Last Updated on May 13, 2023 by Photography PX
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
- 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.
- You want a hybrid camera that can shoot both stills and videos.
- 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.
- You want a compact, lightweight, and portable camera that you can easily travel with on location.
- You’re an influencer or content creator looking to blog or vlog.
When to Choose a DSLR Camera
Choose a DSLR camera if…
- You prefer a camera with a large and comfortable grip.
- You prefer cameras with physical buttons, toggles, and controls rather than using on-screen menus.
- You want a rugged and highly durable camera, ready to take some abuse over the years.
- You want all day, and then some, battery life.
- You prefer the viewing experience of an optical viewfinder.
- You’re a sport, wildlife, and journalism photographer shooting fast action, and viewing latency become a reason you miss shots.
- 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.
- You’re a photographer and you don’t plan on shooting video whatsoever.