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DSLR vs Mirrorless: Which Camera Is Right for You?

DSLRs versus mirrorless cameras

These days, mirrorless cameras are all the rage – but what do they offer over a trusty, dependable DSLR? If you’re a photography beginner, should you buy a DSLR or a mirrorless camera? And if you’re already a DSLR user, is it worth upgrading to mirrorless?

In this article, I’ll break it all down for you. I’ll share the pros and cons of DSLRs vs mirrorless cameras, and I’ll also include plenty of practical examples so you can evaluate how mirrorless and DSLR cameras fare when shooting landscapes, sports, portraits, and more. By the time you’re done, you’ll know which camera type is right for you.

Let’s dive right in.

Mirrorless cameras vs DSLRs: What’s the big difference?

On the surface, mirrorless cameras and DSLRs look remarkably similar – but open them up, and you’ll find some major differences. In this section, I’ll get you up to speed on basic mirrorless and DSLR technology.

What is a DSLR camera?

two Canon DSLRs

DSLRs, also known as digital single-lens reflex cameras, all share a similar design:

Light enters through the lens, bounces off a mirror, goes through a special prism, and beams through the viewfinder into your eye.

Then, when you press the shutter button, the mirror flips up to expose the camera sensor to light. Immediately, the viewfinder blackens (no mirror means no light, right?), the shutter moves out of the way of the sensor, and – voila! – your photograph is taken.

Here’s a neat diagram that displays the process:

DSLR vs mirrorless how DSLRs work

Now, DSLR cameras work smoothly, but they come with a fundamental problem:

Mirrors take up a lot of space. If you’ve ever held a DSLR, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the significant size and weight; that’s courtesy of these unique DSLR components, which require a large, heavy housing. For some photographers, this isn’t an issue, but for others – those who shoot all day, travel frequently, carry a camera nonstop, or simply prefer a small, lightweight package – DSLRs are just too big and bulky.

And that’s where mirrorless cameras come in.

What is a mirrorless camera?

Olympus mirrorless camera

Mirrorless cameras are like DSLRs, but with one fundamental difference:

They don’t include a mirror. Light enters the lens and never bounces off a mirror to beam through a viewfinder; instead, the light goes straight to the sensor. The sensor is then digitally projected onto the camera’s rear LCD, and (sometimes) through an electronic viewfinder.

When you hit the shutter button on a mirrorless camera, the sensor simply starts recording data, and you get a photo. (Often a mechanical shutter is involved, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.)

Thanks to the absence of a mirror, mirrorless cameras are generally much smaller than their DSLR counterparts, especially when compared to cameras of an equivalent sensor size – though the removal of mirror technology has led to a number of additional benefits and drawbacks, as I discuss below.

By the way, it’s important to note that there are actually many different types of mirrorless cameras on the market. Some have interchangeable lenses, and others offer a single, built-in lens. In fact, if you own a smartphone, then you already have a mirrorless camera, because all smartphone cameras lack a mirror (imagine trying to fit a mirror mechanism inside one of those tiny lens holes!).

Panasonic mirrorless camera
Even though the Panasonic Lumix GH4 uses a smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor, it produces photos on par with most APS-C sensors and even shoots 4K video. (Photo courtesy of Panasonic)

Mirrorless cameras: the benefits

Now that you’re familiar with the basic mirrorless vs DSLR differences, let’s take a closer look at the pros of mirrorless technology, starting with:

Mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter than DSLRs

I mentioned it above, but it’s such a big deal that it bears repeating:

Thanks to the loss of the mirror mechanism and the viewfinder prism, mirrorless cameras are significantly smaller than DSLRs. Full-frame mirrorless models compare favorably to full-frame DSLRs, APS-C mirrorless models are the size of compact point-and-shoot cameras, and Micro Four Thirds mirrorless models are generally tiny.

If you like to take your camera with you wherever you go, you’ll have a much easier time with a mirrorless camera. And they’re pretty light, too, so you can shoot all day without feeling fatigued (assuming your lens is on the smaller side!).

Mirrorless cameras offer feature-rich electronic viewfinders and LCDs

Pretty much all enthusiast and professional mirrorless models feature an electronic viewfinder, which gives you a continuous live feed to the sensor. And if your camera doesn’t feature an electronic viewfinder, it still offers an LCD display that includes the same features (albeit without the convenience of a light-shaded viewfinder).

Benefits vary from camera to camera, but may include:

  • An accurate preview of image exposure before you ever press the shutter button
  • Focus peaking, which lets you identify in-focus and out-of-focus areas in the viewfinder
  • Manual focusing aids, so you can consistently nail manual focus
  • A live histogram, so you can accurately check exposure as you adjust your settings

Mirorrless cameras offer silent shooting modes

If you’ve ever fired a DSLR, you’ll know that it is loud, which can be a problem when you’re trying to shoot surreptitiously (during a wedding, for instance, or when capturing candid shots on the street).

But many mirrorless cameras feature some form of silent shooting, and it’s literally silent. This is perfect for event photographers looking to keep their presence as unobtrusive as possible, as well as street photographers and even wildlife photographers hoping to remain unnoticed by their subjects.

Now, some DSLRs do feature silent-shooting modes, but (in my experience) these aren’t really silent. Sure, they’re quieter than the standard clunk of a DSLR shot, but in a quiet room, the noise from a silent-shooting DSLR will still be audible.

Mirrorless cameras feature superior autofocus

Until recently, DSLRs were undoubtedly faster (and better) at focusing – but thanks to recent improvements in fundamental AF technology, along with various additions made possible by on-sensor mirrorless AF, today’s best mirrorless cameras are, on average, speedier and more accurate focusers than DSLRs.

Why? For one, top-notch mirrorless cameras offer far more focusing points than their DSLR counterparts, which means more focusing flexibility, improved precision, and better tracking.

And mirrorless cameras allow for high-level focusing technology, including Eye AF (where the AF mechanism focuses on the eye of human subjects, which is helpful for portraits and events), Animal Eye AF (where the AF mechanism focuses on the eyes of animals, such as wildlife and pets), and Vehicle AF (where the AF mechanism focuses on cars and motorcycles).

Not all mirrorless cameras offer these class-leading autofocus features, and some DSLRs can still trounce many mirrorless cameras when photographing sports and other action scenes. But mirrorless autofocus technology has started to pull ahead of DSLRs (plus, manufacturers are adding new updates all the time).

DSLR cameras: the benefits

DSLR vs mirrorless Canon EOS 7D Mark II
DSLRs might be based on old technology, but don’t count them out just yet. They are preferred by many photographers and still have some advantages over mirrorless cameras. (Photo courtesy of Canon)

Mirrorless cameras are impressive, but there are plenty of reasons to stick with a reliable DSLR. Here are the key items to consider:

DSLRs offer better battery life

DSLRs are mostly mechanical, whereas mirrorless cameras rely heavily on LCDs and electronic viewfinders. Consequently, while most DSLRs are rated at 800 shots per charge or more, many mirrorless cameras sit in the 300-400 shots range.

Now, the figures above are based on CIPA ratings, which don’t mimic real-life use. A standard mirrorless user may capture more than 400 shots on a single battery – but you’ll still need to carry a handful of extra batteries for day-long shoots and when traveling, which can get inconvenient (and rather pricey, too).

On the other hand, you can expect your DSLR to perform well on one or two batteries, so if you’d prefer to work without the need for plenty of spares, a DSLR may be the better buy.

DSLRs feature optical viewfinders

When you look through a mirrorless viewfinder, you see a digital image – but when you look through a DSLR viewfinder, you see exactly what the lens sees.

In other words, DSLR viewfinders (called optical viewfinders) show you the world as it is, while mirrorless viewfinders (electronic viewfinders) show how the world looks to your camera sensor.

While electronic viewfinders have their advantages, some photographers simply like seeing the real world, not a digital display. Plus, electronic viewfinders come with a couple of issues. They get very noisy and low quality at night, and they don’t work well with strobes – so if you’re an astrophotographer, a studio portrait photographer, or a product photographer, you’ll likely appreciate the true-to-life viewfinder of a DSLR.

DSLRs vs mirrorless cameras: which should you buy?

Here’s the truth about DSLRs and mirrorless models:

Neither is fundamentally better than the other.

Instead, mirrorless cameras offer several key advantages, such as live exposure simulation, a smaller size, and silent shooting – while DSLRs counter with a few advantages of their own, including outstanding battery life and optical viewfinders.

So which should you buy? It depends on your shooting needs. If you like to travel with your camera, you appreciate silent shooting, and you like the idea of a helpful exposure preview, then I’d recommend purchasing a mirrorless camera.

But if you prefer the clarity of an optical viewfinder or you hate the idea of short battery life, go with a DSLR.

Now over to you:

Which do you plan to get, a DSLR or a mirrorless camera? Why? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Simon Ringsmuth
Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

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