As I shift to Mirrorless, why do I keep my DSLR?

A reader recently left a comment which asked why I still keep my Canon 7D if I’m so happy with my move to mirrorless.

There is one thing in your reasoning that sounds odd to me, if not contradictory. You think this is the time for most photographers to switch to a mirrorless, but, at the same time, admit that you keep your 7D for some special occasions. Where is the simplicity, if you actually need 2 systems to take care of all the situations?

Before I talk about my case, I should start with the broader market. There are valid reasons for using a DSLR and if you like yours and it serves you well, then by all means continue to use it. However, if you are itching for a smaller camera that takes equally good pictures, mirrorless may be the way to go — it’s worked for me and a bunch of my friends. But don’t misconstrue this statement to mean everyone should switch to mirrorless. DSLRs are old tech, in one sense, but old does not mean bad.

Despite the trend towards mirrorless cameras, DSLRs are not going to disappear. They will continue to be used in certain applications for the foreseeable future. Even Rangefinder cameras (like the Leica M series), which are long past their heyday, are still being sold. So when I say that DSLRs are an ancronism and mirrorless is the future, realize that this trend will take many years and some people will never switch.

Cameras, like life, are a series of trade offs — there are no perfect cameras. If you are an Associated Press photographer and shooting the Olympics, I would not recommend using a mirrorless camera. Pro-level DSLRs are really geared for that kind of shooting. That said, it doesn’t mean that mirrorless cameras can’t shoot sports, it’s just not the ideal camera. Heck, a photo journalist did a bang up job taking photos at the Olympics using his iPhone. Likewise, if you want to do street photography, need a travel camera or want a small everyday camera, DSLRs are not the best choice. It doesn’t mean, of course, DSLRs can’t serve that function, it’s just their size and weight tends to get in the way.

But what If I want to shoot it all, you say, street photography, travel photography, sports, kids and weddings? Well I’m sorry to say that you will need to compromise. You will have to weigh the relative uses of each function and decide for yourself what the main purpose of the camera will be. Yes, it is hard sometimes, especially if you want just one camera to do it all. My friend, Mike, is contemplating selling his Canon 5D and the Fujifilm X100 to get one camera, possibly a FujiFilm X-Pro 1. There will be tradeoffs. He will need to compromise and give up some flexibility to do this. But Mike is an experienced photographer so he is savvy enough to make an intelligent decision.

For me, I decided to take the opposite tack. I don’t struggle to find the perfect camera for all situations since I decided to use multiple, different cameras. Yes, most of what I shoot is now done with my Olympus Pens — they are perfect for the type of photography that I enjoy and post on mostlyfotos. But, I don’t expect my Olympus Pens to handle 100% of my photographic needs. I use my Canon 7D and even point and shoots to supplement my Olympus. And truth be told, while the photography comes first, I am also a camera enthusiast — I enjoy shooting with different types of cameras. That is probably one of the main reasons I keep my 7D around as well as my older Olympus E-PL1s and my Sony NEX-5.

But this multi-camera approach has its downsides too. It is also a compromised solution. I need to learn multiple different interfaces. It costs more money. It takes up more space and adds more clutter. Having that one perfect camera would certainly makes things simpler but it’s something that doesn’t exist for me just yet. Perhaps in the future, as technologies improve and I increasingly specialize on a particular type of photography, I can begin to shed cameras. I may however, struggle to overcome my love of using many different cameras. At least for now, you the reader will benefit from me playing with different models and contrasting their strengths and weaknesses on this blog.

28 thoughts on “As I shift to Mirrorless, why do I keep my DSLR?

  1. One camera type will never do it all if you shoot commercial or even if you are a serious amateur. I had 4 different body types even in the film days. It wasn’t even a vanity thing back then. Some of the cameras were bought used and were pretty beat.

    While I have started using the lowly Pen camera for some product shots and it will usually do very well for a 1/4 page ad, the camera is never going to do a cover for me. It’s not going to fly if I need to shoot an editorial event. For that I go for the a Nikon D3 or even my old Kodak DSLR depending on the subject. Or I borrow a digital medium format, again, depending on subject. If I want o just fool around in the park the Pen or other small camera goes with me – if I want to shoot gulls by the shore I take a DSLR.

    It just all depends on what you shoot and the look you want. There have been numerous posts on the forums about “Can you go all mirrorless?” Well, mirrorless is a broad definition in many respects. Nikon 1 is mirrorless, and so is Leica. Miles apart, and so trying to characterize all as the mirrorless category falls apart quickly.

    To me, they’re just cameras, and you pick the best tool for what you want to shoot that day. I shoot and love small cameras, but there’s no way I’m dumping my old medium format film cams or the DSLRs. Because I like them.

    1. Libby, looks like you use a broader range of gear than I. Yes, the goal, for me, is the photos and not the gear. Use the best gear for the intended usage.

      1. There even small differences between the full frame and the APS-C. It’s a fine line for sure, but I go for what works better. For instance I hate APS-C for food shooting.

        When it’s time to let go, it’s a personal decision. You may hold onto stuff because you “think” you might need it. Then again, you may just like the camera or cameras. I could honest to god kick myself for getting rid of all of my Nikon film bodies (2009). I should have kept at least one of them.

  2. I’m an amateur Nex-5 shooting Photoshop enthusiast and for the main part the Sony performs outstanding. However, when I need serious photographic material, I still turn to my cousin’s pro-level – with mirror – material (yeah yeah, I’m cheap). I frequently create designs for local non-profit organizations and I learned that, when you start printing on A3 or larger, the grade of quality really matters. Unlike a screen presentation or 10x15cm photo prints.

    The obvious advantage with EVIL cameras is how portable they are. I’m usually the one making the family events pictures because most other members own DSLRs. It’s just too much of a hassle for them. I understand why you say DSLRs are old tech. Gadgets keep getting more portable and offer amazing levels of quality (loved Dan Chung’s shots). If eventually mirrorless cameras (or smartphones for that matter) offer the same level of quality than a device twice its size, why would you bother? Nostalgia, perhaps 🙂

    1. Timmy, yeah, isn’t it funny how the guys with the DSLRs don’t seem to use them to take pictures of themselves at their photo outings. They break out their iPhone while they all have multi-thousand dollar cameras they use to take pictures of other things.

  3. I’ll hang on to my DSLRs because I like them, they work fine, I don’t worry so much about damaging them and, since I was shooting the Olympus E System, my lenses can still be used with my m4/3 cameras. I see the mirrorless cameras as just another evolutionary step. I didn’t stop shooting film when I got my first DSLR. My new cameras offer just as much control as my old ones, but have more capabilities. It’s those capabilities that are moving me towards mirrorless.

    1. Got to wonder what the future will bring, camera wise. Perhaps brain implants that record the image, sound, smells and temperature with one metal click. That’s when I stay old school. No implants for me 😉

  4. Thanks for this excellent post (hope I did not offend you with my initial comment, this was definitely not my intention). Although I am definitely on a low budget (but wait until I don’t have to pay for preschool for the kids!), I am also guilty in keeping old cameras (not of particularly good quality) and finding good use for them. Digiscoping for an old pana P&S, lumix fz28 for macros and easy to carry camera for bird pictures (documenting does not require really good quality). Those last 2 could be replaced with a Nikon 1, but it will have to wait a bit.

    I am sometimes trying to imagine what is the future for all those camera systems. Between the fast improvement of the camera phones, the quite significant price reduction of FF DSLRs, the now real possibility of FF mirrorless cameras, I find it quite stressful to put all my eggs in one basket. Unless, of course, I only care about the present, and just try to enjoy taking pictures.

    If there is one only thing that slightly bothers me with current DSLR is the lack of effort in producing appealing designs (surely they can do a little bit better than simply offering a red nikon 3200, or a blue Pentax). Having a mirror should not, in my opinion, prevent the designers to create beautiful cameras (less plastic, more metal!!!!). At the current time where sensor technology has definitely reached a plateau, I certainly appreciate their efforts to extract every bit of image quality out of a sensor, but, at the same time, can’t help but salivate to the sight of a fuji XE1.

    1. laurentinmichigan, no offense taken. You asked a very good question and it made me think. I think the post resonates with users given all the comments.

      I know that I’m lucky that I have the opportunity to own several cameras. I realize that not everyone has this option.

      It seems to me most DLSRs are viewed simply as picture taking tools. A machine molded of plastic or metal that is optimized for that one task. Nothing wrong with that, in one sense, since I ultimately value the photographs over the gear. However, yes, they lack a sense of style or they don’t have a personality which you can really identify with.

      The retro Fuji’s or the Leicas feel great. For that reason, I like my Olympus E-P3 better, feel wise, than my new smaller E-PM2, even though the E-PM2 takes superior photos.

  5. As much as I would love to simplify my life and photography into one camera system, my research and experience has brought me to the conclusion that my desire can’t be fulfilled by any one system, at least not yet. My X100 is my grab n’ go camera for the majority of the time when I just want to take pictures for personal satisfaction. I like its image quality so much that I’ve used it for pro work when I could pull it off. I labored over the possibility of getting into the X-Pro 1 or X-E1 as a replacement for my 5D setup. That was just a pipe dream. The compromises are too great as things stand now. The more I looked at it, what I like about the X100 is its compact size, amazing image quality, and its simplicity. There is only one lens. No lusting for the latest greatest glass. There is only one focal length. I find that limitation stimulating to my creativity. It’s simple, fun, and effective. It’s not the right hammer for every nail though.

    I didn’t touch my DSLR for the longest time after I got the X100. I was so excited by the great images that I got from the little X100 that dragging around the 5D seemed like I was toting around a big heavy brick. Lately I’m back shooting the 5D more. It is the best tool for some of the photo work I need to do. It’s my system camera when I need speed and versatility. I’m even considering upgrading to a more recent DSLR body than that circa 2006 beast. The X100 remains as my creatively limiting one trick pony that pulls me back into a more relaxed, yet focused mindset that reminds me why I love photography. The X100 travels in my messenger bag daily. The DSLR is the big gun that stays at home in the backpack and comes out when the job calls for it.

    Lately I have been dabbling with film cameras for my personal work. That’s an entirely different story, a sickness perhaps! It does make me take a step back and wonder if all that new whiz-bang technology is truly a boon or if the non-stop product announcements are just there to keep us opening our wallets year after year for the camera manufacturers. It’s sobering to look at a scan of a medium format negative from a 50+ year old camera that I paid $75 for that totally destroys $5000 of modern DSLR gear. Then again, I won’t be shooting something like a hockey game with a TLR medium format camera – or my beloved X100 for that matter. Horses for courses, as they say.

    1. Great writeup, Mike. Interesting change in direction that I’m sure we will need/have to talk about over some beers. We need to get out soon to shoot and socialize.

  6. I didn’t keep my DSLR, but not because it was redundant or useless, but because my wrists wouldn’t tolerate the weight … and my granddaughter really loves it. There are limitations inherent in the smaller format cameras. I bump into them regularly and recognize them as the price I pay for having a camera that is so much more comfortable to use, yet gives me pictures of which I am proud. But I know I will never have the really wide angle lens I want … the lens I want for my Olympus PENs doesn’t exist. Either too slow or too narrow and all too expensive. The solution? Not sure yet, but it lies in another camera that I don’t yet own. I suspect it is going to ultimately lie in a really high end all-in-one with a fast super zoom that will take me where I want to go. The technology is changing so fast, it’s hard to keep up with it. I figure there’s a solution to my conundrum: I’m waiting for it to show up and I’m betting it will do that pretty soon. I doubt anyone who is serious about photography can really do it with only one camera. I don’t know anyone who does. We all have three or four cameras (including a couple we don’t use almost ever but you never know). I don’t think that will go away … the opposite. We will get more cameras and keep the older ones too.

    1. It is starting to get embarrassing how many cameras I have. A topic for another post.

      The freedom I feel having a small kit, especially when I travel, makes it worth it for me. From what I hear, I not the only person that feels this way.

      For many years, people equate SLR with serious because that was the only thing around. Technology has certainly changed that. There are fantastic point and shoots that do remarkable things these days.

  7. I used to be heavily into photography, many years ago.., developed my own negatives, printed my own pictures, generally opted for better cameras and, hopefully, better photos. Yes, I know it’s the photographer, not the camera, but a good rig was a start. I’d buy used to get what I thought I wanted. These days are different as convenience is a bit more important than having the most elaborate rig. However, this didn’t kill my desire for quality and so I bought a DSLR. Modern rigs are light weight but still bulky.., and then my friend, Teepee12, turned me on to Micro 4/3s.., specifically the Olympus Pens and it’s the answer to my prayers, as I can still throw it in my bag like a “point and shoot” but I don;t have to sacrifice quality. I’ve taken to always having a camera with me again.., just like the old days. Now I just need to learn to shoot again.

    No, I won’t dump my DSLR.., it still works great for dedicated photo trips where I don’t mind the extra bulk, but the Pens certainly give me pause.

    PS: I still have my SLR film cameras too.., does that make me a hoarder?

    1. Ben, welcome and thanks for your post. I think the Micro 4/3 system hits the sweet spot for size vs versatility equation. But, of course, it is not the only game in town.

  8. I own three camera systems: A Nikon D800 with three full frame lenses, a Nikon D7000 cropped frame sensor with 3 lenses and a Sony Alpha NEX-5N mirrorless camera with 2 lenses. Each of the three systems are geared to slightly different uses. The D800 is a studio/lanscape gem at 36.3 MP and full frame. My D7000 is a 16 MP cropped frame with a much faster frame rate than the D800. The Sony NEX-5N is a 16MP cropped frame almost identical to that in the D7000. Its strength is its reduced size & weight.

    The lenses are where the difference separates them. All six of my Nikkor lenses will work on both my DSLRs.bThe NEX-5N has far fewer lenses available at this time compared to the dozens in Nikon’s huge inventory.

    If I know I’ll be shooting movement I’ll certainly take the D7000 for its fast frame rate, low light sensitivity and lenses that include: , 85mm F/3.5, 11-16mm F/2.8, 18-200mm F/3.5-5.6 VRII. For landscapes the D800 with 24-70mm F/2.8, 50mm F/1.4, 70-300mm F/4-5.6G can’t be beat. The Sony NEX-5N is the traveling camera with it’s 18-55mm F/3.5 & 55-210mm F/3.5 lenses.

    Pictures from all 3 cameras can be placed side by side and you’d be hard pressed to identify the camera used in each example. All three are light sensitive and super sharp. I really can’t say I have a favorite system as they are all capable cameras with their specialties separating them. I intend to keep all three. – Bob

    1. Bob, for smaller sizes or web, the quality is certainly hard to distinguish these days. Looks like you have a really nice setup and have a good idea of when to use each camera.

      1. If all my photos were just for the web the mirrorless cameras would be sufficient but I also print 30″x20″ gallery wrap canvas prints so larger resolution and detail is needed. I was fortunate to buy my gear before I retired so I could afford to keep all three systems. I’m as poor as a church mouse now so my setup of top gear is irreplaceable.

  9. I am in a very similar situation. Late last spring I purchased the Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera, along with 4 lenses and a lighter tripod to become my “travel camera”. I was tired of packing my Canon 5D Mark II, a selection of lenses, and a pretty stout tripod on our vacations. The mirrorless Olympus turned out to be much more camera than I originally wanted to use it for. It quickly became my weekend, and pretty much my “go to” camera in a very short period of time.

    I still have my Canon 5D Mark II, though. I have no desire to get rid of it, but I also do not have any desire to update it to the Mark III. When I do photography for pay, I still use the Canon equipment. It does produce a higher resolution photo, and I have a more extensive collection of lenses, and probably most important – I have 5 of the 580EX II speedlights. I do use those speedlites at times, and I don’t really want to go out and try and duplicate that all over again for my Olympus system.

    So it seems, like you and the other commenters, that I have two different systems that I use for different purposes. I’m OK with that…. for now.

    1. I didn’t want to go into detail on this post but yes I too have some lenses and a flash that I did not want to re-buy for the Olympus. I do love my 70-200f4IS on the Canon 7D and I’m not going to play $1000 plus for the Panasonic equivalent. That is not what I use my micro 4/3 system for.

  10. the problem of placing a camera on the back burner means one starts to lose the very need familiarity with it! To enjoy a camera keeping the DSLR for “special” shoots a bad idea. a musician who plays a number of instruments, needs to play them all regularly! i love my point and shoot digitals. i love my SLR( yeah film guy!) and if one owns a Leica M, constant usage a pure necessity!
    Practice, playing with, using are part and parcel. Today’s cameras have so many features, that one is soon lost, without 149 page book or CD_ROM.
    so grab your SLR/DSLR and use it as easily as the P/S where conditions allow.
    last roll thru my Leica M3 9since 1967) showed i was bad at framing, focussing where?, exposures within 10 stops..and choosing moments of history (well after the ‘moment’). Yeah! i gotta use it more..

    1. I agree. That is part of the risk and disadvantage of not using a tool all the time. Loss of familiarity. However, the good news of course is that the way you compose, see light and the creativity behind photography is the same regardless of the camera you use.

      1. …And I experienced a peculiar problem with my Cannon PowerShot A590 point and shoot. I don’t know if it was me or the camera, but it had never happened before. While on vacation, I was shooting some outdoors using the viewfinder and found that the subject was way out of frame when it looked fine during shooting..? Of course I never bothered to check it in the display until I was far from the site. Also the display was hard to see in bright sunlight. Any thoughts…???

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