Mirrorless vs dSLR Cameras in 2020
If you’re trying to choose between a mirrorless or a DSLR camera, this guide will make your buying decision much easier for you.
Here in 2020, manufacturers are still producing both types of camera, and they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Both DSLR and mirrorless cameras offer various unique benefits to all level of photographer.
However, it’s becoming harder to recommend one type over the other, as you’ll see below.
I’ve used both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras professionally for several years, but will transition to a 100% mirrorless set up. However, I still recommend DSLR cameras in certain instances.
Let’s take a closer look at the comparison to help you find the best mirrorless camera or DSLR for your needs.
DSLR vs Mirrorless Camera Summary
Mirrorless cameras are smaller, lighter, faster and better for video. They also offer unique features such as electronic viewfinders, silent shooting and focus peaking, and are better value for money. DSLRs have a bigger lens selection, offer better ergonomics and robustness, longer battery life, no shutter lag, and optical viewfinders with certain advantages.
Why Choose a Mirrorless Camera in 2020?
If you’re trying to make a decision based on image quality alone, there’s no distinguishable advantage – when comparing DSLR vs mirrorless cameras, both can offer excellent image quality.
However, when comparing other features and characteristics, there are notable advantages of using mirrorless cameras over DSLRs.
Here’s a summary of the most common benefits when choosing a mirrorless camera, listed in order of importance to the average photographer.
Smaller & Lighter Bodies & Lenses
For many photographers, particularly those who travel, the allure of having a smaller, lighter camera system is the biggest motivator for investing in a mirrorless camera.
With a shorter flange distance (the distance between the lens mount and the camera sensor), and no mirror or pentaprism, mirrorless camera manufacturers can produce smaller and lighter cameras.
While there’s not a huge difference in size and weight between DSLR vs mirrorless cameras with a full frame sensor, APS-C and micro four thirds sensor cameras offer a noticeable advantage over their DSLR equivalents.
As you can also see in the image above, even medium format mirrorless cameras can be smaller than full frame DSLRs.
Having a smaller camera isn’t always a good thing, of course, with ergonomics suffering, as we’ll discuss later.
Electronic Viewfinders offer Unique Benefits
This is another huge strength of mirrorless cameras over DSLR, and a key reason for the mass exodus of many photographers from one format to the other.
An electronic viewfinder (EVF) offers numerous benefits over an optical viewfinder (OVF), including:
- Brighter display is beneficial when viewing scenes in low light
- No viewfinder coverage issues
- Live Preview reduces need to ‘Chimp’ after taking a photo (WYSIWYG)
- No viewfinder blackout (selected models)
- Image Review in the EVF benefits viewing in bright conditions
- Advanced shooting information can be displayed as an overlay
- Digital zoom helps to check focus
- More focus points, reducing need to focus + recompose
- Advanced Subject Tracking AF Modes for increased accuracy
- Ability to ‘see’ Film Simulations (Fujifilm)
- Focus Peaking for simple manual focusing
- Eye damage prevention while shooting into the sun
There are however, disadvantages of using an EVF over an OVF, which we’ll discuss below.
It’s also worth mentioning that some digital cameras such as the Fujifilm X100V offers a hybrid electronic/optical viewfinder, giving the best of both worlds.
Better Value for Money
Although you can still get a decent DSLR camera for around $500, for around the same price, the equivalent mirrorless camera body is a lot more technologically advanced.
Producing the mirror mechanism in DSLR cameras is complicated for manufacturers, hence the elevated price.
In addition, the mirror mechanism will eventually wear out, and replacing it can also be expensive.
The more expensive the DSLR, the longer the ‘shutter life’, although at some point, all DSLR mirrors will fail.
With a mirror-less camera, there’s obviously no worry of anything wearing out in this way, so they benefit from greater longevity.
DSLRs and mirrorless cameras both range from affordable to expensive, but you get a lot more for your money when investing in mirrorless.
If you’re on a strict budget, you can usually find a second hand DSLR for a bargain price, particularly since so many photographers are switching to the mirrorless format.
When comparing recent DSLR vs mirrorless camera releases, you’ll notice that in terms of technological advancements, mirrorless cameras offers far more innovation.
During the average year, a mirrorless camera owner is treated to multiple (free) firmware updates, which often greatly benefit the shooting experience.
e.g. a recent Sony firmware update for select Alpha full frame and APS-C mirrorless cameras vastly improved autofocus, with the addition of continuous eye-tracking for people and animals.
With the some-what hybrid Nikon D780, Nikon is showing that they are still pushing DSLR technology, albeit at a much slower pace than their mirrorless camera products.
Ability to Preview your Exposure
This is a huge reason to choose a mirrorless camera over a DSLR, and is beneficial for both beginners and professional photographers alike.
In place of a mirror directing light through the lens up to the viewfinder, a mirrorless camera uses the image sensor to handle focus and exposure.
This gives you a what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) experience, allowing you to preview your exposure either on the rear LCD screen of your camera, or within the EVF.
With a mirrorless camera, you can see any adjustments you make to shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, or anything else that will affect your final image, before taking the shot.
(DSLRs allow you to do something similar in Live View, although Live View is much more sluggish in operation, and unusable when capturing fast moving subjects.)
For beginner photographers, this can help immensely, and can also provide a great learning experience – imagine being able to view the effects of each exposure element, before pressing the shutter button!
More advanced photographers and even professionals benefit from increased efficiency, since there’s much less need to review images after they’ve been taken (aka chimping).
With no mirror, there’s no ‘mirror slap’ that you get with a DSLR. All you hear is the click of the shutter mechanism, and this sound can often be customised.
Several mirrorless cameras even offer completely silent shooting, which is a game-changer for wedding photographers, or those who need to operate in complete silence.
Many DSLRs have a ‘Silent Shooting’ feature, which separates the sound of the shutter from the mirror flap, with the mirror flipping down slowly once your finger is removed from the shutter button.
However, it’s less than ideal in practice, and impractical for fast moving action.
Faster & More Accurate Focusing
Mirrorless cameras benefit from having more focus points than DSLR cameras, and many also offer face and eye tracking AF technologies.
These features mean that you can leave the autofocus largely down to the camera, instead of needing to manually select individually focus points, or focus and recompose.
With Phase Detection sensors placed directly on the image sensor on mirrorless cameras, there’s also no difference between the centre focus point and one ones on the extreme edges of the frame.
(Some mirrorless cameras only offer Contrast Detection, which is inferior when it comes to tracking moving subjects, especially in low light.)
A DSLR will typically offer the best AF in the centre of the frame, but struggle with AF acquisition when a focus point is selected near the border of the frame.
Faster Continuous Shooting Speed
In a DSLR, your frames per second (i.e. the rate you can capture images) is limited by the speed of the mirror’s movement.
In general, only higher end DSLRs offer fast continuous shooting speeds of over 10 fps.
With mirrorless cameras, some entry level bodies such as the sub-$500 Sony a6000 offer 11 fps.
High end DSLRs like the Nikon D5 may be able to offer 14 FPS, but it’s also much more expensive than a Fujifilm X-T4 for example, which offers a frankly ludicrous 20 FPS.
Of course, buffer speeds must also be taken into consideration (i.e. the ability for the camera to process and store the images before the photographer can take the next shot), but in general, if you need to shoot fast moving action, a mirrorless camera is the way to go.
Better Image Stabilization
Both DSLR and mirrorless cameras offer image stabilization systems, which work by shifting part of the lens or the image in the opposite direction to the shake of the camera.
However, DSLRs (and most mirrorless cameras) are limited to shifting the lens in only 2 axes to counteract shake, known as two-axis stabilization (i.e. up or down and side to side.)
Some mirrorless cameras such as the Sony a7III offer in-body 5-axis image stabilization, which shifts the sensor along 3 additional axes: pitch (tilting up and down), yaw (turning side to side), and roll (rotating).
This can be hugely beneficial when shooting in low light, from a moving vehicle, or when recording 4k video.
Better for Recording Video
A big advantage of using a mirrorless camera to shoot video is that you can use the EVF. This allows you to preview your exposure, as well as making it much easier to see your composition in tricky lighting situations.
Another key difference is autofocus – most DSLRs can’t use Phase Detection AF while the mirror is up while recording video.
Instead, they need to rely on Contrast Detection, which can lead to focus hunting (i.e. the camera struggling to acquire focus).
While some higher end DSLRs use on-sensor Phase Detection, or Dual-Pixel AF in the case of modern Canon bodies, mirrorless cameras still offer faster AF performance for video.
The size/weight advantage of mirrorless cameras can also benefit video shooting, especially for those who need to travel with a lot of gear, or hand-hold for long periods.
Both DSLR and mirrorless cameras allow you to shoot 4k video, with the Canon R5 (a high end mirrorless camera) offering 8k video recording.
Less Requirement for Lens Calibration
DSLR cameras calculate focus via a seperate secondary focusing sensor, whereas most mirrorless cameras perform the calculation directly from the imaging sensor.
This means that in a DSLR, there are two areas that have the potential to undermine precise focus – the mirror and the lens itself.
Here’s the problem: Sometimes, both require calibration.
Since mirrorless cameras use the image sensor to acquire focus, this means that even if your lens is slightly ‘off’ in some way, there’s no calibration or fine-tuning necessary.
Less Camera Shake
The lack of ‘mirror slap’ in a mirror-less camera means that there’s much less vibration when pressing the shutter button.
In fact, the only moving physical component inside a mirrorless camera is the camera shutter, but even this can be disabled when using the electronic shutter, which completely eliminates any movement.
This is huge advantage to any photographer who needs the sharpest, most precise image out of their camera.
When used in combination with a sturdy tripod and a remote shutter release, mirrorless cameras offer unparalleled stability during image capture.
Easier to Clean
The sensor is usually completely exposed when you remove the lens from a mirrorless camera, making it much easier to clean.
(The Canon R mirrorless body actually conceals the sensor automatically when a lens is removed, to prevent dust from entering.)
A DSLR camera on the other hand, not only has a mirror in the way of the sensor, but also houses various components under the mirror, giving dust a place to settle, and making proper cleaning much more difficult.
Recommended Mirrorless Cameras
There are so many great mirrorless cameras available right now, but here are a few that offer excellent bang for your buck:
- Budget: Sony a6000 (reviewed here)
- Midrange: Sony a6400 (review) or Fujifilm X100V (review)
- High end: Sony a7III (review) or Fujifilm X-T4
If you want something even smaller and lighter and are willing to sacrifice some low light performance and depth of field, micro four thirds sensor cameras such as the Olympus OM-D EM-10 Mark III are excellent value for money.
Why Choose a DSLR Camera in 2020?
Admittedly, it’s getting harder and harder to recommend a DSLR camera with every year that passes.
Camera brands continue to release amazing DSLRs, (with some even inheriting mirrorless camera technology, such as the Nikon D780), their advantages over mirrorless cameras are certainly dwindling.
However, DSLRs are far from dead! Here are their key advantages over mirrorless systems.
Longer Battery Life
This is a key advantage when comparing DSLR vs mirrorless cameras, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.
Mirrorless cameras simply have more technology to power than DSLRs – the LCD screen and EVF vastly increase battery consumption, particularly when used at full brightness.
Fujifilm mirrorless cameras typically struggle with battery life, with one charge offering a measly 3-400 shots, compared to the equivalent DSLR that can usually offer twice this per charge.
Sony on the other hand, offer full frame bodies that can shoot over 800 shots per charge – my record with the Sony a7 III is 1,300 shots, although that was being quite frugal with EVF use.
It can be annoying to carry around several batteries, not to mention the hassle of having to constantly change them.
Purchasing multiple own-brand batteries can also be a big additional expense, and carrying them in your suitcase can hinder plane travel on some airlines.
Optical Viewfinders offer Unique Advantages
While having an EVF can be a game-changing experience for many photographers, the humble optical viewfinder can still be beneficial.
Here are some reasons you may want to stick with a DSLR and its optical viewfinder:
- It’s always ‘on’, so there’s zero start up time lag when lifting it to your eye
- No shutter lag (the time between pressing the shutter and the image being captured)
- No digital lag or ‘blackout’ during burst shooting
- Higher optical quality, since you’re just looking through a piece of glass
- Zero energy consumption means no toll on battery life
If you shoot high-pressure events or fast-moving subjects, shutter lag can be the difference between capturing or missing a shot.
In fact, most photojournalists and paparazzos prefer to use DSLRs for this very reason.
Wider Range of Native Lenses
DSLRs have been around for far longer than mirrorless cameras, which means there’s a much wider selection of lenses available.
Although it’s possible to ‘adapt’ DSLR lenses to be used on mirrorless bodies, many photographers prefer not to.
Certain specialty lenses such as super telephoto or tilt-shift lenses simply aren’t available for the mirrorless system yet.
While macro, f/1.2, pancake and other ‘niche’ lenses are produced for some mirrorless brands, there’s still not much variety to choose from.
DSLR cameras offer several affordable ‘nifty-fifty‘ lenses, for example, allowing photographers to experience a large f/1.8 aperture for around $100. This is still not the case for mirrorless.
Wider Range of Native Accessories
This goes hand in hand with the point above – there are some specific accessories that may exist for DSLRs, but are not yet available for mirrorless cameras.
As for the accessories that are available, there are far less native brand products to choose from, with photographers often having to rely on third party manufacturers’ products.
This benefit is questionable, since both formats of camera offer durable, weather-sealed bodies that can withstand the elements.
However, if we compare flagship bodies, DSLR scan definitely take more knocks than the equivalent mirrorless camera – this is why you’ll usually still see war photojournalists or extreme sports photographers favouring these robust flagship DSLR bodies.
Yes, there’s the fragile mirror to dislodge in a DSLR, but mirrorless cameras have far more reliance on fancy technology, which is usually more fragile and susceptible to extreme conditions.
There have also been cases of overheating in mirrorless cameras after prolonged use in hot conditions, but the same can’t be said for DSLRs.
While there are exceptions, the general trend has been to produce mirrorless systems that are as small and compact as possible.
In doing so, this has had a negative effect on the ergonomics of many of the most popular mirrorless cameras.
From my personal experience, I’ve always found Sony Alpha and Fujifilm X-series mirrorless cameras rather uncomfortable to use.
There are some exceptions, but it’s only recently that these brands are producing cameras with ergonomics that are more akin to the average DSLR.
Despite some recent Sony and Fujifilm models offering better ergonomics than their predecessors, generally speaking, DSLRs offer deeper grips and more spaced-out buttons, lending to a more comfortable shooting experience – especially for those of us with bigger hands!
Canon and Nikon have taken a different approach with the release of their R and Z series camera respectively, choosing to replicate (and improve on) the ergonomics of their popular DSLR cameras.
Whether this undermines one of the main advantages of shooting mirrorless (i.e. the reduced size) is arguable, but one thing’s for sure – larger bodies offer better balance and a more comfortable shooting experience when using larger lenses.
More ‘Involved’ Shooting Experience
This final advantage of DSLR vs mirrorless cameras is subjective, but mostly holds true if you speak to photographers who’ve shot with both systems.
Since mirrorless cameras do a lot of the hard work for you (with regards to focus and exposure), it’s sometimes akin to ‘shooting with a mini computer’.
DSLRs on the other hand force the photographer to make exposure calculations themselves, with the OVF simply providing a’ window to peer through’.
For some, this experience is valuable and more enjoyable than letting a camera take over.
From my perspective as a professional wedding photographer, a mirrorless camera undoubtedly makes my job easier. However, I found shooting with a DSLR more fun and rewarding.
For a beginner, choosing a DSLR could mean a more thorough understanding of exposure, or at the very least, a way to ‘go back’, if for whatever reason they can no longer use, or no longer wish to use a mirrorless camera.
It’s a bit like knowing how to drive a manual car even though you drive an automatic ;-)
Lower Starting Price
In general, you can get an entry-level DSLR for a lower price than an entry-level mirrorless camera.
If you opt for a second hand DSLR, this is where real bargains can be found, especially if you’re looking for a cheap full frame camera.
(Ironically, this is probably due to the fact that the DSLR user has switched to mirrorless!)
The Canon 6D Mark II is a good example of an excellent full frame DSLR body that has dropped significantly in price, and represents excellent value for money.
If you’re prepared to shoot with an older model mirrolress body, the Sony a7II offers great bang for the buck too.
Recommended DSLR Cameras
There are so many great DSLR cameras available right now, but here are a few that offer excellent bang for your buck:
- Budget: Nikon D3400 or Canon T7
- Midrange: Nikon D750 or Canon 6D Mark II
- High end: Nikon D780 or Canon 5D Mark IV
The flagship Nikon D series and Canon 1D series cameras are reserved for professional photographers who need the most robust weather-proof bodies, the longest battery life, and the fastest frame rates.
The trade off is in size, weight and cost.
Frequently Asked Questions
Will mirrorless cameras replace DSLR?
Judging by the technological advances of DSLR vs mirrorless cameras, DSLRs are definitely a dying breed. Whether mirrorless cameras will replace them entirely is arguable, but we can definitely expect a reduction in DSLR camera releases in coming years.
Do professionals use mirrorless cameras?
Yes, but they also use DSLR cameras too, depending on the genre of photography.
Are mirrorless cameras better in low light?
Both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras can perform well in low light. It’s more a question of the size of the sensor than the camera format – bigger sensors allow more light to be captured.
Can I use a DSLR lens on a mirrorless camera?
In most cases, yes, but only with a specific adapter.
DSLR vs Mirrorless | Final Words
If you’ve read this far, it should be clear to you that mirrorless cameras offer a lot more for your money here in 2020.
However, DSLRs are not dead just yet! They still offer several advantages over their modern counterparts, although how important are they to you?
When choosing a camera, it’s important to consider the brand – Fujifilm and Sony are heavily invested in the mirrorless format, whereas Nikon and Canon have many years of experience in the DSLR realm. They also offer many more lenses.
Recently, Nikon and Canon have started to produce some excellent full frame and APS-C mirrorless camera bodies, but they still have some catching up to do.
At the end of the day, both mirrorless and DSLR cameras can produce stellar images. Many amateur and professional photographers still use and purchase DSLRs, and have no intention of switching to the mirrorless format.
Similarly, many photographers are invested in the mirrorless system, and would never go back to DSLR (or have perhaps never even used a DSLR!)
Finally, there are some ‘hybrid’ photographers who get the best of both worlds, or perhaps, can’t bear to let go of their beloved DSLR. I fall into this camp :-)
I hope this guide has been useful to you.
Leave a comment below with the type of camera you use, and why you chose it.
Disclaimer: All recommendations are impartial and based on user experience, with no bias to the products or the brand. The products in this post may contain affiliate links.