If you're looking to capture the best quality photos and video, you'll need to invest in either one of two interchangeable-lens camera systems: a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera system or a mirrorless camera system.
While DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have many characteristics that differentiate each from the other, they do share one important feature that separates them from all other types of cameras, including those you'll find on a smartphone: They're considered interchangeable-lens cameras (sometimes referred to as "ILCs") because you can swap out the lens and attach another type of lens. So, if you need to capture more of a scene, you can use a wide-angle lens, or if you need to get closer to the action, you can buy a telephoto lens. There are various classifications of lenses, at prices that range from $100 to several thousand dollars or more. That's one of the reasons they're an investment, because you're buying into not only a camera, but an ecosystem of lenses.
Although purchasing a camera and several lenses can quickly become pricey, they're very reliable and will return your investment by producing high-quality photos and video, as well as features that let you be extremely creative. But, because you're buying into a system, you want to take some time and give it some serious thought before you decide which is the best type of camera, or camera system, for you. For instance, you can't buy a Nikon DSLR lens and have it be completely compatible with, say, an Olympus mirrorless camera. In fact, you can't buy a Canon DSLR lens and have it be compatible with a Nikon DSLR camera body, and vice versa.
At this time, both types of camera systems are roughly on a par with each other, since, for the past few years, mirrorless cameras have been driving the lion's share of innovation in the ILC market and have really expanded, particularly in the number of new lenses that are available. But the changes that mirrorless models have brought to market have forced DSLR manufacturers to up their games.
For the most part, DSLRs use the same design as the 35mm film cameras of days gone by. A mirror inside the camera body reflects light coming in through the lens up to a prism (or additional mirrors) and into the viewfinder so you can preview your shot. When you press the shutter button, the mirror flips up, the shutter opens and the light hits the image sensor, which captures the final image. We'll go through the features and capabilities with our top DSLR pick, the Nikon D3400.
In a mirrorless camera, light passes through the lens and right onto the image sensor, which captures a preview of the image to display on the rear screen. Some models also offer a second screen inside an electronic viewfinder (EVF) that you can put your eye to. Our example of a mirrorless camera, one of our favorites, is Sony's A6300.
Here's how the two technologies compare.
Size & Weight
DSLR camera bodies are comparatively larger, as they need to fit in both a mirror and a prism. The body of the Nikon D3400, for example, is a rather bulky 3 inches deep before you put the lens on the front. With the 18-55mm kit lens, the camera weighs about 1.5 pounds.
A mirrorless camera body can be smaller than a DSLR, with simpler construction. The Sony A6300 has a body just 1.6 inches thick and weighs 1.75 pounds with its 16-50mm kit lens.
Winner: Mirrorless Camera
You can carry a mirrorless camera more easily and fit more gear, such as extra lenses, into a camera bag.
MORE: Best Mirrorless Cameras
DSLRs used to have the advantage here, because they use a technology called phase detection, which quickly measures the convergence of two beams of light. Mirrorless cameras were restricted to a technology called contrast detection, which uses the image sensor to detect the highest contrast, which coincides with focus. Contrast detection is slower — especially in low light — than phase detection.
This is no longer the case, though, as mirrorless cameras now have both phase and contrast detection sensors built into the image sensor, and can use both to refine their autofocus. The Sony a6300, for instance, has 425 phase detection autofocus points its image sensor, while the Nikon D3400 has 11 phase-detection sensors in its separate AF sensor, and uses the entire image sensor for contrast detection.
Both types offer speedy autofocus, with mirrorless cameras offering hybrid sensors that use both phase and contrast detection on the sensor.
With a DSLR, the through-the-lens optical viewfinder shows you exactly what the camera will capture. With a mirrorless camera, you get a preview of the image on-screen. Some mirrorless cameras offer an electronic viewfinder (EVF) that simulates the optical viewfinder.
When you're shooting outside in good light, the preview on the screen or EVF of a mirrorless camera will look close to the final image. But in situations where the camera is struggling (such as in low light or with fast-moving subjects), the preview will suffer, becoming dull, grainy and jerky. That’s because the mirrorless camera has to slow down the speed at which it captures images to grab more light, but still has to show you a moving preview. A DSLR, by contrast, reflects the light into your eye, which is better than the camera sensor at low light.
DSLRs can mimic a mirrorless camera by raising the mirror and showing a live preview of the image (usually called Live View mode). Most low-cost DSLRs are slow to focus in this mode, though, as they don’t have the hybrid on-chip phase-detection sensors and have to use slower contrast detection to focus.
However, one benefit to EVFs on mirrorless cameras is that they can give you a preview of what the final image will look like before you actually take the picture. If you increase the shutter speed or increase the aperture, what you see on the EVF will change accordingly. Meanwhile, since a DSLR's optical viewfinder reflects light without altering the image, you are more reliant on the camera's metering and your experience when it comes to predicting what a your final results will be. Newer mirrorless cameras also offer high quality electronic viewfinders and the best of them can exceed what you can see through a DSLR's through-the-lens viewfinder in challenging situations; because you can electronically adjust the brightness and contrast of an EVF, you can see more accurately in dimly lit situations.
So, if you are shooting mostly in good light, both types will perform well. If you are often shooting in low light or other challenging conditions, though, a DSLR will be easier to shoot with.
For many situations, both types of cameras provide you with very capable viewfinders. In low-light shooting, each type has advantages and disadvantages.
Shaky hands make for blurry pictures, and the effects are magnified the longer your shutter speed, or the more you zoom in. Both DSLR and mirrorless cameras offer image-stabilization systems: Sensors measure camera movement, and the camera slightly shifts either part of the lens or the image sensor in a direction that's opposite to the shake. Some mirrorless cameras move both the lens element and the sensor in a synchronized pattern for even greater stability.
MORE: Best DSLRs
We have found the differences between these approaches are minimal. The main advantage of sensor stabilization is that it works with all lenses. Lens stabilization only works with lenses that have it built in, which are often more expensive. Either way, most modern cameras can deal with a small amount of camera shake to produce a sharper picture, but can't compensate for larger movements.
However, there are a few exceptions. Mirrorless cameras such as the Olympus OM-D EM-10 Mark ii and the Sony A7R Mark II offers 5-axis image stabilization, which is a feature not found on DSLRs yet. This has prompted a number of pro videographers to switch over high-end mirrorless cameras due to their smoother, less shaky footage. But as prices for these cameras start at $2000, they are often outside the range of most buyers.
Image stabilization technology is largely equivalent in both camera types.
Both types of camera can take high-quality pictures, with similar resolutions and amounts of graininess, known as noise. Mirrorless cameras' smaller image sensors used to mean lower quality (as they couldn't capture as much light), but that is no longer the case. Camera manufacturers have learned to produce more sensitive chips and to better suppress noise. Furthermore, several mirrorless camera makers, such as those from Sony, now use the same APS-C sensors found in the majority of DSLRs. Sony's A7 line of cameras use the even larger full-frame sensor type found in the best professional DSLRs.
With equivalent sensors and image processors, both camera types can take great photos.
Because of their on-chip focus sensors, higher-end mirrorless cameras are generally better suited to video shooting. DSLRs can't use phase detection with the mirror up while recording video, so they have to use the slower, less accurate, contrast-detection focus method. This leads to the familiar blur-blur look in the middle of a video when the camera starts hunting for the right focus. However, some newer SLRs are adding phase detection on the sensor, such as the Canon 80D and the Rebel T6i.
Increasingly, mirrorless cameras, such as the Sony A6300 and the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, can capture 4K, or Ultra HD, video with four times the resolution of HD footage. The technology is slowly trickling down to lower-priced mirrorless models. Currently, only higher-end DSLRs, such as the Nikon D5, shoot 4K/Ultra HD video. Video professionals, if they use a still-photo camera at all, tend to prefer DSLRs, because the cameras have access to a huge range of high-end lenses. Autofocus isn't a concern for pros because they can often focus in advance, knowing where their subjects will stand in a scripted scene.
With superior autofocus in most models, mirrorless cameras provide the best results for most filmmakers.
Both camera technologies can shoot at very fast shutter speeds and capture a burst of images quickly. With the exception of high-end DSLRs, mirrorless cameras have an edge, though: The lack of a mirror makes it easier to take image after image. The Sony a5100 can shoot 6 frames per second (fps), for example, while the Nikon D3300 can do only 5 fps. Although they don’t have mirrors, most mirrorless cameras still use a mechanical shutter, where a physical shutter lifts to expose the image, as it produces better results. They also have the option of using an electronic shutter (just setting how long the sensor reads the light), which means they can shoot quicker and silently.
The simpler mechanics of mirrorless cameras allow them to shoot more photos per second, at higher shutter speeds.
Image & Video Playback
Both camera types can display images on their screens (typically measuring about 3 inches) or via an HDMI output to a television. Many now include Wi-Fi for sending images to smartphones for online posting, a feature that is present on the Sony A5100.
Both types offer large screens and video outputs, and some offer Wi-Fi connections to smart phones for quick image-sharing.
Generally, DSLRs offer longer battery life, as they can shoot without using the LCD screen or an electronic viewfinder, both of which consume a lot of power. However, both types will have similar battery lives if you use the LCD screens to preview and view captured images a lot, as this consumes a lot of power. However, all DSLRs and mirrorless cameras come with removable batteries, so you can carry a spare.
DSLRs offer the ability to shoot without using the LCD screen or EVF, which can extend the battery life.
Lenses & Accessories
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. Mirrorless models are more restricted, offering access to a small number of lenses from the camera maker, though the selection is growing.
The proprietary mirrorless systems from manufacturers like Sony (A series) and Pentax (Q cameras) have the fewest lenses, because these companies have only recently introduced mirrorless models. Sony offers more than three dozen E-mount lenses, for instance, while Nikon has hundreds of lenses available for its DSLRs. Mirrorless cameras such as the Olympus PEN series using the Micro Four Thirds sensor format have the widest selection of mirrorless cameras because they have been around the longest and are available from several companies. Olympus and Panasonic make the cameras and lenses. But Sigma, Tamron and other companies also make Micro Four Thirds lenses. You can generally purchase adapters to use DSLR-size lenses on a mirrorless camera that's made by the same manufacturer (such as for Canon or Sony). But that often comes at a price of altering the focal length and zoom characteristics and sometimes disabling or slowing functions such as autofocus.
DSLRs offer access to the wider range of lenses, but the gap between the two types is narrowing as more mirrorless lenses become available.
Three tips for choosing a lens for your DSLR or mirrorless camera
Decide on the type of lens you need for the photos or video you shoot. If you search interchangeable lenses online, you'll notice that there's a wide array of types and prices. There are wide-angles, telephotos, zooms, primes (or non-zooms), and specialty lenses for almost every type of photo or video you'd like to shoot. Luckily there's lots of information available on these lenses at the camera manufacturer's website, as well as other websites. Be sure to do your research to find the lens or lenses that will help you achieve the type of photos and video you want to capture.
Skip extended warranties. Just like the camera market, there is fierce competition in the interchangeable lens market. That's good for consumers, since competition drives camera manufacturers to continually produce and improve their products, which in many cases means the lens you buy will be very reliable for years to come. In addition, many high quality lenses come with five-year warranties from the manufacturer. So, it's probably not worth it to buy an extended warranty for a lens.
Try out your lens before your buy. Unlike buying a digital point-and-shoot, it's difficult to try out a lens in the store. But if your lens if very pricey, there are various outlets where you can rent a lens. Or, if you have a friend who's a professional photographer, see if he or she will let you borrow the lens and try it out.
If you regularly venture off the beaten path, it's worth looking at a model that adds an extra level of protection. Both DSLRs and mirrorless models offer this, such as the Olympus OM-D EM-1 mirrorless camera. Both have alloy bodies and are described as weatherproof, meaning that they can shrug off rain and other splashes.
Both types offer models that are hardened against the elements.
Mirrorless cameras have the advantage of usually being lighter, more compact, faster and better for video; but that comes at the cost of access to fewer lenses and accessories. DSLRs advantages include a wider selection of lenses and better optical viewfinders.
For beginners, mirrorless cameras are often a better choice due to their more compact size and simpler controls. Mirrorless cameras are also more likely to have a touchscreens than a similarly priced DSLR as well. However, as you move up in price, the size difference between mirrorless cameras and DSLRs isn't as extreme, although mirrorless cameras still have a small lead. That said, unless there's a big need for 4K video, a serious or pro shooter who wants access to a wider range of lenses and other gear would be better off with a DSLR.
If you're thinking about picking up a new camera, according to our sister site ShopSavvy, the best times to buy are at the beginning and end of the year in January and December, and in the spring as new models hit the market. For more deals and advice on purchase timing, check out ShopSavvy's camera section here.
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