How Do You Make the Mirrorless/DSLR Choice?

It seems that despite my repeated efforts to try to put things into perspective, a number of people are still asking the same questions, typically along the lines of "should I buy a D750 or Z6"? 

That's certainly a good question, no matter how you're coming at it (e.g. from a D3500, a D610, or a competitor's camera). But it doesn't have a simple answer.

As I've tried to indicate, DSLRs aren't dead. They still have some advantages to them. Most of those center around the optical view of the world, the time-tested autofocus system, and the support for them (which ranges from lenses to accessories to repair facilities to education, and more). 

The optical view of the world does not impact your night vision. It doesn't slice time up into frames. It doesn't need a moment to turn on when it hasn't been in use for awhile. It doesn't drain batteries. (Technically, Nikon's DSLR viewfinder overlay system does drain batteries, but it'll take a month or so to do so.)

The DSLR autofocus system may have limitations (area covered, only face detect, many tricky attributes to learn, and issues of tolerance in some cases), but both Canon's and Nikon's current systems are fast, reliable, and consistent once you learn how to use them. (Unfortunately many people don't; they want "all automatic" systems to do all the heavy-lifting.)

And you can't say that DSLRs are unsupported. If there's an accessory you need, it's been made. Third parties have had plenty of time to iron out wrinkles in compatibility. The lens selection for Canon and Nikon DSLRs is incredibly wide and deep. 

So why wouldn't you buy a DSLR, particularly given that prices have dropped on them?

Well, mirrorless cameras have their advantages, too. Those center around WYSIWIG viewfinders (what you see is what you get), wider/smarter autofocus systems, and generally smaller and lighter bodies for the same level of capability (e.g., the Z7 is smaller and lighter than a D850, one of the most equivalent comparisons we can make between DSLR and mirrorless). With Canon and Nikon mirrorless, in particular, we also have the promise of potentially new and exciting lens capabilities in the future. 

DSLRs are the establishment. Mirrorless is the future. 

If you're absolutely new to interchangeable lens cameras, the answer is relatively easy: buy the future (mirrorless).

If you're a long-time SLR/DSLR user, you're in the establishment. The question becomes whether you're happy with what you've been using and just need to upgrade or is there a clear benefit to stepping into a future that isn't fully there yet. 

I think my answers have been relatively consistent for awhile now. Let me throw a few of them at you:

  • New to ILC and want affordable? Canon EOS M, Fujifilm XF, and Sony E are probably where you should be looking.
  • New to ILC and want full frame? Sony FE is the first choice, as it's well fleshed out now and there are plenty of lenses to choose from. Nikon has done enough that it should get your attention; they'll be where Sony is within the next 18 months I'll bet. Canon's line has all kinds of promises, but no clear delivery yet. Yet they, too, probably will be where Sony is soon.
  • DSLR user looking to upgrade? Start with examining the logical upgrade for you (e.g. D7000 to D7500, maybe D600 to D750, D3x to D850, etc.; see my Ultimate Camera Upgrade Advice, which I update every year). If that leaves you wanting, then figure out what the missing element is and look for that in someone else's product (which may be mirrorless).

What most people upgrading tend to overlook in their decision making is that (a) they may need to learn a completely new system; (b) they may need entirely new lens sets and accessories. I see a lot of people that approach me like this "I'm a D7000 user and it's time to upgrade; I'm thinking about the Sony A7m3..." 

That may or may not be a good choice for that person. I generally have to ask questions back when I get such queries to give a reasonable answer (as should any good camera store salesperson). A lot of the time, though, the questioner has been tempted by marketing, Internet hype, or FOMO (fear of missing out). In practice, an answer of "buy a D7500" is often still the right one for that person, especially if they update a lens or two.

While I've written about "leakers" and "samplers" before, I haven't mentioned that I see a fair number of "returners", too. I've got a big data file of folk that went mirrorless and came back to DSLR. Over time, as the mirrorless systems get more mature and fully fleshed out, I suspect that I won't see so many returnees in the future, but up through today? Still seeing them.

Nikon doesn't make things any easier, either. 

As I write this, I can buy a D850 for US$3000 or a Z7 with FTZ adapter for US$2800. Image quality-wise, they're near identical. Feature-wise, they're pretty darned close. I happen to think the D850 is a better well-rounded camera than the Z7, but the Z7 isn't exactly a slouch at that. It's really close to my #2 choice in well-rounded, the A7Rm3. So close that sometimes I think I'm splitting hairs. 

So which of those do you pick? 

It gets back to whether you're more rooted in the establishment (DSLR) or the future (mirrorless). 

But then Nikon goes and throws a monkey wrench into things:

As I write this, I can buy a D750 with the 24-120mm f/4 lens for US$1800 or a Z6 with the 24-70mm lens and FTZ adapter for US$2400. Whoa Nelly. Again, in terms of image quality, the sensor in those two cameras is close enough to identical for most users. Feature-wise, they're a bit more different than the D850/Z7 pair, but still close. 

So what happens is that price gets in the way of product rationalization for the potential buyer. You pay a third more for the future in this case (US$600 is not something to ignore, even for a well-heeled customer). Nikon clearly wants you to buy the established. (I should also point out that those rumors of a D750 replacement point to a very tricky problem for Nikon: any D760 needs quite a bit of enhancement, or a lower price, to work in the market now.)

Canon has near equivalent cameras in the 6Dm2 (DSLR) and RP (mirrorless), with the pricing now US$1300 (body only) for either. 

Indeed, it's usually on the price issue that I find most people hesitating on their decisions. At near equal price they tilt towards the future (mirrorless). At high discounts, they tilt towards the established (DSLR).

As I noted up front, there isn't a simple answer. 

More so than ever, you really need to prioritize your needs and your wants, and couple that to a budget. A budget that includes all the extra things you might need to switch to mirrorless (cards, lenses, accessories, etc.). 

Cameras last a long time. As I look back at my images as I reorganize them, I'm very happy with images I took with the D3x, for example. Did I need more camera than that? Not really, even today, though the 36mp/45mp sensors definitely were a modest step forward. 20/24mp is a good solid point for most imagery for most users. Higher than that buys some flexibility and future-proofing, I suppose, but I'm finding quite a few folk now that are over-buying for their needs.

What current cameras have 24mp?

  • Canon: PowerShot G7 X and G1 X, EOS M5, M6, M50, M100, 80D, SL3, T7, 6Dm2 and RP (26mp), 
  • Fujifilm: X-T30 and X-T3 (26mp), XF10, X-T100, X-H1, X-A5, X-E3, X100F
  • Nikon: D3500, D5600, D610, D750, Z6
  • Panasonic: S1
  • Pentax: KP, K-70
  • Ricoh: GRIII
  • Sony: A6000, A6300, A6400, A6500, A7 (m1 to m3)

That's a lot of choice, ranging from compact cameras with large sensors to full frame DSLRs and mirrorless. 

So again, sort through your requirements (needs) and wants. The answer becomes clearer as you scratch things off the list that don't meet those. As it always has.

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