Mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras are quickly becoming favorite tools of many photographers due to their combination of small size, light weight, and high image quality potential. Digital SLRs and bulkier and heavier, but many professionals continue to choose them, believing that mirrorless cameras can’t stand up to the rigorous demands of professional imaging.
If you’re on your way to becoming a professional photographer and thinking about which equipment will work best for you, or considering changing up your gear, it’s important to consider the pros and cons of both mirrorless cameras and DSLRs. Ultimately, just about any camera in the hands of a skilled photographer can produce great images. But it’s up to you to decide if you feel a mirrorless camera will work for professional photography.
That decision isn’t an easy one, because there are many advantages and disadvantages of both mirrorless cameras and DSLRs to consider. Here, we’ll take a look at what each system has to offer, so you can get started on your path to choosing the best camera system for your needs.
The pros of mirrorless cameras
Size and weight
DSLRs are based on traditional camera designs from the film era, and have optical viewfinders. These viewfinders show you a true-to-life rendering of what the camera sees, using a pentaprism and mirrors to reflect the light coming into the lens up and through the viewfinder.
Due to the mirror and prism assembly, DSLRs tend to be bigger and heavier than mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, which, as their name indicates, don’t use mirrors. Instead of mirrors that reflect light into an optical viewfinder, most mirrorless cameras have electronic viewfinders that show you a digital rendering of the light that the camera’s sensor is absorbing—such as you would get when using “live view” on the rear LCD of a DSLR. Because mirrorless cameras lack the bulky mirror and prism assemblies, they tend to be significantly smaller and lighter than their SLR counterparts.
With that said, the larger size of DSLRs can make them better for people with bigger hands due to more substantial grip and wider-spaced buttons. DSLRs may also be a better choice for use with larger lenses that tend to balance better with bulkier bodies. And speaking of larger lenses, the size and weight of the glass for some mirrorless cameras (such as Sony’s full-frame a7 and a9 series, and to a lesser extent Fuji’s X-series) can get rid of any weight or space savings from the smaller camera body pretty quickly.
Taking the mirror out of a digital camera not only makes it smaller and lighter, it also does wonders for the actual experience of making photographs. Because there’s no mirror slapping around inside, mirrorless cameras are significantly quieter, to the point that many of them can be completely silent when capturing an image.
Combined with the small size, this makes mirrorless cameras perfect for situations where going unnoticed is key—such as street photography, candid weddings, and photojournalism. Getting rid of the mirror also cuts down on camera shake, which increases your chances of making a sharp image.
Depending on who you ask, the electronic viewfinder (EVF) may be considered a pro or a con of mirrorless camera. The pro side of the EVF is that it gives you a full-time live view through your camera’s viewfinder. That means you will, for the most part, see through the viewfinder exactly what your captured image will look like. What you see through your viewfinder is what you get. And you don’t have to stop and review images on your rear LCD, you can do that right in your viewfinder.
Another benefit of the EVF is the ability to see all manner of information directly in the viewfinder, including histogram, grid overlay, electronic level, and more. Aside from lacking the purity, clarity, and natural look of optical viewfinders, the only real con left when it comes to EVFs is their tendency to “lag” when you move your camera quickly.
Cons of mirrorless cameras
The number of shots you can get in a battery charge will remain a challenge of mirrorless cameras until some point in the future when battery technology takes a huge leap. As things stand, you can get anywhere between 700 and 1,000 shots to a charge with a DSLR, while the best mirrorless cameras only offer up to 400 shots under ideal conditions. Sure, extra batteries are cheap and you can carry a few with you, but that can eat into your weight savings pretty quickly, and it tends to be a hassle having to change batteries on a regular basis. One way mirrorless manufacturers are getting around this limitation is with battery grips that can hold two to three batteries at a time.
Here we have another aspect that can be both a pro and con of mirrorless cameras. Mirrorless system lenses tend to be of high optical and build quality, but in most cases the selection of lenses available is still pretty limited. Established DSLR systems like Canon and Nikon have vast lineups of lenses available for almost every purpose you could think of, and they also tend to be more regularly available for lower prices on the used equipment market. Lenses for mirrorless systems such as Sony and Fuji X are in extremely high demand and tend to cost a fair bit. The exception to this rule is the Micro Four Thirds system from Olympus and Panasonic, which offers a large selection of very high quality and compact lenses at relatively affordable prices.
If you’re working in an area of photography where capturing moving subjects in action is key, you might want to think long and hard before choosing a mirrorless system. The contrast-detection autofocus systems on mirrorless cameras lock on to still subjects incredibly effectively, face detection features work well, and their tracking autofocusing has also come a long way in recent years, to the point that some pros are considering cameras like Fuji’s X-T2 for action sports photography at the Olympics. But as a whole, the tracking autofocus systems on even the most advanced mirrorless cameras have a ways to go before they will be able to keep up with the blazing fast and accurate autofocus systems of modern DSLR cameras.