DSLR vs. Mirrorless Misconceptions — It’s Not About Supremacy, It’s About Improvements

Stick with DSLR? Switch to mirrorless? This is not another David vs. Goliath debate. But how come DSLRs still outsell mirrorless, even though mirrorless offers that convenience factor and optics are on par with the very best DSLRs. DSLRs, however, focus and track like no mirrorless, they offer wider depth of field leverage and have — even though that’s debatable — higher quality pixels. A main difference, however, is an unfortunate misconception; something Sony clearly stated about its new A3000, a disguised mirrorless in a DSLR-lookalike body. Sony felt it had to design a camera that appeals to those who want the perception of professional quality offered by the DSLRs of other manufacturers.

The DSLR vs. mirrorless a.k.a. David vs. Goliath debate isn't about either's supremacy, it's about improvements. | David Allan Brandt / PDN
The DSLR vs. mirrorless a.k.a. David vs. Goliath debate isn’t about either’s supremacy, it’s about improvements. | David Allan Brandt / PDN
Here’s what Engadget says about Sony’s A3000 marketing strategy:

Amateurs looking to step up from a point-and-shoot often opt for a full size DSLR. The reason, according to Sony reps, is that these users simply assume that a larger camera with a familiar design offers better image quality and performance. So, to suit these misinformed customers, Sony created a mirrorless camera that looks like a DSLR.

I have not the slightest doubt in my mind that the A3000 paired with Zeiss E glass will deliver outstanding images. Hey, it’s an affordable point-and-shoot with large sensor and viewfinder. Add the good ergonomics. It’s troublesome though that a innovative camera maker has to deceive the market to counter the lethargy and lack of ideas Canon and Nikon are increasingly known for.

Let’s face it: NEX, RX100 and RX1 are niche products. Sony could offer more the next generation of cameras. The mass market though doesn’t seem to be ready for it. Market forces curb innovation and press Sony to offer new wine in old skins.

Or asked differently: who needs mirrorless. There is no question that many young photographers today are perfectly satisfied with smartphone photography. Ironically, many of today’s young people (who pave the way for generational change!) think DSLR when they think about serious photography, no matter what technology is inside that camera. To them, mirrorless and smartphone photography are synonyms.

Misconception is everything -- a DSLR lookalike with a mirrorless heart and soul. Sony is convinced the A3000 will appeals to those who want the perception of professional quality offered by the DSLR.
Misconception is everything — a DSLR lookalike with a mirrorless heart and soul. Sony is convinced the A3000 will appeals to those who want the perception of professional quality offered by the DSLR.
This shouldn’t surprise us. What a camera looks like is incredibly important to many photographers. And people buy the cameras Canon and Nikon want them to buy. And Canon and Nikon still sell hordes of cameras not because of superior quality, but simply because of the name printed on the front.

Who cares whether the mirror is old technology. For the big names it’s still more profitable than their mediocre mirrorless attempts. This mirror, invented to solve the problem of the parallax error between the viewfinder and what the camera saw, is the past. It’s big, it’s clunky and prone to mechanical failure.

Electronic viewfinders are already good enough to replace optical ones. There is no reason why the Canon 5D Mark III or Nikon D800 can’t be made without mirror. Both are excellent cameras built around obsolete technology. The future is mirrorless, but the gap is closing at a snail’s pace.

It’s not that the market isn’t ready for change. I’d be surprised to see a D900 or Mark IV with pentaprism. Yes, old habits die hard and are CaNikon’s cash cow. DSLR dominance will gradually die, that’s easy to predict. But first and foremost mirrorless has to match this dying breed’s advantages such as AF, buffer and processing speeds.

IQ-wise, it’s already hard to tell the difference between bigger and more compact cameras. In fact, the DSLR vs. mirrorless debate is not about either’s supremacy. It’s about the best of both worlds. It’s about improvements like faster flash sync, better battery life, light sensitivity, dynamic range and more accurate EVF. And a larger sensor will always be king.

  • dierk

    I answered the question for myself.

    Last weekend I sold all my DSLR gear (Nikon D3 and Pro lenses).

    After starting digital with Nikon Coolpixes (about 2 MPix in the first one!)

    I got one of the first Nikon D70 (6 MPix), then one of the first Nikon D200
    (10 Mpix), then one of the first Nikon D3.

    In 2004 I sold all my analog gear (kept my 4×5, Horison 202 panorama and
    some collectors stuff)

    Then in 2009 I got one of the first Leica M9 – my first Leica, and loved it
    and the tiny lenses and the fascinating IQ. The 28mm/2.8 is 170 g, a full
    format lens of course! And the D3 started to collect dust (not only on the
    sensor :) )

    Then I discovered NEX from Sony and bought the NEX5 for use with my Leica
    glass and soon found, that the E-mount lenses with AF and OSS where very
    light and cheap and offer reasonable IQ (for the weight and money).

    Then I got the NEX7 and started to use my Leica glass on this great little

    When the D800E was announced, ordered one

    – and canceled the order, when the AF problems appeared

    – and decided to leave DSLR completely.

    I preordered the coming NEX FF.


  • One of the major reasons I chose Nikon DSLRs a while back was their dedication to the same lens mount as compared to most other camera manufacturers. After one has invested in a set of top quality lenses you sure don’t want the rug pulled out from under you when newer bodies come along. Plus I would have to agree with Sony’s thinking is us Americans and I think the Chinese too think bigger is better. Whether that’s megapixels, FPS, ISO, etc. However, once one begins to tire of lugging all that crap around its hard to brag about how great a camera you own if you never have it with you.

  • Bengt Nyman

    The real reason why mirrorless cameras have not yet been able to outperform the DSLRs is because image sensor contrast autofocus is slower than mirror phaze detect autofocus.
    A prime example is the Sony RX1 and its failure to capture the market.
    If and when this challenge is solved the complicated and expensive DSLR mirror mechanism will be a thing of the past.
    Cameras will still look somewhat like DSLRs from the front because of the need for a comfortable grip and the EVF.
    However, these new cameras will be thinner, lighter, simpler and less expensive than the DSLRs of the past.

  • dierk

    I don’t see any reason, why a mirrorless should look like a DSLR.

    The design of the SLR did depend on the two compartments for the film and the prism for the finder. Why morrorless should not look completely different like the Sony NEX for example or anything else. The NEX6/7 have a (the best) finder and a good grip. Or look at the coming Sony QX.

    If you don’t depend on any technical limitations, why not put the lens, the finder and the screen where ever it fits the needs or make it look different than the competition?

    Why not put the finder into the glasses like google glass or into the smart phone or tablet?

    Why not connect all components with WIFI or Bluetooth and put it anywhere?

    I think, the designers will use all these new chances.
    Could you imagine a QX before?


  • Bengt Nyman

    I agree with you about the Sony NEX FF. It will be a milestone. If Sony has managed to give it fast and accurate auto focus it will be the entry into the next digital photography paradigm. The QX is not a good example of the next generation cameras. It is not a handheld camera and looks like remote viewing cameras always have looked, it just happens to be wireless.

  • dierk

    I mentioned the QX only as an example, how much creativity is possible, when the designers are not depending on the fixed connection between lens and display.

    In one post some time ago I read, that a photographer could not go to a shooting with a compact camera, the customer would not take him serious :)

    Looking at the gear it is an exiting time,

    looking for good images, all times where exiting, as we read here some days before.

  • Pablo Ricasso

    You seem like a very confused person, dierk. No offence meant, maybe photography isn’t for you.

  • JakeB

    But…but…he was “one of the first”…


  • Please mind your tone guys, don’t let me start editing/censoring comments. We’re all grown-ups. No inflammatory stuff on THEME, please.

  • JakeB

    Apologies, Dan.

  • dierk

    my history of 50 years of taking photos, about 45 with SLR, may look confusing to you. I was always looking for new tools for taking pictures or realizing my picture ideas. That was not only gear but also darkroom. For example did I prints in 100 years old technique of brom oil printing (if this is the right term in English). New technique and tools are always very inspiring, I am sure not only for me. If Ansel Adams would live now, he would love all these opportunities.
    Have fun and good light.