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With the new line of mirrorless cameras being announced this fall, the gap between DSLR and mirrorless cameras continue to close. There are many generic discussions comparing the two, but as a portrait photographer, I'm not needing a complex AF tracking (sports), every action with a dedicated button (wedding), super high ISO capabilities for the candlelight situations (wedding again), or +200mm lenses (wildlife).

Like any photographer, portrait photographers want sharp quality, rugged cameras (for on-site portraits), variety of lenses, etc. Portrait photographers particularly like strobe compatibility, wide apertures (bokeh), and possibly tethering capabilities.

As a portrait photographer, what all should a person consider?

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good question! I don't do portraits but it will be good to read the answers. –  Paul Cezanne Oct 24 '13 at 23:15
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Lack of shallow DoF options(lens selection+sensor size)is my main reason, followed closely by accurate and fast AF. Both have been improved greatly with the most recent announcements, giving me less of a reason to keep my huge kit around. –  dpollitt Oct 25 '13 at 14:54
    
@AndyML What dessition did you make? And how is that going on? Regards –  Horaciux May 30 at 22:37
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@Horaciux I made the decision to switch to Mirrorless. While I miss the easy shallow DOF on the wider end, I am overall happy I made the change. Out of everything Michael Clark mentions below, only shallow DOF is actually noticeably lacking. Everything else is top notch. OM-D E-M1 was my choice. –  AndyML Jun 2 at 21:45
    
@AndyML: Which mirrorless body and lenses did you go with? –  feetwet Aug 28 at 4:04

5 Answers 5

up vote 16 down vote accepted

A few aspects mentioned in your question will be our starting point. Please note, we are not saying each of these issues will be determining factors for every photographer. We're not saying one system is better than the other because of... a or b. Rather they are a response to the question, "...what all should a person consider?" Once considered, each of these aspects may or may not lead a particular portraitist to choose one system over the other.

  • Focus System You may not need a super fast, complex, and configurable focus system like a sports photographer does, but you do need one that is consistently accurate unless you are manually focusing all of your shots. Unless you are shooting tethered and on a tripod, just seeing the scene well enough to manually focus a mirrorless camera can be a challenge. The lenses are designed around the assumption of AF and may be difficult to adjust in finer increments. Each camera/lens' shot to shot variation also plays a big role when you are shooting at the wide apertures typically used in current portraiture. Is the Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera (MILC) you are considering consistent re: focus accuracy from shot to shot? Are the lenses as stable as heavier DSLR type lenses in terms of holding focus? Will using heavy DSLR lenses via an adapter on the MILC increase the risk of tweaking the mount?
  • Dedicated Buttons This really depends on your shooting style. A lot of portraitists use a back body button to meter and/or focus, or a dial or joystick to select various focus points. If doing environmental portraits, the conditions can change every bit as fast as those at a wedding, since many wedding photos are essentially environmental portraits.
  • High ISO Capabilities This also depends a lot on what types of portraits you shoot. It is not much of a factor in controlled studio lighting or outdoor daylight shoots, but what about outdoor night settings or other environmental types of portraits when you want to balance the dim ambient lighting with your controlled lighting?
  • Long Telephoto Lenses Lenses beyond 200mm are not usually a factor when doing portraiture, but for tight facial framing 135mm or even 180-200mm is not unreasonable. And to get that smooth bokeh your customer expects, you are going to need a fairly fast telephoto lens. If there is even a 180mm f/2 equivalent MILC lens available, it will be about the same size/weight as the DSLR counterparts, so where is the MILC advantage?
  • Resolution Sharpness is much more about the glass than the sensor most of the time. You can put the same 20+ MP FF sensor in a MILC, but if you don't have glass just as good, the DSLR with better glass will still outperform it. It is often possible to use "Pro" lenses on a MILC via adapter, but the added size and weight of those lenses remove the biggest advantage of the MILC systems.
  • Ruggedness If you do outdoor portraits or other types of environmental portraiture, weather sealing and environmental resistance should be a consideration. Most pro level DSLR bodies and lenses, and even consumer level models such as a few by Pentax, are much more capable in this area than the current crop of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (MILC) on the market. This is especially true in terms of the lenses made specifically for the mirrorless systems. And while it is often possible to use "Pro" lenses on a MILC via adapter, the added size and weight of those lenses remove the biggest advantage of the MILC systems. In terms of body durability and ruggedness, at this point in the game there is not much comparison between the Nikon D4 or Canon 1D X and the top MILCs. You can take those pro bodies and use them in places that would bring the MILCs to their knees, if not totally destroy them. Not an issue if you are in the studio, but a big one if you are doing environmental portraits in extreme environments.
  • Lens Selection It only takes one lens to make a portrait. But if you need a lens to do something none of the lenses designed for MILC systems can, there is almost certainly a Canon/Nikon/Sony/Pentax/Zeiss lens that can. As we've already repeated, using the full size lenses on a MILC removes one of the significant advantages of the MILC concept.
  • Strobe Compatibility Another aspect to consider is how capable a MILC is at controlling multiple off-camera flashes via the camera's menu. This is something the Nikon CLS does very well. Canon bodies also have a lot of capability in this area and are gaining ground on Nikon with the release of the radio controlled (vs. optically controlled) 600EX-RT. Other full size DSLRs also do this to one degree or the other. This is something every "location" portrait photographer should consider essential. Can the MILC system you are considering do this?
  • Bokeh To get the creamiest bokeh you need a large sensor and a fast lens with smooth aperture blades. Can your MILC lenses do that? There are a few that can, and a few new MILC systems include a FF sensor. But can any MILC system lens touch the results of using a lens such as the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II?
  • Tethering Since tethering is related to firmware and software compatibility, it shouldn't take much for manufacturers to include this capability for MILC systems that don't already have it. The question, though, is will the marketplace demand it?
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Don't forget the ability to tether, very handy in the studio. –  John Cavan Oct 25 '13 at 0:20
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I'd vote up again if I could! –  John Cavan Oct 25 '13 at 1:20
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AF fine tune and AF microadjust are a band aid for the ailing phase detect paradigm, which doesn't quite hold up with today's high resolution sensors (except for high speed tracking ability). MILCs don't have AF microadjust because they don't need it - there are no calibration issues when using the main image sensor to perform AF. –  Matt Grum Oct 25 '13 at 12:25
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AF is in fact one reason I would chose a mirrorless camera. The Canon 85mm f/1.2L lens you mention is very difficult to use to it's full potential due to the inaccuracy of PDAF. If you bend the mount then you're going to have problems, but CDAF should fare better here as well. –  Matt Grum Oct 25 '13 at 14:29
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@JamesSnell in general, yes. In the context of the question regarding usage for portraiture, not nearly as much as they would be shooting sports/action/astronomy/etc. –  Michael Clark Oct 26 '13 at 22:23

I've heard a couple pro photographers talk about how the DSLR commands a certain kind of respect from clients that they wouldn't get with a mirrorless system and I've seen this first hand as well. I was running a 60d w/grip and 70-200 F/2.8 and people thought I was some hotshot pro. So if you want to charge a lot people want to feel they're getting their money's worth and DSLRs help convey quality when they don't know any better.

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The advantages of a DSLR over a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (MILC) for portraiture are starting to vanish, with the latest releases it's pretty much limited to:

  • Optical viewfinder is sharper, better in contrasty light and low light, offers instant feedback and better battery life.

  • Ergonomics are usually better, especially for larger lenses.

  • Compatibility with flash systems and tethering.

Most of the other factors cited as advantages of DSLRs are now moot:

  • Image quality. Full frame mirrorless cameras from Sony promise as good or better image quality than the best DSLRs.

  • Lens quality / bokeh. Mirrorless bodies allow the widest selection of lenses from different formats to be adapted, in some cases (Metabones for Canon AF) allowing AF and aperture control from the camera body. Adaptor horror stories courtesy of LensRentals etc. mostly apply to wide angle infinity focus use cases, not portraiture.

There are some advantages to mirrorless bodies as well. In addition to lens adaptability, contrast detect autofocus using the main sensor has been shown to be far more consistent and accurate than phase detection in DSLRs, at least in good light. And features such as eye detection (the next step from face detection) take the trial and error out of shallow DOF headshots.

As for the question of "looking professional" a big lens always helps and a more compact body will make the lens appear bigger. I think provided you have a viewfinder you should be all right a vertical grip is helpful too. As is how you act, having to check the focus using the rear screen after every frame isn't going to inspire confidence in the client.

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But you can also use CD AF via Live View with a DSLR. You have a choice between the two with the DSLR. –  Michael Clark Oct 25 '13 at 15:34
    
"Ergonomics are usually better, especially for larger lenses." While that's true (if you're going to use an adaptor with a bigger lens), the purpose of (lets say 4/3) is that the lenses are also smaller. –  BBking Jun 2 at 23:42
    
@BBking Portrait lenses aren't any smaller if you're using a full frame mirrorless camera such as the Sony A7, so the larger grip of a DSLR may be beneficial. –  Matt Grum Aug 12 at 14:17

I don't know much about the current state of the art with mirrorless, but while a lot of things can eventually be compensated for (such as sensor size, PDAF capability (with hybrid AF chips, lens and strobe compatibility, etc), one thing that they can't do is give you an actual direct, through the lens image path.

A mirrorless can only ever show you what the sensor can see, never what is actually there. Anything that extends beyond the range of what the sensor sees won't be visible to you and that can have an impact on shot composition. Starting out, it might be nice to be able to see things how the sensor sees it to know exactly how it will come out, but once you have some experience, it is nice to be able to see what is actually there to know what you are and aren't capturing.

Battery life may also be another factor depending on the shooting environment. Mirrorless has to run the LCD, so it gets much less battery life than a DSLR can get when using the viewfinder, particularly if you get good at not having to spend a lot of time checking photos.

Room for dedicated buttons is also nice. It is just a convenience thing if you have time, but time you don't keep the customer waiting is time that the customer gets to keep and time you can spend working with another client, so it does have a benefit to both you and your customers.

There is also of course the "professional" look of a DSLR that shouldn't be underestimated when it comes to marketing yourself either. If you want to do commercial work, having people think your gear is big and fancy and expensive is almost if not more important than the actual quality and cost of your gear. This gap may also close, but having customers feel like they are getting their monies worth and that it isn't something they could have done with a point and shoot and a tripod is valuable for customer satisfaction.

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I would think that for customers, portrait models, it is more about the professionalism of the photographer than his/her gear. Photographer's manners, speech, even outlooks, convey the message "Trust me, I know what I'm doing." But, it may be, sometimes intimidating gear is needed to speak for the photographer. –  Esa Paulasto Dec 3 '13 at 22:45
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@EsaPaulasto - professionalism does matter. Equipment won't save you if you don't have professionalism, but if you are shooting on something that looks like their uncle's point and shoot (to a laymen), they start wondering why they didn't have their uncle take photos. –  AJ Henderson Dec 3 '13 at 23:30

After now spending a few months having switched from DSLR to Mirrorless, I thought I'd provide my experience to this question.

Bokeh / DOF (M43)

The most noticeable difference I have found was shallow DOF. Having switched from a 1.6x crop to a 2x crop without having wider apertures available, I'm now using compression to accomplish the same DOF.

As an example, I previous used a 50mm f/1.4 on a 1.6x crop body, giving me the equivalent of 80mm f/2.24. Looking through my images, I found myself averaging f/2.0 with this lens. After having switched, I'm now using a 75mm f/1.8 and yielding slightly better results in areas I'm able to back further away from the subject. In tight quarters, I'm simply not as able to accomplish the same DOF, but I'm getting enough subject separation to not distract the viewer with the background.

Note: I say M43 because there are Mirrorless FF cameras available where this issue does not apply.

Focus Speed

The largest disadvantage to mirrorless is in lower light when the camera doesn't know which direction to start focusing and it starts in the wrong direction. While it's only a split second, it's enough to miss the shot if you are photographing fast action. I have not felt disadvantaged by this when doing portraiture.

Handling / Build

Mirrorless cameras, like DSLR cameras, come in a wide variety of sizes, builds, and UI differences. While this is preference, I found a better selection of handling and UI with the mirrorless selection. While it is a smaller body to work with, the button placement feels very natural and intuitive.

Mirrorless build offers the same weather sealing as many of the top brands. I have tested my mirrorless camera in the rain and extreme cold without issues. Unless you plan to spend $6k+ on a DSLR, the same build quality is available between DSLR and mirrorless.

Viewfinder

This is a hot topic for many photographers as the viewfinder is electronic (EVF) as opposed to optical. I was very uncertain about the changes, but have found it to be a improvement for my uses.

One of my favorite features as a portrait photographer is being able to see real-time exposure compensation in the viewfinder. You can expose to the subjects face and watch your exposure adjustments in real time. You can also view the histogram in the EVF before you take the shot. During portrait shoots, I also have a preview appear in the EVF without having to review on the back of the screen. This saves time during the shoot, reduces chimping, and reduces post production adjustments as well.

I haven't found any issues with low-light as the camera boosts the image in the EVF to assist composition.

Having focus peaking or magnification in the viewfinder has resulted in less trips back and forth between the back panel and viewfinder. I'm also able to preview an image in the EVF on very bright days instead of covering the back screen to be able to see the image.

Lens / 3rd party Accessory Selection

This depends heavily on the brand of mirrorless. If you move toward the M43 mirrorless brand, you will find a large selection of lenses in amateur and pro category. I have found that these lenses I need are all available in professional quality. As a portrait photographer, the M43 75mm 1.8 and 45mm 1.8 are an excellent pair.

I wouldn't be able to speak for 3rd party accessories as I no longer have a need for them. There are less available, but you would need to consult your practice and the ability to meet your needs.

Strobe Compatibility

Much like DSLR cameras the quality of the camera dictates the features available, but mirrorless is able to optically control up to 4 groups of strobes remotely from the camera body. This was greater than the 3 groups available on my Canon 7D.

Resolution (M43)

M43 seems to peak at 16MP. Due to sensor size, you will be limited. With high-end glass, you're able to crop images and still maintain print quality. Compared to APS-C bodies, you will yield similar results in print, but have less ability to crop if needed.

"Professionalism

A very interesting topic has been professional appearance with a smaller camera. While I use one of the larger mirrorless bodies, it is still significantly smaller than DSLR bodies and the lenses are much smaller. The only noticeable difference is that my clients appear to be actually more comfortable in front of the camera. They are able to see more of my face, my emotions, smile, etc. and it reduces the "social distance" between the client and the photographer. Clients are also less concerned about people's reaction in public as well.

In times that I need to appear more professional, like an event, I keep a staff badge in my backpack. This keeps others from jumping out in front of me or glaring when I'm somewhere spectators shouldn't be. Another helpful piece to garner more respect is that I sometimes still use my large DSLR backpack that gives the appearance of a lot of equipment. No one needs to know that it's only half full and 1/4 the weight.

Overall

After having switched for a few months, I'm overall very pleased with the decision. While I still gripe about the lacking DOF, I'm able to accomplish the DOF that fits my style. This may not be the same case for you and I cannot stress this enough. It is a gap that cannot be closed (DOF joke intended).

As for the size, weight, EVF, lens selection, professional features, etc. I'm very pleased.

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Haha!! Wow. Your Professionalism points are interesting. :) I can't tell who you need to impress with "the bigger the better"? Some clients are more comfortable (being able to see your face) while at events you need a bigger bag to "look" professional? I'm confused... –  BBking Jun 2 at 23:38
    
What mirrorless body/bodies were you basing this answer on? (It appears that the DSLR you left for mirrorless was a Canon 7D?) –  feetwet Aug 28 at 4:02

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