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DSLR or Mirrorless? Which is Right for You?

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Video Transcript

Hi, I'm Phil Steele. Right now many photographers are struggling with the choice of whether their next camera should be a traditional DSLR or one of the new breeds of smaller mirrorless cameras. In this video I'm going to summarize the advantages and disadvantages of each type, to help you decide based on your own particular shooting needs which type is right for you.

I'm shooting this in June of 2016 and I mention that because this technology is changing fast and in a few years the situation may be different, but the current state of the arms race between DSLR and mirrorless cameras has remained essentially unchanged for several years now and I think it may continue like this for a while yet. I've been shooting with a variety of both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras for several years now, trying to find a path to move away from the bigger, heavier DSLRs to the smaller lighter mirrorless cameras for all my work but I haven't found that path.

Each one has certain advantages in certain conditions, so there is no clear winner. I would advise you to be skeptical of the advice of anyone who tells you there is a clear winner. Usually those people are rationalizing their investment in one system or the other and so they turn a blind eye to the benefits of the other system but I don't have a horse in this race. I use them both and I think the choice depends on your particular shooting needs.

I'm going to break down the advantages and disadvantages that I've found in my own shooting using both systems to help you make your own choice. First, let's look at the traditional DSLR. These have been around for a long time now. This is very mature technology so you get a lot of bang for your buck, so that's the first advantage. If you're on a budget and you want to get a lot of very good camera for your money, you can't beat the traditional DSLR. Second, DSLRs still have an advantage when it comes to fast, accurate auto-focus. Mirrorless cameras are catching up but I have yet to find one that can match the lightning-fast speed and accuracy of good DSLR auto-focus. Now, if you shoot landscapes this may not matter to you, but if you shoot action, moving subjects, sports, dance, events, racing, wildlife - then you know how important fast accurate auto-focus is and DSLRs still have the edge here. Third, what I call the 'intimidation factor' if you do professional photography involving human subjects, portraits, events, weddings, then people will expect you to have a big camera. You'll be perceived as more professional, and if you're shooting events, if you carry a big DSLR rig you'll get access to places that you can't otherwise go.

Now, let's look at some of the advantages of the mirrorless cameras. The first and most obvious is size. By omitting the big mirror and prism assembly that allows you to look out through the lens on a DSLR, mirrorless cameras just fit in a smaller package. Unless you put a big heavy lens on it a mirrorless camera is typically going to be smaller, more portable and lighter than a DSLR. This is their real strength. When I travel I never carry a DSLR anymore. Who wants to lug all that stuff around? Instead, I'll carry a mirrorless usually one with a fixed lens like this Fuji: that's the whole size of it and that can go in the pocket of my cargo shorts. Or I might take one with an interchangeable lens and put a small lightweight zoom lens on it to keep it light and portable.

The problem with keeping it light and portable though, is that you may be sacrificing some features or some quality and if you start trying to push up the features and quality, for example going with a full-frame mirrorless camera or using faster wide aperture lenses, if you're not careful you can end up with a mirrorless camera that actually weighs more than a small DSLR and then you've wiped out one of its advantages. And of course you'll probably pay a lot more for that mirrorless camera than you would for the equivalent DSLR. The cost is currently one of the biggest drawbacks of mirrorless cameras although that may change over time. Now, by omitting the mirror you're no longer looking out through the lens on these cameras. Instead you're typically looking at an electronic viewfinder. The disadvantage of that is the electronic viewfinder is a screen made of pixels and it doesn't have the resolution of looking at the real world and sometimes it can have a time lag which can be annoying. On the other hand, an electronic viewfinder shows you your exposure changes in real time and it can help you see in dark settings where the sensor may actually be more sensitive than your eye. So the electronic viewfinder has both advantages and disadvantages.

Finally, I mentioned the advantage that a DSLR has because of the intimidation factor but the flip side of that coin is a small inconspicuous camera can be an advantage if you want to be able to take candid photos. Photos of people without them noticing that you're shooting them. You can get more authentic action and expression this way. If you point a big DSLR somebody it's like pointing a bazooka at them. They tend to notice. So, if you're a street photographer or an event photographer and you'd like to get candid photos of people, then a mirrorless camera can be your friend.

Let's summarize. You might want to choose a DSLR if you're on a budget and you want to get the most camera that you can for your money. If you shoot action or moving subjects, a DSLR has an autofocus advantage. If you want to shoot professional portraits or professional event photography, a DSLR has the intimidation factor. It makes you look more professional and it gets you access to places. Now on the other hand, a mirrorless camera might be right for you if money is not your primary concern. They tend to cost more than an equivalent DSLR, at least for now. If you want a camera for travel or one that's easily portable this is where mirrorless cameras really shine. Some mirrorless cameras are designed for special needs like low light photography or video and can be very useful there. Finally, if you want to be inconspicuous for candid photos or street photography then the small size and silent operation of a mirrorless camera can be an advantage.

I think you can see why I'm still using both types of cameras now. When I'm doing professional event photography, I still want the intimidation factor of a big DSLR. When I'm doing sports or action I want that fast, accurate auto-focus. On the other hand, when I'm traveling now I only carry a mirrorless camera and I leave the big, heavy DSLR at home. Sometimes, if I'm trying to get candid photos are shooting and low light I'll use a mirrorless camera for that too. For the foreseeable future I think I'm going to be using both systems for quite some time. But your needs may be different from mine and I hope you found this helpful in making your choice. By the way, if you'd like to see more free tutorials like this one including many that you won't find on my YouTube channel and several full-length photography training courses you can check it all out on my website at SteeleTraining.com.