One of the biggest questions facing photographers who have established investments in a DSLR kit is whether or not they should invest in a mirrorless system.
Mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses have been around for years now. It clear that all the major camera manufacturers are heavily focusing on their mirrorless offerings. For anyone with an investment in a DSLR system, the question is simple: Should I switch to mirrorless?
I've made this decision on DSLR vs mirrorless. I'll share my own experience with Nikon's mirrorless system and the reasons for — and against — switching to mirrorless.
Here's what's in my Nikon Z mirrorless kit. For more details, see my Gear Guide for the full details.
For me, the optical performance of mirrorless systems is a very clear differentiator. The Nikon Z system boasts the shortest flange-back distance (this is the distance of the sensor to the lens mount) of any full-frame mirrorless system. This short distance offers advantages in optical design and also performance — namely corner sharpness and reduction of aberrations or other issues that can degrade image quality.
In my experience with the Nikon Z system, every single one of the professional S line lenses — such as the 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lenses — offers the highest sharpness and contrast I've seen in these ranges, and topping DSLR lenses in nearly every way. For me, this is the “killer app” of mirrorless in general and Nikon's mirrorless line specifically.
It feels clear that if you want the highest performance lenses — with regard to edge to edge sharpness, micro contrast, macro contrast and so forth — mirrorless offers tremendous advantages over DSLRs.
Autofocus coverage and spread
My Nikon mirrorless cameras have 90% coverage across the vertical and horizontal axises. Compared this to a DSLR, where even the best models offer coverage of 50% or less. In the real world and in use, the real importance of wider autofocus coverage is true compositional freedom.
With DSLRs, the limited AF coverage often necessitates focusing and recomposing when your desired point of focus doesn't precisely align with a focus point. Alternatively, the compromise is limiting composition to only focus on what is covered by the autofocus points. Neither solution here is ideal.
Due to the much larger spread of autofocus points with mirrorless, the need to focus and recompose is essentially eliminated.
For me, this lack of a need to focus and recompose is only of the biggest advantages of mirrorless. The compositional freedom the AF coverage affords is tremendous and opens up so many creative possibilities for any photographer.
Autofocus mode advantage
Beyond the AF coverage spread, mirrorless cameras offer the most advanced subject detection modes. The Nikon Z 9, for example, features people (eye/face) detection, as well as animal and vehicle detection.
In addition to subject detection, Nikon's Auto Area mode for intelligent focusing on any scene offers many advantages over the AF modes of a DSLR. In Auto Area AF mode, the camera will choose the point of focus based on the scene and subjects it detects. This implementation of intelligent AF is hugely advantageous for many times of photography.
Furthermore, in combination with the aforementioned wider AF coverage, many “legacy” autofocus modes originally found in DSLRs have been improved in mirrorless cameras. The 3D Tracking mode, for example (my personal favorite AF mode) is in its best possible iteration in the Z9, and one that I first used in the D750 nearly a decade ago.
Frame rate speed
Mirrorless can offer dramatic improvement in speed as well. The Nikon Z 9 offers a maximum of 120 frames per second in JPEG mode, and 20 FPS in RAW at maximum resolution. This is well in excess of the past Nikon flagship DSLR the D6, which offered 14 FPS. Compare the Z 9's 45.7 megapixel resolution and the D6's 20.6 megapixel resolution and the advantage of mirrorless becomes even more interesting.
While these differences are due to hardware and processing muscle, the end result is clear. Advantage mirrorless.
Blackout free EVF
The Nikon Z 9's unique use of an entirely electronic shutter offers some unique advantages over a DSLR. One of these is that the Z 9 allows continuous shooting with zero viewfinder blackout. With DSLRs, there's an extremely short but perceptible period of time where the scene you're photographing is not visible. As the mirror swings out of the way to expose the sensor to light, there's a brief period of blackout.
The Nikon Z 9 uses a special dual channel image processor to continually split the data feed from the sensor. This flagship can supply a continuous image feed to the EVF and write from the sensor at the same time. This zero blackout occurs in RAW and every other shooting parameter.
For me, this lack of any blackout makes the Z 9 viewfinder experience not only the best mirrorless experience, but the best viewfinder experience I've ever used. Yes, the experience is so immersive and fluid that I find the Z 9's EVF with the advantage even over optical viewfinders.
Mirrorless won't make you a better photographer
So far there's been a lot of praise in favor or mirrorless. There are advantages to DSLRs, but ultimately I feel the answer is clear. Mirrorless has the dominant edge now. Any remaining advantages to DSLRs will be non-existent in the very near future as mirrorless tech continues to develop.
That said, there are real and concrete reasons not to switch to mirrorless. These involve cost, minor technical peculiarities to each system, and so forth.
However, the biggest point in favor of not switching to mirrorless from your DSLR is this:
Mirrorless cameras will not make you a better photographer.
The best tools are the ones that feel the most transparent in their use. They fade away and they enable the best, most efficient work with the least amount of friction. Good tools make the work easier.
All that said, having tools that allow you to easily create better images is not the same as being a fundamentally better photographer. This is a key distinction.
Aside from the most demanding genres of photography that benefit from high framerates, switching to mirrorless won't make you more money. At least not just from the camera alone. And more essentially, mirrorless will not make you a better photographer in any capacity.
The reverse is also true. The minor, current advantages of DSLRs — optical viewfinder, access to legacy lenses, etc — also don't make you a better photographer.
Summary on DSLR vs Mirrorless
We're in a golden age of photography gear. The tools we have are the best that have ever been available to photographers, full stop. We have tools that suit every single preference and genre, nearly without fail. And the tech is only getting better.
If you're thinking about switching from a DSLR to mirrorless, there are truly many advantages to mirrorless. And for me, the choice is clear: mirrorless is the future.
That said, if your current gear is working for you, there's no reason to switch now. As they say, the grass is always greener on the other side. You have to decide which features and areas of performance are most important to you and your photography.