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mirrorless DSLR comparison

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#1 Glasseye Snapper

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Posted 13 March 2014 - 07:13 PM

With the birth of the Mirrorless Camera Forum it seems appropriate to take stock of a topic that has, and will be, debated and considered for the foreseeable future. I will try to steer clear of answering “… who is the fairest of them all” and rather focus on how the two systems differ and how that may impact underwater photography in a practical manner. I hope others will point out errors, contribute things I forgot and add more practical comments and perhaps examples beyond the more theoretical nature of my start. There is one thing mirrorless cameras still lack and that is an established simple acronym. I’ll be using Compact System Camera (CSC), which highlights compactness as one important characteristic, especially for travelling divers.

 

A look in the mirror

 

The mirror and pentaprism combination serves two distinct functions, both of which require the optical image to be redirected from the sensor to; i) the viewfinder to compose the image and judge focus, and ii) to the phase-detection autofocus sensor. A separate sensor also analyses the deflected image to determine correct exposure and white balance. During the film era this was the only option but digital image sensors can perform all these tasks, giving rise to the first CSC in 2004 (Epson R-D1) but not taking off until the first micro four thirds (mFT) format camera in 2008 (Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1). Five years later all major camera brands make CSC and technical progress has been astounding. Comparing CSC vs DSLR is a moving target but this is my current impression.

 

Single-shot autofocus (S-AF): Contrast-based autofocus by CSC is now at least as fast as DSLR autofocus. CSC S-AF is also at least as accurate and extremely consistent for any lens (because it determines focus right on the sensor plane). DSLR S-AF can vary by lens unless properly micro-adjusted to account for small lens-to-sensor distance variability. Even if that is done there is still a bit more variability, but probably not something you would notice by eye. In addition, careful manual focus is as good as autofocus so it you like DIY focusing it is a moot point. Roger Cigala at lens rentals has posted actual comparisons that are worth reading for technophiles. http://www.lensrenta...e-shot-accuracy

 

Continuous autofocus (C-AF): C-AF has been a distinct weakness for CSC because contrast-based autofocus must use trial-and-error to determine the direction of focus adjustments, which made it too slow to track moving objects. In contrast, DSLR’s phase-detection AF can predict what focus adjustment is needed and directly drive the lens accordingly. The Nikon 1 CSC introduced on-sensor phase-detection pixels and is still a leader in fast C-AF. Just today Nikon set a new bar for any camera, CSC or DSLR, with the announcement of the Nikon 1 V3, which can shoot 20fps with C-AF. Recent CSC cameras from most brands now also incorporate on-sensor phase detection. My impression is that DSLR still has a small edge, especially with less ideal lighting or subjects, but the gap is closing fast.

 

Video/live-view autofocus: This is an area where DSLR has struggled and CSC is well ahead. Some DSLR now also have on-sensor phase-detection pixels and I expect that over time they will become more competitive with CSC.

 

Autofocus summary: CSC beats DSLR on S-AF, but not by enough to select one over the other. DSLR beats CSC on C-AF but the best CSC probably now match some of their DSLR competitors. Video autofocus goes to CSC.

 

Continuous shooting speed: without mechanical mirror, shooting frequency is limited by read-out and image processing speed on CSC. The Olympus OMD cameras reach 9 or 10fps and the announced Nikon 1 V3 reaches 20fps with C-AF, or 60fps without C-AF. For DSLR the rate at which the mirror can be flipped up and down with adequate precision and reasonable cost becomes limiting. CSC wins and has more potential to continue improving but for underwater photography the real limitation is often strobe recycling.

 

Image quality (IQ): The mirror is flipped up while the image is taken so it is really up to the sensor and lens to determine IQ. Exceptions are when lens offsets are not compensated by micro-adjustment then DSLR images tend to be slightly front or back focused. The lack of a mirror also means that the lens can get closer to the sensor but I don’t know if that affects IQ.

 

Image sensor size: The IQ issue in discussions around CSC vs DSLR really have more to do with sensor size, which is not a mirror vs no-mirror issue and with the Sony A7 there are now mirrorless full frame cameras. However, right now if you want FF, DSLR is much more mature with many more choices in bodies and, especially lenses. A larger sensor also means larger lenses so the compactness factor of CSC bodies is less of a benefit and until the mirror/pentaprism actually becomes a liability I expect that DSLR will continue to rule FF.

The main relevance of sensor size to CSC vs DSLR is that smaller sensors require smaller lenses with shorter focal length. That benefits compactness and results in closer minimum focus distance. The latter is a distinct advantage for underwater photography and one that typically does not get mentioned. However, a proper discussion of sensor size effects would be better dealt with in a separate thread. Maybe I'll start one later.

 

System size: The early selling point for CSC was smaller, lighter and cheaper cameras, but you had to give up on versatility, speed and IQ compared to DSLR. In 5 years, CSC has reached a point where in a battle with DSLR it wins a few and loses a few, but prices have evened out as well. What remains as a distinct advantage, is the more compact and lighter CSC bodies and lenses, which was an important factor for me and others on wetpixel. Both for travel, lower housing cost, and more dexterity under water.

 

Maturity: There is no question that DSLR is a much more mature and well-supported technology with specialty lenses, flashes, and many other accessories. This advantage is most notable in the FF arena because, Nikon and Canon especially, never enthusiastically pushed lens development optimized for APS-C, and because CSC has less of a compactness advantage when dealing with FF-capable lenses. In the big picture, the presence or absence of a mirror is really not that important. If you are already invested in a DSLR brand or you need special accessories or lenses that are not (yet) available for CSC then that is all that matters. Otherwise you need to think about what things you care about most in a camera, and perhaps prognosticate which systems are in it for the long run, and make your choice. The good news is you no longer need to trade size for performance. Modern CSC can give you both but you get what you pay for.

 

I won’t be in the market for a new camera in the next few years (assuming I don’t flood my camera, knock on wood) but it will be interesting to see the technology develop and all the stunning images that my fellow wetpixelers will make with them.

 

Happy shooting!    Bart


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#2 diverdoug1

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Posted 13 March 2014 - 07:30 PM

The main reason I like my DSLR setups more than my mirrorless systems is that my electronic viewfinders do not have the fine detail my magnified optical viewfinders provide when I want spot on focus when I have a small effective focal plane.



#3 A.Y.

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Posted 14 March 2014 - 09:53 AM

 

This shows mirrorless on-sensor phase detection autofocus ability to track moving subjects for video. No contrast detection AF system can do this. Keep in mind that A6000 video AF is deliberately slowed down for smoother movie appearance, the photo AF speed rated 0.06 sec is much faster. Also, a skilled cameraman will be able to keep the focus point on the subject more consistantly to get better AF results.

 

For manual focus, I much prefer mirrorless focus peaking feature over my dSLR optical viewfinder since 9.6x screen image zoom and FP so clearly shows the razor thin DOF moving across the subject and when the peaking reaches the right spot - click!


Edited by A.Y., 14 March 2014 - 10:45 AM.


#4 diverdoug1

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Posted 14 March 2014 - 10:43 AM

The problem with the focus peaking feature is that the vast majority of my macro has a somewhat busy background and foreground.  delineating the intended subject is very difficult since the potential focus points are myriad.   Autofocus is useless for this same reason.  This leaves me to rely on the resolution of the EVF versus the resolution of the optical viewfinder.  I think my mirrorless systems really come in handy when I am in open water with isolated subjects (such as shooting pelagics).  Then the images I can get are almost as good (almost only because I don't have the A7 alpha yet) in a smaller package.  So, if I am traveling and macro will be in the mix, I bring a DSLR, if no macro then I will sometimes bring mirrorless.

 

Does anyone know is there were any mirrorless systems being used at the Wetpixel workshops at Lembeh last year?  Just curious.


Edited by diverdoug1, 14 March 2014 - 10:46 AM.


#5 troporobo

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Posted 14 March 2014 - 11:43 AM

I don't understand the point about busy backgrounds and too many focus points for AF.  With my EM-5 and 12-50 lens set to macro I use the single small focus point and have no problem getting sharp focus on the rhinophores of a small nudi or the eye of a mantis shrimp.  Could you elaborate please?



#6 diverdoug1

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Posted 14 March 2014 - 04:22 PM

Tropobo, in clarification.  Take a mobile small macro subject about 2mm in size, say a juvenile goby, swimming back and forth through branching fan or a bunch of sargassum, and then have a focal plane 2.5mm deep.  How does your camera know where to autofocus?  I am certainly not going to use an autofocus "point".  It is difficult enough to just get the shot to happen, never mind getting it to happen in one exact point in the viewfinder (also limiting creatively unless you are going to constantly reset you focal point).  Even with point tracking, the point will follow background elements as you pan.  I have the luxury of having as many systems as I want (I spend 90% of my discretionary income on UW photography thanks to no children and a wife that also loves UW photography),  and can tell you that I find shooting super-macro is very much more difficult with my mirrorless systems.  Resolution of the EVF is where my mirrorless systems fall flat.  Once the CSC (great term by the way) is able to have an EVF that has a resolution that starts to look like an optical viewfinder, then my DSLRs will see a lot less travel time.


Edited by diverdoug1, 14 March 2014 - 11:03 PM.


#7 troporobo

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Posted 15 March 2014 - 02:12 PM

OK, point taken, very small and highly mobile subjects are a lot harder with single autofocus on the EM-5.  For such shots I tend to decide where I want the subject in the composition, set and hold focus on that point, and wait for the subject to cooperate.  Admittedly my hit rate is pretty low with this method.  But for slightly larger and slower subjects that sometimes pause in the right spot, say anemone fish, S-AF often works for me. 

 

I'm with you on the viewfinder though. I find very small things in complicated backgrounds like pygmy seahorses on a dense fan to be difficult with the EVF and impossible with the rear LCD.  I have read that the viewfinder on the EM-1 is improved and would love to try it.



#8 adamhanlon

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Posted 17 March 2014 - 12:49 AM

Doug,

 

There were a few mirrorless set ups being used in Lembeh during the Wetpixel workshop last year. Two Olympus (E-M5) and one Panansonic (GF5).

 

More recently, Eric (Cheng) had a E-M1 with a magnifying viewfinder in Komodo. He was using it to great effect with a Nauticam SMC for super macro.

 

The EVF is very usable with the viewfinder.

 

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#9 tdpriest

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Posted 17 March 2014 - 07:31 AM

 How does your camera know where to autofocus?

 

You frame the negative space for composition, then wait for the subject to swim through: just like using the focus point in a DSLR.



#10 diverdoug1

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Posted 17 March 2014 - 10:02 AM

 

You frame the negative space for composition, then wait for the subject to swim through: just like using the focus point in a DSLR.

I don't fin this works very well for DSLR either, which is why I use manual focus with supermacro.



#11 A.Y.

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Posted 18 March 2014 - 10:49 AM

Continuous autofocus (C-AF): C-AF has been a distinct weakness for CSC because contrast-based autofocus must use trial-and-error to determine the direction of focus adjustments, which made it too slow to track moving objects. In contrast, DSLR’s phase-detection AF can predict what focus adjustment is needed and directly drive the lens accordingly. The Nikon 1 CSC introduced on-sensor phase-detection pixels and is still a leader in fast C-AF. Just today Nikon set a new bar for any camera, CSC or DSLR, with the announcement of the Nikon 1 V3, which can shoot 20fps with C-AF. Recent CSC cameras from most brands now also incorporate on-sensor phase detection. My impression is that DSLR still has a small edge, especially with less ideal lighting or subjects, but the gap is closing fast.

 

Video/live-view autofocus: This is an area where DSLR has struggled and CSC is well ahead. Some DSLR now also have on-sensor phase-detection pixels and I expect that over time they will become more competitive with CSC.

 

Autofocus summary: CSC beats DSLR on S-AF, but not by enough to select one over the other. DSLR beats CSC on C-AF but the best CSC probably now match some of their DSLR competitors. Video autofocus goes to CSC.

 

Continuous shooting speed: without mechanical mirror, shooting frequency is limited by read-out and image processing speed on CSC. The Olympus OMD cameras reach 9 or 10fps and the announced Nikon 1 V3 reaches 20fps with C-AF, or 60fps without C-AF. For DSLR the rate at which the mirror can be flipped up and down with adequate precision and reasonable cost becomes limiting. CSC wins and has more potential to continue improving but for underwater photography the real limitation is often strobe recycling.

 

 

Another example how far mirrorless on-sensor phase-detection autofocus system and continuous shooting speed have come in tracking moving subjects like sea lions for photos.

 

Personally, I'll definitely upgrade for AF speed alone.



#12 diverdoug1

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Posted 18 March 2014 - 12:56 PM

I heard that the Sony A7 has the same AF as the Nikon D800.  Anybody know if this is true?



#13 Aliens

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Posted 24 March 2014 - 05:44 PM

Love focus peaking on my Sony NEX7 for AF. Love the EVF as well.



#14 rtrski

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Posted 07 April 2014 - 03:57 AM

Great OP summarization, Glasseye.  Thanks.  This should be stickied IMO.


Current rig: Sony SLT-alpha55 in Ikelite housing, Sigma 105mm f2.8 DC Macro w/ Ike 5505.58 flat port or Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM behind UWCamStuff custom 5" mini-dome. Dual INON z240 Type IVs triggered with DS51 for TTL mimicry, or DS51 alone with home-made ringflash assy for macro.

 

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#15 Glasseye Snapper

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Posted 07 April 2014 - 06:26 PM

You're welcome and apologies for not including the Sony SLT. I guess they are a bit in between, but more towards DSLR than CSC.


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#16 edpdiver

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Posted 12 April 2014 - 10:51 AM

Great thread. Thanks for posting, and for the good give and take question/answer posts, too. I agree it should be "stickied."


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#17 A.Y.

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Posted 12 April 2014 - 02:01 PM

The area mirrorless cameras have seen the largest improvement this year is in 4k video and extreme low-light perfomance. These 8MP 3840x2160 video frames are more than good enough for many still photography applications, bluring the line between photography and videography.



Footage from Panasonic GH4 with 16MP M43 sensor.



Footage from Sony A7s with 12MP full frame sensor. Check out the ISO 12800 footage at 2:21 - amazing!

Since a full frame sensor is four times the size of M43 this means each of the 4k pixel receives 4 times the light = minimum 2 full stops better high ISO performance. People who have seen the footage in person have this similar reaction:



This new technology will drastically reduce one of the biggest expenses in filmmaking - lighting cost.


Edited by A.Y., 12 April 2014 - 04:09 PM.


#18 oskar

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Posted 15 April 2014 - 03:41 AM

Does the Sony 7s have exactly the same body as the others, and thus fitting the same housings?

 

/O

 

BTW   the mirrorless forum is loosing the point if we cannot move the treads from the old DSLR forum, Can someone do this if we just point out the main ones?



#19 Glasseye Snapper

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Posted 15 July 2014 - 04:20 PM

A little while ago DPreview posted an article about the confusion around equivalent apperture, VOF, DOF, ...

It includes images to demonstrate the effects which make it worth checking out.

 

http://www.dpreview....y-should-i-care

 

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#20 A.Y.

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Posted Yesterday, 09:04 AM

cinema5d.com tests show that the mirrorless fullframe A7S with 14.1 stops dynamic range has way surpassed the fullframe dSLR 5D3 with 11.8 stops.

 

Increasingly there are welcome news that the most compact and affordable fullframe mirrorless coming this year.


Edited by A.Y., Yesterday, 08:42 PM.






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