DSLR or Mirrorless: Fears of Being Replaced

DSLR or Mirrorless: Fears of Being Replaced

DSLR users and friends of the mirrorless camera constantly discuss which system is the best. Is this discussion driven by unreasonable fear?

Before You Tear Me Apart

A short word in advance: I encourage you to shoot with the camera you like. I personally own a mirrorless system and a DSLR. Even worse, they also have two different sensor sizes. And I love both of them for different reasons; I understand why different systems suit different styles and occasions.

I also understand that the matter is an emotional topic. It’s about your time, money, and success. At least that’s what we believe.

Your Camera as Your Investment

The camera is a tool of the photographer. Without a camera, the ideas, concepts, and projects of a photographer would never make it to a final product that clients, friends, and family can admire.

Hence, it’s quite reasonable to choose your camera – and camera system – wisely. This decision includes understanding the differences of systems, sensors, and models.

The problem for the consumer is that there is no such thing as the perfect camera. While the Fuji GFX 100 might offer amazing image quality and endless options for pixel peepers, it’s probably not a traveler’s friend, let alone the price tag.

Fear of Being Outperformed by a New System

One reason for the ongoing discussions between owners of one and the other system is the fear of lagging behind. What if another camera really performs better, and I can’t guarantee the same quality and standards to my costumers?

I have shot a few weddings, and one thing that I always hated was the noise of the shutter of my Nikon D750. It was, in fact, the only time I ever thought that a mirrorless camera could become a decisive factor for clients to hire one photographer over another, given they know about the possibilities.

Yet, there is the new Nikon D780, a DSLR which also performs beautifully. Some people call it a final attempt of keeping DSLR on life support, but I guess some customers will be quite interested into this almost hybrid concept.

I’m not a wedding photographer at all, but still got my hands on a mirrorless camera a while ago. It was a decision of size, haptics, and ease of operation. While I often shoot documentaries and travel a lot for that, I need a lightweight and fast-to-grab system. I choose practicability over quality, here.

Besides my workhorse, I also need a lightweight system, which is easy to carry in every situation.

There will be people who will find good reasons to choose a mirrorless camera, and there will also be those who want to stick with their old DSLR as long as they can. It’s what they’re used to. Some people even like the heavier weight in your hands and the feeling of a solid product.

In the beginning, I stated that the camera is a tool for photographers, not “the” tool. It’s needed, but it’s also complemented by the photographer, his or her team, and their experience with a system.

Camera Systems Between Need and Greed

A new camera system will always come with certain expenses. Especially if you run photography as a business, the financial aspect of a new camera system will be crucial for your decision. Do the benefits justify the expenses? Are you really in need of a system, or are we talking about greed?

While development always pushes the market and its standards, your fear of falling behind might become true one day. Then, you’re in need of a new system. Greed, however, is run by the fear of missing something.

Just as an unsatisfied need can harm your business, frequently served greed can also ruin your finances.

The Fear of Market Changes

It’s important for you to know the right time to change. In a crowded industry like photography, competitiveness is real. If one system will be dropped by the camera manufacturers, you might have to change eventually. That’s also a problem for the competitiveness of your photography. When recent developments won’t be available to you, you might be forced to shift, even though you prefer your old system.

Probably, this is the reason why there is so much fighting about “the best” system. Whenever mirrorless users make statements about the death of the DSLR, DSLR lovers will feel the need to defend themselves. Everyone wants his or her system to shine in the best possible light. Why? Because their opinion matters, not only for themselves, but for the market.

From a camera manufacturer’s position, it’s not important to build the best camera. It’s important to build the camera that the customers will buy. If DSLR users tell everyone that the mirrorless systems are better and that nobody should buy a DSLR, their system becomes obsolete. Without demand for it, there won’t be any development in the long run. That means no new lenses, no software, no customer support. Basically, you rely on the secondhand market and sparse new developments.

Another reason is your reputation. By denouncing the other system, you create a narrative. A publicly accepted narrative of one system being more “professional” will help its users' reputations. Not every customer is reasonable, many decisions are affected by marketing.

Many times, I have been out in the desert or mountains, at festivals and dirty places. Most importantly, I need a reliable system for that.

The Fear of the Wrong Timing

It sometimes feels like Murphy’s law. Today, you make the decision and invest into a new system. The next day, there will either be a better one available, or your system’s price will fall significantly.

Technological progress doesn’t halt for you. This means that new models of cameras, lenses and other gear will continuously enter the market. Your own equipment will soon be outdated, and a new system will always be expensive. At least, adapters for your old lenses help you survive the transition of a change.

What I want to say is that the time for change is not dictated by the market. It’s dependent on your needs and capabilities. For some people, the time never comes. There are photographers out there, who work with analog and medium format cameras. Niches exist, too. Again, it’s not survival of the strongest, but the fittest.

Why Fear Is Often Unreasonable

Depending on the industry you work in, you’ve got to check your results and the needs of your clients. If you use your camera only for Instagram, an “outdated” APS-C camera with a kit lens might just be what you are looking for. You’ll get the best quality/price ratio for all your needs! Do your clients really hire you, because of that Sony a7R IV?

Probably, many of your customers will still think “the bigger, the better” or simply count on your portfolio. I even know about photographers who bring an additional film camera to weddings. Old gear tells its romantic narrative, too. For your own case, you’ll have to check expectations and demands and eventually choose whats good for you, not what others like.

If, in the future, one system is dropped by manufacturers, you might be forced to change. Yet, my economics professor used to tell students: “the future is always uncertain”.

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45 Comments

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

For me, it comes down to portability. I haven't made the jump to mirrorless yet, but I plan on doing it this year and the reason for doing it is to lighten up the gear I travel with.

Les Sucettes's picture

If you are looking at portability don’t look at the size of camera only, look at the lenses. Mirrorless Fullframe failed to deliver on the promise of portability since lenses are bigger. If you want portability however look at Fuji.

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

Thanks, I appreciate that. I've been using Canon dslrs for my entire career. For me, the Canon RF line seems like it would be an improvement in portability. My largest lens right now is my ef 70-200 and the rf version is appealing to me due to the extend zoom. Collapsed, it's significantly more portable than the ef 70-200, imo. Between that and the smaller, lighter body, I'd already be a whole lot more compact than I am right now.

Les Sucettes's picture

Then Canon os doing something right. Which cannot be said about Sony. Although their sensor is amazing (the camera feels like a toy however).

Paul Chambre's picture

Because it's small? Because magnesium is light? Where does this toy-like feel come from for you? If it's simply because it doesn't have the size and weight of a D5 or 1D, then you won't like the RF either.

Patrick Smith's picture

It comes from using D4s/D5 and 1Dx bodies over the years, yes for me at least. I know you were not replying to me and I didn't say anything about Sony, but I have to agree with the guy. I tested a Sony A9 and 400mm f2.8 lens and it's a great camera and a nice lens. However both felt less well built and not as good in the hands either. I've been a long time Nikon and Canon full sized pro-body user since the F5 and D1 in 1996-1999. So holding and using even an A9, it does kind of feel like a toy, sorry. Not a cheap plastic toy or anything, but nowhere near what a D4s/D5 or 1Dx feels like. This is not all subjective either, I'd bet my life that the D5 or 1Dx will survive much more abuse over a longer period of time. They are better weather sealed, better build quality, much better battery life and YES feel better in at least my hands. Now everyone is different as far as "feel and ergonomics", but I have a hard time believing anyone who says they don't miss something about their old D5/1Dx bodies that moved over to Sony. I know most of us dinosaurs and or photojournalists like myself have NOT switched and may dies shooting Nikon or Canon over switching, but those few that have switched have admitted to me that they miss certain things, even the "feel!" I won't bad mouth Sony, they make some great sensors and great camera's like the A7R IV and if you shoot commercial products or even wildlife, they offer serious advantages. However for me and what I shoot and how hard I am on gear, I'd prefer to stick with what I know will perform, no matter what I throw at it. I don't want to second guess anything, especially build quality and weather sealing. The A9 II and A7R IV seem to have at least improved the ergonomics and that's a great step in the right direction, but you can't convince me that they are still anywhere near the build quality of a D5/1Dx.

00rob00 Rob00Rob's picture

Same issue with fuji regarding size of lens and in some cases camera body

Les Sucettes's picture

Not if you compare apples to apples.

Anton Aylward's picture

You pay a price, as far as the size and the weight goes, if the lens has an auto-focus motor or even an auto-zoom motor. And again for embedded electronics and software.
At a trade show I was looking at a late-model Sony mirroirless and its 50mm f/1.4. I pulled out my Super-Takumar 50mm f/1.4
https://www.pentaxforums.com/lensreviews/SMC-S-M-C-Super-Takumar-50mm-F1...
and fitted it, using a cheap adapter. A fraction the size and weight.
Since I started, more than 45 years ago, with a fully manual camera, I'm quite comfortable shooting manual even today. A lens like this on a slimmer mirrorless (like the Alpha6600 perhaps) would almost be pocketable!

So: what is so terrible about vintage lenses and manual shooting?
Are you really so skill-less that you need automatics for other then 'extreme' and highly dynamic situations? Is automatic justifiable for studio, for macro, or carefully setup situations like portraits and weddings?

And lets face it, some of these vintage lenses are excellent or have characteristics that make them very suitable for for the visual effect of specific situations.

Kirk Darling's picture

My first money-making camera was a Yashica D TLR with no settings but shutter speed, aperture, and focus. I've used medium format TLRs, medium format SLRs, medium format rangefinders, 35mm totally manual SLRs without even meters, computer-controlled auto-everything SLRs, non-interchangeable lens 35mm rangefinders, Polaroid cameras, and 4x5 view cameras. Then DSLRs.

The mirrorless cameras I bought last year are just another kind of camera.

I ain't afraid of change.

Les Sucettes's picture

Ironically the discussion around portability is flawed. Mirrorless fullframe is barely if anything more portability due to the massive size of the new lenses. Also historically SLR’s were much smaller than DSLR’s - about the same size as today’s Mirrorless. If DSLR’s are further developed to be the same size as a Mirrorless, then surely it would negate the argument altogether.

If you are looking to safe weight and size you have to look at the Fuji X System which of course is APS-C but with very little difference to fullframe quality but half the size and price too. That’s where Mirrorless really makes sense. Olympus is again a smaller frame ... I think that’s a no go for me. It was a leap of faith with Fuji and it delivered but even smaller would be too much of a risk for me

Jeroen F's picture

Just try out an Olympus. Olympus has a try out program where you can use Olympus equipment for free for a few days. The difference between APS-C and MFT is second to non in real world usage.

Anton Aylward's picture

I did, some years ago. A 12Mpxl model convinced me to move from film to digital.

OK, so there was more to it: stabilization, view screen, immediate results, but the result was an improvement in the process that resulted in better quality.

And things have moved on enormously!
So much so that it is clear that megapixels are just a minor issue.

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

Interesting take! I've not taken a serious look at Fuji's offerings.... It would take a lot to move me away from Canon, but I'm always open to better options....

Les Sucettes's picture

At the end of the day any move isn’t really worth it... Canon has amazing lenses... if only they could out better sensors in their bodies!

00rob00 Rob00Rob's picture

Size one also consider the Pentax KP

Paul Chambre's picture

DSLRs cannot be as small as mirrorless of the same sensor size. You are correct that something like my Canon New F-1 is about the same size as my Sony A7R2, but look at where the film/sensor plane is. Digital requires a lot of electronics behind the sensor, plus we've come to expect the screen there as well.

As to the "massive" sizes of the new lenses, you still need to compare apples-to-apples. The Sony 70200/2.8 and the new Canon 70-200/2.8 weigh the same. The body of the Sony is still much smaller and lighter. The end result is a more portable system. When comparing lenses at the more normal range of focal lengths, the advantages are more significant: I can put my A7R2 with 35/2.8 Samyang in my jacket pocket. Name me any full frame DSLR setup that would allow the same, even with a "pancake" lens.

Les Sucettes's picture

I‘d say it can come very close. Just look at analog... many SLR‘s are just as small as Mirrorless today!

Paul Chambre's picture

Yes: SLRs are about as small as mirrorless. Not DSLRs. I was responding to your saying that DSLRs could be the same size as mirrorless, and I explained why that is not the case.

Besides the mirrorbox, another size penalty in DSLRs is the finder. A good pentaprism is big. A good EVF is much smaller.

I just compared a few of my A mount cameras. One is a 35mm film Maxxum/Dynax 7 and another a KonicaMinolta 7D. The 7D was very clearly designed to be a digital version of the Maxxum, but, even though it's APS-C, and even though the Maxxum actually has a rear LCD, the 7D is still bigger in every dimension. OK, that's an old DSLR. A newer A mount APS-C DSLR I have is an A390. It's narrower, and a slight bit shorter, but even thicker than the 7D. It also significantly sacrifices its OVF to achieve a smaller (and cheaper) package.

Net net is that a mirrorbox and a pentaprism/pentamirror take space and weight, and mirrorless cameras of the same sensor size will always have the possibility to be smaller and lighter than DSLRs because they don't have to include these items.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Thank you sir. The most important sentence in this whole article; "I encourage you to shhot with the camera you like."

Spy Black's picture

DSLR users will be shipped off to the DSLR glue factory...

Boy W Camera's picture

Waaaa! Sob, Snort, Snuffle. Say it isn't so!

Ian Lantzy's picture

I would be extremely sad if companies "replaced" DSLRs. I honestly can't stand digital viewfinders. Even though the delay is very slight it's still noticable, and it's still painfully obvious you're starring into a tiny screen. I prefer just looking at the actual light coming into the lens if I'm taking photos.

Now for doing video, I don't think there's any debate that it makes more sense to go with a mirrorless.

Morgan Miller's picture

The delay is almost completely gone, and will disappear in a few years. I love an optical Optical viefinder, but the benefits of an EVF(focus peaking) fr outweigh whatever remaining small pleasures of using an OVF. As a himan, those who adapt well are happiest and mosst successful

Morgan Miller's picture

I dont think the actual light is going to be something youll be able to differentiate from when using an EVF in the very near future, heck, i dont think you really can now, with the very latest EVFs

Anton Aylward's picture

Reality is that there are a fantastic number of situations where even a delay won't matter. Stdio work, portraiture, even a lot of street photography. A lot of my macro work involves more setup and less 'dynamic'. I suspect a lot of commercial photography isn't highly demanding in this area either.

This isn't t deny there are 'action' and 'tracking' situations, just that this is not a 'one size fits all' wold.

Fred Teifeld's picture

I've always felt that once one chooses to go with faster optics, the weight advantage to (full frame) mirrorless is lost. What it comes down to is whatever the best tool for the job *IS* the best. I prefer DSLRs' for my work because thats what I'm used to. Maybe one day I'll give a serious look to something like the Lumix S1r and the optics available mainly because the EVF is just so damned good (IMO).

jim hughes's picture

The point about silent shutter is good, that was a big deal for me as well. And the fear of "getting stuck" has also afflicted me in the past. The way I suggest dealing with that fear is to just admit you'll always get stuck; it's never easy to get any money for your old used gear and some of it will just hang around forever. I recently bogged about that problem.

https://jimhphoto.com/index.php/2020/01/08/the-increasing-difficulty-of-...

sam dasso's picture

I completely understand. I started on Sony e mount with NEX-3. By now I have about $20K worth of top Sony and Zeiss lenses and 3 of the best FE cameras. I don't sell my gear (yes I still have K-1000), so just thinking about changing brand is out of question.

Tom Reichner's picture

Nils Heininger wrote,

"DSLR users and friends of the mirrorless camera constantly discuss which system is the best. Is this discussion driven by unreasonable fear?"

I have this discussion with myself quite frequently. I still use DSLRs, but am intrigued by the possibilities that mirrorless technology offers.

I don't really see where fear has anything to do with my thoughts on DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. I see a lot of advantages to DSLRs, and I also see a lot of advantages to mirrorless. Conversely, there are also practical disadvantages to "going mirrorless", and disadvantages to sticking with DSLRs. I don't think that either system is essentially "better".

Like almost everything that we compare in life, each system has its pros and its cons. At this point, either system has compromises that I am forced to accept.

Although I could really use some of the features that are exclusive to mirrorless, I am sticking with my DSLRs for now, because I can get more camera/lens for the money, and cost overrides all other factors at this time.

If I sold my DSLRs and the lenses that go with them, and then used that money to buy mirrorless cameras and lenses, the kit I would end up with would be far less capable for what I shoot than what I have now. So it's pretty much a no-brainer to stick with the DSLRs. But someday in the future I hope that mirrorless will offer the same "bang for the buck" that my current gear offers, and then I will make the switch.

But going back to the premise of this article, no, the more I think it over, the more certain I am that fear has nothing at all to do with my thoughts about this. It's just a rational, non-emotional comparison where I balance the pros and the cons of each system and pick the set of compromises that I can best live with for now.

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