Buying Your First Camera: Mirrorless or DSLR?

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Nathaniel Eames
May 19, 2016 By Nathaniel Eames
Buying Your First Camera: Mirrorless or DSLR? www.sleeklens.com

Ah, the defining dilemma of our modern era: mirrorless vs. DSLR. For those with any acquaintance with current photography trends, this debate should sound familiar. The future of mirrorless cameras is the ubiquitous question mark that’s shaping the camera industry. But the question remains, if you’re buying your first ever interchangeable lens camera, what should you choose? Have no fear, Sleeklens is here.

For those less in-the-know, this running debate centers on two core camera technologies, one (fairly) old and one (fairly) new. DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex, and refers to any digital camera that has a mirror in front of the sensor that reflects light into the viewfinder, then flips up when the actual image is being captured. Mirrorless, on the other hand, refers to cameras without such a mirror that give a preview of the image through the actual sensor before capturing the image with the same sensor. There are many technological possibilities and limits to both of these designs, and you can’t very easily switch from one type of camera to the other without replacing much of your photography gear. So when you buy your first camera, the choice of mirrorless or DSLR should be carefully considered. Luckily, we’re here to do all the considering for you, all you have to do is choose which of these two options sounds better. Ready?

Overview

  • Mirrorless

The new kid on the block has slowly gained momentum over the past five or ten years, with more and more professionals switching to this technology as more and more options become available. Chances are, you already have one of these cameras in your pocket. Your smartphone’s camera is mirrorless, which highlights perhaps the biggest benefit of this category: the compact size. Without all of those moving parts, a mirrorless camera can be much smaller and lighter, but these smaller bodies also have less room for external buttons and controls that experienced photographers rely on. The major downside to mirrorless is that they have noticeably worse battery life since there’s less room for big batteries and the sensor is always on.

  • DSLR

Before there were DSLRs, there were SLRs, the classic film cameras that used the same basic design we see today. Though that may seem like a drawback for the future focused photographer, it’s actually a bit of an advantage because this camera is so firmly established that there’s plenty of supporting gear already available. While DSLRs tend to be bigger than mirrorless cameras, they also are proven performers and preferred by most professionals (for the time being).

Design

  • Mirrorless

The design of mirrorless cameras is generally considered the best thing about them. They’re small and lightweight, with the most modern features and layouts available. An overlooked aspect of mirrorless designs is the great variety from one brand to the next. You could go for the Sony a6300 or Fujifilm X-Pro2 and get very similar results, but the shooting style and look of the two cameras is vastly different (as far as cameras go), giving you an extra level of personalization. Another important aspect of the mirrorless design is the necessary lack of an optical viewfinder. Because there’s no mirror to bounce the light, mirrorless cameras use a tiny screen to replace a tradition viewfinder or go without a viewfinder entirely like your smartphone or a point-and-shoot. Some people hate these electronic viewfinders (EVFs) for their very slight motion lag, while others love them for previewing the image exactly as it will be recorded. It’s really a matter of taste.

  • DSLRs

In some ways, bigger is actually better. While there’s little diversity among the design of DSLR bodies, with many companies having nearly identical button layouts, their larger frames mean that they typically have more physical buttons than mirrorless cameras, which is great. As a photographer, you will quickly learn to hate menu systems. Even well-made menus are inherently slower to use than pushing a dedicated button, so being forced to change a setting in the menu can cause you to miss that decisive moment. Having the extra room for extra buttons is one of the reasons many professionals stick with DSLRs. Another reason is for the optical viewfinders, which show the real world in all its glory, unlike the EVFs on mirrorless cameras. But be warned, many entry-level DSLRs don’t have 100% frame coverage, so your viewfinder may not show everything that’ll actually be captured in the image.

Sensors

  • Mirrorless

Generally speaking, bigger sensors are better, which used to mean DSLRs were unbeatable. Mirrorless cameras were first introduced with Micro 4/3 sensors, which are smaller than those found in any DSLR.  Nowadays, the sensor technology for mirrorless cameras is essentially the same as that of DSLRs, with APS-C being the norm for entry-level and mid-range cameras and full-frame available for professionals. However, Micro 4/3 sensors are nothing to be scoffed at, as they can deliver superb quality in good lighting, allow for truly small and inexpensive bodies, and have a decent lens selection available.

  • DLSR

As mentioned above, there’s little to differentiate the sensor technology in DSLRs from mirrorless cameras if you compare equal-sized, equal-megapixel sensors. There have been some recent improvements to the ISO range in some very high-end DSLRs like the new Nikon D5, but the image quality and resolution performance of entry-level cameras offer no reason to choose one style over the other.

Autofocus

  • Mirrorless

Until recently, mirrorless cameras were way behind in autofocusing performance, but that has changed dramatically in the last couple of years. Mirrorless cameras typically use on-sensor contrast detection autofocus points, which maximize the contrast between pixels in the auto-focus area. This method is slower and less accurate than the phase detection method that’s standard on DSLRs, but recent mirrorless cameras have started to incorporate both methods. Cameras that have both, such as the Sony a63oo, have extremely reliable and fast autofocusing, even in low light. With this in mind, Mirrorless cameras are now longer behind in autofocus performance.

  • DLSR

As mentioned, DSLRs typically rely on phase detection autofocus, which uses a separate sensor to compare two reflections of the image and match them up correctly. This method works great even in low light but doesn’t work with the mirror locked up, like in videos. Most modern DSLRs do the same thing as modern mirrorless cameras, using both types of focusing methods for their various strengths. Because both types of cameras now use both types of autofocus, there’s really very little to separate their performance, and all modern cameras have remarkably good autofocus.

Video

  • Mirrorless

Like most aspects of mirrorless cameras, their video performance has caught up to or passed that of DSLRs. Most photography cameras that shoot ultra high-def, 4K video are mirrorless, and many mirrorless cameras now have excellent autofocus to go with that greater resolution. Their lightweight design also allows for smaller gimbals and easier drone flight, so many of them make for excellent video cameras.

  • DLSRs

To record a video, you need to constantly be exposing the actual sensor, so there can’t be a mirror in the way. This inherently means that video is not a DSLR’s strong suit since most of a DSLR’s focusing tech doesn’t work without the mirror down. However, Canon is known for making DSLRs with stellar video performance and some of the newest DSLRs support 4K video. Still, if you’ll be doing a lot of video work you’re best off getting a mirrorless camera, maybe even one with a Micro 4/3 sensor.

Lenses

  • Mirrorless

Aside from battery life, lens selection is arguably the biggest drawback of a mirrorless system. Since this format is relatively new, there are far fewer lenses out there to fit any given mirrorless camera. There are also less the third party and used options, so it may be hard to find quality inexpensive glass. That being said, the mirrorless lenses that you can get are often fantastic and completely on par with their DSLR equivalents, with fewer dud’s out there to disappoint you. While you may not have as many options, there are still mirrorless lenses out there for almost every possible photographic need, though it varies slightly from one brand to the next. If you’re dead set on huge selection, you could always go for adapters to mount DSLR lenses onto your mirrorless camera. And because there’s no mirror assembly, the end of the lens is closer to the sensor (a shorter flange distance) which means that adding a lens mount adapter can make a DSLR lens attach to a mirrorless camera with relatively little issue.

  • DSLR

It’s hard to deny that DSLRs have the upper hand when it comes to lenses. Many brands, like Nikon and Pentax, have lenses dating back to the 60’s and 70’s that will still work on modern cameras, so some DSLRs have hundreds or even thousands of lenses available to them, though you’d be better off sticking to the more modern glass. In addition to the huge and excellent selections of lenses from most DSLR companies, many third party companies like Sigma have started to produce excellent alternatives with impeccable quality. While you’ll be perfectly fine with the still large number of mirrorless lenses out there, the DSLR lens selection is truly massive and varied.

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Future

  • Mirrorless

At this point, it’s anyone’s guess which of these technologies will prove dominant in the coming years. The way things are going, mirrorless cameras do seem like the future of photography, as they completely eliminate a heavy moving part that is in many ways a relic of the film. However, mirrorless cameras certainly have not become the norm and still don’t sell nearly as well as DSLRs.

  • DSLR

The leaders in mirrorless are not the leaders in DSLRs, so there is a sort of photography turf war brewing that could potentially see the big names like Canon and Nikon attempt to squash the entire mirrorless segment. Alternatively, mirrorless cameras could prove to be the future after all and end up dethroning the industry kings, becoming new photography royalty. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Suggestions

  • Mirrorless

For an inexpensive and nearly pocketable Micro 4/3 camera, we’d recommend the Olympus PEN PL-7. If you’re more interested in a Micro 4/3, 4K shooter with some pro-level features for entry-level prices, go for the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G7. One of the most technologically advanced, truly impressive mirrorless cameras is the new Sony a6300, which has an APS-C sensor and the fastest autofocusing system in the world. And if you want an elegantly designed street camera with beautiful results and perhaps the best button layout on a mirrorless body to date, we’d suggest the Fujifilm X-Pro2.

  • DSLR

For an inexpensive option that shoots great still but average video, check out the Nikon D3300. For the canon equivalent of the same type of camera with decent HD video quality, try the Canon T6i. If you want one of the most loved DSLRs of all time (though it’s no longer the latest edition), look at the Canon 70D. And if you want a truly pro-level, full frame camera for a truly unbelievable price, then the Pentax K-1 is your best bet (though its lens selection is more limited than most mirrorless cameras).

Whether you opt for the trendiest movement in photography or stick with the status quo, both mirrorless and DSLR cameras can get you stunning results, it’s really just a matter of balancing the pros and cons of each technology. If you plan on slinging a camera over your shoulder for most everyday outings, ever-ready for that perfect shot, then the small size of a mirrorless camera will likely push you in that direction. If your goal is to experiment with studio work with plenty of strobes and the best lenses out there, then a DSLR is for you. If you still aren’t sure which way to go, go with your gut. In the end, the camera doesn’t make the images, you do. And the best camera for any photographer is the one they want to use, regardless of stats, versatility, or trends.

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Nathaniel Eames
I'm a writer and photographer living in Brooklyn, specializing in product, architectural, and fine art photography. I have studied art in multiple mediums around the world and graduated with a degree in philosophy, art, and physics. Though I have been a practicing film photographer since I was 13 years old, I am also a tech-geek who keeps up-to-date on the latest advancements in the industry

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