All the rage in today’s photography world is the battle between Mirrorless cameras and DSLR cameras. If you've been paying even just a little attention to the camera industry, you will have no doubt heard lots about it. The debate goes something like this:
“Mirrorless systems are up and coming but they aren’t quite there yet…” from the DSLR faithful.
“DSLRs are a dying breed. Mirrorless cameras have many more features, are smaller, and simply put – they are the future!!” say the mirrorless fans.
Who’s right? They both are. Mirrorless systems are getting more and more mature by the day with more lenses, better performance, and better build quality. Many will say DSLRs are not long for this world as the current pace of technology and innovation continues to produce better and better mirrorless systems. Add to the fact that the BIG TWO (Canon & Nikon) were forced to adapt and release their new models into the mirrorless market this year because SONY forced them to by creating stellar bodies that have been eating up market share.
Before we go any further, let’s take a look at the two systems and how they work at the core.
DSLR bodies (Digital Single Lens Reflex) are a crossover from the film days. They are simply built on the design principal of older film cameras. However, instead of a piece of film being exposed to light when the mirror flips up and lets the light in, there lies a digital CMOS imaging sensor to record the data. Now obviously there is also a whole lot more technology packed into these modern DSLR cameras. The sensors along with autofocus systems are super advanced and create stunning images. Take a look at any NFL Gameday, for example. You’ll see large, expensive pro DSLR bodies in the hands of the most serious professional photographers.
A quick look above shows us that the pentaprism and mirror take up a pretty good amount of the thickness in the camera. This is a main reason why mirrorless bodies are much thinner and compact in size. There is simply no reason to have a body that thick. While many like the smaller form factor of today’s mirrorless systems, there are also a lot of photographers that prefer a more substantial camera body.
Since these cameras were not totally built from the ground up in a total revamping effort when digital sensors replaced film, they continue to use some of the same parts and mounts that were used many years ago. For instance, the Nikon F mount has been around since 1959! That’s right, since the 50’s! While the newer lenses sport advanced autofocus abilities, electronic aperture, vibration reduction, etc – you can use lenses that are decades old and still create great images with today’s newer bodies.
Because of this, there are a plethora of lenses to choose from on the DSLR side – either from the manufacturer or third-party offerings. For example, Canon has a handful of specialty tilt-shift lenses alone – never mind the hundreds of lenses that can be used with their DSLR systems! This makes turning away from the tried and true DSLR form factor very difficult for many who have thousands of dollars invested in glass for their camera(s).
Up until now and still currently, the DSLRs are still superior to most of the mirrorless bodies in terms of autofocus, battery life, and their robust, rugged build quality. These things, however, are changing and changing very quickly.
In the other corner, we have mirrorless bodies that, you guessed it, don’t contain a mirror. You probably have a mirrorless camera in your pocket right now. Heck, you may be reading this on your mirrorless camera that is also known as your cellular phone! All phones have a sensor with a lens that is positioned right over it and the light goes directly to the sensor. This is the basic design behind mirrorless systems.
Now that you have the basics of what mirrorless and mirror actual means, let’s take a look at the differences between the two systems. Unlike the DSLRs, Mirrorless systems are totally revamped devices that are built from the ground up. They share similar parts such as the image sensors but they are very different in how they are built and how they operate.
Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons for both:
This is without a question a major plus for DSLRs – right now. Since the DSLR design has been around for so long, it stands to reason that they will have a major advantage in terms of lens selection. This isn’t to say all is lost with mirrorless bodies in terms of selection.
Using NATIVE lenses is always best. This means lenses that are specifically designed for your particular camera and more importantly, that specific mount. There are adapters from companies such a the Metabones adapters many Sony users choose to adapt their Canon glass, for example. There is always a catch, however. While these lenses will work fine with the adapters, full functionality isn’t possible simply due to the fact that Mirrorless bodes and lenses are specifically designed and engineered to work with each other perfectly.
Nikon and Canon just released their new full-frame mirrorless systems and adapters as well. Just because they are designed by Nikon & Canon specifically for their older lenses doesn’t mean you’re going to get the same performance as you would get with native, made-for-the-camera lenses. You’re not. Period.
Using the mirrorless bodies with adapters is fine for portraits, landscape, and many other types of photography where the speed of focusing isn’t critical as it is with sports and wildlife.
That all being said, companies like Canon and Nikon aren’t going to invest MILLIONS in developing new mirror free bodies simply for kicks!. They are doing it in a direct response to other companies like Sony that have been absolutely killing it with their full frame systems. From the A7R iii to their super fast A9, Sony has been dominating the mirrorless market. They have created G Master lenses that are native for their bodies and they are every bit as good if not better than the equivalent Canon and Nikon lenses.
While it is true that mirrorless bodies don’t yet have the lens selection that DSLRs have, the future is bright for the mirrorless market as Nikon and Canon both have jumped into the mirrorless world and are creating top notch, world class lenses specifically for their new mounts and systems. In two or three years, buying a DSLR may seem like a bad idea!
Adding to the mix here is the addition of a few new players in the Full Frame mirroless game. Leica, Panasonic and Sigma have teamed up to create a new interchangable lens mount called the “L” mount. This will make it very appealing to many as lenses from other makers will be interchangeable with their own. It is akin to the micro 4/3 mount shared by various manufactures in the micro 4/3rds world. An interesting time indeed!
SIZE & WEIGHT
Due to the fact that the pentaprism and mirror are removed from the equation in regards to mirrorless systems, the bodies can be much thinner front to back. This can make the bodies more compact and easier to handle. At the same time, this also allows for a much shorter flange distance from the mounting surface of the lens to the image sensor. Instead of trying to explain this here, a Nikon engineer has done an amazing job of it HERE In this short video. The FLANGE distance is simply the distance from the mounting surface where the lens resides to the image sensor. The shorter, the better. Faster glass, less vignetting, quicker autofocus and sharper edge to edge images are https://youtu.be/LxT17A40d50theoretically possible with the more compact mirrorless design.
While they can be smaller and lighter, there is also such a thing as being too small. Handling a camera such as the Sony A7RIII is a little tricky if you have large hands like myself. Adding a grip to it will help with this issue.
I want to mention the multitude of other mirrorless bodies out on the market right now. There are lots of camera manufacturers that make bodies that aren’t full frame such as APS-C sensor based bodies and micro 4/3 choices as well. These cameras are much more compact and create stunning images without all the size and weight of a large, full frame system. In fact, because of physics, if deep depth of field is your goal for landscape work and travel is something very important to you, a smaller and more mobile system may be for you. Image quality today from almost any camera will be more than good enough for any high-level work.
That being said, with the full frame designs such and the G Master Lenses from Sony, don’t expect to save in terms of size and weight with the lenses. The Nikon, Canon and Sony 70-200 f2.8 offerings are basically the same in size and weight.
Because of simple physics, the fast, wide aperture lenses will continue to be a bit on the heavy, larger size.
Optical View Finder vs Electronic
This is a major point of difference in the DSLR / Mirrorless battle. One has a full time, real-world optical viewfinder that can be used without even having a battery and the other, the mirrorless, has a small EVF (Electronic View Finder) that you look through at the rear of the camera. On mirrorless bodies, you are looking at a small, super high-quality display that gives you much more information instantly with the camera to your eye. They also give you the ability to view the image as your capture sees it – the exposure can be seen right in the viewfinder along with other critical information such as the ever important histogram. Focus peaking is another huge benefit through the viewfinder. This is great for many obvious reasons and it’s super nice because you can use lenses that don’t have Auto Focus and you’ll know exactly when you have focus. Focus peeking, for those that dont know, displays a color on the areas of focus in the view finder or in live view . If you have never seen it or used it, it will impress you! Another great feature is the ability to see your image playback right in the view finder. This cuts down on “chimping” which is the act of looking at the rear LCD after you’ve taken the shot.
On the DSLRs, you don’t get all that. You have a meter, shooting information, level feedback, etc. The huge benefit to shooting with a DSLR is that it’s great in low light situations since you are seeing the actual scene as your eyes would. You don’t have to rely on the sensor to produce an image for you to look at which can be not so great in low light, high ISO situations. In fact, you can view the scene with the camera off and without a battery in the body.
At the Nikon event where their new Mirrorless cameras were announced as well as Canon, many have said the EVFs had basically zero lag that they had seen in other mirrorless bodies (another issue for EVFs since it is a computer screen and not your eye!), super bright and clear and many said they could not even tell that they were looking at an EVF. And this is only the start. In a few years time, I would expect the EVF viewing experience to be on par with today's DSLRs optical view finders. This is a MAJOR point of contention.
When it comes to Autofocus and using the optical view finder, DSLRs are still said to have an advantage but that gap is shrinking. They use “Phase Detection” AF which is possible because there are Autofocus modules below the mirror inside of the camera. Tracking subjects such as animals in the wild or athletes on a field or court is done with tremendous precision thanks to the advanced AF along with complex and powerful processing.
Mirrorless systems must use sensor centered autofocus – always. It is the only way to “see” with a mirrorless system. Today, many use a combination of contrast based AF along with Phase detection pixels built on the sensor. This allows for these cameras to keep pace with DSLRs and the difference between the two systems is almost none in some cases. This too will only get better with time.
High Speed Shooting
Mirrorless bodies have a clear advantage here. They simply have less moving parts. That alone gives the nod to the mirrorless crowd. The capture rates are so fast that they are nearly on par with video frame rates. When you think of a video captured at 24fps, a camera can do that now – WITH THE FULL SENSOR CAPTURE – but with still images. It is really quite amazing. Note, however, the more shots you take, the more memory on the card is used and the battery is also drawing as well.
The Sony A9 pictured above, is a serious contender in the Sports/Wildlife game. Shooting at an amazing 20 Frames Per Second and an autofocus system that rivals any camera on the market today.
Silent shooting is another plus for mirrorless systems as well. While it can be done with a some DSLRs such as the Nikon D850, it has to be in live view and that isn’t always ideal when shooting.
In the world of photography today, there really aren’t any “BAD” cameras. They are stuffed with amazing features. The entry level bodies of today here in 2018 are better than pro level bodies just a few years ago in terms of resolution and image quality. The pro bodies have always been built for serious duty. Both DSLRs and Mirrorless systems have amazing features. Mirrorless systems, however, win in this area. They match nearly all DSLR features and surpass them in some areas. This is great because competition is what drives innovation and this has certainly been the case in the past 2-3 years.
Firmware updates are much more common with mirrorless manufacturers. Fuji, for example, routinely will release a new firmware update to their bodies which in many ways is like getting a new camera. Another really great feature that has come about is the ability to charge your camera battery while it is in use in the camera! I am pretty sure this will be a feature camera manufacturers will be forced to provide since it is a huge plus.
There has been one area of concern with how much easier it is to attract dust and debris on the image sensor of a mirrorless camera when swapping a lens. With a DSLR, the mirror does protect the sensor somewhat since it is flipped down when camera is not turned on. In fact, the mirror is only up when taking a shot or in live view. With a mirrorless camera, the mirror is always up. The new Canon EOS R fixes this issue. There is a protection mechanism that covers the sensor and this will make dust falling into the lightbox much less likely to reach the sensor
I suspect other makers will follow suit with an idea as simple and smart as this one
This is one area where the mirrorless bodies have taken over. Many offer better 4K video recording and their live view Autofocus simply beats out their DSLR counterparts. Panasonic has carved out a nice little corner in the market in this arena. They offer broadcast quality 4K recording without the need for an external recorder.
Many mirrorless cameras also have screens that flip out and can be rotated so the content creator can see him/herself in the frame while making the video. If video is a big part of your workflow, you do not need super high res image sensors. In fact, they may harm you in some cases. Remember, even 4k video is much smaller than the typical resolution in an image sensor.
For example, 3840 x 2160 (4K) is only 8.3mp in terms of resolution. The Panasonic Lumix DC-GH5s is known as a super video camera. It has only just under 12 megapixels of resolution. When video is the main goal, huge resolution sensors aren’t vital.
Add to this the fact that many mirrorless bodies incorporate IBIS (In Body Image Stabilization) so even when using lenses without stabilization, you’re getting the best, smoothest video possible. While this is great for video, it should be mentioned that it is also outstanding and a big plus for photography. A big plus!
Image Quality Comparison
This is an area where neither system will beat the other. First of all, many of these bodies use the same or very similar sensors in both the DSLRs and mirrorless. An example here is the new Nikon Z7 compared to the Nikon D850. The D850 is probably the best all around DSLR ever created. It has a 45.7 BSI image sensor and so does the mirrorless Nikon Z7.
The difference in the two is that the Z7 has on-sensor phase detection autofocus where the D850 does not.
At the end of the day, the images from both mirrorless and DSRLs are both amazing with today’s sensors. This should hardly be an area of focus (pardon the pun) when deciding on a mirrorless system or a DSRL.
This is one area where a DSLR is clearly better in terms of how long a battery will last. The shooting type greatly impacts this. For example, if you’re an event or wedding shooter and you’re using the optical viewfinder in a DSLR, the battery draw is very low. If shooting with lenses that have image stabilization turned off, this will lead to even greater battery life since that does have an effect on battery draw.
It is pretty simple to see why the DSLR would be better. With mirrorless shooting, you ALWAYS have some version of live view on. The EFV is just a small, high res display that you peer into when looking into the viewfinder. This being ALWAYS ON when shooting will no doubt cause current to be drawn. Additionally, cameras with GPS also will have poorer energy performance since that also uses some power.
The latest in the A7R line up (The 3rd version – A7RIII) has MUCH improved battery life over the previous version. This is a big plus. What is really great about many of these cameras now and ones coming is the fact that you can use a simple USB charger for the battery in the camera. This is fantastic and, as mentioned earlier, a feature that most would expect to be part of all cameras in the future.
When it comes to price, there is a wide range of choices here. Entry level DSLRs today have really great image quality. The kit lenses keep getting better and better for both systems. Which type costs more??
In an industry that is extremely competitive and getting more so each and every month, prices of the two must remain fairly close in order to stay relevant.
I will again go back to the Nikon D850. It is without a doubt one of the very best DSLRs ever built. Before it was announced, there was speculation that it could cost anywhere from $4,000-$4,300. When it was announced, the price was a much lower $3,299. This had many Nikon fans very pleased.
Now I realize $3,299 is A LOT of money and much more than most photographers would want to spend on a camera. It is a high quality, professional camera. I use this example to show the power of competition.
The competitive pricing was a direct result of the assault on their sales via Sony. Sony has been absolutely dominating the Full Frame mirrorless market for a few years now and they STILL lead with the remarkable A7RIII and the A7III. The A7III is a lower resolution, faster camera with outstanding features and specs. At just under $2,000, it could also be the very best value in the industry today.
The Future and What To Remember
The future in the camera industry is quite simple; it is mirrorless. Without a doubt. Nikon and Canon have been placed into the role of playing catch up to Sony and others in an industry where the big two were never forced to do anything they didn’t want to do.
It is a very exciting time in the photography world. With third party lens makers such as Tamron and Sigma making world class lenses, the more competition we have, the better for all.
The big issue here is time. What do you buy next? If you’re getting more and more serious about photography do you hold onto and invest in the DSLR world? Do you jump into the mirrorless side of things? It is a decision that should come with careful consideration.
Canon and Nikon have made a clear statement when they released the new mirrorless offerings. Make no mistake, mirrorless is here to stay and will be the choice in coming years for photographers. Progress and innovation cannot be denied. These companies have invested millions and millions of dollars into the research and development of mirrorless systems. The roadmap for new Z Mount lenses from Nikon, for example, has been spelled out for us.
It seems unlikely looking into the future whether these companies will continue to develop lenses for both mirrorless and DSLR bodies. It doesn’t seem likely. In the meantime, the best camera is the one you have. Make the best use of it and create the best images with what you have.
For right now, if you want to see into the future, all one needs to do is look at Sony. They are leading the way with their mirrorless bodies and they also make the best image sensors in the world. It should be a fun ride for the next few years to see what comes out as a result of all of this.
Mirrorless is the future – no doubt about it.