DSLR vs Mirrorless Cameras: Which One Should You Buy?

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For the last decade, the debate between DSLR connoisseurs and the newfound fans of mirrorless cameras has been raging. It’s been all about power, speed, specs, and clarity.  What’s the truth? Which type of camera triumphs over the other? Here’s a definitive answer to this debate.

DSLR v Mirrorless Cameras: Which One Should You Buy?  Though DSLR cameras have developed to become highly respected and powerful cameras, the mirrorless cameras are worthier purchases. Apart from being smaller, compact and faster, the technology that powers mirrorless cameras produces clearer images and videos. Besides, mirrorless cameras have more compelling designs than their DSLR counterparts. Besides, the mirrorless cameras also have a defined technical edge over the DSLRs in many areas.

We can only compare the two types of cameras based on their physical features, and what they offer on the shoot. Though opinions are varied, the smaller mirrorless cameras have become a favorite of photographers. In fact, 2018 saw a spike in the same of mirrorless cameras across the board.

What makes the mirrorless cameras better than the DSLR cameras?

Weight and Size

Yes, DSLR cameras are compact, but they are not compact enough to compete with the lightweight nature of mirrorless cameras. Every camera sales-talk comes with the little fact that “modern DSLRs are small and compact.” However, if you take DSLR cameras onto a one on one with their mirrorless counterparts, the difference in size and weight becomes a staggering issue. Some DSLR cameras appear gargantuan and bulky when compared with a few of the mirrorless ones.

Most mirrorless cameras as small, lightweight and highly compact. Some weigh as low as 400 grams. However, for the more powerful APS-C sized or full-frame cameras, the longer back end portends a lot of issues. Camera manufacturers, however, have found a way to solve this. They simply make the back end retractable,  and Voila! You don’t have the back end stub bugging you anymore.

While DSLR cameras are shrinking to compete in size with the mirrorless ones, it takes quite some bit of research and creativity to minimize the DSLR lenses, and the amount of equipment needed in the DSLR kit to occupy the small space. In retrospect, the DSLRs have an advantage her because professional photographers have a healthy hate for some of the small, punny mirrorless cameras. In fact, camera brands like Olympus which come with a third sensor format have been on the receiving end of negative reviews from professional photographers.

Often, small size often means fewer features. The balance is rather delicate. However, the new models of mirrorless cameras have found this balance. Rather than cut into all the features, they come with the crucial ones and include the rest in detachable kits. This balance works great on Olympus and Nikon’s new line of mirrorless cameras.

Why are mirrorless cameras smaller than DSLRs?

DSLRs need to have a mirror and a prism in order to work. Think of it in this way. With DSLR cameras, you need a mirror to reflect the light, and a prism to guide the light to the viewfinder. On the other hand, mirrorless cameras need none of that.

Viewfinders

How good is the optical viewfinder which comes with virtually every DSLR camera? Is it better than the mirrorless system? Definitely not.

For a start, the DSLR viewfinder is digital in nature. Worse, some low-end DSLRs have no viewfinders at all. Instead, they use simple LCD displays to show you what you should expect of the image from the camera. It makes shooting drab.

The mirrorless approach to viewfinding is exhilarating at the least. Rather than use the viewfinders, the mirrorless cameras use an ” in view”image in the viewfinder. The image you get to see on the viewfinder is digitally developed. If you are shooting in relatively good lighting conditions, the digitally developed image on the viewfinder will be like the one you will get at the end of the shoot down to the last grain. The catch here is the phrase ‘good lighting.’ In poor lighting, the DSLR cameras often have a slight edge over the mirrorless ones. However, the gap between the two has been closing down rapidly.

While some argue the DSLR optical viewfinder is the greatest viewfinders for shooting in low light, the situation on the ground currently hardly supports that line of thought. Mirrorless cameras have come a long way. Their imaging abilities can compete even with the best of high-class viewfinders. Though a few of the entry level mirrorless cameras have neither viewfinders nor any pentaprism design to support direct imaging from the sensors, their image qualities are still good enough to compete with the DSLRs.

What’s all the buzz about electronic viewfinders?

Unlike DSLR cameras that use the mirror-pentaprism design to show you what the camera sees on the sensors, mirrorless cameras use electronic viewfinders. The technical conversations around viewfinders can get pretty complicated. However, a viewfinder basically shows you exactly what is in the focus of the lenses. Largely, this means that you see the exact image or video that you will shoot before you actually press the shutter button.

The age of electronic viewfinders is here. It is also advancing in leaps and bounds. Every other year, companies releasing new camera models often show a marked interest in showcasing their prowess in developing the best electronic viewfinders. In as much as this is a competition for bragging rights, it is also a competition between companies to find out which brand of viewfinders produces the clearest and sharpest image through the viewfinder.

Mirrorless cameras with electronic viewfinders are the definite ‘ in thing’ in current photography and video production conversations. However, the mirrorless cameras with these electronic viewfinders cost more. Sometimes, the price is a staggering double the price of the normal mirrorless camera.

The greatness of electronic viewfinders has nothing to do with their sizes. Instead, it has everything to do with the heightened simulation abilities this kind of viewfinders come with. Technically, an electronic viewfinder can display images with more clarity than even the best of optical viewfinders. This means that you can always be ready for the exact image that you see on the viewfinder at the end of the shoot. Yes, who loves the surprises that a camera can pull on your eyes sometimes?

Peculiar hybrids in the market

A few cameras like the Fujifilm Pro-2 are a rarity as on themselves. Rather than do away with the optical viewfinders, they use a hybrid system that supports both the viewfinder and electronic viewfinding.  This means that you have the optical advantages of DSLR viewfinders on a mirrorless camera. It sounds cool, doesn’t it? Well, hold your breath until you see this hybrid system working.

On the viewfinder, the opinions always run down to the personal preference and general perspective. From a technical standpoint, however, the mirrorless cameras are better because they do not use optical viewfinders.  I know that using the negative form to qualify or disqualify an argument is rather rudimentary, but it’s the only way to do it here!

Phase detection and autofocus speeds

For so long, the undoing of most mirrorless cameras has been on phase detection. Using the phase detection sensors was simply an impossibility. Rather than help polish the clarity of the image on the focus, the sensor would obstruct the light from reaching the primary sensor. Is phase detection in mirrorless cameras entirely impossible? Not so, at least not anymore.

When mirrorless cameras were first rolled out, the only autofocus ability they came with was the rudimentary Contrast detection. The only advantage of the contract detection system was the fact that what you see on the sensors is exactly what you get. Apart from being shallow in depth, the system is rather inefficient and disturbing.

Literally, contrast detection means that the camera has to refocus several times, often in a back-and-forth style, until it achieves an image with the sharpest contrast.  In retrospect, the system is based on a trial and error. It was cumbersome in simple photography, and entirely useless when shooting videos. The videos would often appear distorted. One moment the quality would be crisp, and sharp. The next one the camera would focus out and the video would lose all the contrast qualities.

However, mirrorless cameras have finally figured out the system.

What was the solution?

The latest mirrorless cameras are hybrids of some sort. Bridging the gap between the primary sense of being ‘mirrorless’ has transformed the cameras from ‘absolutely zero phase detection capabilities’ to worthy competitors with the DSLR cameras. In fact, the high-end mirrorless cameras can go toe to toe with the best of DSLR cameras on autofocus speeds and phase detection today.

The solution to the lack of phase detection abilities in mirrorless cameras was found in integrating it with DSLR abilities.  Rather than use separate sensors to achieve this, the autofocus sensor is built into the primary camera sensor itself. Given the speed of the mirrorless camera, and its ability to replicate great images, the sensor works better than the autofocus in most DSLR cameras.

While the argument against the CSCs has often been based on this premise, the argument is not alive anymore. In fact, the anti-mirrorless crowd has shown a marked interest in taking up the mirrorless challenge. Besides, the only other thing that dignified the DSLR over the mirrorless camera was the autofocus speed.

How bad were mirrorless cameras at the start?

At the start of the integration, the autofocus speed for most mirrorless cameras was way below that of the DSLRs. It was sluggish. Typically, it was often left behind by other camera processes. It seemed, that the designers had not found a way to seamlessly integrate the feature into the cameras. With time, they have grown better. The speeds are fast, fast enough to compete with any DSLR and beat them at their own features.

A few mirrorless cameras come with technically superior autofocus features. The new mirrorless Nikons use automatic phase detection through a dedicated sensor.  The mirrorless Canons like the EOS-R and RP-models use a higher version of the dual pixel CMOS technology used in high-end DSLR cameras like the 5D Mark IV. The technically superior features have made the new mirrorless cameras into autofocus beasts on their own. This is why it is hardly surprising to find a mirrorless in sports shooting.

Image and Video Stabilization

Shaky videos are a producer’s worst nightmares.  Apart from investing in accessories that help in stabilization, we are always searching for cameras with better image stabilization features. While the competition in this has been tough, the mirrorless CSCs triumph over the DSLR cameras by a rather small margin.

The approach to image stabilization in both types of cameras has no much difference. In both, the stabilization is inbuilt into either the sensors or the lenses. Both camera types also support a variety of lenses. However, the decreased number of components in the system often increases the level of stability in videos.

On one hand, the smaller mirrorless cameras are easier to hold for a long time. On the other, this small design means that the camera has fewer features. However, the number of features in a camera, though it affects your hands, hardly affects the inside processes of the camera. For the mirrorless camp, the higher level of video stabilization especially comes from the fact that most of the cameras in the group have powerful sensor stabilizers.

5-axis stabilization in high-end mirrorless cameras

Mirrorless cameras such as the new model Olympus OM-D  and the Sony A7R have taken the stabilization game a notch higher. Rather than use the normal sensor stabilization, they come with a 5-axis stabilization system.  To a fair extent, the 5-axis stabilization system is way ahead of any stabilization features found in DSLR cameras. This has prompted an avalanche of video producers to shift their focus to the mirrorless cameras.

However, the price of cameras with the 5-axis technology is prohibitive at the least. Most producers, apart from those at the apex of the food chain cannot afford the $2000 for a single camera. Still, the technical superiority of the high-end mirrorless cameras gives an upper edge to the mirrorless lovers when comparing the two definitive camera camps.

Video Quality

If there’s one place where mirrorless cameras have a definitive upper hand over DSLRs, it is in shooting videos. Here’s the deal. For the DSLR cameras, shooting videos is a little of an unnatural act. The mirrorless band takes the video shoot like a duck to water. It wins hands down.

Why are mirrorless cameras so good at videos?

The mirrorless cameras have to main advantages when shooting videos is brought into perspective. First, their designs make them great for shooting ” in live” scenes seamlessly. Second, the video capture system built into the cameras is top-notch. It beats the DSLR designs anytime.

Full-frame mirrorless cameras are the definitive heads of video shoots. These cameras can capture great videos at 4K quality even with 50/60 fp speeds. Besides, you can always put the video on slow-mo for greater quality. When Sony launched its mirrorless A7 series, the greatness of its video quality was the greatest buying point.

What’s wrong with DSLR videos?

For the DSLR cameras, shooting videos comes a bit unnaturally. Yes, the fact is that DSLR cameras have pushed the boundaries. It is also acceptable that the cameras can easily shoot 4K video quality without struggling.  The quality of the video is no issue. However, the bottom line is that the cameras still struggle with videos.

Here’s the DSLR video deal. It is not much about what they lack per se. Rather, it is what they have that makes shooting videos a little unnatural. It is all about the mirrors.  The DSLR uses mirrors and pyramids. One mirror moves at an angle every time the shutter button gets pressed. This is often the reason for the ‘click’ sound when you shoot using the DSLR. When shooting, the mirrors inside a DSLR camera have to be aligned to allow light into the sensor. This continuous shutter and movement will tamper with your video.

In retrospect, when shooting a video using the DSLR, the viewfinder also becomes disabled. This means that you can’t use phase detection since the detection mirror is up. You can only use the screen to watch. Given that the ‘live view’ in DSLRs in inexistent, it means that you are seeing a digitally reproduced image, rather than exactly what your camera sees. It also means that you are more likely to have disappointing video quality.

The point here is not that DSLR cameras are horrible in shooting videos. They are great if you only shoot videos occasionally. They are great, for those who dabble shooting videos and still shots. However, if your work involves shooting videos all the time, the mirrorless should be a better option.

Camera features and controls

Because of their size, it is easy to presume that mirrorless cameras trade away the control panels to maintain their compelling designs. That is hardly the truth. In fact, that is a whiteout lie.

The amount of controls on mirrorless cameras matches to that of the DSLR ones any day. However, the upper hand comes with dedicated video controls in some of the cameras. They are good. Hold on. They are not only good. They are great, greater than those of the DSLR cameras.

Yes, the conversation around this has often been on the size. However, if you look at any of the high-end mirrorless designs, you should be apt enough to notice that the cameras are growing a little bigger. This means that they have the space to take on more control features. it also means that you get enough space to add as many accessories as needed.

Which one should you choose?

Choosing a good camera for your shooting needs is a delicate balance between the technical specs of each camera, your budget, and the specific needs of the shoots you are likely to engage into.

For a straight out videographer, buying the mirrorless cameras is an easy choice. However, the choice gets a little complicated for a person who wants to dabble in still shots, and videos at the same time.

In case you are shopping on a beginner’s budget, you would rather buy a DSLR camera. Entry-level mirrorless cameras are not as great as we tout them to be. With an increase in the amount of money, mirrorless cameras become greater and greater.

Besides the money, you should also consider the lighting conditions of your scenes and the kind of shoots you are likely to engage in. In case you are doing continuous shooting, a mirrorless camera will be great. However, the same camera does not perform as expected when the lighting conditions are not good enough. If you continuously go into not-so-well-lit areas, a DSLR camera should be your choice.

Why should you take DSLR cameras?

Though we have exhaustively dealt with the idea that the mirrorless cameras are technically superior to the DSLR ones, the technical advantage cannot be used to judge the DSLR cameras in a harsh light. Not if you take other matters exclusively.

DSLR cameras have the following advantages over the mirrorless ones.

Battery-life

Given that the mirrorless cameras have only been around for a short while, their batteries are not so developed. However, the main reason for their lack of battery longevity is the fact that they are built to be small, lightweight and powerful at the same time.

By far, DSLR cameras will shoot for longer periods than the mirrorless ones. In case you are looking for a camera that lasts long on a single charge, a DSLR should be an easy choice.

However, you can always buy extra batteries in case you go the mirrorless way. While this will work as a solution, the technical ability of a single DSLR battery still out powers the mirrorless one’s by a mile.

Accessories

How long have DSLR cameras been around? It’s been more than three decades. That is a whole thirty years of creating accessories that complement the cameras.

When talking about accessories,  can you forget to talk about lenses? In any case, the most purchased camera accessory world over is the lens. DSLR cameras have an edge in the number of lenses you can use. In retrospect, the size of the mirrorless cameras is prohibitive when you think about detachable lenses as an accessory. However, mirrorless cameras seem to be bridging the gap. The newer models often come with wider apertures, which means that you can use more lenses.

If the lenses provide the margin between DSLR and mirrorless cameras, the on-camera lighting options will provide a greater one. Given the size of mirrorless cameras, the only on-camera lighting option available to you is the inbuilt flash. On one hand, most cameras’ lenses have excessively bright flashes. On the other hand, a good video producer, or a photographer will always need more lighting options. This is a challenge with the smaller mirrorless cameras.

Are mirrorless cameras the future of video production?

It would be naught to contend with this simple fact. Every other day, more video producers are going mirrorless. In retrospect, it is easy to put forward the argument that mirrorless cameras are right next to dedicated, high-end movie cameras in the pedestal of great cameras for video shoots.

Often, the argument for or against mirrorless cameras is based on the fact that they have only been here for a short time. It’s only been a decade or more. DSLR cameras, on the other hand, have over thirty solid years of polishing, research, improvements, and modifications on them. But disruptive technology like this does not really respect the time cameras have taken to polish up. It comes around and sweeps the stage.

With the current improvements in mirrorless camera designs and the time and investments going into their development, the idea that mirrorless cameras are the beasts of today’s beasts of small video productions is a valid point. Given that traditional DSLR companies have also jumped into the fray, it means that we are likely to see more development and improvement in the mirrorless cameras than we would see on any other camera designs.

About the Author

Kantai Kotikot

A photography enthusiast, a videography connoisseur. Kantai loves the lenses, but he adores words. When he is not out learning how to shoot kick-ass photos and videos, he is creating content to guide you through your photography, and filming escapades.

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