DSLR vs mirrorless: which camera type is right for you?

(Image credit: Canon)

With many emerging technologies, it’s often the case that the idea at their core is ahead of the real-world implementation – and in the field of photography, that’s definitely the situation when it comes to interchangeable lens cameras (ILCs). At a rough count, there have been 20 new mirrorless models launched in Australia over the last 12 months alone, compared to just two DSLRs. That’s a telling trend. While there’s still a huge number of DSLR users that are happy with their cameras, the industry has turned a lot of its focus onto the mirrorless format – meaning that, in the future, DSLR lovers won’t be able to upgrade in the way they’ve done in the past. So why are DSLRs still so popular, and what are the advantages of the mirrorless configuration?

The Canon EOS 90D is one of the few DSLRs to have been launched recently

The Canon EOS 90D is one of the few DSLRs to have been launched recently (Image credit: Canon)

As you’ve probably worked out, it’s all about the mirror… specifically, the reflex mirror. This is the component at the heart of the single lens reflex – aka SLR – camera which, as we know it today, has actually been around since the late 1940s. When digital capture first came along, 35mm film was simply swapped for an imaging sensor, but nothing much else has changed. The reflex mirror is located just behind the lens mount and reflects light up to the optical viewfinder – so, at the eyepiece, you’re seeing reality, pure and simple. It’s real world, real time… and that’s why so many photographers love their DSLRs.

However, that reflex mirror is actually in front of the imaging sensor, so at the moment of exposure it has to be physically flipped out of the way. This is obviously done mechanically, so it’s noisy, creates vibrations and also blacks out the viewfinder when in the up position.

It's all about the reflex mirror in the Canon EOS 90D DSLR

It's all about the reflex mirror in the Canon EOS 90D DSLR (Image credit: Canon)

The mirrorless camera is pure digital-era, replacing the traditional mirror box and optical viewfinder with an electronic finder which live streams from the imaging sensor. This allows for a smaller, lighter camera body and, with all that mechanical activity gone, one that’s also quieter and quicker. No brainer, then?

Well, yes and no. Electronic viewfinders obviously have a frame rate (also known as the refresh rate) so, at faster shooting speeds, they can black out too, and no matter how good, they can’t match an optical viewfinder for dynamic range, contrast or resolution… at least not right now.

The same, but different

Consequently, it’s not surprising that a camera-maker like Canon – market leader in DSLRs for a very long time – is giving consumers the choice. Those two new DSLRs mentioned earlier were both from Canon. Moreover, the company still busily promoting models such as its best-selling EOS 5D Mark IV and has already announced the development of the EOS 1D X Mark III professional sports DSLR. Yet, it’s also very active with not one, but two mirrorless camera systems – the full-frame EOS R and the APS-C format EOS M.

In fact, Canon’s most recent new camera launch was a joint one for a DSLR and a mirrorless camera – the EOS 90D and the EOS M6 Mark II. The two share the same 34.4 megapixels APS-C format CMOS sensor (32.5 MP effective) and Canon’s latest-gen DiG!C 8 image processor, so they have similar feature sets and imaging performance. However, side-by-side, they illustrate the key differences between the DSLR and mirrorless designs. 

Thanks to its more compact form factor, the EOS M6 Mark II makes the for the perfect travelling companion

Thanks to its more compact form factor, the EOS M6 Mark II makes the for the perfect travelling companion (Image credit: Canon)

Clearly, the EOS M6 Mark II is more compact and it’s around 300 grams lighter. Overall portability is further enhanced by the comparative smallness of Canon’s EF-M mirrorless lenses. Size and weight considerations – especially if you carry a kit of lenses – are currently the prime reasons for DSLR users switching to mirrorless. Yet Canon also makes some compact DSLRs, such the 25.8 MP EOS 200D Mark II – the company's other comparatively-recent DSLR release in Australia. Interestingly, as a result of being, shall we say, a ‘mature’ technology, DSLRs are starting to represent excellent value for money in interchangeable lens cameras. Canon currently has three DSLRs priced at under $1000 complete with a standard zoom, and the 200D Mark II is not much over this so it’s a lot of camera for the money.

Through the looking glass

On the mirrorless front, the EOS M6 Mark II is the new EOS M flagship with key specs such as continuous shooting at a cracking 14 fps when using its focal plane (FP) shutter, and at a super-fast 30 fps when using the sensor-based shutter… both with full autofocusing and exposure adjustment. Sensor-based autofocusing is another plus for mirrorless cameras, especially in terms of scene coverage, and Canon’s Dual Pixel CMOS AF system has a total 5,481 measuring pixels (with 143 user-selectable points) which, in particular, makes for very reliable subject tracking even with fast-moving objects or erratic ones such as small children. 

To make the most of the size reductions possible with the mirrorless configuration, Canon packages the M6 II with a clip-on electronic viewfinder which, nevertheless, fully integrates with the camera, even maintaining ‘touch and drag’ AF point selection from the monitor. On the other hand, if you prefer a fully-integrated EVF – and a lot of photographers still do – Canon has both the EOS M5 and M50 mirrorless models (again with 25.8 MP resolution) which, consequently, both look like mini DSLRs. 

While camera specs matter, design plays a huge part as well

While camera specs matter, design plays a huge part as well (Image credit: Canon)

Don’t laugh, styling is still an important consideration for many camera buyers, and it’s one reason why the DSLR isn’t done yet, especially at the enthusiast and pro levels. And the experiential factor too – handling, control layout and, of course, the optical viewfinder. Interestingly with the EOS 90D, Canon really exploits these elements, making it the most capable mid-range APS-C DSLR on the market, while also offering some of the benefits of a mirrorless camera when it’s in either the live view or movie modes. These include a shooting speed of 11 fps – that’s fast for a mid-level DSLR – and the coverage and responsiveness of the Dual Pixel CMOS AF system. And you can switch between traditional controls and the touch screen monitor so, in many ways, the EOS 90D represents the best of camera tradition and technology.

Tradition will undoubtedly have a role in the DSLR’s ongoing longevity while new technology is giving the mirrorless camera a number of hard-to-ignore benefits… and it’s really only just getting started here, so there’s a lot more to come. Whatever your preference though, there’s almost certainly a Canon ILC that fits.