Steve's Photography Tips: DSLR vs. Mirrorless

Tips to help you improve your photos!

Continuing with Steve’s Photography Tips, let’s take up an interesting debate.

Photographers seem to be the debating type, because there have always been debates among photographers on all sorts of subjects. Here are just a few:

  • Film vs. Digital - The age-old question. Or at least as old as the Digital Age.
  • Kodak vs. Fuji - When I was shooting film, this was the question my friends and I always discussed.
  • Canon vs. Nikon vs. Olympus vs. Whoever - Or anyone else out there who makes a camera.
  • Zoom vs. Prime lenses - There was a little about this in the last Photography Tips post on Focal Length, by the way.

And so on. But now there is a relatively new debate, which is the subject of our post for today:

  • DSLR vs. Mirrorless

But first, let’s make sure we know what we are talking about. So here is an explanation of the terms.

What Is DSLR?

In the old days, there were basically two types of cameras: Point-and-shoot, and SLR. A point-and-shoot camera is the kind where you just point the camera and push a button. And a SLR (Or would that be an SLR, since the “S” is a soft, vowel-like sound?) camera is what most people would have considered a more “professional” looking camera. Interchangeable lenses, larger body, and all that sort of stuff.

SLR actually stands for Single Lens Reflex. This basically means that the camera has a mirror behind the lens that reflects the light up through a prism at the top of the camera body to the viewfinder. And then when the shutter button is pressed, the mirror flips up out of the way, allowing the light to pass through the lens directly to the film (or image sensor in digital cameras). Clear as mud, right? If you want to know more about it and see some diagrams of how it all looks, check out this Wikipedia page. And a DSLR camera is just a Digital Single Lens Reflex camera, meaning that it uses an image sensor instead of film.

What Is Mirrorless?

Okay then, what is a mirrorless camera? As you might guess from reading the above, a mirrorless camera does away with the mirror and prism. Hence the catchy “mirrorless” name. Instead, the viewfinder is replaced with either an electronic viewfinder, which is a tiny video screen, or just the regular display on the back of the camera, since most people use that these days anyway. In these cameras, pushing the shutter button just opens the shutter, since there is no mirror to move out of the way.

What Is the Difference?

The main difference between DSLR and mirrorless cameras is size. Because there is no mirror mechanism and no prism, mirrorless cameras can be quite smaller than DSLR cameras. Mirrorless cameras without electronic viewfinders can be even smaller, not much bigger than a cell phone with a lens attached to it. Mirrorless cameras are much closer in size to point-and-shoot digital cameras, except that mirrorless cameras have interchangeable lenses. Mirrorless cameras also often have more compact image sensors than DSLR cameras, also contributing to their smaller size.

Here is a photo for comparison:

dslr vs mirrorless 01

On the left is a Canon EOS 60D (given away by “Canon” on the lens cap), a mid-range DSLR camera. Slightly bigger than some, slightly smaller than others. On the right is an Olympus OM-D E-M10 mirrorless camera (again, the lens cap gives it away). As you can see, the Olympus is much smaller than the Canon. This photo was taken with my phone, by the way, since you might be wondering how both cameras got into the photo. As you can see here, Olympus mimicked the design of the old SLR cameras a bit, having a raised area where the prism used to be. This gives some space for the electronic viewfinder. Other mirrorless cameras without an electronic viewfinder are often flat across the top.

And here is an overhead view:

dslr vs mirrorless 02

Once again, the compact size of the Olympus is quite evident here. The two lenses are close to the same range in focal length, in case you are wondering. The 25mm Olympus prime lens, which is the main one I use for shooting, is even shorter. But I put the zoom lens on here to be closer to comparing apples to apples, as it were.

So size is a definite advantage. After years of carrying around the Canon 60D and an extra lens or two, the Olympus OM-D seems tiny, even with an extra lens for it along as well. And it all fits into a much smaller bag. Yes, I don’t currently have as many lenses for the Olympus as I do for the Canon, but sometimes simpler is better in that regard.

Is There a Difference in Photos?

Yes. Probably. Maybe? Hmm. But is it really noticeable? It depends on what you do. And it depends on your type of camera. A mirrorless camera with a full-frame image sensor might actually take better photos than a DSLR with a crop sensor. Or cameras that both have crop sensors might take almost equivalent photos. If you look through some of the photos that I have taken over the past few years, you might have trouble telling which one was taken with which kind of camera. I do, and I have to remember which trip it was and which camera I was using at the time.

For example, here are two photos to compare, taken from just about the same place but with different cameras:


This first photo above was taken with the Canon 60D and a wide angle lens, at Castaway Cay during our Disney Cruise in 2013.

[caption id=“attachment_10322” align=“aligncenter” width=“700”] OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA[/caption]

This second photo was taken from the same place, but with the Olympus OM-D and a 25mm prime lens, during our 2015 Disney Cruise. And let’s not talk about how we always seem to have lots of clouds at Castaway Cay. Or about how I have a habit of taking photos at the same places on each trip. I’m trying to do better about that.

Both photos were processed using the same Adobe Lightroom preset to have them as close as possible. At first glance, you may notice some differences. But the main differences come from the different focal lengths of the different lenses, since one was very wide and the other wasn’t. But I think you would agree that overall, the two photos aren’t all that different from each other. At least at screen resolution here.

However, I do believe that if you were to examine the two original, straight-from-the-camera photos up close, you might notice that the mirrorless photo has slightly more noise. This comes from the smaller sensor used in this camera. A full-frame mirrorless camera would produce less noisy images, although in the final version above the noise has been removed digitally. So depending on what the final destination of your photographs might be, that might not make much of a difference.

Which Kind of Camera Should I Buy?

That’s a really good question, and there is no one right answer. If you already have a DSLR camera, you may not necessarily want to switch to mirrorless, unless you just like getting something new. But note that you will probably have to change over all of the lenses you may have as well, which can start to add up pretty quickly.

And if you already have a mirrorless, I don’t know that you would want to switch to DSLR unless you are upgrading cameras to do more professional work, maybe. But from what I have seen some of the full-frame mirrorless cameras do just as well as the full-frame DSLR cameras, in my opinion.

If you are just starting out, take a look at both and see what works best for you. You might also consider price, because a mirrorless camera might be a little less than a DSLR of equal quality. You might also consider the wear and tear on your back and joints of having to carry around a larger DSLR and its larger lenses, too. Or the price of a bigger bag to carry all of the bigger equipment.

As for me, I lean more toward mirrorless now. For many trips, that is the only camera I carry with me, unless I have a very good reason to bring along the DSLR, too. Sometimes I have a good reason for it, but those times are getting to be more and more rare.

As is often said, the best camera is the one that you have with you. So choose the one that best suits your needs (and your budget, and your carrying ability), and go from there!

Check back for more from Steve’s Photography Tips in the near future!

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Burnsland is Steve Burns, with generous help from his lovely wife Laura. Steve is a husband, father, photographer, webmaster, writer, podcaster, artist, Christian. Steve enjoys sharing his photography, art, and stories through, from the Burnsland World Headquarters in Tennessee.