If you’re a beginner in the photography world and are looking to pick up your first camera, you’ve probably seen a lot of debate between DSLRs and mirrorless bodies. Some old-timers will claim, “buy a used DSLR!”, while others will argue, “but mirrorless is superior!”.
This article is mostly aimed at providing a very concise comparison between major differences in mirrorless vs DSLR cameras for beginners. Don’t expect anything incredibly in-depth or complicated.
In addition, we’ll be largely looking at comparisons between lower-cost cameras, as beginners are unlikely to gravitate toward full-frame bodies that cost thousands of dollars.
Let’s jump in!
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, these days, image sensors are quite similar and can often capture pretty much the exact same images. With that being said, mirrorless cameras do have a (very) slight edge in some categories such as dynamic range and high ISO performance.
Size & Weight
The first, and arguably most obvious difference, is size and 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, 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). Add on the fact that mirrorless lenses are often smaller than their DSLR counterparts, and you’ve got a powerful and compact kit.
There are exceptions, however. Some of the more recent full-frame mirrorless cameras have started to bulk up (the a7iii and subsequent releases, for example), nearly matching DSLRs in size.
In general, though, mirrorless cameras along with their lenses tend to be smaller than their DSLR counterparts.
The next major difference is the viewfinder.
EVF (Electronic 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.
In addition, electronic viewfinders offer other benefits such as the ability to “zoom in” when using manual focus (also know as using the focus magnifier) and being able to playback images in the viewfinder itself (to avoid glare). For manual shooters, EVFs (electronic viewfinders) are able to show all sorts of digital information, such as a histogram, all without having to even glance at the rear LCD screen.
OVF (Optical Viewfinder)
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.
The disadvantage, however, is that you, once again, see exactly what the lens sees. Meaning, if you’re in a dark environment, the viewfinder will be blacked out. Additionally, you can’t see the “results” of any of your settings changes live.
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.
High-end DSLRs have caught up recently, but when comparing low-cost bodies, mirrorless cameras still dominate in terms of autofocus.
DSLRs Have Fewer Focus Points (and speed)
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. That’s almost 20x as many autofocus points, and that’s not even considering the massive autofocus speed advantage that mirrorless cameras hold.
Mirrorless AF is Incredibly Fast
In addition to that, Sony’s low-end bodies also offer a multitude of other features such as high-speed subject tracking (which 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 focus points.
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 DSLR 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. Although recent mirrorless bodies have been fighting to catch up, DSLRs still win this category, at least in my opinion.
In terms of burst mode/action photography, mirrorless cameras absolutely crush DSLRs.
DSLRs Have Poor Burst
The Canon T7, for example, can shoot a maximum of 3 (yes, only three) frames per second when in burst mode.
A big reason for this poor performance comes down to the simple fact that the physical mirror has to flip up anytime the camera takes a picture. This slows it down quite a bit.
Mirrorless Cameras Have Fast Burst
On the flip side, the Sony a6000 (comparable in price), can shoot around 11 frames per second regardless of whether you’re in RAW or JPEG format.
When shooting fast action, I’ve used burst mode on my a6000 and it’s been incredibly fast (and the shutter sound is oh-so-satisfying). Granted, the camera will eventually hit a “buffer” or, in other words, have to slow down as it waits for images to be recorded to the memory card.
Don’t get me wrong, high-end DSLRs certainly have respectable performance in this regard, but at low price points, mirrorless cameras win by a landslide.
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 a Canon T5, I’d often go days without changing the battery.
With my Sony a6000, I often swap out the battery after every shoot, and always bring an extra just in case.
Luckily, newer (and more expensive) mirrorless cameras have largely solved their battery problems. For lower-cost bodies, however, DSLRs win by a longshot.
When it comes down to video performance, mirrorless cameras tend to absolutely crush DSLRs.
Video AF Performance
First up, the superior autofocus systems of mirrorless bodies are invaluable in video. But what if you prefer manually focusing your shots? Well, all the focus assists (such as peaking and magnifier) will help you nail perfect focus every time.
DSLRs, on the other hand, are reliant on using something called “live view”, which cripples their already lackluster autofocus systems.
Viewfinder & Information Readout
Second, the electronic viewfinder offers a wealth of information, so you’re not half guessing if your shot is actually properly exposed.
Composing video (or images, for that matter) through the electronic viewfinder allows you to avoid glare and also know exactly what results you’ll be getting.
Finally, cheap mirrorless cameras have a whole myriad of third-party accessories for recording video, whether that be microphones, cages, battery grips, etc.
As you go up in price, newer and more expensive mirrorless bodies continue to outshine their DSLR counterparts when it comes to video performance.
Lens selection is where things get interesting.
DSLRs Have More OEM Options
DSLRs, just due to age, generally have a larger native (OEM) lens selection.
There are hundreds of options from Canon itself, for example.
Mirrorless Has More Third-Party Options
Mirrorless cameras, on the other hand, are newer to the scene, so OEM options are generally a bit more limited (that’s rapidly changing). 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.
Is mirrorless or DSLR best for a beginner?
So, is a mirrorless camera or DSLR better for a beginner?
At the end of the day, my vote goes strongly toward mirrorless. Sure, used DSLRs can potentially be cheaper, but you’ll get way more value for your money with a mirrorless camera.
If I were to recommend anything to a beginner, I’d say go with one of the Sony a6xxx bodies and pick up a few lenses. For beginners, the advantage of going with mirrorless is unmatched. To summarize it all as a short list:
- Compact and lightweight (easier to get motivated to go out and shoot)
- Electronic Viewfinder (know exactly the shot you’re going to get)
- Better AF (less shots ruined by missed focus)
- Video Performance (can dabble in video in addition to photography)
- Diverse & Affordable Lenses (a massive selection of lenses, from ultra-cheap to ultra-expensive)
It’s hard to go wrong with any mirrorless camera, but I’d suggest picking up either a Sony a6000 (low budget) or the Sony a7iii (higher budget, but future-proofed). Both of those links will take you straight to my long-term reviews of those two bodies.
Thanks for reading, and trust me, you won’t regret going with mirrorless as a beginner. 🙂