Advantages of Mirrorless vs DSLR

 

With the Mirrorless system now threatening to overtake DSLRs and become industry standard, you may be wondering precisely what are the advantages of Mirrorless vs DSLR cameras. 

Until very recently the differences between Mirrorless and DSLR formats could be simply described in a few words: DSLRs were for “serious” photographers in need of maximum image quality, whereas Mirrorless cameras were for consumer hobbyists looking for a more compact and lightweight option. In fact, so much was it taken for granted that a DSLR was the superior choice, that it would have been much more normal to ask about the advantages of DSLR cameras over the Mirrorless system. 

Not anymore. Now a Mirrorless camera can mean anything from an entry level point-and-shoot with a tiny sensor, through to a full-frame professional model, or even an incredible Medium Format camera costing as much as a new car. 

However, this doesn’t automatically mean that a Mirrorless camera will be the best choice for your photography. Considering investing in a new camera and unsure which system will be right for you? This short guide to the advantages of Mirrorless vs DSLR cameras will help fill in all the gaps.

 

Differences Between the Mirrorless and DSLR Camera Systems

 

The Mirror

The most fundamental difference between Mirrorless and DSLR cameras is the way in which light enters the camera to be monitored by the photographer or captured by the sensor. DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex; the “reflex” part referring to a small mirror that sits behind the lens in order to reflect the image up into an optical viewfinder. Without this mirror, the photographer would have no way of seeing what is in the frame so as to compose a photograph. But press the shutter release button, and the mirror flips up out of the way with a noisy “clunk”. Now light will fall on the sensor, creating an image.

As the name suggests, Mirrorless cameras lack this mirror. Instead light comes in through the lens and falls directly onto the sensor at all times, ready to be captured with a press of the shutter button. Effectively, then, with a Mirrorless camera the light travels a much more direct path to the sensor. As we shall see shortly, this offers both advantages and disadvantages when compared with the DSLR system.

The Viewfinder

In addition to a rear LCD screen, DSLRs invariably feature optical viewfinders. “Optical “here meaning that the image which appears in the viewfinder on top of the camera is a direct reflection of the light entering the lens below. What you see is pretty much what you get in the form of a photo once you press the shutter. 

One disadvantage here is that, once the shutter is pressed and the mirror flips up out of the way, you no longer see any image in the viewfinder or on the LCD display. For an exposure lasting a mere fraction of a second, this brief blackout will be barely perceptible; however the inability to monitor the scene through the viewfinder may prove inconvenient when producing longer exposures of a second or more.

Without a mirror to reflect light into an optical viewfinder, a Mirrorless camera instead captures a continuous video feed of the light hitting the sensor. This video image is then either displayed on the rear LCD screen or in an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) - effectively a miniature LCD - mounted on top of the camera. 

While there is no image blackout here, some people miss the “direct” and unmediated view of the subject provided by an optical viewfinder. Additionally, EVFs can also suffer from a degree of “lag, making it more difficult to capture the “decisive moment”. 

This fact has lead some manufacturers to include hybrid optical/digital viewfinders on certain Mirrorless models; offering the natural view of an optical viewfinder combined with the advantages of a digital display, such as real-time histograms. However, as the camera lacks a mirror, such viewfinders are effectively just a direct window through the camera body and out the other side, and therefore don’t give a truly accurate indication of the image that will be captured via the lens.

Autofocus

With their rapid and reliable phase-detect AF systems, DSLRs have traditionally held the advantage over Mirrorless cameras when it comes to focusing. However, while the autofocus of entry-level Mirrorless cameras may not perform quite as well as a similarly-priced DSLRs, today’s top-end Mirrorless cameras, featuring hybrid contrast/phase-detect systems, will usually be just as fast and accurate in focusing as a DLSR; sometimes even more so. 

In fact, one area where DSLRs tend to trail behind the Mirrorless system is in live-view focusing. This is because for a DSLR to be in live-view mode, its mirror must be in the up position; at which point phase-detect autofocus will no longer work and the camera must switch to less effective contrast-detect AF operation.

Weight and Size

Without the need to squeeze a bulky mirror mechanism into the body, Mirrorless cameras tend to be considerably smaller and lighter than their DSRL counterparts. Just bear in mind that any advantage in this area can easily be cancelled out if you end up using the camera with a bigger and heavier lens. So be sure to factor in the weight and size of lenses when comparing the advantages of Mirrorless vs DSLR systems.

Burst Rates

With no mirror flapping around, Mirrorless cameras can achieve much faster continuous shooting rates than DSLRs. Indeed, even entry-level Mirrorless cameras will often outperform top of the range DSLRs in this area. 

However, just how fast a burst shooting rate any photographer really needs is debatable; the old masters used to get the shot with just a single click and a manual winder. If you can’t get anything usable with the 13 fps burst rate of a professional DSLR, the extra 7 fps offered by a top-of-the-range Mirrorless camera probably aren’t going to help you much anyway.

Shutter Noise

What is often referred to as the sound of a camera’s shutter - the satisfying mechanical “ker-click” of an SLR - is in fact mostly due to the mirror flipping up out of the way and dropping down again once the image has been captured. But lacking a mirror, one of the advantages of Mirrorless cameras vs DSLRs is truly silent operation, making the Mirrorless system a great choice for unobtrusive photography in more delicate shooting situations.

Lenses

As SLR cameras (digital or otherwise) have been with us for way longer than the Mirrorless system, DSLR users have access to a much greater number of lenses. Nonetheless, as Mirrorless cameras become more and more popular, in the coming years we can expect that this gap in lens choice will  cease to be a major issue, as lens manufacturers release an ever expanding range of new models for the Mirrorless system.

Battery Life

Here DSLRs clearly have the upper hand. Even just composing a shot with a Mirrorless camera requires viewing live video in an EVF, meaning that Mirrorless cameras tend to drain a lot of juice. Meanwhile, a fully optical viewfinder requires no power at all in order to display an image. The end result being that DSLRs way outperform Mirrorless cameras in terms of battery life.

Conclusion 

Once Mirrorless cameras were seen as an amateurish alternative to DSLRs; compact and lightweight but held back by smaller image sensors. But if we haven’t even touched upon the topic of image quality here it is because Mirrorless cameras now come in many different forms, with many different sensor sizes. And so any comparison in image quality needs to be done at the level of individual camera models only; no generalizations can be made regarding the advantages of one system vs the other.

However, while DSLRs are by no means obsolete, the future is looking increasingly Mirrorless. For fast, lightweight, and discrete shooting, Mirrorless cameras clearly take the lead. But for rugged build, good ergonomics, long battery-life and a much wider choice of lenses, DSLRs tend to remain the better option. 

Nonetheless, both systems offer a wide range of excellent camera models for all photographers, from entry-level through to hard-working professional. In short, what you consider to be the advantages of Mirrorless vs DSLR cameras will to some extent depend on your individual photographic needs.

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