Buying a Camera for Photography in 2018

Buying a Camera for Photography in 2018

In recent years, camera technology has been evolving at an extremely fast pace. There are many players with a plethora of options on the market at any given time, so just how do we choose a camera for photography in 2018?

Just a few years ago, I would have wholeheartedly recommended a DSLR to a professional, a mirrorless camera to an enthusiast, and a point-and-shoot camera to anyone wanting something light to slip in their pocket. Now, the lines are blurring more and more. Our phones have taken on the role of point-and-shoot cameras and mirrorless offerings are increasingly closing the gap with professional-level DSLRs. In some cases, mirrorless cameras are even exceeding the capabilities of DSLRs. 

So, for those starting out their professional careers or looking to build a portfolio with the goal of starting a business, where should you look? What should you consider when investing in a system? Should you go mirrorless? Get a DSLR? APS-C or 35mm full frame? Let’s look at some advantages and disadvantages of different systems. 

APS-C or 35mm Full Frame

If there is a single straightforward reason to go for a full-frame sensor over an APS-C sensor, it is noise performance. By and large, when you compare sensors of the same generation, a full-frame sensor will have better noise performance. However, this difference is so small for many applications that it may not even be relevant to your photography. 

One other consideration might be depth of field. You will get a slightly shallower depth of field on a full-frame sensor for a given aperture. It’s up to you to decide if less or more in focus is important to your photography. 

Advantages of DSLRs Over Mirrorless Systems

It may seem at times like DSLRs are being usurped by mirrorless offerings, however, there are still several good reasons to pick up a DSLR in 2018. Primarily, these revolve around legacy, usability, and the viewfinder. 

DSLRs have been around for quite some time now and are built on the foundation of the decades of experience held by major camera manufacturers like Canon and Nikon. This means that you can count on a wide selection of lenses and accessories being available for your camera. It also means that the dozens of generations of cameras before them have been used as a base for their control system refinement. You can also (almost always) count on these cameras being finished products at release time. 

For many, the size and heft of DSLRs make them more comfortable to use. For some, the grip gives them space to put large hands. For others, the weight reassures them that the camera is built well enough to withstand the tortures of professional use. Although mirrorless camera build quality is getting better with every generation, DSLRs like the Nikon D850 and Canon 5D Mark IV have a decidedly more solid feeling to them than most mirrorless cameras. 

Due to simple physics, DSLRs have much better battery life than mirrorless cameras. With a mirrorless camera, the sensor needs to be always on and a high-resolution EVF needs constant power. Therefore, if you need to go all day on one battery, perhaps a DSLR is a good option for you. 

The final point about DSLRs that really helps them stand out from mirrorless cameras is their viewfinders. The prism system of SLR cameras gives you a direct view through the lens. For some, this feels right and an electronic viewfinder can never replace it. After all, a camera has to be comfortable and convenient or you won’t enjoy using it. 

Advantages of Mirrorless Systems Over DSLRs

Mirrorless cameras are being developed from the ground up by manufacturers who are innovating in a space that hasn’t been around for very long. These companies are pushing the boundaries of what is possible and trying new approaches to advance the machines we use to make photographs. 

The first reason you might consider a mirrorless camera as your tool of choice is the electronic viewfinder (EVF). This replacement for the mirror and prism setup that has served SLR cameras for so long brings about several benefits. First, much more information can be displayed on these high-resolution screens. Not only are your current settings able to be displayed, but features like 3D spirit levels, double exposure previews, histograms, and 100 percent zoom previews can be incorporated into the viewfinder. You can even review your images inside there, which is a huge benefit in bright situations. Probably the biggest benefit of these screens, however, is the real-time preview of exposure and color that is possible while you shoot. 

It was only a short time ago that a blanket statement of “mirrorless cameras for size and weight” would have made sense. However, Sony’s full-frame mirrorless options and even Fujifilm’s X-H1 are now getting closer and closer to DSLR territory in terms of size and weight. However, if you are looking for a smaller, lighter body with great performance, there are still some excellent offerings in the mirrorless space that will save your back and some space in your bag. Take the Fujifilm X-E3 or X-T2 for example. These are both capable cameras in a very small package.

One interesting benefit of making many of the functions of a camera software based is the ability to enhance functionality through firmware updates. Companies like Fujifilm have had no reservations in updating their existing cameras with the best software they have even years after release. While one might argue that this is simply an approach to releasing cameras before they are done, you can guarantee that the camera you bought will gain some additional functionality over time. 

Recent cameras like the Sony a9 have shown the potential of mirrorless technology clearly. By making use of a stacked sensor and the lack of moving parts, the a9 is able to achieve 20 frames per second at in raw at its full resolution of 24 megapixels. This is all while focusing in between shots and providing an accurate representation of the exposure and colour of the final image in the viewfinder. There is potential for quite amazing technology to be implemented over time in the mirrorless space. 

Upcoming Nikon and Canon Mirrorless Systems

What will make this choice even more interesting in the coming months are the developments Nikon and Canon are making in the mirrorless realm. These have the potential to truly change the way many people shoot. If both companies can maintain their lens mount and accessory system but produce a mirrorless body, I believe we’ll see a huge shift in the market. 

Both companies have a history of producing consumer-grade mirrorless cameras, but a professional-level body that supports their existing ecosystems would make things very interesting for the industry over the next couple of years. I believe that it will push even Sony and Fujifilm to make huge developments in their own systems. As such, if you’re looking to go mirrorless and are already heavily invested in Nikon or Canon glass, it may pay to wait until the companies make their announcements. 

In Conclusion

As you can see, the gap has shrunk between technologies that used to be so far apart. APS-C sensors are now an excellent choice, as are mirrorless bodies. Developments in all fields have brought us to a place where it is mostly preferences that are going to make us choose between brands, technologies, and systems. Decisions need to be made now on specific features or available lenses more than one brand or category having significantly better technology. I hope that this has been helpful for you. 

For those who’ve already made their decisions, it would be great to add to this discussion in the comments and make this a great resource for those looking at purchasing a new camera. What were your considerations when investing in your current system? 

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30 Comments

John Palisoc's picture

I have been saving money for a full frame mirrorless for years, and now that I have the funds, I think that APS-C is close enough to full frame for 90% of my purposes: travel and flower/nature closeups. Would be nice if Sony kept refining their APS-C lens choices!

Dylan Goldby's picture

Indeed. I think this is where Fujifilm has a clear advantage in the APS-C space.

Hugh Dom's picture

Part of the reason they don't is I think a lot of people are using FF lens on their A6XXX series cameras and Sony probably doesn't mind the extra profit from them. There is a crop factor that people will have to sort out what the range becomes for sure but they do work and make great images. Plus, you can pick up a used A7 for not much and use the same lens.

Deleted Account's picture

Thanks for an article I was prepared to hate, but didn't because you approached the subject with balance often lacking in other, similar treatments.
An advantage of full frame over APS-C DSLRs, you didn't mention, is the brighter viewfinder. While mirrorless can be even better, within DSLRs this can be a big advantage in low light situations.

Dylan Goldby's picture

This is true. I remember going from a D200 to a D700 way back in the day and feeling that huge change. I recently went from my Fujifilm X-H1 back to a Nikon D750 and wondered why I couldn't see! Viewfinder brightness is definitely a valid point.

Graham Bannister's picture

Interesting title for the article. Are there perhaps other reasons to buy a camera than for photography?

Deleted Account's picture

I think he meant, 'as opposed to using your phone' but he doesn't say.

Simon Patterson's picture

That's a very good summary of the options. Bravo!

John Henry's picture

excellent remarks on noise on the APS-C vs the Full Frame. I switched from full frame to mirrorless recently and the noise is definitely noticeable but I still like my choice given the features and weight.

Dylan Goldby's picture

These days its only a small difference in the amount of noise and the different noise pattern caused by each sensor. It really depends on your application. For most uses, you'll never even notice the extra noise now.

Dave F's picture

Advantages of DSLR: The viewfinder.
Advantages of mirrorless: The viewfinder.

MAKE UP YOUR MINDS!! Haha.

Mick Ryan's picture

I have one FF and one APSC camera and love them both. One of the adventages of the FF for cityscapes which I do a lot of, is the availabliity of wide angels lenses. A consideration if you are leaning towards landscape/cityscape photography.

Jens Sieckmann's picture

True, but have a look at the new Laowa 9mm f/2.8 Zero-D for APS-C.

John Deir's picture

Nice article, but I think it misses the point.
Should have made an assessment of the types (genres) of photography and then the pro/cons of the different systems. No camera make/kind can be excellent in all areas or purposes. Mirrorless like Olympus are a big plus in performance to size/weight/cost for those that travel/hike/street shooting, as an example. Phones have a definite place in all this as they are always with you and can share and blog on the fly.

For myself, I found the article leaning towards the Nikon/Canon side. Yup, tough to write an article in a short space and be definitive, but that's just how I seen it. Not being negative, just a POV.

Dylan Goldby's picture

Absolutely agree. However, that would be an opus and be constantly changing with each camera release. The goal here is to give a starting point in the confusing array of options we have in 2018.

Michael Clark's picture

There are many DSLRs on the market that have LCD overlays in the optical viewfinder that provide some of the functionality you attribute only to mirrorless cameras. The 3D levels, for example.

Jens Sieckmann's picture

Some Canon DSLRs with Magic Lantern installed.

Michael Clark's picture

Magic lantern is not needed for the models that have the LCD overlays in the optical viewfinder. The added functionality of ML is only in the rear LCD on the back of the camera, not the LCD overlay in the optical viewfinder.

John Holloway's picture

Well done. I will anxious to see this new Nikon FF mirrorless option. It's all about the glass, in my opinion. Nikon has a 100-year history of producing some of the finest lenses available. I agree that a FF mirrorless system from them will shake things up and force competitors such as Fuji and Sony to innovate. When I decided to go mirrorless I chose an Olympus Micro 4/3 because of the quality of glass available by both Olympus and Panasonic. I am pretty happy with the results and cost-factor of quality lens acquisition, etc.

Dylan Goldby's picture

I waited. I really did. I held on to my Nikon gear for the longest time. Then I realised that I hadn't shot with it in 6 months. At that point, I let it all go and picked up a second X-T2. I have never looked back, until now. To be honest, the prospect of using that wonderful Nikon glass on a mirrorless body has me intrigued for sure. I won't be switching back any time soon, but it will sure make things interesting.

chris bryant's picture

Buying a Camera for Photography in 2018!

Made me laugh. Why else would you buy a camera but for photography. Some uses buying a camera not intended for photography could be...

DSLR: Doorstop.
Mirrorless: Paperweight.
Four Thirds: Bargain bin filler.
P&S: Bin filler.
Leica: Bling or look how Goddam rich, clueless and totally insecure I am.

Steve Moore's picture

Really interesting article Dylan, I guess like a lot of readers I am sitting tight surrounded by my Nikon gear, waiting to see what mirrorless offering they produce. I love the feel of my DSLR, but the practicalities of the smaller, fully tricked out mirrorless offerings are pushing me close to making that switch. Will happen in the next 6 months personally, would be nice to hold to all my Nikon glass though.

Michael Dougherty's picture

Just got back from New Zealand, South Island, and one of the locations we shot at was the little tree on Wanaka Lake. We arrived in the dark and as we waited for the sun to rise, I noticed that the guy next to me, with a FF Sony mirrorless, was actually able to see what he was going to get and make the appropriate changes, before he even took the shot. Me, I had a Nikon D850, and it was definitely press and pray. I couldn't even focus it was so dark. Plus, the mirrorless guy didn't have problems with mirror slap and long exposures to smooth out the lake. I have 2 D850's and my next body will be mirrorless even if I have to change brands.

Dylan Goldby's picture

The EVF is surely a huge boon for low-light work. Have you rented and tried any mirrorless bodies?

Michael Dougherty's picture

I haven't tried any serious mirrorless bodies but I am waiting to see what Nikon introduces next year. I have a lot of Nikon mount lenses.

Michael Clark's picture

Again, the differences in viewfinders are a double edged sword. EVF is great in extremely low light if your scene is fairly static, such as described by M.D. EVF is horrible in low light if the scene is changing rapidly such as with indoor sports.

Dimitri Mathieu's picture

While reading the title, I was expecting another Sony sponsored article. Glad I was wrong and found a well balanced article !

zeissiez lee's picture

The advantage of FF in image quality over smaller format is still very evident even when not viewed 1:1. In scenes which the background is bright or there are some bright elements at the back, smaller format sensor can’t maintain as good the balance of luminance of the subject and the background. The background become distracting. People often said, if u don’t print big, you don’t see the difference. But in actually fact, that’s not the case. A Toyota Corolla and a Bentley may have the same ride quality if they are being driven on a straight and nice road. But when they driven over a stretch of road in French countryside , their difference becomes clear. But the dilemma is......damn, the Fuji X system is such a joy to use. I found myself unconsciously reaching my XT1 more than my D800E, even though I’m aware of the superiority of D800E’s file. So at the end, many people simple stick to what they like, instead of going all out for image quality.

F K's picture

You've hit the nail on the head. For the vast majority of people all modern cameras are good enough. There's a smaller percentage that have specific requirements but someone getting into photography will be happy settling for something that gets the job done and they enjoy using.