As camera technology evolves, the mirrorless vs DSLR debate is becoming more and more about preference. While DSLR cameras may have been the frontrunner for the last few years, mirrorless cameras have made such incredible advancements that both professionals and beginners alike swear by them. We’ll lay out the key differences between a mirrorless camera vs DSLR, and help you determine the most important question — what’s best for you?
DSLR or Mirrorless?
Mirrorless vs DSLR: key differences
To fully understand the pros and cons of DSLR vs mirrorless, we need to answer one question right away: what’s the difference between mirrorless and DSLR? The easiest answer is that a DSLR camera has a mirror and a mirrorless camera doesn't — but there's a lot more to these types of cameras than that. But what are the basic mechanics?
Difference Between Mirrorless and DSLR
Mirrorless vs DSLR
A DSLR camera is a digital camera body that allows light to enter a single lens where it hits a mirror that reflects the light either upwards or downward into the camera’s optical viewfinder (OVF). DSLR stands for Digital Single-Lens Reflex.
When you press down on the shutter, the mirror flips up out of the way. The shutter then slides open, and light coming from the lens takes a straight shot to the imaging sensor where a photograph is made.
A mirrorless camera is a digital camera that doesn’t have a reflex mirror. In a mirrorless, there isn’t an optical viewfinder and the imaging sensor is always exposed to light. It gives you a preview of the image on the electronic viewfinder (EVF), which is often an LCD screen on the back of the camera.
Difference between mirrorless and DSLR
- Battery life
- Image quality
- Shooting speed
- User experience
- Interchangeable lenses
- Video quality and autofocus
The mechanics are laid out below and are fairly straightforward. And naturally, because DSLRs have more moving parts, they are much larger than their mirrorless counterparts.
Before we get into a specific comparison, one interesting thing to note about mirrorless is the image it reveals in the electronic viewfinder. In DSLRs, the image is reflected up and into the viewfinder.
Because of that, the image created versus what we see before taking the photo is often slightly skewed. The image you see through the optical viewfinder (OVF) in a DSLR has nothing to do with the exposure. In that regard, the same considerations and applications of aperture, ISO, and shutter speed still apply.
When you see a photographer snap a photo, look at it on the screen, and adjust the lighting or another function to take a new picture, this back and forth is called “chimping.”
With mirrorless cameras, this is avoided because there is no mirror and so there is no image reflecting up into the viewfinder. What you see before you take the photo is much more true to the image taken. This and more is outlined in the video below.
I want to stress that just because a DSLR may look more professional, the gaps between both are narrowing, and narrowing pretty significantly. On top of that, mirrorless cameras are everywhere. You use one everyday if you take pictures on your phone. Okay now for the fun part...the real differences.
Mirrorless vs DSLR Pros and Cons
Pros and cons of DSLR cameras
A quick overview of mirrorless vs DSLR pros and cons are below, then we’ll dig a little deeper into each category. Let's start by looking specifically at the benefits and drawbacks of DSLR cameras.
Pros of DSLRs
- Better battery life (though this is narrowing)
- Larger lens selection
- Faster autofocus (generally, although also narrowing)
Cons of DSLRs
- Big and bulky
- Slower shooting speeds
- DSLRs offer 4k or Ultra HD video only for higher-end models.
Of course, not every DSLR camera is the same and different brands and models will get you different results. Here's a quick breakdown of the best DSLR cameras on the market now.
Mirrorless vs DSLR Pros and Cons
Pros and cons of mirrorless cameras
Now let's look specifically at the drawbacks and benefits of mirrorless cameras. Again, we're just covering the basic talking points here but we'll get to a more in-depth comparison in the next section.
Pros of Mirrorless Cameras
- Light, small and compact
- Less moving parts, they’re quieter than other cameras
- No flicking mirror means no camera shake
- Reliable video mode
- The electronic viewfinder can be used in video mode, while the viewfinder on a DSLR cannot. Also, high resolution is built into most mirrorless even if they’re on the low-end, quality wise.
- In-body stabilization
Cons of Mirrorless
- Battery life (though getting better! See more on this below)
- Ergonomics (small, maybe too small for anyone with big hands)
- Limited lens selection (again, getting better! But a fair point)
- Electronic viewfinder - limited in low light environments
To get a broader perspective on the benefits of mirrorless cameras, let's review the top options. After the video, we'll jump back into the mirrorless vs DSLR debate.
There are quite a few advantages and disadvantages for both camera types. Explore more in the video, and then we’ll continue breaking them down across a few main categories.
Because of the mirror box and pentaprism inside, DSLRs are bigger and bulkier. Mirrorless cameras are significantly smaller because they don’t require a reflex mirror. They’re thinner and they’re lighter. This is often why some photographers see mirrorless cameras as less professional just because it doesn’t look like what a professional camera is “supposed to look like.”
And once again, even this is changing. Companies are building mirrorless cameras to be more robust to match the durability of DSLRs. Cameras like the Nikon z7 mirrorless are but one example.
And while a smaller sized camera may be good for travel and mobility, the small size of a mirrorless camera usually demands a smaller sized battery, and therefore, shorter battery life than DSLRs. However, many mirrorless, Sony specifically, have improved. Sony uses a Z battery which gives you substantially longer battery life than ever before.
DSLRs tend to have longer battery life for shooting still images. You don’t have to power an electronic viewfinder because your camera sensor isn’t always on. When the mirror does flip up, that’s the only time power is exhausted.
However, when you shoot video on DSLRs, it’s using the sensor the same way a mirrorless does, but now, without the electronic viewfinder. So you’re using more battery because the sensor is on receiving the images. With either options, there are workarounds like this hack using an external battery as explained in this video.
At this stage of the game, the battery life for mirrorless is fairly comparable to its counterpart. Getting familiar with the different types of cameras will help determine which one is best for you.
The mechanics of a DSLR operate like this: you snap a picture and the mirror flips up. The light hits the sensor, and the viewfinder blacks out until the exposure is complete. This movement creates that satisfying sound of taking a picture. But this flicking can add to camera shake. And this affects image stability.
Mirrorless systems correct this. They’re also much quieter. For a new buyer, mirrorless cameras may seem less professional — the look, the feel, the lack of that satisfying clicking sound, but the lines between DSLR and mirrorless have never been more blurred.
And it’s safe to say, mechanics-wise, they’re now neck and neck. Just a few more benefits of the mirrorless camera. If you want to get the most out of either camera, and especially if you’re shooting video, know the best camera stabilizers on the market for your camera.
Buttons, Joysticks, and the User Experience
When mirrorless cameras first came out, part of the attraction was the small and slim nature of the camera — lightweight, travel-friendly devices that takes quality images. It seemed each year, there was a race to see who could make the sleekest mirrorless. With that of course, came some downsides — notions that mirrorless may not be built as well, or that they don’t feel as professional.
And so more recently we've been seeing mirrorless cameras built more robust, with more buttons, joysticks, and features to equip photographers with more capabilities, but also to give them the feel of a more “professional” style camera.
Part of the user experience is not only having capabilities comparable to DSLRs, but that the user feels empowered by the device — that they feel like a photographer.
And as manufacturers build bigger and better systems in their mirrorless, the cameras are able to support more, both physically and technologically. This includes heavier or interchangeable lenses that require more support from the camera body itself. However, at the end of the day, mirrorless cameras are still significantly smaller than DSLRs
DSLRs are built for this, so for a long time it was much easier to switch out the lenses you want because you can always find a compatible lens. But again, mirrorless cameras are only getting better.
Mirrorless cameras usually take the heat for this. For a long time, there were no native lens mounts and adapters for lenses on mirrorless cameras. Now, there are newer native adapters that allow DSLR lenses to connect to your mirrorless near perfectly.
This allows you to recycle many of the older lenses and use them on your mirrorless with much better precision and stability than before. Newer mirrorless cameras have also reduced the flange distance (the distance from the back of the lens to the image sensor).
In DSLRs, because of the mirror box, the lenses are further away from the sensor because it could hit the back of the lens. This is changing with lenses being built solely for mirrorless along with better adapters.
Plus, with this shortened flange that allows for the lens to be closer to the sensor, mirrorless cameras provide sharper images than ever before. This will expand mirrorless cameras’ selection of lenses. And knowing how to choose the right lens is half the battle.
Autofocus and Video Quality
DSLRs bring the light to a dedicated autofocus sensor, but because mirrorless cameras use the same sensor to process both imaging and autofocus, it used to be argued they’re not as efficient.
But recent advancements make this statement debatable. Sony is in the lead for creating a mirrorless camera with a faster autofocus that does better in low-light situations than its DSLR counterpart. This video "focuses" on various Sony cameras and their autofocus comparisons.
In terms of autofocus for video, mirrorless takes the lead. Because mirrorless cameras have phase-detection focus sensors while many DSLRs cannot use it with the mirror flipped up during video, DSLR video quality is often blurred during focus. DSLRs have to use the slower, contrast-detection focus method.
Because mirrorless cameras traditionally have been built with smaller sensors, unable to capture the same amount of light as the case with larger sensors, the image quality often suffered, at least compared to its DSLR counterpart. But today, that too, has changed.
Camera manufacturers know the value in creating more sensitive chips within sensors to suppress the graininess, while also adding bigger sensors to mirrorless cameras. In fact, some companies use APS-C sized sensors that are also used in most DSLRs.
There’s no doubt that both of these cameras can shoot at very fast shutter speeds. DSLRs may take the lead when we’re discussing higher end cameras, but it’s the mirrorless camera’s, well, mirrorless-ness that makes it a cinch to take sequential photos. The inner workings of a mirrorless camera are definitely simpler, and it allows the photographer to take more images in a shorter amount of time.
Choosing the Right First Camera
Mirrorless vs DSLR for beginners
For beginner enthusiasts, when it comes to picking and choosing the right camera, mirrorless may be the frontrunner. Due to its simpler controls, smaller size, and easy-to-use touch screen technology, it’s considerably less intimidating than a DSLR.
There are less beginner-level mirrorless cameras on the market as compared to its DSLR counterparts. But technology catches up quickly, and that’s already changed.
But of course there are plenty of DSLRs that cater to the beginner with cleaner designs, that help ease aspiring photographers into the DSLR game. Like everything else, it ultimately comes down to preference.
If you’re just starting out and are intrigued by mirrorless cameras, take a look below. Photographer Jacques Gaines gives us his top 5 picks of the best mirrorless cameras for the beginner and/or enthusiast.
Evolving technology minimizes the mirrorless camera vs DSLR debate quite a bit. And while I’ll always rely on preference as a sensible solution, mirrorless cameras may be taking the lead.
For this post, we discussed both camera types, primarily in regards to photography and still imagery. While we merely skimmed the surface of their video capabilities, our next post goes a bit further.
Best mirrorless cameras
Thinking maybe mirrorless cameras are for you? How do they compare for moving imagery rather than still? Next up is a kind of buying guide for the best mirrorless cameras for filmmaking.