Mirrorless Cameras vs. DSLR Cameras

Figure out which camera is best for your photography style

Mirrorless cameras used to be considered a novelty in digital photography, and in photography circles, no self-respecting professional (or amateur working toward professional) photographer would own one. But times have changed, and mirrorless cameras have come a long way. Far enough, that many photographers are trying to decide between mirrorless cameras vs. DSLR cameras when making the purchasing decision.

To take the guesswork out of which type of camera is best for you, we spent time reviewing both. Here's what we learned.

Mirrorless camera and a DSLR

Overall Findings

Mirrorless Cameras
  • Smaller and lighter.

  • Slightly more expensive than DSLR cameras.

  • Image quality depends on sensory size.

  • Use contrast detection for focusing.

  • Shoots burst images faster.

  • Electronic viewfinder.

  • Shorter battery life due to electonic viewfinder.

DSLR Cameras
  • Heavier than mirrorless cameras.

  • Less expensive.

  • Image quality depends on sensor size.

  • Use phase detection for focusing.

  • Fast shooting, but slower on burst shooting.

  • Optical viewfinder.

  • Better battery life.

When it comes to deciding between a mirrorless camera and a DSLR camera, there are many similarities and differences between them. For example, a mirrorless camera is lighter and if you plan to shoot high speed photography, it's faster. But a DSLR camera is better when you need a less expensive entry into professional-quality photography equipment, and can be useful when you need a camera that has enough battery power to last through a long photoshoot.

Both of these types of interchangeable lens cameras can take high quality pictures, though the exact quality will depend on the image sensor packed inside the camera. You can still get full-frame, crop frame, and other sizes, regardless of the choice you make, but DSLRs are tried and true, which makes many experienced photographers hesitant to make the switch entirely.

Size and Weight: Mirrorless Cameras Are Easier to Carry

Mirrorless Cameras
  • No internal mirror system.

  • Lenses can make the camera heavier.

  • No optical viewfinder further reduces weight.

DSLR Cameras
  • Internal mirror system adds to weight of the camera.

  • Lenses can make the camera heavier.

  • Optical viewfinder adds to the overall weight of the system.

One of the most frequently cited reasons for choosing a mirrorless camera over a DSLR is weight. The overall weight of the mirrorless camera is noticeably less than that of a DSLR for one simple reason: the mirrorless camera has no internal mirror system and that is a large percentage of the weight of DSLR cameras.

Of course, adding lenses to the camera will add weight, but overall, the 'mirrorless' part of the mirrorless camera gives it an advantage over a DSLR making it easier to carry, especially when multiple cameras come into play.

Part of what makes a mirrorless camera is also a lighter body due to smaller size. However, in response to photographer demand, some manufacturers are creating larger bodies with more features, which makes the camera heavier.

Focusing and Image Quality: Depends on the Model

Mirrorless Cameras
  • Most use contrast detection AF.

  • Can be slow to focus.

  • Difficulties focusing in low-light situations.

DSLR Cameras
  • Use phase detection auto-focus.

  • Focus faster in low-light situations.

  • May not focus as well in live view.

Historically, photographers shied away from mirrorless cameras because of the focusing system they used—contrast detection. In this type of focusing essentially looks for the area of greatest contrast in an image and focuses at that point. It results in sharp focus in most cases, but it's slow; especially when a full frame or crop frame sensor is in use.

By contrast, DSLR cameras use phase detection auto-focus, which uses comparative versions of an image from different angles to determine the best point of focus. While this sounds slow, it's actually much faster than trying to determine the point of greatest contrast, especially in low-light situations.

Modern mirrorless cameras are better designed than previous versions, and some now have both contrast and phase detection, which gives better focus in low-light situations and faster focus in all situations, but they're still comparable to DSLR cameras because they have digital displays rather than optical viewfinders. Typically, an optical viewfinder gives you a more accurate representation of the image you are capturing, which reduces the threshold for user-introduced focusing errors.

Finally, the image quality of both types of cameras is comparable. Image quality depends on the sensor used to capture the image, and since both mirrorless and DSLR cameras use the same types (and even brands) of sensors, you can expect similar quality from either types of camera.

Battery Life: DSLR Wins Every Time

Mirrorless Camera
  • Uses a digital viewfinder which eats battery faster than DSLR.

  • Usually includes digital features that can consume battery life.

DSLR Camera
  • Uses optical viewfinder, which extends battery life.

  • Includes digital features that can consumer battery life.

One other thing to consider when trying to decide between mirrorless cameras vs. DSLR cameras is battery life. By the nature of the design, mirrorless cameras tend to consume battery life much faster than DSLR cameras. This is because not only is the mechanism by which pictures are captured more power consuming (no mirror means digital function to block and allow light on the image sensor), but having no optical viewfinder means the camera must keep a large LCD screen lit while shooting is active.

As a result, the battery drains quickly on mirrorless cameras. When you add in extra digital features, like image manipulation or sharing post-capture, that can cause additional drain. DSLR cameras may also have similar features, which can reduce their battery life, but without the drain of the live preview (LCD screen), and with a physical mirror to control light to the sensor, the batter on a DSLR will last longer, making it ideal for carrying on long photoshoots.

Final Verdict

Both mirrorless and DSLR cameras offer great interchangeable lens options for photographers, and mirrorless cameras have come a long way since first being introduced. So far, in fact, that today, some professional photographers use mirrorless cameras as part of their regular equipment. Mirrorless cameras are lighter, and with modern advances, some have focusing systems that are comparable to DSLR cameras.

Still, DSLR tends to be the choice for most professional photographers, because while they are heavier, they capture great pictures in every lighting situation, and they have a longer battery life, which makes them more reliable. Many photographers also still yearn for the ability to use the optical viewfinder to frame and image.

For these reasons, it's clear that DSLR cameras are still the fan favorite for professional, amateur, and even hobby photographers who want a reliable camera that will capture the images they want in the most comfortable way.