Last updated on October 14th, 2018
Camera systems can be confusing for photography beginners. Especially since advertisers are throwing around words such as DSLR and mirrorless. I’ll explain the differences between these two camera types, so let’s start with the basics.
What is a DSLR Camera?
A DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera consists of light passing through the lens and reaching the camera’s image sensor and viewfinder. The image sensor stores the photo as a digital file instead of on film.
Without getting too much into optical science, the DSLR technology displays nearly the same image in the optical viewfinder as what the image sensor captures by means of the reflex mirror.
This helps photographers see what the camera sees. As oppose to a compact camera, the image reaching the image sensor and viewfinder can be very different.
What is a Mirrorless Camera?
You probably already guessed by its name, a mirrorless camera doesn’t have a reflex mirror. Light passes through the lenses directly to the image sensor. And unlike a DSLR camera that has an optical viewfinder (OVF), a mirrorless camera has an electronic viewfinder (EVF).
A mirrorless camera’s main advantage is that it’s smaller in size due to the omitted space taken up by the mirror.
If you already own a smartphone, then you already own a mirrorless camera. But for the purpose of this article, we’ll be discussing mirrorless cameras in terms of camera systems for photography hobbyists to professionals.
DSLR vs Mirrorless Cameras
In reality, you can’t really go wrong with either camera system. You should be more concerned about the sensor size – more on that later.
However, I will discuss a few differences to take into consideration when choosing between a DSLR vs mirrorless camera.
There is a notion that an image viewed in a DSLR’s OVF is superior quality to that of a mirrorless camera’s EVF: the image you see in an OVF is the same image and light passing through the lens due to the reflex mirror.
On the flipside, the image you see in an electronic viewfinder is different because it is a rendered image that is passed from the mirrorless camera’s image sensor. There is an advantage to this: you see the exact image your camera is about to photograph. A DSLR usually renders a different image depending on the settings.
I wouldn’t worry too much about the viewfinder and the rendered image. Especially since most DSLR cameras now have an EVF via the LCD display.
A caveat of the electronic viewfinder is it causes the image sensor to always be working; this results in poor battery performance for mirrorless cameras.
Camera Lenses and Image Stabilization
A great feature of most DSLR and mirrorless camera systems is that they come (through purchase) with interchangeable lenses.
A known fact is DSLR cameras have a much larger line up of interchangeable lenses, especially since companies like Tamron and Sigma manufacture lenses for Nikon and Canon. This results in cost savings through third party, high-quality lenses.
You’ll notice options are limited, and more costly, with mirrorless camera system lenses.
An important difference now between DSLR and mirrorless cameras is image stabilization. Believe it or not, we all have shaky hands to some degree unless one arm is a tripod. And nobody likes blurry photos of pandas.
Image stabilization is often required for sports, wildlife, or chasing celebrities because panning is required.
Now let’s be serious.
Many DSLR lenses have image stabilization built in to the lens. This results in each lens’ image stabilization technology to be specific to that lens only and provides better stabilization. Note that not all DSLR lenses have image stabilization.
On the other hand, mirrorless cameras like Sony and Olympus have 5-axis, in-camera image stabilization. This is done by the image sensor compensating the movement of a photographer.
With in-camera image stabilization, photographers don’t need to worry about buying lenses with image stabilization. There is also a cost savings since image stabilized lenses cost more money.
There is also a hybrid type of image stabilization. Mirrorless cameras that have built-in image stabilization along with in-lens image stabilization. These systems work together to supposedly provide better image stabilization.
Right now, the verdict is to have the image stabilization technology in the lens for sharper images.
A DSLR camera’s autofocus speed was far faster than a mirrorless camera’s AF. This was because a DSLR used phase detection as opposed to a mirrorless camera’s contrast detection for AF.
Now manufacturers of mirrorless cameras also utilize phase detection for autofocus. So AF speed shouldn’t be a problem between the camera system types.
Size and Weight
The biggest advantage of mirrorless cameras compared to DSLR’s is their size and weight – this holds true for the most part but the advantage is limited nowadays.
For example, take a look at the bodies of the mirrorless Sony A7R III and the DSLR Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. They are both full-frame cameras (same image sensor size). From a visual standpoint, the Sony camera appears to be 25% smaller than the Canon.
In addition, the weight of the Sony is 657 g whereas Canon’s is 890 g (including both the battery and memory card). The Sony A7R III is 26% lighter than the Canon EOS 5D mark IV.
The size advantage of mirrorless cameras becomes less advantageous after adding a lens. The below cameras consist of the same cameras as above plus the DSLR Nikon D850. All the cameras have a 50mm lens attached.