Mirrorless vs DSLRs for Beginners (8 Comparisons)

If you’re a beginner to the photography world and are looking to pick up your first camera, you’ve probably seen a lot of debate between DSLR and mirrorless bodies.

This article is mostly aimed at providing a very brief and concise comparison between major differences in mirrorless vs DSLR cameras for beginners. Don’t expect anything incredibly in-depth or complicated.

Additionally, we’ll be focusing on comparisons in lower cost cameras, as it’s quite unlikely any beginner is going to drop thousands of dollars on a camera. In any case, let’s jump into it!

Man sitting on a mountain with a Sony camera.

Similarities

Although mirrorless and DSLR cameras are quite different in many regards, there are a few small factors that they share.

First and perhaps most obviously, they are both cameras. At the end of the day, they both take photos which can then be shared with the world.

Second, they both share the ability to switch lenses. This is something that point-and-shoot cameras and phone cameras cannot do.

Third, image sensors are similar and can often capture pretty much the same images. That being said, mirrorless cameras tend to have a (very) slight edge in some categories such as dynamic range and high ISO performance.


Size & Weight

DSLR cameras tend to be more on the bulky side, having to accommodate the large mirror and optical viewfinder (more on that later). A Canon T5, for example, weighs 24.3oz (689g) and measures a rather bulky 5.1×3.9x.3.1in (13x10x7.8cm).

Mirrorless cameras, on the other hand, tend to be smaller. The Sony a6000 (link to my review), for example, weighs half as much at 12.13oz (344g) and measures a diminutive 4.7×2.6×1.8in (12×6.7×4.5cm).

There are exceptions, however. Some of the more recent full-frame mirrorless cameras have started to bulk up, nearly matching DSLRs in size. In general, though, mirrorless cameras along with their lenses tend to be smaller than their DSLR counterparts.

Winner: mirrorless.

Sony camers vs Canon DSLR.

Viewfinder

The next major difference is the viewfinder. Mirrorless cameras are able to show you exactly what the camera sees as the viewfinder is simply a tiny screen. What you see is what you’ll capture when you push the shutter button, as the digital screen is able to instantly display exactly what you’ll get the second you adjust your shutter speed, aperture, or ISO.

Additionally, there are other benefits such as being able to “zoom in” if using manual focus (known as the focus magnifier), being able to playback images in the viewfinder itself (to avoid glare), and being able to see all sorts of digital information, such as a histogram, all without looking at the rear LCD screen.

On the other hand, DSLRs have what is called an “optical” viewfinder. The way it works is that light comes into the lens, bounces off a mirror, and then gets reflected up into the glass viewfinder. You see what the lens sees, or, in other words, what your eyes see (in terms of brightness).

The only real advantage to having an optical viewfinder (DSLR) is that it doesn’t consume much battery life. Whereas a mirrorless camera is essentially powering a tiny screen, always burning batteries, a DSLR viewfinder is just a piece of glass.

For a beginner looking to master manual exposure, a mirrorless camera is the best way to go as the electronic viewfinder shows you the exact image you’ll capture.

Winner: mirrorless.


Autofocus

High-end DSLRs have caught up recently, but when comparing low-cost bodies, mirrorless cameras still dominate in terms of autofocus.

Many low-end DSLRs, such as the Canon T7, offer around 9 autofocus points. Compare that to the similarly priced Sony a6000, which offers 179 autofocus points.

In addition to that, Sony’s low end bodies also offer a multitude of other features such as high-speed subject tracking (works very well on my a6000) along with an incredible “EyeAF” system.

Mirrorless cameras also are able to easily focus on the edges of a frame, thanks to “phase detection AF”, whereas DSLRs struggle anywhere outside of their 9 primary focusing points.

Winner: mirrorless.

Man taking photos in the street.

Durability

Recent mirrorless bodies are weather-sealed and rugged, but at lower price points, I’d argue that DSLRs are a bit more durable.

I dropped my old Canon T5 onto concrete from (above) standing height, and it still operated perfectly besides a slightly cracked viewfinder. The UV filter on the lens shattered, but I imagine the giant body and the lens dampened the blow a bit.

I, luckily, haven’t dropped my Sony a6000, but I have noticed it gets weird in adverse weather conditions. When the camera gets rained on, the hot shoe causes all sorts of weird error messages. It still operates perfectly fine when wet, but with constant error messages interrupting the flow of shooting.

There’s a reason DSLRs are generally used by professionals and photojournalists. They can take a beating, especially higher end bodies. DSLRs win this category, at least in my opinion.

Winner: DSLRs.


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Action/Burst

In terms of burst mode/action photography, mirrorless cameras absolutely crush DSLRs.

The Canon T7, for example, can shoot a maximum of 3 (yes, three) frames per second when in burst mode.

The comparable Sony a6000, can shoot in 11 frames per second in RAW format and a whopping 49 frames per second in JPEG format. I’ve used JPEG burst on my a6000 and it’s insanely fast. Granted, the camera will eventually hit the “buffer”, where it slows down as images can’t be recorded to the memory card quickly enough.

High end DSLRs certainly have respectable performance in this regard, but at low price points, mirrorless cameras win by a longshot.

Winner: mirrorless.


Battery Life

Next up is battery life. Mirrorless cameras, as stated before, have a lot more fancy technology in them, along with having an electronic viewfinder. The electronic viewfinder (EVF) functions as a tiny screen, thus causing high battery drain whenever the camera is on.

A DSLR, on the other hand, is mostly mechanical, thus battery drain is incredibly slow (unless the LCD screen is being used). When I owned my Canon T5, I’d often go days without changing the battery.

With my current Sony a6000, I often swap out the battery after every shoot, and always bring an extra just in case. For battery life, DSLRs win by a longshot.

Winner: DSLRs.

A woman with a Canon camera.

Video Performance

There are a few major advantages that mirrorless cameras have over DSLRs when it comes to shooting video.

First, the electronic view finder, as stated prior, shows exactly what you’re going to get. This can be incredibly helpful, especially when shooting in tough lighting conditions such as at night or indoors.

Second, autofocus. Lower-end DSLRs have to use “live view” (the LCD screen) to shoot video, which greatly reduces autofocus performance as they are then only able to rely on contrast detection. Mirrorless cameras are able to take full advantages of their already superior autofocusing systems even when recording.

Winner: mirrorless.


Lens Selection

Lens selection is where things get interesting. DSLRs, just due to age, generally have a larger native (OEM) lens selection. There are hundreds of options from Canon itself, for example.

Mirrorless cameras, on the other hand, are new to the scene, so OEM options are generally a bit more limited. However, a major advantage that mirrorless cameras offer is the ability to adapt vintage or 3rd party lenses.

I go into way more detail in my manual focus article, but to put it simply there are hundreds of affordable and diverse off-brand lenses for Sony cameras, allowing you to build a large collection of different focal lengths for a low upfront price.

For this reason, I personally think mirrorless cameras win in the lens selection category. For beginners, having access to so many cheap and low cost lenses is an incredible opportunity for learning and growth.

Winner: mirrorless.


So, is mirrorless or DSLR best for a beginner?

At the end of the day, I think it comes down to budget. A used Canon T3, for example, is dirt cheap, allowing almost any beginner to get into photography on an incredibly low budget.

With that being said, I am a firm believer that the Sony a6000 is the best beginner camera on the market. If you want to learn more about why, read my four year long term review on it.

Mirrorless cameras offer a more compact build, electronic viewfinder, superior AF performance, better video performance, and, to a degree, a more diverse and affordable lens choice.

It’s hard to go wrong with any entry-level mirrorless camera, but I’d highly suggest checking out the a6000 as I’ve mentioned prior. I’ve dropped my full review below. I’d highly suggest giving it a read, enjoy! 🙂


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