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Mirrorless vs DSLR - a Tutor's Perspective

Yesterday I spent the day in London with two 'off auto' clients, teaching everything from aperture and shutter speed upwards. It was a great day and they were extremely happy with how the session went - starting with theory, then going out into the field (in this case Limehouse Marina!) and finally reviewing images and looking at the role of post-processing in photography.

Over the years I have taught people with both DSLR and mirrorless cameras (and bridge cameras or smartphones come to that!) but generally on a 1-2-1 basis. So this was the first opportunity I'd had to teach two people at the same time, and at the same level - one with a Canon DSLR and one with an Olympus mirrorless. This article isn't meant to be a comment on either of those makes, but I think I'm safe to say that they are both fairly well respected in their field!

I've always felt that it was easier to teach a beginner on a mirrorless, and this direct contrast between the two really reinforced that opinion. The best way to explain is is via a few specific comparisons, as follows:

1. Optical viewfinder vs electronic/digital viewfinder

When learning photography, being able to see the effect that changing your settings has on the image you're about to take can help a beginner to see what those settings actually do. So for example, in aperture priority (which I always teach in - but that's a whole separate article!) it's much easier for a student to see how exposure compensation works, as when they turn the wheel to move the scale to the left, the image actually gets darker, and vice versa. Especially useful yesterday, given the extremely strong sunlight we were working in.

Likewise, when teaching about depth of field - being able to see the immediate effect of the background 'going out of focus' when using a wide aperture and placing your focal point on your specific foreground subject, is extremely helpful - and shows exactly how the final image will look.

My mirrorless student was able to see immediately, through the viewfinder, how much they had adjusted the exposure - and hence the artistic effect it was creating on the image they were trying to capture. Meanwhile my DSLR student could see no effect at all in the viewfinder, so instead had to take the shot, review on the LCD screen on the back, and then shoot again if the desired effect was not achieved. More on that later . . .

Before anyone points out that technically you could get the same information by using the Depth of Field preview button on a DSLR, I’ll also add that I find that beginners who are unfamiliar with their cameras have enough things to think about just dealing with the basics of aperture, shutter speed and focal point - without adding that one to the mix as well. Whereas with a mirrorless it just happens, no extra buttons to press!

2. Image review in the viewfinder

Having taken an image, my mirrorless student could view it immediately in the viewfinder, see the exact shot they had captured, and also remind themselves what settings they used - especially useful when we were changing settings regularly as part of the lesson. In fact, with image review switched on, the mirrorless can show you a brief half second or one second preview of the shot you have just taken, in the viewfinder, if you so choose.

My DSLR student however was then forced to walk away from the position they had take the shot in, to find some shade, so that they could review their image on the LCD screen on the back of the camera - yet even in shade the exact image was still not as easy to see as it would have been through the viewfinder, and they also had to wait until their eyes had adjusted to the change in lighting conditions as well.

If the shot needed retaking, they then had to walk back to where they were, and try to find the exact position and the exact composition they had before. Not forgetting also that elements may have moved in the time it took them to walk away and come back - or that in some situations there may not have even been any nearby shade to walk into.

3. Live histogram/clipping alerts

Teaching 'off auto' rarely includes looking at histograms, as that normally comes in a later session - but one of my clients asked the question, and as it was a longer session we had time to discuss it in more detail. With the mirrorless, my client was able to switch on a live histogram so that they could see exactly how much data they were capturing in the shadow and highlight areas - and so for example when a sky area was burning out - and then adjust their exposure compensation to correct the issue.

This also led to a conversation about clipping alerts - which they already had switched on - so I then went on to explain that these were also warning about areas with 'no data', which again they could see in the viewfinder before they took the shot. Meanwhile my DSLR client had to take the shot, walk into the shadows, review the histogram and/or clipping alerts in playback mode - and then shoot again if necessary. With all of the compromises that I already mentioned above.

4. Focus points

Before I get into this one, I will qualify what I'm going to say by mentioning that of course I am not familiar with all DSLRs, and I'm aware there are some that have more focal points in the viewfinder than others, but in this instance my DSLR student was dealing with just the standard 9 point diamond shape.

This meant that, when using the viewfinder, they could not choose a focal point which was near the edge of the frame, or position it directly over a small foreground subject - whereas my mirrorless student could position their single point focus square anywhere in the shot, including right on the edges of the frame if they wanted to.

Of course, my DSLR student did have the ability to position their focus square anywhere by choosing to use the LCD screen on the back of the camera instead, but this relied on their ability to see the screen clearly in bright light, which we've already discussed at length. It's also interesting to note that on various 'how to' photography sites you see numerous warnings about how shooting in live view means your hands are less steady when taking the shot, or that the camera is more likely to overheat!

I'll also say that I'm aware they could simply 'focus and recompose' instead, with the shutter button half pressed, but this does lead to other issues with incorrect metering - and while it's what we all do from time to time if we need to move our focus point quickly, it's not necessarily the best option to teach.

To summarise . . .

I think these were the four most noticeable factors which became apparent during the session, though two others which also make a huge difference for me are the electronic (and hence silent) shutter, and also the ability to select a shutter speed of up to 1/16000. Though again I'll qualify this by saying that some DSLRs can do this also - but I believe it to be a very small minority.

In yesterday's session, I found myself having to explain why the two cameras were different, and why one of my clients was finding it much easier to grasp how the changes in settings were affecting their image - yet without appearing to criticize the Canon. Even now, more than 50% of the people I teach have a DSLR (and mostly Canon), so clearly they are not going anywhere anytime soon - but I genuinely believe that a mirrorless is so much easier for a beginner to work with. Especially while they are going through the stages of learning what effect those changes in aperture and shutter speed actually have on the finished image.

I'll round this all off by saying that the difference between the two systems would of course have been less noticeable had it been a dull or overcast day, or if we had been shooting at night. But in reality, many people want to take photos when the sun is out, and immediately with a DSLR, this means compromises and an element of guesswork. Compromises and guesswork which simply don't exist when you're shooting with a mirrorless!

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