Mirrorless cameras have been around for a decade, but it’s only quite recently that they’ve started to seriously challenge the dominance of DSLRs. 2018 was dubbed ‘the year of mirrorless full frame cameras’ with no fewer than four manufacturers entering this market for the first time, so mirrorless cameras are now big business right from the entry-level consumer market up to full-blown professional use, and if you're a big-time Canon fan, for example, the best Canon camera could turn out to be a DSLR or a mirrorless model. It's not all about full frame, though, as Sony is reportedly turning its attention back the the more affordable APS-C camera marketing with the rumored new high-end Sony A7000.
Update: A lot has been happening in the DSLR vs mirrorless debate, so we’ve updated, refreshed and rejigged this article to reflect the latest camera models, technologies and arguments!
The arrival in 2018 of the Nikon Z 6 and Z 7, the Canon EOS R and the Panasonic S1R and the S1 mean that mirrorless cameras now compete with DSLRs at every level, leading some to suggest that the DSLR has had its day. We’re not so sure.
The mirrorless camera design is compelling. Many photographers have ditched their DSLRs and swapped to the mirrorless format. Many others, however, are more hesitant, and they continue to ask the same question: are mirrorless cameras really better than DSLRs?
The short answer is that mirrorless cameras are certainly more capable than DSLRs in many respects, and they hold a number of different advantages. However, there are many reasons why novice users and seasoned pros alike would still be better served by a DSLR – not least because a cheap DSLR camera is still the most affordable way to get into serious photography.
So over the next few pages we’ll take a look at key areas of technology and design to try to answer that mirrorless vs DSLR question once and for all. Be aware, though, that the answer may not be the same for everyone!
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So what's the difference?
DSLRs and mirrorless cameras both show the scene through the camera lens itself as you compose the picture, but the way they display it is completely different.
The SLR design was invented long before digital sensors, when the only way to show the view through the camera lens was to use a mirror in the body to reflect and image of the scene up into the viewfinder. When you take a picture, the mirror flips up so that the image can then pass to the back of the camera where the film is exposed. The only difference between this old SLR (single lens reflex) design and today’s DSLRs is that the film has been replaced by a digital sensor.
Mirrorless cameras take a different approach. They use the ‘live view’ captured by the camera sensor itself to create an electronic viewfinder image. By doing this, they dispense with the need for a mirror and an optical viewfinder altogether.
But what sounds like a win-win situation is a little more complicated than that. Many people prefer the optical viewfinder of a DSLR, mirrorless camera makers have had to develop new autofocus technologies to compete with DSLRs, and mirrorless cameras still can’t compete with DSLRs for battery life and even – in the opinion of many users – simple handling and ergonomics.