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DSLR, Mirrorless, Compact, or … Your Smartphone? Here’s How to Choose a Camera in 2018

Since the digital revolution at the turn of the century, there’s never been a more exciting time in photography. No longer the domain of the wealthy or the professional, quality photography has come within the grasp of ordinary consumers. Better yet – the mirrorless revolution sparked by the likes of Olympus, Sony and Fujifilm have now gained significant traction in pro circuits everywhere.

No wonder Nikon and Canon are about to launch their bids to claim their share of the mirrorless pie: Nikon with the upcoming announcement of the Z6 and Z7 full-frame mirrorless systems, and Canon with hints of a launch post-Photokina.

But that all leaves you, the consumer, in the dark. Are DSLRs obsolete? What’s a mirrorless camera, and why does it matter? Are compact cameras as dead as they say they are? Will next year’s smartphones (or even this year’s!) make thousands of dollars of camera equipment obsolete? We answer it here.

Oh, you’re not one to read verbose articles: here’s a table for you.

 DSLRsMirrorlessCompact camerasSmartphones
FocusBestPractically Caught UpNot too shabbyNot too good
Bokeh (Blurry background)GoodGoodDecent, in some casesRanges from non-existent to serviceable
Low-light performanceGreatGreatGoodMediocre to atrocious
Battery LifeBestDecentDecentYou've got to make calls, don't you?
PortabilityWorstNot too goodGoodGreat
Interchangeable LensYesYesNo (Prime OR Zoom)No (Prime only, digital zoom)

Are DSLRs Dead?

It depends who you’re asking, but they most definitely are alive and kicking. DSLRs, which stand for Digital Single Lens Reflex (cameras), have been around for a few decades now. They took after the analogue SLR cameras (therefore no “D” for Digital), and use a mirror (therefore “R” for Reflex) to convey the image coming from the lens through the Optical View Finder (OVF), then on to the photographer’s eye.

This means there are quite a few upsides to using a DSLR as compared to any other type of digital camera available on the market today.

DSLRs are designed for professional use, especially in rough terrain. Do check for weather sealing ratings, though.

Firstly, there’s the accuracy of what you’re seeing. You see the actual scene through the glass elements of the lens, unperverted by digital sensors and circuitry, and without any optical lag. This makes it a very useful tool in situations where split-second timings are crucial: in nature (especially birding), sports and automotive photography for instance.

Secondly, using mirrors to convey the image to the photographer also means that DSLRs save power, and lots of it. Some systems on the camera like the metering and the main logic board, indeed, remain active when it is powered on, but the sensor and screen are left dormant until you hit the shutter where they activate periodically. This means that if you’re into any kind of adventure where battery charging isn’t the norm, DSLRs have a real place in your camera bag.

Light from the scene enters the lens, before hitting a 45-degree mirror, followed by a pentaprism that guides the ray of light in a loop toward the users’ eyes. Pressing the shutter pivots the camera upward and out of the way, right before the shutter curtains cycle behind the assembly.

Furthermore, the mirror assembly makes picture taking significantly louder, which can be a deal breaker if you’re in the middle of a wedding ceremony, in front of a sleeping baby, or taking snapping stealthy street shots.

The mirror assembly, of course, is a mechanism that takes up quite a bit of space, and arguably, weight. One of the main disadvantages cited by many photographers is the fact that DSLRs are bulkier and (potentially) weigh more.

That’s true, but only if you’re sticking to the bare essentials. If you’re sticking to small lenses and few accessories, DSLRs are slightly heavier and bulkier than their modern mirrorless counterparts. But if you’re going to slap on a large zoom lens or a bulky Speedlight or vertical grip, the differences in weight and volume disappear.

DSLR Pros & Cons

ProsCons
Longest battery lifeBulky, kinda
No lag, accurateNeed to know what you're doing
Reliable

So, then, why are so many photographers and reviewers advocating mirrorless cameras? Are they the future?

Are Mirrorless Cameras Better?

Yet again, it depends (it’s actually difficult to give a straight answer but I’ll explain later, I promise). There are some aforementioned slight advantages in terms of portability, but it comes with disadvantages of its own. Without the bulky mirror box, mirrorless cameras simply place a sensor right behind the lens, leaving it constantly activated to provide photographers with live imagery through the Electronic View Finder (EVF) or the larger LCD screen.

The Sony A7 series of full-frame mirrorless cameras led the way in professional adoption of mirrorless systems.

This means power drains everywhere: the sensor, image processor and digital displays in the EVF and/or the LCD display. Poor battery life has definitely been one of the major issues that have plagued the mirrorless breed, but advances in technology have made it far more usable.

The greatest reason to consider a mirrorless camera over a digital camera is this very trait. Having the sensor directly feed back imagery to the photographer through the EVF and LCD display does induce digital lag, but lets the photographer see exactly as the camera does. This means that metering, focus and composition is the most accurate possible if the displays are accurate and have sufficient resolution.

Needless to say, this makes it perfect for beginners, since they can immediately see and understand what different changes in settings do to the end product, live. They’re also immensely popular amongst still-life photographers, portrait photographers and videographers (more on that, later).

Apart from portability, slapping the sensor directly behind the lens also means a shorter flange distance. Technicalities aside, it simply means you’re able to effectively use a wider range of adapted lenses with your mirrorless camera.

Adapters increase the size of your set up, but could potentially allow you greater flexibility, especially if you already own a few lenses yourself.

This explains why mirrorless set-ups are so immensely popular amongst videographers. Manual lenses are more practical for some videographers, since they are purpose-built for manual focusing. They’re also much, much cheaper than modern autofocus-enabled lenses, which can be useful in saving a pretty penny.

Mirrorless Pros & Cons

ProsCons
More portable, kindaPoorer battery performance
WYSIWYG*; noob-friendlyDigital lag in what you see vs what is happening
Best option for video
* What You See Is What You Get - EVF/Screen conveys what your sensor will "see"

All things considered, over the decades, the technology implemented on DSLRs have matured, meaning that newer iterations do not have the same bold improvements we’ve seen in earlier years. Upgrades give less bang for your buck, so

Who Still Uses Compact Cameras?

I do. My last two favourite cameras have been compact cameras. But before we go further, it’s worth defining what I mean by “compact camera”.

Like their namesake suggests, they’re pretty portable, mostly due to the fact that like mirrorless cameras, the sensor resides directly behind the lens without any complex mirror and pentaprism assembly between. In fact, some compact cameras do without the mechanical shutter assembly, opting for an electronic shutter instead.

Apart from its size, another distinguishing feature of compact cameras is a non-interchangeable lens. These might be a zoom like on the Sony RX100 series premium compacts, or a prime lens (non-zoom) as on the examples I’ll cite here.

The Fujifilm X100S is what some might consider to be a premium compact camera with its non-interchangeable 35mm-equivalent lens.

The Fujifilm X100 family of cameras was what made me take notice of compact cameras as a whole. It sported a large APS-C sensor, the same as found on their flagship X-series cameras, along with an extremely capable Fujinon lens. It’s mighty portable, produces ample 16-megapixel images, and looks mighty fine.

That was fine and dandy until I laid my eyes upon the Ricoh GR II.

My trusty Ricoh GRII, which I carry on my person every day. Image: Ian Ling

The Ricoh GRII elevates compact cameras to another dimension. Gone are the days of finicky compact cameras in gaudy metallic colours, that were only capable of delivering borderline serviceable images.

In fact, the GRII is what I bring on most of my assignments, and it has delivered ample performance in a tiny package. For a fraction of the cost of a full photography set-up, a compact delivers everything you could possibly need, especially if you’re a casual user. What’s more, since the lens is fixed, there’s no temptation to obtain costly lenses. A huge expensive speedlight will also make you look silly, so that’s out of the question too.

Of course, if you require something special like a wide aperture for portraiture or a long lens for sports, compacts aren’t your best pick. But for everyday documentation, the right camera can give you the right pizazz to give your images that extra magic.

Most compacts, however, sport tiny compact sensors, that have made them very unpopular especially with the rise of smartphones. Most now sport 1-inch sensors, but I would encourage you to pick one with a larger sensor if possible.

What about sensor size? Does it matter?

In general: the larger the sensor, the better performance in low light, and the more expensive the camera. Image: Wikimedia

DSLRs usually sport full-frame or APS-C sensors, while mirrorless cameras have a larger assortment of sensor sizes. Presently, Sony A7-series cameras are the only full-frame devices, while Fujifilm’s X-series and Canon’s EOS-M series of cameras dominate the APS-C market. Olympus and Panasonic currently make up the majority of Four Thirds cameras.

In practice, the larger the sensor, the easier it is for your camera to ‘naturally’ gather light. This means your camera performs better in low light, with less artefacts and grain. This can make your images look sharper and more professional. In daylight, the main advantage these larger sensors offer is a greater sense of depth by thinning the depth of field.

With the same lens and aperture, a larger sensor blurs the background more effectively, making it seem as if you’ve lugged along an expensive camera. Now, this is an over-generalisation, since there are many other factors that affect background blur.

What’s so bad about the camera(s) on my smartphone?

Nothing. I think they’re fantastic. If all your photos are going on Instagram and you’re not planning on ‘learning’ or ‘getting serious’ about photography, a smartphone really is the best option, period.

Sure, sensor technology and lens manufacturing have come a long way, with many shooters offering great low-light performance with large apertures. Tiny sensors mean you don’t get the effect of a shallow depth of field, but manufacturers have figured out how to achieve that effect through dual-lens wizardry.

It’s not perfect, but it’s darn close.

The portrait mode on the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 (the latest flagship smartphone release at the time of publishing) works extremely well, though certain flaws remain. Image: Ian Ling

It’s a software feature, which means it’s not entirely natural. The chainlink fence at the side, for example, melts into the background as it’s too fine a detail for the system to recognise. It’s taken in good light, too, which means the edge detection works a charm, even around difficult areas like my hair and icky fabric edges.

Resolution on most smartphones is little issue, too, with most manufacturers pumping up the megapixel count to fool unsuspecting buyers. For what it’s worth: megapixels don’t count. Especially not on a smartphone. You’ll have more issues with the plastic lens elements and fingerprints and grime before the megapixels start to affect sharpness and image quality. Remember: the Nikon we sent to space in 1991 had a 1.3-megapixel Kodak sensor, and the first ‘pro’ DSLR in 1999, the Nikon D1 had a 2.7-megapixel sensor. You’ll be fine.

But where it really shines now is AI – or what they claim is AI. I’m sceptical about the intelligence, but definitely a believer in its efficacy. Scene recognition does wonders for newbies or the casual user who really doesn’t want to get involved in the spiny thicket that is the world of photography. The phone evaluates the scene, recognises it, and then inputs settings to optimise the output for it. Perfect.

The dual 12MP cameras on the rear of the Galaxy Note 9. Image: Ian Ling

It’s not a perfect world, and smartphone cameras are limited, and will be limited in some ways, at least, for a while more. No amount of AI wizardry can correct grainy and lo-fi images taken in low light. Finicky touch screens aren’t ideal for quick adjustments to the settings to get the output you want. Optics at that small scale are bound to have more defects – more flaring and ghosting, more distortion and aberrations.

It’s not a perfect tool, but most times it’s the one in your pocket. Do yourself a favour and get a decent one.

The Longshot

It’s easy. If you’re not serious and don’t want to meddle in the ways of the image, stick to your smartphone. If you’re not serious but have some serious cash, get a premium compact like the Sony RX100.

You’re starting out, and aren’t sure if you want to commit. Pick up a mid-tier Fujifilm (the X-T100 is great) or a low-end Canon EOS-M. If you’ve got deeper pockets or know you have a burning passion, you’ve got more choices.

Portable and effective, the Canon EOS-M mirrorless family is great option. Canon EF and EF-S lenses are compatible with EOS-M bodies via an adapter that is usually included.

Let’s recap: DSLRs give you more battery life, instant and organic optical feedback, and ever-so-slightly faster autofocus, but at the cost of being louder and slightly bulkier. Mirrorless cameras are perfect for beginners (and pros too) since the EVF/screen displays exactly what it is about to capture.

If you’re intending to do some high-speed stuff or venture into a field that demands some level of reliability and endurance, I’d place my bet on a good mid-tier DSLR. The Canon EOS 7D and Nikon D7500 are great APS-C options, although I do feel they’re not exactly worth the bulk for a crop sensor. A bold step to a full-frame EOS 6D MkII or Nikon D750 isn’t a bad idea if you’re going to stay.

I would avoid crop-sensor entry-level DSLRs. Every single one of them. They’re plastic, have lousy autofocus systems, and are just cheaply made. Get a mid-tier mirrorless camera instead. They do more for the same price.

Also, remember – lenses hold their value much, much better than the bodies, so make your purchases with that in mind.

If you’re open to a more holistic approach to photography, mid to high-tier mirrorless cameras are a great chance to dip your toes just that bit deeper. The Olympus OM-D and Pen series of M4/3 cameras are great for street photographers who appreciate having light gear. I’ve also heard of macro photographers who appreciate that extra crop factor and portability.

Panasonic’s GH-series of cameras are legendary in videography, and so is Sony’s A7 line, especially the A7S. Don’t underestimate the utility of a tilty screen when it comes to video.

For portraiture, I’d wholeheartedly recommend Fujifilm’s X-series of cameras. I personally love the X-T2, but the X-T20 is cheaper. The Sony A7 and A7R cameras are great choices, too, but are pretty expensive.

Myself? I’ve handled many cameras throughout my career. They’re heavy, ugly beasts designed for a ruthless purpose. To shoot, to do it quick, and to do it sharply. My taste for refined, tasteful, elegant cameras was born out of this observation: if it’s smaller, if it’s easier to use, and if it looks good, you’d use it much more often.

Enjoyed this read? Let us know in the comments section below, and follow the conversation on our social media pages – on Facebook, and on Twitter. Have a tip, trick or recommendation you just have to share? Drop us a suggestion, we might just feature it in a future article!

Ian Ling
http://uncommontragedy.com
Ian is the resident Tech Monkey and Head of Content at VR Zone. His training in Economics and Political Science is at the basis of his love for journalism and storytelling. A photographer by passion, and an audiophile by obsession, Ian is captivated by all forms of tech that makes enthusiasts tick.

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