The Change From DSLR to Mirrorless Is Not Like Film to Digital

Many compare the rapid rise of mirrorless cameras to the days when digital overtook film. But how different are DSLRs and mirrorless cameras? Well, not that different when compared to the change from film to digital photography. Let's see what changes were made from film to digital and how they compare to the current "giant leap" in technology.

I must say, I am confused a bit when people claim to be better photographers by having a newer camera. What makes me very confused is when someone claims that the DSLR-to- mirrorless transition is like film to digital. While those are my personal emotions at play, when speaking seriously, I do believe that there is too much hype around mirrorless. I won't buy a mirrorless camera, not because I am a diehard DSLR connoisseur, but because what I have gets the job done. Had I been shooting film and saw the digital era on the rise, I would be first in line for the new and better cameras. However, comparing digital to film is not the same as comparing DSLR to mirrorless. Digital offered much more than mirrorless does. I can't say that there is no difference; however, it is not as huge as some would like it to be. 

Yes, I Just Bought a DSLR in 2021

I just bought a Canon 5DS system. I bought them for $900 a piece, which is a bargain for a camera that used to cost $3,500. It is a DSLR from 2016 that I intend to use for years to come. While some may see this as an investment in a dying range of cameras, it makes a lot of sense when I consider what I need from a camera. I won't go into that, but I will say that I need a lot of detail, good autofocus, and a lens range with the best optical performance for 35mm cameras. Price is also a huge factor for me, meaning I don’t have $50,000 to invest into a medium format system. Nor do I have $8,000 to buy two R5 bodies. To anyone worried if DSLRs are a dying breed, they’re not (at least not that quickly). It’s not as if the method of image capture has changed as it did with the rise of digital and the demise of film. 

What Was It Like Shooting With Film?

Film was the only way of capturing any imagery, stills or video. As with any photography product, there were two major competitors in the consumer market: Kodak and Fujifilm. Most consumer-grade films had maximum ISO speeds of 800 and could only capture 36 images. People took fewer images and didn’t have as many possibilities with low light. Another drawback was the inability to see what you were doing. Printing photographs was also quite difficult, as it required a very precise darkroom. If you wanted to have detail in your images, you were better off shooting medium format, which would cost you a fortune to buy. To be fair, old Hasselblads are still way overpriced for what they are. In general, the process of film photography made photography less accessible to beginners and amateurs. 

How Was My Experience With Film?

When I started photography, all I had was film. That was because I happened to get a film camera and decided to give it a try. Buying a digital camera seemed like a useless purchase, as I didn’t see a point in investing $500 into a better camera. I loved the film, and the film loved me. That was right until I was asked to take pictures of an event, and the film wasn’t good enough. The ISO 200 roll and a very limited number of exposures restricted my creativity by a lot. The client wasn’t too happy. I decided that should this happen again, I would be using a digital camera, I went ahead and bought a Canon 1D Mark II that was some 15 years old. The difference was huge. 

Digital Versus Film Specs

My first digital camera was a big departure from the film camera. I suspect that this is what many pros feltd back in the day too. Let’s see what the mighty beast had to offer:

  • 8.2 megapixels of glorious digital resolution 
  • ISO 50-3,200 with much less grain at 1,600 compared to film 
  • USB 1.1
  • 8.3  fps continuous shooting
  • 45 AF points
  • Good price: $150 on the used market

What Was the Real Difference?

But let us look beyond the spec sheet. Digital made jobs a lot easier. I could see what I was doing on the small 2” TFT screen, and I wasn’t limited to 36 exposures. The sky was the limit (I found it hard to fill up a 64 GB SD card on that camera). In a way, the Canon 1D Mark II started my career as a professional photographer. I’ve shot everything from races to portraits with it. It was a fantastic camera. I am sure that I couldn't have the same progress had I stuck to film. 

The ability to evaluate my work, change ISO speeds, capture a higher number of images, and post-process and print with ease made me a better photographer by giving me much more creative ability. 

Mirrorless Versus DSLR

I need to admit that I haven't switched to mirrorless yet. And I won't for some time. I have, however, shot with it a few times. Often, the benefits of the mirrorless system are attributed to the size, weight, autofocus, and video specs. All of them are just better than the DSLR, not different from the DSLR. The technology is better, but it is not different. 

But, will mirrorless change the industry as much as the digital camera did? I don’t think so. It does not offer a completely new way of interpreting what an image is, nor does it change the definition of a camera. It just does a better job at all the things I talked about. 

The Role of YouTube and Hype

I think this is where many people go wrong with interpreting what mirrorless is. There is a huge marketing effort with every camera release. A lot of R&D goes into every new camera. They must sell to make that money back. 

To compare the whole argument to something dead simple: film to digital would be like cars to flying cars. DSLR to Mirrorless is like old cars to new cars — safer and faster, not revolutionary. 

Closing Thoughts

I wrote this article to clear up some misunderstandings that photographers may have. Mirrorless cameras are the future, mostly because DSLRs are being discontinued, but that is normal with any product line. It just happens to be that camera technology advanced to be able to become cheaper to produce and smaller to carry. 

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56 Comments

Michael Aubrey's picture

This article makes some good points, but it still seems to come down to "switching to mirrorless is too expensive for me as a working photographer, especially given used prices on a 5Dr."

And sure, price is absolutely a great reason to stick with a 5Ds. But let's not pretend you can't pick up an A7rII for the same $900 used and get better AF, better size, better weight, and better video.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Perhaps, I haven't researched Sony too much. I'll write an article on why buying a better camera from a different brand isn't a viable option for many pros.

Michael Aubrey's picture

Sure. And I just want to emphasize again: I certainly don't mean to say that you made a bad choice! The 5Ds continues to be a superb camera and completely worth while for the working professional.

Especially when you're already in Canon's system. Moving from one system to another has an entirely different set of financial challenges regardless of whether the new system has a mirror or doesn't!

Anyone who is making a living in photographer should never be making their gear decisions on the basis of what's the newest and most exciting.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Gear decisions are quite hard sometimes, especially when starting out. But to be honest the more I go down the rabbit hole the more I stop reading reviews and only look at gear when writing an article haha.
Most gear purchase decisions are made because what I have can't get the job done adequately well. Should I need a 5x7 on a daily basis I will get a 5x7, should I need the EOS R3, I will get an EOS R3. Should I need a Phase One, I won't get a Phase One because I can't afford one haha.

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

Don't forget to tell us that you bought a DSLR in 2021 and why that's a good thing :)

Lawrence Huber's picture

Not if you have EF lenses and hate the concept of adapters and loss of features.
With that cheap Sony to be equal you would have to replace your entire lens library as well.

Michael Aubrey's picture

Like I said in my reply to Illya:

"I certainly don't mean to say that you made a bad choice! The 5Ds continues to be a superb camera and completely worth while for the working professional.

Especially when you're already in Canon's system."

Alexander Petrenko's picture

So, you want to say that switching from vegetarianism to meat-eating is not the same as starting to like your steaks well done instead of medium rare?

Illya Ovchar's picture

Good analogy! Yes.

Roland Ayala's picture

It's hard to imagine there are many people in need of explanation that switching from DSLR to mirrorless is not like switching from film to digital -- especially persons inclined to visit Fstoppers, and even for persons never having shot film before.

I disagree with the assertion that mirrorless cameras are the future mostly because DSLRs are being discontinued. While true that mirrorless is (almost certainly) cheaper to produce -- ignoring the NRE that goes into packing mirrorless with the tech that consumers have come to expect -- mirrorless offers several compelling advantages over DSLR, and the reverse has dwindled year over year to a very shor tlist. Mirrorless cameras are the future mostly because they're a better tool for taking photos (and video) and it has nothing to do with size (customers are happily gobbling up DSLR-sized mirrorless cameras).

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

this is just the usual controversial clickbait stuff

Illya Ovchar's picture

To be frank, I noticed many YouTubers saying that DSLR to Mirrorless is like Film to Digital. I won't call up any names, however there is one particular popular YouTuber who said that over and over again. Hence the article.

Mike Ditz's picture

I would like to see the link, why not tell the name. give him more clicks. I would guess the youtuber did not experience the film to digital first hand
The film - digital was like moving from horses to cars, the DSLR - ML is like moving from ICE to Electric cars.

Mike Ditz's picture

Go ahead and tell the name, he will appreciate the extra hits. I would like to see what he has to say.

Chad L's picture

I think you may have missed the point; Of course there are advantages going mirrorless over DSLR. The author was trying to make the point that those advantages aren't revolutionary like going from film to digital was. Moreover, as someone who has repaired electronics his whole life, there may be some disadvantages that we are not aware of yet: planned obsolescence.

Mirrorless cameras haven't been around 20 years and I don't expect any will as parts will be impossible to find. It will also likely be cost prohibitive to repair and older mirrorless versus just buying a new one. With DSLR, replacing a bad shutter (most common problem to fix on older DSLRs) is a relatively easy and inexpensive fix. These cameras will easily last 20 years, if not longer.

Roland Ayala's picture

I was simply responding to the author's closing remarks where he asserts a couple of non-truths. For sure, the advantages of mirrorless over DSLR aren't as revolutionary as going from film to digital (I do think revolutionary though in at least some respects), but the article's topic is so innately understood that it's curious why felt needed. 100% agree that the service life of digital mirrorless will not mirror DSLR, but I think this has more to do with how much tech is getting packed into today's mirrorless cameras relative to the more traditional DSLR. If apples-to-apples (same features & capabilities) modulo the mirror box, then one could make your argument in favor of mirrorless. Technology can be a real biatch that way -- continuously advancing at an accelerating rate and obsoleting itself the same. But, clearly, the market has spoken and this is what consumers want.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Before digital, few people had experience in scanning as the devices where terribly expensive and mostly used for color separation (from rgb to cmyk). Also, beside b&w, few people had true experience enlarging color negatives or slides as globally, nearly 100% of color prints where machine processed. Photoshop was in practice barely usable until version 4 and saving anything large was done on tapes which was not cheap.
Many old timers did not adjust to digital well because there was a tremendous amount of new they had to learn and new equipment they first had to acquire. Using a computer may seem obvious to someone today but many had to learn from scratch, learn software, deal with limited memory, scsi drives and so on. Hey, what’s a scsi drive? Can you live without layers or history in PS today? This was a different digital world that started getting better with items like zip drive, a 100mb disk, micro disc, compact flash… For many photographers who had never processed film or printed, it was just the start of the end and they simply left. I clearly don’t see people abandon photography due to ML.

Timothy Roper's picture

Touch to focus with the LCD is something different, not just better, with a mirrorless. And it's a big one for me--no wasting time and effort screwing around with focus points limited to an area smaller than the entire frame. I do, however, miss the battery life of a DSLR.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Battery life so good it lasts me a day sometimes!

Michael Krueger's picture

Touch to focus isn't something different about mirrorless, it's just a new feature on few DSLR bodies, it's on Nikons D5600 for example. To me it's the EVF that makes the biggest difference.

Tomas Ramoska's picture

Yes image quality is the same so it's no difference. Just a bit more convenient when you shoot wide open focus nails every single time at least on canon r6 and r5.
Also for natural light I love ability to see image before pressing the shutter so I can put sun behind the subject exactly where I want it.

Daniel Lee's picture

At the end you wrote “ Mirrorless cameras are the future, mostly because DSLRs are being discontinued, but that is normal with any product line. It just happens to be that camera technology advanced to be able to become carry”.

Mirrorless isn’t the future, it’s the present. Both Nikon and Canon’s focus is now Mirrorless and Mirrorless cameras aren’t new, they’ve been around for a long time. They also aren’t the present only because DSLR’s are starting to die off but because they are more advanced.

Also the “Mirrorless cameras are smaller advantage” is just something people who either know nothing about them or hate Mirrorless say.

Lawrence Huber's picture

I just spent the day on a walk in the woods with my F-1 after years of digital since my 10D.
It was refreshingly relaxing. Not for work nothing beats digital today but I have decided it was fun to actually work the camera.
I will now be using the F-1, FTb and EF more regularly.

Matt DeVries's picture

Oh you stupid poor poor bass turd. You posited a thing exactly zero people were remotely thinking, then wrote a poorly researched and hardly
cited article impotently attempting lay out why that's what's what while knowing literally zero people were thinking that thing. Then you got someone to actually pay you to publish that stupid article about the stupid thing zero people were thinking. Wait...i could have come up with a stupid misguided pointless ill-advised position that no one was thinking about and got paid for it and didn't? Am I the stupid poor poor bass turd?

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

exactly that

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Would you mind if I ask you to be more polite in proving that author is completely wrong?

Illya Ovchar's picture

Hi Matt, thanks for reading and commenting. Feel free to submit your sophisticated, deeply-researched, and properly cited article in the relevant section of the website.

Howard Barnett's picture

I worked for Sony on the A7 launch a few years ago, I use Fujifilm & Hasselblad mirrorless cameras and they are not for me, yes I agree that the technology is more advanced but I am more comfortable with my Nikon DLSRs remember, its the photographer not the camera, I have won more prizes and awards on my old Nikon D3 then any other camera. www.howardbarnettphotography.co.uk

Alex Zenzaburro's picture

Thats the third article that says the same thing.
Yes we got it, you bought an SLR in 2021!!!

Also who said DSLR to mirrorless is like film to DSLR?

Sis you make that up to proof any point?

Deleted Account's picture

"I must say, I am confused a bit when people claim to be better photographers by having a newer camera"
Poor thing. You must have brain damage from reading the comment sections then. The amount of times I've rolled my eyes just reading half the stuff "Professionals" comment on fstoppers is actually staggering

Deleted Account's picture

The reason there is so much hype around Mirrorless is because since 1970 we've been stuck with the same features. Max Shutter speed on a pro body? 1/8000. Max Burst? 10-12 fps. Video? Either buy a video camera with good dynamic range and barely adequate photo specs or a photography camera with barely adequate video specs.
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Film - digital brought us 2 things.

1: Digital photos.
You don't have to spend $1000+ on a camera + lenses + processing and film negatives every time you shoot. Resulting in a much cheaper and accessible profession and the ability to practice as much as you want and get immediate results raising the skill ceiling.

2: Improved specs and the hybridization of video/photos.
Now that ISO was uncoupled from film, camera companies could include video as well as much much much better low light performance resulting in the ability to shoot anywhere at any time. Sure film has much higher resolution than even today's camera. 35mm Film has as much resolution as a 30 MP camera and medium format far exceeds what 80 MP full frame cameras can produce today. Film also has highlight dynamic range vs shadow dynamic range of digital.
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However DSLR - Mirrorless is not like Film to digital. It's much much bigger than that.
Mirrorless represents the embracing of technology. Camera companies are not technology companies.
But they've now been forced to become them because of companies like Apple and Sony. There is a reason Camera sales have almost disintegrated and its because from the moment DSLRs appeared its been the same thing every year. For 20 years. The only difference is resolution. Where as smartphone tech continues to push what is physically possible with something that fits in your pocket.

Like no joke my iPhone 7 has a higher max shutter speed and burst than my DSLR from 2018.
It took less than 9 years for Apple - (a Technology company) to go from 0 experience with camera tech on a phone with no video on a 2MP sensor- to IBIS 4k 60 FPS, 240 fps slow motion, 10 FPS burst. Its taken 70 years for Camera companies to do what Apple did in less than 9 years with no experience.

Camera companies went from peak innovation in 1940 to iterative 2-4 year cycle improvements.
Mirrorless is bringing about a new revolution in Camera tech. Its officially been 3 years since the mirrorless wars have begun. In those 3 years alone we went from the same max 12FPS mechanical shutters we've had since 1970- to 50fps burst on a Full frame 50MP cameras with a global shutter version on its way in the next 2-3 years.

And true specs don't matter when you have 5 billion MP 600,000 FPS on a Mega frame camera. But guess what? When you have something like that that you can carry around with 0 restrictions on what you can create? An entire new planet has opened up for creativity and photography.
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Film - Digital was the digital introduction.
DSLR to Mirrorless is the start of the Digital Revolution and true unrivaled freedom.

On a scale of mind blowing to out of this world, it can only be compared to when camera's first went from Large format massive immovable boxes, to pocket sized 120mm format. That is the equivalent of freedom and creativity that Mirrorless brings.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

The thing is, if you look at people who have no rush to move to ML, none of them are interested in the video feature. So clearly ML is no revolution but evolution while DSRL was a revolution where a lot of people who would have never engaged into film photography all a sudden did. The day you no longer had to rely on trust and understanding of the full process people jumped on digital because it totally erased the second nature learning curve of trusting that you had what you dialed despite not seeing it until much later. I lived through the entire switch from film to dslr from the early 90's as an observer first then to a digital camera I used for a company that had a 3 exposure DCB2 on a SinarE. I worked for most types of photo labs prior to this through the 90's. If you don't know it, for some reason jpg was the big trend back then using manufacturers canned profiles. RAW the real image data that these people flushed automatically and permanently by selecting jpg was viewed as something for people who missed their exposure. DCB2 did not shoot jpg, but RAW (called HDR because the camera would shoot one image per channel and combine them) delivering 14bit data. Ten years later finally RAW was the thing to do. RAW is much like a photo lab and is part of the digital revolution started by dslr. What ML has done is remove the mirror to allow more capabilities, but basically everything else come from dslr and early medium format backs. ML is really an extension to video where may be it is sort of a revolution but certainly not for still photography.

Peak innovation in the 40s? You are missing a lot of technology and important refinement with such a generalization. Just to name a few of the most obvious, auto film advance, TTL, autofocus… Just E6 may not mean much to you because it is just yet another type of old film but back then it was a big deal just like XP and XP2 are a big deal not only because all a sudden you could process b&w in C41 but because you could also push and pull it in the same chemical and get fantastic results. See you can't compare digital to non digital cameras without counting the film quality, flexibility and processing options but I read a lot of evaluation where iso limitations = film and the rest is omitted. Film vs digital is really camera+film+processing+scan vs digital. I also mentioned the Sinar earlier. I learned on a F at first but later on was exposed to a version that introduced a probe to read exposure points that would allow to read the light anywhere on the plane. That was pretty cool, just ask Ansel Adams if he would have liked one, he died a few years earlier. Then in 1988 came the E that pretty much did your Scheimpflug for you some 140 years after the first view cameras.

Jan Holler's picture

Superb answer! May I add AMP light metering (multi segment metering), introduced with the Nikon FA (1983) as an important advance to TTL light metering (1963).

(ML to DSLR is evolution, not revolution - as is analog to digital.)

I just read an article about colour film: https://petapixel.com/2021/05/22/kodak-ektar-25-frozen-for-over-30-years/ I am sure, you are going to like it, it is well written and covers the time you mentioned.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Must have been a very stable dyes, that's pretty long for color film. That film was too expensive for me at the time.
You may like this video - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YnPYVqaY3Kw/

- Industrial negative film and print processing 15k-30+k rolls a night. You had those, mini-labs and custom labs or you would do it from home but less people processed C41 rolls than b&w or even E6 in small tanks.

Jan Holler's picture

Very impressive. Thanks for the link. I mostly went (besides b/w Ilford films) for the Kodakcolor I still got some rolls (from before 2000).

Timothy Roper's picture

Let's not forget, mirrorless cameras have been around and widely used for more than two decades now--in the form of portable video cameras. Made by Canon, Sony, Panasonic, and others. Some at a very pro, ENG, level. So yes, camera companies actually have been innovating all along. And one big reason all that mirrorless technology migrated to stills cameras was because it allowed them to shoot video effectively. And all the while, video was growing as a medium, thanks to the internet (among other things). It's very possible that if there never were all those camcorders and people doing new things with them (skate video, viral videos, etc), we wouldn't have mirrorless cameras replacing DSLR's today.

Stefan Gonzalevski's picture

How come this comparison is relevant ? I have digital medium format, full frame and APS-C DSLRs, and one mirrorless. And they are just different cameras.
Using film (that I do sometimes too) is completely another way of shooting.
I still can't believe we used to shoot a whole wedding without beeing able to see the results some hours/days later. And constantly checking how many views I still had on the camera, not to arrive at the end of the film at the crucial moment.
So, for me, switching from DSLR to mirrorless is more like buying a new car in replacement of your old sedan.

jim hughes's picture

The introduction of digital cameras was a game changer for me,too: basically it let me get into the game, period. I could never have learned photography on film; too slow, too expensive to see what you just did wrong.

The switch to mirrorless was a big benefit to me as well, but in a bunch of small ways, some of which I didn't see coming. I wrote a blog post about this which might be of interest to photographers in my age range - let's just say over 60.

https://jimhphoto.com/index.php/2019/12/10/mirrorless-its-the-little-thi...

Adam Palmer's picture

The benefit of mirrorless is you can see your mistake right before you take the frame. You don't have to take the frame, drop the camera, press review take another shot and start over. (Hoping the moment isn't gone.)

Michael Clark's picture

The same difference between film and digital was hours if not days. Now the difference of half a second is somehow more significant? That's apart from the fact that if one shoots raw and processes expertly, WYSIWYG is a myth. The EVF is no more "what you get" than the rear LCD on any DSLR is. Is there a slight advantage there for mirrorless? Sure, there is. But it's nowhere near the same magnitude of the difference between film and digital. Not even remotely close.

Adam Palmer's picture

They should publish your article instead but it's common sense so it has no place here. Clickbait only.

jim hughes's picture

But I have to confess, I do enjoy some good click-bait now and then. It's an art form.

Jan Holler's picture

Some good valid points you mention in you article. Many do count for me too (e.g. glasses), I'll just wait another couple of years, my gear is still working great.

Adam Palmer's picture

Things I will never give up-- full time exposure preview, full time aperture preview. About all you get with a DSLR is a somewhat inaccurate idea of what is in your frame (Cheaper ones are way off. Expensive cameras are about 90 percent coverage.) One good thing about mirrorless is that you will be able to get some amazing deals on DSLRs in the coming years on ebay. I love buying vintage camera gear for cheap.

Jan Holler's picture

The "90%" and "way off" are not correct: More expensive DSLRs do generally offer a 100% coverage in the viewfinder. E.g. the Nikon D7000 (amateur level, 2010) has a 100% coverage. And all Nikon DSLRs up from there have a 100% coverage. Lower level cameras such as the cheapest Nikon 3x00 have about 95% coverage in the viewfinder. Please check your sources.

Rick Pappas's picture

Ho hum. I still love my 5DM3. I like the ergonomics, the balance and weight and the IQ. Sure, sure, the new mirrorless cameras have the drop on the 5DM3 in terms of dynamic range, focusing capability and video. And, when my camera breaks, I'll get one. Until then, I'm just out making photographs.

BTW, the author mentions that Kodak and FujiFilm were the main competitors in consumer products. I'd point out that GAF-ANSCO was a pretty big player in both professional and consumer photographic products. I used to shoot their B&W film, ANSCOCHROME for slides and loved the rich tonality of their printing papers.

Michael Krueger's picture

I still feel both systems have pros and cons. For the way I shoot I still prefer DSLR for the viewfinder and battery life when hiking.

Adam Wood's picture

The switch from film to digital was a very different world. The details are hazy all these years later but I when the digital revolution was beginning to roll through I worked for a company that produced a variety of publications including a newspaper, various topic focused magazines, real estate catalogs and even phone directories.

I was there when we tried the first test from digital images. We spent many hours comparing the film to digital in many formats going as far as setting up our multi-story news press to produce just a few prints (a lot of wasted paper that day). We printed on various paper types at appropriate screens and every step in between was a deep inspection for comparison... The scanned negatives vs the digital only image on screen, color seps, plates, everything. It took days.

In the end we decided that the digital image just wasn't ready for publishing, even at the low 85 screen for newspapers, so we ultimately returned the digital camera and kept on using film and the now archaic darkroom.

I remember the camera was somewhere just over a megapixel and cost thousands but which camera, what features and exact costit had is long lost from my brain.

Knowing what we know about digital today and even the process back then: There really wasn't anyway that a 1MP digital was going to compete with our very expensive old way of doing things. We could scan high quality photo negatives at ridiculously high DPI (as much as 24000) and that digital camera was never going to produce an image more than what it's sensor could capture.

Today switching from DSLR to mirrorless is a step in the other direction...as you say, it's doing something better, not different. In our testing we actually decided that switching was worse.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Printing and pre-press houses were definitely the places to be in the early digital days. They had all the tools and most importantly actual people knowledge to compare and evaluate technology in a true working and production environment.

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