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  • Writer's pictureDylan John Dickerson

What's the difference between DSLR cameras and Mirrorless cameras?

DSLR. Mirrorless. One type of camera has on average 2x more battery life. One is significantly better if you’re wanting to shoot video. Today I’ll be talking about how and why these two camera types are different and I’ll explain the pros and cons of each.

DSLR stands for ‘Digital Single Lens Reflex’. The key word here is reflex, which is referring to the reflective nature of the mirror used in DSLRs. This is the main difference between DSLR cameras and mirrorless cameras. Mirrorless cameras don’t have a mirror system. So how DSLR cameras work is this; light passes through the lens, hits that mirror and reflects up into the cameras viewfinder as well as the autofocus sensor and the auto exposure sensor. Once you're ready to take a picture and you press the shutter button, that mirror swings out of the way, making that beautiful 'chick-chuck' sound, exposing the imaging sensor, and thus creating the image seen by the sensor at that moment. With mirrorless cameras, once light passes through the lens, it directly hits the camera’s imaging sensor, which instantly displays what it sees on the LCD monitor and electronic viewfinder on top.

So mirror, no mirror. Who cares? That doesn’t play much of a roll in the different specs between these two types of cameras right? Actually it really does. For one, Mirrorless cameras are generally lighter and less bulky than DSLR cameras BECAUSE they don’t have that complex mirror system. So if you travel a lot or just don’t want to carry around a big, heavy camera, than Mirrorless is the option to go with. This reduction in body size doesn’t always mean smaller lenses though. A lot of mirrorless lenses are just as big as DSLR lenses because Mirrorless camera sensor sizes can match DSLR sensor sizes. However if your mirrorless camera uses a smaller sensor format like Micro 4/3rds then your lenses WILL BE smaller and lighter.

Difference number two between these two cameras are their viewfinders. The viewfinder is what you look through to compose and focus your shot. With DSLR cameras, what you see in that viewfinder is exactly what is in front of you. The light, from what you're taking a picture of goes through the lens, bounces off the mirror and up into that viewfinder. It’s a natural and lag free view. Since there are no mirrors in mirrorless cameras, they use something called an Electronic Viewfinder, or EVF. The viewfinder electronically displays what the imaging sensor sees. Sometimes this causes a slight delay or lag from what is seen by the sensor to what is displayed in the viewfinder, although I’ve never noticed much with my GH5. The reason I’m a fan of EVFs is because of all the information they can display on them. I can have a histogram on there, I can see what my white balance is set to, I can check if my camera is level. This is something a DSLR viewfinder does not have the capability to show. I also like that I can see exactly how my photo will look based on my set exposure, white balance, etc before I take the shot. Some DSLR shooters however prefer to see what their eyes would see in the viewfinder, compose their shot, and check the results on their LCD screen.

Difference number three is battery time and DSLRs are the big winner here. They have significantly longer battery time mainly because they don’t use EVFs which do draw a lot of power and they don’t use LCD screens as much. DSLRs can take around 600-800 shots on average with some pro cameras even reaching up to 2000 shots plus per charge. Mirrorless cameras shoot 300-400 on average per charge with the higher end cameras shooting only 600-700 shots.

The fourth big difference between the two are their video capabilities. Mirrorless cameras are the clear winner here and if shooting video is important to you, then stick with the mirrorless system. Shooting video requires light on the camera’s imaging sensor at all times. So since DSLRs have mirrors that cover their camera sensor, shooting video requires that mirror to flip out of the way. This has serious drawbacks. For one, the viewfinder is now rendered useless. This is because they need that mirror to function, so without it, it doesn’t work. If you remember from the beginning of the video, once light bounces off of the mirror in DSLRs it hits a couple places, one of which being the auto focus sensor. This module is the main way DSLRs use autofocus, so with the mirror up, and the auto focus sensor not receiving any input, DSLRs have to resort to a back up slower AF system for video, unlike mirrorless cameras which use sensor based autofocus all the time. However the invention of dual pixel autofocus, which is built into the cameras sensor, has helped improve DSLRs autofocus in video, it still doesn’t stack up to the mirrorless system.

If you’re more into photography, both systems are great. There is no image quality advantage since both systems have sensor sizes of equal value, so they both are capable of high quality images. However there are some minor differences between the two that may or may not be useful to know. Mirrorless cameras have the ability to shoot faster since there are less working parts in the camera, so keep this in mind if you do shoot a lot of action sports. Autofocus speeds of both systems are pretty close when it comes to photography, although DSLRs tend to have the upper hand with focusing on fast moving subjects like wildlife and sports. So ya, mirrorless systems generally shoot faster, but DSLRs can autofocus on moving subjects better.

As far as price, their ranges are about the same. Some DSLRs may be slightly cheaper but overall they’re about even. On the lower end of the price range, DSLRs will result in worse autofocus and possibly no 4k video. Cheaper Mirrorless cameras will result in no viewfinders and you may need to purchase more batteries to keep up the the battery life of DSLRs in that price range.

Going into this new decade, I’d say you should hands down go with Mirrorless cameras. They are newer, lighter, and more advanced and they are the way forward. The only reason you should go with a DSLR in my opinion is if you do enjoy the feel of a larger grip in your hands as well as that sweet sound it makes when you take a picture. I can totally understand that.

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