Sign in with
Sign up | Sign in

DSLR vs. Mirrorless Cameras: Which Is Better for You?

By - Source: Tom's Guide US | B 32 comments

If you want to upgrade from smartphone or point-and-shoot cameras to an interchangeable-lens camera, you have two main choices: DSLRs or so-called "mirrorless" cameras. Both of these camera types do essentially the same thing, but each type has its strengths and weaknesses.

Single lens reflex (SLR) cameras have been around for more than a hundred years. Like their film-based predecessors, today's digital SLRs (DSLRs) use a mirror to divert the light from the lens into a viewfinder so you see exactly what the camera sees. When you take a picture, this mirror flips up out of the way, a shutter in front of the image sensor opens, and the sensor captures the image. 

MORE: 14 Best Photo Editing Apps of 2013

Mirrorless cameras, as the name suggests, don't need a mirror. Instead, the light passes through the lens and falls right onto the image sensor, as it does in point-and-shoot and phone cameras. To preview the image before you press the shutter button, you look at a screen on the back of the camera. 

So which is better Here are the seven quality measures for cameras, how the two types compare and the winner for each category:

Size & Weight

DSLR camera bodies are comparatively larger, as they need to fit the mirror and shutter mechanisms. At the moment, the smallest and lightest DSLR available is the Canon EOS Rebel SL1 ($750), which weighs 22 ounces (0.6 kilograms) with the included zoom lens attached. And that's a rather pricey camera for a first-time buyer. A more-economical model, Canon's EOS Rebel T3i ($550), weighs 25.3 ounces (0.71 kilograms) and is 3.1 inches (7.9 centimeters) deep with lens. A midrange model like the Nikon D7100 weighs 2.7 lbs. (1.2 kg) or more, depending on the lens.

MORE: Best Mirrorless Cameras 2013

Without a mirror mechanism, a mirrorless camera body can be smaller than a DSLR, and the construction is simpler. A typical mirrorless camera like the Olympus PEN-EPL5 ($549) weighs just less than 1 lb. (0.45 kg) and is less than 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) deep, including the lens.

Mirrorless cameras often lacked a mechanical shutter, as well, relying on the sensor to act as an "electronic shutter" by registering an image and then resetting. But many newer models are including a mechanical shutter, as it allows faster shutter speeds and reduces some image artifacts that result from relying only on an electronic shutter.

Winner: Mirrorless
camera

Focus ability

DSLRs use the mirror mechanism to divert light into a dedicated sensor that employs a process called phase detection. The sensor measures the convergence of two light beams to quickly snap the lens into focus.

Because they lack a mirror system, most mirrorless cameras must use a slower technique, called contrast detection — the same method used by point-and-shoot and phone cameras. The image sensor captures a small part of an image, tests how sharp it is, and then refocuses the lens and tests it again until it gets the focus right. Contrast detection is especially slow in low light and with moving subjects, as the movement confuses the camera. 

Recent mirrorless cameras, like the Olympus OM-D EM-5, have faster processors that can detect the contrast more quickly, so they focus nearly as quickly as DSLRs in most conditions, but still struggle in low light. Going a step further, the Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera ($1,400; body only) uses a single sensor that combines both contrast and phase detection. Such "hybrid" systems are now becoming the norm for all but the cheapest mirroless cameras. New or recent models from Fujifilm, Samsung and Sony, for example, have hybrid autofocus. It's too early, however, to say definitively if the latest mirrorless cameras have caught up to the best DSLRs.

Winner: DSLR

Previewing Images

The upside of the DSLR viewfinder is that you can see the image directly, previewing exactly what the image sensor will capture.

The downside of mirrorless cameras is that they have to capture a preview of the image to display on the LCD screen. This preview can often be jerky or hard to see, especially on a cheap LCD in bright daylight. In low light, the preview can appear grainy.

MORE: How Many Megapixels Do You Really Need?

Some mirrorless models mimic DSLRs by embedding a small LCD or OLED screen in what's called an electronic viewfinder (EVF). These are built into some more-expensive mirrorless cameras (such as the Panasonic GX7) or are available as add-on extras for others.

Winner: DSLR

Image Stabilization

All modern removable-lens cameras include image stabilization, in which the camera reduces the blur in photos (generally at slow shutter speeds) by compensating for your shaky hands. Most interchangeable lens cameras, especially DSLRs, do this by shifting a small part of the lens. Others shift the image sensor, which enables image stabilization with any lens, even vintage models. Some mirrorless cameras can shift both a lens element and the image sensor — a combination that can be more effective than either of these methods alone. The differences between most DSLR and mirrorless image-stabilization systems are minimal.

Winner: Draw

Image Quality

Early mirrorless cameras used to offer lower-quality images than DSLRs, with more noise (graininess) and worse color, because they used smaller image sensors that captured less light. But the manufacturers of mirrorless cameras have found ways to reduce the noise, using better (and often bigger) sensors and better image processors, and now there is no noticeable difference in image quality in most consumer models. High-end DSLRs use very large sensors called "full frame" sensors that have given them an edge at the high end. Sony's recent introduction of mirrorless cameras with a full-frame sensor, the A7 and A7R, could be an important step in closing the quality gap, even for high-performance cameras.

Winner: Draw 

Image & Video Playback

When it comes to showing an image you have just captured, both camera types can use either their LCD screen or an HDMI output to your television. Although the bodies of mirrorless cameras are smaller, most have the same 3-inch LCD screen size commonly found on DSLRs.

Winner: Draw

Lens & Accessories

If you are looking to purchase a new interchangeable-lens camera, you are buying into an entire ecosystem of lenses, flashes and other accessories that go with it. You can't use a Micro Four Thirds lens on a DSLR camera body, for example. So, when choosing a camera, you need to consider the range of lenses available for it.

MORE: Best DSLRs 2014 

Choosing a DSLR gives you access to a plethora of lenses — from a number of manufacturers — ranging from cheap and satisfactory to professional and wildly expensive. By contrast, most mirrorless models take only a small selection of lenses from the camera maker. The only lenses for Sony Alpha NEX cameras are from Sony itself, for example. However, Sony has just announced five new lenses for its new full-frame mirrorless cameras, which considerably expands the range of lenses available.

The proprietary mirrorless systems from manufacturers like Pentax (Q cameras) and Samsung (NX series) have the fewest lenses, because these companies have only recently introduced mirrorless models. Micro Four Thirds mirrorless cameras have the widest selection because they have been around the longest and are made by several companies — Olympus and Panasonic make the cameras, and lenses are made by Olympus, Panasonic, Sigma, Tamron and others.

You can generally purchase adapters to use DSLR-size lenses on a mirrorless camera. But that often comes at a price of altering the focal length (zoom) and sometimes disabling functions such as autofocus.

Winner: DSLR 

The top pick for you

So, which camera type is the best pick overall? That depends on your priorities. If top image quality and speed are most important for you, regardless of weight or bulk of the gear, choose a DSLR for its superior performance and wider range of lenses.

But most mirrorless cameras have enough lens options for most shooting situations, and focus speed is improving. Therefore, mirrorless cameras are the best choice if you want to take a camera everywhere and not get weighed down along the way.

Follow Richard Baguley @rbaguley or on Google+ Follow us @TomsGuide, on Facebook and on Google+

Add your comment Display 32 Comments.
  • 3 Hide
    onover , October 18, 2013 4:45 AM
    Quite straightforward and to the point but still informative.
  • -3 Hide
    kenn7 , October 18, 2013 5:38 AM
    Missed a huge point. From what a recall..when shooting video a DSLR has a limited length of time before the chip overheats and stops shooting.This could be anywhere from 12 minutes to 30 minutes. Mirrorless cameras such as the Panasonic GH3 have no time limit for video except the size of storage and battery life. So if you are shooting something that is long format the mirrorless cameras are better for video.
  • 7 Hide
    bjornlo , October 18, 2013 5:49 AM
    A few mistakes.

    Image quality = DSLRs. Look at dxoMark for comparisons of what the sensors can do, The larger sensors have lower ISO noise, better dynamic range, better color information, and so on. Image quality then should be DSLR = Excellent Mirrorless = very good

    Stabilization. While having in camera stabilization is handy and in theory pushes down the price slightly on the lenses. In testing the stabilization from the newest lenses vs. the newest in-body has the lenses with a 1-2 stop advantage which is a very large margin. Stabilization DSLRs = Excellent, Mirrorless=ok.

    Video. On DSLRs it is simply 'bad' for most users. The problem is that while most DSLRs focus lighting fast in still images they are bad at video autofocus. This is fine if you are a video-pro since you will be using a very different technique and have a very different skillset. The fastest video focus on a DSLR is the new Canon 70d, but it still sucks. The AF for mirrorless in video is quite good. It will easily track movement without every other second being out of focus (like a DSLR will). Video DSLR = poor, Mirrorless = Excellent.
    Lenses. The important of lens selection can not really be overstated and your article glosses over it. Lens selection DSLR = Excellent, Mirrorless = poor.
    Resolution. There are DSLRs with considerably better resolution then the very old Canon you selected. For example the Nikon d3200 cam be had for $500 to 550. It has an even larger image quality advantage over the Olympus then the Canon.
    I am not anti-mirrorless. I own both types and they fill very different roles. Casual snaps vs best image qualty. 1 is for picnics or similar the other for memorable occasions or other times I want more then a m4/2 can deliver.
  • 0 Hide
    gamebrigada , October 18, 2013 6:06 AM
    And the winner is!?!

    Sony Alpha series.... best of both worlds.
  • -4 Hide
    bujuki , October 18, 2013 6:36 AM
    @bjornlo : "Sony's recent introduction of mirrorless cameras with a full-frame sensor, the A7 and A7R, could be an important step in closing the quality gap, even for high-performance cameras."

    That's why they're draw.

    As for the image stabilization, Olympus E-M5 and E-M1 have 5-axises in-body IS. Thats should be excellent, not just ok.


    However, if mirrorless can use DSLR lenses and not vice versa, why are they inferior in the lens category?
  • -2 Hide
    bujuki , October 18, 2013 6:54 AM
    IMO I still prefer mirrorless over DSLR for their much better size & weight. I hardly find myself in need of extremely high quality photography, mirrorless can deliver 90% of the situation. In one vacation I borrowed my friend's DSLR (Canon EOS 400D) with a lens and I think it's quite a bother compared to bringing a mirrorless with its lenses. Less weight also means lighter accessories (eg. tripod/monopod).
  • 0 Hide
    warezme , October 18, 2013 8:04 AM
    The article assumes mirrorless cameras use smaller sensors but make up for it in software processing. Not all mirrorless cameras use small sensors. The Canon EOS M uses the same APSC size sensor as the entire EOS lineup except for the full frame models. Also, while some mirrorless cameras are tied to a small selection of lenses the M with the adapter does not change the focal length of the lenses attached unlike those like the Nikon mirrorless. So your option for lenses is pretty much limited to your wallet. I think mirrorless will eventually become huge competition for DSLR, just not quite yet.
  • 0 Hide
    warezme , October 18, 2013 8:04 AM
    The article assumes mirrorless cameras use smaller sensors but make up for it in software processing. Not all mirrorless cameras use small sensors. The Canon EOS M uses the same APSC size sensor as the entire EOS lineup except for the full frame models. Also, while some mirrorless cameras are tied to a small selection of lenses the M with the adapter does not change the focal length of the lenses attached unlike those like the Nikon mirrorless. So your option for lenses is pretty much limited to your wallet. I think mirrorless will eventually become huge competition for DSLR, just not quite yet.
  • 0 Hide
    bjornlo , October 18, 2013 8:11 AM
    @bujuki
    The a7/a7r are interesting but again it is about lenses, ergonomics and controls not just how nice a sensor you slap in a very small body. More to the point the article seems to have had a price cap of 550 including kit lens. The a7 will be some significant multiple of that. And still it uses the E mount not the alpha mount despite the name they use not the well established alpha lenses (and the old minolta ones) but a small sub-set of the e-mount lenses (FE). Also while the a7 is a nice toy as a package it will give up the singular advantage (other then video AF) that most Mirrorless cameas have which is size. Because while the body is smaller physics dictates that the lenses will be the same size as full-frame Canon and Nikon offerings. Meaning that instead of saving size and weight in your kit you end up with a camera which is not a good size for most of the lenses (assuming they make enough FE lenses to matter). A 70-200 f/2.8 does not vary much in size and weight without major compromises in image quality.

    Thats why they are NOT a draw.

    As for image stabilization, I have used the OM-D E-M5 and I am a big fan. But AF is not at DSLR levels particularly with focus tracking... it was a bit of a surprise and what kept me from getting it. Well that and it really was more of a competitor to mid-level DSLRs then a good compliment to my full-frame. Still I admire it. But image stabilization is not as good as on a DSLR. For openers it shuts off in contineous use. As I recall actual stabilziation provided was in the 3+ stops range which is probably the best thus far in mirrorless and on par with older in lens performance. But once you go over 200mm even older lenses will out perform in camera due to the amount of distance the sensor would have to wiggle would start to apporach or exceed the physical space available (according to Canon).
    Also in lens stabilizes the viewfinder not just the final image. Using a long lens on a small body without being able to stabilize the view is difficult. I tried to use a Sigma 50-500 on a Olympus E-P3 and it was basically impossible to get a tight focus on anything even a mono-pod was not enough. With a Nikon d90 and the Canon 500d (the only DSLRs I have tried the same lens on as I used to own both) it was very easy to get tight frames in good focus.

    And while I would personally take the E-M5 or the even pricier E-M1 over the Canon or Olympus being compared (or over the entry level Nikon I brought up) both of those Oly cameras are several times as expensive.. in the 1000-1400 range for body only.

    Mirrorless will probably eventually be in everything.

    The camera which tempts me the most right now is a impractical mirrorless. A Panasonic GH3 for video. Weather sealed. Not the biggest lens selection, but enough given that I would use it as a secondary body and almost exclusively for video. Btw, Panasonic is both mirrorless and still uses in lens stabilization I part for the reasons laid out above but also because in video in camera stabilization has prone suspectible to overheating.
  • 0 Hide
    bjornlo , October 18, 2013 8:13 AM
    @bujuki also forgot to mention it. Before you go and claim that mirrorless can use both their lenses as well as everyone elses you should try some of the adapters out there. I found them slow and frustrating.
  • 0 Hide
    seancaptain , October 18, 2013 8:28 AM
    Wow. Great to see such informed comments on this piece! (I was the editor on it.) Please keep one thing in mind - we meant this as an introductory piece so didn't go super deep into nuances of the two technologies. Also, since this is likely best for first-time buyers of either technology, we stuck with entry-level cameras (while mentioning some other options).

    The wealth of opinions and examples you all provide indicates, I think, how much this category is in flux. This article might look different in 1-2 months (and we will update it as we get our hands on the flood of new DSLR and especially mirrorless cameras announced in the past few weeks).

    Stay tuned. And keep the comments coming. Your expert input helps us write better articles for our readers. - Sean Captain
  • 0 Hide
    bjornlo , October 18, 2013 8:54 AM
    @seancaptain
    I get who the audience is which is why I suggested another entry level body in the same price range not some wallet busting professional thing. But I stand by my original statements that several of the points you make are wrong (image quality, stabilization), understated (lens selection) or completely missing the point (video specifications without consideration of video performance).
  • 0 Hide
    seancaptain , October 18, 2013 9:44 AM
    @bjornlo. Noted. Thanks.
  • 0 Hide
    d_kuhn , October 18, 2013 10:06 AM
    Good discussion on this article... it's all about picking the right tool for the job. I tend to go mirrorless for sub-$1000 cameras because in that situation I'm looking for ease of use over image quality/size and flexibility, these are cameras I can loan out to folks in my group and they can get good results without needing a manual. I've got a Nikon J1 with a couple basic lenses that takes decent images (I'd say very good for consumer quality), decent video (same), and is small enough to pack in one of the smallest Pelican cases (size of a small camera bag) with all it's kit. If I need high quality stills and image stabilization I pull out the D800, great pro level still camera with world class lens options(it has what I'd call 'enthusiast' quality video, better than consumer but not even prosumer/5DMark3 quality imo) - but the camera and 8 lenses fill a large roller style case and weigh enough that you need those rollers... It also takes a short course to teach someone how to use it and it's accessories (remote mode speedlight is particularly painful to learn how to use). On the true pro video end I've got a Red Epic that is the most amazing camera I've ever used for video, but I've been learning how to use it for 8 months now and still have farther to go... and travelling with it and all it's kit means a vehicle full of cases (and usually at least one additional human, though it can be operated solo). I don't pull out the Epic if the job only needs a J1... my back can't take the strain. On the sub $1000 front, another factor to consider would be prior hardware... if you've got an old film slr with some nice glass - it'd probably make sense to buy a digital slr with compatible mount (the mirrorless seem to usually have custom mounts), but the mount might be the most important factor for a person in that situation.
  • 0 Hide
    bujuki , October 18, 2013 11:27 AM
    I'm not a photographer or into deep photography world; my camera (Panasonic GX1) works for documentation for most time. Before I was very interested in buying DSLR because pocket camera just wasn't sufficient especially at night. But then I read Micro-four-thirds had established its way so I decided to give it a try; I must say it's a good choice. Even better when I got myself the Olympus 45 mm, f/1.8 lens; it's cheap, light and had great IQ. What I wanna say mirrorless fits perfectly for someone like me, a semi-professional photographer.


    About the image quality I only stated that it was the logic behind the author's article. I always support the theory that mirrorless will never be on par with DSLR simply because of the sensor size - whenever mirrorless have better sensor technology DSLR can produce bigger of it (except patent forbids). A7/A7R are the only contenders to be in the same level with DSLR, but nothing to be concluded before anyone review them.

    I think all Panasonic teles have image stabilization. I cannot comment anything whether they're comparable with DSLR lens' IS or not, but it should work very well.

    I also never use any converter for DSLR lens, but AFAIK the only major problem is the AF. However because it still can be used I see that as a big advantage.
  • 1 Hide
    richardbaguley , October 18, 2013 11:58 AM
    Hey all, I am the author of this article. Great to see such informed and reasonable discussion on it! Sean has already covered most of the points I would raise by talking about how this is a general article about the differences between the two types of camera, not about specific models. To answer a few more specific queries:

    - We didn't discuss lens adapters because that gets complex quite quickly, and we didn't want to bog the article down with going into the pros and cons. It's a general truth that you can get an adapter to convert pretty much any lens format to any other somewhere, but it is seldom a good way to get the best performance.

    - on Image quality for SLR Vs mirorless: I think this falls under the remit of what is good enough. I very much doubt that most users could look at an image shot side by side with an SLR and a mirrorless one and find much, or any, quality difference. Pros are another issue, of course.

    - on Image Stabilization: yes, there are lots of different approaches to this problem, and they have varying levels of success. But again, I think that the differences in general terms between SLRs and mirorless cameras are small, and having a dual system is an advantage.

    - Video. We didn't discuss the issue of SLR video length because of space, but I think it is overstated. Most people don't shoot more than a minute or two of video at a time, so that won't be an issue. It is for pros, of course, but this article wasn't aimed at then.

    Thanks for all the great feedback! We will definitely bear it in mind as we write more in this area!

    Richard Baguley
  • 0 Hide
    matuka , October 18, 2013 3:18 PM
    Any suggestions/help? I have been thinking about getting a nice good quality camera for videos and pictures... I use BOTH about 50/50 (%).

    I have looked at Canon 60D with the kit lens. Is that a good purchase? i dont have alot of money to spend on the camera...the price needs to be MAX 60D price.
  • 0 Hide
    d_kuhn , October 18, 2013 3:56 PM
    Only lens adapter I've tried is the Nikon adapter to mount F-mount lenses on the mirrorless Nikon 1's... and it works great including all the electronics connections.
  • 0 Hide
    bujuki , October 18, 2013 7:53 PM
    @Richard Baguley:
    I can understand your logic about not-consider-using-converter. Even though I think that's an advantage for mirrorless but I kinda "swear" I'm not gonna use them.

    Anyway, thanks for the nice article. I look forward to the more thorough one.

    Is this a sign that THG will have camera section? b^_^d
  • 0 Hide
    bjornlo , October 19, 2013 12:51 AM
    @Matuka,
    you should go try the Canon 60D in video before you buy it. Use the AF on moving things since few bother taking video of something standing still, a photo would suffice.

    If you can barely afford the 60d, then buy a cheaper camera so that you can buy more lenses.
    I am a former Canon shooter (currently shoot mostly Nikon and a little Olympus). I also shot Minolta before they were bought out by Sony. Every system has its strengths and minuses. My current favorite is Nikon but that is because it suits my needs for low light performance and fast focus in sports, and so on. I would not buy Nikon (or Canon) if I was shooting 50% video.

    A little qualification so that the Nikon/Canon fanboys don't flame me too bad. Nikon and Canon each account for around 40% of camera sales. If you look only at those most knowledgeable camera purchasers (the camera Pros) then that market share. With that huge a market share the “big two” get a ton of support, lots and lots of upgrade options, a lens for every type of activity and so on. Also it is very important to remember that when you buy a DSLR (or mirrorless equivalent) you are not really buying a camera rather you are buying in to a system. The lenses matter more then the body. No matter how nice a body, if you are in to shooting sports then the lack of a suitable “sports lens” will really limit any other body. Consider the excellent semi-pro bodies from Pentax and Sony (a77 and k5IIs) both more or less match most of the capabilities of the competing Nikon and Canon bodies (d7100 and 7d) but sports shooters don't buy them. All four of the bodies are sealed, nice sensors, etc. It can be argued (and every model has a fan or three always willing to fight for their brand) that a Xyop camera is better in someway then Lrex camera. But this misses the point that unless both systems meet your needs now and in your future planned usage then the argument is pointless.

    So what is the problem with Canon and Nikon that I won't recommend them for video? It is not their system. They have absolutely the best two systems around. The problem is your intended use hits a weak point with both of them (and Pentax too). That is video AF speed. Professionals use Nikon and Canon DSLRs to make movies and TV shows (for example House, Dexter and others). But the way they use their cameras probably does not match yours. For openers they invest in very high quality lenses. They use fancy steady-cam rigs. They use only manual focus. Most end users, even a few video professionals, need fast video auto focus. Most mirrorless cameras are much faster at video autofocus. The very best DSLR at casual video (auto-focus used) is the Canon 70D but it just plain sucks even if you compared it to much older mirrorless tech.

    I strongly recommend the Panasonic GH2 or GH1. Both would have to be bought used as the current GH3 model is well outside of your budget. The reason is that it is much better at video. These are the best video-still image hybrid cameras. Also good is the Sony lineup. The a57, for example, can be had quite inexpensively and is very capable. But it trades away a little video performance for better still image performance.

    Remember to consider the other things you will need. A decent tripod. (for video I suggest an oil-damped 3-way (aka tilt and pan). Oben is a good brand for a good price. There are better but they cost several times as much. A tripod is not something you should put off. Seriously nothing will help your end-results more. If you are looking at more action or environmental video then consider getting a decent ballhead instead. Again don't skimp. Get both a head and tripod which are rated well above what your gear weighs. In general the higher the weight rating the more stable. Also as you grow and add lenses you can keep your tripod longer. For still images / photos I find a tilt and pan very frustrating and only ever use a ballhead but it is a little too easy to lose axis control when doing videos. So in the end you will have two tripods.
    Also leave budget for a couple of memory cards of a fairly large capacity (video takes a lot of room). I prefer Sandisk extreme (very fast speed rating).

    Buy a cleaning kit plus a few decent extra cloths and a protective bag. I use mainly Lowe Pro (excellent selection, many types, good quality for a good price) but my favorite is my ThinkTank “Retrospective”. Yes you will end up with more then 1 camera bag. I have a snout bag for casual city walks, sling bags, backpacks, and shoulder bags. No need to explain what they are for you'll figure it out when you need them and shouldn't try to buy everything at once.

    Get a good circular polarization filter.

    Other resources:
    Dpreview.com (largest photography review site)
    dxomark.com (the defacto standard for evaluating sensor performance)

    Do not listen to anyone who owns their first camera and is advocating you buy the same. They do not have the experience to give you good advice and are in fact just looking for you to validate their purchase by buying the same.

    Do not listen to anyone who can't conceive of anyone buying anything but their favorite. These 'defenders of the brand' (often referred to as fanboys) do not have your interests in heart. They are just looking to add one more soul to the ranks of the faithful.

    Finally remember your usage is not my usage. Your hands are not exactly as big or small as mine. Your idea of something heavy does not match mine either. You should try a few before you make the leap and buy what is best for you.

    Some popular and safe places to buy would include KEH, Adorama, B&H Camera, Amazon.
Display more comments
React To This Article

Tom’s guide in the world
  • Germany
  • France
  • Italy
  • Ireland
  • UK
Follow Tom’s guide
Subscribe to our newsletter