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DSLR vs Mirrorless Cameras

INTRODUCTION

“The Times They Are a-changin’”, like Bob Dylan would say. That’s what is happening at the moment in the photography world.
In the last decade (or even less!) we saw the rise of the so-called “mirrorless” cameras, and the set back of the DSLR reflex domination.
Sony, which has probably been the real first mover in the mirrorless market, has just announced to have surpassed Nikon in sales, and became the #2 world camera producer, just behind Canon.
The mirrorless cameras, that till a bunch of years ago were just a “toy” for some tech enthusiasts, now become the main work tool of many professional photographers.
This is not some huge marketing move anymore. This is not the ego of some tech producer anymore neither.
The mirrorless cameras nowadays are offering an equally valid alternative to the good old reflex cameras, and it’s time for everybody to recognize it and make a wise choice when selecting their new camera body.
That’s why I decided to wrote this article, with the hope to help you in the choosing process when the time for a new camera will come.

Mirrorless vs reflex

1. What is a DSLR Camera

DSLR literally stands for “digital single-lens reflex”; with this type of cameras, the light that’s passing through the lens will hit a mirror that will send the image to the viewfinder (or the digital sensor, in case you’ve clicked the shutter button).
So, the “optical viewfinder”, one of the most popular features of DSLR cameras, is basically the real scene (as seen through the lens) just reflected on a mirror. There are not LCD screens or any lag in the viewfinder, what you see is what you’ll shoot if you press the shutter button.
A few examples of DSLR cameras currently on the market are the Nikon D850, the Canon EOS 6D Mark II, the Nikon D750, the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, the Nikon D3500 or the Canon EOS 4000D.

Sony A73
Seiser Alm at sunrise in autumn photography tour

3. What is a Mirrorless Camera

As the name suggests, the most important difference between the DSLR and the mirrorless cameras is the lack of the mirror on the latter; so, how can they work without the mirror that reflect the light coming through the lens and arrives in the viewfinder? Simple: the optical viewfinder doesn’t exist on mirrorless cameras, and it has been replaced by an electronic one. So, instead of seeing the scene as reflected on the mirror, you’ll see it from an LCD screen that will show you what the camera sensor is capturing.
This is obviously not the only difference between DSLR and mirrorless cameras, but this is the main one and the thing that differentiates the two types of cameras.
A few examples of mirrorless cameras are the Sony a7 series (a7, a7r and a7s), the Sony a9, the Nikon Z series (Z50, Z6, Z7) and the Canon R series (R, RP).

4. How does a Mirrorless Camera Work?

So, as I just wrote in the previous chapter, the only huge difference in terms of functionalities is the lack of the mirror on mirrorless cameras. So, how does they work without the mirror? The light, when it passes through the lens, instead of being reflected on a mirror and then to your eye, will be recorded and showed to you through an electronic screen.
At the very start of the mirrorless “rise” one of the biggest problems was to eliminate the time lag produced by the transmission of data; it was really annoying to see what the camera was pointing at a bunch of milliseconds late. Now with the newer models the problem has been basically completely solved, and no lag is visible anymore: in some models it’s hard to even recognize if you are looking at an LCD screen or at the reflected image in the mirror through the glass.

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5. What is the Difference between a DSLR and a Mirrorless Camera

The time for descriptions and introductions has just ended with the previous chapter: from now on we’ll go in depth into the comparison between DSLR and mirrorless cameras.
As for many other things in the photography world, I can already tell you that there is not a winner nor a loser, there is not a better or worse one, there is just what will suit your needs best and what it won’t.

3.1 Size

Let’s start by the first thing you’ll notice in a comparison between the two types of cameras, even before taking them into your hands: the size. Mirrorless cameras, thanks to the lack of the mirror and the overall simpler mechanisms, are visibly smaller when compared to their elder sisters.
It goes without saying that if you practice a photography genre where you need to be discreet or you try to save as much space as possible in your bag, mirrorless are the way to go; instead, if the feeling of robustness and sturdiness is what you are after, you should definitely go for the DSLR cameras.

3.2 Weight

The second thing you’ll notice, once you took both the types of cameras in your hands, is the difference in terms of weight: again, for the very same reason of the size, mirrorless are lighter than DSLRs. The difference can vary depending on what models are you comparing, but it will stretch from 200g till 500g generally.
My tip is the same as for the previous point: half a kilogram less on your shoulders/neck is not a bad thing, so if you need to carry your equipment for a long time, mirrorless might be the best choice.

3.3 Sensor Size

Even if mirrorless cameras are lighter and smaller than the DSLRs, the size of the sensor remained unvaried: you can still choose between the APS-C format (with the 1.5x crop factor) and the classic 35mm FF (full-frame) format. There won’t be any difference between a full frame mirrorless camera and a full frame DSLR camera in terms of sensor size, so it shouldn’t influence your choice.

3.4 Autofocus Speed

At the beginning, one of the mirrorless major flaws was the contrast detection method to make the autofocus work; what is it?
Basically, with a number of focus points placed under the sensor, the camera was just using the contrast as the only landmark to focus (it wasn’t working well specially in low light conditions, where the contrast is not high).
In the meantime, DSLR were using the much more developed and trustworthy phase detection method, which, instead of using the contrast, was using the convergence of two light rays to measure the focus.
Now this difference is not existent anymore, since nowadays mirrorless cameras have implemented the same phase detection method that DSLRs were using, together with the contrast detection autofocus that they were using since the beginning: with two different autofocus methods working together, the focus will be even more accurate than before.
At the moment, both camera systems have a great autofocus accuracy!

3.5 Image Stabilization

One of the main “piece de resistance” of the mirrorless cameras since when they came out has always been the in-camera image stabilization. In the DSLR world, when you talk about image stabilization you are talking about the stabilizer on the lenses, because there is no such a thing as built-in stabilization inside the camera.
On mirrorless cameras though, you’ll have the chance to use the stabilization both on your camera and on your lenses, so that the chance to capture razor sharp pictures are higher!

3.6 Previewing Images

DSLR cameras, through their optical viewfinder, will be able to show you exactly what you’ll shoot; mirrorless cameras, since they are showing you the image on a screen, will behave similarly to DSLRs in good light conditions, while they’ll have an hard time doing that when you’ll be shooting in low light or at night. Why? Because the camera needs time to record some details of the scene since it’s dark, and at the same time it needs to give you a real-time preview of what you are pointing at.

3.7 Sound

Since there is no mirror that lifts up when the camera is about the take the shot, mirrorless cameras will be quieter than DSLRs; while many of them still have a mechanical shutter, which still makes some noise, a bunch of them also have an electronic shutter and you won’t hear a single sound when using it. So, DSLR cameras will be overall much more noisy when compared to mirrorless cameras.

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3.8 Video Quality

Since when they came out, mirrorless cameras always had a soft spot not just for photographers, but also for videographers; mirrorless introduced 4K videos on the camera market, and the live view focus on them is just working better overall when compared to DSLR cameras. The latter can’t use the phase detection focus method (mentioned before) when they have the mirror up, and that can create a few issues with the focus during the recording of the video.
Still, even though mirrorless generally behave better when used for video recording, professional videographers still tend to prefer DSLRs for the wider choice of lenses available for this type of cameras.

3.9 Shooting Speed

Mirrorless cameras have a physical advantage when talking about maximum frames per second: the lack of the mirror. Since they don’t have to move the mirror up and down after each shot, they can easily take more shots than DSLRs; in an equal comparison (between same price-range camera models), the mirrorless camera will probably win in terms of maximum FPS (frames per seconds) against the DSLR camera.

3.10 Battery Life

Unsurprisingly, the lightness and portability of the mirrorless cameras comes with a cost: the battery life. The reasons are pretty obvious: DSLRs, by being bigger have more space inside them and the batteries are bigger; then, remember that while on mirrorless cameras you always have a screen turned on (which drains the battery), in DSLRs if you don’t use the live view you’ll work with a glass and a mirror, nothing electronical.
Till a few years ago, the battery life gap between mirrorless and DSLR cameras was huge, while at the moment the first ones managed to thin that gap by optimizing their battery consumption.

3.11 Durability

Both types of cameras can offer an high level of durability: it is not about mirrorless or DSLR here, it is more about which model of camera you are interested in and what use you’ll make of it. Obviously, if you’ll be outside a lot, battling against the elements, I’d recommend a weather sealed camera to have some extra protection, no matter if mirrorless or DSLR!

3.12 Lenses and Accessories

In this case, DSLR cameras will score a point; they still have a wider, more extensive range of lenses and accessories. Mirrorless are still “young”, and it’s not easy for manufacturers to build up an entirely new park of lenses and dedicated accessories for them; with time they probably will, as they are already quickly catching up, but for now the gap is still solid.

Okay, but what brand?

We wrote an article about the two most famous brands in the photography market: Nikon and Canon.

4. Do Professionals Use Mirrorless Cameras?

Truth is, that in a moment of changes like this one, it’s hard to give a direct answer to a question like this. There are professionals that are already convinced that mirrorless will be the future and already invested plenty of money in the new systems, while other photographers are still reluctant to accept the new type of cameras and still consider them nothing more than “toys”. The percentage of the two different kinds of photographers will depends on the photographic genre you are looking at: in landscape photography for example, the professionals that switched from DSLR to mirrorless sharply increased in the last 3/4 years, while in wildlife or action photography (sports for example), the percentage of professionals will be lower than in landscape, since DSLRs still have a wider range of lenses and a longer battery life, which are both fundamental when it comes to “carpe diem”.

5. Will Mirrorless replace DSLRs?

Whether you like it or not, they probably will. Not in 2020, neither in 2021; but on the longer term, they will. The entire mirrorless ecosystem (mechanisms, operating system, apps, etc) is simpler to build for manufacturers and allows for some big improvements in the future photography world (see the in-camera stabilization for example), and overall it suits the time we are living in much better than the reflex cameras, with apps and a much more “connected” system.
Should you be worried if you just bought a reflex or you are about to buy one? No. Absolutely not. What I wrote is about a not-so-close future, since for now DSLR cameras are still getting their big piece of the cake in the photography world.
At the moment, all you should think about when buying a new camera are your needs: if mirrorless cameras suit them better, go for them, otherwise you’ll still have DSLRs.

Trees in the Dolomites at Sunset in backlit
venice photo workshop at sunrise

SUMMARY

As I wrote around the beginning of the article, there is not an absolute winner or an absolute loser; both mirrorless and DSLR cameras have their pros and cons, and only you can decide what you want to “settle down” for.
In the end, always remember that most of the times it doesn’t matter what type of camera you are using, but rather to be at the right place at the right time, in order to get great photos. My personal advice is to focus more on improving your photography skills rather then spending too much energy looking over and over for the best camera ever!

Leonardo Papèra

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