It’s an exciting time for cameras. A few major shake ups have changed the landscape of professional photography, one of the biggest being the rise of mirrorless cameras — making the mirrorless vs DSLR decision an incredibly tricky one if you’re in the market for a new camera body.
Not only does Sony continue to dominate the market as the biggest seller of full frame cameras, entirely on the strength of its mirrorless designs, but Nikon and Canon have also tossed their hats into the mirrorless ring with their Z and EOS R lines. With so many high-end mirrorless options, not to mention DSLRs, how do you choose between the two?
Below we break down the pros and cons of both systems, so you can be more confident in your decision whether you’re ready to purchase a new body or renting camera gear for your next shoot.
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Which is Better? Mirrorless vs DSLR
It’s the million dollar question. Are mirrorless or DSLR cameras better?
Unfortunately, this isn’t a simple answer. As are all things related to cameras, “what’s better” often depends on skill level, photography style, workflow and much more. Below we look at eight different factors to consider when choosing mirrorless or DSLR.
1. Size and Weight
One of the most noticeable differences between mirrorless cameras and DSLRs is their size. For a long time size has been synonymous with expensive, top performers like Canon’s 1DX Mark III, but mirrorless cameras have thrown a wrench in this logic with significantly smaller body sizes.
DSLRs need to be larger to fit the mechanisms of a mirror and optical viewfinder, and as a result, size and weight increase. But a larger size is’t necessarily a negative thing as the ergonomics of a large body can be ideal for those with large hands.
By contrast, mirrorless cameras ditch the mirror, allowing for a drastically smaller size (and weight). When mirrorless cameras first entered the market, one of their big selling points was their small size. This has both it’s advantages and disadvantages.
With mirrorless cameras, the back of the lens is closer to the sensor — e.g. the flange distance. The shorter the flange distance, the smaller and lighter a camera body tends to be. A shorter flange distance also has its advantages for adaptive lenses. Optically, a shorter flange is useful in that it allows for simplified lens designs and makes compact or brighter wide angle lenses especially easier to build. This is often a challenge for DSLR cameras because many wide angle designs want to focus close to the back of the lens. DSLR cameras have to incorporate additional and heavy glass elements, which can shift the focal point back far enough for it to actually hit the sensor, making your setup large and heavy.
The compact size of mirrorless cameras can be especially ideal for travel or just give you the extra space to fit additional lenses into your camera bag. However, one drawback to this is that because mirrorless cameras have less real estate, the buttons might not be ideal for individuals with large hands. This has resulted in some manufacturers modifying the designs of higher-end mirrorless cameras to have larger grips for better ergonomics — cameras like the Olympus OM-D E-M1X offer the small sensor and mirrorless systems with the large body typically seen on a DSLR.
How autofocus works is one of the biggest differences between mirrorless and DSLR cameras. To understand how these systems differ, you first need to understand the types of autofocus used in modern digital cameras: phase detection and contrast detection.
- Phase Detection: Relies on a second smaller mirror by directing a small portion of the light which enters the lens away from the viewfinder and into a separate autofocus sensor array at the bottom of the camera. Phase detect essentially tells the camera which direction to focus — closer or farther away. It allows for super quick focus on moving subjects and is good at tracking foreground options.
- Contrast detection: Uses the image sensor to detect the highest contrast in a scenario. This method will typically give you the most accurate focus when shooting single-shot autofocus with a still subject. However, contrast detection tends to be slow. If you’ve ever seen the autofocus motor “hunting” back and forth to pick up on a subject, this is contrast detection at work.
DSLR’s ability to focus on quick moving subjects is incredible, and high-end models like the Nikon D4s or Canon 1D X use both phase detection and contrast detection systems, but they come with a sizeable price tag. Because the autofocus assembly is separate from the sensor, DSLRs can’t actually see what they’re focusing on and therefore can’t adapt to different scenes.
Additionally because DSLRs rely on contrast focus when the mirror is flipped up, most have poor autofocus when filming video.
In the past, mirrorless cameras solely relied on contrast detection, which tends to struggle and is especially slow in low light. Today, however, most mirrorless cameras use a hybrid autofocus system where the bulk of focusing is done through contrast detection but on-sensor phase detection allows the camera to know which direction to focus. This essentially eliminates that back and forth “hunting” behavior we discussed above.
Another upside to autofocus in mirrorless cameras is computation based focused modes. Because most mirrorless cameras today use on-sensor, hybrid autofocus systems, they can actually use processing to interpret what elements are in the scene like eye tracking and face detection — both game changing advancements.
3. Preview Images and the Viewfinder Debate
DSLRs across all price points come with an optical viewfinder, an integral part of the DSLR design. By contrast, mirrorless cameras use an electronic viewfinder. In this setup, an image is displayed directly from the sensor readout rather than through an optical mirror and pentaprism. In fact, some lower tier mirrorless models don’t have an electronic viewfinder at all, rather you must use the rear LCD screen to compose photos.
The electronic viewfinder used to be a drawback as early generations of mirrorless cameras struggled with low resolution and graniness, but technology has come a long way and these issues are rarely present in recent models.
That being said, many photographers prefer to trust their own eye to compose an image and check the digital version after it has been captured. If you’re a photographer that can’t stomach the thought of replacing your tried and true optical viewfinder with an electronic display, then you might be better off sticking to a DSLR.
4. Image Stabilization
Next to autofocus, image stabilization is another major area where mirrorless cameras differentiate themselves from DSLRs. While both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras offer stabilization systems, they differ widely.
Most DSLRs use lens-based stabilization where the individual glass elements of the lenses are shifted. Essentially this allows a lens to counteract shake along two axes: vertical and horizontal. Some lenses, like Panasonic’s Dual IS compatible lenses even have IS built into the lens with body-based stabilization in the camera to deliver improved results.
While lens-based stabilization works quite efficiently, it does have drawbacks, specifically cost — you pay for stabilization in every lens you buy.
In-body stabilization has become the default for photo and video across mirrorless cameras. With in-body stabilization, the sensor shifts and moves to compensate for vibration — this yields sharper photos and smoother video. One of the main advantages here is that in-body stabilization works regardless of lens, although in body stabilization will often stack with lens stabilization like the Panasonic Dual IS compatible lenses discussed above. In-body stabilization does drain more battery life but the benefit of stable images and smooth footage outweighs this particular pain point.
Some mirrorless cameras like the Olympus OM-D EM-5 and Sony a6500 offer something called in-body five-axis image stabilization. In addition to shifting the sensor to accommodate for movement along the horizontal and vertical access, it also compensates for three additional axes: up and down tilt (pitch), side-to-side movement (yaw) and rotation (or roll) — a feature not available in DSLR cameras.
5. Image Quality
In days past, mirrorless cameras had smaller image sensors, which used to mean lower quality images, particularly because smaller sensors meant more noise and a lower ability to capture light.
However, like many technological advancements with cameras, manufacturers have fine tuned this and now produce more sensitive chips and smaller sensors that are better at suppressing noise.
So do mirrorless or DSLR cameras offer better image quality? You guessed correctly — it depends. Mirrorless cameras offer a more computational way to approach photography, but image quality tends to vary more between brands than mirrorless vs. DSLR.
6. Video Quality
More and more, video quality has become an important factor in selecting a camera. DSLRs may be where mainstream videography and filmmaking (via interchangeable lenses) began, but mirrorless cameras are in the midst of a revolution. In fact, many brands even make two mirrorless modes: one focused on photography and another on video — think Sony’s a7S vs. a7R, Nikon Z6 vs. Z7, and Panasonic GH5 vs GH5S.
4K video has become the standard for the vast majority of mirrorless cameras, whereas DSLRs have been slow to offer this until you get up further up the chain with high-end models. On-sensor hybrid autofocus systems and in-body stabilization are also key components that contribute to higher video quality in mirrorless cameras compared to DSLRs.
Another consideration when it comes to video is video recording time limits. One of the pitfalls of most DSLRs is the 30 minute recording cap (actually 29 minutes and 59 seconds). Many mirrorless cameras offer continuous recording, where the camera continuously records video until the memory card is filled or the battery runs out (whichever comes first) — making them better for long events such as weddings, podcasts, or speeches.
If your focus is on video, then you’ll also want to keep in mind a clean HDMI output — the absence of any of the onscreen data indicators normally seen in the viewfinder or LCD screen. While this varies from camera to camera, especially with DSLRs, most high-end mirrorless cameras offer a “clean” output.
Mirrorless cameras are generally more suited to video. If you only need video occasionally, you can get away with using a DSLR, but if video comprises the most important part of your work, then mirrorless cameras come with more features and better quality.
That being said there are some downsides to mirrorless cameras when it comes to video. For example, overheating is a common issue when shooting 4K video on the Canon EOS R5, although this is less a mirrorless camera problem as it is a brand issue. Many photographers report that the Sony a7S can shoot 4K videos at up to 60p resolution for over an hour, double the time of Canon EOS R5, without overheating.
7. Battery Life
Battery life is one feature where DSLR cameras have a significant practical advantage.
- Mirrorless cameras: On average, the battery life of a mirrorless camera is significantly slower, typically around 300-400 shots per battery charge.
- DSLR cameras: By comparison, the average DSLR camera can take around 600-700 shots per battery.
That being said, top-tier models for both systems will typically give your more shots per charge. Mirrorless cameras, like those in the Sony a7 series, might give you up to 700 shots per battery and pro DSLRs may offer 1000-2000 shots on a single charge.
Do Mirrorless Cameras Last Longer Than DSLR?
No. Mirrorless cameras have a significantly shorter battery life compared to DSLRs.
You should also consider if you’ll be shooting photography, video or a mix of both. Battery life across both systems drains significantly with video, so if video is your focus, you’ll likely need to come prepared with backup batteries for mirrorless cameras, even if you’re not shooting for a full day.
Another element you may want to consider is how fast the powering up time is for mirrorless vs. DSLR cameras. DSLRs are notorious for starting up incredibly quickly. By contrast, mirrorless cameras take roughly 2-3 seconds to boot up, which can be enough time to miss a critical shot.
If you regularly venture off the beaten path then durability should definitely be a consideration when comparing mirrorless vs DSLR cameras. DSLR designs have been refined for more than 20 years, so it should come as no surprise that these cameras have earned a reputation for being incredibly durable.
That being said, DSLRs tend to reserve alloy bodies and full weather sealing for their high-end models, whereas entry-level cameras like the Canon Rebel series or Nikon D3300 have a plastic exterior that might not hold up to long adventures on the road.
Full weather sealing is offered on many mirrorless cameras like the Sony a6600 or a7 series. While they may be just as well built, we don’t have the track record yet to be certain.
The Big Mirrorless vs DSLR Question: Will Mirrorless Cameras Replace DSLRs?
You may love your trusty DSLR, but there’s no arguing the fact that there’s a mirrorless revolution taking place.
DSLR cameras continue to lead the way in camera sales, but as video becomes an increasingly important factor in selecting a camera, it’s possible that mirrorless cameras may surpass DSLRs somewhere in the future. Bottom line. DSLR cameras aren’t going anywhere for now, but we are seeing mirrorless cameras rise in popularity at a rate that would have been hard to imagine a decade ago.
If you want to see what all the fuss is about between mirrorless vs DSLR and are looking to get your hands on a mirrorless camera, bluehillco is your hub for rentals on some of the latest top-tier models like the Nikon Z6, Canon EOS R, and Sony a7R IV.