The wisdom has long been that anyone serious about photography needs a DSLR camera—but that’s no longer true. The latest mirrorless cameras match, or even surpass, DSLRs in almost every important way.
From smaller sizes, to more advanced features, to all-around better performance, mirrorless cameras are the perfect alternative to DSLR cameras. Whether you’re a hobbyist, a keen travel shooter, a newbie to photography, or even a pro, here’s why it’s time to switch from DSLR to mirrorless cameras.
The Difference Between DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras
The difference between DSLR and mirrorless cameras is mainly technical.
A DSLR camera has a mirror in front of the internal camera sensor that bounces light through the viewfinder. When you press the shutter button, the mirror lifts upwards to expose the sensor and allows the image to be captured.
A mirrorless camera has no mirror. Light enters through the lens and hits the always-exposed sensor. What you see through the viewfinder or rear screen is a direct read of what the sensor is seeing, and thus an exact representation of the image to be captured when you press the shutter button.
Note: “Mirrorless” can technically describe any camera without a mirror, but the term is reserved for cameras with larger sensors (micro four-thirds and upwards) that often support interchangeable prime and zoom lenses. However, some mirrorless cameras—like the Fuji X100 series—have fixed lenses.
So why are mirrorless cameras better than DSLR cameras?
I still remember the moment I decided to go mirrorless. It was after a day spent trudging around a rainy Barcelona with a Nikon D90 and 16-85mm lens around my neck. I loved the camera/lens combo, but it was really starting to suck the joy out of both photography and travel.
I knew I needed to downsize to something smaller and less unwieldy, but I didn’t want to compromise on quality. Mirrorless was the obvious answer.
The website camerasize.com enables you to compare the relative sizes of almost every popular camera, with lenses attached.
The image above shows a modern, enthusiast-level DSLR, the Canon 80D, alongside one of the larger mirrorless cameras, the FujiFilm X-T3, and one of the smaller ones, the Sony a6300 (Amazon US, CA, UK). All three cameras have similar-sized sensors and are mounted with kit lenses.
There’s no comparison. The mirrorless options have a considerably smaller footprint than the DSLR. They’re lighter, too. The Sony kit weighs in at just 1.14 pounds (520 grams), compared to 1.91 pounds (869 grams) for the Fuji and 2.06 pounds (935 grams) for the Canon.
Few mirrorless cameras are truly pocketable, except for a large coat pocket, maybe. But the size and weight benefits cannot be underestimated. The easier a camera is to carry, the more likely you are to take it with you wherever you go.
2. More Convenient Shooting
The smaller size of most mirrorless cameras doesn’t just make them more portable. It offers benefits in use as well.
DSLRs are far less discreet, and—rightly or wrongly—people often think of them as being more professional. If you’re traveling somewhere and shooting street scenes, people will notice you with your DSLR. And they’ll wonder why you’re pointing your camera at them.
Small mirrorless cameras look far less threatening and allow you to merge into the background a lot easier. On most models, you can flip the screen up and shoot from the hip.
There’s another way mirrorless cameras are more discreet: they’re quieter. Without a mirror to flip up and down each time a shot is taken they’re less intrusive in hushed surroundings.
A few models, like the Fuji X100F or the Sony RX1, use a different shutter design altogether. It’s called a leaf shutter, and it’s almost completely silent.
If you have any interest in cameras and camera technology, mirrorless is the only place to be these days.
Even the staid old giants of the DSLR world, Canon and Nikon, have been compelled to embrace the sector of the market where innovation is almost unstoppable.
So, we’ve now got pro-level, full frame mirrorless cameras like the Canon EOS R, with over 5000 focus points, plus models from Nikon, Sony, and even Panasonic. And Fuji has trumped them all with the compact sized, medium format GFX 50R.
But the innovations have occurred just as quickly in enthusiast cameras. They’ve led the way with:
- Electronic viewfinders, with high resolution and fast refresh rate, showing 100 percent field of view.
- Live view, so you can compose shots using the rear LCD.
- Hybrid viewfinders, combining the best of the optical and electronic viewfinders.
- Wi-Fi, for easy photo uploading.
- Photo assistance features, such as face detection.
- Smart scene modes, like HDR or image stacking for noiseless low light shooting.
- Electronic shutter, for ultra-fast shutter speeds that enable you to shoot wide open in sunlight.
- Articulating screens, for negotiating popular tourist sites.
Some of these features have since found their way into DSLRs, but mirrorless cameras got there first and made the features mainstream.
Mirrorless cameras are more software driven than DSLRs. This might be one of the reasons why innovations are easier to deliver. It also might explain why they often get more and bigger firmware updates, upgrading and adding new features to older cameras.
The long-standing argument against mirrorless cameras was that their performance was inferior to the DSLR. Focusing was slow, image quality was worse, battery life poor, and the ergonomics didn’t lend themselves to prolonged shooting.
OK, it’s still true about battery life. The typical DSLR shoots 2-3 times more photos than a mirrorless camera before it needs recharging.
The rest? No.
Focus speed has improved a lot in the last few generations, to the point where it now surpasses that of popular DSLRs. The Sony a6500 claims the fastest autofocus speed among crop sensors, packing 425 phase detection autofocus points across the sensor, compared to 51 points on the Nikon D7500, for example.
Pros in fields like sports photography might still go for full frame DSLRs (although the Sony A9 is targeted directly at them) but enthusiasts don’t need to worry about focusing.
As for image quality, there’s never really been much difference anyway. The sensors are broadly similar in size and capabilities (and some Nikon DSLRs even use Sony built sensors), and all the mirrorless systems have enough quality lenses to cater for all levels of user.
The ergonomics are also not an obstacle. Cameras from the likes of Fuji and Olympus are packed with external dials and buttons, enabling you to change your settings without even lifting your eye from the viewfinder. Mirrorless has caught up with DSLR by offering weather sealing on an increasing number of models, so you can shoot in all conditions.
When mirrorless cameras first entered the market, lenses were a weak point. It takes time for a manufacturer to build a system from scratch.
A decade on, there are no such problems. Micro Four Thirds, Sony, Fuji, and others all have lenses for all use cases and at all price points. Versatile travel zooms, fast primes, pancakes—whatever lens you need you can get.
More interesting is how well you can use mirrorless cameras with legacy lenses. With a simple, inexpensive adapter you can mount virtually any old film lens. Pick some up from eBay or a local garage sale and it will blow your photographic options wide open.
It opens you up to work with old Leica or Zeiss lenses, while Soviet-era manufacturers like Jupiter and Helios are also very popular among vintage lens aficionados.
Most mirrorless cameras use a feature called “focus peaking” to enable you to work with manual lenses. This highlights the highest contrast areas of an image—which represent the sharpest edges—with a bright color. The brighter the color, the more in focus the image.
6. More Options
Unless you’re a professional with very specific requirements, it’s hard to make a case for DSLRs these days. Mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter, more versatile, and perform as well, if not better, than their old-school counterparts.
The sheer variety of models also ensures you’ll be able to find the right one for your needs. If you want to drop nine grand on a medium format Hasselblad X1D, you can. Or you can spend as little as $500 on a body that will still give you 4K video and awesome photo quality.
Are you ready to make the switch? Check out our guide to getting more from your mirrorless camera, and you’ll be good to go. And you’ll never go back to a DSLR.
Image Credit: SB7/Shutterstock