Mirrorless or DSLR Cameras: Which is Right for You?

20th September 2017, 09:00am

When it comes to capturing high quality images, people tend to gravitate towards either a DSLR camera or a mirrorless camera. You might also hear mirrorless cameras referred to as ‘compact system cameras’ (CSC). Canon’s DSLR range are known as EOS DSLR cameras, and our mirrorless range is known as EOS M.

Both DSLR and mirrorless cameras use interchangeable lenses, which can be swapped as needed. Both systems are capable of capturing very high quality images and generally speaking, both systems also offer a degree of manual—as well as automated—control.

So how do you know which system is best for your photographic needs? There are a few points to consider, and we’ll step through some of the main ones here.

Technical differences between a Mirrorless and a DSLR camera

The term ‘mirrorless’ comes from the fact that the complex system of mirrors in a DSLR is completely removed from the camera.

These mirrors are there to direct light coming through the lens, up and out through the viewfinder, so that the photographer can frame their shot.  

The mirrors also direct light on to the dedicated Auto Focus sensor, as well as the Auto Exposure sensor.  This means that you have a dedicated purpose-built component to control autofocus, and a purpose-built component to control auto exposure. 

Comparison between a Mirrorless and a DSLR camera from the inside

In a mirrorless camera, these components are removed, along with the mirror-box. By removing the mirrors the camera becomes smaller and lighter however this does present a challenge, because a substitute for the Auto Focus and Auto Exposure sensors needs to be found.  Mirrorless cameras give that job to the imaging sensor, meaning that it has to do multiple jobs.

You’re probably wondering what the impacts of these technical differences are. Wonder no more!

Size and weight

Mirrorless cameras were created to achieve a smaller and lighter camera, while still offering high quality images. In order to create the smallest camera possible, manufacturers analyse every component as a possible point of reduction.  The component that has the greatest effect on overall size and weight is the imaging sensor. With a smaller imaging sensor a camera can have a smaller lens mount, lenses, and body overall.  On the flip side, larger imaging sensors mean everything has to be physically bigger. 

Mirrorless cameras offer a great balance between size, weight, and camera performance.  And they’re in the sweet-spot for using our APS-C sized imaging sensor.

APS-C sensors are what we use in all our entry to mid-range DSLR cameras — such as the EOS 80D — and now our EOS M Mirrorless range.

side by side comparison between the EOS 80D and EOS M5

side by side comparison between the EOS 80D and EOS M5 view from above

Image Quality

We believe mirrorless cameras should offer the same quality as DSLR cameras, just in a smaller package, hence the choice of the APS-C sensor. Specifically, this means great low light performance, image detail, and colour, as well as shallow depth of field.  


Image of red building with balcony

Long exposure landscape image of street at night

Woman in blue dress at window portrait image

Landscape image of blue water in cave

Macro image of fruit and cereal in a bowl

Aerial landscape image of city at night

Image of architecture from below

Camera performance

In use, the difference between EOS Mirrorless and EOS DSLR cameras, stems mainly from how you frame your subject.

For example, an EOS DSLR will always have an optical viewfinder, as well as an LCD screen.  Canon EOS Mirrorless cameras will always have an LCD screen, but not necessarily a viewfinder.  If there is a viewfinder it will be an electronic viewfinder.

As you look through the viewfinder of a DSLR camera, you are seeing exactly what the lens sees, in real time, as the light is bounced up and out through the eyepiece.  In a Mirrorless camera, you look at what the imaging sensor is seeing, regardless of whether you are viewing it through the LCD screen, or an electronic viewfinder.  Because your scene is being relayed to you digitally, there can be a very slight delay – in milliseconds albeit.  Many photographers feel that the optical viewfinder featured on an EOS DSLR enables you to have a closer affinity with your subject and feels more responsive.

An EOS M Mirrorless camera shows you exactly what will be captured; this ‘what you see is what you get’ approach can give you a better idea of how the final image will look.  Significantly, this makes it easier to get to grips with operating the camera in manual mode, as you will get a real-time indication of how the exposure will look. EOS DSLR cameras can also achieve this when operated in Live View mode – giving you the best of both worlds.

DSLR cameras excel at tracking moving subjects.

Advanced algorithms in the dedicated Auto Focus system of an EOS DSLR can actually track a moving subject, and will be able to predict where it will be in the split second the shutter button is pressed.  Even in high-speed shooting mode, the camera will constantly focus the subject.  The premise behind this type of auto-focus – called Phase Detection – is that the camera knows exactly how far to move the focus mechanism in the lens – and in which direction — to achieve focus.

The latest Canon Mirrorless cameras feature an advanced system call ‘Dual Pixel CMOS AF’, whereby every pixel acts as a phase detection sensor.  This technology continues to advance and has considerably reduced the time it takes to focus, even in situations where the subject is moving.

Another thing to bear in mind with mirrorless cameras, and a characteristic of their reduced size, is that the batteries tend to have much lower capacity.  As a very rough approximation, you can expect to capture twice as many shots on a mid-range EOS DSLR that you can on an EOS M Mirrorless camera.  Of course this problem is solved by grabbing an extra battery from your favourite camera store. 

Lens choice

No matter which Canon EOS camera you choose, you will be able to use over 80 Canon EF lenses.  There is a huge range to choose from whether you are looking for a general purpose zoom or travel lens, or shooting something more specific such as portraits, landscapes, macro, sports or wildlife.

When choosing the right Canon lens for your Mirrorless camera, you just need to be aware of a couple of things.

Firstly, the reason why most people choose a mirrorless camera, is because of their reduced size.

We’ve created the EF-M range of lenses built specifically for the smaller lens mount of EOS M series cameras, they are the smallest lenses in the Canon range – but still offer superb quality.

lens range compatible with mirrorless cameras

To use EF-S and EF series lenses, you need to purchase an EF-EOS M lens Adapter.  This opens your photography up in a huge way. We recommend to look for smaller lenses from the EF-S and EF range, such as the EF 40mm STM, the EF-S 24mm STM, and the EF 50mm STM which won’t add too much to the overall size and weight of your EOS M Mirrorless camera


Canon EOS front on angle image

Video

In terms of video performance, there is virtually nothing to separate Canon EOS DSLR or Mirrorless cameras. 

To capture video on a Canon EOS DSLR, you need to switch to Live View mode, so focusing and tracking performance will offer a very similar experience to shooting with a Canon EOS Mirrorless camera.

The main consideration you should be aware of, is the type of auto-focus system the camera uses.  For example, newer EOS DSLR and Mirrorless cameras use ‘Dual Pixel CMOS AF’ which offers superb Auto Focus performance. 

Finally, you should also consider the often overlooked subject of audio capture.  Canon EOS DSLR and Mirrorless models will both be able to capture audio using the built in microphone. For best performance however, you should think about adding an external microphone. This will do a better job, particularly with spoken dialogue. However, you need to double check that your chosen camera has the required 3.5mm microphone port. The same goes for the headphone socket, which can be used to monitor sound on the fly.

Recommendations

In short, you can achieve great image quality from both our EOS DSLR and EOS M Mirrorless camera’s, but there are important considerations in how you achieve those results.

If your photography is more concerned with lots of movement – for example team sports games, kids or pets running around the backyard, motorsport or wildlife – an EOS DSLR is probably the way to go due to its superior Auto Focus system.  It will give you a more direct connection with your subject, and will give you more readily accessible manual controls.

On the other hand, if your main consideration is portability – for travelling, bush walking, or you just want to sling a camera in your bag for those impromptu moments – an EOS M Mirrorless camera will fit the bill nicely. EOS M series cameras are small and light, and very easy to operate, mostly via touch screen control.

Whichever system you choose, you can be sure of the Canon quality promise.

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