If you’re a photography lover or a professional looking around the market for a new camera, or perhaps an entirely different system, here’s one question you can’t dance around: DSLR or mirrorless?
A few years ago, this wouldn’t even have been a question, at least not one that would have been taken seriously by photographers with a certain level of expectations.
But mirrorless cameras have become so good that they’re attracting more and more photographers of all levels. It’s not uncommon to see professionals using mirrorless cameras for commercial shoots, weddings, and studio work.
So what is it exactly about these smaller, fully electronic cameras that have put such enormous pressure on the DSLR market?
We’ve asked ourselves the same question, and after thorough research and comparisons, we divided the answer into 11 parts that clearly explain the most important differences in how both types of cameras work and perform.
It is very important to keep in mind that even though part of the technology inside them is very different, the basic working principles remain the same.
Let’s dive into it and see if mirrorless cameras are just as good as or better than DSLRS.
Size, Weight & Construction
The physical differences between these two camera types are fundamental, yet ironically the gap is no longer as big as it used to be.
Everybody knows what a DSLR looks and feels like. Even some of the entry-level models can be a bit bulky, especially if you put a more expensive lens on.
Despite all the small bodies designed for home use and family vacations, the DSLR is still regarded as a big, heavy piece of equipment. A lot of people hate that because they would rather build healthy biceps at the gym instead of shooting, but there are also plenty of photographers who completely dislike the idea of small cameras in their hands.
This is why mirrorless cameras first started getting attention.
Small, lightweight bodies packed with cool features were an instant hit. Panasonic and Olympus adapted the M4/3 format for their cameras, while Sony went for APS-C chips in their small mirrorless bodies.
Usually, the cameras are half the size and weight of a normal DSLR, and as you would expect, so are a lot of the lenses. But ironically, higher end mirrorless cameras have become bigger and heavier - almost DSLR-like - and you can best see this in Sony’s second generation of the A7 family.
This is said to be the result of photographers wanting larger grips. Overall, though, mirrorless systems are smaller even though the differences are not as visible in newer models.
Viewfinders: Optical vs. Electronic
In terms of operation, this is clearly the biggest difference in actual use.
All DSLRs have an optical viewfinder based on the same design that goes back to the first film SLRs. The term says it all. SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex, and obviously, the “D” is for digital.
Optical viewfinders let you see through the camera lens via a system of mirrors and prisms. All professional DSLRs have a coverage of 100%, while many amateur and enthusiast models have a coverage of approximately 95%.
As the name clearly suggests, mirrorless cameras have completely taken out this optical assembly and thus rely on a fully electronic viewfinder.
Earlier models had their drawbacks, and it was pretty common to see laggy units with a lot of noise.
But the newer models have eliminated these issues completely, and cameras like the Sony A7R II offer a very enjoyable viewing experience. Electronic viewfinders are also capable of displaying more information like live histograms.
\At the end of the day it is a question of preference: If you’re a long-time DSLR user and you love optical framing, you might not be impressed by how natural electronic viewfinders can look. If you’re more used to framing on an LCD screen, mirrorless cameras could fit you like a glove.
It’s hard to point out a clear winner when it comes to features.
If you put each type of camera from the same class side by side, you will most likely find a similar set of features. Full manual controls, RAW shooting, and Wi-Fi are all on the table, and the fact that there is so little to differentiate them makes the decision ever harder.
Lenses are extremely important, and this one goes hands down to the DSLR system.
Canon and Nikon have the widest range of lenses for their camera bodies. The idea that you can use a 50-year-old lens on a 2016 body without adapters is very appealing to some, but the greatest advantage of this wide range of choices is that you can find a good lens for every budget.
Because mirrorless cameras haven’t been around for very long, the lens range of all major brands are growing actively. The M4/3 owners have the most options at this time with both Panasonic and Olympus lenses being compatible with their cameras. But Sony and Fuji are also gaining ground with some wonderful prime lenses.
For most photographers, this is the one thing that matters most. No matter how big or small the camera is, image quality will often decide the outcome of the purchase.
Just a few years ago, making a decision based on image quality was easy: if you wanted top notch quality, you had to get a high-end DSLR. That is history now.
Mirrorless cameras use almost every sensor size you can think of, from 1-inch units to the exotic medium format Fuji GXF 50S.
Image quality means brilliant colors and dynamic range, excellent sharpness, and great low light performance. Both types of cameras in the market today will deliver that.
When it comes to shooting video, the DSLR is widely recognized as the industry standard, but that’s because it got to the party before the mirrorless camera. Most professional filmmakers still use DSLRs, but again, this is quickly changing.
Mirrorless cameras are better suited for video for several reasons.
They don’t need the optical viewfinder to start with, so from a design perspective, they’re easier to work with.
Landmark cameras such as the Panasonic GH4 and the Sony A7s have literally changed the entire industry and how professionals work with the introduction of affordable 4k and unprecedented low light performance. It took the DSLR longer to check these features, even though everyone’s still very familiar with the good ol' Canon 5D III.
Because mirrorless cameras are 100% electronic (with the exception of the mechanical shutter), power consumption is greater. DSLR batteries also tend to be larger in size and that gives them a longer life. If you plan on going for a mirrorless system, extra batteries are mandatory.
Throughout the evolution of the DSLR, several AF systems have been implemented and perfected. As a result, DSLRs use high speed “phase-detection” systems that are very accurate and effective. But they only work when framing through the viewfinder because usually the system is located below the mirror and it has to remain down.
Live view autofocusing can be very slow on DSLRs, and that’s because they switch to a different contrast system which is much slower when the mirror is in the raised position.
Mirrorless cameras also have very fast hybrid AF systems, but this is mostly because the lenses are designed around the cameras.
It’s a lost battle for the mirrorless systems, though, at least at this point. Pro DSLR bodies like the Nikon D5 have insanely fast and accurate AF systems that partly justify the hefty price tags.
The simple idea of fun is often overlooked when considering a new camera purchase.
How fun and easy a camera is to use will play a huge part in the overall shooting experience, and if you’re someone who loves photography with no strings attached, joy is important.
With that in mind, it very much depends on personal preference, but many will agree that DSLRs are still more enjoyable.
The optical viewfinder has its charm, and the DSLR has now been around for long enough to weed out any major design flaws that would damage the user experience.
Mirrorless cameras are getting there, but the low end of the market doesn’t even have a viewfinder, and it can sometimes feel like you’re using an ordinary compact camera.
Sure, there’s the other ends that should be mentioned. The A7RII’s electronic viewfinder is a gem that you could look through for hours. But until this will be the norm, user experience goes to the DSLR.
If you want to get the best bang for the buck, and let’s face it, we all do, DSLRs are still the better option.
You just get more in a reasonably priced camera, whereas an entry-level mirrorless camera will very likely leave you wanting more and buying extra batteries.
Either way, if you're looking for a DSLR or a mirrorless body, lenses, or related accessories, there are excellent deals to be had from reputable retailers.
No, the DSLR isn’t going anywhere, and we’re going to see some great cameras coming out in the next years. But, when it comes to market share, things are going to be a little (or a lot) more volatile. The future, and to some extent the present, belongs to the mirrorless camera.
Technically they will most likely have similar abilities in the near future, and the ultimate argument that will tip the scale in favor of one or the other will simply be personal preference.
Having the same performance and features in two fundamentally different packages is just another great thing about loving photography.
Let us know which one you prefer - DSLR or mirrorless.