The DSLR Strikes Back?


2 Guys Photo followers know that Ed and I have gone ga ga for mirrorless cameras, having moved over completely from traditional digital SLRs, Ed more recently to the Sony NEX system and me shifting between the Olympus OM-D E-M5 and Fujifilm X-E1.  All of these compact system cameras have their respective pros and cons but in a word, we like.  We like a lot.

In my case, my days of shooting action are behind me.  The deficiencies of the mirrorless systems in terms of focus tracking, particularly in low light situations, was something I was willing to contend with.  Or so I thought.

About a week and a half ago, I had an opportunity to shoot images of friends in an iconic bar.  Last weekend, I photographed a ballroom dance competition, complete with alternating light conditions and fast motion.  Quite simply put: yikes!  Total keepers from both shoots?  Zero from the bar, about ten from the competition (out of maybe 250 attempts).

Read on for the gory details.


If you’re thinking, my that’s not a very good photo… exactly.  The OM-D E-M5 is described by the marketing execs at Olympus as having the “world’s fastest autofocus”.  That may be true as long as the light is bright and nothing is moving.  As a landscape photographer, that generally works.  On the day of the dance competition, however, the camera struggled mightily to snap onto the moving dancers.  Additionally, the smaller size of the micro-4/3 sensor reared its ugly head as shots taken up near ISO 3200 were particularly grainy.  Keeping the ISO low necessitated using slower shutter speeds which is an obvious no no for moving subjects.

A few days before, I had the X-E1 in the bar and had wanted to grab some portrait shots (a major personal photographic focus nowadays).  The X-E1 does much better in lower light in terms of sensor noise, but the AF struggled.  The motor in the lens grinded back and forth and back and forth and I walked away without any decent shots.  Sure, I could have used manual focus but even that was a struggle.  It ruined my ability to grab the spontaneous shots as each time I saw the smile, the glance worth capturing, my attempt to focus left the moment in the dust.

Either of these two experiences might have left me without the nagging sense that having a proper DSLR in the arsenal makes good sense, but both taking place together, just a few days apart?

Stay tuned…

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21 Responses to The DSLR Strikes Back?

  1. Peter Snare says:

    Hi Rey, I have been following your 2Guys blog for a while and enjoying it very much, so a big thank you. Now about the focussing issue with the mirrorless cameras. I also subscribe to a blog by Matthew Durr who uses the NEX7 with Nikon manual focus lenses and manages to get the most amazing sports action shots for both indoor and outdoor tournaments. Have a look see, it is mine of information and may help with a few pointers. Best wishes, Peter

    • Rey says:

      Hi Peter – thanks for following 2 Guys Photo and for your comment. Thanks also for the link to Matthew’s site. I read with interest about his lacrosse images and was surprised to see that they were shot with a Nikon D300. That feels like a bit of further gas on the DSLR fire which has begun burning for me. I also see he has good information about shooting with the NEX.

      Thanks again,


      • Matthew Durr says:

        Hey Rey, saw the pingback on my site. I think the big problem many people face with autofocus on these great mirrorless cameras is that the autofocus systems are COMPLETELY different from their DSLR PDAF counterparts (even the hybrid systems). I’m sure you know how CDAF and PDAF work in their own ways.

        What’s great is that in most (key word “most”) shooting scenarios, the performance differences between good CDAF and PDAF systems are pretty nil. But in your examples (low-light bar and ballroom dance), CDAF was never meant to function well; with low-light, there’s less contrast, and since the sensor has to slow down the refresh rate (essentially, the virtual and variable shutter speed) to get enough light for focusing, the entire operation slows to a sometimes unusable crawl.

        Definitely in your situation, where you still get opportunities—paid or not—to shoot in difficult situations, I would have a DSLR with a good fast prime or zoom as a backup camera (silly as that sounds nowadays!). Unless, of course, you want to give manual-focusing old legacy lenses a shot. No worries about AF speed there. It’s all up to me. 😉

        All the best,

  2. Hey Rey,

    I definitely FEEL your pain! I like the OM-D (a lot, btw)…but it hasn’t completely replaced my DSLR (yet). My D600 is still a better performer in low-light, and the full-frame sensor surely helps to keep the details up, and the noise down. If I have an important shoot…its the DSLR. If I absolutely, positively GOTTA have the best image quality possible, without exception and no room for error – I take the D600.

    The OM-D is a wonderful camera, and the experiment has been great – and I HAVE replaced the second body (the D7000), but…I defer the commercial work to the big boy. Will the M4/3 replace the DSLR? Not anytime soon (imho)…

    Frank V.

    • Rey says:

      Hi Frank – I’ve been wondering how you’ve been getting along with the OMD. It sounds as though your conclusions are similar to mine. GREAT camera… but for some tasks, not quite up to it.

      Hoping to see some night cityscapes from the OMD soon…


  3. gunston says:

    Happy with my X-Pro1, looking forward to see the improvement in X-Pro2!

    • Rey says:

      Hi –

      If they add the AF gains from the forthcoming X100s (early reports are very good), a diopter, and moderate sensor gains, it will be a killer camera. Agree.


  4. Thanks for sharing your experience. Definitely a major consideration in purchasing a system is the type of shooting you will be doing.

    • Rey says:

      Dennis – no doubt. I had, incorrectly it seems, misestimated my own needs, thinking that motion/movement were a thing of the past. Now I see that that’s not the case.

      I assume that the day will come when contrast detect systems in mirrorless cameras are more than up to the challenge but that day isn’t here yet.

      Thanks for your comment.


  5. Adam Isler says:

    I switched about a year ago from Nikon D300 to the Sony NEX-7 and there’s no doubt that the big old pro-style DSLRs handle these types of situations much more satisfactorily. However, the advantages of the smaller, lighter camera, the ability to carry 4 lenses without breaking my back, the generally excellent high-ISO, low noise characteristics of the sensor, all taken together, mean that I haven’t picked up my Nikon to shoot with, in spite of its occasional advantages, in the year since I started shooting mirrorless. Sure, there are times when I’ve cursed the camera, but there are times when I cursed the hefty, tennis elbow-inducing DSLR also. I have also begun to develop different techniques for overcoming the NEX’s shortcomings (just as I have with every other camera I’ve owned) because, on balance, it meets more of my needs more comfortably than the big old iron. But those are my personal ergonomics. Everyone’s mileage may differ.

    • Rey says:

      Adam –

      Well said. Different tools for different tasks. There’s no doubt for me that when I’m out hiking or traveling, carrying a DSLR is a major bummer and not something I’m eager to revisit. As Ed always says, it’s always about the tradeoffs…


  6. enmanscamera says:

    I appreciate the photographer’s point of view review you are doing of these little cameras.

  7. Prentis says:

    2 Guys,
    You seem to have touched a nerve with this post. A while ago you egged me on to purchase the Fuji X100, the antidote to my D90 and 30 pounds of glass. The X100 is still my go-to camera and it has been a great performer. In May my wife and I are spending 9 days in Paris to experience the city of light. The X100 and the Panasonic TS3 (another of your recommendations) are the only cameras coming along to this target rich environment. Based on my experiences with the X100 I have no qualms about leaving the heavy artillery at home and expect results without compromise.

    However, the Nikon isn’t going away any time soon. For example, my daughter asked me to shoot her horse riding competition, indoors, lowish light, fast action, long lens. Try that with a mirrorless camera. Also my Nikon is central to a portrait shooting system including multiple flashes and radio triggers. (Here is a thought. Would my portrait subjects have the same impression of professionalism when being photographed with a pocket sized camera?) Mirrorless cameras rock when it comes to portability. But as you experienced, when shooting conditions become challenging there is nothing like a DSLR system…at least for the time being.

    • Rey says:

      Prentis –

      I’m fascinated that you’d choose to shoot Paris exclusively with the X100 and the Panasonic point and shoot (“target rich environment” – love it!). No doubt, it will leave you freer to move about without all the poundage, but aren’t you the least bit concerned about shooting (primarily) with one focal length? Some would argue that living with such a constraint would actually improve your prospects, but I’d worry that the absence of an ultrawide, for instance, in such a place would be too limiting. I’m actually very interested to see your Paris results and to hear of your experiences. Hint: perhaps a future guest post?

      In reality, I may have successfully convinced myself that I could live with the limitations of mirrorless… but should have, like you, kept a DSLR for the times when it just wasn’t up to it.



      • Prentis says:

        Not in the least. My experience practicing shooting around downtown Seattle with the X100 is that rarely (if ever) was I wanting for another focal length. The IQ and pixel density allows considerable cropping for tighter shots in post and the X100’s very effective panorama mode will compensate for not having a wide(er) angle lens in those situations. Paris will be a similar set of shooting conditions to Seattle. After all I’m not shooting wildlife or sports. Of course the big draw is the compactness and lack of weight, not to mention the stealth factor for street shooting.

        In 2005 (we must get out more often) we traveled to Italy and I took my D70 (hot stuff at the time) and the amazing 18-200 lens. While I was tickled with the results I vowed never to travel internationally with that much gear again. The beauty of the X100 is it doesn’t accept any other lenses (not counting the wide angle add-on which I don’t own) so I’m not tempted to bring any.

        By the way, the little waterproof TS3 is along for rainy days, for bringing to dinners when a camera isn’t convenient, and generally as insurance for the unforeseen. Oh, and it’s no slouch for images and with its image stabilization it shoots amazing movies…better than the X100.

        I would be glad to post some impressions of the trip only shooting the X100. Will let you know when we return.

        • Rey says:


          As you know, I’m a big fan of the X100 and the X100s is said to one up it in a few ways, most notably AF speed and MF functionality.

          I’d look forward to the Paris shots, Prentis, and I’m glad you like the TS. Mine died a peaceful death in Mexico last year and I haven’t replaced it yet… though I do miss it.


          • The comments about going to Paris with only an X100 caught my attention. I finally got to Paris for the first time in 2001, and I went prepared for anything (or so I thought). 2 Nikon film bodies (F100 and N80) and primes in 20, 24, 35, 50, and 85, and a 28-105 just in case. Probably a big flash too. I don’t know what I was thinking. After one day of carrying all that stuff I then dug out a smaller bag I brought along (just in case) and shot the next 7 days with just the F100 and 35/2 (same field of view and max aperture as the X100). I think I carried and used the 20 in a couple of churches, but that was it. The rest of the stuff stayed in the hotel room. When I got home it was pretty easy for my “friend” at the local camera shop to talk me into a pair of Contax G2’s along with 4 small lenses. (Kept the SLR though, for certain things you can’t beat it.)

            I would have no issues going to Paris now with just the X100, except that I would want some sort of backup too.

          • Rey says:

            Thanks, Frank. Appreciate hearing your experience. I may be in Paris later this year and will heed your advice (as well as Prentis’). By the way, I was a Contax G2 shooter back in the day and I have very warm memories of it.


  8. mikeronesia says:

    Last weekend I was shooting for the Saipan Xterra and I was at a spot about 100m from the finish line. I was using my Lumix GH3 and the Panasonic 25 1.4 lens. This was the first time I’d tried this type of shooting with the GH3 and at first I tried burst mode with no luck. I switched to single shot and had much better success. Even with the lens stopped down to 5.6 I was only happy with about half of the shots. I’ve never owned a SLR so I don’t really have anything to compare to, but I do know I wish it were better.

    • Rey says:

      The GH3 is reportedly the best mirrorless so far (in many ways, AF being one of them). Would be interested in your long term impressions…


  9. Pingback: First glance | 2 Guys Photo

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