DSLR vs. Mirrorless vs...Medium Format?

After my friend and fellow senior photographer Adam Wilde wrote the blog post outlining his belief that DSLRs would remain in our future for quite some time, I felt compelled to express my opinion that they will not, at least not in its traditional form. After all, what’s healthier than a little difference of opinion amongst friends?

I agree with Adam’s point that DSLRs will (and in many cases already have) usurp the need for medium-format cameras. The file size and quality we’re getting from our Canons has done nothing but increase over the last few years. Pair that with the fact that they, like Adam said, “...have the ability to take shots in a black cave with no noise,” and we’ve got an unbeatable combination. I do not believe, however, that medium-format cameras will disappear altogether.

Will the DSLR replace medium format?

Photographers shooting with large-format cameras for product, room set, and architectural photography favor ultra-large digital backs, such as Leaf, Phase One, and Sinar. They demonstrate a dual personality when combined with medium-format systems like Mamiya and Hasselblad. As long as these digital backs continue to arrive on the studio scene, so will medium-format cameras. While the backs lack the low-light speed of a DSLR, with a medium-format system in front of them, they can at least be used on location for lifestyle and portrait work. Without a medium-format system’s support, the digital backs would be relegated to view camera only uses. 

As far as DSLRs go, I believe they will disappear sooner than we expect, or rather their mirrors will vanish. The viewfinders we’re using to look through the lens will simply become tiny screens allowing for images to be transmitted electronically. It would be like replacing the rear-view mirror in your car with a rear-view camera. You’ll still see the same image but how it gets there will be different.

Why not get rid of the camera’s mirror tomorrow?

While the technology currently exists for this type of mirrorless camera – and almost all of the big camera manufacturers have mirrorless cameras on the market – the technology is not quite good enough to replace the mirrors in our favorite professional DSLRs just yet. Some of the hurdles the manufacturers still need to overcome include the lesser quality of the small screens, increased battery usage, and poor viewing in bright light. Two of the biggest roadblocks in the quest to replace optical viewfinders (OVF) with electronic viewfinders (EVF) are the speed and quality of the camera’s auto-focus and the cost of replacing an entire quiver of DSLR lenses with mirrorless camera lenses. Suffice it to say that the best auto-focus systems rely heavily on the DSLRs mirror. Manufacturers are working on AF systems that are incorporated directly on the sensor, but they don’t quite have the speed needed to function at a professional level...yet. Like the EVFs, I trust that the technology for pro-quality auto-focus lies just around the corner.

EVFs mean easier use and cool tech toys!

Why do I believe professional mirrorless cameras will show up soon? I’ll give you six reasons.

1. Better viewing in low-light situations. With an EVF, we’ll be able to see what the camera sees, especially in the dark. Currently, the OVF is limited to your own ability to see in the dark.

2. Less vibration and fewer moving parts. This one is simple: without the mirror, the camera has fewer things flopping around on the inside, which means fewer vibrations to deal with when you’re shooting. Fewer vibrations = steadier cameras = more successful shots taken with longer exposures. Woo hoo!

3. Smaller equipment. Without the mirror inside, the camera body will be much smaller. Also, the back of the lens can be closer to the sensor. The combination of these two changes means the lenses will be smaller too. Smaller body + smaller lens = lighter, more compact gear. Much easier for old guys like me to carry around all day.

4. See what the camera sees and more. With an EVF, we’ll be able to see what the shots will look like with special color profiles already applied. The EVFs of the future might also allow us to upload our tweaked presets into the camera and enable us to see how the shot will look with our style applied in real time while we’re shooting. Additionally, we could possibly upload layouts or overlays to the cameras viewfinder so we could see exactly how our subject will fit into the layout while we’re composing the shots. 

5. Focus magnification. Another cool feature, especially for us old guys, is focus magnification. An EVF would give us the option, when focusing manually, to magnify the viewfinder so we can get a more detailed view of the part of the subject that we want in focus. At last, I’ll be able to take sharp photos! 

6. OVF to EVF switchable finder. Some of the current mirrorless cameras give you the option of using the OVF or the EVF. I believe that this is a logical next step in the professional world. It will give you most of the benefits of having an EVF without the huge cost of replacing all your lenses or sacrificing your OVF. It also means that the manufacturers won’t need to radically change the design of their bodies just yet.

So where does that leave us in our argument about DSLRs vs mirrorless cameras vs medium format? Well, I believe it’s fairly obvious that mirrorless technology will play a big role in our future as professional photographers. I also believe that the medium-format systems are here to stay. If we’re lucky, we’ll see something arrive on the photo scene that none of us could have predicted but that we will love to use. However, one thing is certain: if something earth-shattering (or should I say mirror-shattering) shows up on the photo scene, we’ll give it a test drive and let you know about it right here on the TRG blog. Stay focused!

Do you agree with Thomas or Adam? Leave your comments below and let us know your opinion on the DSLR vs. Mirrorless vs. Medium Format debate.