DSLR vs Mirrorless Cameras
“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.
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.
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 Simple: the optical viewfinder doesn’t exist on mirrorless cameras, and it has been replaced by an electronic one.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.