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Migrating to Mirrorless: Death of the DSLR
by Laura Hicks -  12/27/2013

If you would have told me three years ago that I would be writing an article explaining why a migration to mirrorless is not only inevitable but good, I would have told you that it's clearly headed in that direction but that it would take at least five or more years to be a reality for professional photographers. But one of the greatest things I have learned over the last couple of years it that you can't judge a book by its cover, or in this case, you can't judge a camera by its body.

Here's the conundrum, professional cameras are generally judged by their looks. To many, a camera needs to "look" like a professional camera in order to "be" a professional camera. For many years I had fallen into that same belief. But a recent insurgence of amazing mirrorless cameras has brought that to a screeching halt for me. Cameras like the Olympus OM-D E-M5, Olympus OM-D E-M1, Sony A7, Sony A7R, Fuji X-T1, and the Panasonic GH4 are changing the game for mirrorless cameras. These cameras have opened the doors for professional photographers and enthusiasts alike. So here's the question, what's holding you back from going mirrorless?

DSLRs have long been the epitome of photographic equipment. When the digital revolution ensued, the medium format camera garnered less and less attention while the DSLR gained ground by adding an immense amount of megapixels to its sensor. About 10 years ago a new genre of cameras was introduced--the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (aka MILC, CILC, CSC, DSLM and Mirrorless). These cameras, which offer a smaller form factor due to the lack of a mirror, did not really see a huge following until the last few years.

Currently, DSLR cameras offer some of the best camera specs money can buy. Or do they? It's a pretty big misnomer that DSLRs are the best type of camera money can buy. And it's an even bigger fallacy to think that professionals wouldn't dare use them.

It only takes a quick glance at the spec sheet to see that a mirrorless camera has plenty to offer. In fact, in several of the categories, compact ILCs beat out their large, overwhelming DSLR cousins. However, there are quite a few DSLR holdouts. Let's take a look at the pros and cons of each type of camera. After this, you can make a much more informed decision on which genre to buy into.

Sensor size: Let me tell you all one thing...it's not always about the size. I repeat...it's not always about the size! Sensor size does contribute to several factors, but awesome imagery can be made from the simplest of cameras and the smallest of sensors. Check out the snowflake below. This image was taken with the Olympus TG-2. This camera has a small little sensor, but an amazing macro mode that blows the socks off of any macro DSLR lens I have used. It's the image creator who's determining the emotion of the image, not the camera.

Bottom line: Now that mirrorless cameras come in a wide range of sensor sizes, including full frame, this argument is null and void when deciding which system is your best bet.

Body Size: In this category, mirrorless cameras have DSLRs beat hands down when looking for a compact camera that makes a "notice me" statement. DSLRs are bigger. Mirrorless cameras are smaller. It's just that easy. Many see the idea of shrinking a camera, but retaining great features as a wonderful thing. Many are still hesitant. Some of the biggest fears my DSLR friends have about going mirrorless is the way their clients will view them. Here's the thing...as a professional, many photographers see themselves as being judged by the size and shape of the camera. Obviously, if you have a bigger camera you are a better photographer than those that carry around a smaller camera, right? I think not! This kind of thinking is ludicrous to me. I fail to see the correlation of great photographer/great imagery to the size and shape of ones tools. Bottom line, my mirrorless camera produces results that are just as striking as my full frame camera. The images below came from the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and OM-D E-M10 cameras and taken during a professional session.

Bottom line: My clients don't care if I carry a huge DSLR or a mirrorless camera, as long as their images are great. If any prospective clients care about the size of my camera, then they aren't my type of clients anyway.

Lenses: One of the drawbacks to buying into a mirrorless system is the lack of an extensive lens lineup--kind of. This statement can be true about a native lens lineup for many mirrorless camera systems. But this statement was also true when DSLRs were newer. An extensive lens lineup takes time. For my needs, I have found that the lenses I want to use are available. The lens selection is getting better as time marches on. That being said, one of the biggest benefits to the mirrorless genre is how amazingly compact the lenses are. It's crazy and I love it. I can carry around an Olympus E-M10 with a 45mm lens all day long with absolutely no strain on my back. The same cannot be said about the Nikon D600 paired with the 85mm lens. As much as I love the results from both of these pairings, it's way easier to carry around the Olympus during a wedding or session.  

Bottom Line: The native lens selection of mirrorless camera systems is not as extensive as DSLR systems. However, most photographers can easily find lenses that will work perfectly for their needs.  Also, it's pretty amazing how compact mirrorless lenses are.

Battery Life: Well, this one clearly goes to DSLRs (as long as your camera is not set to live view all of the time). The constant use of live view on the LCD screen will cut your battery life tremendously. Also, the use of an electronic viewfinder also eats up battery life. You can save some battery power buy turning off the live view on your mirrorless system. But I prefer to carry around an additional battery.

Bottom Line: No matter how you look at it, additional batteries are a must when using mirrorless cameras.

LCD/Viewfinder: Before I started using mirrorless professionally, I never enjoyed using the LCD screen for composition and I didn't love the electronic viewfinders as much as the optical viewfinders. It just seemed awkward not to hold the camera to my eye. My past experience with live view on my DSLR was slow and on the screen on my Nikon D600 was not moveable. But then something cool happene. I began using the LCD screen on the Olympus OM-D E-M1 more than I used the electronic viewfinder! (Trust me; I was shocked that this was the case as I have been shooting SLRs for 16 years.) I started to think outside the box when photographing my clients. Using that awesome tilting screen to reach far above my head or holding the camera at ground level was refreshing. It allowed me to grab shots that I would not have captured otherwise.

Bottom Line: Using the camera's LCD eats up batteries, but can lead to some pretty cool shots.

Frames Per Second: This category goes to mirrorless cameras. Mirrorless cameras more than double the frames per second rate over most DSLRs. It's crazy, but without that mirror, a lot of cool things can happen.

Bottom Line: If you are into high FPS rates, then mirrorless is for you!

No More Dust/Oil/Debris/Gunk: Like I said, without a mirror to get in your way, a lot of cool things can happen. The lack of junk on the sensor is one of the greatest things I have discovered. I'm not saying you will never find dust on a mirrorless camera sensor, but cleaning it is a breeze and a rarity versus a necessity.

Bottom Line: Say goodbye to difficult sensor cleanings with a mirrorless system.

Image Quality: The following images were taken with the Sony a7r, but they could have just as easily been taken with the Nikon D600. The depth of field is gorgeous. The clarity is great and the overall feel of the image is no different.

Bottom Line: It doesn't matter. Mirrorless image quality is on par with DSLRs.

The mirrorless camera genre is the future. Large, bulky DSLRs are a dying breed. Will it happen overnight? I'm sure it won't. But I know that I will be showcasing my DSLRs next to my other antique cameras sooner than later!