There’s always a debate around DSLR vs mirrorless cameras, so which is best? Amy Davies explains the key differences and the pros and cons of each.
If you’re looking for a ‘serious’ camera, your key choice will usually be DSLR vs mirrorless. Lately, all the talk is around mirrorless cameras and DSLRs are definitely in decline, though there are still plenty of photographers who prefer the older design. The best mirrorless cameras practically dominate the camera market today, though the best DSLRs are not so far behind in features and appeal to an audience of their own. If you’re not sure what the differences are – or which is better – you’ve come to the right place.
Mirrorless is newer technology, which almost all of the major manufacturers are concentrating on. Very few DSLRs have been released in recent years, even from the ‘big two’ of Canon and Nikon, who for many years rejected seriously entering the mirrorless market. Having said that, the Pentax KF is one key DSLR newcomer of 2023, and while it uses fairly established technologies, it shows that Pentax at least believes in the DSLR design.
Today, mirrorless cameras are manufactured by Canon (full frame and APS-C), Nikon (full frame and APS-C), Sony (full frame and APS-C), Fujifilm (medium format and APS-C), Panasonic (full frame and Micro Four Thirds) and OM System (Micro Four Thirds). By contrast DSLRs are manufactured by Canon, Nikon and Pentax, with relatively few new DSLR launches. Perhaps the most significant are the Nikon D780, Canon EOS 90D and Pentax KF.
If you’re confused by all of those different formats, don’t forget to check out our guide to full-frame vs APS-C, which has lots of answers for you.
It’s easy to assume that if you’re buying a new camera, a mirrorless model is the obvious answer. There are, however, still some benefits to picking up a DSLR or sticking with your existing camera, not least the significant cost advantage.
In this piece, we’ll be explaining the key differences between the formats, to help you decide which is the right one to buy. If you’re starting out on your photographic journey, you may also want to take a look at our guide to the best cameras for beginners.
DSLR vs mirrorless: what are the key differences?
As you might imagine from the name, the biggest difference between a mirrorless camera and a DSLR is the lack of a mirror inside the former.
The mirror inside a DSLR bounces light up into the optical viewfinder, allowing you to compose your image. With a mirrorless camera, the light goes directly to the image sensor, allowing a preview to be shown via an electronic viewfinder or screen.
Both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras can often have the same or very similar specifications, and in essence can be capable of roughly the same kind of final image quality. Removing the mirror, however, changes the way images are captured is different – for example, mirrorless cameras can typically shoot at faster frame rates since a mirror doesn’t need to move out of the way first. Mirrorless cameras are also far better suited to recording video.
There are downsides and upsides to both types of format, as we’ll see below.
What are the benefits of DSLRs?
Better battery life
It might seem obvious that removing the mirror to allow for real-time image preview, faster frame rates and silent shooting is better. However, the big downside comes at the expense of power, with mirrorless cameras requiring a lot more of it. Particularly in the early days of mirrorless technology, this was a big problem for enthusiasts looking to shoot for long periods of time.
These days, it’s fair to say that battery technology has advanced to the point that the typical mirrorless camera will generally last for a full day of ordinary shooting, as well as often having the ability to charge via USB for on-the-go power bursts. Still, if you’re somebody who has concerns about battery life, it’s DSLRs that are the clear winners here. It’s normal for a DSLR to shoot around twice as many shots on a single charge as a mirrorless camera, and sometimes more.
Since the technology is older – and remember, very few new DSLRs have appeared on the market in the last few years – the average DSLR is cheaper than the average mirrorless camera.
There’s also an abundance of excellent DSLR models available from the second-hand market as photographers find themselves upgrading to mirrorless. DSLR lenses are also generally cheaper too for the same reasons. That said, mirrorless has been around for long enough that there’s plenty of second-hand deals to be had there too – it always pays to shop around.
If you’re a hobbyist on a budget, a DSLR can be an excellent idea for learning the ropes if you don’t want to spend too much money. One of the key factors is lens choice, which is far wider for Nikon and Canon DSLRs, and at much lower used prices. Check out some of the best Nikon F mount lenses and best Canon EF lenses for a guide to what to buy, though cheaper ‘consumer grade’ lenses will get you started at a much lower cost.
Older and broader ecosystem of lenses and accessories
In the early days of mirrorless cameras, the surrounding ecosystems of lenses and accessories was somewhat limited. These days, this is far less of an issue as several mirrorless systems have been around for over a decade, albeit with some notable exceptions. For example, the newest Canon RF APS-C cameras, the Canon EOS R7 and Canon EOS R10, have a limited number of RF-S lenses currently available. We expect this to get better with time, but until then you can get a much better choice of Canon EF-S DSLR lenses.
Other line-ups, such as the Fujifilm X series, the Sony Alpha series and the Panasonic / OM System series have a huge selection of lenses for consumers to choose from.
If you want or need something niche – such as a tilt-shift lens – it’s far more likely you’ll find it for a DSLR system. That said, the number of consumers who actually use these specialist lenses with any frequency is pretty low these days, especially as digital corrections are so straightforward, so it’s no surprise that manufacturers haven’t dedicated too much time to producing mirrorless alternatives. It’s also worth remembering that many DSLR lenses can be used with mirrorless cameras via specific adapters.
Some prefer the look and feel of a DSLR
This one comes down to personal preference. Some people love the chunky and heavy nature of a DSLR, as it helps them to feel like ‘real’ photographers.
The best way to know what feels right in your own hands is to try out several different models in a camera shop, or to rent a camera before you buy it. That said, there are plenty of larger mirrorless cameras now available for those that prefer bigger models. In general, the larger body of a mid-range or high-end DSLR will feel better balanced with telephoto lenses.
You may prefer an optical viewfinder
It’s fair to say that in the early days of mirrorless cameras, electronic viewfinders were pretty terrible. They were laggy, lacked detail and were so small that they didn’t always give a clear view. Those early impressions have lasted, leaving some to continue to claim they prefer optical viewfinders.
If you haven’t looked through an electronic viewfinder in quite a while, it’s worth checking out the latest technology to see how good they’ve become. They are sharper, brighter and clearer, and they have the advantage of showing you the image the camera will actually capture. On the other hand, some photographers still prefer optical viewfinders because they offer a ‘naked eye’ view of the scene, not a digital display.
What are the benefits of mirrorless?
Latest and best technology
With almost every manufacturer now prioritising mirrorless (the only notable exception being Pentax, which occupies a very small area of the market), naturally all of the latest and most-advanced technology can be found inside non-DSLRs.
That means you get things like super-fast shooting, advanced autofocus, 4K and 8K video at various frame rates, widespread adoption of in-body stabilisation and more besides. While it’s true that DSLRs still take excellent photographs, for those who like cameras to be as advanced as possible, you simply have to choose mirrorless.
Although DSLRs can be picked up for a reasonable price, you can often get better value for money when opting for a mirrorless equivalent. That’s particularly true if you’re looking for something which offers fast frame rates. The recently announced Canon EOS R10 for example, costs $880 / £899 (body only) and offers up to 15fps shooting with the mechanical shutter or 23fps with the electronic shutter. For the closest equivalent capability in a Canon DSLR, you’ll need the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III which tops out at 20fps and will set you back an eye-watering £7,000 (body only) – more than seven times the price. The latest mirrorless cameras have really pushed back the boundaries for high-speed shooting. The remarkable Fujifilm X-H2S can capture images at up to 40fps, which is only possible with an electronic shutter and a mirror-free design.
You may prefer an electronic viewfinder
Although some will remain in favour of optical viewfinders, there’s lots of benefits to shooting through an electronic viewfinder (also known as an EVF).
You’ll always see 100% of the scene with an electronic finder, and you can see exactly how changing parameters such as aperture will affect your final image. There’s also the bonus of things like display overlays and the ability to see the image you’ve just shot without having to take the camera away from your eye. You can also zoom into a shot to help better see what you’re focusing on, which can be useful for very small or finely detailed subjects such as in macro photography, but also for distant subjects like wildlife.
Modern electronic viewfinders are so advanced that they offer clear, crisp and fast views of the scene without any of the problems that plagued them in the early days. Paradoxically, mirrorless cameras are much better suited to using vintage analog lenses than DSLRs. That’s because the shorter distance between the lens mount and the sensor leaves room to attach all sorts of different lenses adaptors, the electronic ‘gain’ of EVFs means a bright viewfinder image even with lenses set to small apertures, and you can ‘punch in’ to magnify the viewfinder image for critical focusing, which is not possible with a DSLR.
It’s also worth remembering that whether you use the rear screen or the viewfinder on a mirrorless camera, it will operate in exactly the same way. With DSLRs, you’ll find that the shooting experience is different depending on how you compose your images. Moving between the viewfinder and the screen will show different interfaces, viewfinders and even autofocus works in a different way (sometimes autofocus is better through Live View on a DSLR, sometimes better through the viewfinder).
Smaller and lighter
Mirrorless cameras come in a much wider variety of shapes and sizes than DSLRs, which generally all follow a very similar form factor. For travel and everyday usage, then we’d generally always recommend something from the best mirrorless cameras.
While it’s true that there are some large-bodied mirrorless cameras available now, the overall system even with those cameras is still generally smaller when comparing equivalent setups, though it’s worth pointing out that the lenses for both camera types can often be a similar size. In fact, as mirrorless camera makers get more ambitious with lens designs, they can even be larger than their DSLR equivalents.
The whole general operation of a mirrorless camera is quieter than a DSLR, with the ability to shoot completely silently using an electronic shutter as well if you wish. While the ‘clunk’ of a DSLR mirror might be more satisfying, there are certain scenarios when being able to shoot quietly or silently is much more preferable. Think about discreet situations such as weddings, wildlife or even street photography – taking away that loud operational sound can be a huge advantage to many types of photographer. With a DSLR, completely silent shooting is only possible if you shoot through the screen, which has its own problems or disadvantages.
Is a mirrorless camera better than a DSLR?
This isn’t something that is necessarily straightforward to answer, as it depends which mirrorless camera you’re comparing with which DSLR.
However, if we were to take the market as a whole, with mirrorless boasting better and newer technology (see the points above), then it’s pretty easy to argue that yes, mirrorless cameras are ‘better’ than DSLRs, and as time goes on this statement will likely only become truer.
It’s also already the case that lenses for mirrorless cameras are generally regarded as better performers than equivalent DSLR lenses. This isn’t just about them being newer in design, it’s also down to the very design itself – the shorter back focus.
Of course, the term ‘better’ isn’t necessarily black and white. DSLRs can be ‘better’ for other reasons, depending on your preference. As we’ve seen, DSLRs generally boast better battery life, and some photographers may feel that the handling of a DSLR is better than that of a mirrorless camera.
Do professionals use mirrorless or DSLR?
You’ll find plenty of professionals who use mirrorless cameras, plenty who use DSLRs, and plenty who use some combination of both.
Mirrorless cameras have been in the market for over a decade, so it’s no surprise that professionals at all levels now use them. In the past two years we’ve also seen a raft of class-leading and high-priced mirrorless models, including the Nikon Z9, Canon EOS R3 and the Sony A1, which have all proved very popular with dedicated photography professionals.
Lots of professionals are still using DSLRs though, if they feel that they meet their needs. Perhaps, for example, they don’t necessarily need superior autofocus if most of their work takes place in a studio. Some professionals simply don’t want to spend a huge amount of money in switching systems either.
It’s also the case that lots of professionals use a combination of DSLR and mirrorless, depending on the job in hand. With the ability to use DSLR lenses with mirrorless cameras via adapters, many professionals can slowly transition towards mirrorless without having to replace all of their existing gear in one go. Professional photographers are pretty hard-headed about their gear – they won’t swap unless there’s a compelling business reason to do so.
DSLR vs mirrorless: which should a beginner buy?
This is another difficult one to answer, since there are different answers depending on how you look at things.
On the one hand, if you don’t have any existing gear, it makes a lot of sense to opt for mirrorless. You’ll be future-proofing yourself by entering into the latest technology, and you’ll also likely benefit from a lighter and smaller form factor.
However, if you’re on a strict budget and are keen to learn the ropes of photography, then you can pick up some great deals on DSLRs right now. There’s also been far fewer problems with supply issues of DSLRs in recent months, too.
If your main concern is taking great stills of subjects that don’t move a great deal – such as landscapes – you’ll be able to get excellent shots with a DSLR. If you’re keen to explore other subjects, such as sports or wildlife, or you have a penchant for video, then a mirrorless camera makes much more sense, even for those just starting out.
Some beginner photographers may already have some existing equipment, such as lenses inherited from a relative or friend. Bear this in mind when choosing which to buy – but remember that most DSLR lenses can be used with mirrorless systems via adapters.
DSLR vs mirrorless: the verdict
So, what’s the answer? As with a lot of these typical ‘vs’ pieces in the camera world, the answer isn’t necessarily one or the other, though as the years go by it’s becoming increasingly harder to argue the case for the DSLR.
If you already have a DSLR – and, crucially, you’re happy with its performance and image quality – you don’t necessarily need to upgrade to mirrorless just yet. In the future, if the camera no longer meets your needs, or breaks down, it’ll probably be worth thinking about mirrorless but there’s no immediate rush.
However, if you’re new to photography and you want to make sure you get the absolute latest and best technology, or you need something your DSLR can’t provide (such as fast shooting speeds, silent shooting and so on), then you absolutely should consider mirrorless options.
As always, it pays to check our extensive array of buying guides before you make any decisions to make sure you get the right camera for you.
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