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Whether you’ve been a photographer for years or just starting out, you can’t help but talk about the mirrorless cameras . Is the future mirrorless? Is a mirrorless camera better than a regular DSLR?

The answer will vary depending on who you ask. Our purpose here is not to convince you one way or the other, just to explain the differences. We will see how mirrorless cameras work, we will examine how they differ from conventional DSLRs and we will examine the pros and cons of both.

What makes a mirrorless SLR different from a DSLR?

The most obvious way mirrorless cameras differ from DSLRs is the lack of a mirror, but there are several other contrasts between these two camera systems worth considering.

Mirrorless/Pentaprism

DSLRs reflect light coming through the camera lens back into your eye using a mirror placed on the digital sensor of the camera. When you look through the optical viewfinder of a DSLR, what you’re seeing is the image coming through your lens reflected by that mirror onto the viewfinder prism and into your eye. When you press the shutter button, the mirror flips down and exposes the camera’s sensor to light, recording the image you see.

Mirrorless cameras eliminate the mirror and use a electronic viewfinder (EVF) which means that the image you see is not the one reflected through the lens. It is an electronic preview of what your camera sees. Some people prefer this system because it allows you to see the exposure change in real time as you change the camera settings while looking through the viewfinder. When the shutter is pressed, it simply opens to expose the camera sensor to light and record the image.

smallest flange distance

Mirrorless cameras also have a smaller flange distance than DSLRs. The flange distance is the space between the back of the lens that you have attached to your camera and the sensor. Since DSLRs have to leave room for the mirror housing, there is more space inside the body between the lens and the sensor. A smaller flange distance can produce sharper photos, although you can still get sharp images with a normal DSLR.

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smaller body

Mirrorless cameras don’t have to incorporate all the mechanical components that DSLRs have. There’s no mirror or pentaprism, so mirrorless SLR bodies tend to be smaller and more compact. This also means more electronic components in the body.

While small size used to mean fewer buttons and controls built into a mirrorless camera body than a DSLR, today’s cameras have largely caught up. Both mirrorless and DSLR camera systems have pretty much the same on-board controls and button options.

Since mirrorless cameras are smaller, they are also usually lighter than their DSLR counterparts. That may be important if the weight it is a problem for you when you are looking for a camera.

Shorter battery life

Because mirrorless cameras basically always transmit an image to the optical viewfinder, they use more battery power than a standard DSLR. For that reason, they tend to have shorter battery life than DSLRs; Using a mirrorless camera is like having your DSLR in live view or video recording mode every time it’s turned on.

That was especially true in the early days of mirrorless in 2015/2016. Today, however, mirrorless is catching up to its more mechanical counterpart again. Where they used to run out of power after an hour or so, newer mirrorless cameras can get around 1,000 images and record video on a single charge.

auto focus

Since mirrorless cameras always display the visual information they receive electronically, they can use the same autofocus mode whether you’re taking pictures or recording video. That’s allowed for tech like eye autofocus, which can lock onto and track a subject in any mode. The latest mirrorless cameras tend to have very fast and accurate autofocus systems.

However, DSLRs are still very good when it comes to autofocus. Especially when shooting stills, some late-model DSLRs have incredibly advanced autofocus that covers most of the frame. They have to use different autofocus modes when recording video instead of taking photos, which can be a weakness. When shooting video, DSLR autofocus isn’t that advanced, but it definitely gets the job done.

The pros and cons of DSLR and mirrorless cameras

Both DSLR and mirrorless camera systems have their advantages and disadvantages. Advances in technology make it hard to find a bad camera in any field, but there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind.

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DSLR: the good

DSLRs are designed to show you exactly what your lens sees. You are not looking at an electronic screen, you are looking through a piece of glass. That’s why DSLR viewfinders can be brighter and easier to see in more varied lighting conditions than the EVF on a mirrorless SLR.

DSLR cameras have years of engineering and innovation behind them, so the bodies we’re seeing today are pretty much the pinnacle of design. Mirrorless technology is still fairly new, and some would say it’s still working out the kinks.

The entrance fee is also considerably different. Because they’ve been around longer, there’s a much larger market for DSLR bodies, making it easier to get your hands on one than a used mirrorless camera. The same can be said for lenses: Major camera manufacturers have a huge variety of brand-name and third-party lenses that you can use with a DSLR for flawless results.

DSLR: The Bad

DSLRs are mechanically more complex than mirrorless cameras, especially the older models. More parts means bigger size and more weight than no mirror.

Since they are so advanced these days, DSLRs have come as far as is technologically possible. While that’s a good thing, it also means we may not see much in the way of design innovation going forward.

DSLRs have to use a different focusing system to shoot video than they do for still images, which makes it a bit more complex to shoot with mirrorless cameras. While they can still record impressive images, including 4K video technological advances give mirrorless systems an advantage.

No mirror: the good

Mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter than DSLRs, and still pack the same amount of power. Especially with today’s mirrorless range, you get the same controls and rugged build as a DSLR in a smaller body with most major brands. Therefore, it is easier travel with them and carry them all day on a photo shoot .

Because they don’t have a mirror mechanism, mirrorless SLRs can shoot completely silent. That can be an incredibly useful feature for shooting weddings, photojournalism, street photography or anything else where the sound of a shutter can be distracting.

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Unlike an optical viewfinder, an EVF allows you to see changes in exposure and white balance in real time before shooting. That’s very useful for getting things right in camera and minimizing your work in post.

Generally speaking, the advanced autofocus and image quality available in mirrorless cameras make them great for video. Most current models can capture 4K video, and some can go as high as 8K . For a detailed visual breakdown of DSLRs vs. mirrorless cameras, in particular what makes autofocus so great, see this explainer from the YouTube photography channel, OrmsTV.

No mirror: the bad

Some of the advantages of a mirrorless system can also be disadvantages. EVFs, for example, tend to be difficult to see in bright sunlight, as do the LCDs on the back of mirrorless cameras.

Also, some lower-end mirrorless models can have a type of image distortion called “jelly” when shooting in silent mode. Motion picture elements may appear warped or bent, similar to the rolling shutter effect when shooting video. Higher-end mirrorless cameras will correct this, but it’s still something to consider.

Since mirrorless cameras haven’t been around as long as DSLRs, there is a smaller used gear market. That’s changing as newer models come out, and third-party manufacturers make great lenses for these systems, but they can still set the price of entry higher than a DSLR.

Choose what makes sense to you

Mirrorless systems have come a long way since their inception and will continue to improve. For the most part, they are on the same level as professional DSLRs and outperform them in some areas.

That said, DSLRs will probably be around for quite some time. There is a large ecosystem of established equipment, they are more affordable than mirrorless and produce great results.

When you’re trying to decide whether your next camera is a mirrorless or a DSLR, it all comes down to which is the best tool for the job. Try both, if you can. Do your research and see how the models you’re considering compare in the areas that matter to you, whether it’s image resolution, battery life, autofocus, or colors. These days, it’s pretty hard to find a bad camera.

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