The first thing you need to know if you’re looking for an SLR (or DSLR) in 2020 is that definitely isn’t your only choice. It was for a long time, which is why you might have heard the term. But times change.
Why do you think you want an ‘SLR’?
SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex – a ‘D’ at the front adds the word ‘Digital’. In either case what makes this kind of camera different is that you compose the photograph by looking directly through the same lens that the photo is taken. That’s the Single Lens.
The word Reflex comes from the path the light is taken on through the camera while you’re looking through the viewfinder. The principle is a little like a periscope – it comes down the lens onto a mirror, then from that mirror to your eye. (It’s a little more complicated, since a special prism is required to ensure your view is the right way up, but that’s semantics).
When you take the photo the mirror which directs the light up to the eye pops out of the way so the light can go straight to the image sensor (or film). That’s why everything goes dark in the viewfinder when you take the shot, and the camera makes quite the clicking noise.
The alternative, common on many film-era compact cameras (and ‘rangefinder’ cameras), is that you would look through an additional lens just above the ‘photography’ lens which was just for framing your shot. This approach might be thought of as like a rifle with a telescopic sight – the sight and the gun barrel are pointed in the same direction, but you’re not actually looking through the barrel.
Why isn’t an SLR necessarily best any more?
Digital technology effectively eliminates one of the big plusses of the SLR – composing through the lens. Since a digital camera uses the image sensor to provide a preview, all digital cameras (phones and compacts) allow you to compose through the main lens.
The other associated advantage of SLRs has never actually been exclusive to them – that is interchangeable lenses (the ability to swap the optical elements of the camera for ones optimised for different purposes; wide angle for interors, long zoom for wildlife, macro for close up, wide aperture portrait lenses and so on.
Over time ‘systems’ built up from the leading manufacturers. Canon owners bought Canon lenses for the Canon ‘mount’, while Nikon owners needed lenses compatible with the Nikon mount, and so on. Lenses are often more expensive than the cameras they attach to and (if looked after) last for years.
When Digital photography arrived, and image sensors slowly started to meet the standards that photographers needed, most were concerned with getting Digital SLR ‘bodies’ (the camera other than the lens) which they could fit their existing lens collections onto.
One big issue at this point which deserves an entry in itself is that image sensors need not be the same size as 35mm film. Almost all film SLRs shot 35mm film, just like most compacts and disposables of the era (ignoring APS for the moment). All you need to know now is that the term “full frame” refers to an image sensor which is the same size as 35mm film, and this was an expensive aspiration in the early days of digital.
Anyway, a digital SLR still does the whole mirror-flipping business, so the body requires the extra size to accommodate the mechanism, but realistically we no longer really need it. The upshot is the arrival of the term ‘mirrorless’.
What is a ‘mirrorless’ camera?
Technically any camera which doesn’t have an SLR mirror-flip arrangement is mirrorless (even the disposable on the table at that hipster wedding you went to), but in this context it refers to a high-end camera which still has interchangeable lenses but only has a digital viewfinder.
It’s common to have a screen on the back – like pretty much any digital compact camera – and a small digital screen in a hood in the place a traditional SLR viewfinder would be. The latter is easier to use in bright sunshine, and perhaps more re-assuring for old-school photographers, but the camera bodies can be smaller.
Perhaps the stand-out example of the mirrorless camera is the Sony A7 series. In the last decades of film Canon and Nikon had established a pretty firm dominance of the photography market, which was cemented as smaller manufacturers struggled to match their investment in digital cameras. But Canon and Nikon were also pulled by the momentum of their existing lens systems.
Sony bought struggling Konika-Minolta but quickly abandoned their SLR system for the A7 and A9 series of cameras which are mirrorless but use ‘full frame’ sensors.
Designing a new camera system from the ground up which didn’t focus the light on a point far enough back I the camera body to allow room for a SLR mirror meant a new series of lenses anyway, so Sony could have gone with any image sensor they liked. Other firms did, like Olympus, Panasonic and others did with the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) system.
Smaller sensors allow for smaller lenses and lighter cameras, but also (if you assume the same resolution) smaller sensitive elements of the imaging chip means there will be more digital noise in the photo.
Sony, however, seemed to appreciate that the term ‘full frame’ was going to work for their marketing teams and allow them to get ahead of Nikon and Canon for a time. Both other firms have now developed and launched their own Mirrorless systems (with adapters to allow the use of the older lenses).
So which should I choose?
OK, so Sony have established themselves in this market, and many of the other brands have positioned themselves for certain kinds of photographer. Leica has always made iconic rangefinder cameras, so the rise and fall of digital SLRs has no doubt been of mild amusement to them, for example.
But if you were thinking of getting your first SLR, the chances are you were imaging spending roughly the same money as the entry-level SLRs with lenses were before Mirrorless brought options.
Sony A7 ii
No longer the current model (replaced with the even-more-expensive A7iii) but if you’re not especially excited by shooting 4K video this might be the choice for you. The A7 has a fantastic image sensor (bigger is better!) and focusing system, making it great for stills, and while the kit lens (lens included with the camera) is only OK given, the camera body features image stabilisation so you can shoot in less-than-perfect light without a tripod or the expense of a better lens.
Canon EOS M50 or M6 Mkii
Canon’s competitors for the Sony A7 cameras are, well, pricey. But they’ve opted to also produce a smaller mirrorless series which is targeted at the kind of market they formerly pitched their consumer Digital SLRs at. With a standard lens this can be had for less the Sony, and while it might not boast the same image quality, or offer the future advantages of Sony’s full-frame system, it is definitely a step up from that camera-phone, and additional lenses are available. It does also manage 4K if you want to look your sharpest on YouTube!
Sony A6000 series
Just as with the Canon M series, Sony offer interchangeable lens cameras which don’t blow the whole budget on a massive sensor. The A6000 series is a great start, and budget can dictate how recent the version you get is When shopping, do be careful to choose a kit that includes at least one lens!
Do you really need to swap the lens?
Swapping lenses is great for flexibility, but it can also draw you into a never-ending cycle of lens acquisition. There’s much to be said for a single purchase.
For example, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ1000EB is a ‘Bridge’ camera which includes a single lens which can go from pretty wide to prettifying far zoom. It can also shoot 4K video and has a fold out viewfinder and a hooded eye one. The Canon PowerShot SX70 HS is another good alternative in this space.