DSLR vs mirrorless cameras: pros and cons of each

Despite most manufacturers now dedicating their resources to developing mirrorless technology, the DSLR vs mirrorless camera buying decision isn’t so open and shut. There are still good reasons to buy a DSLR, even if there are more reasons to invest in a mirrorless camera.

Fewer DSLRs are being manufactured these days, but they are still being made. Those DSLRs that are being introduced to market represent the pinnacle of this technology. Buying a DSLR these days means you’re getting the fruits of more than a decade of technological refinements.

Mirrorless cameras have also come a long way from their humble beginnings when they were seen as more of a beginner’s camera (in some ways, this role has reversed). What were once called compact system cameras, or CSCs, are now the driving focus of just about every traditional camera brand, apart from Pentax. The great thing about the mirrorless format is that it is still near the beginning of its technological development.

Where you side in the great DSLR vs mirrorless cameras debate depends on your needs as a photographer. Do you need a workhorse with a long battery life and an extensive range of niche lenses to choose from? Or do you need something small and light, something fast and built to shoot video alongside your stills?

Before we debate the pros and cons of DSLR vs mirrorless cameras, let’s first explore what mirrorless technology means.

What is a mirrorless camera?
The clue is in the name. A mirrorless camera doesn’t have a mirror. In a DSLR, the image you see through the viewfinder is being reflected by a mirror in front of the sensor. When you press the shutter button, the mirror physically moves out of the way, allowing the light to hit the sensor. Mirrorless cameras do not have a mirror. The light passes through the lens and lands directly on the image sensor. You can see this image in real-time either on your camera’s LCD or within the electronic viewfinder (EVF), if it has one.

The mirror in DSLRs is just a reimagining of the technology that was used in film cameras for decades. For this reason, it works exceptionally well. But the advent of mirrorless technology has shown that it can improve upon some of the limitations of DSLR technology. Chief among these is speed and camera shake. As you can imagine, when shooting at slower shutter speeds the action of the moving mirror can cause small vibrations within the camera. Likewise, removing this process means a camera can operate faster.

What is a mirrorless camera?
The clue is in the name. A mirrorless camera doesn’t have a mirror. In a DSLR, the image you see through the viewfinder is being reflected by a mirror in front of the sensor. When you press the shutter button, the mirror physically moves out of the way, allowing the light to hit the sensor. Mirrorless cameras do not have a mirror. The light passes through the lens and lands directly on the image sensor. You can see this image in real-time either on your camera’s LCD or within the electronic viewfinder (EVF), if it has one.

The mirror in DSLRs is just a reimagining of the technology that was used in film cameras for decades. For this reason, it works exceptionally well. But the advent of mirrorless technology has shown that it can improve upon some of the limitations of DSLR technology. Chief among these is speed and camera shake. As you can imagine, when shooting at slower shutter speeds the action of the moving mirror can cause small vibrations within the camera. Likewise, removing this process means a camera can operate faster.

There are downsides, though. Smaller camera bodies may be awkward for people with large hands. Likewise, smaller camera bodies can be cumbersome to use with larger lenses. Others simply prefer the size and weight of a chunky DSLR.

For most photographers, though, a smaller body means less weight to carry, and more gear you can fit in your kit bag.

AF performance
Mirrorless camera owners benefit from having a single AF system. DSLRs have a phase detection AF system for when you’re shooting via the optical viewfinder and a contrast detection or phase detection AF system for when you’re using the live view screen.

In the early days of mirrorless, DSLRs could handily beat CSCs in AF speed despite switching between the two AF sensors. These days, however, mirrorless cameras boast much faster AF systems better than even the best DSLRs. Some of the best mirrorless cameras boast hybrid on-sensor AF systems that are faster, more accurate and precise than most other systems out there.

DSLR vs mirrorless for video?
Though recent DSLRs can record internal 4K video at 60p, mirrorless cameras have the edge here due to their superior AF systems as we described above. Not only are mirrorless camera AF systems faster and more accurate, but you can now often use Eye AF and subject tracking modes while recording video.

What’s more, most lenses for mirrorless systems are now designed with video in mind. They’re designed to be much quieter while filming.

Burst shooting and shutter speeds
As you can imagine, the lack of a mirror that needs to move every time you press the shutter button means that mirrorless cameras can take picture after picture much faster than a DSLR can. As a result, the frame rates in continuous shooting mode are much faster for mirrorless cameras than they are for DSLRs.

What’s more, mirrorless cameras can shoot at much faster shutter speeds than DSLRs by using what is called their electronic shutter. Mirrorless cameras have a mechanical shutter (though it’s worth noting that the Nikon Z9 eschews a mechanical shutter altogether) but have an option to shoot with an electronic shutter. This bypasses the mechanical shutter and tells the camera how long to let the sensor record the light.

There are downsides, though. Smaller camera bodies may be awkward for people with large hands. Likewise, smaller camera bodies can be cumbersome to use with larger lenses. Others simply prefer the size and weight of a chunky DSLR.

For most photographers, though, a smaller body means less weight to carry, and more gear you can fit in your kit bag.

AF performance
Mirrorless camera owners benefit from having a single AF system. DSLRs have a phase detection AF system for when you’re shooting via the optical viewfinder and a contrast detection or phase detection AF system for when you’re using the live view screen.

In the early days of mirrorless, DSLRs could handily beat CSCs in AF speed despite switching between the two AF sensors. These days, however, mirrorless cameras boast much faster AF systems better than even the best DSLRs. Some of the best mirrorless cameras boast hybrid on-sensor AF systems that are faster, more accurate and precise than most other systems out there.

DSLR vs mirrorless for video?
Though recent DSLRs can record internal 4K video at 60p, mirrorless cameras have the edge here due to their superior AF systems as we described above. Not only are mirrorless camera AF systems faster and more accurate, but you can now often use Eye AF and subject tracking modes while recording video.

What’s more, most lenses for mirrorless systems are now designed with video in mind. They’re designed to be much quieter while filming.

Burst shooting and shutter speeds
As you can imagine, the lack of a mirror that needs to move every time you press the shutter button means that mirrorless cameras can take picture after picture much faster than a DSLR can. As a result, the frame rates in continuous shooting mode are much faster for mirrorless cameras than they are for DSLRs.

What’s more, mirrorless cameras can shoot at much faster shutter speeds than DSLRs by using what is called their electronic shutter. Mirrorless cameras have a mechanical shutter (though it’s worth noting that the Nikon Z9 eschews a mechanical shutter altogether) but have an option to shoot with an electronic shutter. This bypasses the mechanical shutter and tells the camera how long to let the sensor record the light.

There are downsides, though. Smaller camera bodies may be awkward for people with large hands. Likewise, smaller camera bodies can be cumbersome to use with larger lenses. Others simply prefer the size and weight of a chunky DSLR.

For most photographers, though, a smaller body means less weight to carry, and more gear you can fit in your kit bag.

AF performance
Mirrorless camera owners benefit from having a single AF system. DSLRs have a phase detection AF system for when you’re shooting via the optical viewfinder and a contrast detection or phase detection AF system for when you’re using the live view screen.

In the early days of mirrorless, DSLRs could handily beat CSCs in AF speed despite switching between the two AF sensors. These days, however, mirrorless cameras boast much faster AF systems better than even the best DSLRs. Some of the best mirrorless cameras boast hybrid on-sensor AF systems that are faster, more accurate and precise than most other systems out there.

DSLR vs mirrorless for video?
Though recent DSLRs can record internal 4K video at 60p, mirrorless cameras have the edge here due to their superior AF systems as we described above. Not only are mirrorless camera AF systems faster and more accurate, but you can now often use Eye AF and subject tracking modes while recording video.

What’s more, most lenses for mirrorless systems are now designed with video in mind. They’re designed to be much quieter while filming.

Burst shooting and shutter speeds
As you can imagine, the lack of a mirror that needs to move every time you press the shutter button means that mirrorless cameras can take picture after picture much faster than a DSLR can. As a result, the frame rates in continuous shooting mode are much faster for mirrorless cameras than they are for DSLRs.

What’s more, mirrorless cameras can shoot at much faster shutter speeds than DSLRs by using what is called their electronic shutter. Mirrorless cameras have a mechanical shutter (though it’s worth noting that the Nikon Z9 eschews a mechanical shutter altogether) but have an option to shoot with an electronic shutter. This bypasses the mechanical shutter and tells the camera how long to let the sensor record the light.

 

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