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.
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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