Why I Can Never Quit Full-Frame DSLRs

Why I Can Never Quit Full-Frame DSLRs

I’ve had a long flirtation with mirrorless cameras of all stripes, from the earliest Panasonic to Fujifilm to Olympus. I’m usually quite happy with and shoot them all frequently, but at the end of the day, it’s always a full-frame DSLR that reminds me why none of those have ever become my main squeeze.

As a practical matter after an injury, I’ve been using more of my Micro Four Thirds gear than I have in recent times. While I would frequently use the system for traveling, I’ve started to pull it out more for family portraits and photos of the kids than I would have in the past, where I’d carry a Nikon D750 or Canon EOS 6D. Recently, I decided to put my current daily driver, the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II against the D750 on a portrait shoot of my daughter just to remind myself of what I was missing. Boy, was I missing a lot.

The Olympus was sporting the better of the two lenses, the M.Zuiko Digital ED 75mm f/1.8 lens while the Nikon sported the more pedestrian AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G lens. I can already hear the screams about the lack of scientific rigor, but hear me out.

Size Matters

When you view everything at web size, it’s easy to miss the differences in the images produced by a smaller sensor camera versus a larger one, but when you enlarge them or look at them on a big screen, it’s pretty obvious. Just take a look below at these 100 percent crops of a portrait I shot of my daughter.

The Olympus E-M10 Mark II vs. the D750 at 100 percent. The D750 produces a cleaner image all around, even without the lighting advantage (which it has in this shot).

The Olympus E-M10 Mark II versus the D750 at 100 percent. The D750 produces a cleaner image all around, even without the lighting advantage (which it has in this shot).

The smaller-format mirrorless looks hideous in comparison. OK, here’s where it gets less scientific. The Olympus is shooting at ISO 800 under natural light while the D750 was using SB-700 Speedlights with Nikon’s Creative Lighting System built into the camera, all at ISO 200. Of course the full-frame looks better. It’s using a lower ISO and lighting gear.

That’s part of the point, though. While Olympus is just getting on the wireless bandwagon with it’s still-on-preorder FL-700WR Flash and FC-WR Commander unit, Nikon and Canon have had this down for years with optical triggering and subsequent radio systems. Sure, there are third-party brands like Godox picking up the slack, but compatibility and TTL features work better with a native brand, or at least my experience with Olympus-Godox seems to be the case compared to Canon-Canon or Nikon-Nikon.

And when the flashes fail, there's the leeway in the files. Here's a slightly more than three-stop lift in exposure from a shot where the flashes failed on the D750.

The flashes failed to fire on a shot, and so I raised the exposure by a little over three stops. No replacement for displacement, as they say. The full frame DSLR did this easily.

The flashes failed to fire on a shot, and so I raised the exposure by a little over three stops. No replacement for displacement, as they say. The full-frame DSLR did this easily.

If I start to push this much on the Olympus, I'll get horrible banding and color shifts. The APS-C Fuji is more tolerant than a Micro Four Thirds camera, but the D750 shows both of these sensors who's boss.

Then there’s the lens selection. Canon and Nikon have had full-frame glass available for years for DSLR systems. Some like the venerable 70-200mm f/2.8 IS lens are on their third iteration. While Olympus and Panasonic offer interesting f/2.8 options, in a smaller format such as Micro Four Thirds, a little faster than f/2.8 is needed if we’re talking about pro zooms because pushing past ISO 800 gets dicey. My Fujifilm X-T1 can go a little higher but even still, a full frame is going to beat it for a cleaner image. Canon is forging ahead with even faster than f/2.8 zooms on full frame, which is crazy, but promising.

So at this point some will say I'm comparing older cameras to a D750, but it should be pointed out that the cameras I’ve talked about so far — The Olympus OM-D EM10 Mark II, the Fujifilm X-T1, and the Nikon D750 — all came out in 2014, and two are still current models in each manufacturer’s lineup. So, science.

What About Sony?

Full-frame mirrorless would seem like the logical answer here, but there are still some pitfalls. From a sheer image quality perspective, things are great on the Sony side. But after two weeks with an a7 II (when it was new) and the a7S II (still a current camera), it’s clear that the system was designed by engineers and not photographers. While feel is often subjective, I haven’t heard anyone talk about how the squared off edges of the cameras feel great in their hands, or how awesome the menu system is to use on a daily basis (I found it to be insane, and I’m an Olympus shooter, a brand known for labyrinthine menus).

I have heard of people coming back to the tried-and-true formula of more experienced camera makers such as Canon or Nikon. It makes sense in actual, real-world usage. A Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is essentially the same in practice as its D30 ancestor, which was similar to the film models before it. The design hasn’t changed because it was perfected years ago.

Well-developed DSLR autofocus systems just work without a fuss.

Well-developed DSLR autofocus systems just work without a fuss.

And more to the point, so is autofocus. The 51-point system on the Nikon D750, itself a variant of the older D3 autofocus, almost never misses, and in my seat time with the 153-point system in the D500, such is the case there only more so. The current systems on the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and 5D Mark IV offer similar capability.

In contrast, the continuous autofocus of the Sony a7R II (the contemporary of the 5D Mark IV) in controlled head-to-head tests I performed against Canon showed an impressive amounts of green boxes flying across the viewfinder, but little actual focus going on. That may have changed with the a9 and a7R III, but the fact remains that Canon and Nikon DSLR systems have already been there for years. They just get out of the way and work.

What Do You Think?

I love my mirrorless systems. Especially when it comes to the tactile feel of my Fuji, or the quality lenses available on many mirrorless systems, but at the end of the day, whenever I pick up a trusted tool in one of my full-frame DSLRs, I’m reminded of why I went that route in the first place.

Now if someone could just stuff the innards of a D5 or 5D Mark IV into a body the size of an SL2, with some advanced computational imaging tech from a Pixel 3, I’d stop hemming and hawing about DSLR size and mirrorless flirtations.

What are your thoughts? Can smaller-format mirrorless cameras truly replace full-frame DSLRs?

Lead image by Sam Levitan and used with permission.

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Michael Kormos's picture

Agreed. To me, the benefits of dSLR are size, ergonomics, and battery life. I have an Olympus micro 4/3 which is great for family vacations. That's one scenario where its size and weight come in handy. As for full-frame mirrorless, I can see a similar appeal as long as your focal lens requirements don't stray into the triple digits. Full-frame mirrorless for professional work? I need a brick to hold, not something the size of a wallet. If your lens choices are 85mm or longer, you'll need a big solid body to help you balance and support your lens properly. You'll need a chunky battery that can support your lens' VR, autofocus, and provide you with thousands of shots per charge. You'll need a proper vertical grip, and a frame that can stand-up to daily abuse. I just don't see FF mirrorless bodies fulfilling those needs. Most importantly, all of the lenses for FF mirrorless are pretty much the same size and weight as lenses for FF dSLRs. That's because they all focus light on the same 35mm sensor size. Frankly, I've been shooting with dSLRs for over 20 years and have come to depend on them. You flick the switch to ON, and you can instantly take the shot. I have had so few failures that the dSLR body has grown to be an extension of my creative process. I can see how the size and weight of FF mirrorless benefits genres that value those attributes (travel, street, etc.), but once you throw a pro-lens, its size and weight benefits get eclipsed.

michaeljin's picture

The thing is that none of the benefits that you've stated (size, ergonomics, and battery life) are intrinsic benefits of DSLR's. You could manufacture a mirrorless camera of any size or ergonomic form factor that you want and put in a battery that's big enough so that it doesn't really matter. Just look at the camera that Panasonic is about to release. It's mirrorless, but it's a far cry from "something the size of a wallet".

Michael Kormos's picture

Size & weight are about the only competitive advantages I see in full-frame mirrorless right now. Some bodies can do 20fps, but I don't see any professional sports shooters dumping their $100k systems just to switch to a new system without the lens support, professional support, and unproven track record. What other advantages does FF mirrorless offer then? eye-tracking AF? I'm not trying to start an argument, I'm just generally curious as what what makes FF mirrorless such a dSLR killer. I'm just not seeing it. I know all the hobbyists on dpreview forums swear by it, but talk to established photographers that do this for a living and you might be surprised.

michaeljin's picture

Live exposure view as opposed to chimping, silent shooting for journalists, a higher ceiling for subject tracking performance via software implementation, more efficient optical design that produces sharper images across the frame with less distortion, no more having to auto-focus micro-adjustments to dial in your lens to your specific body, ability to show all sorts of information in the viewfinder meaning that you don't have to take your eye away from it, the capacity to augment the shooting experience with software solutions like you are finding in smartphones. There are a whole lot of things from engineering standpoint that open up when you're dealing with the direct sensor readout.

Granted, you could theoretically implement all of this in a DSLR in Live View mode, too, but the lack of EVF will mean that you have to either use an external finder or sacrifice stability by keeping the camera away from your eye to see the screen.

Michael Kormos's picture

I've never had an issue with any of those instances and I photograph newborns for a living. You'd think the loud sounds of my shutter going off would wake them :-)

And doesn't the D850 perform automatic AF fine-tune?

I'm really trying here Michael, I'm just not seeing it. I've found the EVF flimsy, laggy, unable to show the full breadth of a scene that contains a high dynamic range the way a mirror can, and the pixels, oh the pixels.

Just my 2 cents.

michaeljin's picture

New technology. There will be problems and those problems will be fixed. Do you remember what the first digital cameras were like? They were a joke.

No, the D850 does not perform automatic AF fine-tune (at least I don't remember mine ever doing so).

As for the benefits, not every benefit will be useful to everyone, but overall, progress is progress. I don't use most of the features of any given camera, but that doesn't mean a camera with something like focus stacking or a built-in intervalometer isn't better than a camera without one. A camera that can shoot completely silently is better than a camera that can't. A camera that doesn't have to deal with the extra vibration of mirror slap is better than a camera that does. A camera that enables lens designers to create lenses that are sharp edge to edge with little distortion is better than one that forces designers into more inefficient designs.

Michael Jin, sure the D850 is able to perform automatic AF fine-tune. But not of it's own. You have to start it!

Wasim Ahmad's picture

The most interesting part of your comment is the higher ceiling for subject tracking, Michael Jin. That's where I'll probably end up eating these words down the road. If focusing is done on the sensor, in theory smart software could really make it sing, With a mirror, what you get out of the box is mostly what you got (microadjustments not withstanding). But that said, none of the major manufacturers are putting smart software into their cameras yet (I'm leaving Olympus out of it for now because their programming wizardry in the E-M1X has not really resulted in real-world benefits for autofocus yet compared to 1DX and D5 level cameras).

michaeljin's picture

It will likely take some time for the software side of cameras to really live up to what we're capable of today. It looks like Panasonic is making baby steps in that direction and Sony's upcoming firmware update seems to really up the game in terms of subject tracking, but we've still yet to see truly monumental leap from where we are with DSLR's. Having said that, we're still early in the game and these things will only continue to improve with time.

I think that software has already added several practical benefits. Since you mentioned Olympus, Their Live Composite and Live Time have allowed me to take Night-sky shot I failed to accomplish before… and that was before the EM1X. Also consider the fact that Sony’s autofocus tracking technology is in its infantile stage. Look at what the cell-phone camera software technology has accomplished (It is hard to mess a picture) in spite of its micro sensors. Olympus could have the last laugh after all… but I doubt it… depth of field will always be the domain of large sensors in spite of what Apple and Olympus are doing. And these are words I might swallow one day.

Matt Williams's picture

Why are people down-voting this?

The intrinsic benefits of mirrorless for me have never been about size. That's more a benefit that you see with smaller sensor sizes, e.g. m4/3. The benefits of mirrorless have always been what you listed: live exposure, better optical possibilities, on-sensor AF, IBIS, all kinds of things you can do in the viewfinder (playback, menu, picture settings, etc etc)... list goes on.

These are all possible in a DSLR, with the exception of a shorter flange mount, and many exist in some DSLRs (silent shooting in D850, IBIS in Pentax K1), but most don't have these features and using a lot of them would relegate you to the rear screen only with no viewfinder.

And eventually, we'll get to the point where we no longer even have mechanical shutters in cameras. Once e-shutters can perform at the same level (esp with flash), there will be no point in having shutters that eventually fail. A DSLR, on the other hand, will always have some moving parts.

I think if your reason for buying into FF mirrorless is size.... you're going to be disappointed. There are certain some size benefits if you're just using a wide-angle or normal prime lens. Beyond that... you really need to be in it for the other advantages.

Totally agree with you Michael… The live, continuous exposure of the sensor is the main differentiator of mirrorless systems. It brought into play the importance of Sensors technology as well as that of Software expertise that – combined together - open all the possibilities you mentioned. These happened to be Sony’s domain of expertise (Besides their acquisition of Minolta) and hence allowed them to take the lead. Lets see if they will be able to keep it. Size and weight – for the same sensor size - are not the differentiator between mirrorless and DSLR especially when one take the lens into account.

The market has already spoken as to the buyers’ preference by forcing the 2 giants to change their strategy… so the debate of DSLR versus mirrorless should be closed. Wasim has written this article from his own personal perspective. And who did not have a personal attachment to an old system? Believe it or not I still reach out and use my Nikon FM3 from time to time to appreciate its simplicity and elegance. But more and more my Sony A7 III goes out with me.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

One thing is less moving parts, eventually the companies will decide that moving parts like mirror boxes are expensive and devote more R&D to MLess.

I know when I left Canon for Sony it was a good move, but Canon woke up recently so...I now have way better DR and crazy ISO abilites, better AF including eye track, all my oddball lenses became IS lenses, EVF WYSIWYG, somewhat smaller so I can put them in tighter spots if needed.
To be honest I was at a point where I needed to update everything (cameras and non-IS lenses) in my Canon case. The only Canon lenses I kept are the TS lenses a 14mm and a Fisheye. I got Sonys and Zeiss lenses and like the results.
I hope Sony will redo their bodies to be less angular and more Nikanon like.

thomas Palmer's picture

EVF, IBIS, smaller flange distance for adapting lenses, video ..

Koketso Resane's picture

Fully agree with this. I went mirrorless simply because I wanted an EVF. Size wasn't even on my list of things to watch for.

I didn't need the 9fps of my DSLR and after having it for years, I realised I din't need the weather sealing of the DSLR ether.

Andre Goulet's picture

I completely agree with you on this. I feel that all this technology sits between me and a great photo, in the way. I shot 271 weddings on a Hasselblad 500c with great success, and there's nothing fast about focusing that beast, or advancing to the next frame. You had to plan your shots ahead of time, but that's simple to integrate into your thinking.

Not being a luddite here as technology has it's place, but photography is inherently simple: the exposure triangle only has 3 points on it. So, a camera with 3 controls on it ought to suffice. Everything else is just a 'feature' that I now have to think about that I didn't before.

The Hasselblad was inherently both an aperture priority and shutter priority camera at the same time, as you locked both together right on the lens, so you just picked your priority and the other setting followed it. To this day, that is a dream ability that nothing else using high technology matches for simple, straight lines from what I was thinking to what I was doing. The brain correlated that without thought after only a very short while.

If someone made a camera with today's digital advantages in terms of being able to preview your shots, high res sensors and long battery life, but with the simplicity of a 'blad 500c or a Pentax K1000, I'd jump to that in a heartbeat.

michaeljin's picture

As a matter of physics, no. Smaller format mirrorless cameras cannot really replace full-frame DSLR's. Full-frame mirrorless cameras, however, are perfectly capable of doing so (in terms of results, not really haptic experience as I doubt any manufacturer is going to engineer the feel of a fake mirror slap) and while the Sony experience is certainly different, other manufacturers are now in the game and it's likely that camera bodies will be evolving in this arena as they become more widespread in professional use. The optical experience is not really the same, but this will continually improve as the screens for EVF's get better and if you've looked through the EVF of a Z6 or a Z7, you would see that we have made a lot of progress in this arena already.

It's really just a matter of time that DSLR's fall to the wayside like TLR's and Rangefinders. There will certainly be enthusiasts and maybe one or two companies will continue to produce them the way Leica still makes rangefinders, but the next decade or so will likely see a widespread shift away from them among both professionals and enthusiasts alike.

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

Hi Wasim
Loved the article.
What it points to, for me, is personal preferences.
I can see the point of Nikon's Z6 and Z7 - for someone starting now, they make a great deal of sense, with the larger mount allowing a totally new solution to image creation.
But I'm committed to full frame, by the range of lenses I already have, and which aren't for the time being available in Z6 or Z7 form even if I could afford to replace the lot - which I can't and (at my age) never will be able to.
What I do have is a D500 and a D850 - which share everything. Expensive memory cards and batteries (also suitable for the Z6 and Z7, of course). All the lenses (tick), without some adapter piece (which I would frankly detest using).
So I've looked at the mirrorless Niks - I can even admit to having been tempted, when one was available for an incredibly low price a short time back - but I've decided. I will stick to the D500 and D850 - they do everything I want and it's a real pleasure to pick one of them up and use them.
Interestingly, I was in one of my two main camera shops this afternoon, and found the counter covered in boxes of Ilford 400 ASA 35mm roll film. Apparently younger people have decided to be different in a whole different way - they've grown up on digital/colour and fallen head over heels with film/black & white! A complete reversal of my history, having spent half a century doing what they're now turning to, and then decided to spend the rest of my time on this planet doing what they are apparently now moving away from!
You could perhaps tag that as "ironic"!

michaeljin's picture

Not sure why you think that you'd detest using the adapter. The FTZ adapter is fine and you can just keep it attached to the camera. The performance of lenses seems to be as good as on a DSLR through it and it's weathersealed so you can basically keep it on there and treat it like part of the camera.

Deleted Account's picture

Not sure why you can't believe him when he writes, he would detest using the adapter. smh

michaeljin's picture

It seems like he's sure of it, but it also seems like he hasn't actually used it (or at least that's the way it seems to be based on the wording) so how could you be sure of something that you haven't tried? It's not like it ever has to leave your camera so what's the difference?

Deleted Account's picture

Even though I've never eaten natto, I'm absolutely certain I wouldn't like it. :-/

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Just like Mac users hate the #DongleLife on their Macbook Pros, photographers hate #AdapterLife. Having shot M43 cameras with adapters for years, it's an annoyance when you have a mix of native mount an adapted lenses. Just another thing to carry and lose and take up space.

michaeljin's picture

I get that, but if we're talking about someone who already has a bunch of glass that they don't want to part with and it's all in Nikon F mount, then you could just get a Z6, never take the FTZ adapter off the camera mount, and basically have native performance with the lenses and the benefits of mirrorless. You could theoretically just go on without ever buying a native Z mount lens.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

But then by not buying native-mount lenses, you're defeating the purpose of the new Z mount, which is to make awesome modern lenses. Also, no matter what anybody says, an adapted lens is always going to be an inferior solution to native mount. It's a stopgap until the Z-line (or the RF line on the Canon side) gets filled out. I stopped adapting for my M43 once the system got more native lenses and life is much easier dealing without an adapter.

michaeljin's picture

"Also, no matter what anybody says, an adapted lens is always going to be an inferior solution to native mount."
In what way? We think this way because traditionally, adapters were third party devices that were attempting to reverse engineer (often on both sides) the focusing mechanics. There is no reason why an OEM adapter solution would not be able to provide native performance if implemented correctly.

As far as defeating the purpose of the Z mount by using adapted lenses, I agree that you aren't making the most of it, but you are still gaining the benefits afforded by MILC that you wouldn't be able to get by using the lens on its native DSLR body. You can argue that you lose nothing while still gaining more functionality from the equipment that you already own, even if that equipment is not necessarily optimized for the new mount.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Usually when someone makes a statement like "....no matter what anybody says, an adapted lens is always going to be an inferior solution to native mount." they add "end of story" or "Period" to reassure themselves.
I have Canon T/S and fisheye lenses, vintage Contaxs adapted to Canon and a Metabones 4 adapter, I have a Nikon Metabones adapter for my vintage Nikkor 55mm 1.2, 55mm micro and 150mm 1.8. These are all niche lenses with MF and clicky f stops so they won't act very different when mounted on a Sony or a Nikon.

They work fine on Sony...with adapters

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Manual focus vintage lenses will work about the same on anything. To clarify, I'm talking about modern lenses that have a lot of electronics and autofocus. There's simply no getting around that you're dragging old F-mount lenses kicking and screaming onto the Z-mount with an adapter. As a stopgap measure it's probably fine depending on what you shoot, but it's not a long term solution.

Daniel Medley's picture

"...no matter what anybody says, an adapted lens is always going to be an inferior solution to native mount."

It used to be that no matter what anybody says, a Japanese car is always going to be inferior to an American car. Until it wasn't.

From what I've read by people who have used the Z adapter, adapted Nikon F-mount lenses work as well on the Z series cameras as they do on F-mount cameras.

Using the Z adapter to utilize a Nikon 70-200 2.2 that one already owns most certainly would be a long term solution.

Aran Y's picture

Srsly? As a writer and a person who uses technology for a living you're saying an archaic statement like "no matter what any body says" why don't you get your self educated and hands on a current mirrorless before you talk nonsense. You're comparing a m4/3 vs a full frame dslr off the hop, how skewed did you think it would be? It's a terrible comparison and downright moronic to compare them as you have done and now you're on here talking like the old man who refuses to change. I'm tired of reading all these dumb articles about how dslr is better, I loved my dslr but if you can't accept change go back to film why don't you. The only one losing out is yourself cause technology will only get better. I use my non native lenses on my z6 all the time and have zero issue let alone shooting babies. Complain maybe if you shoot sports or birds but not about anything else cause it'll nail it and nail it with a 90% hit accuracy rather than mis firing near 60% to 80% like most dslrs. Educate yourself before shouting claims and backing up with pointless one sided tests.

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