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.

  • Steven

    Great article. Got any mirror less recommendations?

  • Good question, Steve. The Olympus OM-D EM-1 and Fuji X-T1 are both solid choices, but it really all depends on what your needs are as a photographer. And the camera body is only one part of the equation, with the other being the lenses you want to buy to suit your needs.

  • Adriano Guerreiro

    I bought a Fuji X-E1 with the 18-55 f/2.8 lens for a very reasonable price and couldn’t be happier. Jpegs straight out of the camera are beautiful.

  • Jeff Hudson

    Did the same thing about 4 months ago. Great investment @ $699.

  • Mordachifu

    Olympus OMD has both contrast and phase detection focusing…fastest AF. The sharpness is remarkable. I now use the E-M1 and find it intuitive, light, and produces great images with a simpler workflow…plus electronic advantages over my Nikon d7000. I love it.

  • frankwick

    Where does the Nokia 1020 fit in the sensor size comparison?

  • frankwick

    and Go Pokes!

  • Johann

    I’m not planning to switch anytime soon, but I am curious, how are mirrorless viewfinders in very low light (for example a live show at a bar)? My logic tells me optical is better in such a situation.

  • Johann

    In case it helps, I shoot @ ISO 1600-3200, wide open (usually on my 100-400L @100mm due to better AF and a stabilizer but I also use my 50/1.8), 1/120, flash (slightly underexposed for less harsh light), and then bring the exposure up a bit in post.

  • Johann

    I can’t say for sure, but I’d guess it’s slightly larger than the iJunk. Remember, a larger sensor needs more space between it and the lens.

  • Johann

    UPDATE: I did some research, it seems the Lumia 1020 is 58.10 sq. mm.

    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image_sensor_format

  • Osvaldo Lopes Medina

    I´ve been taking photos since April with a Sony A7 , with canon fd( 50mm), canon ef( 70-200 and 17-40, tamron 28-75) and sony 28-70oss, and I love it, EVF is brilliant! Today for photos of birds and other animals on a reserve I went back to the 1d mark III.

  • xxrsixx

    olympus omd em1 with zuiko 12-40mm pro lens … i truly can’t wish for more ! it is magnificent !

  • Bogdan

    The article is not quite accurate in two regards. 1) There are full frame mirrorless cameras. Jut look at Sony which has several models. Therefore, differentiation by size of the sensor is not accurate anymore.
    2) Focus speed is another myth. Sony also has the fastest focusing mirrorless cameras, which can match or even surpass the fastest focusing available on DSLRs.

  • ajendus

    The sensor of a camera does not affect the way a lens “behaves.” The field of view may be different based on sensor size but the lens and depth of field does not change. What may change is where you place the camera therefore changing the depth of field. This would change no matter what sensor size is in the camera.

  • Thanks for catching these. I did mention the A7r in the section on sensor sizes, and while there are some mirrorless focusing systems that are on par with phase-detection DSLR systems, I think it’s safe to say that when taken as a whole, mirrorless cameras in general lag a bit behind in the autofocus department. It won’t be that way for long though!

  • Orange Power! And what a crazy win at Bedlam last weekend too!

  • Gijsbert Peijs

    If your second point were true I’d be running to the store right now to pick up a Sony A7. Or even better: wait for the A7 II to come out.

    Unfortunately all tests and reviews come to the same conclusion: mirrorless camera’s (including the A7) are pretty bad at low light auto focusing.

    Eventually mirrorless cameras will get on par with DSLRs in the auto focussing department. Once that happens that days of the DSLR are numbered.

  • Michal Rosa

    Neither. It’s a wrong question that is poorly answered. Mirror-less have no advantage over DSLR except their size, they offer no technological, image quality or no other advantage over their older cousins. So if you absolutely have to have a small(er) camera – get a mirror-less, otherwise there is no advantage to buying one. As simple as that.

  • Bogdan

    Well, opinions differ in this regard. I don’t see ALL tests coming to the same conclusion.

    For example this thread http://www.slrlounge.com/night-sony-a7r-low-light-performance/ talks about decent autofocus and results up to ISO6400.

    On this thread http://www.dpreview.com/forums/post/52744273 people compare A7 with other DSLR and don’t find major differences.

    And this guy here http://briansmith.com/sony-a7s-field-test-4/ makes a point for A7s as having one of the fastest focusing mechanisms on the market for stationary objects where Contrast Detect is the best even in low light. If you want to track moving objects in the dark then A7s is probably not the best choice.

    In conclusion, prepare your money, soon you’d have start running to the store

  • I don’t own a mirrorless camera myself, but I’ve tried one before for a little while. In very low light, most EVFs will lag (in low light they’re quite fine, but very low light is tough on them). Hope this helps a little 🙂

  • Kam Leung

    ?? Fuji has an 18-55 2.8 (constant)?? Show, show!

  • Adriano Guerreiro

    Beautiful and solid lens that produces great pictures.

  • Gijsbert Peijs

    Maybe I have to see for myself indeed.

    The reviews differ immensely. Some indeed conclude it is at the same level as the current full frame DSLRs. But other test videos show terrible AF hunting in low light and a when shooting a burst sequence of a moving target only the first image seems to be in focus while all other lag behind severely.

    But I really hope it all isn’t so bad, or that the A7 II will be a vast improvement because I really wouldn’t mind having this is my primary camera.

  • Michael

    I’ve been shooting slr/dslr’s for many years and very satisfied with my equipment but the mirrorless evolution has my interest, mainly because of the size/weight but I shoot a lot of sports and wildlife. What options do I have for long mm’s, non-specific brand?

  • Johann

    Thought so. Thanks for the info.

  • Adriano Guerreiro

    It is a f/2.8-4 18-55mm lens.

  • geekystan

    I used omd em5. I love it. Its quality of images are great. I have a small bag that fit in my camera, 4 lenses, spare batteries and a flash unit. I find it so much better than my dslr set up and when i want a new prime lense I dont have to remortgage the house. You can buy decent primes for a few hundred pounds. Sigma do a good range and image quality is brilliant and sharp. So do I prefer dslr or 4/3? It has to be mirrorless. I can make more profit, travel light, look less intimidating to my subject, and still get great images. If i need a full frame for a special job that needs that little more umph. I can borrow/hire one for the day.

  • Ollivier Robert

    Fujifilm is getting new lenses out really fast these days (still lack a 1:1 macro though). The EVF on the X-T1 is really much better & faster than most mirrorless (heard many less good comments on the Soly A7* for that). It has changed my photography although I’m not a pro.

  • I recently posted a quiz that addresses the whole mirrorless vs DSLR debate. You can check it out here. http://randolphimages.com/take-the-quiz-mirrorless-or-dslr/ I think it really comes down to only one decision…have a look at the quiz and you’ll see what I mean.

  • Would love some input from the authors of this column, or other readers. I own a 15 year old Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT. I have three lenses – a 75-300mm, 28-80mm, and a 50mm 1.8. I have gotten lots of pleasure out of the camera but find lately I just never want to lug out and always end up taking pictures with my phone. I’m not a professional, but I like good photos and enjoy fiddling with manual settings when I can. First question: do you think I will get a lot of value out of buying a new camera? My old one works JUST FINE and I have no complaints other than that it’s heavy.
    Second, if I do replace it do you think I should go with a new Canon Digital Rebel body (SL1 probably) so I can use my old lenses? OR, should I go with a mirrorless camera maybe the Sony A6000. I know that’s lighter and I like that it’s more modern, has wifi. But, I have gotten so used to my DSLR and I hate to lose my lenses. Any suggestions?

    Thank you!!!

  • My dad shot with a Digital Rebel XT for years and upgrading to a new T4i allowed him to keep using his lenses while getting some notable improvements like a bigger, brighter LCD screen, better high ISO performance, more overall versatility, and other features like a touchscreen that are just nice to have. Because of this he ends up using his camera more and gets a lot more joy out of shooting with it, as the camera does not limit him in the ways his old XT did. It’s hard to say for your particular circumstances, but whether you get an SL1 or an a6000 you’re going to see some massive improvements that might inspire you to get out and shoot more pictures.

  • Thanks, Simon. Really appreciate the advice. I’m really on the fence with this. I know the A6000 will be lighter and more modern, but it’s hard to imagine giving up the DSLR (and trashing all those nice lenses!).

  • No problem, Rivki. One thing you might want to consider is the small size and weight of the a6000 compared to a DSLR. I have heard many people say that having a much smaller mirrorless camera like the a6000 encourages them to get out and shoot more, instead of leaving their camera on a shelf at home because it’s so big and bulky.

  • RojMaj

    I took your quiz and it told me I’m on the fence and need to do more research…

  • Piyath Alawatte

    What about the accurate preview of the photo through the viewfinder…? It’s also a huge advantage other than the small size.

  • True, you can get an accurate preview of what the photo you are taking will actually look like. However, some people prefer the optical viewfinder on DSLR cameras because it simply reflects the real world. I don’t think either one is objectively better, just different options for different people.

  • Gideon

    So, in mirror less the LCD screen is always ON right? So, the battery life is less in mirror-less…

  • Gideon

    Non yet, but maybe in the next 5 years when mirror less have those 400mm F2.8…

  • Gideon

    Yup, I prefer the viewfinder too… real world thing as you said…

  • Well, that’s certainly one way of looking at it. But while the battery life is not going to be as good compared to an optical viewfinder, the EVF does offer some advantages too 🙂

  • Francisco

    Very nice and clear writing
    ….thanks

  • Richard Taylor

    I shoot with both, Olympus mirrorless, and Canon DSLRs.
    Yes the mirrorless system is a lot smaller. The IQ meets my needs, and I love the live histogram in the viewfinder.
    However when it come to high speed action where fast autofocus tracking is needed my DSLRs run rings around the mirrorless system (I am talking about shooting motor racing trackside).
    Battery life is a lot less in the mirrorless sytem. Carrying a spare battery meets my needs on shoots with mirrorless.

  • athula ranaraja

    dear,mirroless cameras developed. good. what about the continuous shutter speed of a mirrorless camera? can beat DSLR or faster than that?

  • It depends on the model. For example the Sony a6000 is a mirrorless camera that can shoot upwards of 11fps, which is faster than many DSLRs.

  • SK Rao

    For the same price point, does the DSLR fare better in picture quality (and video quality) or the mirrorless? Any point of view?

  • Honestly it’s hard to buy a bad camera these days, whether it’s DSLR or mirrorless. They all have such good picture quality that it’s really much more about the lenses you use and the techniques you employ to get pictures.

  • SK Rao

    Thanks Simon.

    I also checked out sample pictures from DPReview. You are correct – there is little difference in picture quality. When I compared the $500-800 range, I felt the best picture qualities were from a DSLR by a teeny weeny bit, but there was no mirrorless-DSLR gradation either. Your response validates that. I am starting to include mirrorless options also in my shortlist.

  • Glad to hear it, SK.

  • Shamoy Rahman

    DSLR is basically dead as of now thanks to Sony’s innovations.

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