Should you buy a mirrorless camera or a DSLR camera? Well, that's not necessarily a straightforward question to answer. Many photographers would argue that DSLRs are dead and mirrorless is the future, but we think it largely depends on your budget, what kind of kit you already have, and what it is you're going to be shooting (among other factors).
Mirrorless cameras have had a rapid rise in popularity and manufacture over the last few years, and in 2020, for the first time ever, more mirrorless cameras were produced than DSLRs. We are going to discuss the main differences between mirrorless cameras and DSLRs, the reasons to choose a mirrorless camera over a DSLR, and weigh up the benefits of future-proofing your investment.
If you're convinced you want a mirrorless camera then check out our guide to the best mirrorless cameras. But if a DSLR is more your bag then we also have the best DSLR cameras guide as well. Alternatively, if you want to know which cameras are best overall, find out from our buying guide to the best cameras for photos and videos.
Mirrorless vs DSLR — what's the difference?
Let's talk about some of the main differences between mirrorless cameras and DSLR cameras. Mirrorless cameras are smaller, lighter, and more portable than DSLR cameras, with that reason alone being enough to tip photographers towards the switch to mirrorless. The reason for them being so different in size is hidden in the name — mirrorless cameras don't need to be big enough to fit a mirror inside the body. In mirrorless cameras, the light goes straight through the lens and directly onto the sensor. Whereas in DSLR cameras, the light goes through the lens and is bounced off the mirror onto a prism, which then redirects the light into your eye through the optical viewfinder (OVF).
As the camera market is moving more toward mirrorless cameras, DSLRs are becoming more and more affordable as a result. An upside to this is that you can often find better deals on DSLRs, particularly in the used market. Though mirrorless cameras do seem to hold their value for longer than DSLRs do. For example, a DSLR with a high shutter count will be less valuable than a mirrorless camera with the same shutter count. That's because there's no physical shutter mechanism in a mirrorless camera. There are plenty more differences between these two camera types though and you can find more information on our dedicated DSLRs vs Mirrorless page.
Why choose mirrorless?
With the rise of mirrorless cameras, photographers are realizing that bigger doesn't necessarily equal better. Portability is a big factor in choosing a camera, and mirrorless cameras are ideal for travel because they are so small and light. There's also the option to buy grips to attach to the camera body if it's too small in your hands. Although this may sound like there's more to buy, it's better to have the option as you can't make a DSLR smaller.
Another advantage mirrorless cameras have over DSLRs is the electronic viewfinder (EVF). Both the EVF and the LCD screen are an electronic representation of what the sensor is seeing. This is advantageous because it shows you what your image is going to look like in real-time. When you adjust your settings, you can directly see the impact it's having on your image without having to take test shots first. This is a much more intuitive way of shooting, and can be the difference between getting 'the shot', and missing it because you were too busy looking at the image you'd just taken. EVFs are great for astrophotography where the need for correct settings is vital, and it makes composing an image in the dark much easier, too.
As there's no need for complex mirror systems inside the camera body, mirrorless cameras are also much quieter. You can actually eliminate the noise altogether with silent shooting mode, which is ideal if you're shooting sports or any type of event where the shutter sound could be distracting.
As mirrorless camera technology is rapidly improving all the time, they are now leading the way when it comes to new autofocus systems. With mirrorless cameras, it's much easier to track moving objects, as well as face/eye detection, and even animal eye detection. And thanks to the EVF, you can see exactly which part of the image the camera is tracking. Nowadays most mirrorless cameras can actually focus better than DSLRs.
Many camera brands are also making In Body Image Stabilisation (IBIS) the default for many of their new mirrorless cameras, along with image stabilization in many lenses. This has been known to drain the battery life, however, brands are improving this all the time.
When it comes to comparing mirrorless cameras and DSLRs, the main differences are in the build and usability. Ironically, it's actually the image quality that isn't necessarily a factor, as there's often not a huge amount of difference between the two side by side.
Is mirrorless the future?
As companies are putting more and more resources into mirrorless cameras and their rapidly improving technology, it's easy to see that mirrorless is definitely the future. The rise and success of Sony and Fuji full-frame mirrorless cameras even prompted Canon and Nikon to jump into the mirrorless market.
As mirrorless seems to be the way forward, you need to weigh up whether mirrorless will actually benefit you. Does it make sense to switch to mirrorless if you already have a comprehensive DSLR kit? Perhaps not. However, you can invest in lens mounts to enable you to use other lenses on a mirrorless camera, which means you could keep your current lenses rather than having to invest in a whole new kit. And as mirrorless cameras have a shorter flange distance (the distance between the lens mount and the sensor), using a lens with a lens mount often ends up being a similar distance to that of a DSLR anyway. This opens you up to being able to use any future lenses that get released, and cheaper lenses in the used market. The shorter flange distance also makes it easier for companies to design high-quality lenses for mirrorless cameras.
Essentially, the decision on whether mirrorless is worth the cost depends largely on your personal needs — if everything we've mentioned here sounds like something that would benefit you, then perhaps it's time to finally make the jump to mirrorless.
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Kimberley Lane is a landscape & seascape photographer living in South Wales. Originally using photography as a way to cope with health issues, she aims to portray a feeling of calm and peace through her images. Her work has been featured in a number of national photography magazines.