Mirrorless Camera vs Digital SLR

If you're considering buying a mirrorless camera, then you might have already looked at some "normal" digital SLR cameras too.

In the end, the differences between these two different types of cameras are quite minimal.

However, it's worth being aware of some of the key advantages of each camera type before you plunk down your hard-earned cash.

Size and Weight

It's pretty simple: all mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter than their true DSLR counterparts.

By eliminating the mirror found in true DSLRs (and sometimes the entire viewfinder too) mirrorless cameras are closer in size and weight to compact cameras...until you add a lens.

Some lenses add very little to the dimensions of the mirrorless camera - these are called "pancake" lenses since they don't stick out from the camera body. With a pancake lens, the camera will fit into a spacious pocket.

However, if you add a zoom lens to the front of your camera it will no longer fit within a pocket (unless you wear really baggy pants).

Regardless of the lens you choose, mirrorless cameras are more portable than regular DSLRs and draw less attention to you when you're taking pictures (a good thing for travel photographers who don't want people to notice their fancy expensive camera).

Video Modes

Prior to the end of 2009, no digital SLR included a video mode.

Many new digital SLRs released after 2009 did have a video option, but it wasn't standard. Digital SLR purists argued that a DSLR should be used for STILLS and not as a hybrid still/video camera.

Clearly, the mirrorless camera is designed to appeal to a different market segment: every mirrorless camera except for one (the Panasonic DMC-G1) has a video mode.

Furthermore, the video captured by these cameras is High Definition (HD) and is designed to be played back on high definition TV sets. Every mirrorless camera includes an HDMI port, which allows the camera to be connected directly to an HDTV.

Viewfinders

As I mentioned above, mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter than normal DSLRs thanks to the removal of the mirrored viewfinder.

Every digital SLR includes an OPTICAL viewfinder that uses mirrors to reflect light from the lens to the viewfinder (this reflective system is called a pentaprism or pentamirror).

The benefit of an optical viewfinder is that you see exactly what the lens sees. If the image is out of focus, you see that it's out of focus in the viewfinder.

The optical viewfinder also lets you track moving subjects, snapping pictures as you go. This is why normal DSLRs are the only choice for action and sports photographers.

By contrast, mirrorless cameras have electronic viewfinders and some have no viewfinder at all: the only way to compose pictures is by using the LCD screen on the back of the camera.

Autofocus

Every normal digital SLR camera includes a multi-point autofocus system.

The number of AF points varies from camera to camera: from 3 all the way up to 11. Each autofocus point can lock on to a subject, whether the subject is still or in motion.

The main benefit of DSLR autofocus systems is that they are fast.

Have you ever missed a great shot with a compact camera because your compact camera just wouldn't focus in time? With digital SLRs, there is no such issue: the autofocus response time is near instantaneous.

However, mirrorless cameras don't use the same type of autofocus - instead, they use the type of autofocus that's included in most compact cameras.

This means - you guessed it - that the AF speed of a mirrorless camera won't be quite as fast as normal DSLR.

If you take pictures of landscapes, there's no issue here: the landscape is going to stay put. But if you enjoy taking photos of skittish subjects, then having a slower AF can be a drawback.

Bottom Line

If you want a camera that's sophisticated yet portable, then a mirrorless camera is the better choice. This is especially true if you use choose compact lenses.

Action photographers will probably be happier with a normal DSLR. The lack of a viewfinder and the slower AF speed on mirrorless cameras does not make them the best choice for taking pictures of moving subjects.

Aspiring videographers can choose between either one - although more effort right now is being put into the video modes of mirrorless cameras than normal DSLRs.