Mirrorless vs DSLR Cameras

Mirrorless vs DSLR

Mirrorless vs DSLR Cameras

Lately, the photography world has been abuzz with talk about mirrorless cameras taking the place in the market currently held by the industry’s long time champion, the DSLR. Despite all the media attention the vote is still out amongst amateurs and professionals alike.

I am what some people would call a skeptic which is almost always in direct offense with my incorrigible obsession with photography gizmos and gadgets.  If I’m being completely honest I had a hard time making the jump from film to digital and never entirely gave it up. When the rush to the next big thing pointed right at mirrorless cameras, I was unwavering in my staunch support for my trusty DSLR. And thus, I decided it was necessary to pit camera against camera to see which would emerge victorious.

But…before we put these two contenders in the ring and pit them against each, I want you to know what they are, what makes them tick, and how they differ from each other.

What is a DSLR?

Most people will recognize a DSLR when they see one but don’t really know what differentiates it from their point and click or even their iPhone camera. Many assume the only difference is the ability to change the lens out for a different one but DSLR cameras are actual built differently than other types.

DSLR actually stands for digital single lens reflex.  Film and digital cameras employ an internal mirror that flips in order to create the photograph. If you look at the diagram below you’ll see the movement of light through a DSLR camera.  When looking at it imagine the camera has been cut through from top to bottom with a high precision laser. The illustrations shows a cross section of a DSLR camera. The yellow line is light moving through the camera when you are looking through the viewfinder. It enters through the front of the lens (shown on the left hand side) travels through the back of the camera where there is a mirror poised at a forty-five degree angle. The mirror bounces the light up into a five-sided prism or mirror at the top of the camera and out through the viewfinder where you look into the camera so you can see what you are photographing. The sensor (aka digital film) sits right behind that mirror and when you press the shutter button the mirror flips allowing the light to hit the sensor and create your image.

What is a Mirrorless Camera?

A mirrorless camera is exactly what it sounds like. It lacks internal mirror and surrounding mechanics that make the DSLR unique. While they lack the same internal structures, like DSLRS, mirrorless cameras allow you to change lenses for unique viewpoints and more control.  The result is a smaller, less hefty camera that still gives you the option of interchangeable lenses.

Is the mirrorless camera the end of the DSLR? 
Is this the end of the DSLR?  Short answer, nope. There are still a lot of things a DSLR can manage better than any mirrorless camera on the market. And I’m going to break down where mirrorless cameras both shine and leave much to be desired.

Mirrorless vs DSLR

Which Does What Best?
Perhaps the most obvious point in the mirrorless camera’s favor is its smaller size and subsequent lighter weight. In comparison to the average DSLR, Mirrorless models are tiny! Sometimes only coming to a third of the size and weight of their mirror laden predecessors.   Some are even small enough to fit into your pocket.  They are great for travel when carrying around a bag of gear in inconvenient or too conspicuous to be safe.

There are also generally cheaper. While entry-level DSLRs with a kit lens typically start at about $600, you can often find a mirrorless camera with a single lens for $200 less.  With a lower starting price you might be able to use some of that saved money towards accessories or more lenses from the get-go.

It should also be noted that most mirrorless cameras do not have a viewfinder and instead force you to use the live view option much like point and shoot cameras. Some people who prefer to use live view won’t miss the feature and wouldn’t consider it detrimental. I personally prefer to use the viewfinder and would end up spending extra time and money to find a model that gives me both options.

Despite their bulk, DSLRs also have advantages in many arenas where mirrorless cameras fall short.  One important factor that has been pointed out to me repeatedly is that fact that the autofocusing systems in mirrorless cameras have yet to catch up with the quicker, more sophisticated systems DSLRs are known for.  Scientists and engineers are still trying to find ways to put all the speed into a smaller piece of equipment and they just aren’t there yet.

DSLRs have longevity on their side. They have been around and readily available to consumers for about 15 years but they are built off the principle of the SLR which had been the standard for photography for decades. One of the perks is that many brands have kept the camera mounts the same. Lenses for 40 year old cameras will still work on today’s most recent models. One of my favorite lenses is one my father bought with his first film SLR when he was in high school.

With that endurance also comes variety and third party lenses. Third party lenses are those which are supplied by companies different from those which manufacture the camera bodies. Two of the most popular are Tamron and Sigma. Third party lenses offer similar quality for a fraction of the price because you aren’t paying for the brand recognition.

Mirrorless camera mounts and their lenses often differ not only by brand but also by model and that makes it difficult for third party companies to invest time and money in lens mounts that are constantly changing. And for those of us who can’t afford to buy every lens we want and need, lens rental companies are also less likely to supply lenses for mirrorless cameras for the same reasons third party companies refuse to make them.

Which is better, the DSLR or the mirrorless camera?

Mirrorless cameras are a sort of new technology created to meld the size and ease of the point and shoot camera with the creative flexibility of a DSLR. Unfortunately, the science just isn’t quite there yet. The mirrorless camera ends up falling somewhere in between those two categories.  Despite the fact they aren’t quite up to the technical par set by the DSLR I don’t think there is a clear winner. As much as I hate to say it, it’s a bit of a draw. DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have different strengths and weaknesses. It’s a kind of like comparing an apple and a kangaroo.

If you need something lightweight and convenient but need more quality than a point and click can supply, a mirrorless camera might be a good things to add to your gear bag. It’s a great camera for someone who wants more control without all the control.  If you want more versatility, higher quality images, and lightning fast, accurate autofocus then the DSLR will be your new best friend.

Much like everything with art, each photographer has got to decide which cameras will best serve them in their venture for those truly amazing shots that remind us why we picked up a camera in the first place.


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