DSCF3992DSLR vs. Mirrorless

One of the most common phrases in photography circles these days is that “mirrorless is the future.” Like many other predictions, we usually tend to over-predict in favour of the new challenger. That’s always been the case for as long as I can remember. Just about a decade ago, we all hypothesized that notebook computers would replace desktops and that hasn’t really happened. Also, of course, with the advent of digital, we all thought that was the end of film, but these days, there are still legions of 35mm film shooters and many medium and large format shooters due to the unaffordability of medium format digital cameras.

What Is Mirrorless the Future Of?

There are two issues, in my opinion, which need to be addressed before we can even begin to ponder about whether mirrorless is “the future.” The first issue is, what exactly is mirrorless the future of? Whilst most professional and serious amateur shooters have been shooting with DSLRs for the past decade, we’ve often turned a blind eye to other markets, such as the point and shoot markets, and also what the majority of people out there are using. If you go to a popular tourist destination and survey what cameras are being used, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d find that there are more cameras without mirrors in them than cameras with. Of course, point and shoot cameras are mirrorless. So perhaps another way of looking at it is that mirrorless isn’t exactly the future – it’s already here and it’s been here for a while. The difference is that now, the technology available in mirrorless and the features that are being added (such as interchangeable lenses) have begun to encroach on the mainstay of DSLRs – the professional and serious amateur markets.


Why Are There Mirrors In the First Place?

The second issue relates to why mirrors are in our cameras in the first place. Most photographers, especially the younger generation born after the relative death of rangefinders, have probably never really experienced a serious (non point-and-shoot) mirrorless camera prior to their recent resurgence. Cameras weren’t invented with mirrors in them – in fact, once upon a time, all cameras were mirrorless! The mirror was actually a later addition to solve a very large inherent problem – that with film, there was no other way of seeing “through the lens.” Rangefinders only offered an approximation to the frame you would see, the physicists out there would be all too aware of the parallax issues which plagued rangefinders – not allowing photographers to achieve precise composition.



Given that today, digital technology is allowing us to see “through the lens” by viewing what the sensor sees, is there still a case for having mirrors in our cameras? Of course there is – some people still prefer being able to see “the real world” through the lens optically, rather than an LCD screen with the images on it. After all, we still wear glasses, not small LCD screens placed in front of our eyes, right? Viewing through an optical view finder (as on a DLSR) compared to an electronic view finder (as on a mirrorless camera) allows us to view the events of the world in real time and saves battery power (as we don’t have to power an LCD screen along with all the electronics that make it work). This is one of the reasons why DSLRs are still preferred by many photographers and is the benefit that mirrorless cameras will never attain. Other benefits of a DSLR system, such as faster autofocus, better build quality, a wider selection of lenses – these all have to do with the system’s relative maturity compared to many of the mirrorless systems as opposed to inherent benefits of a DSLR design itself.


On the other hand with mirrorless cameras, we have electronic viewfinders, which allows us to see what the camera sees. This means we can correct exposure, white balance and all our other settings before hitting the shutter button. There is also often a weight advantage with mirrorless cameras, though this is not as significant as some would think. With telephoto lenses, there is usually next to no weight savings. With wide-angle lenses, due to the shorter flange distance of mirrorless cameras, they are usually much more simple designs, saving on weight and size. Mirrorless bodies are generally lighter than DSLRs, but DSLRs are getting lighter every day, as evidenced by the newer generation of cameras, such as Nikon’s D750.

The mirrorless market will continue to evolve; mirrorless cameras will get better, more professional grade bodies and lenses will be released and teething problems such as autofocus will improve over time. All the minor complaints of lack of lenses, lack of dual SD card slots and other professional features – these will also all be fixed with time. The day we have a mature mirrorless camera against a mature DSLR camera – the question will be purely OVF vs. EVF. That is the quintessential question.


Personally, I don’t believe mirrorless or DSLR cameras are “the future” – they’re both here to stay and will continue to co-exist, just like how laptops and desktops have continued to co-exist. People keep talking about whether Canon and Nikon will be releasing mirrorless cameras – my question is “Why?” Sure Nikon can make a mirrorless full-frame camera by simply ditching the mirror, retaining the F mount and compatibility with all their lenses from the past half-century, but what benefit would that bring, apart from miniscule weight benefits?

Perhaps the logical answer to this entire mirrorless vs. DSLR fiasco, at least for Canon and Nikon, is to offer a hybrid viewfinder system where we can switch between an OVF and EVF, much like the Fuji X100 series, so that we can have the benefit of a real time, no delay real world view, as well as a preview of our shot so we can adjust exposure and white balance before hitting the shutter.

About the Guest Contributor

Paul Nguyen is a Melbourne, Australia-based photographer, taking pictures of anything from cars, to streetscapes, to portraits. In the time he’s not spending photographing, he’s usually either reading about new gear and techniques, spending time with his family or reading. He runs a blog discussing mostly his adventures with his Fuji gear, as well as a Flickr photostream, where he’s recently started sharing his work.