For so long it has been thought that anyone who is serious about photography needs a DSLR. But that’s no longer true. The latest mirrorless cameras match — and even surpass — DSLRs in almost every important way.
From their smaller size, to their features, to their all round performance, mirrorless cameras are the perfect DSLR alternative. Whether you’re a hobbyist, a keen travel shooter, new to photography, or even a pro, it’s time to switch.
The Difference Between DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras
Without getting into the technicalities, a DSLR has a mirror in front of the camera sensor that bounces light (via a prism) through the viewfinder. When you press the shutter button, the mirror lifts upwards to expose the sensor, and captures the image.
A mirrorless camera has no mirror. Light enters through the lens and hits the always-exposed sensor. What you see through the viewfinder or rear screen is a direct read out from the sensor, and an exact representation of the image you’ll capture when you press the shutter button.
Technically, any camera that doesn’t have a mirror could be described as mirrorless. However, the term generally refers to cameras with larger sensors: micro four thirds and upwards.
They normally also support interchangeable lenses, although not exclusively, as cameras like the Fuji X100 series are mirrorless cameras with fixed lenses.
I still remember the moment I decided to go mirrorless. It was after a day spent trudging around a rainy Barcelona with a Nikon D90 and 16-85mm lens around my neck. I loved the camera/lens combo, but it was really starting to suck the joy out of both photography and travel. I knew I needed to downsize to something smaller and less unwieldy, but I didn’t want to compromise on quality. Mirrorless was the obvious answer.
The website camerasize.com enables you to compare the relative sizes of almost every popular camera, with lenses attached. The image below shows a modern, enthusiast-level DSLR, the Canon 80D, alongside one of the larger mirrorless cameras, the FujiFilm X-T2, and one of the smaller ones, the Sony a6300 (Amazon US, CA, UK). All three cameras have similarly-sized sensors and are mounted with kit lenses.
There’s no comparison. The mirrorless options have a considerably smaller footprint than the DSLR. They’re lighter, too. The Sony kit weighs in at just 1.14 lbs (520g), compared to 1.8 lbs (817g) for the Fuji and 2.06 lbs (935g) for the Canon.
Few mirrorless cameras are truly pocketable, except for a large coat pocket, maybe. But the size and weight benefits cannot be underestimated. The easier a camera is to carry, the more likely you are to take it with you wherever you go.
2. More Convenient Shooting
The smaller size of most mirrorless cameras doesn’t just make them more portable. It offers benefits in use as well.
DSLRs are far less discreet, and — rightly or wrongly — people often think of them as being more professional looking. If you’re traveling somewhere and doing some street shooting, people will notice you with your DSLR. And they’ll wonder why you’re pointing your camera at them.
Small mirrorless cameras look far less threatening and allow you to merge into the background a lot easier. On most models, you can flip the screen up and shoot from the hip as well.
There’s another way mirrorless cameras are more discreet: they’re quieter. Without a mirror to flip up and down each time a shot is taken they’re less intrusive in hushed surroundings.
A few models, like the Fuji X100 series or the Sony RX1, use a different shutter design altogether. It’s called a leaf shutter, and it’s almost completely silent.
If you have any interest in cameras and camera technology, mirrorless is the only place to be these days.
While the DSLR giants of Canon and Nikon release solid, reliable, and thoroughly unexciting updates to their models, the mirrorless world is a hive of non-stop innovation.
Recently, we’ve seen pro-level cameras like the medium format Fuji GFX 50S and the full-frame Sony A9 capable of crazy fast 20 FPS shooting. But the innovations have occurred just as quickly in enthusiast cameras:
- Electronic viewfinders, with high resolution and fast refresh rate, showing 100 percent field of view.
- Live view, so you can compose shots using the rear LCD.
- Hybrid viewfinder, combining the best of the optical and electronic viewfinders.
- Wi-Fi, for easy photo uploading.
- Photo assistance features, such as face detection.
- Smart scene modes, like HDR or image stacking for noiseless low light shooting.
- Electronic shutter, for ultra-fast shutter speeds that enable you to shoot wide open in sunlight.
- Articulating screens, for negotiating popular tourist sites.
Some of these of these have since found their way into DSLRs, but mirrorless got there first and made the features mainstream.
Mirrorless cameras are more software driven than DSLRs. This might be one of the reasons why innovations are easier to deliver. It also might explain why they often get more and bigger firmware updates, upgrading and adding new features to older cameras.
The long-standing argument against mirrorless cameras was that their performance was inferior to the DSLR. Focusing was slow, image quality was worse, battery life poor, and the ergonomics didn’t lend themselves to prolonged shooting.
Okay, it’s still true about battery life. The typical DSLR shoots 2-3 times more photos than a mirrorless camera before it needs recharging.
The rest? No.
Focus speed has improved a lot in the last few generations, to the point where it now surpasses that of popular DSLRs. The Sony a6500 claims the fastest auto-focus speed, packing 425 phase detection auto-focus points across the sensor, compared to 51 points on the Nikon D7500, for example.
Pros in fields like sports photography might still go for full frame DSLRs (although the Sony A9 is targeted directly at them) but enthusiasts don’t need to worry about focusing.
As for image quality, there’s never really been much difference anyway. The sensors are broadly similar in size and capabilities (and some Nikon DSLRs even use Sony built sensors), and all the mirrorless systems have enough quality lenses to cater for all levels of user.
The ergonomics are also not an obstacle. Cameras from the likes of Fuji are packed with external dials and buttons, enabling you to change your settings without even lifting your eye from the viewfinder. Mirrorless has caught up with the DSLR by offering weather sealing on an increasing number of models, so you can shoot in all conditions.
When mirrorless cameras first entered the market, lenses were a weak point. It takes time for a manufacturer to build a system from scratch.
Nine years later, there are no such problems. Micro Four Thirds, Sony, Fuji, and others all have lenses for all use cases and at all price points. Versatile travel zooms, fast primes, pancakes — whatever lens you need you can get.
More interesting is how good mirrorless cameras are with legacy lenses. With a simple, inexpensive adapter you can mount virtually any old film lens. Pick some up from Ebay or a local garage sale and it will blow your photographic options wide open.
It opens you up to work with old Leica or Zeiss lenses, while Soviet-era manufacturers like Jupiter and Helios are also very popular among legacy lens aficionados.
Most mirrorless cameras use a feature called “focus peaking” to enable you to work with manual lenses. This highlights the highest contrast areas of an image — which represent the sharpest edges — with a bright color. The brighter the color, the more in focus the image.
6. More Options
Unless you’re a professional with very specific requirements, it’s hard to make a case for DSLRs these days. Mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter, more versatile, and perform as well, if not better, than their old-school counterparts.
The sheer variety of models also ensures you’ll be able to find the right one for your needs. If you want to drop nine grand on a medium format Hasselblad X1D, you can. Or you spend as little as $500 on a body that will still give you 4K video and most of the innovations outlined above. Or you can go anywhere in between.
The days of the DSLR look to be numbered. There really has never been a better time to go mirrorless.
Have you gone mirrorless? How have you found it? Or do you still love your DSLR? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Image Credit: SB7 via Shutterstock.com