DSLR vs Mirrorless: Guide to help you decide which is right for you?

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Recently there has been a great deal of buzz in the photographic community regarding a few terms that might sound a little odd or strange, like “mirrorless” or “micro four thirds.” These refer to different types of cameras that might not be as popular as standard DSLR models right now, but many think are the future of photography. However, just understanding what everything means can be an exercise in frustration, especially when all you likely want to do is buy a camera you can enjoy using.

Nadir Hashmi

By Nadir Hashmi

To that end, I’m going to try and dispel a bit of the confusion regarding mirrorless cameras and hopefully give you some information so as to make an informed choice the next time you are in the market for a new piece of photography gear. We’ll explore some of the history of how cameras are constructed, as well as discuss some of the benefits and drawbacks to this new technology, but I’m going to stop short of making the subjective judgement call about whether mirrorless cameras are better than DSLRs and hopefully help some readers answer the age old DSLR vs Mirrorless debate.

For me it’s not about which camera is better than the other, it’s about finding one that works with your style and lets you shoot the photographs you want. You can debate all this in the comment section if you like, but what I’m here to do is simply present information and try to be as unbiased as possible.

a6000

The Sony a6000 mirrorless camera has all the features of most standard DSLRs, but is much smaller and weighs far less. (Image courtesy Sony)

What is a mirrorless camera?

To understand the word mirrorless it helps to know a bit about the way most DSLR cameras are built. Almost all Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Pentax interchangeable-lens cameras share a similar industrial design: light enters through the lens and gets bounced off a mirror, through a special prism, to end up at the viewfinder. When you click the shutter button, the mirror flips up, which allows light to hit the actual image sensor on the camera, and voila your photograph is taken. This process might seem like a high-tech solution, but it’s actually a bit of an anachronism. Long before digital cameras existed, most of their film-based counterparts employed this same method to get light to the viewfinder, because it was a useful way to compose your photo before clicking the shutter. But thanks to advances in modern technology, this flip-up mirror method is no longer necessary, and a whole new breed of cameras is beginning to make inroads into modern digital photography. These new models have no flip-up mirror, and thus the term “mirrorless” was born.

There are many different types of mirrorless cameras on the market: some have interchangeable lenses, others offer a single built-in lens, and some with their own types of image sensors and other characteristics that are suited to more niche markets. But the one thing they all have in common is the absence of a flip-up mirror.

CameraDiagramDPS

Believe it or not, you probably already own a mirrorless camera. All smartphone cameras are mirrorless, as are most point-and-shoot models. Instead of a tiny little viewfinder that you hold up to your eye, you can see a preview of your image right on the phone or on the back of the camera itself. And if you like shooting your DSLR in “Live View” mode, where you look at the rear LCD screen to compose your shots instead of the viewfinder, you are essentially using it as a mirrorless camera already. (The click you hear when you enter Live View is the mirror flipping up. It stays like that until you exit Live View.) In fact, many of the higher-end mirrorless cameras have even gone so far as to replicate the traditional eyepiece viewfinder, but instead of reflecting incoming light from a mirror, it simply shows a very tiny version of what would normally be displayed on the back of the camera.

OMD-EM1

The Olympus OM-D EM-1 is a mirrorless camera that also includes a traditional-style viewfinder. (Image courtesy of Olympus)

Sensor size

Another component of mirrorless cameras that is a bit more technical in nature, but just as important to understand, is that of sensor size. In digital cameras the image sensor is essentially a piece of digital film that captures light, in much the same way actual film does. Full-frame DSLR cameras have image sensors that are the same size as a piece of 35mm film, but most consumer-grade DSLRs, and virtually all mirrorless models, are crop-sensor cameras. This means that the image sensor is smaller, which has two notable implications:

  1. They are not as sensitive to incoming light as full-frame cameras.
  2. They affect the way lenses behave when it comes to focal lengths and depth of field.

The most common format of mirrorless cameras are in a category developed by Olympus and Panasonic called Micro Four Thirds, which refers to the size and shape of the image sensor itself as well as the types of lenses that can be used on these models. Other mirrorless cameras use an APS-C sensor, which is the same size sensor used in common DSLRs such as the Canon Rebel T5i and Nikon D3200 (however, even Canon and Nikon use slightly different image sensor sizes), but there are some models such as the Sony A7R that use full-frame sensors as well.

SensorSizeDPS

In terms of surface area, full frame image sensors reign supreme. But cameras with smaller sensors are still quite capable, and there is more to a camera than the size of its sensor.

While it’s doubtful we will see crop-sensor cameras (whether micro four thirds or APS-C) reach the same high ISO sensitivities as full-frame models, many of them today are perfectly capable of shooting at values such as 3200 or 6400 without too much degradation in image quality.

As for the lens behavior, shooting on a crop sensor camera means that your focal lengths will not look the same as on a full-frame camera. For example, on a micro four thirds camera a 30mm lens behaves similar to a 60mm full-frame lens. A 100mm lens acts like a 200mm, and so on. For most people this is fine, and they learn to adapt to the differences in lens behaviour over time. For some photographers this a significant detriment that, combined with how depth of field behaves a little different on crop versus full frame cameras, ends up being a deal breaker.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s not about finding out which type of camera is better – that question is unanswerable. Instead, it’s important to simply know the various details of micro four thirds and other mirrorless cameras, in order for you to make an informed decision if you are thinking about purchasing new gear.

lumix-gh4

Even though the Panasonic Lumix GH4 is 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)

However, one benefit of crop sensor cameras that is important to note is their price; they are significantly cheaper than their full-frame counterparts. The cheapest full-frame camera costs around $1500 and they can easily cost many times that amount. On the other hand, some micro four thirds models start at a couple hundred dollars which makes them much more affordable for most people. It’s important to know that mirrorless cameras are not just for beginners, or those who like to shoot in Auto. Many photographers are buying these cameras, and some professionals have even switched entirely from heavy, expensive, DSLR models to their much lighter and more portable mirrorless counterparts.

As you can see, thanks to advances in modern technology the age-old flip-up mirror design in most cameras is not really needed anymore, but we are still a little way off from mirrorless replacing traditional DSLR designs entirely.

Benefits of mirrorless cameras

These new types of cameras offer some significant benefits over traditional DSLRs, but come with some important limitations as well. Remember, we’re not here to discuss which one is better – that’s something that only you can answer, given your unique needs as a photographer. It is important to know that mirrorless cameras do have some notable selling points, but also some drawbacks as well.

Size

K?rlis Dambr?ns

By K?rlis Dambr?ns

Perhaps the most significant difference between mirrorless and traditional DSLRs is their size: because the flip-up mirror mechanism, combined with the light-reflecting prism, are no longer needed these cameras are typically much smaller in size and weigh less too. This can be important if you are someone who likes to take your camera with you wherever you go, especially if the weight of your DSLR starts to drag you down after a day of shooting. It also means the lenses are smaller too, so you can fit several in your camera bag whereas before you might have only had room for one or two.

More accurate image preview in the viewfinder

Another benefit that mirrorless cameras enjoy over DSLRs, is a viewfinder that displays a more accurate representation of what your final photograph will look like. If you look through the viewfinder of your DSLR and adjust settings like ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, you might notice that the image in the viewfinder doesn’t change. It’s not until you actually take a photograph that you see what effect your alterations had on the photograph. At that point you can look at the picture on the rear screen and judge whether you need to change things for subsequent pictures. Because mirrorless cameras use electronic viewfinders, you can see in realtime the effect that things like aperture and ISO adjustments will have on your pictures before you press the shutter. This can have a dramatic effect on how you shoot, as it removes some of the guesswork with your camera settings.

The mirrorless Fuji XT1 uses an APS-C size sensor but is much smaller than traditional DSLRs, making it a compelling option for photographers who value portability along with excellent image quality.

The mirrorless Fuji XT1 uses an APS-C size sensor but is much smaller than traditional DSLRs, making it a compelling option for photographers who value portability along with excellent image quality. (Photo courtesy of Fujifilm)

Focus peaking and sound

There are other benefits to mirrorless cameras as well such as focus peaking (the ability to see, when focusing manually, the exact pixels on your image that are in focus), quieter operation due to the lack of a flip-up mirror, and fewer overall moving parts which means a longer theoretical lifespan. But in order to get an accurate view of the situation, let’s take a look at some of the disadvantages as well.

Drawbacks of mirroless cameras

Things are looking quite promising over in Mirrorless Land, but it’s not all sunshine and roses just yet. There are some notable drawbacks to this technology, and if you don’t look at all the details you might end up with a camera that is ill-suited to your needs as a photographer.

Battery life

Currently one of the most significant limitations is that of battery life: they just don’t last as long. The only time a traditional DSLR draws power, when not in Live View mode, is when it is actively metering the scene or writing picture data to the memory card. No power is used at all if you hold the camera up and look through the viewfinder, and because of this it is fairly common to get up to a thousand pictures or more on a single battery charge. Power usage is a bit different on mirrorless cameras for two reasons. First, batteries are smaller because the cameras themselves are smaller, and second they essentially operate in live view mode 100% of the time. Mirrorless cameras generally get a couple hundred shots on a single battery charge, which is nothing to sneeze at, but nonetheless a significant difference between them and their old-school brethren.

Canon7DMarkII

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)

Focusing system

Another limitation that is worth mentioning is the focusing system. Most mirrorless cameras use a technology called contrast detection, which is simply not as fast as the traditional phase-detection method used in DSLRs. While the former gives you access to a wider area of the frame in which to focus, it simply cannot match the speed of the latter which limits the appeal of mirrorless camera for things like sports and fast-moving wildlife photography. Some manufacturers are starting to utilize phase detection in their mirrorless models, as well as hybrid systems that offer the best of both worlds, but for now it’s safe to say that standard DSLRs are generally better suited for sports, wildlife, and other types of action photography.

Other

Of course there are other limitations such as fewer lens options, LCD screen refresh rates that can’t always keep up with DSLR viewfinders, and more, but as technology advances much of this is being addressed.

DSLRs vs Mirrorless: Which is best for you?

Will mirrorless cameras ever reach full parity with DSLRs? Some think so, but others are not fully convinced. The important thing to remember is it’s not about what other people think; it’s about what matters to you. If you find a camera you like, and it serves your purposes as a photographer, then it really doesn’t matter whether it’s a DSLR, micro four thirds, full frame, medium format, or plain old 35mm film camera. If it can take the pictures you want to take, then it’s probably the right camera for you.

We’d love to hear your opinion on the DSLR vs Mirrorless debate in comments below!

Related Reading: A Guide to Buying Your First DSLR

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

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 at sringsmuth.

  • Steve Smith

    I was a Nikon D90 then D7100 shooter for a few years, I’m a cruise ship photographer. And I shooting eat estate on land. So I shoot a lot and always have a camera around my shoulder I shoot, print and sell hundreds of pictures a day.
    I switched to M4/3 about 3 years ago after shooting Nikon for about 5 years. FOR ME it was a breath of fresh air. It takes about a week of constant shooting in different environments before you get used to it. Once you do you don’t ever want to pick up a big Nikon. THEN about six months ago I went full frame with the Sony a7ii…..it’s like going from a Chevy to a Ferrari ……..that’s for me, everyone is different. I’m a techy guy, like all the bells and whistles, the ergonomics,my he weight AND the colors and picture quality. AMAZING! Many photographers just don’t want to change. It’s like a decade ago when photographers were saying ” I’ll never go digital” how many photographers shoot film now? In my opinion, it’s just progression….soon, all the pro’s will see the light…..no pun intended.
    By the way, I love Nikon! I just love Sony more. It works better for me. There’s still ALOT of people driving Chevys and Fords….I just can’t give up my Ferrari……

  • prashant ri

    Which one is better for astrophotography – Mirrorless or DSLR?

  • Either one would be fine, as long as you have the right lenses.

  • prashant ri

    Sir, Thankx for your valuable opinion. I am a fairly new comer in this field and I have shortlisted Nikon D5500 for venturing. Can you suggest me what would be the ideal lens and if there are any other budget DSLR cameras where I would get a very good images ?

  • Sang Kang

    Comparing to automobile, do you want the manual for more control or the automatic for easier control? Both has pros and cons but no doubt automatic has dominated 90% of the automobile market. Camera will too move toward one click point and shoot as IC chips will become smaller, faster, and cheaper. As it stand, how many owns a dedicated digital camera over using their smart phone as main point and shoot?

  • Yacaré Ferroni

    IF you need to do it, with a DSLR, you can use live view mode too, and the rest of the time, use mirrow, for REAL time view.

  • Very useful info, thanks! 🙂

  • Thanks for sharing this interesting and useful info, this debate is huge and hard to be solved! 🙂

  • Ms. Xray Misandrist

    my big questions are.. what is the depth of field like compared to dslr? is there a difference? I’m a noob so.. and..how about clarity. seems like every mirrorless camera photo I see..its super sharp.

  • Techam

    Hi Simon, thank you alot for this awesome well researched article
    On this topic “DSLR vs Mirrorless: Guide to help you decide which is right for you?” Its always a hassle really to choose which one is actually right for you. Before a read this article, i read one https://www.techaai.com/preferences-between-point-and-shoot-cameras-to-dslrs/ where they actually compared these cameras. And reading your article here, just filed up everything. Thanks alot

  • Glad to hear it!

  • Depends on sensor size. Many mirrorless cameras use micro four thirds or APS-C sensors which makes things a bit tricky for comparing DOF. For example the depth of field on a 50mm lens at f/2.8 on a full-frame DSLR won’t be the same as a similarly-composed shot using a 50mm lens at f/2.8 on a mirrorless camera…unless the mirrorless camera is also full-frame like a Sony a7r.

  • Dwight Arthur

    I use a Canon 5D mkIV SLR, Sony A7RII mirrorless with an adapter for my Canon lenses, and an Olympus E-M1. I love all three as long as I am using them where they work best, and that is definitely not in the same conditions! The mirrorless cameras both are useless for following high speed action both regarding focus tracking and following a moving subject (due to screen lag) plus they are not as fast for focusing in low light. The image quality of the 42 MP Sony blows both the other two away, but the Canon is the best overall performer and best for action. The Olympus is the only camera system I use for travel due to it amazing compactness combined with good image quality. That’s why I use all three.

  • Frank

    Keep your Canon lens and buy an adaptor for the Sony

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