Mirrorless or DSLR? 2018 Edition

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For the last decade, photographers have been pitting mirrorless against DSLR cameras. The variables have also completely changed after the past couple of years. This year saw the introduction of just two DSLRs, one of which is a standard entry-level replacement, compared to more than a dozen mirrorless entries, most of which were significant releases. Considering the numerous changes in the industry, many are seriously debating whether to go with a mirrorless camera or stick with a DSLR for their next purchase.

Optical or Electronic?

For the decade during which the mirrorless format has existed, there have remained some key differences between it and the classic DSLR. The main change is obviously the use or lack of a mirror. DSLRs use a mirror box to reflect light through the optical viewfinder for a through-the-lens viewing experience. Mirrorless cameras eschew this design in favor of a digital image pipeline, relying on the use of electronic viewfinders or rear displays to provide the real-time view for composing your shots. And so begins the EVF versus OVF debate.

Neither is better. It will all depend on personal preference. Optical finders have the benefit of being older and manufacturers have decades of experience in creating brilliant ones. They also have no lag, no noise, and don’t require any power. They do, however, require a precisely calibrated (and loud) mirror box to sit in front of the sensor, and numerous elements to create that sharp image. This is where the downsides of the OVF are introduced, because this mirror system adds weight and volume to the camera body, and unless finely tuned and built, will limit the continuous shooting rate of the system. It also enables the use of a separate AF sensor with dedicated focusing points though, arguably, this system has its own faults—it may require adjustments to deal with manufacturing variances from model to model.

Optical Viewfinder (OVF)

Newer electronic viewfinders will alleviate many of these “problems,” but they also lack the same immediate and clear TTL view of optical finders and may be bothersome to experienced shooters not accustomed to looking at a screen all day. They do not provide a natural view, but instead a preview of the actual digital image being created by the sensor, so you can experience things such as blown highlights or lost shadows in an EVF. Previewing the final image can be an asset, and because it is a digital display, you can use the finder for video, too. It will also boost the brightness in dark scenes, so you can always see your subject regardless of ambient light. The lack of a mirror system means cameras can be smaller. A downside to the EVF is that it requires power to run and, in low light, you can experience lagging and noise issues.

Electronic Viewfinder (EVF)

To be honest, my opinion on the mirrorless versus DSLR debate comes down to the finder. If you can’t stand the EVF and don’t care about the various benefits, then stick with a DSLR. Shoot a lot of video or, perhaps, need the reduced sound and size of a mirrorless, and the EVF is more beneficial.

The Lenses

For a true comparison, we need to look at entire systems. DSLRs are tried and true, and still growing. Mirrorless are the newcomers, and while many are quite fleshed out, equally as many are lacking key options. Where this becomes clear is in lens lineups. Looking at options from Canon and Nikon, you can clearly see the difference. Both manufacturers’ DSLR lines include more than a hundred current and legacy options. Most notably, this growth over time means that they offer more unique and specialized options, such as tilt-shift and super telephoto. It also means that there may be multiple choices along the same focal lengths, so you can find an option that may fit your budget or needs better.

Plenty of mirrorless systems are well fleshed out—Fujifilm X Series and Micro Four Thirds come to mind—but plenty are lacking. Nikon and Canon’s new full-frame systems, the Z series and EOS R, respectively, each has only a handful of lenses out of the gate. Sony has been working hard over the years to fill out its lenses but, even so, just delivered its first super telephoto this year: the superb FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS. DSLRs have nearly everything already available, along with a wider supply of third-party options. If your job requires you to pick up or use a specific type of lens, and it is only available in either a DSLR or mirrorless, go with that system.

Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens

This does lead into one of mirrorless’s distinct advantages: the mount. The shorter flange distance, and in some cases larger diameter, allows native lens designs to be smaller, unique, and higher quality. Take Canon’s RF 28-70mm f/2L USM as an example of something completely new. Another benefit is support for various adapters. Without needing any optics, mirrorless cameras can be set up to work with legacy lenses and current lenses from other brands and systems via adapters, effectively increasing the number of lenses available to the photographer to hundreds or thousands. Adapters aren’t a perfect solution, especially when electronics are involved, but can certainly help fill the gaps in certain lineups.

Canon RF 28-70mm f/2L USM Lens

Need a specific lens and peak performance? I’d recommend going with the native mount. Only if you are comfortable with adapters and/or the current offerings should you jump wholly into a new mirrorless system.

Design Differences

Weirdly, mirrorless has seen more of the innovations than the DSLR side of photography. For example, plenty of the latest mirrorless cameras (the X-T3, EOS R, Z7, GH5S) have 10-bit video capabilities. They also see boosts to continuous shooting rates, have new control options, and in some cases, have new mount systems that are supposed to be better than the DSLR offerings. That doesn’t mean DSLRs are worse here; the long history of design has led to impressive ergonomics and control schemes. Many photographers will be able to pick up a DSLR and instinctively grasp many of the controls well enough. This advantage comes with the cost of having a naturally larger form that can support larger grips and more/larger buttons and dials.

Mirrorless is smaller, as a rule. This is great if you want to cut every ounce you can from your kit. It is unfortunately also a downside because you can no longer cram as much tech into the camera. Recent years have seen plenty of reports of overheating from the small bodies, cramped controls, and more, because of the trimmed-down body designs. Another downsizing disadvantage comes with batteries. Many early mirrorless models had notoriously small batteries and run times that are dramatically lower than their DSLR counterparts. Current offerings have been slowly but surely catching up, but the fact that many pack in an EVF and rely more heavily on constant digital processing tend to burn through power sources quickly.

Can’t survive without a large grip and a dedicated button or dial for every one of your custom settings? Go with the DSLR. Have large hands? Pick up a DSLR. Absolutely need to shave weight for your next trip? Mirrorless wins here. Prefer smaller and lighter bodies and only need essential controls? Mirrorless is the right choice.

If you need to pick between DSLR or mirrorless, my advice is to boil it down into the viewfinder, lens selection, and body designs. One will give you more than the other. If you don’t have any requirements, though, go with a camera that gives you all the features you need. I’m even going to argue that many functions are equivalent between the two formats. No longer are DSLRs the sole kings when it comes to autofocus—the Sony a9 and even Canon’s Dual Pixel AF have proven that. Picking a specific sensor size is also available on both, especially with medium format and full-frame growing substantially in the past year. Either a DSLR or mirrorless camera will work for you.

Sony Alpha a9 Mirrorless Digital Camera

Any other questions? Want to throw your own thoughts into the mirrorless versus DSLR debate? Leave them all in the Comments section, below!

3 Comments

hey.... i take pictures in door, in studio,    i use profoto flashes at 16aptur   haw can i work whit mirroless camera if i cont see what i am doing

Hey Guy,

This depends on exactly how your camera works. Some mirrorless do provide the option to function in a similar manner to DSLRs, in that the aperture remains open during monitoring and focusing and only stops down when you take the shot. The other thing to note is that unlike DSLRs, mirrorless can stop down and then increase the gain/ISO of the monitor/EVF, providing you with a real-time visible image preview that would be too dark if you did aperture preview on the DSLR. It is a consideration though, so if you prefer DSLR operation in a studio setting you still may be better suited to a DSLR. Especially since studio work doesn't get as great a benefit from weight reduction in mirrorless compared to travel and other types of photography.

Nice breakdown on this debate.  I shoot with Canon DSLR's and was considering a mirrorless for travel and walk around for the size and weight.  The EVF vs OVF pretty much does it for me.  I want to see the actual shot, not rely on a computer to tell me what I am seeing.  Old school I guess, but far better in my opinion.  I am used to carrying big cameras and lenses by now.  No mirrorless in my future.  Thanks for the good info.  Happy Shooting!

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