Do you have trouble understanding DSLR vs. mirrorless cameras? There are pros and cons for both camera systems that may not be immediately obvious. But I hope to clarify those and help you make an informed choice.
In this guide, we’ll be comparing DSLR and mirrorless in terms of image quality, lens choices, and other factors that go into purchasing a new camera body. Do you prefer a thicker body, a wider offer of lenses, and more reliable weatherization? Or is portability, a customizable electronic viewfinder, or sensor stabilization more important to you?
I’ve been shooting using both DSLR and mirrorless cameras for years, and, based on my experience, there are many advantages and disadvantages to both systems. Over the last few years, technology has been tilting the balance towards the mirrorless market, but still, the answer to the common question “Should I buy a mirrorless or DSLR?” depends on many factors.
In this article, we’ll dive into some of the benefits and drawbacks of both technologies. However, sometimes it’s easier to start by checking a mirrorless vs. DSLR pros and cons comparison chart:
|COMPARE DSLR vs MIRRORLESS|
I often get asked, “DSLR or mirrorless; which is best?” But the advantages of mirrorless vs. DSLR are not always clear because different photographers have different needs.
If you want a body that’s as durable as possible, prefer an optical viewfinder, and are looking at the secondhand market to save some money, a DSLR camera is well worth a look. Photographers looking for something lighter and the latest technological advancements should consider a mirrorless camera.
This is general advice, but now we’ll break down all the differences between mirrorless vs. DSLR cameras:
- Mirrorless vs DSLR comparison: What’s the difference?
● Size and Weight
● Battery life
● Autofocus performance
● Low-light capabilities
● Dynamic range
● Video quality
- Should I buy a Mirrorless or DSLR?
- Mirrorless vs. DSLR: Which is better?
Mirrorless vs. DSLR comparison: What’s the difference?
A common, yet somewhat unsettled, discussion about mirrorless cameras vs. DSLRs is: which system is best? However, that word “best” is a real problem because both systems have a lot to offer! So how about we phrase this as “which is best for you?”
In this mirrorless vs. DSLR discussion, I’ll be breaking down the differences, advantages, and disadvantages in a comprehensive manner so you can make an informed choice on what’s best for you! Ergonomics, image quality, lens selection, skill level…Each of these factors play into the mirrorless vs. DSLR debate!
Mirrorless vs. DSLR Size and Weight
One of the most obvious ways to compare DSLR with mirrorless is with a size comparison. The simple truth is that DSLR cameras are noticeably bulkier than equivalent sensor size mirrorless cameras. This is due not only to the mirror that reflects light up to the viewfinder, but also to other elements that take up space like the pentaprism.
Mirrorless cameras direct all of these functions with the sensor alone, which cuts down on the internal space requirements. This also means weight decreases, as smaller batteries are usually used with mirrorless cameras to capitalize on their slimmer forms.
Interestingly, there are some exceptions, and some mirrorless models, like the Panasonic LUMIX S1, are, at 1,021 g., equal to or even heavier than equivalent full-frame DSLRs. Another thing to consider in this mirrorless vs. DSLR comparison is that lenses tend to vary slightly in weight and size in both systems.
Mirrorless vs. DSLR Viewfinder
Electronic viewfinder or optical viewfinder? Such a heated online mirrorless vs. DSLR debate topic! The truth is that both systems have their own advantages worth considering. Also, a number of DSLR cameras like the Nikon D850 and the Fujifilm X-Pro series use hybrid viewfinders for the best of both worlds. But, to keep things simple, the current trend is that DSLRs use optical viewfinders (OVFs) while mirrorless cameras use electronic viewfinders (EVFs).
What’s the difference? A DSLR Optical viewfinder relies on the passive light-gathering potential of the mirror and pentaprism. This means the camera expends no power providing a view through the lens.
On the other hand, Mirrorless Electronic viewfinders come with immense flexibility. You can view the scene and exposure exactly as you intend for your photo to turn out with the given camera settings. And some tools like focus peaking are entirely absent in OVFs. As a digital readout, EVFs are far more customizable. This comes at the cost of constant power usage, however.
Mirrorless vs. DSLR Battery Life
Even though technology has been tilting the balance over the last few years, DSLR vs. mirrorless battery life is still a win for DSLR cameras, for two reasons.
The first is that camera sensors do so many functions in mirrorless systems. As a single unit for viewfinder, image generator, and autofocus system, mirrorless cameras drain batteries completely.
And because manufacturers want to capitalize on the smaller form factor potential of mirrorless designs, they use smaller batteries despite the higher power needs. These two issues mean that DSLRs typically have 2-4x the battery life of most mirrorless cameras in normal conditions.
Also, when it gets cold, mirrorless cameras can be extremely difficult to work with on long shoots. I explore a few ways to deal with this in my discussion on how to photograph the Northern Lights.
It’s worth mentioning that battery life in mirrorless cameras is catching up, with some cameras like the Sony A7 RIV offering up to 670 shots on a single charge. However, this is still far from top-notch DSLR models like the Nikon D850, which offers up to 1840 shots.
Mirrorless vs. DSLR Autofocus Performance
Comparing DSLR and mirrorless autofocusing systems when mirrorless was brand new was a solid win for DSLR cameras. The contrast-detection-based focusing systems of the first mirrorless cameras meant that these simply could not compete with DSLR phase detection in good lighting.
But now that’s changed. Modern medium and high-end mirrorless use hybrid phase and contrast-detection systems with autofocus speeds that are every bit as fast as modern DSLR cameras. They also include a staggering number of customizable autofocus modes and focus points for modifiable tracking options.
Also, manufacturers are investing more and more in their mirrorless lines vs. DSLR, and the latest autofocus technology, like Eye-AF for tracking and wildlife, is only being implemented in mirrorless cameras.
Mirrorless vs. DSLR Shutter
Both DSLR and mirrorless use mechanical shutters for image capture. Mirrorless cameras also include electronic shutters that are entirely silent, making them great for event photography. However, shooting in artificial lighting can result in banding due to the light frequency cycles being captured by the sensor, an issue called “Silent shutter banding”.
Mirrorless camera shutter life can also be significantly higher than DSLR cameras. Mechanical shutters eventually wear down and need replacement, which is inevitably expensive. However, it’s rare to find a photographer who actually kills his shutter in today’s upgrade-oriented marketplace.
LLastly, both mirrorless and reflex are subject to shutter shock, resulting in image blur, which is caused by the impact of the rapidly firing shutter mechanism. And DSLRs sometimes have problems with mirror slap, which is caused by unsteady mirror retractions from using shutter speeds below 1/100ths of a second. Both are things to consider and avoid for any photographer who wants to take sharper photos.
DSLR or Mirrorless for Low Light Photography?
Of all the DSLR vs. Mirrorless differences, this one is the slimmest of wins for mirrorless cameras, but not due to any inherent difference. Most differences in how well a camera operates in low light come down much more to technology as opposed to whether it has a mirror or not. Camera sensor size and technologies like sensor stabilization and back-side illumination (BSI) impact low-light performance.
In terms of low-light focusing, however, the latest mirrorless models do tend to be ahead of the curve compared to equivalent DSLRs. Focusing at -3/-4 EV is the standard, with a few models like the Fujifilm XPro 3 reaching -6EV. Again, this is not because DSLRs are incapable of this kind of focus, but because of the higher investment in high-end mirrorless models.
As for the mirrorless vs. DSLR ISO performance, the latest full-frame BSI sensors like the Nikon D850 and Sony A7RIV show nearly identical results at pixel-peeping levels throughout the ISO range. Still, IBIS (camera body stabilization) is far more common in mirrorless cameras and makes handheld low-light photography easier thanks to slower shutter speeds.
In some genres like astrophotography, the trend is also tilting towards mirrorless cameras for shooting the Milky Way and other astronomical objects.
DSLR vs. Mirrorless Dynamic Range
Dynamic range really isn’t a quality of DSLR or mirrorless; it’s a quality of the camera sensor. Any camera can have an amazing or subpar dynamic range; high-end DSLRs like the Nikon D850 have identical performance to high-end models like the Z7 or Sony A7 line.
Considering Sony makes Nikon’s, Fujifilm’s, and Olympus’s sensors in addition to their own, there really isn’t a meaningful difference in DSLR vs. Mirrorless dynamic range.
In this regard, today you can find superb mirrorless and DSLR cameras in terms of sharpness, color fidelity, dynamic range, and all other considerations.
DSLR vs. Mirrorless Lenses
Camera lenses are one of the most important considerations that go into the mirrorless vs. reflex camera decision. Lens selection, prices, and qualities like sharpness, contrast, size, and compatibility all influence the attractiveness of an interchangeable lens format.
DSLRs have held a traditional advantage due to the simple fact that the system is older. As a result, DSLR photographers (particularly when it comes to Nikon and Canon) have access to a library of hundreds of choices and a wide offer of second-hand lenses.
Mirrorless is a much newer system, and even with robust third party support from Tamron, Sigma, and other brands, it’s still a far cry from the CaNikon collection that continues to grow today.
However, mirrorless cameras can be adapted to use DSLR lenses. Several third-party adapters for most mirrorless systems already exist and can greatly expand your lens options. DSLR manufacturers that also make mirrorless, such as Canon and Nikon, also offer native adapters for flawless performance with their equipment.
DSLR vs. Mirrorless Durability
DSLR cameras do have an edge in terms of durability. The larger body provides more room for a thicker chassis that’s better at shock absorption, a larger grip, and stronger weatherizing seals.
A few mirrorless systems, notably Olympus and Panasonic, are known to be rugged and especially tough. Newer Sony models are also being constructed with better weather-sealing to be able to endure the elements, which is useful for genres such as landscape or wildlife photography.
But DSLR camera brands like Pentax and Canon are what many photographers rely on for war photojournalism, wildlife, backcountry landscape photography, and other genres where you know your camera body will take a beating.
Another thing to consider in terms of maintenance is the cleaning of the sensor. In mirrorless cameras, the camera sensor is much more exposed in comparison to DSLR cameras, which means that it accumulates more dust spots and requires more frequent cleaning.
DSLR vs. Mirrorless Video Quality
When it comes to DSLR vs. mirrorless for recording video, mirrorless cameras have a solid lead in terms of sheer choices available.
Most of the DSLRs capable of high-quality 4K and fast frame rates tend to be top-end models, whereas even some entry-level mirrorless models offer 4K at 30 fps and higher. Sony and Panasonic models, in particular, offer some of the best professional-level videography options, and other brands are taking the video in mirrorless cameras one step further, such as the 8k video recording capacity of the Canon EOS R5.
If you’re looking for a camera for vlogging, both DSLR and mirrorless cameras have quality choices. Budget vloggers wanting 4K or higher resolution should definitely be looking at mirrorless, however. Even entry-level models like the Sony a6600 offer respectable 4K and IBIS to help stabilize handheld recording.
Mirrorless Camera vs. DSLR Image Quality
Image quality is a tricky concept to define. What do we mean when we say “image quality”? Since both DSLR systems and mirrorless cameras have full-sensors available, both systems offer quality glass and high-resolution sensors.
As I showed earlier, ISO performance is dependent on factors other than the presence or lack of a mirror. Both systems offer excellent image quality with the right body and lenses.
Should I Buy a Mirrorless or DSLR camera?
With the facts outlined above, it’s clear that DSLR and mirrorless cameras are both competitive choices. Even in terms of pricing, you’ll find entry-level, intermediate, and advanced models that can suit the needs of any budget.
If you’re looking for used bodies, DSLR cameras provide more choices. The system has been around for so long that high-end models from a few years ago can be had for a fraction of their new price.
To help you understand or maybe decide between DSLR or mirrorless, let’s discuss a few more advantages of each system depending on your photographic needs!
DSLR or Mirrorless: Which is better?
As we’ve seen so far, there is no “absolute best” option in the mirrorless vs. DSLR comparison. It depends on circumstances like your skills, your budget, the genre you shoot, etc.
You can find a few general guidelines below for choosing which system – mirrorless or reflex – is better for you:
Entry-Level Dslr vs. Mirrorless?
There are many pros and cons for entry-level DSLRs vs. mirrorless models.
Mirrorless for beginners has quite a bit to offer if you want a more capable beginner’s camera that you can grow into. They often include 4K video and features found in more advanced DSLRs, such as focus stacking or HDR imaging. Intermediate models like the Sony A6600 and Nikon Z50 have a few more bells and whistles than intermediate DSLRs like the Canon EOS 90D.
Comparing APS-C DSLRs vs. mirrorless, if you’re looking for a basic body and interchangeable lens system, DSLRs for beginners (particularly Canon/Nikon) win in terms of offer and prices. Models like the Nikon D3500 and Rebel Tx/Txi series are some of the most popular cameras in the world for good reason. They’re intuitive and provide excellent image quality in an inexpensive, easy to use, and fun package.
However, if you want to travel lighter and maybe record some video, plus photography is something you’re really interested in, I’d recommend opting for a beginner’s mirrorless camera vs. DSLR since this is the technology of the future.
DSLR vs. Mirrorless for Professionals?
Professional DSLR and mirrorless models tend to be full-frame cameras. Since these are the high-end product lines, there tend to be different strengths, rather than one category winning over the other.
Which style you choose really depends on what you value. If size is a liability and you prefer an EVF, professional mirrorless cameras have a lot to offer you. If you prefer an OVF, DSLR ergonomics, better stamina, or have already invested in a DSLR line of lenses, the traditional DSLR models can still be an option for a few years.
As regards specs and models, it depends on the type of photography that you do. For example, the Sony A7RIV or Nikon Z7, offer 5-axis sensor stabilization and back-sensor illumination, along with 40+ megapixel resolution. While the Nikon D850 and Canon 5D Mark IV don’t have IBIS, they do include superior weather sealing, better battery life, and access to the entire CaNikon collection of DSLR lenses.
In this market segment, the bet of the manufacturers is also on the mirrorless system, so even though there are still some advantages to traditional high-end DSLRs, I’d definitely opt for a professional mirrorless system.
DSLR or Mirrorless for Landscape Photography?
Some mirrorless features like hybrid vs. phase detection and subject tracking are irrelevant in landscape photography. What landscape photographers do look for are weight, dynamic range, resolution, and full-frame light-gathering abilities.
Mirrorless cameras have a significant advantage in this realm. If you’re a Nikon shooter, would you prefer your 46 MP BSI sensor in a weather-sealed 1015 g. or in a 657 g. package that’s also thinner?
DSLR or Mirrorless for Astrophotography?
If you’re looking at low-light photography like Astro or Milky Way photography, once again, both DSLR and mirrorless cameras have advantages and disadvantages. If battery life is important for your nightlong exposure work, full-frame DSLRs can last most of the night with a couple of charged spares. You need to be much more careful with mirrorless models.
However, given how well many modern mirrorless models do with high-ISO work, they make excellent night photography cameras if you carry either extra batteries or a charging pack. Some brands like Canon are also investing in advanced models aimed at astrophotographers, such as the Canon EOS Ra, a specific camera for astrophotography with a built-in infrared cutting system that allows us to capture more details of the night sky.
You can find more information on DSLR and mirrorless cameras for astrophotography in our Milky Way gear article.
Mirrorless vs. DSLR for Travel Photography
In this genre, there is no question; mirrorless cameras have a significant advantage in travel photography. They’re lighter and more pleasant to carry with you.
It’s often a struggle to pack even an APS-C DSLR; it’s chunky and tends to get in the way if you aren’t shooting. Crop mirrorless models can often be slipped into a pocket when not in use. You can even carry a full-frame mirrorless camera for the weight of an entry-level crop DSLR. Gear for travel photography is a topic that deserves a discussion all its own, which I’ve already outlined here!
Conclusion: Mirrorless vs. DSLR Cameras: 10 Key Differences
When it comes to mirrorless vs. DSLR image quality, there are no inherent advantages. Both systems provide stellar image quality, so don’t choose based on this alone. Likewise, when comparing mirrorless vs. DSLR autofocus performance, the myth persists that mirrorless is inferior due to its origins as a contrast-detection based system, but this is no longer the case.
Choosing the best camera system, DSLR or mirrorless, depends on your budget, photography style, and general preferences. That being said, mirrorless cameras really are the future. The main DSLR manufacturers, Canon and Nikon, aren’t killing their DSLR lines anytime soon. But it’s clear they intend to invest more into full-frame and crop mirrorless, following the trail Sony has blazed. Olympus, Panasonic, Fujifilm, and the others have all decided mirrorless is the way to go as well, with Pentax sticking to its guns as a DSLR specialist making bulletproof outdoor cameras.
Final question time! DSLR or Mirrorless System: Which is Better for You?
DSLR is best for you if:
- You value high battery life
- Weight isn’t a concern for you
- You want an especially rugged camera
- Video features aren’t a concern
- You want to get the best price on the secondhand Market.
Choose Mirrorless if:
- You need a compact body
- Weight is critical to you
- Advanced Video features matter
- You want the latest camera technology
- You’re interested in new modern lenses and updates