Have you decided to upgrade to a Mirrorless camera? Our guide compares the difference with DSLRs and outlines the best mirrorless cases available for under a thousand dollars.

Mirrorless vs DSLR

Mirrorless and DSLR cameras are the two major iterations of digital camera available on today’s market. Yet even though mirrorless cameras have been surging in popularity over the past few years plenty of photographers still aren’t aware of what mirrorless cameras even are, much less what makes them different from DSLR cameras.

It’s all in the name. Mirrorless cameras lack the complex inner mirror system of DSLR cameras. DSLRs use a pentaprism system to channel light through the lens and up to the viewfinder for me to see my subjects with. DSLR viewfinders have the advantage of taking no power to use.

camera-dslr-mirrorless-lumix

Mirrorless cameras use an electronic viewfinder (EVF) that generates an image similar to a TV or video screen. The EVF of mirrorless cameras does take additional power which shortens the battery life of the camera. But the EVF displays can integrate smart technology like focus peaking lines when manual focusing. DSLRs can offer smart displays as well but use the LCD screen on the back panel.

Autofocus systems are also significantly different from that of DSLR cameras. Both rely heavily on phase and contrast detection. Phase detection works by using paired autofocus sensors to analyze light received from the subject. If the light is different between the pairs, the camera knows the focus is off and adjusts accordingly.

Autofocus Architecture

The phase detection autofocus system of DSLR cameras has its own set of mirrors separate from that of the viewfinder. This adds weight and volume to the body of the camera. But with a mirrorless camera, the autofocus system is concentrated entirely around the camera’s image sensor.

Both the phase and contrast detecting elements rely on the sensor which gives many mirrorless cameras a hybrid autofocus system that combines the speed of phase detection with the accuracy of contrast detection. For those who don’t know contrast detection uses the image generated by the sensor to search for maximum contrast. The autofocus system searches for the highest possible tonal difference between image pixels.

Because the autofocus and viewfinder systems are integrated into the sensor mirrorless cameras are much more compact than DSLR cameras while giving the same image quality. But because manufacturers want to keep the weight and size down mirrorless camera batteries not only have to work harder but are generally smaller than DSLR batteries.

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Battery Life

Even for a high-end mirrorless camera, 400 shots per charge is considered decent stamina. Sometimes even 200 shots per charge are not unheard of in the mirrorless world compared to 500-1200 shots per charge for most DSLR cameras. Extra batteries are mandatory for interchangeable lens camera owners but third-party batteries are not expensive.

Pros and Cons

Another disadvantage of mirrorless cameras is their newness. Many well-established DSLR cameras have hundreds of compatible lenses available. There are 280 native lenses compatible with the Nikon D3400, for example. This also includes thousands of name and cross-brand accessories and potentially millions of users who can share and compare their experiences using the camera.

If I opt to buy a mirrorless camera there may only be a dozen lenses available. The Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III is a top seller yet it has about 90 native lenses available. And this is only because Micro 4/3rds mounts are all cross-compatible. Therefore, this number includes Panasonic’s Micro 4/3rds lenses as well. The number of Olympus lenses for the Mark III is closer to 45 lenses in total.

Mirrorless vs Premium Compact Cameras

There’s not a huge gap between mirrorless cameras and high-end compact cameras. At least not at the low end of the market. The battery life of both tends to be fairly poor. And both are designed with the idea of being smaller and more portable than a bulky DSLR camera.

The main difference between the two is that compact cameras are geared towards ease of operation and lower price. Mirrorless cameras cater to a more technologically capable crowd of photographers. Few compact cameras have exposure compensation dials and many don’t even offer manual exposure control.

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Compact cameras also don’t offer interchangeable lenses. If I buy a compact camera I’m stuck with a single generalist lens. Often that lens is capable of some amazing feats. Focal ranges of 20-2000mm are not unheard of. But the pictures this camera takes will never compare with a specialized lens on a mirrorless camera.

I can take a portrait or a far nature photo with a generalist compact camera. But neither will look as good as using a portrait lens with a wide open f/1.4 aperture on my mirrorless camera and then switch to a f/2.8 200-300mm wildlife telephoto lens. The differences in image sharpness, clarity, noise grain, and depth of field for both photos will immediately be apparent.

Compact camera sensors are also universally tiny compared to those of most mirrorless cameras. The largest compact sensors tend to be 1” sized (12.80 x 9.60mm) while full frame (36 x 24mm) cameras that cost less than $800 body-only. Compact cameras as a whole have very poor low light performance due to their tiny sensors.

Best Lens for a Beginner?

It really depends on the model you go for. But mirrorless cameras do offer some unique advantages over DSLRs in this field. For one, DSLR manufacturers that also have mirrorless models like Canon and Nikon have created adapters specifically for use with their mirrorless bodies. This means if I’m a Canon or Nikon DSLR owner than it’s a good idea to look at Canon/Nikon cameras.

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Depending on the make and model the lens features work perfectly but not always. Sometimes the autofocus or aperture controls may not work as well as they do with a standard DSLR camera. But it lets me save quite a bit of money and keeps my DSLR lens collection from going to waste.

Are Mirrorless Models Good for Video Recording?

Mirrorless is just as good as DSLR cameras; it really depends on what model I decide to go with. Some like the Panasonic LUMIX GH5 is especially well designed to work as hybrid photo-video devices. Yet there are plenty of DSLRs that shoot great video too like the Canon 5D Mark IV.

One thing I need to consider beyond features is what video quality do I need? Most videographers are going to want maximum flexibility and resolution. 4K recording (3,840 x 2,160p) is more and more common at lower prices compared to DSLRs which tend to stick with Full HD resolution (1920×1080p). For a budget-minded videographer mirrorless cameras offer more resolution at a cheaper price.

Performance Compared to DSLRs in low light settings?

This question depends entirely on the size of the sensor which is not determined by being mirrorless or DSLR based. Sensors come in 1/2.3” (6.17 x 4.55mm), 1” (12.80 x 9.60mm), Micro 4/3rds (17.30 x 14.00mm), APS-C (23.60 x 15.60mm) and full frame sizes (36 x 24mm) just the same as DLSR cameras do. And low light performance is strongly influenced by the size of the sensor because the sensor is the light collection zone for the camera. The larger the zone the more light it can take in.

Low light performance is also affected by the aperture of the lens I use and that’s also independent of whether it’s a mirrorless or DSLR camera. Both mirrorless and DSLR cameras both have features like image stabilization, ISO boosts, and exposure compensation to help with low light issues. It’s really a tie and depends entirely on the camera I want to buy.

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Interchangeable Lens Camera Advantages

Mirrorless cameras tend to rely somewhat more on contrast detection than the phase detection of DSLR cameras. This is a very generalized statement because both types have crossover into both types of autofocus systems. But since you’re more likely to get contrast-based autofocus, it means you have a camera that’s slightly slower to focus but is overall more accurate.

Contrast detection works extremely well in applications where getting an exact focus is extremely important like portrait and macro photography. It works especially well with portraiture because your subject isn’t likely to flee from you so super-fast autofocus speeds aren’t needed. However, contrast detecting autofocus can struggle in low light environments. If I see the lens hunting back and forth more than usual I know the camera is having difficulty finding focus.

Why do mirrorless cameras have shutters?

All current camera designs are based on quickly exposing a section of “film” to light where it leaves an imprint. A film camera uses physical film while a digital camera uses an electronic sensor to record an image. Mirrorless cameras have shutters just like any other camera but more and more of them have two kinds of shutters.

First, here’s a physical shutter located in front of the sensor. This physical shutter works just like a DSLR shutter to control light flow via the shutter speed setting. The faster the shutter blinks the less light that enters the camera, making shutter speed foundational to exposure control. And the slower the shutter releases the more light that can enter.

But mirrorless cameras also employ a second type of shutter called an electronic shutter. These are a key advantage unique to interchangeable lens cameras. Essentially the shutter itself blinks on and off. This electronic “shutter” can operate many times faster than a physical shutter. Physical shutters tend to max out at round 1/8000ths of a second. Electronic shutters can reach 1/16000ths to 1/32000ths of a second, making them extremely useful for high-speed action photographers.

But the disadvantage to electronic shutters is that they usually use what’s called a curtain shutter design. With a curtain shutter, the pixels don’t wink out all at once. Rather, they wink out slowly from top to bottom. This means if I’m using an extremely slow shutter speed the exposure will be off using a curtain shutter design. Therefore, electronic shutters are limited in how slow they can operate. If I want to shoot using a 1-second exposure or longer I need to use the physical shutter.

Are mirrorless cameras silent?

Electronic shutters offer a second advantage in that they’re entirely silent. If I’m shooting a wedding or other event where I want to be unobtrusive switching to the e-shutter means I can operate with no sound at all. Combined with whisper quiet autofocus systems mirrorless cameras have a distinct advantage over most DSLRs in the world of silence.

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Which model is best for shooting in low light settings?

While the aperture setting of your lens makes a big difference I also want as large a sensor as possible for low light camera operation. This means a full frame sensor (36 x 24mm). Fortunately, Sony has graced the interchangeable lens market with the cheapest full frame camera on the market, the A7. This was the first full frame sensor available for under $1000. Having a huge light collection zone makes a world of difference, especially if I’m trying to use the autofocus system.

Best Value Mirrorless Models

Panasonic LUMIX DMC-G85

PANASONIC LUMIX G85 4K

Sensor size: Micro 4/3rds sized 17.30 x 13.00mm
Weight: 505 g.

What we like:

  • The body of the LUMIX G85 is fully weather sealed to keep out dust and moisture, making this a great camera for landscape, nature, and wildlife photographers.
  • 4K video recording
  • Micro 4/3rds lens mounts are cross-compatible with Olympus cameras, doubling the number of lenses available
  • 5-axis image stabilization keeps handheld photos sharp. This feature also works with every lens attached to the LUMIX G85. Panasonic lenses with OIS (optical image stabilization) work in tandem with the sensor stabilization of the G85 to provide even more IS.
  • Articulating touchscreen LCD

What we don’t like:

  • Average battery life at 330 shots per charge
  • Moderately heavy compared to other interchangeable models
  • Low resolution compared to most digital cameras on the market (16 megapixels)

Panasonic LUMIX G7

PANASONIC LUMIX G7 4K

Sensor size: Micro 4/3rds sized 17.30 x 13.00mm
Weight: 410 g

What we like:

  • Articulating touch screen
  • Best 4K video recording
  • Microphone and flash sync port for videographers
  • Offers great images and video at a relatively low price point

What we don’t like:

  • Relatively low number of focus points (49)
  • 16 MP relatively low-resolution image sensor
  • No built-in image stabilization to keep handheld photography sharp

Sony A7

Sony a7 Full-Frame

Sensor size: Full frame sized 36.00 x 24.00mm
Weight: 474 g.

What we like:

  • Large full frame sensor gives a great low light performance, depth of field and noise control, and dynamic range
  • Environmental sealing to keep out dust and moisture. The Sony A7 is another camera that works well for outdoor photographers
  • 24 Megapixels is a standard amount of resolution and gives room for cropping and creating large prints
  • 117 autofocus points for flexibility in composition

What we don’t like:

  • Video resolution maxes out at Full HD (1920×1080p)
  • No UHS (Ultra High Speed) card compatibility

Sony a6000

Sony Alpha a6000

Sensor size: APS-C sized 23.5 x 15.6mm
Weight: 344 g.

What we like:

  • A very fast rate of burst photography (11.0 frames per second). This makes it a top choice for action-oriented photographers.
  • 24 megapixels is a standard resolution for today’s digital cameras
  • 73 lenses natively available
  • The a6000 uses a hybrid autofocus system that combines the best of both contrast and phase detection. The autofocus system is both fast and accurate.
  • This camera is lightweight and can easily fit into a pocket with the lens removed.

What we don’t like:

  • The a6000 has no environmental sealing to keep out dust and moisture.
  • Many lenses for this camera have built-in image stabilization but the a6000 does not have built-in IS.

Sony a5000

Sony Alpha a5000

Sensor size: APS-C sized 23.5 x 15.6mm
Weight: 269 g.

What we like:

  • 420 shots is a good battery life for an interchangeable lens camera
  • 73 lenses natively available

What we don’t like:

  • 20 megapixels is a good resolution but slightly lower than that of the a6000 (24 MP)
  • No electronic or optical viewfinder.
  • Images are composed of the LCD screen only.
  • No image stabilization built-in.
  • 25 focus points is a very low number
  • No hot shoe for an external flash or external EVF

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III

Olympus OM-D E-M10

Sensor size: Micro 4/3rds sized 17.30 x 13.00mm
Weight: 410 g.

What we like:

  • Cross-compatibility with Panasonic Micro 4/3rds lenses gives it an expanded number of available lenses
  • 4K video recording available
  • 5-axis image stabilization helps keep photos taken without a tripod sharp. Also provides image stabilization with every lens attached. If the attached Olympus lens also has image stabilization it will work together with the sensor stabilization of the Mark III for even more stability.
  • Articulating touchscreen LCD

What we don’t like:

  • Average battery life of only 330 shots per charge
  • No weather sealing to keep out dust and moisture

Fujifilm X-T20

Fujifilm X-T20

Sensor size: APS-C sized 23.60 x 15.60mm
Weight: 383 g.

What we like:

  • An extremely fast electronic shutter that operates as fast as 1/32000ths of a second to freeze the action
  • 24 Megapixels is a standard amount of resolution and gives room for cropping and creating large prints
  • 325 autofocus points give incredible versatility in composing images and tracking subjects with autofocus
  • The large APS-C sensor has good low light performance, depth of field, noise control, and dynamic range.
  • Articulating touchscreen LCD
  • Very lightweight body for portability and ease of storage on trips

What we don’t like:

  • Very low number of native lenses available (34)

Nikon 1 J5

Sensor size: 1” sized 13.2 x 8.8mm
Weight: 231 g.

What we like:

  • Extremely fast continuous drive photography at 20.0 frames per second
  • Very small body meant for street photographers who want a pocket-sized camera
  • Fairly high resolution at 21 megapixels. So long as the light levels are not challenging the 1 J5 has excellent image quality.
  • Access to Nikon’s vast collection of available lenses using the Nikon mirrorless adapter.

What we don’t like:

  • At 250 shots per charge, the 1 J5 has a very low battery life
  • Only 13 lenses are natively compatible with this camera.
  • The 1 J5 only composes images and video using the LCD screen. It does not have an electronic viewfinder. This can feel clumsy for photographers used to looking through some sort of viewfinder.
  • While the Nikon 1 J5 has 4K video recording the frame rate is a noticeably choppy 15 frames per second.
  • The tiny sensor’s resolution is too high. 21 megapixels on a small sensor means the individual pixels themselves are also smaller compared to 21 MP on a large sensor. This negatively impacts the camera’s low light performance as well as the amount of noise found in images.
  • The 1 J5 has no external hot shoe to attach an additional flash or electronic viewfinder.

Canon EOS M100

Canon EOS M100

Sensor size: APS-C sized 22.30 x 14.90mm
Weight: 302 g.

What we like:

  • Articulating touch screen for ease of operation
  • 24 megapixels on a large APS-C sensor gives great noise control, depth of field, and sensor dynamic range.
  • Multishot Noise Reduction allows for triple exposed images to help control noise in low light settings
  • Dual Pixel CMOS autofocus is a form of hybrid autofocus that combines the best elements of phase and contrast detection based autofocus.
What we don’t like:

  • The M100 only has 12 lenses currently available. Using Canon’s mirrorless adapter that number jumps to hundreds of lenses but the adapter is not free.
  • No image stabilization available to help keep the handheld image sharp and free of motion blur

Conclusion

Mirrorless cameras are the new kids on the block and offer several advantages over DSLR cameras. They are more compact and offer the same high-quality imagery in a smaller package.

The electronic viewfinders are often packed with photographer-aiding features and the electronic shutters are capable of blazing-fast operation. While they are not solidly better or worse than DSLR cameras they are certainly worth looking at if you’re in the market for a new camera.