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DSLRs vs mirrorless

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

The last debate you'll ever need.

One of the biggest gear debates these days is whether or not DSLRs are still worth buying. Let's take a deeper look at how and when a piece of photo gear should be considered obsolete.

A lot of people compare the arrival of mirrorless cameras to that of digital photography replacing the darkroom, but this is not a fair comparison. When the industry shifted from film to digital it was because film was no longer practical. The darkroom could not compete with the speed and cost savings of digital photography. Developing film was slower and more expensive. With digital, a pro photographer could tether and preview their work on set and this was particularly appealing to commercial photography clients. The advantages of digital were obvious and it became increasingly harder to argue against it.

The argument against DSLRs is not as strong. I work as a creative director in the advertising industry and have worked with some of the best commercial photographers, and they all seem to rely on their DSLRs and medium format cameras. The advantages of a DSLR are simple.

First, many of us still prefer an optical viewfinder over an EVF. While EVFs have vastly improved since their inception, they are still not as clear as an optical viewfinder. It's like looking out of a window at the Grand Canyon vs looking at the Grand Canyon on a computer screen. When shooting strobe in a studio, as commercial photographers often do, EVFs are useless. EVFs in live view can only preview what is in front of the camera before it is shot. If your exposure settings are set to work with strobes, your screen will be black before the flash is fired, that is why the option to turn off the live view function exists on mirrorless cameras. What good is an EVF without using live view?

Second, battery life. Yes, battery life has also improved in mirrorless cameras but it is still not anywhere near that of a DSLR. My Canon 5D Mark IV can get approximately 900 shots on a single battery charge. That's far more than it's mirrorless counterparts. The last thing a pro photographer wants to do is change batteries when they are on a roll working with a subject.

Third, ergonomics. One of the key selling points of mirrorless cameras, has been their size and weight. I've taken advantage of this many times with my street and travel photography, but as cameras get smaller, they often become less intuitive to use. There is a reason why DSLRs are so big, and it's not because back when DSLRs where invented, we didn't know any better. Quite the contrary. It's because there is a button for all of the crucial controls a pro photographer needs to quickly get their shot. As camera bodies have gotten smaller, the functions that were once controlled from the exterior of the body, are now buried within menus on the camera's LCD screen.

I shoot with both a DSLR and mirrorless cameras. They each have their advantages and disadvantages. It all comes down to the right tool for the right job.

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