Q When would you select a digital SLR over a mirrorless camera system, and what are your thoughts on the different SLR brands?
-- D.C., Milwaukee
A Either type of system can perform most any photographic task. Personally, I use my Micro Four Thirds mirrorless system for travel, family and general all-around use. I prefer SLRs in the studio, for low light, and for action photography.
Most digital SLR (single-lens reflex) systems have been adapted from legacy 35mm systems. The advantage is possible compatibility with older lenses. The disadvantage is extra weight and bulk. Most digital SLRs have a sensor that is smaller than 35mm film, so the bodies and lenses are larger than they need to be to handle the sensor size. It is with this in mind that Olympus and Panasonic developed the Four Thirds system, an SLR system "designed for digital" from the ground up. Panasonic discontinued their SLRs to concentrate on the Micro Four Thirds mirrorless interchangeable lens camera system. Olympus still manufactures a few Four Thirds SLRs, but now focuses most of their efforts on Micro Four Thirds as well.
Some SLRs do have large sensors the size of 35mm film. These are referred to as "full frame" cameras. These are the ultimate for image quality, but are expensive, demand the very best optics and create very large files that quickly fill up your memory card and hard drive. Most digital SLRs use an APS-C sized sensor that is smaller than full frame but a bit bigger than Four Thirds.
Canon and Nikon are referred to as the "big two" and dominate the SLR market. These are the most comprehensive systems in the industry and include a wide variety of specialized pro bodies and expensive, high performance optics. If you are a budding professional or a serious wildlife photographer with a big budget, these are the systems for you. Consumers can hardly go wrong with any camera from either manufacturer. I am not as impressed with either company's inexpensive lenses and that is one of the reasons I think better value can often be found elsewhere.
Pentax is my personal choice and has been going back to the film era, when I used Pentax medium-format film cameras. I love the way the cameras feel in my hands and love the color and sharpness of the pictures. Pentax's inexpensive kit lenses are excellent, and Pentax also offers a unique line of tiny fixed focal length lenses with top-shelf optical performance. Pentax SLRs have image stabilization built into the camera body, which means every lens you mount is stabilized. The top-rated, high-performance Pentax K-30 is one of the best values available in a digital SLR. It sells for a street price of $662 with 18-55 lens.
Sony has a full line of SLRs, including both APS-C and full-frame models. Like Pentax, image stabilization is built into the body and as of late Sony has really fleshed out the system with high-quality optics under both the Sony and Zeiss names as well as some interesting cameras using the legacy lens mount and form factor, but with electronic viewfinders for better video and high-speed photography functionality. I have not tested one and surmise I would prefer an optical viewfinder, but my colleagues who have tested them have been very impressed.
Contact Don Lindich at www.soundadviceblog.com and use the "submit question" link on that site.