Mirrorless cameras have been around for a few years now and the market is starting to get more mature. Most of the major players have several models to choose from, ranging from entry level to professional models.
If you're entering into the world of photography or even upgrading to a new camera - you're probably wondering if you should buy a mirrorless or DSLR body.
The Quick Answer
For most people I would recommend a mirrorless camera.
Landscape, macro, portrait, travel, event, general snapshots, pet, family, some wildlife, some sports: Mirrorless cameras are going to do a fantastic job.
Note the italicised some in the list?
If you want to take photos of fast moving and/or erratic subject then the choice of mirrorless vs DSLR is a harder one to make. Read on to see why.
First, let's tackle the question of image quality. Which will give a better result based purely on the output it is capable of?
There is no winner here. Image quality between mirrorless and DSLR cameras is essentially the same.
Obviously different makes and models will differ in the image output they produce, but there is no inherent difference in sensor technology between the two camera formats that makes one produce better images than the other.
In most real-world scenarios you would be hard pressed to find a mirrorless or DSLR camera that produces 'bad' images. User error is much more likely to be the cause of poor quality output than the camera. Sure, some will be better than others on a technical level - and if you push the sensor to it's limits (trying to rescue a 5 stop underexposed image for example) then there will be differences... but most people won't ever notice this.
What IS The Difference?
The major differences between mirrorless and DSLR cameras affect how each camera functions, and how fast it can perform those functions.
Removing the mirror from the optical path means that mirrorless cameras have three major differences when compared to their older mirrored cousins:
- An electronic viewfinder instead of an optical one.
- An on-sensor autofocus system instead of an optical one.
- An on-sensor exposure metering system instead of an optical one.
The first two of those differences is ultimately what changes the user experience between the two camera types, and can determine which type of camera you should buy.
When Is A DSLR Better?
So what is it about the optical viewfinder and an optical auto-focus system that can give a DSLR an advantage?
No matter how quick electronics become - there will always be a delay between light hitting the image sensor and it being processed and directed into your eye via an electronic viewfinder. When you look through the viewfinder of a DSLR there is no such lag.
Even a very small delay can mean the difference between chopping off an erratic, quickly moving subject (such as a bird in flight or an athlete quickly changing direction on the field)
When it comes to electronic viewfinders, there are certainly many advantages to be had over the optical viewfinders in DSLRs - but if you're shooting erratic action, nothing beats speed.
Can you get great results with an electronic viewfinder and a fast moving subject? Absolutely - but it might be harder to do so and you might miss more shots because of it.
The autofocus systems of most mirrorless cameras will not be able to compete with a DSLR when it comes to fast motion and erratic movement. The Sony A9ii comes close - but at over AU$6,000 for the body that's a high price to pay.
Certainly autofocus technologies for mirrorless cameras are getting better. With advances in predictive (computational) autofocus and on-sensor phase detection systems they have the potential to eclipse anything an optical system can currently do.
However, they (mostly) aren't there yet.
So, as with the optical viewfinder, the DSLR autofocus systems are generally more capable when it comes to fast, erratically moving subjects.
This isn't an issue for many people, but the battery life of a DSLR will eclipse even the longest lasting mirrorless cameras. Powering the extra electronics in the mirrorless camera, mostly the electronic viewfinder, comes at quite a large battery hit.
Most people will be able to just carry an extra battery or four.
However, if you're away from a power source for a long time or are trying to travel light this could be a minor consideration.
When Is A Mirrorless Camera Better?
Mirrorless cameras are equal to, or better than, a DSLR in almost every other situation.
To list a few advantages that come with the electronic viewfinder and on-sensor autofocus and metering technology:
- More accurate autofocus.
- Better depth of field previews
- More information overlays possible in the viewfinder, including a live histogram and exposure warnings
- Accurate representation of exposure through the viewfinder
- A true silent shutter
- No vibration causing mirror slap
Of course, all of the above presumes that you don't have a strong preference for one sort of camera over the other.
Some people loathe electronic viewfinders. Don't buy a mirrorless camera if you are one of those people.
Others hate the idea of a mirror slapping up and down inside their camera. Don't buy a DSLR if this bothers you.
Sadly I have to put that bit in or people will get angry at me because I haven't covered their particular personal preference in the mirrorless vs DSLR 'war'.
Which Should You Buy?
Well, unless you primarily shoot fast action photography, or you have a personal preference against them: I would suggest that in 2021 you are probably better off buying a mirrorless camera.
If you shoot fast action and then a mirrorless might be OK for your needs, but you'll need to weigh up your options when it comes to autofocus speed and viewfinder lag to make sure the camera can keep up with your subject.
Also, if you are the type of photographer that only ever uses the rear screen to compose your photos (shudder), don't bother with buying a DSLR as you won't be using the optical autofocus, metering and viewfinder anyway.
Both camera systems are extremely capable in 2021 and you will be able to get fantastic quality images out of both.
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