Mirrorless cameras have been around for almost a decade now, and in that time they've changed in countless ways.
While some of the designs many have stayed constant, the extent to which these models are more capable for a broader range of tasks means that many people have happily ditched their DSLRs, sold their glass (or not, as we shall see) and jumped across to one of the more recent but rapidly expanding mirrorless systems. Many others, however, are more hesitant, and they continue to ask the same question: are mirrorless cameras better than DSLRs?
If you’re expecting a short answer, it’s this: mirrorless cameras are certainly more capable than DSLRs in many respects, and they hold a number of different advantages, but there are many reasons why novice users and seasoned pros alike would still be better served by a DSLR. Things are constantly changing for both formats, however, and what was valid a few years ago may no longer be the case today.
The following article examines where things stand with current technologies, looking at each key area in turn.
In the beginning ...
The first mirrorless (or 'compact system') camera was Panasonic’s Lumix G1 released back in 2008. The first model in the Micro Four Thirds offshoot of the now-retired Four Thirds format, it certainly looked like a camera, perhaps closer to a bridge camera than a DSLR, but it was still too far to place it in any particularly category with a snappy name like mirrorless. Even Panasonic didn’t have much to offer here, dubbing it the “world’s first full-time live view digital interchangeable lens camera”.
Although Olympus was producing some fairly diminutive DSLRs at the time, the G1 arrived with the promise of packing in the same size of sensor into a compact body that accepted smaller lenses, and with the further integration of an electronic viewfinder, a more digital focus. While the existing Four Thirds sensor meant it wasn’t entirely designed from scratch, it very much felt like the first interchangeable-lens camera that had unshackled itself from the constraints of analogue systems.
With the benefit of an electronic viewfinder you got a better idea of what your image would look like as you were composing it, and with no mirror or optical viewfinder prism, you also got a relatively small and light body. The fact that you could use it with existing Four Thirds lenses via an adapter made it more appealing to anyone interested that had already invested in that system, but the big draw was that fact that lenses could be made smaller. And the appeal of a relatively large sensor combined with small, light lenses should be obvious.
Panasonic was soon joined by the likes of Olympus, Sony and Fujifilm, each company delivering something a little different but adhering to the same concept of a small body, a new lens line and a fresh way of thinking. The variety of models was encouraging, but there were still a number of hurdles to overcome and a number of reasons why DSLRs would continue to be preferable in the eyes of anyone taking photography more seriously than the casual user. To some extent, all of these issues are still relevant today, but the fact that so many manufacturers are now involved in the mirrorless camera development has meant that gap has significantly narrowed.