Mirrorless versus DSLR Cameras
It’s true that mirrorless cameras have been present on the market for some time now and that a lot is already known about their capabilities and the differences between DSLR cameras, but since technology is always evolving at a steady pace, it’s always good to revisit this topic and see what has changed over the years and what has stayed the same.
The aim of this article is to determine the main technical differences between the mirrorless cameras and DSLRs, explain what do they mean and how they’ll affect your experience with those cameras and lastly, compare the best bodies in the realm of mirrorless and DSLR cameras when it comes to budget, high end and sports photography options.
What are the main differences between a mirrorless camera and a DSLR?
Mirrorless cameras don’t have a reflex mirror
Mechanically speaking, a mirrorless camera is more simple due to its lack of a reflex mirror, which a DSLR requires to bounce the light to the optical viewfinder. So, in case of a mirrorless camera, the light coming through the lens reaches the digital sensor directly.
Electronic viewfinder versus optical viewfinder
Since a mirrorless camera doesn’t use a mirror inside its body, it requires an electronic viewfinder instead of an optical one to help you compose your photos. Electronic viewfinders are basically small digital displays made to be viewed very closely to the eye. They often have high resolutions to avoid any visible pixelation to the image.
The advantage of having an EVF instead of an optical viewfinder is that you’ll be able to immediately see your current exposure and easily tell if the image is too bright or too dark. You’ll also be able to view more realtime information like your exposure settings, shooting mode, picture quality, composition guidelines, focus assist tools and more.
The optical viewfinders, while technologically less advanced still have a few tricks up their sleeve. They can be used even when the camera is powered off, waste much less battery power and don’t slow down in low light like some EVFs do to compensate for the lack of light.
Mirrorless cameras can be lighter and smaller by design
Since by nature a mirrorless camera doesn’t require the glass mechanism found in a DSLR, it can be noticeably more portable than a DSLR with the same sensor size. This was the biggest selling point of mirrorless cameras when they first arrived on the market and saw the rise of many easily pocketable Four Thirds and APS-C cameras.
While there are many native lenses available on the market for most mirrorless camera brands, either of the first or the third party variety, their strength lies in the ability to easily adapt to other types of lenses with the help of lens adapters.
With the right adapter, you’ll often be able to adapt almost any DSLR, other mirrorless mount and legacy manual lens you like, with even the autofocus, aperture control and image stabilization working just fine on many of them. Some mirrorless cameras also include a crop mode that will allow you to mount lenses made for smaller sensors and get full coverage.
Over the years, the battery endurance of mirrorless cameras has improved considerably, especially in case of professional level bodies, but it still hasn’t reached the same level offered by DSLRs and there are two main reasons why that’s still the case.
The first one is the bigger size of DSLRs, which allows for bigger battery chambers and naturally, bigger capacity batteries. Some mirrorless cameras rival some DSLRs in size, but their dimensions are still smaller when compared to the biggest DSLRs out there.
The second reason is that mirrorless cameras simply waste more power. While electronic viewfinders hold many advantages over optical ones, they are still digital displays by design and they need a lot more juice to stay powered up instead of optical viewfinders which are made of glass elements and require no electronic parts to work.
Best budget mirrorless camera versus DSLR: Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IV versus Nikon D3500
Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IV
Dimensions: 4.8 x 3.31 x 1.93 inches | Weight: 0.84 Pounds | Sensor Type: 20 Megapixels Four Thirds | Highest Video Resolution: 3840 x 2160 pixels | Battery Life: 360 shots | Fastest Shooting Speed: 15 fps | Screen Size: 3 inches | Screen Resolution: 1,040,000 dots | Viewfinder Resolution: 2,360,000 dots | Viewfinder Magnification: 0.31x (35mm equivalent)
The Olympus E-M10 Mark IV is a great example of creating a mirrorless camera that’s easy to carry around, but also nice to handle. It has enough physical controls to satisfy most beginner photographers, but also a touchscreen as an additional input method. The touch screen itself can also flip down, allowing you to capture self portraits with ease.
The E-M10 Mark IV also brings a 5-axis in-body stabilization, meaning that any lens you decide to attach to it will be more stable and will allow you to capture sharper photos in low light, but also smoother handheld videos. Another useful feature worth mentioning is the USB charging, which will allow you to easily top up its battery using a power bank.
Dimensions: 4.88 x 3.82 x 2.76 inches | Weight: 0.8 Pounds | Sensor Type: 24 Megapixels APS-C | Highest Video Resolution: 1920 x 1080 pixels | Battery Life: 1550 shots | Fastest Shooting Speed: 5 fps | Screen Size: 3 inches | Screen Resolution: 921,000 dots | Viewfinder Coverage: 95% | Viewfinder Magnification: 0.57x (35mm equivalent)
While the Nikon D3500 doesn’t try to break any new ground in the world of cameras, it’s still a solid and reliable option for anyone looking for their first DSLR or simply a budget friendly family camera. It feels natural in the hand thanks to its decently sized grip and is easy to operate due to its intuitive controls and a nicely sized shutter button on the top.
The user interface on the D5300 is intuitive and doesn’t have a steep learning curve as is the case with some mirrorless cameras. It’s refined, color coded and a pleasure to navigate. As is the case with most DSLRs, the D5300 manages to bring excellent battery life and will give you the opportunity to capture more than 1000 photos per charge.
Best sports mirrorless camera versus DSLR: Sony A9 II versus Canon EOS-1D X Mark III
Sony A9 II
Dimensions: 5.08 x 3.78 x 2.99 inches | Weight: 1.49 Pounds | Sensor Type: 24 Megapixels Full Frame | Highest Video Resolution: 3840 x 2160 pixels | Battery Life: 690 shots | Fastest Shooting Speed: 20 fps | Screen Size: 3 inches | Screen Resolution: 1,440,000 dots | Viewfinder Resolution: 3,686,000 dots | Viewfinder Magnification: 0.78x
The Sony A9 II manages to include the most impressive focusing systems on a modern camera in a body that can easily fit in any regular bag and it’s a proof of how advanced the mirrorless cameras have really become. The AF system in question consists of 693 focus points, with a 93% coverage, meaning that you’ll be able to track any subject in your frame.
The A9 II can also shoot at 20 or 10 fps with continuous AF enabled, with the first mode using the electronic shutter and being a better option for those occasions when you’re standing still or the camera is on a tripod. It also brings a large EVF with a 120 Hz refresh rate, meaning that you’ll be able to smoothly follow any action happening in front of you.
Canon EOS-1D X Mark III
Dimensions: 6.22 x 6.61 x 3.27 inches | Weight: 3.17 Pounds | Sensor Type: 20 Megapixels Full Frame | Highest Video Resolution: 5472 x 2886 pixels | Battery Life: 2850 shots | Fastest Shooting Speed: 20 fps | Screen Size: 3.2 inches | Screen Resolution: 2,100,000 dots | Viewfinder Coverage: 100% | Viewfinder Magnification: 0.76x
As is the case with all professional DSLRs designed for sports photographers and journalists, the Canon 1D X Mark III is a big camera, but also one that’s a pleasure to use thanks to its two large hand grips, one meant for shooting in landscape and one for portrait orientation. So, no matter which way you turn the camera, it will feel natural to shoot with.
The 1D X Mark III also excels at shooting fast and doing it for a long time. It can capture images at up to 20 fps, with the mechanical shutter and without any interruptions due to buffer limitations. There’s also the battery life rating of 2850 shots, which is top notch and still a few levels above what the best sports mirrorless cameras can achieve.
Fujifilm X-E4 + Fujifilm Fujinon XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 R LM OIS
Dimensions: 4.76 x 2.87 x 1.3 inches | Weight: 0.8 Pounds | Sensor Type: 26 Megapixels APS-C | Highest Video Resolution: 4K | Battery Life: 380 shots | Fastest Shooting Speed: 20 fps | Screen Size: 3 inches | Screen Resolution: 1,620,000 dots | Viewfinder Resolution: 2,360,000 dots | Viewfinder Magnification: 0.62x (35mm equiv.)
So, what makes the Fujifilm X-E4 and the 18-55mm lens stand out from the rest of the mirrorless APS-C combinations? Well, it has to be the camera’s 20 fps burst rate, very respectable battery life, high resolution screen and on top of that, low light performance.
In a nutshell, the X-E4 is the only camera on this list that manages to combine a high megapixel count with incredibly fast shooting speeds, meaning you will be able to capture sharp images of any moving subjects that find themselves in front of your lens.
There are also Fuji’s trademark film simulation modes included, like Eterna, Acros or Provia. When it comes to low light photography and getting photos with little noise, the X-E4 presents itself as a very good choice thanks to the bright f/2.8 maximum aperture of the 18-55 lens, as well as its optical image stabilization.
Full Frame sensor – Also called a 35mm sensor. It’s the type of imaging sensor found in most professional cameras, but also used as a point of reference for comparing the sizes of all the other sensors found in cameras, smartphones and other devices.
So, when you hear the term “35mm equivalent” it refers to the field of view or focal length of an APS-C or Four Thirds lens as if it were used on a Full frame sensor. If you don’t own a Full Frame camera, it isn’t something you should be worried about at all.
APS-C sensor – The most common type of image sensor found in many mirrorless cameras and DSLRs. It’s smaller than Full Frame, but still big enough to give you very good image quality and great low light performance.
Four Thirds sensor – The type of image sensor that’s half the size of a Full Frame sensor, which generally means that it’s image quality is slightly below APS-C sensors, but on the flip side, allows for even smaller and lighter camera bodies and lenses.
EVF – An Electronic Viewfinder. It will allow you to compose your photos by putting the camera to your eye, instead of looking at the main screen. It often offers better visibility in direct sunlight, makes it easier to focus on your subject and also gives you more stability when holding the camera.
RAW – The type of imaging format that will give you the most flexibility and creative freedom while you’re editing your photos. Your camera will usually produce decent enough images in its default JPEG format, but shooting in RAW will give you more room to adjust the colors, brightness, contrast and sharpness to your own liking, after taking those photos.
Film simulation modes – The types of photo filters exclusively found on Fujifilm cameras. Their main goal is to imitate the look of different film types found on older manual cameras, which can give some additional character to your photos.
So, for example, the Eterna mode will produce less saturated and more soft images, Acros will give you sharp black and white photos, Provia will produce a very balanced look and so on.
FPS – Frames Per Second. It’s a term used to measure the number of images a camera can take in only one second. Since taking photos of moving subjects is never easy, having the ability to take a lot of photos at once will improve your chances of getting a sharp photo that also puts your subject in a position you desire.
So, after you summarize all the pros and cons of mirrorless versus DSLR cameras and even after you take into account that the majority of manufacturers are focusing their efforts in improving the technology found in mirrorless cameras and making them better with each passing year, it’s still not easy to find the definite winner between the two.
Yes, it’s certainly useful to have a camera that’s more portable, easier to shoot thanks to its electronic viewfinder, has more modern features and supports more lenses, but despite all of that, DSLRs still have their place on the market.
In most cases they will be the more rugged of the two, more resistant to weather and dust and more importantly, easier to handle thanks to their ergonomic shapes. There’s also the case of battery life, which is still one area in which the mirrorless cameras are lagging behind DSLRs and that’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked.
As always, it’s up to you to decide which type of camera will suit your needs the best. For most of you, the mirrorless cameras may seem like an obvious choice, but you would be doing yourselves a disservice if you at least don’t take a peak at what can be found in the DSLR camp before making your final decision. There’s more to DSLRs than meets the eye.