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DSLR vs. Mirrorless | Are Mirrorless Cameras Really the Future Of Photography?

By Paul Nguyen on February 15th 2015

DSCF3992DSLR vs. Mirrorless

One of the most common phrases in photography circles these days is that “mirrorless is the future.” Like many other predictions, we usually tend to over-predict in favour of the new challenger. That’s always been the case for as long as I can remember. Just about a decade ago, we all hypothesized that notebook computers would replace desktops and that hasn’t really happened. Also, of course, with the advent of digital, we all thought that was the end of film, but these days, there are still legions of 35mm film shooters and many medium and large format shooters due to the unaffordability of medium format digital cameras.

What Is Mirrorless the Future Of?

There are two issues, in my opinion, which need to be addressed before we can even begin to ponder about whether mirrorless is “the future.” The first issue is, what exactly is mirrorless the future of? Whilst most professional and serious amateur shooters have been shooting with DSLRs for the past decade, we’ve often turned a blind eye to other markets, such as the point and shoot markets, and also what the majority of people out there are using. If you go to a popular tourist destination and survey what cameras are being used, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d find that there are more cameras without mirrors in them than cameras with. Of course, point and shoot cameras are mirrorless. So perhaps another way of looking at it is that mirrorless isn’t exactly the future – it’s already here and it’s been here for a while. The difference is that now, the technology available in mirrorless and the features that are being added (such as interchangeable lenses) have begun to encroach on the mainstay of DSLRs – the professional and serious amateur markets.

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Why Are There Mirrors In the First Place?

The second issue relates to why mirrors are in our cameras in the first place. Most photographers, especially the younger generation born after the relative death of rangefinders, have probably never really experienced a serious (non point-and-shoot) mirrorless camera prior to their recent resurgence. Cameras weren’t invented with mirrors in them – in fact, once upon a time, all cameras were mirrorless! The mirror was actually a later addition to solve a very large inherent problem – that with film, there was no other way of seeing “through the lens.” Rangefinders only offered an approximation to the frame you would see, the physicists out there would be all too aware of the parallax issues which plagued rangefinders – not allowing photographers to achieve precise composition.

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OVF vs EVF

Given that today, digital technology is allowing us to see “through the lens” by viewing what the sensor sees, is there still a case for having mirrors in our cameras? Of course there is – some people still prefer being able to see “the real world” through the lens optically, rather than an LCD screen with the images on it. After all, we still wear glasses, not small LCD screens placed in front of our eyes, right? Viewing through an optical view finder (as on a DLSR) compared to an electronic view finder (as on a mirrorless camera) allows us to view the events of the world in real time and saves battery power (as we don’t have to power an LCD screen along with all the electronics that make it work). This is one of the reasons why DSLRs are still preferred by many photographers and is the benefit that mirrorless cameras will never attain. Other benefits of a DSLR system, such as faster autofocus, better build quality, a wider selection of lenses – these all have to do with the system’s relative maturity compared to many of the mirrorless systems as opposed to inherent benefits of a DSLR design itself.

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On the other hand with mirrorless cameras, we have electronic viewfinders, which allows us to see what the camera sees. This means we can correct exposure, white balance and all our other settings before hitting the shutter button. There is also often a weight advantage with mirrorless cameras, though this is not as significant as some would think. With telephoto lenses, there is usually next to no weight savings. With wide-angle lenses, due to the shorter flange distance of mirrorless cameras, they are usually much more simple designs, saving on weight and size. Mirrorless bodies are generally lighter than DSLRs, but DSLRs are getting lighter every day, as evidenced by the newer generation of cameras, such as Nikon’s D750.

The mirrorless market will continue to evolve; mirrorless cameras will get better, more professional grade bodies and lenses will be released and teething problems such as autofocus will improve over time. All the minor complaints of lack of lenses, lack of dual SD card slots and other professional features – these will also all be fixed with time. The day we have a mature mirrorless camera against a mature DSLR camera – the question will be purely OVF vs. EVF. That is the quintessential question.

DSCF3999Conclusion

Personally, I don’t believe mirrorless or DSLR cameras are “the future” – they’re both here to stay and will continue to co-exist, just like how laptops and desktops have continued to co-exist. People keep talking about whether Canon and Nikon will be releasing mirrorless cameras – my question is “Why?” Sure Nikon can make a mirrorless full-frame camera by simply ditching the mirror, retaining the F mount and compatibility with all their lenses from the past half-century, but what benefit would that bring, apart from miniscule weight benefits?

Perhaps the logical answer to this entire mirrorless vs. DSLR fiasco, at least for Canon and Nikon, is to offer a hybrid viewfinder system where we can switch between an OVF and EVF, much like the Fuji X100 series, so that we can have the benefit of a real time, no delay real world view, as well as a preview of our shot so we can adjust exposure and white balance before hitting the shutter.

About the Guest Contributor

Paul Nguyen is a Melbourne, Australia-based photographer, taking pictures of anything from cars, to streetscapes, to portraits. In the time he’s not spending photographing, he’s usually either reading about new gear and techniques, spending time with his family or reading. He runs a blog discussing mostly his adventures with his Fuji gear, as well as a Flickr photostream, where he’s recently started sharing his work.

About

Paul Nguyen is a Melbourne, Australia-based photographer, taking pictures of anything from cars, to streetscapes, to portraits. In the time he’s not spending photographing, he’s usually either reading about new gear and techniques, spending time with his family or reading. He runs a blog discussing mostly his adventures with his Fuji gear, as well as a Flickr photostream, where he’s recently started sharing his work.

44 Comments

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  1. Christian Hansen

    I think you nailed it with this one.

    I’m currently using both Canon 5D Mark iii DSLR and a Sony a7ii mirrorless system for different uses. I’ve read so much about this debate and it all really leaves one just a little unsettled. I think if Canon and Nikon could add just the EVF/OVF option that you suggest, as I also suggested in a comment on Steve Huff’s website, then they truly will have a serious competitor to mirrorless. Mirrorless has/had a benefit with size and weight, but some of the newer fast glass from Sony (comparable to Canon L glass) is so large that the weight benefit is not quite so much (dare I say negligible?) anymore. So once they get to roughly close sizes with the new mirrorless fast lenses, in my opinion, the DSLR ergonomics are just better. And battery life, well, that’s a given.

    I’m currently planning a coastal photography trip where there is serious potential to get really splashed or rained upon. I’d love to take my mirrorless for the slight weight advantage, but I’m not convinced it’s as rugged or weather sealed as my Canon DSLR with L lenses. And battery life is a factor. But I’ll really, really miss the EVF if I opt to take the DSLR. Just saying’ Canon!

    Appreciate your comments. One other commentary that I found (as a user of both types of cameras) to quite accurately describe the dilemma is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBq6RJgEcig&list=LLHRxRLI5_LiSEUb9oD0iP6Q&index=6

    Matt Granger’s “but” comments are so true.

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  2. Aloisio Nogueira

    Strolled around Paris this week end under blazing sun with a mirrorless with EVF. Impossible to compose a single shot. Couldn’t see a thing on the LCD

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  3. Thomas Horton

    Will mirrorless cameras be the future of photography?

    It really depends on how one defines these terms.

    If you mean will Mirrorless cameras completely replace DSLRs? No of course not. No technology has ever absolutely replaced another technology. We still have people who write with quill pens because that’s their hobby.

    If you mean will Mirrorless cameras become more popular than DSLRs in a specific demographic, then the answer is depends on the demographic. Some demographics will switch earlier and some demographics will never switch.

    So the very expression of “will mirrorless cameras be the future of photography” is impossible to answer unless there are definitions, bounds and metrics…. Which would make this a rather silly question indeed. :)

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  4. Mic Cullen

    Actually, those figures are way wrong for me – I’ve read a more than few articles here over a few months – so maybe your genius opener might need a little reworking. But hey, accuracy clearly isn’t a goal here, is it, as the article showed.

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    • Aidan Morgan

      Mic, you started off by insulting the interests of the commenters (to quote: “Yep, ignorant clickbait. But, as the comments show, it’s playing to the crowd quite nicely”), so don’t be surprised that people are responding negatively.

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    • Mic Cullen

      Apologies if I seemed surprised.

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    • Matthew Saville

      It would be a whole lot more productive if you mentioned what is inaccurate here.

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  5. Lukas Gisbert-Mora

    What a pile of nonsense from a very average photographer, the only reason SLRLounge got this article up is to create debate and traffic to their blog.

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    • Mic Cullen

      Yep, ignorant clickbait. But, as the comments show, it’s playing to the crowd quite nicely. Does nothing good for the reputation of the site, though, running utterly ignorant stuff like this. Still, clicks trump reputation every time these days.

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    • Holger Foysi

      Wow, what arrogance. I would love to here your opinion on the very issue. It seems as if you have s.th. interesting to say, don’t you?

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    • Dave Haynie

      As Lukas’ second comment (article not read) and Mic’s very first reply (and one article read), it’s clear you both have so VERY much experience here.

      Of course the article is put up as a starter for some discussion. And it’s a reasonable discussion to have. With Sony pulling away from the SLR/SLT Alphas (so far, anyway), the industry is pretty neatly divided between the traditional SLR companies selling DSLRs (Canon, Nikon, Pentax) and maybe a “hobby” mirrorless or two, and holding 75% of the ILC market, and everyone else (Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, Fujifilm, Samsung, etc) trying to convince the world that mirrorless is the inevitable future. With some success.

      But much of the photo press is hailing mirrorless as the inevitable future, which is certainly not the observable present or new future.

      That makes it worthy of an intelligent discussion. Odd that you both picked this one article to start up about. This isn’t the lowest-hanging fruit, if you just object to editorial articles.

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    • Matthew Saville

      Thank you, Dave & Holger. ;-)

      Heaven forbid, we leave a discussion open-ended, or express an opinion?

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  6. Aidan Morgan

    A few years ago I drifted over from DSLRs to mirrorless, mostly because of the smaller size and general eye for innovation (they didn’t do everything that my DSLR did, but they were certainly doing something new). At a recent event I borrowed a D7100 and a 70-200 lens, and it felt clumsy and strange in my hands. I love optical view finders, but the clap of the shutter and the overall operation (a Live View button felt particularly weird after years of constant Live View shooting) made it feel like a piece of ancient or alternate-world technology. It occurred that the mirror mechanism was a sort of hack, a holdover from film days that DSLR manufacturers had never thought to re-evaluate.

    Please don’t misunderstand me – I really enjoy using DSLRs from time to time, but it always feels like the equivalent of having a flat-screen TV with an analog dial and rabbit ears. People talk about retro styles in contemporary cameras, but DSLRs are inherently retro.

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  7. Cuong Nguyen

    I think there is one advantage of mirrorless camera that no one mentioned yet. Technically, the mirror is a moving part and therefore there is a life of x00 k of shutter count. So if all things are equal then mirrorless camera may have a longer lifespan. I myself own a dslr though.

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    • Dave Haynie

      Mirrorless cameras don’t have the mirror, obviously. But they still have the mechanical shutter. Some offer the option of using the “electronic shutter” function that pretty much any photo sensor can manage (used fir vudeo, of course). It’s reasonable to ask how the life of that mechanical shutter compares to that of your typical DSLR.

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    • Matthew Saville

      Yeah, often it’s the shutter that “dies” before the mirror, so you’re not saving any repair costs there really, not until they truly do away with the shutter mechanism altogether.

      Also, using a sensor full-time can be bad too, with heat issues and longevity issues. I’d rather have an OVF DSLR that only uses the sensor when making an exposure, or when I NEED live view.

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  8. Mark Colangelo

    Actually I have a Sony A7r+Metabones and Canon 5DmkIII (also had a Fujifilm FinePix X100).
    Working with the Sony it has always “toy-ish” feel to me (plus all tech limitations i.e. batteries, focus etc).
    When 5DsR will be available I’ll sold the Sony.
    my 2cents.
    ~m

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  9. Jason Boa

    Great article

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  10. J. Wolf

    Thank you for this article. From my point of view, this is the first article here, that sets the relation between these two “systems” in a correct relation!
    There ARE reasons why the “mirrorless” way makes sense and there are other reasons why a mirror is much better than EVFs. Me personally, I see no reason why I should “switch” to mirrorless and all the small detail how you see the image BEFORE it is taken is just a hype. I like the outlook Paul Nguyen sketches here where Nikon and Canon would/could/will provide hybrid viewfinders to get the best of both worlds – although I don’t know hot this technically should be done as of today….

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    • Dave Haynie

      I can think of one way. Right now, many mirrorless cameras use an OLED display for the viewfinder. OLEDs can be made very thin, they can use lower power than an LCD. And they can be made transparent.

      So picture a DSLR with an OLED display basically at the ground glass plane. It’s transparent when off, so no blacks, but you get a digital overlay of the whole optical display, which itself would be pretty cool.. all that mirrorless information over a real ootical image.

      Ok, so now we lock up the mirror. Maybe there’s a little extra magic (mechanical shutter, LCD shutter) to black out the mirror in the viewfinder, if necessary. But now, with mirror up, shutter open, you have the OLED display doing the full EVF thing.

      Definitely doable. It doesn’t make the body smaller or lighter, but you’re not buying a Ff DSLR to be small. Any other advantage of a mirrorless camera is available in the hybrid.

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    • Matthew Saville

      Dave, that’s basically exactly the way the Fuji X100T is designed, and I must say, it’s pretty awesome! I’d love to have a rangefinder camera like this, or an OVF DSLR like this….

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    • Dave Haynie

      Matthew… yeah, I read about that some time ago. They basically fixed all practical problems with the classic ILC optical viewfinder (I used to shoot on old Canons: IVsb, Vt, P, 7) with the computerized overlays, and eliminated the OVF/EVF compromises by giving you both.

      There are other things Canon or Nikon might do in the face of mirrorless. And “nothing” is certainly one option. After a really good few days last week with my OM-D (the 89F Arizona sun didn’t hurt), I was sort of debating the future of SLRs with an old buddy, who sees no reason to buy another. I can’t exactly say how Canon got me to do it four times already, so guessing what specifically makes a new model exciting enough might be foolish. But over the last year, Olympus did a better job. What do I want to see in a new DSLR? 4K video would gave won awhile back, but I’ve decided to not get stuck with transitional gear… I can wait. In the big picture, it’s making things exciting and yet somethong I can see as a useful tool when shooting, not just a gimmick. That hybrid viewfinder woukd definitely help. A just plain mirrirless Canon or Nikon, as a pro model… not so much at thus point.

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  11. Jacques Brierre

    So far, it’s really a matter of personal choice as there is no real winner in this arena.
    The claims are mostly confused as there is certainly no clear advantage other than personal preference and willingness to accept a set of set of constraints one agrees with more than others.
    To each his/her tool and his/her choice. Just glad we are not constrained to a very narrow range.

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  12. Dave Haynie

    Nice article. I think it’s good to question the “ineviability” of mirrorless than seems to unquestioned in many articles. Yes, there’s quite a bit of cool stuff happening in mirrorless. Sony seems to have jumped into it with both feet now, after unsuccessfully trying to relaunch the old Minolta system, first as a DSLR, then as a reimagining of Canon’s old pellicle systems (still have my EOS Rt … somewhere). Panasonic and Olympus are doing very cool things in micro-four-thirds, Panasonic making one of the best still-for-video cameras around (furst and still one of the few with in-camera 4K, maybe the only one that, with an adapter, can do big-boy camcorder things like offer pro digital video outputs and integrated XLR inputs). Olympus is making some of the best still photography cameras. Fujifilm is also doing that. Samsung is on the rise as well, tapping their might as the world’s second largest semiconductor company to do some interestinf things, including launching the first large backside photo sensor.

    There’s one constant in all of these guys: none were recently successful at DSLRs. Olympus was back in the 70s and 80s, but gave it up. Full sized four-thirds was good but never popular. Sony couldn’t sell the Minolta system directly against Canon or Nikon, even by making good cameras at great prices. Fujifilm dabbled in Nikon mount cameras that also didn’t compete against real Nikons. Panasonic and Samsung had virtually no DSLR history… ok, Panny did full four-thirds for a little while.

    Now look at those with a successful DSLR history: Canon, Nikon, Pentax. They each have a mirrorless hobby, but not really mainstream. And Nikon plus Canon still means nearly 75% of all ILCs sold, unless that’s changed dramatically in later 2014. Mirrorless are fighting over that same turf that everyon who’s not Nikon or Canon has always fought over. That makes the other guys potentially more interesting to watch. Pentax seems content to be the alternative SLR they’ve always been, dpung things Canon or Nikon might not like…. colorful cameras? The others realize, after 60+ years, they don’t beat the top two by delivering the same product. They had to get inventive and different.

    Is it working? Well, I did add an Olympus system to complement, not replace, my EOS system. I’ve nearly always had at least two ILC systems, so this wasn’t weird for me. And as I sold off my Leica / Canon rangefinders some years back, and don’t use the Olympus OM system all that often (film.. not thanks, lens adapters, sometimes), I had a place for m43. Particularly because it really dies deliver on being much smaller than the FF Canon.

    So I see mirrorless as another tool in the toolbox. SLRs did take over much of the mainstream from rangefinders, but didn’t completely kill them… in fact, the rangefinder gestalt has had a big resurgance in electronic cameras. Video came along and didn’t kill off still photography., in fact lately, video as a feature has made still cameras drink video’s milkshake. Smartphones didn’t kill off the pro camera, in fact, they successfully killed off the sort of crappy P&S cameras most readers here don’t care about, other than to learn enough about ’em to steer friends and family toward somethong better. And also pushed camera companies to make P&S options we here might actually consider using, like my two Fujifilm P&S cameras… another tool in the box.

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  13. Bogdan Roman

    I actually prefer the size of a DSLR over a lighter mirrorless

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  14. Greg Silver

    I do, on occasion, miss seeing the ‘real world’ on the viewfinder of a DSLR. But I don’t like the mirrror slap and mirror lockup isn’t always an option.

    However, I really like the fact you can see real-time exposure adjustments and customize the EVF with various info on a mirrorless.

    Both have their pros and cons. I’m enjoying my mirrorless for now but as with all technology, I could be swayed either way as new ‘must have’ features become incorporated into the cameras.

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  15. Ralph Hightower

    My prediction for the future is that DSLR, mirrorless, and film will continue. Even though it is now a niche, film will continue; film continues to be manufactured. Even though the film camera models being manufactured are dwindling, used models are available and durable.
    My wife likes the digital point and shoots since she never got the hang of loading film in my Canon A-1 or using it. I shoot film with my A-1 and F-1N, and digital with my 5D III.

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  16. Southavy P.

    I think I wait until 3rd party companies provide a better ecosystem for flash, lenses and other accessories for mirrorless camera…..there no point of me upgrading to mirrorless system right now.

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  17. Karl Beath

    Definitely the ovf is way better to look through than an evf, that is, perhaps more so for those that grew up using ovf’s.

    I like the idea of the sony with certain of my smaller canon or other lenses because of the weight and small size for backpacking trips, just that the evf does not look that great for scenes with a high dr. I suppose i cld get over that when i realise i am not humping a big dslr and 16-35 f4 on my waist belt which is banging up and down as i hike up a steep mountain pass.

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  18. Barry Cunningham

    Photography will have many futures.

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  19. Eric Sharpe

    I like the perspective of the article. It’s the first one that I’ve read, that isn’t attempting to write the obituary for DSLR. Good job on an objective look at the two camera systems.

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    • Hannes Nitzsche

      I agree! Very well written, and the first with what feels like an objective point of view. Thanks for sharing this article with us!
      :)

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  20. Matthew Saville

    With all due respect, anyone who believes that eventually the OVF will be completely obsolete and eliminated from the industry, we’ll, it’s like saying that eventually human vision will be obsolete too one day.

    Simply put, I already stare at too many display screens these days, and I would like to share at fewer, not more. I’d like to open my eyes and see the real world…

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    • John Cavan

      Never say never. It’s getting to the point that you won’t be able to tell the difference really. I think we want to ignore the incredible advancements that technology is making year over year, but there will come a point in time that your eye will not be able to see the difference between a screen and a window. It’s inevitable and closer than many of us think.

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    • jozef povazan

      I agree loved the XE-1 but got tired of looking to another screen in the viewfinder. And even though XT-1 has amazing one, still my eye would be done after shooting a 10 h wedding with it :) IMO these guys might be great for portrait, lifestyle photographers but for long low light events still happy with a mirror :) thing.

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    • Matthew Saville

      John, it’s not just about resolutions and framerates or lag time, it’s about the pain my eyes feel when the stare at something that is a display screen. I know they’re making a few improvements in this respect, but to be quite honest, I’m not interested either way. Part of photography, to me, is still about nostalgia and tradition. In other words, if it ain’t broke, dont’ fix it. OVF DSLRs have proven that they can be light enough, and compact enough, and affordable enough, and there are benefits of having the greater flange distance especially for what I do, requiring corner sharpness and stuff like low coma etc.

      Besides, most or all of the things I’m interested in that an EVF can offer, such as live exposure preview / histograms, and focus peaking, are already possible in an OVF DSLR using live view. So, the day you don’t mind the moderate size & weight increase of having an OVF, the point becomes moot.

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    • Daniel Thullen

      Matthew, well said. I too already stare at too many display screens. I also would like to open my eyes and see the real world. . .

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    • Holger Foysi

      I prefer OVF so far, too. I don’t know how it is in a few years from now. But my job requires me to be staring at screens a large part of the day, and I have less problems shooting for long stretches with an OVF. I like EVF especially for handheld macro stuff with the A7ii when travelling, since I can easily magnify inside the EVF, or when using filters to see its effect immediately. But it would suffice for me to do some hybrid VF, with true RAW histogram available.

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    • Kayode Olorunfemi

      90% of my photography is events, especially dark venues, I shoot mostly using only the optical view finder without using the review screen at all.

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  21. Ben Perrin

    I don’t see a reason why both can’t work. Like John, I prefer the size of a dslr and the comprehensive lens system that can be used without an adapter. The EVF will certainly get better on mirrorless cameras and battery technology will improve as well. I think the real market for mirrorless is the amateur that wants better image quality than their phone or p&s and doesn’t want the weight of a dslr. There will be plenty of professionals as well that will enjoy this advantage. Mirrorless certainly seems like a great option for travel photography.

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  22. John Cavan

    I think the optical vs electronic view is also a matter of time to resolve, as with the other current weaknesses. The first to offer EVF were pretty “meh” to say the least, but that is changing rapidly and will continue to do so. In the end, I don’t see that being a big selling point for the mirror.

    What I do think will keep the traditional SLR form factor around for a while is it’s size which, I suppose, seems counter-intuitive to many. However, for many of us, we prefer to have the heft and the size of a dSLR as form of balance and control. I find that smaller cameras, especially the point and shoots but also the thinner mirrorless options, to be more awkward in my hands and I don’t have very large hands! Throw in the balancing question, especially with bigger lenses, and I’m just simply happier to hold a dSLR.

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    • Kayode Olorunfemi

      Agree about the size, I remember when the Sony A7S came out, I was liking all the stats and reviews until I picked it up in a store, made up my mind for me and promptly bought the 5D Mk3. Even my 60D feels too small in my hands so I never use it without the battery grip.

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    • Dave Haynie

      My 6D seems like a monster these days, after using Olympus as my second system. But it’s a very comfortable monster. Adding a battery grip to an A7 still only delivers, on average, half the shots I get from one 6D battery, and it’s larger and heavier once you add that grip (I often use a grip on the OM-D E-M5II, but that’s not enough to match the size/weight of the 6D).

      The rumor mill suggests the 6D mark II will be smaller yet and better at video… this might be how Canon addresses full frame mirrorless in 2016. And while that’s not a bad approach, that could very well mean changing to a smaller battery, which I’d consider a mistake. I already have 9 different charging plates for my Watson, I don’t relish Yet Another Battery… not that the 6DII is an obvious upgrade for me anyway. But I do love the 6D…

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  23. Brandon Dewey

    I agree with you i think both types will be around together for a while.

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