Choosing a DSLR in the Era of the Mirrorless Camera

Choosing a DSLR in the Era of the Mirrorless Camera

1800 1013 Yuan Oliver Jin

After spending the day staring out the window and refreshing the tracking page God knows how many times, the mailman finally appeared. At my door he left a package, inside which was a factory-refurbished Nikon D850 and a 50mm f/1.8 lens. After weeks of back and forth, I’d chosen a DSLR camera as my main workhorse. Ten years ago this would’ve been unremarkable. Today, in the era of the mirrorless camera, DSLRs aren’t the obvious choice. 

Visit any camera retailer website right now and you’ll feel like a kid in a candy store. Heck, the B&H superstore in New York feels like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, with its flashing lights and cacophonous sounds and its busy workers and multiple floors of delights and a twisting, twirling network of conveyor belts motoring treasures across and through and between ceiling joists suspended above the bustling crowd (you’ve got to see it to believe it). The number of digital cameras available to photographers today is astonishing. At any price range, there are numerous incredibly similar and competitive digital cameras to choose from. Choosing one over another is not easy. So how did the Nikon D850, a DSLR almost three years old, win my bid?

Competition between camera companies has continued as it has for decades: some old players losing out (R.I.P. Minolta and Olympus), some new players jumping in (I’m looking at you, Panasonic and Sony). However, the friction between DSLR and mirrorless cameras is shifting the industry. The recent entry by Canon and Nikon, the largest producers of DLSRs, into the mirrorless camera market feels like a seismic moment. According to many digital camera blogs, it’s the end of days for DSLRs – mirrorless cameras are better, faster, smarter, and sleeker. They travel well. They know the picture you want before you want it. “Gone are the days of having bulky, heavy machines with all those unnecessary mirrors and prisms,” they say. The new release of Canon’s flagship mirrorless camera, the EOS R5, is sure to further amplify those who chant “DSLRs are dead.”

And I understand the statement. On some purely technical level, DSLRs do seem destined to be replaced by these EVF-equipped, smart-focusing, image-stabilizing newcomers. In a world where imaging sensors and processors are faster, smarter, and more efficient than ever, cameras no longer need to shield the light from reaching the sensor until the moment of imaging, like the early years of digital or the days of film.

When we think of just how capable digital sensors are today, it does feel like the mirrors and pentaprisms of DSLRs are but a relic of the past. All of those mechanisms blocking the pathway of the light will soon be completely obsolete (if they aren’t already). Companies like Sony and Canon are proving the benefit of having a constant full sensor readout with the advanced autofocus tracking features in their mirrorless cameras. Mirrorless cameras make sense: you see exactly what the camera sensor is seeing, and you are essentially taking screenshots while watching a 24/7 live recording of the world. The electronic viewfinder provides the user with much more information as compared to any optical viewing devices: exposure, level, histogram, zebra, peaking, false color, microphone readout – you name it.

It is also important to note that, with all of the R&D money major camera companies are throwing at mirrorless, these new cameras are just getting started. Even in just the last seven years mirrorless cameras have made enormous leaps in functionality and usability (remember that Sony’s first generation of full-frame mirrorless cameras were released around 2014). Three or four years ago, camera blogs were more readily standing by the benefits of DSLRs. Nowadays, you can see mirrorless cameras rapidly gaining ground. Who knows where mirrorless cameras will be in another five years? Who knows where photography will be? Maybe all wedding photography will be done by robots: you can put a Canon R5 on one of those robot dogs Boston Dynamics makes, just sayin’.

It is plausible that my opening paragraphs have already sent you to your preferred camera retailer to order the latest and greatest mirrorless camera. EVF? Image stabilization? Autofocus tracking? Smart money! Investing in a DSLR now is almost foolish. Like throwing money at the coal mining industry even though equal investment in renewable energy would produce more jobs with higher wages. Nobody would do that (oh wait).

And so, yes, DSLRs are dead. But here at Casual Photophile, we offer opinions that are a bit counter to the mainstream (sometimes). In the footsteps of James saying way back in 2016 that the Minolta CLE is the best M-Mount rangefinder around, let me tell you why I’m choosing a DSLR over a mirrorless, at least for now. (But seriously, renewable energy is the future.)

Arguments for the DSLR

Many of the arguments for choosing a DSLR likely won’t stand the test of time. Progress is inevitable and mirrorless is the future. But here’s why I picked a DSLR in 2020.

Strength – DSLRs are bigger and tougher machines. For now, anyway, the Nikon D850 instills confidence that cameras like the Sony a7 series simply don’t, especially in conditions that most electronics hate. But this won’t be the case forever. In fact companies like Canon are already promising that their professional mirrorless cameras are built to the same robust standard as their professional DSLRs. Give it time and I’m sure mirrorless cameras will earn a good reputation. When Nikon switched to an electro-mechanical shutter with the Nikon F3, many professionals stood by the tried and true mechanical shutter of the F2, but in time the Nikon F3 proved itself to be just as, if not more reliable than its predecessor. DSLRs simply have been around long enough to be more dialed in with regard to those design aspects. I have no doubt that mirrorless will catch up. 

Ergonomics and Handling – At the moment, DSLRs also edge mirrorless in terms of ergonomics and handling. I love all the dials and buttons on my D850, but mirrorless cameras can and probably will have all of those comforts soon. In general DSLRs have more dedicated buttons whereas  mirrorless cameras tend to opt for more custom function buttons. This is ultimately down to preference, and I prefer the dedicated buttons. The placement and assignment of those buttons have been refined over years, and I see no reason to reinvent the wheel. If Canon or Nikon is going to tell me where my ISO or Metering Mode button should be, I’m gonna take their words for it.

The deep grip feels great on my DSLR, but I’ve tried the latest mirrorless cameras from Sony, Canon, and Nikon, and there honestly isn’t much to complain about. I have average sized hands, and while it was frustrating and tiring to hold Sony’s first generation of full frame mirrorless cameras,mirrorless cameras these days have made much improvements. It’s clear that full frame mirrorless cameras are moving away from the “light and compact” design doctrine that has dictated their development in the early days. Nowadays, they are heavy-duty, weather-sealed, and here to stay. Of course, the design and ergonomics did play a role in my decision to choose the Nikon D850. Afterall, mirrorless cameras are just not quite there yet. However, the ultimate reasoning has to do with a more principled difference between the two types of machines. One that won’t change with time or development —the optical viewfinder as opposed to the electronic viewfinder.

Optical VF – For me, looking through the optical viewfinder of an SLR feels just right. This is a mechanism that has been perfected over decades, and a top-of-the-line DSLR like the Nikon D850 will offer you the best optical viewfinder there is. The image is sharp and bright, and a bank of information displayed below the image area provides every detail we need to know without affecting the view of the world. Whereas an EVF’s well-adjusted and calculated display might deny certain creative possibilities, an optical viewfinder gives you the space to evaluate and think. Nothing clutters your view of the scene except a single square box giving you the confidence of sharp focus. Switch to 3D Tracking continuous AF on a Nikon DSLR and the square box starts to dance around to follow your subject. Magical. In the D850, the viewfinder even comes with a surprisingly handy electronic level displayed on the bottom and right edge of the viewfinder, perfect for slightly more critical composition needs.

I’m not one to say that optical viewfinders are inherently better than electronic viewfinders. While the early EVFs suffered from low resolution, low color depth, and low refresh rate, EVFs these days look pretty spectacular, and they are only getting better. However, they’ll never make you forget that you’re looking at a screen. This won’t necessarily improve with time because display technology is past looking life-like already: Movies shown in Imax theatres are utterly breathtaking to behold, but you still know that it’s different from real life. Displays are trying to be better than life: brighter, more contrast, more saturation, and sharper. In doing so, they’ll always stand out in our perception. I already spend most of my time with a screen in front of my face, whether it’s a smartphone, a computer, or a TV. Nowadays, I find myself to be quite desensitized to things I see on a screen. Having an electronic viewfinder in front of my eyes does the same thing: it desensitizes and mediates my experience of what is happening in front of the camera. It simultaneously blocks the world from me and translates the world to me. I don’t know that I love or need that. I prefer my relationship with my camera to be that of coexistence instead of symbiosis.

One doesn’t have to become more of the machine to be a better photographer or artist. If we place the contest between DSLR cameras and mirrorless cameras into the larger history of camera development, we can see that the camera has always assumed an increasingly mediatory role between the photographer and the world. With the view cameras that gave birth to photography, while the photographer ducks under the hood to compose and focus, at the moment of exposure, the photographer is entirely standing next to the camera.

With viewfinder and rangefinder cameras, the photographer sees the world through a window adjacent to the picture taking lens. With TLR cameras, the world is rendered through more optics but the photographer is still separate from the camera. SLR cameras finally unifies the vision of the photographer and that of the camera through a single lens. Now, mirrorless cameras give the photographer the exact signal readout of the camera sensor. This progression that yearns towards exactness and precision feels scientific and mechanical, and while it is a good thing that more and more tools are made available to photographers, we also have to balance our humanity in that pursuit.

Having a well-tuned and precise camera is necessary, but even the best tool can come between the craftsperson and the work. The optical viewfinder of a DSLR makes me feel connected to reality in a much more direct and potent way. We are but animals, and having direct sensorial connections with the world matters. That’s only human.

Final Thoughts

It is not my point to say the natural progression of cameras is a bad thing. I would certainly not like to carry a view camera around today. Different tools provide different opportunities, possibilities, and working methods. I like working with a view camera. I like my rangefinders, and SLRs are good for a lot of things. There are of course a lot of case applications that would benefit from, if not demand, the technologies of mirrorless cameras. I simply think tech and camera blogs are still making the mistake of arguing newer is inherently better and the new replaces and makes obsolete the old when that’s just rarely the case.

As a main camera, I felt that a DSLR, especially one as good as the Nikon D850, would balance the need for precision picture-making and the want for a machine that can tether me to reality in a physical, tangible, and pleasurable way. These modern DSLRs already have more bells and whistles than I can count. Modern image sensors are flexible enough to forgive a few stops of wrong exposures, and auto exposure is smart enough to rarely make a mistake to begin with. For what I do, I am entirely happy with just enjoying my “imperfect” optical view of life and trusting my camera to forgive some of my mistakes.

Don’t take the word of newer-is-better zealots. Shooting a film camera in 2020 is okay. Using a disposable camera is okay. Just taking pictures on your phone is okay. And choosing a DSLR in the era of the mirrorless camera is definitely more than okay. In fact, I recommend it.

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Yuan Oliver Jin

Yuan Oliver Jin

Yuan Oliver Jin is a photographer from Beijing, China who is currently an undergraduate student in Sarah Lawrence College, New York.Oliver explores and experiments with the photographic medium in all its capacities from shooting polaroid film with large format cameras to making gelatin silver prints on canvases. More than just an experimental photographer, Oliver is keenly aware of and deeply interested in photography’s narrative capacity and uses it to explore societal and cultural questions as well personal ideas around identity, family, and home.Oliver’s work is a mixtape made from affect, form, and deep photographic observations around the peripheries of childhood and home.

All stories by:Yuan Oliver Jin
14 comments
  • Avatar
    Merlin Marquardt July 29, 2020 at 3:40 pm

    Nicely said, interesting and thoughtful.

  • Interesting read. I used to have two Nikon DSLRs a D750 and a D5500. Sold them to get Z50 and Z7. I shoot video rarely and my iPhone 11 Pro is sufficient. I mostly am happy with the switch, but do agree with you on buttons vs new style. D750 was easy to set up. I most like the EVF as opposed to OVF as I really like the way you can hit the exposure right by reading the histogram in the viewfinder. My biggest gripe about EVF is remembering to wake it up. I also had a Sony A7iii.

    None of the mirrorless cameras I have owned have been as easy to auto focus on landscape as either of the above mentioned DSLRs. Including the 5500. But eye af you get on mirrorless is great when shooting people.

  • Excellent choice of DSLR. My main work horse. I do own a Z6 and it’s more efficient to use for video. But I always go back to the 850 for stills. Very thoughtful comments on the viewfinder.

  • Nice article though you didn’t mention that the Fuji X-T series has pretty much all the dials you can get. That being said, sometimes it just feels good to pick up a DSLR, chunky heavy, makes you feel like you are about to do the business. I love my X-T3, a sublime experience BUT, sometimes I take my 5D MKII simply because I love how it feels as well in a different way. For me, if a camera makes you want to take photos, it’s a winner, be that DSLR, Mirrorless, Point and Shoot, or phone.

  • For sure. Tried mirrorless, A6000 and A7R. Ghastly was the latter. Pretty good the former for a pocket (ish) cam with a 2/28 on it. But, a souless experience and not for me. Hope Pentax stay in business and improve tracking AF, buffering, FPS, detail in reds and the video codec. Sort those out and it’s the K-1 is the perfect camera, for me at least.

    Once you take full frame lenses into account, mirrorless offers little size and weight advantage.

  • I used a couple different DSLRs for several years prior to beginning to shoot film, a used Nikon D90 and a used Nikon D700. The D700 in particular is a great camera, a true professional-level workhorse that I don’t think will ever die. And when I was shooting predominantly autofocus lenses, using a DSLR made lots of sense. In the last few years however, I’ve moved much more into the film realm, with manual focus lenses from all different manufacturers. Sometimes I still want to shoot digitally, but I have really fallen in love with adapting my vintage manual focus lenses. And the two words that make all the difference when adapting vintage lenses: FOCUS PEAKING. It’s not something a DSLR really offers to shooters like me, so all my digital shooting with adapted lenses is done using a used Fuji Mirrorless camera. I don’t really think I would enjoy shooting manual focus lenses as much if I was to use them on a DSLR, with only a small focus-indicator in the viewfinder. Another advantage of mirrorless cameras is that adapting all brands of lens is easier since you’re actually adding distance from the lens to the sensor, rather than starting with a flange distance on a DSLR that might mean loss of infinity focusing using an adapted lens. I can tell you that when the time comes for me to buy another digital camera, it will have to be mirrorless (and likely a Fuji).

  • Avatar
    Thomas J. Schitteck July 31, 2020 at 1:38 pm

    Thanks for your report! I agree with you!

  • I traded my D850 for my Z7 and then wished I hadn’t. The D850 has much better ergos, much better button placement, and is much better with old manual focus F mount lenses than the Z7. It’s just like using a film SLR, and once you save whatever manual lens you are going to use in the lens selection menu, it works seamlessly.
    The FTZ adapter on my Z7 DOES NOT HAVE AN APERTURE FEELER!!! Unbelievable that Nikon would leave this out, seeing that it includes it even on it’s old stuff like the close up rings. Why does this matter? Because the camera does not know what aperture you are using and if you are not using a chipped lens (some manual focus lenses are chipped) the live view EVF does not show the correct real exposure no matter that I have set it to do so. It always underexposes by at least two stops, so I need to rely on the histogram in the VF and push it way to the right just before it clips.
    With the D850 (and D750)? No issue. Shoots like you’d expect. Also the FTZ adapter adds a lot of length to the lens, and so pretty much ruins any compact feel it may have had.
    I pretty much use the Z7 as a film scanner, and for some reason Nikon omitted the negative inversion mode that is on the D850. Now it does not do a very good job, but what it is good for is previewing the image, then deciding if it is worth ‘scanning’. Also the rear LCD panel only pivots out 45 degrees! On the D850 it is 90, which makes it much easier to use on a copy stand.

    The upside of the mirrorless Z7 is that for static objects it does focus much more accurately than the D850. I get almost a 100% hit rate with my Sigma Art 1.4 lenses, while with the D850 it’s about 60-70% wide open. And those lenses were tuned with the Sigma dock.

    I guess I traded in my D850 because I got sucked into thinking I’d be adapting all my lenses from a bunch of different mfgs, but the reality was after the initial novelty wore off, all those lenses worked much better on their native bodies. Yah, I wish I kept the D850…

    Rant mode off! Like your article!

    • Thank you! Your comment was very helpful for someone, like me, weighing the D850 up against the Z7. And I think it will be the D850 for me.

  • Avatar
    Per Kristoffersson July 31, 2020 at 8:49 pm

    Me being emotionally invested in minolta A-mount… I used the Sony A77 and A77ii since 2014 and the minolta 9000 before that. There was one thing I couldn’t get from an EVF camera; a good optical viewfinder that didn’t stress my eyes and didn’t drain the batteries unnecessarily. Going out with 50% battery in an EVF camera is OK when it doesn’t really matter. With a DSLR, those 50% are almost guaranteed to get me through the day and even 20% is likely to be OK. And then there’s the experience as a whole.

    It’s funny how size is still a thing with mirrorless. And then we have the large sensors. And lenses that are as big or bigger unless they’re shorter than 35mm or really slow. The total package gets to be very similar in size to an equivalent DSLR setup.

  • Avatar
    marcusterrypeddle August 4, 2020 at 9:41 am

    Timely article for me. Last week I sold my Fujifilm X-T3 and bought a Nikon D7500 with a zoom for my daily camera. The X-T3 is a great camera, but the EVF makes my eyes tired. I really like the viewfinder (and everything else) of the D7500. I have a D810 for ‘serious’ photography, but I did try the Z7 while I was at the Nikon dealer in Seoul. Great camera, but I didn’t want another camera with an EVF. I’m hoping Nikon releases the D890 (or whatever) next year.

  • One of the most important and undisputed advantages of a DSLR is battery life. All of the new mirrorless features consume battery life, leading to much faster battery exhaustion. While many mirrorless are improving in this regard, they will never match DSLRs that only use a fraction of the battery power. You can leave a DSLR on all day, so that you are always ready to shoot, without worrying too much about depleting the charge. One has to turn a mirrorless off when not actively shooting and it takes a couple of seconds for the camera to turn back on, possibly leading to lost shots. While more and more cameras allow for USB charging, it is slow and cumbersome, and is no match for a camera simply having a longer battery life, especially when one is out in the wilderness or off the grid.

    I personally own and use a Nikon D850, D750 and Sony A7RIII, so I am quite familiar with the pros and cons of DSLR vs Mirrorless.

  • I had a A7ii that I really enjoyed, well adapting my collection of vintage glass on it was fun. I sold it and subsequently bought a X100f. Could not be happier. i love this camera. I have a few film cameras that gets used now and then…But I also have my trusty D700. it is huge compared to my film cameras and X100f, it is loud, it has some dings and dents but she is my loyal and trusting partner for life. Every now and again I take her out for a good session and I am even in 2020 amazed at some of the photos she can take. I enjoy all 3 formats and they all have their place.

  • Great post. I agree with you 100% about the optical viewfinder. I too look at computer screens all day and prefer an optical light path to the subject. EVFs are great tools but i feel a much more direct connection to the subject with an OVF.

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Yuan Oliver Jin

Yuan Oliver Jin

Yuan Oliver Jin is a photographer from Beijing, China who is currently an undergraduate student in Sarah Lawrence College, New York.Oliver explores and experiments with the photographic medium in all its capacities from shooting polaroid film with large format cameras to making gelatin silver prints on canvases. More than just an experimental photographer, Oliver is keenly aware of and deeply interested in photography’s narrative capacity and uses it to explore societal and cultural questions as well personal ideas around identity, family, and home.Oliver’s work is a mixtape made from affect, form, and deep photographic observations around the peripheries of childhood and home.

All stories by:Yuan Oliver Jin