Yet another question about digital cameras
June 23, 2014 6:05 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to upgrade my household's photography capabilities with a new camera and I am torn between a low-end DSLR and the new mirrorless micro-4/3rds cameras. I'm torn between the world of possibilities in the DSLR space vs. the more portable aspects of mirrorless cameras.

I grew up shooting on my father's (high end for the time) F2 SLRs so I know how to properly use a fully manual camera and I appreciate what I could do with lens choice and extraordinarily small depth of field. I also know I won't bring a big bulky camera with me so I might not use it enough to warrant the purchase. On the mirrorless front, I am concerned about a lack of lens choice (say low f-stop) and a general fear of buying into a less popular system that might be killed off by a manufacturer who has lost interest.

Thoughts? It would be mainly used for landscapes and other photography that would be used as reference works for mrs. mmascolino art work although as our nephews get older sports photography would also come into play.
posted by mmascolino to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I've spent a lot of money on cameras. I've had both the DSLR type variety as well as the mirrorless ones. I divested myself of the bad habit of buying a new camera every six months about a year back since I couldn't afford it anymore. I traded that in with a mortgage instead, so not much disposable income anymore!

I like the feel of a DSLR and I'm very comfortable with them I used to use manual Film SLR's as well so that may be why. On the other hand, I almost never leave the house with a DSLR anymore. And when I do, I stuff it in my backpack and then almost dread taking it out.

On the mirrorless front, I have had a Sony nex 5n and a Olympus OM-d E-M5. I loved the NEX (I think they are just calling them Alpha's now). I bought a manual M mount Voigtlander lens for it which was very fast and small (low profile) and I could actually kind of fit the camera in my pocket, though I wouldn't want to try to play a game of twister with it bulging in my jeans. But I took a lot of my favorite photos with it in while I was in China and HK a few years back. It was easy to carry around, though I still had to carry extra lenses in my backpack. Operational-wise, it wasn't as nice as DSLR controls. You had to dig into menus more often to access things but overall, it wasn't too bad.

THe O-MD micro 4/3's camera had a nice feel. It was a bit more like a DSLR but a little smaller. I did like it, although I wasn't overly fond of the 4:3 aspect ratio. I ended up buying a Voigtlander 25mm .095 /f lens to make it more comparable to full frame when it comes to dof. Overall, I ended up getting rid of the camera just because I wasn't using it much. I can't fault the camera, but I just wasn't as into it as when I had the NEX.

Now I have a canon EOS 5D (the original one) and a 550D. I hardly ever use them. Most times the cellphone gets used for impromptu photos. This leads me to believe, the best camera is the camera that you always have on you. SO I'd say pick one that you don't mind lugging around everywhere and of course it's all about the lens for your dof and low light needs. Always better to invest in lenses than in bodies in general.
posted by cicadaverse at 6:25 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Very basically, DSLRs come in two varieties: full-frame and APS-C, which describes the size of the sensor. (See here for all the grizzly details). A camera with a full-frame sensor has better image quality, but with the trade-off that the cameras are more expensive, are bulkier and tend to use bigger, more expensive lenses, which sounds like what you are trying to avoid.

An APS-C (aka DX) sensor is slightly bigger than a Micro Four Thirds sensor, but for all intents and purposes, on modern cameras with the latest sensors, image quality with APS-C is slightly better than Micro Four Thirds, but the difference is negligible. With both Micro Four Thirds and APS-C you are giving up some of the shallow depth-of-field you get with full-frame.

As far as lens selection is concerned, on Micro Four Thirds, lenses and bodies from Panasonic and Olympus are interchangeable, and between them there are many quality lenses. Furthermore, you have a little bit of insurance as it would require both companies to go under for the system to die. As far as other mirrorless systems, Sony and Fuji each have a smaller selection of lenses. Fuji is catching up pretty quickly, though, but Sony has consistently been slow about coming out with new lenses. Even better, all mirrorless systems can be adapted to use the plethora of 1970s-era manual lenses that are available cheaply.

In my opinion, it's hard to go wrong. Find a camera that you like and are comfortable using, and go with it.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 7:02 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

After seven years with the same DSLR - a Nikon D40 - I finally upgraded this year to a Olympus OM-d E-M10. Bought it with the pro lens intended for the Olympus OM-d E-M1 - 12-40mm f/2.8 - and I have been very happy with it. I really just take shots of family and friends, and the lens is really good for that. A little slow for sports but there are faster prime lenses in the Olympus/Panasonic family.

My main priorities were finding a camera that was a little lighter than a DSLR with a good range of lenses where the company wouldn't poop out too easily on the mirrorless market. The body itself is good enough for me - I'm not interested in professional photography. It's still bulkier compared to a point and shoot - especially with the 12-40mm lens - but I was willing to carry something larger for better photo quality. I'm aware of the Sony rx100 but can't bring myself to like Sony. For quick and random shots I find my cell phone is adequate (HC One).

The last few years with the Nikon D40 I was carrying it around with a 35mm lens which covered most of my needs (ie, family and friends pics). I'll eventually pony up the cash for a prime lens for the Olympus - major con is that the lens are so much pricier than DLSR lenses - so I can have be a bit less conspicuous. But right now I'm very happy with my current setup.
posted by mlo at 7:02 AM on June 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Short answer: get the camera you are more likely to use.

I have a Nikon D5000 with multiple lenses as my "main" camera. It's usually got my 18-200mm zoom lens on it. It's fantastic, but it's big.

I also have a Pentax MX-1, which is about the same size as a 4/3 camera. Not truly pocketable, but less obtrusive to sling around my shoulder. It does not have interchangeable lenses, just a short zoom.

And I have my iPhone 5s, which is always with me.

You can probably guess which camera I use the least. I shoot with the iPhone most, then the Pentax. I only shoot with the Nikon SLR when there is something specific I want to do which the other cameras would not be as good at.

So, I'd recommend the smaller camera. The reality is, most people only need one or two lenses anyway. And even though, all else being equal, a bigger sensor is "better" than a smaller one, the 4/3 cameras are excellent quality. My Pentax only has a 1/1.7" sensor, and I have no complaints about the quality of the images.

I also wouldn't worry about supposed obsolescence. Any decent camera you buy is going to keep being a decent camera even if the manufacturer vanishes overnight, and there are always accessories, lenses, etc. available on the used market.
posted by The Deej at 7:04 AM on June 23, 2014

You've already identified the pros and cons: DSLR size versus lens choice and low-light performance; MILC size versus fewer lenses and unknown future. From there it's just figuring out where your personal priorities lie.

For me, choosing a DSLR was easy. There are particular lenses I wanted to use (85L, 24mm T-S), and my first love is portraiture so depth of field matters...and significantly, I really don't mind carrying it with me all the time. If instead I loved shooting landscapes, then a smaller sensor's depth of field would make more sense, as would being able to hike and climb with a smaller device.

Based on what you've written—landscapes, kids' sports, "I also know I won't bring a big bulky camera with me"—my sense is that MILC would make more sense. Yes, the future of those systems is unknown...but once you've purchased, how much is that really an issue? If Canon killed off its full-frame line tomorrow, I've still got my 6D, and there are people who can repair it when necessary. I'll worry about my next purchase later; in the meantime, I'm shooting.
posted by cribcage at 7:59 AM on June 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Several years ago I got a Canon G12 (they're apparently up to G16 now) while I was considering the choice of DSLR or something else. When I thought about it, I realized that I was really only considering a DSLR because it was being marketed to me and that I wanted a "good" camera that I wanted to carry around with me.

Ultimately, the camera you have with you will be the camera you use and I let that make my decision for the camera format.
posted by plinth at 8:00 AM on June 23, 2014

Get the camera that feels best in your hands and that you will actually carry around. Just about all DSLR/MILCs are comparable, as far as their technical capabilities are concerned.

I've had a Canon 5D, Pentax K-5, and a Panasonic GF-1. The GF-1 was great, but I found that it wasn't small enough to be usefully smaller than a DSLR, plus also the lack of a built-in viewfinder was irksome. The Canon 5D was great, but the Pentax K-5 was a better camera overall - better handling for my needs, better image quality where it mattered. Canon has more lenses than Pentax, but it didn't matter, because I don't need 100+ lenses, I just need three good lenses. Plus, the K-5 has in-body image stabilization, which is hugely useful to me. But, your needs and tastes may differ.

Personally, I would only get a camera with a pentaprism viewfinder, or a decent electronic viewfinder. Pentamirror viewfinders annoy me - they're dim. I also happen to think that cameras are much better with dual control wheels. Just my two cents.

Buy used, from a reputable dealer. Don't pay a premium for something that will not be appreciably better than what had been perfectly good a little while back. Don't get a new entry-level body - get an older "enthusiast" body. For cheaper than the brand-new entry-level, you can get a camera with two wheels and a pentaprism finder.

For just about any DSLR/MILC that has been on the market since 2006-2008, you will be more than satisfied with its still photo capabilities, unless you have specific professional needs, viz. broadcast-quality video. Yes, things are always improving all the time, but it's mostly incremental. My K-5 outperforms a 2006-era K10D, but only really after ISO 400 or so, and the K10D is still very much in the game until ISO 1000. Yes, live view is nice, but I was very much still able to shoot even before having that capability. And so on.

Lenses are more important than the body. Invest in lenses, skimp on body. Besides, you can always trade up your body if you get sick of it. I would rather have a cheap M4/3 camera with the (great value) Panasonic 20mm 1.7 than a top-of-the-line M4/3 camera with the kit zoom.

It is no longer necessarily true that M4/3 cameras have worse image quality than APS-C cameras. Not that scores mean very much, but check out the DxO scores for the Olympus EM-5 vs. the Canon 1200D. (For that matter, my "ancient" GF-1 had terrific image quality, up until ISO 1000 or so. In the real world, people don't keep track of tiny differences only discernible to pixel-peepers.)
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:16 AM on June 23, 2014

I've struggled with this myself. I sold my Canon Rebel, lenses and flash to downsize to a Fuji x100s. I didn't love the x100s so I traded it for an Olympus E-M3 with two small lenses and love it.

I find that the camera has almost the same capabilities as my Canon Rebel had, but at a smaller form factor.

I was finding that with an iPhone in my pocket, I wasn't willing to lug along the Canon Rebel as often as I used to. I enjoy travel photography but was always having a hard time deciding if it was worth bringing along the big camera. As a result, it sat on the shelf most of the time.

Now I bring along my camera whenever I want. If the size matters, I use my Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens, which is tiny, and just toss the camera into my messenger bag. I use it much more than I used the big camera.

So this camera works perfectly for 95% of what I shoot. It's extremely frustrating when it comes to the other 5% however. I shot a friend's small wedding a few weeks ago and felt the limitations (although it would have been much better with a big flash).

If I had more money to devote to this hobby, I'd have both a big DSLR and the Olympus E-M5. As it is, I'm very happy with my choice.

Feel free to email me if I can be of any additional help.
posted by kdern at 9:11 AM on June 23, 2014

If the choice is between a low-end DSLR and a micro 4/3 and you won't carry a bulky camera around very often then I think it is clear you should go with the micro 4/3. With the low-end DSLR your depth of field won't be as shallow as you remember from film days because of the sensor size issue anyway.

Just be clear that the issue is the bulk of the camera and not the idea of bringing a dedicated camera with you in addition to whatever your phone has. My wife has a micro 4/3 which she doesn't carry around as much as she should because she is happy enough with her phone's camera. I have the same phone but take my DLSR (and usually an extra lens or two) with me everywhere. I don't mind it because I am usually taking a bag with diapers/clothes anyway and the camera can just get thrown in.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 9:32 AM on June 23, 2014

"Even better, all mirrorless systems can be adapted to use the plethora of 1970s-era manual lenses that are available cheaply."

That right there. When I got rid of my Canon 5D MkI and switched to the Olympus OM-D E-M5 I was astounded that the output pixel dimensions for each were nearly the same and the quality at 100% almost indistinguishable. I mean I realize I was comparing a years-old full frame camera to a new m4/3rds system but still, I didn't expect the Oly to be so good.

and then I have gone and stuck all manners of antiquated lenses on it for almost nothing. My kit bag right now has one (1) electronic lens and four or five manual primes from Canon, Pentax, Nikon, etc. I would say that:

"On the mirrorless front, I am concerned about a lack of lens choice (say low f-stop)"

is not a concern as long as you're happy pulling your own focus. Shopping on could net you five different lenses for the price of a high-end prime for a DSLR. In fact, with your statement here:

"I grew up shooting on my father's (high end for the time) F2 SLRs so I know how to properly use a fully manual camera and I appreciate what I could do with lens choice and extraordinarily small depth of field."

I'd say you'd just be returning to that. Since you want to shoot landscapes, not sport or action, I can't imagine why you wouldn't.

[if you want, you can click through to my profile for a link to my Flickr - 99% of what you'll see there was shot on a m4/3rds system, and probably 80% of that is on old legacy lenses.]
posted by komara at 9:46 AM on June 23, 2014

I traded siren top micro four thirds because I wanted something more portable, and the effective focal length doubling was valuable to me, I have been extremely pleased with the switch. Lens variety and quality is as good as you could want, and I love the smaller flash unit, too.
posted by smoke at 4:10 PM on June 23, 2014

The camera that you have with you is your smartphone. The additional camera you buy is something to excel at the kinds of photography you could not use a smartphone for. Neither micro nor SLR can compete with the smartphone on being-with-you-ness, so to my mind the size advantage of the micro isn't especially relevant; both are so bulky that you'll probably only carry them when you expect to use them, while the features and standardization and versatility of the SLR beats the micro. That said, if budget is a big constraint, it probably depends on the specific SLR (and the specific micro)
posted by anonymisc at 5:00 PM on June 23, 2014

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