For photographers and amateur enthusiasts looking for a great camera, one of the most common debates is between DSLR cameras vs a mirrorless camera. Mirrorless vs. DSLR is a complicated question, so in this article, we’ll help you to understand which camera will be better for your needs.

What Are DSLRs And How Are They Different From Mirrorless Cameras?

DSLR stands for digital single-lens reflex. DSLR cameras are the most common type of advanced camera, and they have a bevy of features that consumers love like interchangeable lenses and high image fidelity. 

At the core of each DSLR is a mirror that reflects light coming in from the lens to a prism. The output of light from the prism is viewable via a non-digital viewfinder. This means that the image that the photographer sees through the optical viewfinder is nearly identical to what the camera would capture, aside from the effects of exposure. 

Most DSLRs also have digital viewfinders which depict the light entering into the lens on a small digital screen. These digital viewfinders work by light entering the lens, hitting the camera’s image sensor, and then rendering a scaled-down version of the resulting image onto the viewfinder. 

In contrast to DSLR cameras, a camera, if mirrorless, does not have an optical viewfinder. In other words, they have no internal mirror which reflects light coming in from the lens up to a prism. This means that mirrorless cameras only have electronic viewfinders which produce images in the same fashion as a DSLR camera’s electronic viewfinder does. The live view of the subject is the same as what is on the electronic viewfinder.

You are probably already familiar with mirrorless models. All cell phone cameras are mirrorless. If you know of a camera that does not have any moving parts but it has a digital viewfinder, it’s a mirrorless camera.    

sony camera on wooden floor

The Principles Of Mirrorless Cameras

Mirrorless models are simpler than DSLRs because they do not require a prism or an internal mirror. Nor do they require a separate optical viewfinder. However, when it comes to image processing, mirrorless models are indistinguishable from DSLR cameras. 

In mirrorless models, light enters through the lens based on the aperture and focus settings. Then, the light hits the image sensor, which proceeds to a digital processing unit. The processing unit renders the input from the image sensor and portrays it on the viewfinder. 

This occurs at upwards of 60 times per second so that the photographer can see their subject rendered in the live view real-time before they take a photo. If the photographer likes what they see in the live view and wants to proceed, they take the shot. Then, the camera saves the image generated from the light entering the lens. 

A Note About Image Sensor Size

There are several different sensor sizes in mirrorless and DSLR cameras. The size of the sensor determines the resolution of the resulting image as well as the overall amount of light that can be represented. In other words, larger sensors are capable of higher ISO values without sacrificing image quality.

However, larger sensors are more expensive, and they tend to make the entire camera larger, so they aren’t always the best option. 

Smaller sensor formats include the micro four thirds sensor, also known as the micro four-thirds sensor. The micro four thirds sensor has dimensions of 17.3 x 13 mm in contrast to the full-frame sensor with dimensions of 36 mm x 24 mm.

Because the micro four thirds sensor is roughly a third as large in surface area as the full-frame sensor, its image quality is lower. 

Given that the full-frame sensor aims to replicate the fidelity of 35mm film, it’s frequently found in high-end DSLRs. If you want a full-frame sensor, you can still find it in a larger mirrorless camera, however.  

Mirrorless Camera Pros and Cons

Mirrorless cameras are a relatively new camera technology compared to DSLRs. Whereas DSLRs were developed in the early 2000s, mirrorless models only became popular in the mid 2010s. This means that mirrorless models are still evolving their feature set and even their basic format, so the cameras of today may be very different from the mirrorless of tomorrow. Nonetheless, mirrorless are eminently usable in their current state, and they continue to improve with each passing year.

Typically, mirrorless cameras have a more compact camera body than DSLRs because they do not need to reserve any internal room for the prism or the mirror. Thus, the camera body is flatter and less deep.

The lack of a mirror also means that these cameras make no noise while they are operating, as there is no internal mechanism for popping down the mirror to allow light into the image sensor like there is with DSLRs. This may also make mirrorless cameras less prone to breaking from wear and tear than DSLRs. 

More importantly, for wildlife photographers, a lack of sound means that mirrorless will not frighten nearby subjects. Importantly, the light emitted by the mirrorless camera’s screen might be a problem in some wildlife photography situations.  

The lack of a mirror has other advantages for image sharpness, too. Because the mechanism responsible for popping down the mirror can cause vibrations, DSLRs can sometimes have trouble capturing sharp images of finely detailed subjects. Furthermore, mirrorless cameras do not need to wait for the mirror to pop back down after each shot. As a result, they can shoot more rapidly than DSLRs, but this difference is probably only noticeable when taking photos at very high speeds.

Battery Life

The LCD screen on mirrorless cameras makes their battery life slightly worse than with an equivalent DSLR. While a DSLR may still keep the screen activated a lot of the time, it’s far from necessary to operate the camera, unlike with a mirrorless camera. So, mirrorless cameras tend to drain their batteries faster, and there’s no way to shoot photos without the viewfinder powered up. 

For low light operation, the image quality is typically better with a DSLR. This is especially true in low light environments where the reflected light of the LCD screen disrupts the lighting of the shot. 

Accessories

One area where DSLRs are much better than mirrorless cameras is in the number of peripherals you can buy to increase the capabilities of the camera. DSLRs have a huge ecosystem of lenses, batteries, straps, flashes, cases, shutters, microphones, and other accessories. Because mirrorless cameras are newer, there aren’t as many choices when it comes to add-ons. 

However, except for a few very obscure and specialized items, the ecosystem of accessory products for mirrorless cameras is as comprehensive as the one for DSLRs. The biggest difference is that fewer manufacturers participate in the mirrorless camera accessory market. This is changing as mirrorless cameras become more mainstream, however. 

camera on desk in front of tv

Sound And Video

At present, DSLRs have a slight edge in producing the best video, and their built-in microphones are typically better than mirrorless cameras. DSLRs can produce a better video than mirrorless cameras because the operator can adjust the focus manually on the fly rather than waiting for the auto focus feature to kick in. This advantage is easily negated by different lens sets, however. 

The same is true for sound quality. While DSLRs have higher quality default components, microphone attachments can level the playing field immediately. As previously mentioned, the accessory selection for mirrorless cameras is still more limited, so it may be easier to find a better microphone for a DSLR than for a mirrorless camera.

Autofocusing And Image Stabilization

For autofocusing and image stabilization, mirrorless cameras have a clear lead. Mirrorless cameras rely heavily on both autofocusing and also on image stabilization, whereas DSLRs can rely on their manual viewfinder instead. As a rule, this means that most mirrorless cameras require a lower amount of skill to get results that are equivalent to a DSLR’s. 

At the same time, DSLRs are not necessarily capable of a higher quality output when used by someone who is highly skilled. So, if you know that you’ll be shooting from the hip or without a tripod, you may find that mirrorless cameras are going to give you a better quality result than a DSLR. Under controlled shooting conditions, DSLRs can often prove superior to mirrorless cameras, but it’s impossible to generalize about whether this will change as mirrorless cameras grow in sophistication.

Who Uses Which Type Of Camera?

At the moment, professional photographers favor DSLRs, whereas amateur photographers favor mirrorless cameras. Amateur photographers don’t necessarily lose much utility by sacrificing the manual viewfinder, and they may appreciate the lightness of mirrorless cameras. Don’t let this dissuade you from mirrorless cameras if you’re a professional. 

Mirrorless cameras are capable of taking even higher quality images than DSLRs under many circumstances, and a heavy camera user will appreciate the silence, durability, and ease of use that mirrorless cameras have. 

The big advantage that mirrorless cameras have is that they are less expensive than DSLRs. If you’re a professional looking for a mirrorless camera, you can still find mirrorless cameras with large sensor sizes that will rival the price of DSLRs. You will probably need to learn how to work with the focus system of the mirrorless camera rather than to work against the focus systems, which some professionals may find frustrating.

If you’re wondering whether to switch to a mirrorless camera from your DSLR, you’ll need to carefully consider your most common usage before making a decision. 

If you frequently shoot photographs in low light conditions, DSLRs currently have the edge. Likewise, if you shoot photographs of animals in the dark, DSLRs are probably what you’ve been working with for years, and they’re probably still the better choice.   

man holding camera

Which Type Of Camera Is The Future Of Photography? 

It’s difficult to say whether mirrorless cameras will unseat DSLRs as the most common type of camera. At the moment, it’s impossible to imagine a world where the fidelity of the manual viewfinder could be surpassed by a small viewfinder. It was also hard to believe that film could have ever been surpassed by digital sensors and storage, however. 

What seems to be the most likely is that mirrorless cameras will steal some market share from DSLRs but that the two systems will coexist for the foreseeable future. Professional photographers are heavily committed to the DSLR ecosystem, and some of the disadvantages of mirrorless cameras like shorter battery life might be major inconveniences. 

In contrast, some of the advantages of mirrorless cameras might not be very appealing to professionals because they are already accustomed to working around the limitations of DSLRs. 

For professionals, years of developing preferences between accessory manufacturers might make them more hesitant to adopt mirrorless cameras because they have a smaller selection of the gear they crave.

Amateur photographers will almost certainly move to the mirrorless camera platform in droves. For them, the appeal of a high-fidelity manual viewfinder is minimal, and the small size of mirrorless cameras is a major plus because amateur photographers may not have accessories like camera bags and lens cases to carry all of their equipment. 

The lower cost of most mirrorless cameras is also a significant appeal to consumers, who may not need the majority of features included in standard DSLR packages with full-size sensor frames.