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I am thinking of buying a camera to learn photography. Most of the time I'll be shooting portraits and landscapes. But I am not sure where I should start. Most of my friends tell me that I should get an entry level DSLR, but I am not sure if I have the persistence and enthusiasm to carry it all day in a backpack. But the camera on my cellphone doesn't seem to be enough to begin with.

So what I want is some expert advice (preferably with professional experience). Can most compact fixed-lens or mirrorless cameras fit the situations I mentioned? Or do I really need to go to a DSLR to get a tool to learn photography?

  • Also see Is an SLR camera a must when learning?, although since it dates to 2010, that question misses the rise of advanced mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. – mattdm Sep 3 '15 at 21:52
  • Have you read other questions asking about differences between dSLR and mirrorless? photo.stackexchange.com/questions/49832/… photo.stackexchange.com/questions/43688/… photo.stackexchange.com/questions/22541/… – MikeW Sep 3 '15 at 21:54
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    @inkista when you did all you can, but the images still look horrible, when your camera decides to format your memory card full of images, when that superior AF of your camera decides to turn inferior in that one important moment, then your camera can turn into an impact camera, likely with the ground. Remove the lens beforehand, if that's emotionally possible :) – null Sep 3 '15 at 22:21
  • What do you plan to DO with your pictures? Show on a screen (what size) or print? I have taken photos with a [relatively old] 6MP Nikon DSLR - and had them printed as posters. Limiting factor tends to be the "noise" you tend to see when blowing up images from smaller sensors. If you EVER want to print a big copy, go for a large sensor: otherwise, saved money on the camera lets you buy more / better lenses. – Alan Campbell Sep 4 '15 at 2:39
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Essentials

I think that all three of the camera types (dSLR, mirrorless, and fixed-lens compact) can be used to seriously learn photography if all you've been using up to now is a phone camera. However, I think that there are three features any camera you choose has to have if you really want to learn photography deeply, and those three features will rule out most of the casual snapshot compact cameras. These three features are, in order of importance:

  • Full Manual mode, so you have full control over exposure. This can also be referred to as the PSAM (Programmable Auto, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual) modes. You need to be able to explicitly control and set the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. (See also, Bryan Peterson's book, Understanding Exposure and What is the "exposure triangle"?).

  • RAW capability. This is the ability of the camera to NOT process the sensor data into a compressed JPEG file, but rather to give you all the data the sensor captured. This can give you additional capabilities when post-processing that a JPEG-only camera may not give you.

  • A flash hotshoe. This is arguably optional. But if portrait photography really does become an area of interest for you, knowing how to light becomes very important, and having a camera that has some way of tripping an external flash can open up huge new vistas (see: the Strobist).

Big or Small Sensor Compact?

Compact cameras, these days, are quite different than the ones of even just five years ago. Today, there are compact fixed-lens cameras that can deliver the same image quality as most dSLRs, because the sensors in them are the same size as those in most dSLRs. However, the cost of these large-sensored compacts can rival that of an entry-level dSLR kit. Or be even more expensive (if they're full frame). However, for a beginner, a fixed-lens camera has the advantages of an overall lower cost (there's no more of the system, really, to add on) and simplicity vs. a "system" camera with interchangeable lenses. It's a lower-risk entry point.

The tradeoff is that you're stuck with whatever limitations come with the fixed lens—most typically on focal length range or maximum aperture. And smaller-sensored cameras (while much smaller with smaller lenses and possibly more macro capability and "reach") will have more difficulty giving you control over thin depth of field (i.e., how much of the image can be out of focus). And being able to blur the background is often the "look" someone who's used to very small sensors wants to move up to a "better" camera for. In addition, smaller sensors have more limited dynamic range and high-ISO noise performance, so they don't do as well for darker scenes (i.e., indoors without a flash or at night) or high-dynamic range scenes (e.g., you get more white skies).

Also, some mirrorless systems have smaller sensors than dSLRs. There's a great deal more variety in sensor sizes on the mirrorless side of the fence, and that can impact your decision as well, depending on which systems you're looking at. But anything that's larger than the 1/2.3"-format sensors in low-end P&S cameras will be decent, and anything that's 1" format or larger can make someone used to a dSLR happy with a compact camera (i.e., it's worth the convenience/image quality). And anything that's 4/3"-format or larger can rival dSLR in image quality.

System or Fixed-Lens?

System cameras—those that allow you to change the lenses on the camera—are generally the most versatile and high-end tools for photography, because you can use a specific lens that's better geared for a specific type of image if you want to. The problem is you also have to buy that lens. And maybe a tripod. And a flash. And another lens. And a bag to hold it all. Whether you go mirrorless or SLR, you'll probably have a camera bag with additional pieces with you when you go shooting. Whether you need that versatility is up to you and your wallet. But if you need to go very wide and very long, shoot in bright light and low light, or think you plan on doing more exotic shooting like using close-up gear, chasing wildlife, or playing with fisheye views, then an interchangeable lens camera is going to be a better bet for versatility and convenience.

There are workarounds. If you need a wider view, you can panostitch instead of using an ultrawide lens. If you need a narrower view, you can crop instead of using a telephoto lens. If you want to shoot in low light with moving subjects, you can use a flash instead of a faster lens. But the results aren't identical, and can be more of a pain to achieve, and at a certain point, you may chafe at the restrictions a single lens places on you.

Mirrorless or dSLR?

Size and Weight

You've already highlighted the biggest difference between the two types of systems: size and weight. dSLR bodies are often bigger and heavier than mirrorless ones. So knowing how much stuff you want to lug about with you all the time is one big way to decide which type of system will fit you better. If your landscape shooting involves hiking for days, reducing size and weight can mean a lot. And many dSLR shooters have been moving to mirrorless or adding it as a supplemental system for travel or more casual shooting, simply because the smaller size/weight is more convenient.

However, keep in mind that the sensor format size mostly dictates the size of the lenses. While you may get a substantial weight/size savings on a full frame mirrorless camera body vs. a full-frame dSLR, same-speced full frame lenses are roughly the same size/weight whether they're Canon/Nikon or Sony E-mount. Ditto APS-C lenses for mirrorless being mostly the same size/weight as APS-C dSLR lenses. If reducing the camera bag weight overall is a priority, then a smaller sensor format, such as four-thirds, might be worth looking into for the proportionately smaller lenses.

System Breadth

Cost-wise, the two types of systems are roughly the same. And the companies that make dSLRs have the capability to leverage their film era SLR gear as well. dSLR/dSLT users of Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and Sony bodies can use lenses that go back for decades. In contrast to this, the oldest mirrorless system, micro four-thirds, only dates back to 2008; Sony's E-mount to 2010; and Fuji's X mount to 2012. Mirrorless systems tend to be smaller in the selection of lenses and other bits'n'bobs of the system (say, flash support or tilt-shift lenses) both from the OEM manufacturers and from third-party after market suppliers. Depending on how far you advance, and how exotic your shooting becomes, this may or may not be an issue. Mirrorless can cover most of the basics, and some systems, like micro four-thirds, can even cover some of the exotics. But dSLRs still have an edge on the overall system (and used market) breadth.

Full Frame

While mirrorless has full frame choices (Sony A7 series, Canon R, Nikon Z, Panasonic S), and heck, even medium format choices (Hasselblad X1D, Fuji GFX), the fact remains that it's a lot easier to find a full frame camera on the dSLR/dSLT side of the fence. All of the non-Sony mirrorless producers are on their first generation of bodies in 2019.

With dSLR/dSLTs, Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and Sony have been making them for more than a decade longer. And 35mm film-era lenses are compatible with these bodies. If you know you need full frame, but are on a budget, or the Sony e-mount full-frame lens selection seems sparse/expensive to you, then dSLR might be the way to go.

Fast-Action Capability

In addition, dSLRS also tend to be better for fast-action photography, especially with entry-level bodies. This is because a dSLR is designed to use a separate sensor array for autofocus, while mirrorless cameras use the main image sensor itself. Newer top- and mid-range mirrorless bodies use additional sensor technology to achieve tracking AF and fast AF lock performance to match that of dSLRs, but right now, at the entry-level, a dSLR could be more likely to beat a mirrorless camera as a tool if you plan on shooting sports, wildlife, or your kids running around the yard. Especially if you're purchasing older used entry level bodies.

Innovation and Choice

Mirrorless is where manufacturers are experimenting. They're trying out different body styles, different sensor sizes, and different features. You can find mirrorless cameras that are more like compact cameras, some like rangefinders, some like dSLRs. There are features that arrived first on mirrorless cameras that dSLRs still may not implement, like focus peaking. And some that are completely unique to mirrorless, like Fuji's hybrid viewfinder.

There is more innovation going on in the mirrorless sphere than in the dSLR one, and there's a possibility that one specific combination of body style, sensor size, and features may grab your imagination and be an even better fit for you than a dSLR. There's certainly more choice in the types of cameras you can get. Most dSLRs are pretty similar to each other in terms of form factor and features. The same can't be said of mirrorless.

  • Thanks for this answer. I decide to go to DSLR to shot landscape first, could you recommend some Lens and entry level cameras? – Kuan Sep 4 '15 at 20:11
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    @Kuan We tend not to do gear recommendations on photo.SE, because they go out of date very quickly. Maybe see: What should I look for when shopping for my first dSLR?, Is there any significant difference between Nikon and Canon? and this guide on selecting a dSLR lens. – inkista Sep 4 '15 at 21:57
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    One other advantage of mirrorless cameras is their small flange focal distance gives much more flexibility for lens adaptors. This can open up a lot of additional lens options are you have prepared to live without autofocus. – Peter Green Jan 31 '17 at 6:02
  • @PeterGreen, but most of those lens options, if they're SLR lenses, will negate the small size/weight advantage, particularly if they're full-frame/film. Smaller rangefinder lenses tend to be expensive, and overall, it's still a PITA to use them. See my answer on Can I use lens brand X on interchangeable lens camera brand Y?. It's not always an advantage to adapt. – inkista Feb 1 '17 at 19:23
  • Sony have the 3 largest FF lens selection for the A-mount. Sony have both A and E mount, don't forget that. – Goat Feb 19 '17 at 22:19
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most of the time I'll be shooting portraits and landscapes.

I think that applies for most people/casual shooters. :)

On a serious note, if you really prefer an ideal kit to cover both of these opposing fields of photography, you will probably want to consider a high-end compact with fixed zoom lens, or an interchangeable lens camera system ("ILC") so that you can use a high-quality wide lens for landscapes, or a telephoto lens for portraits.

In addition, there's also the saying "the best camera is the one you carry", so you should also evaluate your everyday carry and see how well a DSLR, mirrorless or high-end compact can fit, if you intend on bringing it everywhere with you. The recent entry-level DSLRs have drastically reduced in size and weight compared to their equivalents a few years ago, so you may not want to write them off too early.

I agree with @inkista's excellent answer that you should choose a camera that gives you full exposure controls - manual or aperture/shutter priority modes come to mind. This is important to learn the basics of understanding photography, as you get to appreciate the effect of using a large aperture for shallow depth-of-field, or long exposure for 'silky' water effects.

RAW output is recommended because you often find more 'headroom' inside these files to either post-process with finer noise-handling controls, or expand the dynamic range (in layman terms: "stronger colors"). If you are perfectly fine with the JPEG output straight from the camera though, then I feel this is only a small bonus.

Rounding back to the first point about lens choice, sure, one can always crop from a wide-angle shot to get pretty good portraiture shots, but that involves extra processing at the end of the day, and also assuming you are still satisfied with the remaining image resolution left. This is why I started my answer with the suggestion of a two-lens option if you go the "ILC" route, in order to make the most of the camera's sensor.

  • Thanks for this answer. I decide to go to DSLR to shot landscape first, could you recommend some Lens and entry level cameras? – Kuan Sep 4 '15 at 20:11
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Here's a different opinion: forget about the technical capabilities, optimize for carry convenience. For someone just starting out, the most important thing is practice. Get a camera that you can always have with you so you get lots of practice with it.

A quote I like by one of the photography masters:

It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.

― Henri Cartier-Bresson

Things to look for that impact carry convenience:

  • Pocketability: if a camera is pocketable, you're more likely to want to hold it for hours at a time. As a street photographer, I found that having the camera on my hand instead of in my bag is the number one contributor to my output.
  • Body size: cameras within a form factor can vary drastically in size. For example, Micro Four Thirds sensors are smaller than APS-C sensors, but a larger Micro Four Thirds body like the Olympus OM-D E-M1 is the same as a smaller Full Frame body like the Sony A7 III.
  • Lens size: a big benefit of a smaller sensor is that the lenses are also significantly smaller. Here's a visualization of 24-70mm lenses on Camera Size:

DSLR · APS-C · Micro Four Thirds · Large sensor point-and-shoot form factors and 24-70mm lenses.

If you already have a smartphone with a multiple lens, say the iPhone XS with 26mm and 52mm, I would seriously consider sticking with it and learn + practice as much as you can. I shot my favorite photo of all time with my smartphone. Beyond that, I recommend a large sensor point-and-shoot like the Sony RX100 series, or a small mirrorless system, like the Fuji X-T30.

Beyond carry convenience, there are other factors that impact a camera's usability and versatility. I wrote about how to find a camera that will take your favorite photos. Here's a summary of how different camera form factors stack up against each other:

The Camera That Takes Your Favorite Photos Matrix

  • Thanks for the feedback @inkista. I added to my answer. – Ray Shan Mar 4 at 1:19
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Any camera with either fixed lens or zoom, manual controls or even automatic can be okay for learning composition.

The two most important considerations are your eyes and your muscles.

If you are over 50, like me, a large viewfinder is critical for composing and checking the sharpness.

Secondly, I have several dslr's such as Olympus E-10, Nikon D1x, Nikon D2x, Fuji s3pro. Those big Nikons have large and bright viewfinders, but with a lens they can weigh 5 pounds. After a couple weeks or months your right arm gets stronger and the camera doesn't seem so heavy anymore. Yet it's still a five pound or more chunk of metal, slogging from your neck or arm. It does get tiring.

With presbyopia it doesn't matter how big the display is on a pocket camera. I still have to pull out my reading glasses to see what I'm shooting.

My favorite camera was a Fuji f700. It is a pocket camera with full manual controls, 14 bit raw, and 13.5 stops of dynamic range. But that was more than 10 years ago.

A wide dynamic range is important. Otherwise I'll drag a big nikon about.

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    Why do you say "any camera with either fixed lens or zoom". Are there any other alternatives? Also I fail to see why your favorite camera is important here and there is no chance that it (Fuji f700) had 13.5 stops of dynamic range. Not even the flagship camera of that era, the full frame Canon 1Ds, came close to that. Further more "A wide dynamic range is important. Otherwise I'll drag a big nikon about." does not make sense. Nikon cameras are known for high dynamic range. Voting down until fixed – Hugo Oct 6 '15 at 11:10
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In addition to the other very good answers: try to anticipate your next move. If you go for a mid-range camera, there is a risk that you start casting envious glance at higher range soon after that (depending on what you put behind "serious"). Or that even mid-range starts looking overkill given that even a low-end camera does take very good pictures too (again, depending on what you put behind "serious" ;-) ).

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On DSLRs the main thing is that if you're just going to buy it with a kit lens, and never change that, then that's just not worth doing and you should think through the various alternatives.

Like many other serious photographers, my "proper" camera is no so big and heavy that I've been on a quest to find a "go anywhere" backup.. that goes everywhere.

I've been through a journey of a couple of Bridge Cameras, some Sony mirroless cameras and now onto Fuji where I think I have found some success.

I don't like paying full price for things, so I typically buy used, and I buy one generation behind the latest. I have two cameras that I am very very impressed with, that are small, light, not crazy expensive, and a joy to use.

The first is the Fuji X100. I'd recommend the X100T as the best bang for the buck, although the newer X100f is of course better at a price.

This is a great camera for anyone who wants to experience raw photography. it has a lens that is not a zoom, and is a bit wider than what you see through your eyes. The world is extolling the magic of this camera, and how for many it is making photography fun again. In many ways it's like the point and shoot film cameras of the 60s and 70s, but bang up to date. It's not good for everything though. That lens isn't going to get you any good bird watching photos, but for general friends and things you happen upon it's really great.

I took things a step further by buying the Fuji X-T10, which is very similar but has interchangeable lenses. Most of the time I have pretty much the same lens on it as the X100, but for me it's great that I can throw on something a bit different - and infact, I use a bunch of vintage Nikon lenses with it instead of expensive new Fujis. That's an acquired taste, but it's a bonus for these cameras that you can do it.

It's a nice camera to own. It's attractive and fun to use and definitely worth checking out.

K

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