DSLR vs mirrorless – it’s a debate that’s only heated up in 2018 as more companies release better mirrorless cameras that can match DSLRs in image quality and offer their unique perks.
It’s not a simple battle to gauge. Each technology is a strong alternative to the other, with DSLRs being around for much longer and having more traditional backing. But photographers are generally progressive folks, and the lure of mirrorless cameras is undeniable due to their beautifully compact designs, modern features, and multiple brands in competition.
We’re going to determine which is better for both the new consumer and the experienced in this article. It’s a complete guide to understanding the key differences between mirrorless and DSLR cameras. We’ll also look at which technology is superior in which essential feature or category.
Key Structural Differences
In order to understand what makes mirrorless cameras different from DSLRs in this DSLR vs mirrorless battle, it’s important to first know the basic workings of each type.
How a DSLR Works
All DSLR cameras operate in a similar way, with the key differences being in the size of certain parts and the controls. In a DSLR, light enters the body of the camera through the lens and is reflected onto a mirror, called a flip-up mirror. This mirror is responsible for reflecting the light up to an additional specialized mirror, called a pentaprism (or some variant of a pentaprism), which lets you view the image in a viewfinder. All DSLR cameras have optical viewfinders that function in this way.
Because the flip-up mirror sits directly behind the lens, no light enters the image sensor. The image sensor is the main part of the camera responsible for capturing the image and processing it. It is essentially the brain of the camera.
The flip-up mirror blocks all light coming to the image sensor as it reflects it to the viewfinder. When the shutter button is pressed, the mirror flips up (hence the name of the mirror) out of the way, and light directly goes through the lens and onto the sensor.
The mirror, the pentaprism viewfinder, and the mechanism to flip the mirror up are what form the major, bulky components of a DSLR camera.
How a Mirrorless Camera Works
A mirrorless camera gets rid of the flip-up mirror altogether, so light is hitting the image sensor at all times when the lens is open. This allows for a leaner, more lightweight design that is also theoretically faster in operation.
So how do mirrorless cameras display in their viewfinder then? Well, a large set of them didn’t for the longest time. Instead, they displayed the image on an LCD. While an LCD in a high-quality camera is essential, it is the ideal way of composing images as it doesn’t provide the precision and control of a viewfinder.
Modern mirrorless cameras have found a solution to this though. They utilize the reading from the image sensor (which, remember, is receiving light without any obstruction at all times when the camera is on and the lens is unshielded) to replicate it in a second, small screen that functions exactly like an optical viewfinder in a DSLR. This is an electronic viewfinder, and it displays a digital image instead of an optical one.
Mirrorless vs DSLR – Which is Better for You?
Now that we know what the main difference in the design and structure of mirrorless cameras and DSLR cameras are, we can better assess which one is better for any consumer.
As stated earlier, the sensor is perhaps the most important part of any digital camera. Sensors come in various sizes, out of which the two most common in DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras are Full frame and APS-C.
Full frame sensors are essentially the size of a piece of classic 35mm film. You’ll find full frame sensors in the professional and enthusiast-level DSLRs. Most other DSLRs and mirrorless cameras come with a cropped sensor size known as APS-C.
Sensor size is important as it determines the amount of light the sensor can capture, and also determines how the camera responds to the depth of field and focus of the lens. Mirrorless cameras now incorporate the same kind of lenses that DSLRs do. You also get the option of Micro Four Thirds lenses in mirrorless cameras from manufacturers like Panasonic and Olympus.
Overall however, the size and quality of the sensors are on par in both technologies, so we call this one even.
Autofocus is an essential part of all digital cameras. An excellent autofocus system is particularly important for capturing high-speed images and burst shots.
Just a couple of years ago, there was absolutely no competition between DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras when it came to autofocus performance. DSLRs were simply superior in every way in this category. Much has changed though, and phase tracking autofocus is being slowly integrated into most mirrorless cameras.
However, continuous autofocus performance is still superior in DSLRs, though mirrorless cameras are catching up. Wildlife and sports photographers still prefer DSLRs for this very reason. This round goes to DSLR cameras.
Size and Weight
Here’s where the most obvious difference exists between the two technologies. It is also perhaps the main reason to opt for mirrorless cameras over DSLRs. By eliminating the flip-up mirror and the light reflecting prism for the viewfinder, mirrorless cameras offer similar image quality in a more compact body that ways a lot less than even the lightest DSLR.
Some mirrorless cameras are so compact and lightweight they could easily fit in slightly large pockets. This category clearly belongs to mirrorless cameras.
This is also a department where there is no competition, but this time it’s the DSLR camera technology that is superior.
Because DSLRs only consume battery when actually moving the mirror and when displaying anything on the LCD, they are incredibly power efficient. A DSLR virtually consumes no power when you’re looking through the viewfinder (the LCD also turns off at this time). As a result, many DSLR models can take even thousands of shots on a single charge.
The same is simply not true for mirrorless cameras. Because they require power to display the image on an LCD and even the electronic viewfinder at all times, their battery life is relatively poor. Additionally, due to the compact design, there is less space to incorporate larger batteries. The disparity in battery performance between DSLRs and mirrorless cameras is staggering, with the former offering three two four times longer battery life than the latter.
Ask most professional photographers what kind of a viewfinder is better, and they’ll almost always say an optical one. This obviously means DSLRs have an edge in this category, right? It’s not quite as simple as you’d think.
Viewfinders are extremely important for most enthusiasts as they give a better view (and control of the camera) of the composition before you take a photo. An optical viewfinder is almost instant because it is natural light entering the camera. As a result, the image you see in the viewfinder is what you see with the naked eye.
Mirrorless cameras have a tricky relationship with viewfinders. Firstly, most of the affordable and mid-range mirrorless cameras don’t even have viewfinders, and this is perhaps why they haven’t quite caught up in popularity to DSLRs (though Olympus is quickly changing this dogma).
Secondly, the ones that due – even the most high-end ones – have a slight delay because the image in the viewfinder is a digital one. While this lag is unnoticeable for static imagery, it’s egregious when used in sports and wildlife photography and while recording video.
However, an electronic viewfinder shows you exactly how the composition will turn out, which is a major advantage. It is a direct preview of how your image will look. Additionally, because it is a digital image, companies can add additional features such as advanced facial recognition and eye-tracking. A lot more information can be overlaid on the electronic viewfinder’s image.
Yet despite all these perks, the optical viewfinder is still the preferred choice by most professionals and enthusiasts due to the lag-free experience. While it’s not a huge advantage anymore in DSLRs, it is still a slight enough advantage (especially because viewfinders are only limited to more expensive mirrorless cameras) to give this one to DSLRs.
You’d think that DSLRs have an advantage over mirrorless cameras when it comes to video recording, but the truth is quite different. There is one simple reason for this: video recording at 4K is available in mirrorless cameras at a price that you’d pay for any entry-level DSLR cameras. Even most high-end DSLR cameras don’t’ offer 4K video recording.
Additionally, mirrorless cameras are lighter, which is desirable for video capture. Panasonic offers some incredible low-cost mirrorless camera options for video recording such as the Lumix GX800 or GH5S. This category goes to mirrorless cameras.
Although only two companies dominate the DSLR market (Nikon and Canon), the sheer amount of lenses both offer just makes DSLR a great choice for any photographer who wants versatility. Canon, in particular, offers thousands of lenses that will work with most of their DSLR cameras – even those of old. Combine that with aftermarket lenses from the likes of Sigma and co and you have near-limitless options.
While more companies share the mirrorless camera market (Sony, Fujifilm, Panasonic, and Olympus, to name a few), the number of lenses available are not quite as extensive. Sony’s Alpha range of mirrorless cameras do have lots of compatible third-party lenses, but they can’t quite match the ubiquitous availability of Canon and Nikon ones across the globe.
Additionally, large lenses tend to feel better on DSLRs than mirrorless cameras. This is where the size of the DSLR actually behaves like an advantage, balancing the overall system better when large lenses are used. Mirrorless cameras look odd with larger lenses and are harder to handle. This category goes to DSLR cameras.
DSLRs take the edge slightly in our considerations, but a lot of that has to do with their widespread availability and how long they’ve been around. When it comes to pure image quality, mirrorless cameras can match DSLRs because they use similar sensors and lens types.
A common misconception among even professional photographers is that mirrorless cameras are the natural replacement of DSLR cameras. While this may ultimately turn out to be true, it’s undeniable that DSLRs and mirrorless cameras will coexist for a good while – neither technologies are going anywhere, and only the consumer can benefit the most from this fact as there are more options to choose from.
Therefore, if you already have a functional and high-quality DSLR, there’s no reason to upgrade to a mirrorless camera other than size. Mirrorless cameras are advantageous however for those who want excellent video shooting capabilities at entry-level DSLR prices, as Panasonic and Olympus make some incredible Micro Four Thirds cameras that are sensational video shooters.