We’re at a weird point in digital camera history where many manufacturers offer DSLR and mirrorless systems – plus, there have never been more choices on the market in terms of cameras (at every price range too!).
In the past few years, we’ve seen a huge transformation of the mirrorless market, and I’d say this year was one of the most monumental yet. Alongside Sony, Nikon and Canon cemented a position in the mirrorless game with excellent respective cameras. If you want something different, look no further than Fuji and Panasonic.
But, all of that hasn’t taken away from the fact that there are still incredible DSLRs available, the Nikon D850, Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 1D X Mark III, and the Nikon D6 all come to mind from a professional stance.
I think that begs the obvious question – what’s best? Although the most obvious, I don’t think it’s the most important question…I think the most important question is – what’s best FOR YOU? Only you can answer that question, but we can give you the information you need to make an informed decision.
That’s my intent for this article, we’ll cover some of the pros and cons of both systems, as well as cover my general thoughts. I never shot film, but I did use a DSLR for a long time before making the switch to mirrorless. I also have the benefit of being able to interact with a lot of different DSLR and mirrorless cameras during workshops, so I have a decent amount of experience with the usability and applications of both systems.
We will talk more about size and weight later. By ergonomics, I simply mean how a camera feels in your hands. Does it feel sturdy, how does it grip for shooting, are the controls laid out in a nice manner, etc.
In general, the ergonomics for a DSLR is going to be better. The reason being is DSLRs is just larger. So, more design options are available when it comes to how a camera handles.
Having experienced both sides, I do prefer the handling of my former DSLR. It’s hard to explain, but it just felt better in the hands. The control layout was perfect and it was just a pleasure to handle. This doesn’t mean the ergonomics and handling of mirrorless cameras is bad. I’ve grown used to my mirrorless camera now, but do I wish I had the handling of my old Nikon D810 sometimes…yes, I do.
A DSLR and mirrorless camera work differently. A DSLR reflects light using a prism system to display a true-to-life scene through its optical viewfinder.
A mirrorless camera transmits an electronic signal to a viewfinder, so you’re seeing an electronic transmission versus an optical one. I think an easy way to think of it is like this, an optical viewfinder is like seeing something in real life with your eyes, while an electronic viewfinder is like watching TV.
This is a personal preference, but I do miss an optical viewfinder sometimes, especially in low light situations. I felt like I was better at composing a scene with the optical viewfinder, but I’m getting used to the electronic viewfinder.
DSLRs tend to get more bang for their buck when it comes to battery life. To compare two top of the line models – a Nikon D850 will net you about 1,800 shots off a charge, while the Sony A7r IV will get you around 650.
I definitely notice a difference in battery life. I just went on a recent backpacking trip where I brought 6 batteries. That would have been plenty with my Nikon D850, but with my Z7, I found myself on my last battery on the last day of the trip – I barely made it.
If you mainly shoot close to a car or on day trips, I really don’t think the battery should be a big consideration. Because after all, you can always recharge them.
At the time of this article, there are many more lens options for DSLR cameras. Sony has specialized in mirrorless so I’ll leave them out, but if you look at Canon and Nikon…they both have so many more lenses for their DSLR systems, at all focal spectrums too. This is mainly because of the youth of their mirrorless systems, which are just going on 2 years now. Fast forward a few years and the lens options should be similar.
Autofocus isn’t necessarily a benefit of DSLRs, but it’s often assumed to be one so I wanted to address it. Professional grade DSLRs do have excellent AF systems, but so do their mirrorless counterparts.
Mirrorless has a bad rap about autofocus due to one of their limitations when they first burst on the scene. Mirrorless was first restricted to a contrast-detection AF system. This is in contrast to phase-detection implemented by many of the best DSLRs. In low light and with fast-moving subjects, contrast detection systems are simply not very good. However, most mirrorless systems now have hybrid AF systems that use both phase detection and contrast systems.
Size & Weight
There is no doubt that going mirrorless can save you some size and weight. This was one of the big reasons I jumped ship. I cut the size and weight of my setup by 50%…that’s huge! And trust me, I feel it every day I’m out shooting and traveling. I think it’s worth it alone.
Mirrorless cameras are able to be built in a more compact manner because they don’t need all the additional equipment to capture a frame (the prism and mirror).
As I said in the DSLR section, autofocus is excellent with mirrorless cameras. And because of firmware support updates, it’s able to be improved after your purchase. We have seen this with Nikon’s Z line and many others.
I think Sony probably has the best AF system out there right now, with the A9 II setting the bar. Although, the Canon EOS R5 has made a splash as well.
Anyway, I just want to say, I don’t think you will be limited by the AF system of your camera. The hybrid focusing detection systems are excellent and getting better. That added with features like Eye-AF that can track people and wildlife is a bonus too, but you can find DSLRs with those features as well.
Because of the way mirrorless cameras capture and transmit light, they are able to achieve faster burst rates than their DSLR counterparts.
The best mirrorless cameras today can capture 20 fps, while the best DSLRs are around 14-16 fps. You can find professional low-end mirrorless cameras that can easily capture 10+ fps too. The DSLRs that can do 14-16 fps will cost you a pretty penny.
This is a big deal for wildlife photography. The AF systems continue to improve and the burst rates are awesome…we just need the lenses (unless you’re a Sony user).
The main benefit of the EVF is – what you see is what you get. I mentioned I preferred the optical viewfinder, but I’m getting used to the EVF. I used to use exposure simulation with Live View on my DSLR, but now changing settings and seeing them instantly reflected on the display is a breeze (and awesome). The EVF system is really growing on me.
Image stabilization is a HUGE consideration. Many DSLRs have lenses that are stabilized, but mirrorless systems offer in-body stabilization AND lens stabilization in some cases, allowing for insane control over movement and vibrations.
I’ve handheld with Sony and Nikon cameras down to 1/5s, and shots have been sharp. Who needs a tripod? But, seriously, the in-body stabilization offered by many mirrorless cameras is a huge plus and I think it could become a game-changer as technology improves.
Many mirrorless cameras have become video superstars. Most DSLRs are not able to use their highly accurate phase-detection focus systems when the mirror is up, meaning AF can be unreliable. Mirrorless cameras have their phase-detection focus pixels baked into the sensor, so there is no focus limitation.
We’re also seeing incredible bit rates and recording modes introduced to mirrorless; 4:2:2 modes, 10-bit modes, and log support.
So, that mirrorless you purchase for stills is most likely packed with video features as well.
Size & Weight
DSLRs are big. Especially with professional-grade, super-fast lenses attached to them. This was my main reason for switching. I cut my weight and overall size by 50%. I had a 14mm-24mm f/2.8 with a bulbous front element so I needed to carry around this huge pancake of a filter holder just to use a circular polarizer.
Now, I use a 14-30mm f/4, that takes threaded filters and weighs 2lbs less. My Z7 is also considerably smaller than my old Nikon D810. Now, mirrorless cameras still have some pretty big lenses, but overall you are going to save size and weight with a mirrorless camera body and most lenses.
We touched on this, but no doubt about it, DSLRs will not (at least currently do not) shoot as fast as their mirrorless counterparts. In general, the faster the better for wildlife so it might potentially be worth it to look into a Sony A9 II or Canon EOS R5. The lenses are still the limiting factor though, as it will be quite a few years before some of the super-telephoto primes are released.
This is mainly for Nikon and Canon, but we just don’t have the native lenses yet. A lot are being released, and I’m sure many were delayed by COVID, but the DSLR systems have so many more options. There are way more third party options too, which can be excellent.
This is more of a waiting game though, in time, the Nikon and Canon mirrorless systems will have a full offering of amazing lenses. And speaking from personal experience, the technology and design of the new mirrorless lenses are blowing some of the DSLR lenses out of the water. A lot of that has to do with the flange design on the new Nikon and Canon mounts.
You save size and weight, but you get a smaller camera body. It probably won’t feel as good in your hands and you might find you don’t have as many button options, or the layout is just a bit cramped.
There’s no way around it, but I’ve found that the slight ergonomic sacrifice is worth the size and weight savings.
I don’t think this should be a knock, but DSLRs have better battery life. I don’t think battery life from mirrorless cameras is necessarily poor, it’s just not as good when compared to DSLRs.
Like I said above, a minor thing unless you find yourself off the grid for long periods of time.
Is there a BEST?
So, is there a best? I’m not really sure. I think the benefits are starting to tilt the scale towards mirrorless. We are just seeing incredible designs and innovations with new cameras. The EOS R5 hit us right in the face with that. The A7r IV is a powerhouse. And, Nikon’s new mark II Z cameras look excellent as well.
There are a few downsides of going mirrorless, but I don’t think there are many and I don’t think the downsides are actually very important. You’ll get used to the ergonomics, the EVF, and the lenses will eventually come.
I think we’re in the middle of a mirrorless movement and I have definitely bought in. I think it’s important to state though that some of the key differences maybe aren’t that key.
If you don’t travel or hike a lot, is the weight really that important? If you don’t shoot wildlife, do the burst rate and AF systems matter? If you don’t care about video, do those features even play a role?
Those questions can change the perspective and recommendations. We’re also in a time where every camera being produced is absolutely insane for the price.
Technology has come a long way. I know if I go out with say a Nikon D800 or a Nikon Z7 II, I’m probably going to come back with the same shots. So, maybe the camera doesn’t really matter all that much? I think it’s important to think about that because ANY CAMERA made in the last 3-5 years is super capable and will get you the shots you want.
So, think about what mirrorless brings to the table, but there’s a reality where maybe those things just don’t matter that much because you’re already getting excellent shots with your DSLR!
We’d love to know what you think!
Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin. His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special. Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image.
Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world.
As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals.
You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com
Don’t Miss the Next Session of BCJ “Live”
Backyard Bird Photography: Simple Techniques for Wildlife Close to Home
with Russell Graves
Tuesday, March 9th, 2021 at 11 am (Mountain)