The mirrorless vs DSLR camera face-off is not yet settled. But mirrorless is on the rise, accounting for about 50 percent of all camera sales in 2022. Mirrorless systems are becoming increasingly popular among photographers due to their smaller size, lighter weight, advanced features, and excellent image quality.
Does that make DSLR cameras obsolete? No, but a paradigm shift is underway. Rumors circulate that camera companies are ending DSLR production; however, Nikon and Canon both deny that. Sony transitioned to selling only mirrorless cameras in 2021.
In this article, we’ll stage a mirrorless vs. DSLR debate, the advantages of both, the cost of making the change to mirrorless, and how to decide.
What is a DSLR Camera?
A DSLR is a type of digital camera that uses a single lens reflex system to capture images. It combines the optics and mechanisms of a traditional film camera with digital imaging technology.
With a digital single lens reflex camera, the photographer previews the image in an optical viewfinder. Light passes through the lens and reflects off the mirror in front of the sensor. That light is directed to a prism at the top of the camera and is then reflected into the viewfinder.
So when you push the shutter button to capture a photo, the mirror flips up to allow light to hit the sensor and produce the image. After the image has been recorded, the mirror returns to its original position in front of the sensor, as illustrated in the graphic below.
DSLR cameras are popular among professional photographers and hobbyists alike due to their versatility, image quality, and ease of use. They also come in a wide range of prices and offer an impressive array of lens options.
In addition to interchangeable lenses, DSLRs have features such as manual or automatic camera settings and advanced metering systems that enable photographers to take high quality images in virtually any situation. With the right lens and settings, DSLR cameras can be used for practically any type of photography.
What is a Mirrorless Camera?
Mirrorless cameras are the latest advancement in digital photography technology. This type of camera does not have a mirror or optical viewfinder. Instead, it relies on an electronic viewfinder (EVF) or liquid crystal display (LCD) screen to preview and compose the final image to be captured by the sensor.
Mirrorless cameras come in a range of prices, from affordable to break-the-bank expensive. But shooting mirrorless offers many advantages over traditional DSLR cameras, such as being lighter and more compact, having faster autofocus capabilities, and providing higher image quality due to larger sensors.
Another advantage of mirrorless cameras is the elimination of a moving part. With no mirror to flip up during exposure, there is no blur from mirror slap and no mirror mechanism to fail.
The average mirrorless camera comes with advanced features and capabilities. As a result, they are becoming increasingly popular among photographers, from amateur to professional.
The Size and Weight Differences Between Mirrorless and DSLR Cameras
One key factor that separates DSLR and mirrorless cameras is their size and weight. DSLR cameras are known for their durability and reliability. They typically have a larger body than the lighter mirrorless cameras. This is due in part to the mirror mechanism inside the camera, adding weight and bulk to the camera body, making it larger and heavier.
Mirrorless cameras, on the other hand, eliminate the need for a mirror, which allows the camera body to be smaller and lighter than DSLR cameras. Mirrorless cameras are typically more compact and easier to carry around, making them a popular choice for travel and street photography.
This is not necessarily the case with professional-level mirrorless cameras. Some professional photographers prefer a larger grip, and the manufacturers responded. A few cameras feature an additional grip for vertical perspective, which further increases body size.
A Comparison of Size and Weight
To give you an idea of the size and weight difference, let’s compare a DSLR with a comparable mirrorless camera:
Note that the DSLR is more than twice the weight but has a smaller sensor.
While the size and weight difference may not seem significant on paper, it can make a big difference in practice. If you travel frequently and carry your camera, a mirrorless camera is easier to carry around and won’t take up as much space in your luggage.
Of course, the mirrorless EOS R10 is more expensive than the EOS 7D Mark II.
Mirrorless vs DSLR: The Evolving Technology
While DSLRs remain the camera of choice for many professional photographers, mirrorless cameras are quickly becoming the preferred option for others. Mirrorless cameras excel in autofocus systems, electronic viewfinders, and video capabilities. Let’s look at each.
On a mirrorless camera, autofocusing occurs on the sensor itself, resulting in faster focusing speeds.
With the use of phase detection points on the image sensor, mirrorless cameras achieve even faster and more accurate autofocus. While this technology originated in DSLR cameras, it has advanced in mirrorless cameras, resulting in superior eye detection. This is especially useful for portrait photography. Also, the eye tracking of animals improved with mirrorless cameras.
Camera manufacturers have begun integrating artificial intelligence (AI) into their autofocus systems. The latest mirrorless cameras identify faces, prioritizing them for focus and exposure. This autofocus technique can also detect animals and automobiles, ensuring sharp focus in a variety of situations.
Mirrorless cameras feature an electronic viewfinder (EVF) instead of the optical viewfinder found in DSLRs. EVFs provide a real-time preview of the image and allow you to see the effect of any changes in settings before taking the photo. Unlike optical viewfinders, EVFs show you the exact exposure and white balance of the photo, which can help you make more accurate adjustments.
The early mirrorless cameras struggled in low light, rendering a preview that was noisy and unstable as the camera’s digital sensor slowed down to capture more light. However, camera manufacturers addressed that issue, and modern electronic viewfinders are on par with the optical viewfinders of their DSLR counterparts.
Both mirrorless and DSLR cameras take the rear LCD screen to a new level. Many offer tilting rear touchscreen displays, a feature that adds functionality and convenience to the photography process.
The top professional DSLR cameras can shoot at 16 frames per second (fps). A number of mirrorless cameras can shoot at 20 fps. The Sony Alpha 1 features an impressive 30 fps with autofocus.
The best mirrorless cameras feature five-axis image stabilization, a technology that shifts the digital imaging sensor to compensate for camera movement. This in-body stabilization is an improvement over older methods. It is most beneficial when shooting from a moving vehicle and handheld video.
Mirrorless cameras are superior for recording video. For example, 4K video capture is a standard feature on most mirrorless cameras. Some now offer ultra HD quality videos in 6K and 8K.
In addition, high frame rates and advanced autofocus make mirrorless models a popular choice for videographers.
Several camera makers offer moderately priced cameras with video features intended for vloggers. The Sony ZV-E10 and Canon EOS M50 Mark II are mirrorless cameras with APS-C sensors, 4K video, and webcam capability.
Processing Power and Image Quality
Mirrorless cameras feature more powerful processors, including high ISO. Nikon’s D850 features ISO settings from 64 to 25,600. The mirrorless Nikon Z9 has an extended ISO range from 32 up to 102,400.
Image quality between the DSLR and mirrorless cameras is more or less the same, provided they have identical sensor sizes. Both give you the option of shooting raw or Jpeg files. However, advances in sensor technology will be available primarily on mirrorless bodies.
Image Quality and Sensor Size Comparison of DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras
Sensor size is the deciding factor in image quality, so both mirrorless and DSLR cameras are capable of delivering spectacular photographs. In this sense, digital cameras are digital cameras. Autofocus, low-light capability, and resolution combine in the sensor to determine the final image quality.
Early mirrorless cameras tended to have smaller sensors, but that’s no longer the case. Camera makers are putting their largest, most advanced sensors into their mirrorless line. But in terms of sharp, full tonal range photos, both DSLR and mirrorless models yield exceptional results.
DSLRs held an advantage over mirrorless cameras regarding battery life. However, this gap has narrowed in recent years as mirrorless cameras have become more efficient. Many mirrorless cameras now offer battery life similar to DSLRs, and some even surpass them.
Advantages of Using DSLR Cameras
While mirrorless cameras are the shiny new object, that doesn’t mean a DSLR is suddenly a bad camera. You can capture high quality images and create exceptional art with DSLR technology.
DSLR cameras continue to offer good value. Prices have dropped significantly in recent years. The D850, Nikon’s top-of-the-line DSLR, had a retail price in 2017 of $3,300, a body-only price. In the first half of 2023, you can find that camera for under $2,000.
Meanwhile, the prices of mirrorless cameras can be staggering. The Sony Alpha 1 lists for nearly $6,500 on popular retail camera sites. The Canon EOS R3 and Nikon Z9 are both around $5,500. That’s for a mirrorless camera body that does not include even a kit lens.
DSLR Cameras in Live View
A DSLR can function as a mirrorless system by flipping the mirror up and displaying the image captured by the camera sensor on a rear LCD screen. However, some DSLRs suffer from slower autofocus in the Live View mode. This is caused by using the contrast detection system for autofocus rather than the phase detection technology of mirrorless camera sensors.
Choice of Lenses
DSLRs have an advantage when it comes to choosing a camera lens. For decades, companies like Canon and Nikon have been developing DSLR lenses for every job imaginable. Both offer a huge catalog of lenses with a range of price points. Sigma, Tamron, and other third-party manufacturers provide further options.
But mirrorless lenses are catching up. Sony, which introduced the first mirrorless camera in 2013, has a lens for every niche. Other camera makers continue to expand their inventories, giving photographers more choices for mirrorless lenses.
If you buy a mirrorless camera, you may want to hold on to those older DSLR lenses. Not only can they be used on mirrorless cameras with an adaptor, but those lenses hold their value.
The Issue of Dust
The average DSLR is less susceptible to collecting dust on the sensor. In their mirrorless counterparts, the sensor is more exposed and sits closer to the lens.
DSLR sensors sit at the rear of the camera, protected by the shutter and the mirror. The sensor is exposed briefly when you snap the photo or when you shoot in Live View.
Almost all digital cameras incorporate dust removal systems that shake the sensor to remove any dust that accumulates.
The Emerging Electronic Shutter?
With the mirror out of the way, the next moving part to go will be the mechanical shutter. The electronic shutter clears the path for significant improvements in image quality, speed, and versatility. With no mechanical components, electronic shutters are silent, making them ideal for shooting in quiet environments. Some cameras even offer the option of turning on a shutter sound.
The electronic shutter allows for significantly faster shutter speeds, essential for capturing high-speed action or sports photography. In addition, the electronic shutter has no shutter lag. That means the delay between pressing the shutter button and the image being captured is eliminated.
Mechanical shutters are subject to failure, especially as they age; the electronic shutter has no moving parts, so it will last longer and be more reliable. Also, they may cause slight vibrations inside the camera, leading to a slight blur in the image.
Without that shutter mechanism, mirrorless camera makers will be able to concentrate their efforts on developing sensors with faster readout times and higher resolutions.
Several mirrorless cameras, such as the Nikon Z8 and Z9, completely dropped the mechanical shutter.
The Significance of Mirrorless Camera Technology
I’m not sure that we realize the impact this technology is going to have on digital photography. The single lens reflex camera was invented in 1861. The 35 mm film SLR cameras, the forerunners of the DSLRs that we use today, date back to 1931.
The mirrorless camera is a major technological advance. It eliminates a moving part, and that’s more than just one less mechanical piece that could fail. It opens the door for further advances. Mirrorless cameras will become more powerful. They will have larger sensors, perform better in low-light situations, offer more automated features, incorporate artificial intelligence, and have faster auto-focus and faster shutter speeds.
Which Camera is Better?
Mirrorless is the future. Camera companies, with the exception of Pentax, are concentrating their resources on mirrorless. Features and innovations favor mirrorless.
A DSLR is still a fine option for a photographer, especially if price is a priority. You can develop your skills, advance your art, and grow your business with DSLR cameras. In addition, it may be a good idea to delay the purchase of a mirrorless camera. Companies will continue to refine the technology, and prices may drop in the coming years.
We published an article on how to choose a camera that provides more tips and questions to ask yourself when making a purchase decision.
The mirrorless vs DSLR debate continues. I hope this article covered the pros and cons of the issue. If you have any comments, please leave them in the space below.