HOW TO... DSLR vs mirrorless cameras: pros and cons of each

In the DSLR vs mirrorless camera buying decision, these are the factors you should be aware of...

DSLR or mirrorless for Wildlife Photography?
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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.

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Key differences of DSLR vs mirrorless cameras

We’ve discussed what role the mirror serves in DSLRs. Now let’s take a look at what its removal means for some of the other camera functions.

Size

The loss of the mirror – a sizeable component – means that manufacturers can design mirrorless cameras in smaller, lighter weight bodies. For photojournalists and street photographers, in particular, having a sleeker, lighter kit is not only advantageous when you’re on the go for long periods at a time. It’s also more discreet, drawing less attention to yourself.

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.

The electronic shutter is a great advantage for sport and wildlife photographers, in particular, who often need that extra speed to capture fleeting moments.

The other benefit of an electronic shutter is its lack of any sound. Because the camera is simply telling the sensor when to record light, this can be done silently. If you shoot wildlife or news or documentary, this can be a real advantage.

IBIS

Lens-equipped image stabilisation has been around for a while. You’ll spot this among the many acronyms in a lens’s name as IS or VR (vibration reduction) or something to that effect. But lens-based stabilisation can only protect from camera shake along two axes – vertical and horizontal.

As mirrorless technology developed, manufacturers introduced cameras with IBIS, or in-body image stabilisation, which can prevent camera shake along five axes. An IBIS system detects your camera’s movement, alerts the processor, which then triggers the sensor to physically shift in order to compensate for your movements.

What’s more, in some mirrorless systems, when you mount a lens with IS on a camera with IBIS you’ll get even greater compensation.

The vast majority of DSLRs don’t have this. Of all the pros and cons in our DSLR vs mirrorless comparison, IBIS might be one of the biggest advantages of investing in a mirrorless system.

Being able to shoot handheld in moonlight, for instance, opens up a whole lot of new creative possibilities. Or for the wedding photographer who can now meet demands for wedding video without having to set up a tripod each time, IBIS makes the job a whole lot easier.

Use of AI

Smartphone manufacturers have been using AI technology for years in their cameras. Subject and scene recognition have helped many snappers get decent shots where before they would have struggled. We’re now seeing this AI technology make its way into mirrorless cameras.

Eye AF and Animal Eye AF have completely transformed the way many people shoot. Leading wildlife photographers have told us that it takes away one of the big pressures and frees them up to be more in the moment. Canon now also has a Vehicle AF mode to detect cars and lock focus on them as they move within your frame.

As we’ve seen with photo editing software, AI developments are only going to improve and we’re only seeing AI being used in mirrorless cameras. Only one brand, Pentax, continues to develop new DSLRs, and as yet it doesn’t use AI technology in its cameras.

Where camera technological development is going

At one time, in the mid-2000s we would be having this conversation about DSLRs and film cameras. Fifteen years ago, all manufacturer research and development was being poured into DSLR technology. If you wanted to future-proof your hobby or business, a DSLR was a worthy investment.

But the conversation has changed. All money is now going into developing mirrorless technology. And as we’ve seen the sales of interchangeable lens cameras fall in recent years, manufacturers will be taking fewer risks developing new niche products. They will be laser-focused on the future: mirrorless camera technology.

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Established technology

All that said, there is another way to look at it. All tech development may be going towards mirrorless, but DSLRs are established technology. They are the manifestation of all those years of research and development. When you buy a DSLR today, you will know that what’s inside is proven to work.

Mirrorless technology, while fresh and exciting, is still being refined. If you know that a DSLR’s phase detection AF is fine for your needs, maybe you don’t need to invest in a mirrorless camera with a hybrid system that is still being perfected.

Lenses

You won’t be shooting anything without a lens, and it must be said that one of the biggest benefits of a DSLR vs mirrorless camera is the former’s extensive ecosystem of lens options. Just look at the Canon EF range, for instance.

Mirrorless lens systems are growing each year. Most manufacturers have the basics covered and then some. But if you want that real nuance of choice in your lenses, you’ll find those in brands’ DSLR systems.

One option is to use a mount adapter to use a DSLR lens on your mirrorless camera. But this creates extra expense, and sometimes you lose lens functionality depending on the adapter.

Cost

This is the one that will affect most people’s decision. DSLRs are coming down in cost. High-end models like the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III or Nikon D6 are still very expensive, but many DSLRs at the beginner or enthusiast end of the market can now be bought at very reasonable price tags.

Mirrorless cameras are undoubtedly more expensive, but as we’ve outlined above, you’re getting modern tech, future developments through firmware updates and so much more. If you can stretch your budget, buying mirrorless is like buying a robot vacuum instead of an upright hoover.

DSLR or mirrorless for Wildlife Photography?
The old faithful OVF with no lag or backlighting can be useful when working with fast-moving wildlife in low light

Do professional photographers use mirrorless cameras?

Yes, as mirrorless camera technology has developed, many professional photographers have made the switch from their DSLR to a mirrorless system.

Is it worth buying a DSLR in 2022?

It can be worth it, for the right reasons. If you want a cheaper beginner camera on which to cut your teeth and see if photography is for you, then an entry-level DSLR could make sense. Or if you want to shoot something that requires specialist lenses, such as tilt-shift optics, that haven’t been developed yet for your manufacturer’s mirrorless system, then again, a DSLR could make sense. But by almost every other criteria, a mirrorless camera is the better option in 2022.

Are mirrorless cameras the future?

Mirrorless cameras are the future for interchangeable lens cameras, just like DSLRs were the future in the early 2000s. As time goes on and technology develops further, a new format may emerge and usurp mirrorless, but for now, it’s hard to argue that mirrorless cameras are not the future.

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