Mirror or Mirror-less?
tldr; A bit of history
When I was a teenager, my uncle allowed me to play around with his film camera — a Russian Smena. He even took me inside his dark room, full of strong smells from the chemicals, to teach me how to develop photos. I was in awe. That’s when I took my very first shots — of my grandparents and parents, who else?
It followed with a long pause — the first years after Romanian revolution were a record-bad for almost everyone. A lot more later, in my first employment years, I was working for a sports magazine in Bucharest. This is where I was re-acquainted with the photography, this time in digital format. I was even sent to photograph a few sports events, with our brand new (at the time) Sony Cybershot F828.
This rekindled the old passion for me, so, about ten years later, I bough my very own DSLR — a Nikon D5100 and some entry-level crop lenses. Let’s begin.
First comparison — film versus digital crop
The first comparison that I made was between my old D5100 (APS-C)and an even older Minolta X-300 SLR that I found at a bargain price. I loved the memories that the film camera was bringing back, and felt so amused every time I looked at its plastic back after each shot. But it forces me to wait and think about the proper exposure settings, so it keeps the brain patterns alive.
Quality-wise, there is no question that even the digital crop takes crisper images. Focusing with the microprism screen is a constant source of missed shots on the X-300, while the autofocus in D5100 rarely misses (in good light). But there’s still a fuzzy-warm feeling about the natural noise found in film, and the experience of manual tweaking.
Full-frame versus APS-C
Stepping up to a digital full-frame made the speed and quality differences even more evident. There is no question that my trusted workhorse called Nikon D610 plays in a different league. Autofocus is shorter than a snap, even in dark situations (with the right lens, of course), and almost never misses. The bigger sensor format and pixel size bring a whole new universe of low-light imagery and sharp shots.
Not putting off APS-C users and fans (you can still shoot great photos on crop sensors), if you are serious about photography, go full-frame. For many other reasons than those from above.
Also, contrary to many opinions, no, you cannot improve quality on APS-C by using a full-frame lens. Check out the video below to see why.
Full-frame versus mirrorless
I was a bit reluctant about switching to mirrorless — and I still am (for now), even if I also own a Sony A6000 camera now. Let me explain.
Every mirrorless camera manufacturer brags mainly about three things: weight, video and autofocus speed.
There is no contest about the weight part: my D610 with a 24–70 mm lens weights over 2.5 kg, while the A6000 barely makes it to 1 kg. Of course this counts, when you shoot for 4, 5 or 6 hours handholding the camera (just look up “photographer’s elbow”). On the other side, I feel more secure and stable holding the bulkier DSLR, because the mirrorless feels flimsy and toy-like.
The video claim is also true. Almost none of the DSLR cameras have decent video capture options. Starting with the compression, format and ending with the menu settings, this is a big pain for indie/cross-over camera ops. There are, hacks for some of them (i.e. Magic Lantern for Canon), but the default factory firmware is crippled (I think intentionally).
The autofocus though is a different story. I am still waiting for that instant autofocus that even my mid-range and rather old D610 has (not even mentioning a D5 beast). No, mirrorless cannot (yet) focus as fast as the DSLR. It can maintain focus (that is true) once acquired, but this is due to the faster processors inside. For me though, this is a big minus, since you can miss a shot while the mirrorless is trying to find the subject.
What about full-frame DSLR versus SLR?
Well, most of the opinions from the crop apply here too. One thing that I’ve noticed though is the noise and the physical vibration made by the mirror-up motion. The D610 emits a very low sound while lifting the mirror and triggering the shutter — even in “Countinuous High” burst mode — quite pleasant I might add. But the old film SLR makes it obvious it has triggered. There is a loud “clonk” sound, and the whole camera vibrates when triggered. Maybe mine has a defect (it’s around 30 years old, anyway), but this makes low speed shooting almost impossible.
This was a short walk through my own experiences and pains with the different camera formats. And you can reach different conclusions, based on your own experiences and main target. But, for now, this is what works for me.
The full-frame DSLR is here to stay, at least for now, at least for serious work. I can’t afford going back to re-shoot a scene, because my camera was unable to focus. Yes, it’s heavy, and it lacks good video options (about that, in another post), but it’s friggin’ fast and reliable.
I’m not ditching the mirrorless either. The weight part makes it so more portable, and the focusing speed is not an issue for personal use. I’m yet to try it on a pro-level video shoot, but I will surely try the automatic follow-focus power.
As for the film camera, it has its special place also. Not for paid shoots, of course, but it keeps my light metering brain patterns alive, so it’s good for self training.
In a more recent article, I write about my first impressions of the new Sony A9 camera.