Both mirrorless and DSLR cameras are used in professional photography and videography. Mirrorless cameras have been around a lot longer than DSLRs have, but only recently have they come up to par with DSLRs. In fact, 2018 saw the highest use of mirrorless full-frame cameras ever, which means the mirrorless vs DSLR debate is more relevant now than ever.
If you’re just getting into photography, the DSLR vs mirrorless camera question is probably the first in your mind. In this article, we’re going to take a quick look at each type of camera and its pros and cons, to help you decide which might suit you more.
How DSLR Cameras Work
DSLR stands for digital single-lens reflex, because, simply put, a DSLR is a digital camera that uses a single lens rather than relying on photographic film. The design is the same as older cameras that used this film, but DSLRs use a mirror inside the body of the camera that reflects light onto a prism. The light reaches the mirror through the camera lens. The prism then reflects the light into the viewfinder so you can see what your shot looks like.
When it comes to actually taking a picture, all you have to do is press the shutter button. This flips the mirror up to open a shutter, which allows light to fall onto the image sensor, hence capturing the image. The image sensor is what acts like the film in DSLRs.
This is just a basic explanation, however, and features can vary in different DSLR cameras. Getting the right one for you will help improve the quality of your work.
How Mirrorless Cameras Work
As the name implies, mirrorless cameras don’t use the mirror that functions as an intermediary in DSLR cameras. In mirrorless cameras, the light hits the image sensor directly after passing through the lens. Mirrorless cameras don’t always have viewfinders because you can see a preview on the screen itself, but some models do offer a second screen inside a viewfinder so that using the camera feels more like a professional experience.
Most smartphone cameras are mirrorless. Using a mirrorless camera is like using a DSLR in ‘Live View’ mode rather than through the viewfinder. As with DSLRs, mirrorless cameras also have different models to feature the diverse needs of users, and choosing the right one is important.
Mirrorless Cameras vs DSLR Cameras: Pros and Cons
Here is a comparison of both camera types in terms of a few key factors that might affect your decision ultimately.
Size and Build
DSLR cameras are obviously bulkier in comparison because they need to fit both a mirror and a prism. Recent DSLR models have been lighter than their predecessors though. For instance, the Nikon D3500 is smaller than the last model, but it’s still about three inches before it gets to the actual lens. If you’re using a kit lens (18 to 55 mm) then it would weigh around 1.5 pounds.
Compared to these, mirrorless cameras are much lighter and more compact. For example, a Sony A6300 is comparable to the Nikon model we just mentioned, but is only about 1.6 inches thick and weighs around 1.75 pounds with a kit lens (16-50 mm). For this reason, mirrorless cameras are easier to carry around, and you can fit more gear with them in a camera bag.
DSLR cameras use phase detection; a technology that is quick at measuring the convergence of two light beams. In the beginning, this gave DSLRs a better autofocus speed than mirrorless cameras, because mirrorless cameras used contrast detection. Contrast detection means slower autofocus speed because it limits performance to high contrast images (so it doesn’t work as well in low light either).
This is no longer the case because mirrorless cameras now use both phase and contrast detection. These sensors are built into the image sensors in each type of camera. This new development for mirrorless cameras does not necessarily make them superior though. Both cameras have pretty good autofocus speed now, the only difference is that mirrorless cameras offer hybrid sensors.
Image Quality for Previews
One of the most important parts of the mirrorless vs DSLR debate is image quality. This in itself has a few components, so let’s look into those. Firstly, the image quality when it comes to previews. In a DSLR, the viewfinder shows you exactly what the camera will capture, whereas in a mirrorless camera you will see a preview on the screen, with the exception of mirrorless cameras that offer an EVF (electronic viewfinder) to mimic a DSLR.
Outside or in good lighting, the EVF of a mirrorless camera will give you a preview that is pretty close to the image it captures. But in more challenging situations, such as low light or subjects that move quickly (like in wildlife photography), the preview in an EVF gets duller and grainy. A DSLR will not have this problem even in low lighting.
If you’re using a DSLR in ‘Live View’ to mimic a mirrorless camera, the preview can take longer to focus. Additionally, an advantage that EVFs have is that they show you a preview according to the shutter speed, etc. that you’ve set. Whereas with DSLRs you might have to depend more on experience to be able to predict the exact final results you’ll get.
So in good light, both are good options, but if you shoot mostly in low light then you should go for a DSLR.
Mirrorless vs. DSLR Image Quality
Next in the mirrorless vs DSLR debate for image quality is the quality of the final captured images. In general, both types of cameras can take high-quality images. In the past, mirrorless cameras had lower resolutions but that is clearly no longer the case because many mirrorless cameras now use the same APS-C sensors as DSLRs.
With full-frame mirrorless cameras especially, the results are more or less indistinguishable from DSLRs. Both Canon and Nikon now make such cameras.
Image Stabilization Efficiency
And last but not least in the mirrorless vs DSLR debate is image stabilization, a lesser-known but equally important factor. This is again especially important for fast-moving subjects or people with shaky hands. Both types of cameras have stabilizing mechanisms; the camera shifts the lens or image sensor slightly when needed to counter instability. However, some mirrorless cameras can shift both at the same time for greater stability.
In general, the difference here is minimal, and the stabilization technology works with all lenses. A couple of the higher-end mirrorless cameras such as Sony A7 Mark II offer five-axis stabilization, which DSLRs do not have. Such cameras can be better for videography, but they are also really pricey.
DSLR vs. Mirrorless for Video Quality
The second most important part of the DSLR vs mirrorless debate is which is better for videos. Putting aside the expensive models we’ve already talked about (which the average user can’t afford) let’s talk about how this plays out in more mainstream cameras.
DSLRs sometimes have blurred parts in the middle of a video where the camera is looking for focus. This happens because they can’t use phase detection during videos and hence use contrast detection, which is slower. But most filmmakers do prefer DSLRs if they’re going to use a still-image camera, because of the greater lens range.
Mirrorless cameras can capture 4K or Ultra HD videos, a feature that only the higher-end DSLRs have (such as Nikon D7500). But again, if you’re a professional then you can just focus in advance (rather than using autofocus) and stick to a good DSLR.
Playback Quality for Images and Video
There’s really not much difference here; both camera types can display results either on the screen they have or on a larger screen using an HDMI output. Some cameras also allow using WiFi to share images directly to smartphones and such.
Since both mirrorless and DSLR cameras are used professionally, both have high shutter speeds and can capture many images in a single burst. But the physical shutter in mirrorless cameras gives them an edge because it allows them to achieve better results.
You can also use the electronic shutter in mirrorless cameras to shoot at higher shutter speeds and more silently.
Battery Life and Overall Durability
DSLRs can have better battery life if you use them without the electronic viewfinder and LCD screen because both of these consume a lot of battery. If you need to preview often and also use the LCD screen when shooting, then both camera types will have similar battery life. Both also come with removable batteries, so it’s always a good idea to keep a spare in your bag.
Durability, again, is more or less same across the board. Both camera types also have the option of adding an extra level of protection (such as waterproof alloy bodies) that prevent weather damage, so you might want to look into this if you work mostly outdoors.
Lenses and Accessories
DSLRs have an edge here because you have more lenses to choose from for them. DSLR lenses range from cheap but sufficient and professional but expensive, with every other niche in between. Mirrorless cameras are far more limited when it comes to lenses, and you can usually only choose ones made by the camera maker.
This is changing though, with many camera makers producing more and more lenses for mirrorless cameras as they grow in popularity. Mirrorless cameras that have been around longer tend to have more lenses available for them as well.
Another thing you can do is use an adaptor to fit DSLR lenses onto your mirrorless camera, provided that the lens and camera are from the same manufacturer. The problem with this, however, is that you might have to change your focal length and zoom settings, and in some cases, you may even have to disable features such as autofocus.
So, What Should You Pick?
Ultimately, the type of camera you pick will depend on the kind of work you do and your budget. Both DSLR and mirrorless cameras can provide optimum results, even if it is under different circumstances at times.
Mirrorless cameras are better suited for video and are lighter, but don’t offer as many options with lenses. DSLRs work better in low light and have more lens options, but can be bulky. If you pick a type where the pros outweigh the cons, then that is the right choice for you.