Summary: The main difference between a Mirrorless Camera and a DSLR is that while both have similar components, one is digital (DSLR) and the other is an analog camera (Mirrorless). Similar to how regular film cameras work, there are no electrical signals sent to the lens when it is time to take a picture. Instead, light comes through the lens and hits a mirror which reflects upwards into another prism that receives the light and sends an inverted image down to an optical viewfinder so you can frame your shot. Once the shutter button is tapped, the mirror flips up and expose the sensor so that it can take the photo. This is where Mirrorless Cameras and Professional DSLR cameras differ from each other, as Mirrorless Camera do not have a mirror or an optical viewfinder that covers up the sensor when it is time to take a picture.
A mirrorless camera is a digital camera which lacks the complex optical path of a physical mirror found in analog SLR cameras. Instead, images are composed via live preview on the screen or with an electronic viewfinder.
These cameras have been around for quite some time now and more major players have come up with new models as well as revisions in the past year. They are competing head to head with DSLRs and for good reason too, they pack quite a punch even though there might be differences between them (mirrorless vs DSLR).
If you are contemplating whether you should buy one or not, here is the major difference between mirrorless cameras and DSLR (digital single lens reflex).
Similarities and Differences between Mirrorless Cameras and DSLRs
1. Viewfinder Type
The Sony mirrorless camera is equipped with either an electronic viewfinder (EVF) or a live view screen to compose images. An EVF has zero lag and provides real time viewing similar to the optical viewfinder found in DSLRs. It may be difficult to find one however and if you do, it most likely won’t be as good as the DSLR.
A live view screen is easier to find and with some models like the NEX-7 coming with touch screens, composing images with them are extremely easy. The camera has an additional advantage of livestreaming what’s in front of its lens to a smartphone, tablet or computer via wi-fi. Mirrorless cameras can also record in HD (1080p) which is not the case with DSLRs.
The best part about mirrorless cameras is that you get to see what your images look like through an EVF meaning focusing will be easier and accurate. With DSLR, only the image ends up on the screen and while good ones do provide a clear images, it’s sometimes impossible to tell if you’ve focused properly.
2. Size and weight
Cameras like the Sony NEX-6 are extremely light (around 300 grams) making them perfect for travel photography or simply carrying around all day long. DSLRs are much heavier due to the complex optical path and even though there are smaller DSLRs available, they will still be heavier than mirrorless cameras.
With mirrorless cameras offering similar image quality found in DSLRs, you can use lenses from different manufacturers giving you more flexibility for your photography. The camera is also powered by a battery (dedicated or via USB) and does not require the complex process of film developing.
Camera manufacturers like Olympus and Panasonic have announced that they will be releasing lenses which can be attached to their mirrorless cameras using a simple adapter, making it extremely easy for photographers to use them on whichever camera they please.
Cameras like the Nikon D5100 (a DSLR) can be bought for around $600 while mirrorless cameras like the Sony NEX-3N go for about $450. The price difference is significant even though there isn’t much difference between the two in terms of image quality.
There are affordable mirrorless cameras available in the market but DSLRs remain to be cheaper, even though you might end up spending more if you buy additional lenses for your mirrorless camera.
Mirrorless cameras have interchangeable lenses which is a fundamental difference between them and DSLR when it comes to photography. Because of this, it is important to choose the right sensor size which caters to your subjects.
The sensors found in DSLRs range from APS-C (which is around 22mm x 14mm) to full frame (the typical 35mm film size). The latter will work best for portrait and landscape photography while the former will be good for street photography.
The sensors found in mirrorless cameras are smaller than DSLRs and while they give you more flexibility, the image quality is slightly compromised. In comparison to APS-C sensors, Micro Four Thirds (which is used by Olympus) has a crop factor of 2x which means that the focal length given for a specific lens is equivalent to a traditional one.
The NEX-5R, for example, uses a 16.1MP sensor with a crop factor of 2x which makes it equivalent to a traditional 27mm x 36mm image size. This translates to less depth of field and lower image quality compared to the Nikon D3200 which uses an APS-C sensor with 24mm x 16mm image size which gives you more flexibility in terms of depth of field and allows you to work with larger prints.
5. Image Quality
Image quality is similar but again, DSLRs are still better than mirrorless cameras when it comes to picture sharpness. A good thing though about mirrorless cameras is that because of the built-in stabilizer, it is easier to shoot handheld and there will be less chance of getting blurry images even in low light conditions.
Because they have large sensors, DSLRs also tend to produce lower noise at higher ISOs which can work as an advantage when shooting indoors or in places where there isn’t much light.
Mirrorless cameras typically have slower autofocus than DSLRs but because of the size, you can easily work with subjects that are closer to you. The focus points found in mirrorless cameras are also much smaller which makes it harder to focus on your subject accurately especially if it’s far away.
DSLRs on the other hand, have more to offer when it comes to autofocus points which can make them good for tracking purposes. They are also faster but because of their size, you might not want to use them with small subjects.
Mirrorless cameras tend to have an electronic viewfinder which is not as accurate as the optical counterpart found in DSLRs.
Optical viewfinders are typically larger and brighter than electronic ones but you might not see the changes when looking at them through the camera’s LCD screen.
8. Video Recording
DSLRs have always been known to shoot great videos, even though the autofocus ends up hunting a lot. Mirrorless cameras on the other hand, are adaptable for video recording because of the stabilizer and the fact that you can attach an external microphone to it.
DSLRs can be better when it comes to sharper images but not all mirrorless cameras have that problem.
DSLRs are more expensive than mirrorless when you just consider the body. DSLRs always have a bigger gap when it comes to price though when you compare them to mirrorless cameras with lenses included. This is because of the interchangeable lenses which can make your gear last longer.
You might also want to invest on a tripod and remote control so you can enjoy shooting in your spare time without worrying about blurring images.
10. Weight and Size
Mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter than DSLRs but because of the interchangeable lenses, you might want to invest on a bigger camera bag for all your equipment which will weight more. This is especially true if you have a large telephoto lens.
DSLRs on the other hand, are not as portable as mirrorless cameras because you will need to bring a lot of lenses with you and a big camera bag for all your gear. It is also harder to travel with them if you want to go light.
11. Range of Lenses
Mirrorless cameras have a lot of lenses to choose from in terms of variety but because they are not as popular as DSLRs, they might be harder to find. The best thing about mirrorless cameras is that you can use any lens with an adapter but again, make sure that the quality of the adapter will not affect the quality of the images.
DSLRs have a much bigger selection of lenses to choose from and because they are more common, you can even find used lenses at a lower price. The only downside is that the quality might not match up with what you expect because second hand lenses have been tried and tested already by other photographers.
Not all DSLRs are weatherproof but some mirrorless cameras come with that feature which can be really helpful when shooting in rough conditions.
That said, it would be easier to bring a DSLR with you because of its size but make sure your bag is waterproof as well so the water won’t affect your stuff.
13. Battery Life
DSLRs have a lot of battery life to offer because they are not as demanding on batteries than mirrorless cameras. Mirrorless cameras use up more power so you might want to invest on some additional batteries if you plan to shoot all day long.
DSLRs can be better in terms of battery life but not all mirrorless cameras have problems when it comes to that.
14. Portability and Appearance
Mirrorless camera look like point and shoots so you can easily bring them with you because of the size but DSLRs are bulkier, especially those with long telephoto lenses. You might want to go for a mirrorless camera if you want to travel light and capture everything with a still image like photojournalists do.
Smaller mirrorless cameras can be more convenient but they might not be as adaptable as DSLRs because of the smaller sensor size.
15. Camera Resolution
Both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras usually have average sized sensors but mirrorless cameras are usually 24 megapixels. DSLRs can go as high as 36 megapixels but they are bigger which affects the image quality negatively.
Mirrorless cameras have bigger sensors so you can choose to shoot in RAW so you have more space to work with when editing your images.
16. Camera Form Factor
DSLRs are usually bigger because of the extra features it has like a viewfinder and an autofocus motor. If you want to shoot using the LCD screen only then mirrorless cameras are more convenient for that.
DSLRs can be as big as full frame cameras which is really helpful if you want professional quality images or more megapixels to work with.
17. Live View/Video Modes
Mirrorless cameras are really good for video because they offer more flexibility but DSLRs can be clunky to use when shooting videos.
18. Auto Focus Systems
DSLRs have advanced autofocus systems like 61-point AF and 99 cross-type sensors which make them better at focusing fast under low light conditions.
Mirrorless cameras are slowly catching up to the speed of DSLRs but some manufacturers will release autofocus updates for their cameras which can make them better at focusing under low light.
19. Storage Capacity
DSLRs have more physical space on your camera body so you can store more pictures at a time. Mirrorless cameras have smaller storage space but you can always shoot RAW so you will still get the same image quality that you would get from DSLRs.
20. Memory Cards
Mirrorless cameras are not compatible with all types of memory cards because they only use SD while DSLRs use CF and SD. Make sure your memory card is compatible with your camera otherwise you would not be able to shoot images.
21. Battery Charger
DSLRs come with battery chargers so you can charge the battery outside of the camera so you won’t have a problem on where to put it when charging. That said, some DSLRs don’t use batteries from the same manufacturer so you might also want to invest on a universal battery charger.
Mirrorless cameras don’t usually have a separate battery charger but some models come with external chargers that you can use separately from your camera. That said, make sure it’s compatible with your batteries or else you can damage them in the long run.
22. Battery Compatibility
Mirrorless cameras usually have a rechargeable battery that you can use over and over again but DSLRs usually have single-use batteries which cost more in the long run. Some mirrorless camera models are also compatible with AA batteries so you don’t have to worry about running out of power too quickly.
Mirrorless cameras are designed so you can get the same quality images as DSLRs even though they have smaller sensors. Some manufacturers are trying to push the boundaries of technology by creating mirrorless cameras with larger sensors. They’re not quite there yet but it’s something to look forward to in the future.
DSLRs usually have higher resolution cameras because the sensors are bigger and they have more megapixels. DSLRs also have better autofocus systems so it’s easier to shoot fast-moving objects.
24. Video Recording Resolution
Mirrorless cameras can shoot full HD videos but some models can go as high as 4K for professional quality videos. DSLRs are slowly catching up but they can shoot in HD only.
DSLRs have better viewfinders because they are usually built-in to the camera body which you can use when framing your shot. Many DSLRs turn off their screens when using the viewfinder so it’s easier to focus on what you’re looking at.
Mirrorless cameras don’t usually have built-in viewfinders so you need to rely on their monitor instead for framing your shots. Some mirrorless camera models turn off their screens when using the viewfinder so it’s easier to focus on what you’re looking at.
Mirrorless cameras are much lighter than DSLRs. They are easier to bring around when traveling for photo shoots because they’re much smaller and more lightweight.
DSLRs are bulkier in size so you might not be able to bring it along whenever you travel. It’s also harder to take videos compared to mirrorless cameras because of their heavier weight.
27. Cool Factor
Mirrorless cameras are the “new kid in town” because they’re slowly gaining popularity. DSLRs have already established their reputation over the years so people will probably still stick with them in the long run.
28. Shutter Lag
Mirrorless cameras usually don’t suffer from shutter lag because of their built-in electronic viewfinder. DSLRs have a shorter shutter lag but it’s still there so you need to hold the camera steady when taking long exposure shots.
29. Lens Compatibility
Mirrorless camera lenses are made specifically for mirrorless cameras so don’t even think about trying to put DSLR lenses on your mirrorless camera. You can use mirrorless camera lenses on DSLRs but that’s not really advisable because it will be difficult to control the aperture and the autofocus system won’t work properly.