mirrorless vs dslr

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Chris Johnson, TPG Editor

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In recent years one of the most popular debates amongst photographers is about mirrorless vs. DSLR camera systems. Which one is best? There are valid pros and cons for both types of cameras. 

Whether you’re brand new to photography or have been taking pictures for many years, this article will help you decide how to choose a new camera.


New and Experienced Photographers

Camera manufacturers are more focused on developing mirrorless cameras than DSLRs. The number of new mirrorless cameras far outweighs new DSLRs. Panasonic released its first mirrorless camera in 2008, and photographers were sluggish to pick up on this new, smaller camera format. Sony introduced its full-frame Alpha a7 in 2013, and other manufacturers joined the party. The greater the variety and quality of mirrorless cameras on the market, the more photographers started to adopt this new system.

So, if you’re buying your first camera, it makes sense to look at mirrorless because they are the future of photography. What are mirrorless cameras good for? All kinds of photography. Just as DSLR cameras are, there are differences.

But don’t ignore DSLRs, especially if you’re confined to a tight budget. People are selling their DSLRs in favor of technological advancements in mirrorless cameras. This sell-off means plenty of barely used DSLRs are available in the second-hand market. 

If like me, you love your DSLR and are looking for an upgrade, you’ll probably be tempted to stick with the camera system you know. But do take a look at the mirrorless options available. There are significant differences that are well worth paying attention to.

Sensor size is always another main consideration when choosing a new camera. Cameras with full-frame sensors are larger and more expensive, whether mirrorless or DSLR. Crop sensor cameras are smaller and less expensive. Lens size and cost also vary depending on the cameras they are designed for.


Size and Weight Comparisons

One key aspect of how much you’ll enjoy using a camera is how it feels in your hands. It’s important to match the weight and size of a camera to your hands. With your heaviest lens attached, your camera must be comfortable for you to hold.

People with small hands often prefer a smaller, lighter mirrorless camera than a larger DSLR. If you have big hands, a big camera will be more comfortable than a tiny camera. 

I recently had a workshop customer who owned a large, full-frame DSLR and two big zoom lenses. She was a petite, older woman who struggled with her camera, especially nearer the end of the day. I’m sure she would enjoy photography much more with a smaller, lighter camera system.

I prefer using a larger camera because it fits well in my hands and I’m very used to it. However, the older I get, the more I like the idea of using lighter-weight camera equipment! 

When you’re looking to buy a new camera or to upgrade from your older model, it’s important to choose one that feels comfortable. 

How and where you’ll use your camera are also worth considering. Do you want a camera to travel with or take with you everywhere? Or will you mainly mount it on a tripod and use it in a studio setting where size and weight won’t matter much? 

Size dictates how many external buttons, dials, and rockers can fit on a camera. Larger DSLRs have a multitude of external controls. Mirrorless cameras are designed with fewer buttons, so you need to use the internal menus to make changes more than with a DSLR. This can slow you down, especially when you like managing your camera settings manually.


Viewfinders: Mirrorless vs. DSLR

With a DSLR viewfinder, you’re looking through the lens with the help of a mirror and prism. Using a mirrorless camera, what you see when you put the camera to your eye is a tiny monitor. 

Looking through the electronic viewfinder on a mirrorless camera is much different than looking through the optical viewfinder on a DSLR.

The differences can be quite remarkable, particularly if you’re used to looking through the optical viewfinder on a DSLR camera. Both have pros and cons.

Optical viewfinders show you precisely what you are pointing your camera at in real-time. With electronic viewfinders, there’s always a small amount of lag time. This matters most when you’re photographing fast-moving subjects like sport or wildlife. 

With an electronic viewfinder, you can preview how your exposure settings will affect your photos. This is a great advantage of mirrorless cameras. Using this feature means you don’t have to look at the light meter display, allowing you to be more creative and precise with your exposure settings. Learning to use the manual mode like this is so much easier.

Electronic viewfinders provide many options for displaying additional information. You can configure them to show things like:

  • Focus areas
  • The histogram
  • Horizon level
  • Highlights indicator
  • Image review

Along with all the other standard information, these features can overwhelm what you’re actually photographing. So it pays to configure the setup carefully.


Lens Differences

When starting out in photography, you’ll be content, at least for a short time, with the kit lens that comes with your camera. As you gain some experience, you’ll probably want some lenses more suitable for specific genres of photography. You may want a longer lens for catching those moments of your kids playing soccer. Or a wider, faster lens for low-light street photography.

Whatever your subject choice, there’s no great difference in options between lenses for mirrorless vs. DSLRs. As with the ongoing development of mirrorless camera bodies, more and more new lenses for these cameras are hitting the market.

The range of lenses available for DSLR cameras is even greater because they’ve been around for longer. Some photographers even prefer to work with vintage lenses. The oldest lens I use on my DSLR is about 50 years old.

Switching from DSLR to mirrorless means changing all your lenses because the lens mounts and specs are different. This can be costly if you own a lot of lenses and want to replace them all. Alternatively, you can use an adaptor. Most mirrorless cameras have adaptors available, so you can attach DSLR lenses to them. This is not ideal as it affects the balance of a camera and sometimes the functionality as well.

Lenses for crop sensor mirrorless cameras are often much smaller than equivalent lenses for DSLR cameras. This is a great advantage if you prefer not to carry too much bulk and weight. 

For full-frame cameras, lenses for both mirrorless and DSLRs tend to be similar in weight and size. But you might pay more for lenses for your mirrorless camera, apparently due to research and development costs. There are no significant quality differences overall between lenses for mirrorless and DSLR cameras.


More Differences in Mirrorless vs. DSLR Cameras

I’ve covered what I consider to be the main differences between mirrorless vs. DSLR cameras. Here are a few more points of differences that are also notable. These will also help you better understand the advantages of mirrorless cameras.


Battery Life

Batteries for mirrorless cameras are typically smaller and will not last as long as those for DSLR cameras. They also tend to drain more rapidly because the electronic viewfinder is in constant use. This can be problematic when traveling or in situations where recharging batteries is not possible.

It always pays to carry more batteries than you think you’ll need. But swapping batteries frequently is frustrating. This is one of the main disadvantages of mirrorless cameras.


Burst Rate

Mirrorless cameras have a faster burst rate than DSLR cameras of a similar level. With no mirror, a camera can take more photos in quick succession. The mechanism of the mirror movement in a DSLR (the mirror has to flip up before each photo is taken) slows picture-taking. 

For most photographers, this will not be an issue. When photographing many sports, animals, or any type of fast action, a quicker burst rate is always a good option.


Micro Four Thirds Lenses

Lenses for any micro four-thirds mirrorless camera can be universally used between brands. With this type of mirrorless camera, the mounting system is an open standard used by manufacturers. This provides you with more lens purchasing options.


Auto-Focus Technology

Initially, the auto-focus on mirrorless cameras was lacking in comparison to DSLRs. This has now changed because of the greater concentration of development of mirrorless cameras.

The lack of a mirror is also beneficial when it comes to auto-focus performance in a camera. DSLRs require two different systems for focusing. As mirrorless systems continue to develop, it’s a given that the auto-focus performance will only continue to increase. This has always been a major area of competition between camera brands.


Video

Mirrorless vs. DSLR for video is an easy choice. There are many reasons mirrorless cameras outperform DSLRs when it comes to video recording. Many mirrorless camera models seem to be designed as much for recording video as taking photos.

No mirror, improved continuous auto-focus, and lightweight bodies are all advantages mirrorless cameras have over DSLRs when it comes to recording video. This is why many photographers use mirrorless cameras when recording video.


Mirrorless vs. DSLR Conclusion

Buying a new camera is a great investment. Not only because of the money you’ll spend, but because of the enjoyment you’ll experience with your new camera. It’s important to weigh up the differences and choose what style of camera system will suit you best.

Mirrorless vs. DSLR is the initial choice you have. Once you’ve decided on what type of camera you want, then you need to get down to the details of a specific model.

If you’re on a tight budget, a used DSLR could be perfect. With so many photographers wanting the latest and greatest mirrorless cameras, there are tons of used DSLRs on the market. Even slightly older, higher-end DSLRs produce excellent-quality images. When you’re starting out, you don’t need a camera with all the latest bells and whistles, so considering a used DSLR is well worth it.

For downsizing or upgrading technology, looking at the newest model of mirrorless is your best option. You’ll pick up a camera packed with the latest tech in a much smaller, lighter body than you can get in a DSLR. But be prepared to pay a bit more for it.

The trend of camera manufacturers is clear. They are producing far more mirrorless models than DSLRs and will continue to do so. Research and development in mirrorless cameras far outstrip that of DSLR models. If future-proofing is important to you, go with a mirrorless camera.

References


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