Should I buy an DSLR or a mirrorless camera? I explain the differences and give my recommendation!
The technical difference – The mirror system
What is the difference between a reflex camera and a mirrorless camera? As the name suggests, an SLR camera works with a mirror system. The light falls through the lens onto several mirrors so that you can see an image in the viewfinder. A mirrorless camera does not have this mirror system. It delivers the image directly from the sensor. More details can be found in the next paragraph under „Optical or digital viewfinder“.
The mirror system of a DSLR takes up some space in the body of the camera. Unlike other technical developments, the mechanism cannot be further reduced in size beyond a certain point because it needs a minimum size. That’s why an SLR camera can’t be made much smaller than, say, a Canon EOS 250D. Herein lies one of the advantages of mirrorless cameras, as I show below.
So the main difference of DSLR vs. mirrorless camera is that a mirrorless camera has no mirror system. Is this a disadvantage? No.
Optical or digital viewfinder
The lack of a mirror mechanism is exactly why the viewfinder of a DSLM (mirrorless camera) differs from that of a DSLR (single lens reflex camera). What is the viewfinder again exactly? It’s the little window on the camera that you look through before you press the shutter button.
As with a smartphone, you can of course also use the large display for this. However, a viewfinder has the advantage that the image is much clearer to see. Bright sunlight and reflections on the display can prevent you from seeing the image well there. The viewfinder is dark in itself and there you can see the preview image.
With an DSLR camera, you see the image through the lens, similar to binoculars. The mirrors in the camera deflect it so that you can see it in the optical viewfinder.
With a mirrorless camera, on the other hand, you look in the viewfinder at a digital display located inside the camera. The image falls through the mirrorless camera’s lens onto the sensor. What arrives there can then be seen as a digital image on the display in the viewfinder.
This is one of the advantages of mirrorless cameras: you can see the image directly from the sensor, including all settings. For example, if you set a different aspect ratio on the camera, such as a square image, then the image in the viewfinder is also directly square. It’s the same when you set the camera to black and white. Also then the effect is immediately visible in the viewfinder.
Maybe you think it won’t make much difference. And maybe you think that you can imagine the image without the digital viewfinder and later edit it accordingly on the PC. Personally, I can make my image composition much better and more sophisticated when I can already see the finished image in the viewfinder.
To be fair, I should also say that you can also see these presets like square image or black and white on the large display of an DSLR camera. I often use that when I have the camera on the tripod. But you just can’t see it in the viewfinder of a DSLR.
mirrorless cameras still have an advantage in this respect. Especially with entry-level mirrorless cameras, the electronic viewfinder is much larger than the optical viewfinder of an entry-level DSLR. This also makes image composition immensely easier.
Why the power consumption (battery life) is greater with a DSLM
Because a mirrorless camera always shows the image that the sensor has to deliver, it has a higher power consumption. This means that you can take fewer pictures with one battery charge.
I can tell you about battery life, though, that it’s not a problem for me in practice. I have two batteries with my Canon EOS 77D DSLR. I photograph landscapes. So I certainly have less battery consumption than, for example, a wedding photographer, because I simply take fewer pictures. With these two batteries, I can manage about three days on a normal landscape tour.
For me, it wouldn’t make much difference if I needed three or four batteries for a mirrorless camera. Of course, this is reflected in the purchase of the batteries. However, I usually buy the original batteries from the manufacturer and these are then used for 5-7 years without any problems. If I then calculate the costs down to this period, they are negligible for me. Modern mirrorless cameras have become better anyway in terms of power consumption. Therefore, battery life is not a criterion for me when it comes to deciding between DSLR or mirrorless camera.
Image quality – is there a difference?
Does a DSLR take better pictures than a DSLM? Or is it the other way around? There are no differences at all here. Both types of cameras have similar sensors, so the image quality is the same. When it comes to image quality, there’s one more thing you should be aware of when buying a new camera: The lenses are at least as important as the camera itself.
Autofocus – Which system is faster?
The autofocus of modern DSLR cameras is very sophisticated. Here I still see a slight advantage with DSLR cameras for sports photography, for example. But the emphasis is really on slight. With the A9 and A9 II, Sony has launched mirrorless cameras that are in no way inferior to professional DSLRs. However, this also has its price.
In general, the autofocus of today’s DSLM mirrorless cameras is more than sufficient for 98% of photographers.
On the other hand, some mirrorless cameras, such as the Sony A7 III, have a focus system that recognizes the human eye and sets and holds the focus precisely on it. This is a big advantage for portrait photographers.
Shutter noise can play a role depending on the subject
When you press the shutter button on an DSLR camera, the mirror flips up. After the picture is taken, the mirror folds down again. This is exactly what makes the characteristic clicking sound of an DSLR camera. However, this noise also has a certain volume. Especially in situations like a wedding ceremony in churches, this noise can be disturbing. Likewise, insects in macro photography can take off in a flash due to the disturbing sound.
More expensive DSLRs sometimes have a mode where this mirror flipping is much quieter. mirrorless cameras are generally quieter here. The only thing that can be heard here is the shutter mechanism, which is responsible for the exposure time, just like in an DSLR camera.
If you’re interested in what mirror flipping and the shutter in an DSLR looks like in slow motion, you’ll find an interesting video below. The slow motion shot can be seen starting at minute 2:50.
Some mirrorless cameras now have an electronic shutter in addition to the mechanical one. This is no longer audible at all and can also deliver much faster shutter speeds than are possible with a DSLR.
Continuous shooting rate (frames per second) – How fast are the cameras?
mirrorless cameras are usually snappier when it comes to the continuous shooting rate. This is also due to the fact that they do not have a mirror mechanism that would have to be flipped up first. While a Canon EOS 800D DSLR can take a maximum of 6 frames per second, a Sony Alpha 6000 mirrorless camera can take up to 11 frames per second. Is that relevant for you when choosing? It depends on what you shoot. For me, as a landscape photographer, it’s not important. But if you want to do more sports photography with your new camera, for example, then it does matter.
Weight & Size – Do you carry your equipment a lot?
mirrorless cameras tend to be a bit smaller and lighter than SLRs. But if you think that switching to a mirrorless camera will generally get you smaller and lighter camera gear, you might be disappointed. The difference, for example, between gear for a Nikon or Canon DSLR and gear for a Sony mirrorless camera with similar lenses is barely there. They don’t take too much away from each other in this respect. If you want it smaller and lighter, I think only a Fujifilm system will do.
The choice of lenses and accessories
Lenses can be changed on both SLRs and mirrorless cameras. So you can get lenses that fit your photographic motifs and requirements exactly. DSLR cameras have been around for a long time, while mirrorless cameras have only been around for a few years. That’s why the selection of lenses and accessories for DSLMs is still somewhat smaller than for DSLRs.
When it comes to lenses, there is the option of using other manufacturers‘ lenses or ports with an adapter on the new mirrorless camera. Personally, I’m not a big fan of this. That’s because I always want to use the lenses that were designed for the system in question. I don’t want to compromise on sharpness or autofocus.
The selection and general high level of DSLR lenses also has an impact on the price, as I explain below. So in terms of lenses and accessories, DSLRs are ahead.
Cost of the camera when buying
Currently, there are some mirrorless cameras available that are less expensive than DSLRs for a similar feature set. On average, I would say that entry-level mirrorless cameras are about 50 to 100 € cheaper than the corresponding DSLR cameras. When buying a camera, however, you should not only have the entry-level costs in mind, as I show below.
Attention: Follow-up costs for lenses
What is not obvious at first glance, however, is that lenses for mirrorless cameras are sometimes significantly more expensive than for DSLR cameras. This is also due to the fact that the selection of DSLR lenses is larger. The level of the (kit) lenses that are supplied with the DSLR camera is very good with most manufacturers today. The reverse is not true for all mirrorless cameras.
If you are now afraid that the kit lens of your mirrorless camera will only give you muddy pictures – this is not the case. If you know it well and know how to use it, you can achieve very good image quality with it as well.
If you get into photography with such a camera, then you are certainly aware that you can buy lenses later, which then fit your photographic areas. But then you may have in mind that this is still in the distant future. However, most photographers buy new lenses sooner rather than later.
I see the limited choice of lenses and the higher price as a disadvantage of mirrorless cameras. Here, for me, the DSLR cameras are currently still ahead.
DSLR or mirrorless camera – my conclusion
Many photographers ask me today how I can still recommend DSLR cameras at all. But I see it as a 50:50 decision, which is due to the medium-term cost factor for lenses. DSLR cameras are very advanced today. The selection of lenses and accessories is large and of good quality. mirrorless cameras are without question the future. Nevertheless, a few more years of development are still needed here in exactly these two points. In my two articles about DSLR cameras for beginners and mirrorless cameras for beginners you will find my current recommendations.
Do you still have questions about both camera systems? Are there any other points I haven’t mentioned? Write me in the comments! If you want, I can also let you know when a new post is published, so you won’t miss anything.