Buying A Camera in The Post-DSLR Era

For most folks, smartphones have replaced digital cameras. Even though a 5-year-old point and shoot digital camera are optically superior to most smartphones, the sheer processing power of smartphones can take photos using tiny sensors and churn out great images. Camera sales have dipped over time but camera manufacturers have not given up. Images make up a large amount of internet traffic and a dedicated camera will, any day, take better photos than smartphones.

To take great photos, DSLRs are no longer a requirement. However, they are still not dead. If you are planning to buy a DSLR for taking photos more seriously, or maybe because your phone’s camera is not that good, then here are some alternatives.

The Basics

DSLRs are still the workhorse of professional photographers even though there is a shift in trend recently. DSLR or Digital Single Lens Reflex Cameras come with a mirror that lets you look directly through the lens at your subject with no electronics in between. When you take a shot, the mirror jumps out of the way to expose the sensor. This mechanism adds more bulk but allows DSLR makers to put autofocus phase-detect sensors directly into the light path via a secondary mirror, allowing blazing fast focusing speeds.

Mirrorless and compacts rely on the sensor that takes the photo for every operation. These include focusing, metering, and everything else in between. Without dedicated modules, focusing becomes slower, but without the mirror, the cameras shed a lot of the bulk. The burst speed also increases since there is no mirror flapping with each shot.

The DSLR vs. mirrorless vs. compact argument comes down to what you want, flexibility and performance, or portability. Here’s the entire situation broken down for you to understand better.

DSLRMirrorlessCompact
Best battery lifeLess battery lifeLeast battery life
Purity/clarity of optical viewfinder, but you can’t see the final resultElectronic viewfinder or rear display only, less clarity but what you see is what you getElectronic viewfinder or rear display only, less clarity but what you see is what you get
Fastest, most accurate autofocusGood autofocus but a notch below DSLRAnother notch below mirrorless
Most lens options for Nikon and Canon allows maximum creativity and choiceGood lens options, lack of a mirror means smaller lenses and slightly better optics than a DSLROnly one lens means less creative control but lightest, least bulky option
Heaviest and bulkiest, good for professionals but bad for tourists who want to pack lightMuch lighter than a DSLR but also less stable for video and when shooting with large lensesExtremely light, often pocketable size

 

Sensors

Most of the innovation in cameras these days happen around the sensor. The main goal is to make a sensor that can focus just like DSLRs using phase detect. A lot of mirrorless cameras already do that, but the performance is not that great either. Here’s a guide to the different sensor sizes out there.

Full frameAPS-CMicro Four ThirdsType 1
Largest consumer size (36 x 24mm) and highest resolution, up to 50 megapixelsSecond-largest common size (22.2 x 14.8mm Canon and 23.5 x 15.6mm others), resolution up to 24 megapixels17.30 x 13mm sensor size, resolution up to 20 megapixels13.20 x 8.80mm sensor size, resolution up to 20 megapixels
Largest pixels for dimly lit photos and video with less noise, usable up to ISO 104,200Pixels still big enough for low-light photos but more noise than full frameNot the best for low light, with the exception of purpose-built models like Panasonic’s GH5sEven the best models like Sony’s RX100 V will be noisy above ISO 6400
Razor-thin depth of field for artistic bokehThe sweet spot for video but fewer artistic bokeh possibilities than full frameDecent but not spectacular bokehYou’ll need to zoom in and use a low f/stop for blurred backgrounds
Narrow depth of field creates problems with focus and bright sunlightEasier to control focus and shoot in bright lightFocus and light more easily controlledRelatively easy to nail focus, even wide open

 

What to Buy

A DSLR is not mandatory if you want to take great photos. In the end, it comes down to what you need and what you want to shoot. If you developed a certain interest in photography and do not know what to go for, an APS-C DSLR such as the Canon Rebel series or the Nikon D3xxx series is a great place to start.

If you do not want to invest in a DSLR in the first place, then bridge cameras (compacts with DSLR like features) such as the Canon SX60, Nikon P900 or the Sony RX10 III are great places to start. They provide a versatile lens, along with some of the perks of DSLRs, like RAW shooting and manual control.

The Mirrorless ecosystem is not as mature as the DSLR segment, but Sony and Fuji are the kings of the hill in this segment. Canon is also playing catch up and provides the largest selection of first-party lenses. Most mirrorless buyers previously have been DSLR users who wanted to reduce baggage.

If you are a professional and cannot compromise with performance, then you will still have to stick with DSLRs. Sony and Fuji, both have high-performance mirrorless cameras, but they are not as rugged and flexible as that of Nikon and Canon.

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