It’s only a matter of time before the DSLR is no longer the first choice for creative shooting, says freelance photographer Ben Davis
Will mirrorless cameras prove the end of the DSLR? Image by chuttersnap.
The DSLR’s days are numbered – at least as the go-to camera for working professionals... An increasing number of photographers are making the switch to mirrorless cameras, and at some point in the not too distant future, I predict that the bulky DSLR will be a relic of the past.
I’m the first to admit that I’m a big fan of the DSLR. I’ve owned nine, since I began shooting 11 years ago, and am pining for a Nikon D850. I could easily find justification for purchasing one, and while I’m sure that my next camera will be yet another DSLR, I’d be very surprised if I was still using one in ten years’ time.
A decade from now, surely those minor gripes will have been ironed out. Then, the advantages of a CSC will far outweigh the benefits of a DSLR. In fact, you could easily make a case for that argument now, but I’m not ready to switch. There are a few things about the DSLR that the CSC lacks, and while they might be more psychological than physical, they still impact upon my relationship with the camera.
For most DSLR photographers, there are two big drawbacks of using a mirrorless camera. The main one is battery life; the battery in my Nikon D810 will last all day. I can rattle off more than 2,000 frames at a wedding and not need to change the battery. This is a huge advantage. I don’t need to worry about losing power during a critical moment, and during a wedding (when every moment counts), you have to be prepared to capture anything at any time.
Of course, I carry a couple of spare batteries to avoid embarrassment. But, were I shooting with a typical CSC, I’d need to carry around ten batteries. Not only is this expensive, it’s more to carry and increases the potential for missing a special moment while changing batteries.
As soon as battery technology improves, I’m sure lots more photographers will switch to the smaller, lighter and faster mirrorless system. The photography industry is one of many industries that rely on battery lifespan – the breakthrough could come from anywhere and at any time!
Optical vs EVF
CSCs also lack an optical viewfinder. With DSLRs, we’re used to looking at a clear, precise frame. For most, this is preferable to the digital image you get with an EVF. A traditional viewfinder feels more organic, offers better clarity and is totally lag free – I never find an EVF as satisfying to use, but this might be one of the psychological barriers I need to overcome.
An EVF has quite a few advantages over a traditional viewfinder. For starters, the image you see in the viewfinder will be the image you capture. You know what the exposure, contrast and colour balance looks like before pressing the shutter, so there’s less of a need to chimp (browse the on-board image library). The other big benefit is that the lack of a mirror means you won’t experience viewfinder blackout when shooting rapid bursts.
Not all mirrorless cameras feature an EVF though. The more compact models usually omit the viewfinder altogether, forcing the user to compose on-screen. Such examples tend to be cheaper models and are not something a serious enthusiast is likely to use.
Mid-range CSCs will all feature an EVF. Some are better than others, but the current generation is very impressive, with no perceivable lag. With a top of the range CSC, you’d be hard-pressed to find fault with the EVF. In fact, the features offered can’t be matched by the viewfinder in a DSLR. As soon as more photographers realise this – and the price of a mirrorless with a top-notch EVF becomes more affordable – it’s another nail in the coffin for the DSLR.
AF and lenses
There are still a few areas where the DSLR reigns supreme though. Autofocus is generally better with a DSLR, although mirrorless cameras are catching up, and in some aspects, seriously overtaking. The new Sony A9 has 693 phase detection AF points, which covers 93% of the frame, an unparalleled tracking ability compared to a DSLR.
One area where mirrorless cameras do fall behind at the moment is lens choice. Manufacturers have been making DSLR lenses for decades, whereas the first CSC lens was only launched in 2009. With that in mind, it’s remarkable how far the system has come in just eight years.
The sensors found inside top mirrorless cameras match top DSLRs, when it comes to image quality. Both use full-frame sensors and offer excellent dynamic range and low-light capabilities. Some CSCs opt for smaller sensors (such as Micro Four Thirds), and it’s true that image quality isn’t quite comparable. But, such cameras are optimised for size and that’s a big part of their appeal.
One of the biggest reasons for developing the mirrorless camera system in the first place was to make a smaller and lighter camera. DSLRs are bulky and heavy because of the mirror mechanism and pentaprism that they’re built around. While it’s true that most CSCs are smaller and lighter than most DSLRs (in some cases considerably so), it’s not always a benefit; once you strap a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens to the front of a CSC, it doesn’t make much difference that the camera body is smaller. You still need to carry the lens, and its size could actually create an imbalance when attached to the camera – making handling a bit awkward.
I prefer a bigger camera. Not only because it fits my hands better and provides more space for the controls, but it also screams professional photographer. Turning up to a wedding with a hefty DSLR tells people instantly – in my mind at least – that you’re the hired professional and are not to be confused with the dozens of guests who have also brought cameras.
It feels like a badge of authority; were I to shoot with a sleek and slender CSC, the symbolic nature of the camera would be reduced. It might sound a little pompous, but people do tend to give you more respect when you’re photographing that all-important moment, and I’d prefer to be equipped to win.
There’ll come a point when DSLRs will be seen as archaic, rather than cutting edge or at least current. When the time comes, and it’s not too far away, turning up to a job with a bulky, noisy DSLR will affect your image as a professional. Perhaps that day can’t come soon enough. Six hours into a wedding, I can already feel the strain on my back, and I still have another six hours to go…
Shooting full-frame RAW files with 5-stops of sensor-based image stabilisation at 20fps and in total silence is something that can only be offered by a mirrorless camera. But, although this would no doubt create a better end product than my DSLR, I’m still hesitant to make the switch.
Something in me just isn’t ready...
About the Author
Ben Davis is an award-winning professional photographer with more than 10 years' experience in the industry. His internet home is www.cambridgeshireweddingphotography.com