Photography veterans the world over may still recall the contentious debate surrounding the differences between digital and film when the first DSLRs hit the mainstream markets in the 90s.
While many at the time thought digital would render film obsolete, it turns out that there was room enough for both mediums to coexist in the world of photography. Today a similar debate is occurring about the differences between DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. Will DSLRs with their bulky bodies and clicking mirrors be superseded by their leaner mirrorless counterparts? As with the former debate, only time will tell if mirrorless cameras truly are the future of digital photography. Here’s what you need to know about the differences between mirrorless cameras and DSLRs.
Size and Weight
[caption id="attachment_3111" align="aligncenter" width="346"] Sony a6000
The most immediately noticeable thing about mirrorless cameras is how much smaller and lighter they are than their DSLR counterparts. Just look at the difference between the mirrorless Sony Alpha a6000
and the comparable DSLR Nikon D5300
—while both cameras sport 24 MP APS-C sensors and similar image quality, the a6000 is much smaller and lighter at 16.5 oz when compared to the D5300 which weighs in at 36.5 oz. When it comes to size and portability there is really no contest between a mirrorless and DSLR camera. Mirrorless cameras will always be smaller by design because they don’t need to house the mirror and prism mechanism found in larger DSLRs. One pro for the larger DSLR is superior ergonomics—it’s much easier to get a firm grip on a bulky DSLR than it is to handle small rectangular mirrorless camera. Another upside is that until battery technologies get better, bulkier DSLRs tend to have much longer battery life which is important if you intend to use your camera for professional photography in the field.
[caption id="attachment_3113" align="aligncenter" width="360"] Nikon D5300
On a DSLR, when you look through an optical viewfinder you see the image exactly as your camera will capture it—this is a huge plus in the art of photo composition. This is because a mirror is physically reflecting the scene from the camera’s lens directly to your eye. Mirrorless cameras lose this advantage, opting instead for a digital LCD screen or electronic viewfinder (EVF). EVFs give you a digital approximation of what your camera sees. While the EVFs on higher end mirrorless models like the Fujifilm X-T1
or Sony’s A7 series
are excellent for most people, the technology still has room for improvement. Common complaints of EVFs when switching from DSLR include, screen stuttering and performance drops in low light conditions. It all depends on your camera’s processor, as it will have to make compromises in power to continue providing you that real time image preview.
While it wasn’t too long ago that DSLRs were the clear winner in this category, today improvements in processors and the adoption of full sized APS-C sensors by some mirrorless camera manufacturers (see Sony A7 series
) means that image quality is increasingly becoming a draw between the two platforms. Of course if you’re looking for the highest in performance, the technology still has room to grow, with professionals still sticking to full frame models like the Nikon D4.
Mirrorless cameras have long been considered video cameras that can take high quality still images, because of their superior focusing and tracking capabilities in video mode. If you want the best in 4K/Ultra HD video recording capability, mirrorless cameras are far more affordable than their DSLR counterparts. This is because higher end mirrorless cameras feature on-chip focus sensor which offer hybrid contrast and phase detection focus while shooting video. DSLRs can’t use phase detection while the mirror is up so they have to rely on slower contrast-detection focus methods while recording video.
DSLRs still have a leg up on mirrorless cameras when it comes to autofocus speed, but higher end mirrorless cameras like the Sony a6000
, Olympus OMD EM-1
and Fujifilm X-T1
are quickly closing the gap with autofocus systems that combine phase detection and contrast detection technologies. Turns out the same on-sensor technology that makes mirrorless cameras great for video may one day close the autofocus speed gap.
Lenses and Accessories
DSLRs have been around longer and thus continue to enjoy a much wider selection of quality lenses, filters and other accessories than their mirrorless counterparts. The ability to shop across multiple manufacturers and choose between a variety of price points makes the DSLR the clear winner in versatility for now. Most mirrorless cameras are limited to a small selection of lenses offered by their manufacturer. However micro four thirds sensor format used widely by Olympus and Panasonic have been around for a while, and both manufacturers offer a wide range of lenses and accessories for these cameras.
If you value a mix of portability, power and high quality video, mirrorless cameras are the clear winner of the current market. If you take action shots for a living, or require the versatility of established brands, lenses and accessories, you’re best sticking with DSLRs for now. The fact that you can now take high quality images and video with mirrorless cameras seems to suggest that they are poised to take over the mass market in the future. However features like the purity of the optical viewfinder, and insane autofocus speeds on higher end models mean that the traditional DSLR is here to stay. Pick the right camera for your needs!