DSLR Cameras vs. Mirrorless Cameras

Learn which type of advanced camera is best for you

Girl and Camera
Benoist Sébire/ GettyImages

When making the switch from point-and-shoot cameras to advanced cameras, one aspect that can be confusing is some of the options you now have for finding interchangeable lens cameras.

DSLRs aren’t the only type of interchangeable lens camera now available, as smaller mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs) have recently begun appearing on the market. ILCs are popular buying options because of their small size and colorful camera bodies. ILCs tend to offer touchscreen displays and other advancements that make their operation seem a bit more like a smartphone while maintaining strong image quality.

DSLR vs. Mirrorless ILC

DSLR is short for digital single lens reflex camera. A DSLR camera contains a mirror. The light travels through the lens, striking the tilted mirror, where it’s reflected to the viewfinder. However, when you press the shutter button, the mirror flips out of the way, allowing the light to travel through the lens and strike the image sensor behind the mirror. The image sensor then can record the photograph. This is the same basic mechanism that 35mm film SLR cameras used to record images on film.

ILC is short for interchangeable lens camera, and it is another type of advanced camera. However, the mirrorless ILC is smaller than a DSLR camera, as the ILC does not make use of a tilted mirror to reflect the actual image from the lens to the viewfinder. Instead, mirrorless cameras have a different design that works only with digital cameras and would not work with film cameras. The light from the scene constantly strikes the image sensor, but it only records an image when you press the shutter button.

ILCs can use an electronic viewfinder to help you frame the image, although some mirrorless ILC cameras don't offer a viewfinder, only showing the scene on the display screen, just like a point-and-shoot camera.

Sometimes, the ILC mirrorless camera can be called an EVIL (electronic viewfinder interchangeable lens) camera or a DIL (digital interchangeable lens) camera.

DSLR vs. ILC: Sizes

A DSLR camera must be quite a bit larger than an ILC because of the mirror and because of the pentaprism in the top of the camera that reflects the image further toward the viewfinder. The ILC camera often is built thinner than DSLR camera bodies.

Otherwise, the image sensors can be of a similar size in DSLR and mirrorless cameras. Because the physical size of the camera is smaller, the image sensor in an ILC mirrorless camera can be placed closer to the lens. This allows the ILC's lens to be made smaller too versus a DSLR camera.

Some ILC manufacturers expand the size of the mirrorless camera body a little bit, just to allow for a larger right-hand grip and battery, but most manufacturers maintain a small camera body with an ILC.

DSLR vs. ILC: Features

Both of these types of cameras make use of larger image sensors than point-and-shoot cameras, which allow them to shoot higher quality photos. They also have faster response times than point-and-shoot cameras, allowing them to perform better.

Some interchangeable lens cameras have built-in flash units, while others require a flash to be attached to the camera’s hot shoe. ILCs typically offer touchscreen displays and built-in Wi-Fi more often than a typical DSLR, although DSLR makers are offering these types of features more often now than in past years.

DSLRs tend to have more variety in the types of interchangeable lenses that are compatible with them versus mirrorless ILCs, and DSLRs typically have larger maximum telephoto lens options versus mirrorless cameras.