than the Nikon. There’s certainly not much to choose between them and I think that the Fuji is more consistent in this area. I don’t personally really shoot fast moving subjects – sports or moving cars for example and my sense is that a traditional SLR would possibly be better at this but I know that the Fuji system is improving all the time. I should emphasise that this is for shooting in extreme conditions where things are moving very quickly. For most moving subjects the Fuji does a great job.

In conclusion, my personal advice for most photographers would be to invest in a mirror less system. I think that they will, in time supersede the traditional DSLR and, as technology develops, out perform them in every way. This is an exciting time to be a photographer as I think we are on the cusp of another technological revolution just as we were when we made the move from film to digital. For me the mirror less cameras put me more in touch with the creative process of making pictures, they have soul and personality at the same time as incorporating cutting edge technology. The DSLR, in comparison feels like a black lump of circuit board with a lens on. It’s utterly reliable, utterly predictable but in the end, to be honest, just a bit boring!

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