What is it like to come back to a DSLR after shooting mirrorless?

10 Nov
With the 18-135mm attached, the 90D is a larger camera than I’ve become used to carrying. It didn’t get the way of enjoying my vacation, though.

I’ve been a professional photographer since 2012, when the DSLR reigned supreme. The Canon 5D Mark III was my main body that I used exclusively for photography work. As my personal and professional interests gravitated towards video, I took the plunge and placed an order for the Sony a7R III in February 2018. A year later, I added the Fujifilm X-T3. Slowly but surely, those mirrorless cameras replaced my DSLRs as they better supported my overall vision of being a hybrid photo and video shooter.

However, the 2019 release of the Canon 90D piqued my interest. How was Canon’s DSLR technology faring in a world where many declare the DSLR to be on its way out? I took the 90D on vacation to Hawaii and committed to using it exclusively for a week. Here are my conclusions.

First impressions

The Canon 90D with the 18-135mm kit lens is both bulky and heavy. It’s not a discreet camera by any means. Many people (myself included) gravitate towards mirrorless cameras as they are smaller in size and weight, and the 90D immediately reminded me that the bulk of DSLRs is not something that I miss, especially when I’m on vacation.

There are times and places you don’t want the bulk of a DSLR

One thing I do miss is Canon’s vast DSLR lens library. From fisheyes and tilt shifts to super telephoto lenses, Canon offers some of the best and most versatile lenses that even big mirrorless manufacturers such as Sony aren’t producing yet. But for the sake of this test, I stuck with the kit lens for a full week and found that despite its size, 18-135 is an incredibly useful focal range, especially for travel photography. After a week of schlepping it around, I got used to the size and ultimately appreciated the versatility of the lens.

A little like coming home

After over one year of shooting Sony and Fujifilm mirrorless, the Canon 90D feels like coming home. The ergonomics, dials and controls were all very familiar and easy to use without making lots of custom settings as you often have to with mirrorless cameras such as Sonys and even Canon’s newest EOS R and RP. It was incredibly easy to power on the camera and just start shooting a wide range of subjects, from a wide landscape shot of a beach, to homing in on the green sea turtles that I suddenly spotted swimming close to shore.

While 135mm on a crop sensor gives you a nice amount of reach, the Canon 90D gives you even more flexibility since it produces 32-megapixel images. This allows you more flexibility to crop in on your subject in post production, as I did with this image of a mongoose, and some shots of sea turtles.

Concerns about noise

One feature that I find indispensable in mirrorless cameras is silent shutter. This is key for certain professional shooting moments, such as in auditoriums or at performances where shutter sounds are frowned upon, or when attempting to capture candid moments. On the Canon 90D, there’s the additional sound of mirror slap and its shutter is clunky and loud: once even startling a group of birds that I was attempting to photograph. There is no subtlety or finesse in the shutter sound and, while there is a full-electronic mode, you can’t avoid the sound of the mirror opening for you to get into live view to use it. Even in everyday travel photography scenarios, the shutter sound was distracting not only to me, but also the subjects I was attempting to photograph.

Finding in favor of a finder

The initial familiarity of the Canon DSLR layout was nice at first. However, I quickly became aware that I’d come to find mirrorless cameras offer several key features that make them superior to DSLRs (at least, for my shooting style).


Firstly, DSLRs are restricted to using only optical viewfinders (OVF) while mirrorless cameras offer electronic viewfinders (EVF). Being forced to use an OVF in Hawaii was painful.

With an EVF, my creative compositions have greatly expanded thanks to the seamless transition between using the LCD and EVF eyepiece to frame my shots. I love the ability to get up high or get down low to compose shots using the LCD. While DSLRs such as the Canon 90D does allow you to enable Live View to shoot still photos with the LCD, it is clunky and isn’t as responsive as LCD shooting on mirrorless cameras. Thus, it felt pointless using the LCD to shoot on the 90D, and I felt like I sacrificed many photo opportunities and creative angles that I would have been able to get with a mirrorless camera.

Conversely, because DSLRs require the mirror to be flipped up when recording video, you are then restricted to only using the LCD. This is very difficult in bright, outdoor lighting and it quickly became frustrating to not be able to seamlessly transition back and forth between the EVF and LCD as you can on mirrorless cameras.

All about the flexibility

Since the Canon 5D series still does not offer tilting or articulating rear screens, I was excited to finally see one on the Canon 90D. As I say, the ability to shoot and compose with a movable LCD on mirrorless cameras has really enhanced my creativity when it comes to image composition.

Now that I’ve spent some time with the fully-articulated screen on the Canon 90D that can face forward for vlogging, I find that it isn’t very useful for shooting photos. For most photo and video needs, it is more efficient to have a two-axis LCD screen that simply pops out and tilts up or down; you truly only need the 90D’s forward-facing flip screen if you intend to vlog or take selfies.

The 90D’s fully articulating screen made it easy to get low enough to take this shot, but a tilting display would have made alignment easier.

In the photo below, I had the camera low to the ground on top of the train tracks and needed to angle the LCD up to compose. It not only took longer to flip the LCD screen out to the left, but it also became hard to center the image since the LCD was so far to one side. This is a case with a simple tilting screen would have worked much better.

On the other hand, I love the Canon 90D’s screen that lets you turn the LCD inward to face the camera, thereby offering screen protection. It would be fantastic to see other camera manufacturers add this feature to their LCDs.

The best touchscreen I’ve ever used

Another thing in favor of the 90D’s screen was that its touch operation is the best I’ve experienced on any DSLR or mirrorless camera. It’s very responsive with no lag, and it allows for multiple functions, from reviewing your images by swiping, selecting quick modes, and (best of all) setting a focus point. I’ve long heard that Canon’s Dual Pixel Autofocus is among the very best, and after trying it on the Canon 90D, I have to agree. When you select a focus point by tapping on the touchscreen, tracking is fast and accurate. This came in handy when shooting this tiny and very fast lizard perched on a sprinkler head. Within seconds of snapping this photo, he took off running.

Within seconds of snapping this photo, tiny (and very fast) lizard took off running, but the 90D’s live view AF was quick enough to capture him, first.

All in all…

After a full week of shooting with the Canon 90D and the kit lens, I’ve adjusted to its size and shooting style. If I had to, I could use this camera comfortably to shoot photos and videos for both fun or professional use. But given the choice, I would still reach for a mirrorless camera instead. It has nothing to do with image quality (I still prefer Canon’s output), or autofocus performance (though Sony still has an edge).

Instead, it comes down to the DSLR’s lack of an electronic viewfinder (EVF). With mirrorless cameras, I’ve become used to constantly (and rapidly) switch between using the rear LCD screen and EVF to compose and shoot both photos and videos. This transition is quick and seamless on a mirrorless camera. Yes, you have an option to enable Live View shooting on a DSLR like the Canon 90D, but the experience is clunky and therefore not practical on a professional shoot, or even a casual vacation.

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