DSLR vs mirrorless cameras: How do they compare in 2019?

Anyone that opts for a Canon EOS DSLR today has 30 years’ worth of native optics to choose from, and many more when you factor in compatible third-party options. Nikon and Pentax users are arguably catered for even better, with their respective systems happily accepting lenses from even older models without adapters (albeit with some limitations). This is especially true for full-frame DSLRs like the Canon EOS 6D II, Nikon D850 and Pentax K-1 Mark II.

Canon has now manufactured over 130 million EF-series lenses

Canon has now manufactured over 130 million EF-series lenses

Mirrorless camera makers have not traditionally had this kind of head-start, though it hasn’t taken Sony long to assemble an impressive range of lenses for its full-frame FE mount mirrorless cameras, and Panasonic has been smart enough enter into an L-Mount Alliance with Sigma and Leica to ensure that it will have over 40 native full frame lenses for its new Panasonic S cameras by the end of 2020.

Nikon and Canon have been especially clever with their new full frame mirrorless cameras. The Nikon Z 6 and Z 7 have a small but growing range of native lenses, but you can also get an FTZ mount adaptor for using any of Nikon’s current DSLR lenses without restriction. Canon has also launched lens adaptors for its new EOS R and EOS RP full frame mirrorless cameras, opening up its entire range of EF DSLR lenses to these cameras.

Panasonic's healthy range of lenses for its mirrorless cameras is joined by further compatible options from the likes of Olympus, Sigma and Samyang

Panasonic's healthy range of lenses for its mirrorless cameras is joined by further compatible options from the likes of Olympus, Sigma and Samyang

Fujifilm and Olympus have also had time to develop their own native lens systems, to the degree that none of the mirrorless camera brands (once the Panasonic S system has caught up) is at any real disadvantage regarding lens choice.

Manufacturers strive to produce the most compact lenses possible for their mirrorless cameras, which this 'body cap' lens from Olympus being the most extreme example

Manufacturers strive to produce the most compact lenses possible for their mirrorless cameras, which this 'body cap' lens from Olympus being the most extreme example

But are mirrorless lenses really smaller?

This is where the mirrorless bubble is in most danger of bursting. Mirrorless camera makers can indeed demonstrate that their camera bodies are a lot smaller than their DSLR counterparts, but the same can’t be said for their lenses.

Sony's new FE 135mm f/1.8 G Master lens demonstrates that lens size doesn't depend on DSLR vs mirrorless designs and that the best lenses are often big and bulky regardless.

Sony's new FE 135mm f/1.8 G Master lens demonstrates that lens size doesn't depend on DSLR vs mirrorless designs and that the best lenses are often big and bulky regardless.

It’s an uncomfortable fact that it’s the sensor size that largely determines the size of the lenses that go with it. Some mirrorless makers have produced small or retracting lenses that do offer a size saving, but these come with other compromises, and when lens makers produce mirrorless lenses to match the specifications and performance of DSLR lenses, they end up pretty much the same size.

This not only undermines the ‘mirrorless is smaller’ argument, it produces handling issues with certain camera-lens combinations. Sony’s A7-series camera bodies are remarkably small, but many of its lenses – especially its top-quality G Master lenses – are unexpectedly big. You might find yourself buying a battery grip for your mirrorless camera just to make it handle better with your favourite lenses.

Read more:

The best DSLR cameras in 2019
The best mirrorless cameras in 2019