DSLR vs Mirrorless

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The gist: Mirrorless is unquestionably the future. Autofocus, shutter blackout, battery life, all these were once cited as limitations of mirrorless cameras but none of them present a practical limitation to most shooters today. DSLRs can be picked up cheap because of the transition, but it’s best to be aware of a few key differences between the technologies.Around the year 2018, most major camera manufacturers had fully embraced a new style of camera. Where the debate between DSLR cameras and mirrorless once raged passionately, there began to be fewer and fewer advocates of the former and it became clear that mirrorless was the future. That being said, there are still some benefits to DSLR cameras at the time of this writing. DSLR cameras us an angled mirror to reflect the light coming through the lens into the viewfinder. This is one of their oft-cited advantages over early point and shoot cameras which use a separate optical viewfinder where the photographer wasn’t effectively looking “through the lens”. Because DSLRs use purely optical system to relay the light, there is no power consumption necessary when the photographer looks through the optical viewfinder (OVF). Mirrorless cameras, on the other hand, have no mirror. Light is exposed directly through the lens and onto the sensor and a small video feed is taken from the sensor and displayed on an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Because of this, mirrorless cameras have the distinct advantage of presenting the scene as seen by the camera. This “what you see is what you get” approach can be a major benefit, especially to beginning photographers. It does, however, mean that the viewfinder is constantly on and battery life is therefore impacted. Though modern mirrorless camera battery life is much improved from the early models, it still doesn’t quite meet the precedent set by most DSLRs.

Another benefit with mirrorless cameras is that their flange distance is much shorter than that of a DSLR. The flange distance refers to the space between the mounting flange at the back of the lens and the sensor. Recall that DSLRs had to accommodate an angled mirror in this space. Without it, mirrorless cameras and lenses tend to be appreciably smaller. Some argue that a smaller form factor is detrimental to handling, especially with larger lenses, but it cannot be argued that camera manufactures have the option of creating smaller camera bodies, and it seems most photographers are embracing the smaller size as a new norm.The autofocus systems in DSLR cameras are integrated with that same optical path we’ve been discussing. Typically, the mirror itself is translucent, allowing some light to pass to another mirror which reflects light to an autofocus sensor beneath the mirror. That sensor uses phase detection to essentially compare two different focus levels to attain the sharpest result. Because mirrorless camera bodies do away with the mirror, early models relied solely on contrast-based autofocus. Some contrast-only systems can actually be quite speedy, but in contrast-based AF requires an image to go beyond the point of focus for the camera to realize that it’s past the perfect focus point and needs to change direction. This can be a limitation. Most modern mirrorless manufacturers have implemented phase detect autofocus directly on the sensor now, and real-world AF speeds are generally not cited as being the issue they once were.Stabilization systems in lenses used to make people nauseous. For this reason they don’t fully kick in until a full shutter press.

Common mirrorless models include:

  • Olympus
  • Fujifilm
  • Panasonic
  • Nikon Z
  • Sony A7, a6xxx series
  • Canon EOS RF

Canon EOS RF (replacement to their old “M” mirrorless lineup. Canon made a wider diameter mount so they can produce extremely fast (e.g. f1.2) lenses in the future where Sony opted to stick with E-mount for full frame).

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