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Mirrorless vs DSLR Cameras: Which is best?

Introduction

The debate between DSLR or mirrorless cameras remains a hot topic in our industry. But, those days are slowly numbering, as most camera manufacturers are committing to mirrorless. For instance, Sony’s new Alpha 1, a mirrorless camera, not a DSLR, standing as arguably the greatest camera ever released. Even so, with several flagship DSLR releases, such as Nikon’s excellent D780, we can’t call them officially dead quite yet.

Especially considering the newest DSLR are now sporting confident mirrorless tech to give them a noticeable edge over their peers. So it seems DSLR cameras continue paving away with a particular skill set that makes them competitive, despite the trends. Thus, DSLRs are still good for some creators, while others, mirrorless, will be better.

In today’s post, we will cover the pros and cons of each platform. And we will also offer some examples, so you can decide which is ultimately best for your workflow.

 

 

Mirrorless vs DSLR – Pros & Cons 

Let’s begin by covering the key differences, so you can decide, which if any, are potential deal-breakers to you. And you can use these factors as the guiding force to pick which type is best. But firstly, let’s uncover some myths about each of these styles of cameras.

Firstly, mirrorless cameras aren’t inherently better than comparable DSLRs. No, the opposite. Both types are equally capable. Instead, they offer different shooting experiences that will suit different shooting needs.

Secondly, DSLRs are not the only cameras real “professionals” use. This is usually a misconception amongst amateurs and beginners looking to get started. But no, it’s also false. The camera style depends on the shooting demands and the required technologies needed to suit them best. You can find plenty of non-professional, semi, and professional cameras in both styles. And whether either type is “professional” ultimately comes down to many factors, including build quality, feature set, and general versatility.

With those cleared up, let’s talk about their differences and the general benefits and drawbacks to each.

nikon-d6-dslr-camera

Viewfinders

Both cameras use viewfinders, letting you compose a picture by holding the camera to your eye. But, the underlying technology between them varies.

DSLRs use what is called an optical viewfinder (OVF). In this viewfinder, the incoming picture is reflected into a pentaprism glass array. There, the pentaprism bounces the incoming light, inverting it for proper upright viewing. Then when you depress the shutter, this pentaprism mirror flips up, letting the image past it to expose the sensor. This pentagram design is what ultimately created SLRs, Single Lens Reflex cameras, then eventually Digital SLRs. Before then, you would have a dedicated lens for focusing and another for shooting.

Mirrorless cameras, on the other hand, remove the SLR configuration altogether. Instead, they take a different approach by adding an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) that duplicates the sensor’s information into the viewfinder. Doing so, they offer a real-time preview of the sensor, known as Live View. And this design entirely removed the need for a mirror and optical viewfinder configuration.

But, in the early days, EVF’s paled in their viewing experience compared to optical viewfinders. They lack clarity, detail, resolution, and size. They also suffered from latency and blackout, making it challenging to track action. Thus most photographers wrote them off as mostly a gimmick. But, since 2014, the technology and designs have improved. And today’s EVF’s are now quite comparable to optical viewfinders. We now have models boasting 9 million dot resolutions, with near life-like realism. Manufacturers have also reduced the viewfinder lag and blackout by improving their refresh rates. And some models have finally removed the blackout altogether, which first occurred with Sony’s a9.

But, today’s OVF’s have also improved. Many now offer on-screen displays (OSD) using illuminated LED panels to overlay shooting information like exposure settings and battery life in the OVF. So many models offer some of the core functionality provided by EVFs.

camera-viewfinder

Pros
Without the pentaprism array, mirrorless cameras can provide a real-time preview of the scene. And this becomes a key advantage when capturing one-off moments and for beginners new to digital photography. The reasoning is that you can see the exposure as is, and you can make adjustments without first having to take the photo then reviewing it in playback. EVF’s also let you notice changes to white balance, preview color effects, or picture profiles, which isn’t possible with an OVF. Additionally, they’re also more sensitive to light and offer better low-light viewing, typically a pitfall of an OVF.
Cons
Many mirrorless cameras offer a relatively low-quality viewing experience compared to a pentaprism-equipped DSLR. The reasoning is that OVF’s provide an uninterrupted image of the scene without any artifacts (i.e., strange colors, pixelation, distortion, banding, or ghosting). Instead, they give you a naked eye view of the world. And this makes DSLRs generally better at tracking moving subjects without the inherent lag that comes with most mirrorless cameras. Additionally, EVF’s tend to have lower magnifications, representing their general viewing size. With a smaller magnification, they don’t have large engulfing fields of view, so you have to squint a bit. And that causes eye strain for most photographers over time.

Many older EVF panels also lack contrast and have incorrect color calibrations, causing inaccuracies in how you see the image. And you can overcompensate changes unnecessarily. So combined, these are the reasons why many sports, wildlife, and photojournalists continue to use DSLRs. But, OVF’s don’t offer a digital rendering of the captured image, so no previews and the like. Thus, you’ll have to review captured images in playback to make changes. And this process, known as chimping, dramatically slows the workflow. But, at least they’re inherently lag-free when composing, which is now just becoming possible amongst flagship mirrorless cameras. So there’s the trade-off.

Autofocusing 

There are two main autofocusing systems on the market today, contrast-detection and phase-detection. Contrast-detection is the autofocusing system used in most compact cameras. With this system, the camera focuses by measuring differences in contrast across the focusing range. And it focuses on the element of highest contrast. While this type of focusing is generally accurate, there’s a caveat. And that is, it’s not fluid or smooth. Each time you focus, the camera pulses through the entire range until it reaches a distance that yields the most contrast. This isn’t much of an issue with compact cameras since they have small sensors and less complicated lens structures. But this process is painfully slow on full-frame cameras, given their larger sensors and more complicated lenses.

The next autofocusing system is phase detection, abbreviated as PDAF. With phase detection, the camera uses a separate sensor to direct focus. There, it compares two instances of your subject from varying angles. And it uses the differences between them to determine which way to refocus the lens. Canon’s 70D was the first DSLR to initiate this change by bringing Dual Pixel CMOS AF to the market. At first, PDAF wasn’t as accurate as contrast detection. But it provided substantially faster AF speeds. But, today’s manufacturers have refined the technology, and it’s now the industry standard. In the beginning, too, mirrorless cameras didn’t offer PDAF due to their compact designs being unable to accommodate the separate PDAF sensor. So for years, they remained painfully slow compared to DSLRs with this technology. But, today, things have changed there too. And most mirrorless cameras offer a combination of PDAF and contrast AF for speed and precision

focus-points

Pros
Nearly all cameras released since 2017 have PDAF systems, be they DSLR or mirrorless, especially mid-range or higher models. And these systems are ideal for most applications, which is why it’s become standardized. PDAF is smooth, fast, and consistent. And it does so without any excessive hunting or focus breathing that plagues most contrast-detect systems, causing missed moments.
Cons
The only instance PDAF is a downside is in fast-paced action photography, like capturing sports and wildlife. In these instances, contrast detection is usually more accurate. While PDAF is slightly hit or miss and not as reliable since the subject is constantly moving across the focus plane. But, this gap between the systems isn’t as wide these days. Even so, it can cause missed shots during high continuous burst shooting.

Battery Life

Battery life and general longevity is a critical separator between these cameras. Even basic entry-level DSLRs like the Canon SL3 or Nikon D3500 can capture 1,500+ shots with ease. And several high-end DSLR can reach 2,500+ shots. Mirrorless cameras, however, continue to offer 320-400 shots, where 350 is the unclaimed standard. The main reason for this difference is always-on LCDs. And both the rear LCD and EVF require quite a bit of power. DSLRs, by contrast, having only a rear LCD and on-screen display overlay, require much less power. Secondly, most manufacturers orient mirrorless cameras at photographers wanting portability and discretion. But, a trade-off for a compact camera is a smaller battery, limiting its capacity. Not to mention, many new mirrorless cameras have in-body image stabilization (IBIS), such as Panasonic’s S1 or Canon’s EOS R6. This stabilization technology continually shifts the sensor, further reducing battery life in the process.

But ultimately, while this is a con of mirrorless cameras, you can always buy spare batteries. And most cameras offer USB charging, like Fujifilm’s X-T4 or Canon’s EOS R6, letting you charge them on the go. So whether this is a real deal-breaker is dependent on your workflow and preferences.

Size 

Most mirrorless cameras are inherently small by design. And this becomes a key advantage for these cameras since both systems use similar underlying technology. And any image quality differences in today’s world are long gone. Thus, you can capture identical quality images without the size and bulk of a DSLR. For example, compare Canon’s mirrorless EOS M50 to the equivalent 77D and 80D. All these cameras share the same underlying sensor technology, yet it’s a fraction of both their size. And that is a significant advantage for traveling creators. But, the main reason for this size difference is the internal pentaprism array of an optical viewfinder. And with higher-end DSLR’s this design requires more glass and heavier chambers, making the camera even heavier in the process. Removing this array lets manufacturers slim the camera down quite substantially.

canon-r5-with--24-105-lens

Pros
The more simple internal structure makes mirrorless cameras well suited for traveling creators. Take, for example, Sony’s ZV-1 and Olmypus’ E-PL10. These cameras are ideal for capturing images while traveling on vacations or at outings, like dinner parties or social gatherings. Plus, these cameras are also smaller and more discreet. Fujifilm’s X100V is a great opportunity to illustrate that, and it’s one of the premier choices for capturing street photography because of its compact and discreet form. But, many professional photographers prefer the larger, more comfortable, and reassuring body of a full-frame DSLR, like Canon’s 5D Mark IV. And this extra physical size affords these cameras more real estate and space for physical controls, saving time going through the menus unnecessarily. Additionally, they’re also more comfortable and better balanced since they have large protruded grips. And they’re a go-to choice for those with larger hands for these reasons.
Cons
There are trade-offs with such a compact mirrorless design, namely battery life, sensor size, control layout, and ergonomics. And their small sizes often mean smaller controls, shallow grips, and general discomfort. So many users, especially those with larger hands, find them uncomfortable and difficult to use. But, most full-frame DSLRs outweigh their mirrorless counterparts, and the difference is substantial too. Many DSLRs average 20% heavier than similar mirrorless cameras. Take, for example, Canon’s 5D Mark IV versus Sony’s A7R III. The difference here is 203g, which is noticeable in hand. So, handling a large camera like that will cause arm strain with prolonged use. Thus there’s also a group of photographers who find DSLRs unnecessarily large and unwieldy by comparison. Ultimately which camp you find yourself in here will largely come down to the size of your hands and what you find comfortable.

Lenses 

Lenses are another consideration between these camera systems. With mirrorless cameras only truly coming to market around 2014, they haven’t had the best start. Canon, Nikon, and Pentax all have three decades or more under their belts. With that, they’ve had substantially more time to refine their native lens ecosystems. And, third-party manufacturers have also had plenty of time to create alternatives. Even so, DSLR manufacturers are starting to slow the production and development of new lenses. So while this is undoubtedly an advantage, it will not last forever. And all current mirrorless manufacturers have diverse lens collections with the proper complement of zooms and primes. So this isn’t necessarily a true deal-breaker unless you specifically want to use vintage lenses.

camera-collection-of-lenses

Thankfully, the current DSLR manufacturers all offer mount adapters to convert their existing legacy mounts into their mirrorless equivalents. Take the Nikon FTZ adapter and Canon’s EF-EOS R adapters, for instance. These let you use their existing glass on new mirrorless bodies without restrictions, and performance decreases.

lens-adapters

Cons
One of the notable cons outside of sheer versatility in the ecosystems alone is the lens size. While you can indeed find many compact lenses for mirrorless cameras with cost, weight, and size savings, that’s not always the case. When you opt for high-end lenses, they end up matching comparable DSLR lenses in size and weight. But, the key issue here is that the smaller general form factor of most full-frame mirrorless cameras undermines their handling. And it makes the entire system unbalanced, reducing the camera’s reliability somewhat since you can introduce vibrations caused by handshake. Now, this isn’t an issue with all lenses. Instead, it’s usually an issue with large telephoto and fast prime lenses over 150mm. So in these circumstances, you’ll want to purchase a battery grip to improve the handling and help balance the camera. But doing so will defeat much of the advantage to mirrorless cameras in this regard.

lens-mount-adapter

Video 

Video shooting has been a key advantage of mirrorless cameras since their debut. But, DSLRs originally pioneered video with interchangeable lens cameras. And the 5D series is what took that title and brought it to a truly professional level. The main reason for this advantage is that mirrorless cameras are inherently designed for live view shooting, unlike DSLR’s which offer this secondary. Manufacturers have also tirelessly poured development resources into improving their capabilities. And today, even mid-range mirrorless cameras offer vastly superior video functionality than most DSLRs.

Even so, many high-end DSLRs are now bringing excellent video functionality, like Nikon’s D780, which offers 4K 30 FPS with a hybrid AF system taken from the mirrorless Z6. And it’s the first camera to bring DSLR video capabilities truly in line with mirrorless cameras. Sure, Canon’s done similar acts with their Dual Pixel Equipped models, like the 80D and 5D Mark IV. But, the D780 takes these abilities forward. But, that doesn’t change the fact that Canon, Sony, and Panasonic have taken things far past this level. Each of these manufacturers has a model with 5K or higher resolution with 10-bit RAW output capabilities. And we haven’t seen such powers on most DSLRs quite yet, besides Canon’s 1DX Mark III.

4k-comparison

Cons
Even with manufacturers pouring more resources into refining DSLRs, it’s still quite unnatural since they’re oriented towards photography by design. DSLRs aren’t designed for full-time sensor readout by having the mirror upright and locked at all times. And it’s something that likely causes wear to the housing over time. Additionally, most DSLRs don’t have confident live view focusing systems—many default to a contrast-detection-based system instead. Canon’s Dual Pixel-equipped models and Nikon’s D780 are currently the only real hybrids. Otherwise, most are only usable for one-shot focusing to set the focus point before recording. From there, you’ll want to focus manually. Overall though, if you’re going to shoot video casually, a DSLR is sufficient. But for serious filmmaking and cinematic productions, a full-frame mirrorless camera is best.

So Which is Best? 

Let’s close with some parting advice so you can select the best platform for your workflow and desired medium. Selecting the camera type will likely be depending on a handful of critical features that impact your workflow. But, below is a list of the main reasons we’ve seen as key deciding points.

When to Choose a Mirorrless Camera

Choose a mirrorless camera if…

  1. You’re a sport, street, wedding, or photojournalist photographer, and you want to be discreet. The slap of a DSLR mirror is audible within 5 feet away. So, if you want to be discreet and shoot unnoticed, you’ll want a mirrorless camera. There, you can use the silent shutter option to remove the shutter slap altogether. Otherwise, look for a mid-range or higher DSLR with silent, live view capabilities. But, know, you’ll likely lose some focusing ability in the process, depending on the camera.
  2. You want a hybrid camera that can shoot both stills and videos.
  3. You want to shoot high-end videos, including documentaries, weddings, commercials, and films with autofocus. Otherwise, look for a DSLR with 10-bit RAW output via HDMI, then record to an external recorder. There you can get similar enough quality, despite differences in resolution.
  4. You want a compact, lightweight, and portable camera that you can easily travel with on location.
  5. You’re an influencer or content creator looking to blog or vlog.

When to Choose a DSLR Camera

Choose a DSLR camera if…

  1. You prefer a camera with a large and comfortable grip.
  2. You prefer cameras with physical buttons, toggles, and controls rather than using on-screen menus.
  3. You want a rugged and highly durable camera, ready to take some abuse over the years.
  4. You want all day, and then some, battery life.
  5. You prefer the viewing experience of an optical viewfinder.
  6. You’re a sport, wildlife, and journalism photographer shooting fast action, and viewing latency become a reason you miss shots.
  7. You’re a beginner on a tight budget. Nikon’s D3500 and Canon’s T7 remain the most affordable new releases to date. And they outcompete most comparable mirrorless cameras in raw image quality at this price too.
  8. You’re a photographer and you don’t plan on shooting video whatsoever.