DSLR or Mirrorless?
The range of new cameras available to purchase these days is probably bigger than at anytime in history. So, for the avid photographer, should you opt for a DSLR or one of the new mirrorless compact system cameras?
To make that decision easier I am going to list the advantages of each system, some of which you may not have considered.
Advantages of a DSLR
• Optical viewfinder. You are seeing a true view of the subject you are photographing which means no visual lag like the electronic finders. All DSLRs have a viewfinder, many mirrorless cameras do not.
• Image quality. DSLRs can offer better image quality than mirrorless cameras but usually only if you are prepared to spend big money on a full frame DSLR camera. Run of the mill DSLRs offer no image quality advantage over mirrorless.
• Wider selection of lenses. DSLRs from the likes of Nikon and especially Canon have a huge range of compatible lenses. The mirrorless systems cannot compete with this yet. BUT, the lens range is growing fast, especially for the Micro 4/3rds cameras such as the Olympus PEN and Lumix G range.
• Faster AF. DSLRs still lead the pack in terms of autofocus capability, especially when it comes to moving subjects. Mirrorless systems have just about caught up with AF when photographing static subjects but, for action photography, the DSLR is still king by a considerable margin
• Depth of field. This can be seen either as an advantage or a disadvantage depending on your style of photography. In general, DSLRs (mainly the expensive full frame cameras) have physically larger sensors than mirrorless cameras. By that, I am referring to the actual physical area of the sensor, not the megapixels! A large sensor offers an effective shallower depth of field (less of the scene in focus). Think of a professional head and shoulders portrait where the eyes and mouth of the person are in sharp focus but the ears, neck and background are blurred out of focus. This effect is easier to achieve with a DSLR with a large sensor. The smaller sensors of mirrorless cameras generally give a perceived increase in depth of field which can make isolating your subject from the background more difficult. (See example photo below).
• Handling. DSLRs are large and therefore it is easier for the manufacturers to make them fit our hands better. If you have large hands, shooting with a small mirrorless camera for an extended period may not be as comfortable as using a DSLR.
• Battery life. If you shoot using the viewfinder as opposed to using Live View then the battery life of DSLRs is exceptionally good. Mirrorless cameras are nowhere near as efficient as you're either using the LCD screen or an electronic viewfinder.
• Robustness. Although I am not aware of any official reports on this, DSLR cameras seem to be made to take a bit more of a beating than their mirrorless counterparts. Many of the mirrorless cameras are beautifully made but, with their tiny controls and electronic viewfinders, my money would be on the DSLR surviving a tumble down the stairs. Also, most of the more expensive DSLR cameras offer some degree of weather sealing. To date, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 is the only mirrorless camera to offer weather sealing.
• Price. Looking at current prices, the cheaper DSLRs offer more for your money. With mirrorless you are paying a premium at present.
• DSLRs look more professional. This may seem like a silly argument but how would you feel if you had paid £1500 for the services of a wedding photographer and he/she turned up with nothing but a compact camera around his/her neck? Whilst it is perfectly possible to have glorious photographs of your wedding taken using a tiny mirrorless system camera, many pros would not dream of using such a camera for fear of not being taken seriously.
Advantages of Mirrorless
• Size. This is the primary advantage and, for me, is the only reason I initially bought one. The prospect of being able to get very high quality photographs from such a small camera is very tempting. However, small does not mean pocketable. You still need to have the camera hanging around your neck, over your shoulder or in a bag. Mirrorless system cameras are not devices for your jeans pocket (or perhaps even your coat pocket). Some would argue that if it can't go in your pocket then you may as well carry a DSLR. That's a fair point.
• Weight. Naturally these cameras are much lighter than their DSLR counterparts. They are still fairly solid, but having something like an Olympus PEN around your neck is a welcome relief after carrying a large DSLR.
• Discretion. These little cameras are a street photographer's dream come true. You don't stand out from the crowd with one of these little gems in your hand. The cameras with articulating screens mean you can accurately shoot from the hip without your subject ever knowing.
• Quietness. Surprisingly, mirrorless cameras are not as quiet as you may think. Nevertheless, they are not as noisy as a DSLR thanks to the lack of a mirror flapping up and down. They still have traditional shutters in them, so they are far from silent.
• Precise AF. Mirrorless cameras use contrast detect autofocus as opposed to the phase detect systems in DSLRs. That means focus accuracy is better. When shooting at wide apertures you can virtually guarantee your subject is going to be sharp. DSLR cameras still need fine tuning and do not achieve perfect focus as often. The latest Olympus cameras also match DSLRs for autofocus speed. They are very quick but focusing on moving subjects is still very tricky.
• WYSIWYG. What you see is what you get. As you're composing your images using either a screen or an electronic viewfinder you can see exactly what your shot is going to end up like. You can even view it in black and white, sepia or with any other effect already added.
• Viewfinder info. Using a camera with an EVF (Electronic viewfinder) means that countless other info and parameters can be displayed over your image. Examples include live histograms, levelling indicators etc.
• Shoot in the dark. An EVF amplifies the image in darkness which means you can often see what is happening better through the viewfinder than you can with your naked eye. This is a big advantage in dimly lit interiors.
. This is a big one! Due to the lack of a mirror, the flange to sensor distance of mirrorless cameras is much shorter which means that thousands of old manual focus lenses can easily be adapted for use on your camera. This has opened up a whole new world of optical excitement as people can now use all their dusty old lenses from their 35mm days. This is starting to have an effect on used lens prices as the old lenses gradually increase in value as their usefulness is realised. If you can live without autofocus, there are some serious bargains to be had. Why pay hundreds of pounds for a telephoto lens when you can buy an old manual focus lens for £20 and a matching adapter
for £15? When used on an Olympus Micro 4/3rds camera you can even make use of image stabilisation - a technology that wasn't even invented when these old lenses first hit the market.
• Macro. Due to the smaller physical sensor size of these cameras, it is much easier (and cheaper!) to get close up shots of flowers, insects etc. If you primarily shoot macro you should seriously consider a mirrorless camera for this reason alone.
• In camera effects. Manufacturers have crammed their mirrorless offerings with all sorts of art and filter effects. Some are cool, some are cheesy and some are extremely effective. Whether you use them or not, it's nice to have the option there.
• Depth of field. As mentioned above, this can also be seen as a disadvantage depending on what you shoot. Mirrorless cameras generally have smaller sensors which means bags of depth of field. This is great if you shoot landscapes and architecture as you can use a wider aperture than normal and can continue to shoot handheld when DSLR owners are getting out their tripods. The opposite is true of portrait photography. If you want your subject to "pop" out from the background you will have to work harder and/or live with more depth of focus.
• Effective focal length. This is especially true of the Micro 4/3rds cameras from Olympus and Panasonic. Their smaller sensor size means that you get an effective doubling of the focal length in 35mm terms. A 300mm f/5.6 lens acts like a 600mm f/5.6. That is a massive advantage if you like to photograph birds and wildlife.
Hopefully the above information will give you some idea of the differences between the two systems. Mirrorless will eventually become the norm and DSLR cameras will die gracefully. That doesn't mean the end of the big Canon EOS and Nikon cameras, it simply means that future models will be made without a mirror and will have an electronic viewfinder instead of an optical one. The current Sony SLT cameras are a prime example of this.
I'll continue to update this page as camera technology advances so that it stays relevant.