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Design, Photography, & Fashion

Understanding DSLR vs. Mirrorless Cameras

Written by MasterClass

Dec 6, 2018 • 3 min read

Mirrorless cameras are the new wave of photography. Mirrorless cameras are smaller than DSLRs because, as the name suggests, there’s no mirror inside. Mirrorless cameras and DSLRs are both several notches above point-and-shoot cameras. Professional photographers have long opted for DSLRs, but entry level mirrorless cameras are making it easier than ever to experiment with photography, novice or not.

Learn more about the key differences between mirrorless cameras and DSLRs, as well as the pros and cons of using both.

Written by MasterClass

Dec 6, 2018 • 3 min read

What Is a Mirrorless Camera?

A mirrorless camera, or compact system camera (CSC), is a high-end camera with a removable, interchangeable lens. Mirrorless cameras lack a reflex mirror (hence the name); light passes through the camera directly to the sensor. The camera body is slim and lightweight, and feature a digital display instead of a traditional optical viewfinder.

The components of a mirrorless camera include:

  • The lens
  • The shutter
  • The image sensor
  • The digital display

What Is a DSLR?

A DSLR, or Digital Single Lens Reflex camera, is a digital camera with a removable lens and a reflex mirror. Light filters through the reflex mirror to either the sensor or the optical viewfinder (which displays your image). A DSLR camera body is bulky and heavy, due to the complicated internal mechanics.

The components of a DSLR camera include:

  • The lens
  • The reflex mirror
  • The shutter
  • The image sensor
  • A focusing screen
  • The condenser lens
  • The pentaprism
  • The optical viewfinder

The additional components, like the condenser lens and pentaprism, direct light through the camera and help reflect the image. These components are necessary for DSLRs to capture a complete image.

What Are the Similarities Between Mirrorless vs. DSLR Cameras?

Both mirrorless and DSLRs are interchangeable-lens cameras. An interchangeable-lens camera is a camera body that features a removable lens. Lenses come in a variety of focal lengths that allow a photographer flexibility in capturing shots both near and far.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Mirrorless vs. DSLR Cameras?

There are many factors to consider when investing in a high-end camera. Both mirrorless cameras and DSLRs come with their own sets of benefits and drawbacks.

Learn more about the seven most common differences in mirrorless cameras and DSLRs.

Cost

DSLR
Well established, wide support by third-party vendors, which can result in more choices and lower prices. DSLRs can start in the low hundreds.

Mirrorless
Newer technology; less common, with fewer choices of lenses and accessories. Mirrorless cameras start in the mid to high hundreds, but costs are driving down as the technology rapidly catches up to DSLRs.

Size

DSLR
Needs to be quite large because of mirror system, which makes it somewhat heavy.

Mirrorless
Can be much smaller since there is no mirror, allowing it to be much lighter.

Image Quality

DSLR
Image quality varies with DSLRs, depending on camera formats. DSLRs come in many formats, but most use top-of-the-line APS-C or full-frame sensors. The larger the sensor, the better the resolution and image quality.

The more common formats include:

  • APS-C: A sensor that renders at about 40% of the full frame. Sony, Pentax, and Samsung all offer APS-C cameras.
  • Full-frame: Full frame refers to the standard 35mm film format. Canon EOS and Nikon D-series are full-frame cameras.
  • Four-thirds system: Smaller system that displays 26% of full frame. (Even smaller? Micro four thirds.) Created by Olympus and Eastman Kodak.

Mirrorless
Both full-frame sensors and compact sensors are available in mirrorless cameras, but the larger sensors cost more. Opt for a compact or crop-quality sensor and you’ll end up sacrificing quality (especially in low light) for cost.

Autofocus

DSLR
Blazing fast autofocus, which is essential for sports and events.

Mirrorless
Slower focus (but starting to catch up).

Viewfinder

DSLR
Optical viewfinder: you are literally seeing through the lens, meaning you have to take a photo and then look at it to make sure your exposure is correct.

Mirrorless
Electronic viewfinder: you see what the photo will look like on the LCD screen before you press the shutter button.

Video

DSLR
Clarity once made DSLRs a top choice for videography, however the lack of an LCD screen and real-time display feedback have made this option fall out of favor in recent years.

Mirrorless
A powerful, responsive LCD screen with 4K technology, paired with the light camera body, make mirrorless the more popular option for videographers.

Battery Life

DSLR
Long battery life.

Mirrorless
Short battery life (due to electronic viewfinder).

What Are the Best Mirrorless Cameras for Beginners?

  • Panasonic Lumix G9
  • Fujifilm X-T3
  • Canon EOS R
  • Sony A6000

What Are the Best DSLRs for Beginners?

  • Nikon D850
  • Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
  • Canon EOS 80D
  • Pentax K-1

Both mirrorless systems and DSLRs provide optimum quality—at a cost. Which you choose will come down to personal preference on a variety of factors, including weight, video, and pricetag, but either type should work well enough to inspire your creativity.

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Jimmy Chin has built his career taking photos at the top of the world, earning him the cover of National Geographic and multiple awards. Now he’s taking you on location to teach you techniques for capturing breathtaking shots. Learn his different creative approaches for commercial shoots, editorial spreads, and passion projects. Gather the gear—and the perspective—to bring your photography to new heights.

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