One of the questions I’m asked frequently is “should I buy a mirrorless or DSLR camera”? It’s a difficult question to answer definitively.
What is a DSLR camera?
For those who aren’t aware, most traditional DSLR cameras contain a small mirror, located in front of the camera’s sensor. This reflects the light entering through the lens up in to the optical viewfinder (OVF). This allows the photographer to ‘look through the lens’ and compose the shot. When the shutter release button is pressed, the camera flips up the mirror momentarily so the light can hit the sensor hidden behind it. The sensor captures the image and then the mirror is dropped back down so the photographer is ready to compose another shot using the OVF. This happens very fast. This system was originally developed for film-based cameras and has worked well for many generations.
What is a mirrorless camera?
Many modern cameras have replaced the OVF with digital screens, either on the back of the camera body or inside an electronic viewfinder (EVF). These technologies create digital images using the camera’s sensor and display the result on the electronic screen. Therefore, these types of camera don’t need an optical viewfinder or mirror. These advancements in technology have caused people to ask if cameras still need mirrors and OVFs at all.
What features do mirrorless and DSLRs systems share in common?
It’s important to realise that both types of cameras share a lot of features in common:
- Interchangeable lenses.
- A variety of sensor sizes available.
- A wide variety of camera bodies to choose from (from entry-level to professional).
When a DSLR camera is taking a shot the mirror is flipped out of the way so it is operating in the same way as a mirrorless camera. It is therefore worth realising that the image quality between mirrorless and DSLRs cameras should theoretically be the same if everything else in the camera is identical.
What are the advantages of DSLR cameras?
DSLR cameras are based on well-established technology. This obviously comes with some inherent benefits including a much wider range of camera bodies and compatible lenses to choose from. Other benefits include:
- No viewfinder lag – An OVF works at the speed of light, so the image you see is 100% live. Whilst today’s EVFs on mirrorless cameras are fast, most inevitably introduce some small amount of lag. This can make a difference when taking action or sports shots.
- Higher optical quality of the OVF – Some photographers find the image quality of EVFs inferior over the quality of a good OVF.
- Battery life – Powering LCDs screens and EVFs in mirrorless cameras inevitably drains batteries quicker, so DSLRs tend to have slightly better battery life over mirrorless systems.
What are the advantages of mirrorless cameras?
Mirrorless cameras use newer technology and are able to provide some benefits over traditional DSLRs:
- EVFs can provide additional functionality over an OVF. For example, some EVFs display focus highlights which indicates which areas of the shot are in focus. This is a useful features which isn’t possible with an OVF.
- Some EVFs can increase the brightness of a scene making it more easy to manually focus in dark areas. This also isn’t possible with an OVF.
- Some mirrorless cameras let you review images using the EVF after they have been taken. This can be useful on sunny days when it is difficult to see the LCD screen on the back of the camera clearly.
- Some mirrorless cameras can be smaller/lighter than equivalent DSLR cameras as they don’t need to allow space for the mirror. However, some people, particularly those with larger hands, can find using a compact mirrorless camera uncomfortable.
- Removing the need for a mirror to be flipped up and down can mean there is less vibration inside the camera body (which might result in a sharper images).
So which is best?
For most people, it won’t matter too much if their camera has a mirror in it or not. If a photographer uses a mirrorless camera with a high-quality EVF then they probably won’t miss the OVF provided by a DSLR. If the photographer uses a DSLR camera then they will probably have the option of using “live view” which will flip up the mirror and basically turn the camera into a mirrorless system (minus the EVF).
It’s important to realise that the shortcomings of each type of system can usually be overcome, either by using features within the camera itself (such as ‘locking up’ the mirror in DSLRs if vibration is an issue), or by photographers learning how to adapt their practices.
Over and above the mirrorless vs DSLR debate there are more important considerations when buying a camera such as:
- What lens mounting system you are buying in to (and what lenses you already own, if any).
- The size of the sensor you need.
- Other features of the camera which might be important to you (such as the burst speed).
- Your budget.
- How the camera feels in your hand.
- Whether the camera is easy for you to use.
- Whether the camera has advance features you might like, such as WiFi connectivity.
A fantastic range of equipment is available for both types of system, so a consumer should by able to find a camera they love whether it has a mirror inside or not. Many great photographers are using both types of systems to create amazing images.
However, after using a mirrorless camera for a while, I do find I miss the EVF when I switch back to using a DSLR. If I was forced to pick one type of system over another then I would probably lean towards mirrorless, especially as they are improving all the time. However, as I’ve mentioned above, this shouldn’t be a primary reason for picking one camera over another.
This post contains some of my opinions on the subject of mirrorless and DSLR cameras. If you are thinking of buying new camera equipment it is essential you get professional advice first and ideally try out the equipment, especially if you are planning to spend a lot of money. Once you buy into a particular camera and lens system it can be very expensive to change to something else in the future.
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