Some ground rules here… Since I wanted to provide a real-life mirrorless vs DSLR comparison, I’m going to focus on the outcomes, instead of the “how.” I’m avoiding as much tech-speak as possible, and simplyfing pretty significantly. I’m also grouping Micro Four Thirds, APS-C and mirrorless cameras all under the category of “mirrorless.”
The third kind of camera, that we’re not focusing on, is “compact.” This kind has no interchangable lenses.
So with the ground rules established, let’s get to it!
Foundational Differences between Mirrorless Cameras and DSLRs
As you’ve probably read, the term “DSLR” means “digital single-lens reflex.” The DSLR camera design is one of the most enduring in the world, going back to the even the early days of the film era. Essentially, a mirror reflects the scene into the viewfinder and when you press the shutter button, that mirror pops up and exposes the film or sensor for the scene you’ve created through the viewfinder.
Mirrorless cameras cut out that chunky mechanism, and instead constantly display the view through the lens onto the sensor. You can see how that wasn’t possible in the film days. This construction means mirrorless cameras are way more compact than DSLRs.
Mirrorless vs DSLRs Differences
DSLR verses mirrorless is a conversation only because of the dramatic increase in mirrorless image quality over the last couple years. In the hands of seasoned user, a mirrorless camera can probably produce images as good as DSLRs around 70% of the time. For that other 30%, the image differences will be marginal and near impossible for the casual user to identify.
Note the one caveat there, however—in the hands of a seasoned user. Neither of these camera systems will perform up to their (or your) full potential using default settings out of the box. If you want to snap everyday pictures without thinking about it, keep using your phone.
Form factor, Size, Weight & Style Differences
This is the most obvious, and for many, the most attractive difference between the two systems. Anyone who’s lugged around a DSLR with a 70-300mm lens for eight hours at a Tough Mudder event knows it takes some chops to just keep the camera to your face all day. (By the way, hand and wrist straps go a super long way to helping with this.)
A mirrorless camera’s form factor also reduces the intimidation factor of the thing. This can be a huge advantage if you’re serious into street photography, or working with kids or even shy adults. The DSLR is a constant presence, even when you’re in a situation where the chemistry between you and your subject is great. It’s like having a friendly pitbull watch while you and friends eat a steak dinner—you know he’s cool, but it’s still kind of distracting for Muscles over there to be eyeing your t-bone. (Disclaimer: We have a large, friendly, pit mix that eyes our dinner often and unashamedly. He is wonderful.)
Last, for me at least, on the subject of mirrorless advantages is style. The more compact, user-friendly design of mirrorless allows for more personality and expressiveness on than the it’s-not-personal-it’s-just-business tone of the DSLR. I, personally, could give less of a damn about how the thing looks, but my wife once bought a camera purely based on the fact that it was metallic pink, so I know this registers with some. To her credit, it was a good camera. Lasted us quite awhile.
As our segue into advantages of the DSLR, let’s talk about one thing I think many forget—you still can’t pocket most mirrorless cameras in most configurations. Yes, they’ll take up way less space in your backpack, fanny pack, man-purse (these are things I unironically endorse) or dog saddlebag, but you’re not going to be dropping them into the pocket of your Jim Harbaugh-inspired khakis.
Boy, when this conversation finally rolls around to DSLR form factor, it all seems bad, doesn’t it? Here’s why I like the large DSLR form factor over the smaller mirrorless one: button layout. In fact, I would like more buttons on the back of my DSLR. Why? While in some instances I do love the touchscreen on the my t4i, one of the things I have learned is that physical buttons are way faster than tapping through menus. This is part of the reason I didn’t go with Canon’s SL1 when upgrading.
This is important for many professional photographers. If you take a look both the Canon and Nikon camera lines, you’ll find that the more expensive, pro-oriented cameras have larger control layouts with more buttons. As you learn to control the nuances of your camera, you want faster and faster access to those changing settings—I bet a lot of pros out there can close their eyes and navigate the back of their cameras with ease (I cannot). Can’t do that with a touchscreen.
DSLR vs Mirrorless Autofocus Speed
Ok, so this is pretty straightforward, but if you’re looking at mirrorless cameras, you just need to pay a little attention. DSLRs used to be the easy winner here, but more and more mirrorless cameras are implementing DSLR autofocus schemes, bringing them almost in line with DSLR autofocus times. In short, if you’re going the mirrorless route, make sure what you buy has “phase detection” or “hybrid” autofocus.
Mirrorless Shutter Lag
For reasons I won’t dive into here, mirrorless cameras suffer from shutter lag. This means a hair’s breadth of a moment between pressing the button and the shutter firing. And, yes, you’re right—90% of the time, that won’t make a difference in your photo. But you’ll know when it did make a difference that 10% of the time and it will drive you insane.
Mirrorless and DSLR Lenses and Accessories
Your lens choices in the mirrorless space are expanding, but like any new technology, it’s going to take awhile to mature. There’s a decent selection of standard lenses out there, though the third-party selection is still not very deep (think about your Tamrons and Sigmas). What’s truly lacking here are excellent and varied choices for the wide and long lenses. That’s one of the arguments you’ll hear in favor of DSLRs—high quality nature and landscape photography is hard to come by using mirrorless systems.
It used to be, when we were only talking about Canon and Nikon, I would advise people to “buy the camera brand their friend has.” This meant they would (depending on how good a friend that is) have free access to accessories and lenses built for their new camera. The increased popularity of the mirrorless system has muddied that a bit, as now I wouldn’t be as likely to recommend someone go and buy a Sony based on the fact that their buddy has one. That, and with the accessory market for these mirrorless systems so shallow, you’d better be real sure of friendship status before basing a purchase on your pal’s Olympus gear.
DSLRs have optical viewfinders, and the mirror setup we went over earlier is meant to give you a near-perfect replication of the lens is seeing. I say near perfect because different cameras can sometimes cutoff some of what’s in view, and of course, there’s varying quality in viewfinder imaging. The two main points to keep in mind are 1) this is what the lens is seeing and 2) there is no interpretation or processing happening.
Bonus: How is the optical viewfinder on a DSLR different from the one on a compact camera? The one on a compact camera sits above the lens. Since there’s no mirror, you’re seeing a slightly different scene than the lens.
On mirrorless cameras, there’s an electronic viewfinder instead of an optical one. This used to be a huge differentiation point, as EVFs were generally considered vastly inferior to optical ones. Issues like image quality, refresh rate and dynamic range would make EVFs difficult to use and impossible for the professional photographer to depend upon. Although most DSLRs have a Live View function, it’s not as good (in most cases) as the EVFs on modern mirrorless cameras.
You can clearly see the difference in the two systems when we start talking about battery life. The electronic backbone of the mirrorless system requires a lot more power than the DSLR. Before we even start talking about the plethora of power options available for the DSLR, know that they simply require less battery life for the same number of shots. Once you start adding in third party batteries, camera grips and external packs, your options in the DSLR world are much better.
Low Light Performance
I’ve seen a lot conflicting information on this subject, but I’m not comfortable recommending mirrorless for night photography, as discussed previously. However, as sensors are getting so much better in these things, low light performance is improving, so assuming astrophotography isn’t your primary focus, I’d recommend reading many reviews about the specific mirrorless camera you’re interested in to gauge low light capabilities.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
The question of which system you should invest is tremendously personal and fraught with angst. If I was asked the question, my response would be a series of questions… Why are you buying a new camera? What do you want to take photos of? What are some of your favorite photos? What are things you like about taking photos? When I say, “I’m a photographer,” what does that bring to mind for you?
That conversation is meant to help me understand what their goals are with a camera. I think I would recommend a DSLR for someone if:
- they want to eek out every bit of photo quality possible in an image.
- they are personally interested in photography and growing their skill set as much as possible—i.e., eeking out every bit of photographic quality from themselves.
- as I’ve written about before, they want or need a “platform” for their photography activities.
- they want to experiment with different methods, situations and environment, or know they need equipment choices that align to different environments or assignments.
I think the mirrorless camera user is happiest if…
- they just want near-DSLR-quality pictures in a small package.
- they are not challenging themselves to increase their photographic ability.
- they need to capture family moments, tips and other everyday situations, and want some additional flexibility.
- they don’t need a big range of lenses and other accessories, or ability to set up for a full day of shooting.
This is one of the biggest debates in the consumer photography space today. A lot of pros that I respect have wildly varying opinions on the DSLR vs mirrorless debate, and I’ve undoubtedly said at least a half dozen things that 50% of experienced camera users will disagree with. Personally, I can’t leave behind my DSLR right now—there’s too many different methods I want to try and too many different environments I want to get the courage to explore. I love the level of flexibility I have with the system.
But, look, ultimately, a camera does not a photographer make. Using a camera is what makes a photographer! Either of these systems are going to produce great images, and both give you a learning curve that will help you improve over time. My strongest recommendation is this: read up, and buy what you will use!