The decision about purchasing a DSLR vs mirrorless camera can be tricky. They both take the same pictures, but they use very different designs. Some say that the DSLR is dead and that mirrorless cameras are the future, but Canon and Nikon have both recently released new DSLRs, so it’s clear there’s still a market for DSLRs. Both camera designs have pros and cons and it’s not always about what these different types of camera can do, as much as the type you most like to use. Here’s some of the main differences between DSLR & mirrorless to help you decide which one best suits your workflow & shooting style.
What is a DSLR Camera?
DSLRs use the same design as 35mm film cameras. A mirror inside the camera body reflects the light coming in through the lens up to a prism and into the viewfinder for you to preview your shot. When you press the shutter button, the mirror flips up, a shutter opens and the light falls onto the image sensor, which captures the final image.
What is a Mirrorless Camera?
In a mirrorless camera, light passes through the lens and directly onto the image sensor, which captures a preview of the image to display on the rear screen. Some models also offer a second screen inside an electronic viewfinder (EVF) that you can put your eye up to.
Size & Weight
DSLR cameras are somewhat larger, as they need to fit in a mirror and a prism. A mirrorless camera body is smaller than a DSLR, with simpler construction. This allows you to carry a mirrorless camera more easily and fit more gear into your camera bag.
As for auto-focus and low-light shooting, DSLRs have generally reigned supreme, but this has begun to change with some mirrorless low-light cameras like the Sony a7R III. Mirrorless auto-focus systems have improved greatly also, with cameras like the Canon M6 having unparalleled auto-focus speeds. However, DSLRs still remain superior for auto-focusing on fast-moving subjects, such as sports or wildlife.
With a DSLR, the optical viewfinder shows you exactly what the camera will capture. With a mirrorless camera, you get a preview of the image on-screen. Some mirrorless cameras offer an electronic viewfinder that simulates the optical viewfinder. When you’re shooting outside in good light, the preview on the screen of a mirrorless camera will look close to the final image. But in situations such as in low light or with fast-moving subjects, the preview will suffer, becoming dull or grainy. A DSLR, by contrast, is better in low light. If you are shooting in good light, both types will perform well; but if you are shooting in low light or other challenging conditions, a DSLR may be easier to shoot with.
Higher-end mirrorless cameras are generally better suited for video shooting. DSLRs can’t use phase detection with the mirror up while recording video, so they have to use the slower, less accurate, contrast-detection focus method. This leads to the familiar blurry look in the middle of a video when the camera starts searching for the right focus. However, some newer DSLRs are adding phase detection on the sensor, such as the Nikon D850. Increasingly, mirrorless cameras, such as the Panasonic LUMIX GH5S , can capture 4K (Ultra HD) video with four times the resolution of HD footage. With superior auto-focus in most models, mirrorless cameras provide the best results for many filmmakers.
Both camera types can shoot at very fast shutter speeds and capture a lot of images quickly. With the exception of high-end DSLRs, mirrorless cameras have an edge. The lack of a mirror makes it easier to take image after image. The simpler mechanics of mirrorless cameras allow them to shoot more photos per second, at higher shutter speeds.
Generally, DSLRs offer longer battery life because they have the ability to shoot without using the LCD screen (or EVF) which uses a lot of power. However, both types will have similar battery lives if you use the LCD screens to preview and view captured images. All DSLRs and mirrorless cameras come with removable batteries, so you can carry spares.
Lenses & Accessories
Choosing a DSLR gives you access to a number of lenses from many manufacturers. Mirrorless models are currently more restricted, offering access to a small number of lenses from the camera maker, though the selection is growing. This gap between the two types is narrowing as more mirrorless lenses become available.
Mirrorless cameras have the advantage of usually being lighter, more compact, faster and better for video; but that comes at the cost of access to fewer lenses and accessories. DSLRs have the advantage in lens selection and an optical viewfinder that works better in low light, but they are more complex and bulkier. It will ultimately come down to which options will streamline your workflow the best while creating the best images.