Serious photographers no longer have to just consider what DSLR they’ll use. Mirrorless cameras have opened up a new option, offering that high-end performance, but in a much smaller size. But can you really get DSLR-like performance in a smaller size? Which is best, DSLR, or mirrorless?
A few years ago, the answer was simple. But as mirrorless camera technology has started to catch up with their older brother, the choice is less cut-and-dry. DSLRs still have their advantages, but now mirrorless cameras have a set of advantages all their own. The decision, then, is no longer a matter of which is best, but which is best for you. Here are the pros and cons of DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, to find what camera is best for your shooting style.
DSLRs: The Traditional Beast
DSLRs, with their longer history, have quite a few perks for both new enthusiasts and pros alike. Where mirrorless camera’s sensors range from 1” to full frame, DSLRs don’t even come with those smaller sensor sizes. DSLRs have either an APS-C sensor or a full frame one, and a larger sensor means a higher resolution and enhanced low light capability.
While mirrorless autofocus technology is catching up, DSLRs are still thought to have the better focusing systems. The contrast detection system on most mirrorless cameras (and also on Live View mode on DSLRs) works by trial and error, moving in and out until it reaches a sharp point. Phase detection autofocus provides much more information and focuses based on distance. This method results in a faster autofocus performance. Technological advances have allowed for a hybrid autofocus system inside high-end mirrorless models that performs just as well, but it isn’t yet universally available.
The larger body on a DSLR also allows room for more physical controls. Advanced DSLRs typically have enough controls that you can adjust nearly every shooting setting without taking your eye from the viewfinder, once you’re familiar with the camera. Larger grips also tend to be more comfortable to hold.
Many camera manufacturers charge a premium for packing big features into small bodies. A $500 DSLR tends to have better specs than a $500 mirrorless camera, though that’s not always the case.
The biggest disadvantage of a DSLR is obvious. The big size means more to carry around and more weight around your neck. You can’t take a picture if you don’t take your camera with you, and smaller cameras tend to get out of the bag more often. DSLRs have gotten quite a bit smaller in recent years, but they’re still quite a big larger than mirrorless cameras.
DSLRs also tend to be slower than mirrorless cameras in terms of burst speed. Each time a DSLR takes a picture, the mirror has to flip up to do so. Of course, mirrorless cameras don’t have that mirror, and less gear to move often means faster burst speeds. It’s relatively easy to find a mirrorless camera with a 10 fps burst speed, where DSLRs average 5 fps. You can find a 10 fps DSLR, but they’re expensive and there are fewer of them available compared to the mirrorless market.
Mirrorless Cameras: The New Kid on the Block
Mirrorless camera manufacturers have had a few years now to advance their technology, upping performance to be closer to a DSLR. While there are a lot of 1” and Micro Four Thirds sensor mirrorless cameras, there are also plenty of options with the larger APS-C sensor, and Sony has even released a handful of full frame models. Some companies even use the same sensor and processor in their mirrorless cameras as in their DSLRs.
Because mirrorless cameras are smaller, they’re excellent for travel. Hiking with a mirrorless camera is less burdensome than hiking with a DSLR, which means you may walk a bit farther and find that money shot when you do.
The mirror inside a DSLR bounces the image up into the optical viewfinder. Mirrorless cameras cannot have optical viewfinders. This is a downside for many, but since it led to the development of electronic viewfinders, it’s also a plus. Electronic viewfinders display the image with all the effects included, like black and white, for example. Many mirrorless cameras also allow the user to access the menu inside the electronic viewfinder to adjust settings without pulling the camera away from your face. Focus peaking, where the camera highlights the parts of the image that are focused manually, is also possible thanks to the electronic viewfinder.
While their autofocus tends to be slower, a mirrorless camera’s burst speeds are often higher. Again, without that mirror to move, many mirrorless cameras can offer a fast burst. The Nikon 1 J5 for example, hits 20 fps.
High-end mirrorless cameras with a hybrid autofocus system tend to capture better video than DSLRs. Remember, phase detection is only available when using the optical viewfinder on DSLRs, so shooting video through live view mode means the contrast detection is used.
This type of autofocus makes a bigger difference in video. Contrast autofocus will pull the subject in and out of focus before finally locking on. (DSLRs use this contrast detection to shoot video, but phase detection for images). Many high-end mirrorless models will also shoot 4K video.
While each camera varies a bit on image quality, you can’t look at an image and determine if it was taken by a DSLR or a mirrorless camera. Performance and features have some variations, but many mirrorless cameras capture excellent images.
A smaller body means less room for some features like the battery. Mirrorless cameras have notoriously low battery lives when compared to DSLRs. Where a high-end DSLR may be rated at over 1,000 images per charge, many mirrorless cameras have battery life ratings of about 300-400 shots. Again, this varies a bit by model, but DSLRs overall tend to have the longer battery life.
While the electronic viewfinder introduces a few new features, the optical vs. electronic viewfinder debate is a personal preference. Electronic viewfinders can look like an over-processed version of the image, and aren’t as accurate in limited lighting. Of course, some mirrorless cameras don’t have a viewfinder at all, instead relying on the LCD screen.
Since DSLRs have been around longer, they tend to have a better selection of lenses. Mirrorless cameras still have a good assortment of lenses, but don’t quite yet cover everything that DSLR lenses do.
Mirrorless cameras also tend to cost more than DSLRs with similar specs. That’s not always the case though. Sony’s full frame mirrorless cameras have a surprising price when compared to full frame DSLRs.
DSLRs Vs. Mirrorless: Who wins?
With image quality that’s about equal, the answer to the DSLR vs. mirrorless question is now just about personal preference, and the type of work you do. DSLRs have a slight edge in autofocus, as well as more physical controls, a more comfortable grip, an optical viewfinder, wider lens and accessory selection and a better battery life. Mirrorless, on the other hand, travels easily, shoots faster burst sequences and offers better video quality. Both mirrorless and DSLR cameras will be able to capture similar images. It all comes down to weighing portability and extra features.
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