Let me tell you something. I’ve been around cameras for a quite a while now and when someone asks which of something is better, it’s nearly impossible to give them a definitive answer. There are a few reasons for this. First or all, the answer depends completely on the person’s priorities. What are they looking for? What’s important to them? How would they want the final result to appear? Secondly, defining “which is better” is like shooting at a moving target, especially when it comes to cameras and electronics. Last year’s “better” might be this years “worse.” I think you get the idea.
Today’s post is going to be a discussion about cameras that use mirrors (DSLR cameras) versus cameras that don’t use mirrors (DSLM cameras). By the way, DSLR stands for digital single-lens reflex and DSLM stands for digital single-lens mirrorless, but I think you’ll find that most people out there call the camera without a mirror, mirrorless.
A Quick Overview
I don’t want to beat a dead horse here because I’m sure you’ve already read or heard about how mirrored cameras work. If you haven’t though, I’ll quickly give you an overview of the process.
For a scene to be visible through the viewfinder of a DSLR camera, that scene (light) needs to first enter through the lens and then reflect off of what’s called the rotating mirror. If you take the lens off of your camera and look inside, you’ll see this mirror. It’s on an angle at the center of the camera.
After the light bounces off the rotating mirror, it travels through the focusing screen, or what some folks call the focus screen. This is the device that lets you actually see through the viewfinder clearly. Once the light passes through that, it hits what’s called the pentaprism or the correcting prism, which flips the scene around so you can see it correctly and then, finally, the light passes through the viewfinder itself. So, as you can see, the word reflex that’s used in the acronym DSLR is accurate. There’s a lot of reflection that goes on inside of these cameras, and that’s just to see through the thing to get a glimpse of what you might take a picture of. And to be even more accurate, the DSLR really stands for one lens and a mirror. a single lens.
How a Photo is Captured with a DSLR Camera
The process for taking a photograph is either really simple or somewhat complex, depending on how you look at it. It goes something like this; you look through your camera’s viewfinder at a scene. The light from the scene makes its way through the lens and everything I just talked about above. You focus the lens and when you’re ready to take the picture, you press the shutter button. Once you do that, the mirror that’s allowing you to see the scene through the viewfinder flips up to make way for the camera’s sensor to absorb some of that scene’s light. First though, the shutter that sits behind the mirror needs to move to the side for whatever time you or your camera has determined is appropriate. Personally, I think there are a lot of moving parts in cameras and those moving parts scare me. I have no idea how cameras last so long because it just seems like these parts would somehow break or wear out over time. It truly is a feat that they work so well. Although, many people would say, “That’s it? That’s all a camera needs to do to take a beautiful photo?” To each their own. We all look at things differently.
Anyway, beyond those moving parts, there are some inherent negative aspects that come with mirrored cameras and I’ll talk about them next.
What’s Wrong with DSLR Cameras?
DSLR cameras might be considered rather large in size because of all the mirror apparatus contained inside of them. Well, large when compared to some of the mirrorless cameras coming out today. I guess what I just stated is relative. Let’s compare cameras to cars for a moment. Back in the 50s, 60s and 70s, cars were huge. There was a lot of metal contained in them that obviously wasn’t absolutely necessary. The term “boat” was used for a lot of these vehicles. As time moved on, cars become much smaller and more efficient as new technologies emerged. Sheetmetal became thinner. Aluminum was used instead of steel. Parts became smaller. You get the idea.
The same goes for cameras. Will bulky moving mirrors and large lenses exist in 50 years, after technology has had some time to advance even more than it has? I have a feeling they won’t exist. Especially since this very technology is on the march today. Things are becoming smaller, lighter and more efficient as I sit here and type today.
When you look through a viewfinder at a scene, the reason you can see that scene is because the rotating mirror is set in place, on that angle I discussed earlier. It’s sort of like a periscope, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of observing one of those things. When you press the shutter button on a camera to capture a scene, the mirror flips up, temporarily blocking your view. Your view might not be blocked for long and if you’re engaging in landscape or still life photography, this might not bother you at all. But what if you’re a sports or fast moving action photographer? Would having your view blocked for even a micro-second bother you? What if you were shooting in burst mode (continuous shooting mode, sports mode or continuous high speed mode)? Would your ability to see what you were shooting matter? I think it would. It sort of feels like someone waving a hand in front of your face as you’re walking around someplace. It’s not an ideal scenario.
Have you ever used a feature such as exposure compensation during your photography? If so, when you make your adjustment and then look through the viewfinder, does the view of the scene change at all? It doesn’t. If that’s the case, how are you supposed to know the effect of the change on your subject? Yes, that’s a tricky one. There are tons of settings that cameras offer and the fact that you can’t see many of their effects on a scene through the viewfinder is definitely an issue.
What’s the Story with Mirrorless Cameras?
Mirrorless cameras, or DSLM cameras, don’t contain mirrors or pentaprisms. This is a big deal because removing these two aspects of a camera can greatly reduce its size. To see a scene through the viewfinder, a mirrorless camera uses electronics, as opposed to mechanics. This has its pluses and minuses. I’ll discuss some of them below. I will mention quickly here though, because of sensor size on mirrorless cameras, lens size can shrink and focus time can quicken. Well, the focus time is a tricky topic and I’ll discuss that below too.
One of the best things about mirrorless cameras is that the “blocking of the view while shooting” that I discussed above doesn’t exist. To demonstrate this yourself, simply use the LCD screen on the back of your DSLR camera to take photos. You won’t see those blind spots. Compare shooting through the viewfinder and the LCD screen. You’ll see that the mirror blocks your view while shooting via the viewfinder, but doesn’t when shooting via the LCD screen. This is a huge plus for electronic viewfinders, which I’ll talk about next.
If you change the viewing mode on your DSLR camera to live view, you’ll see your scene on the LCD screen on the back of your camera. Go ahead and change a few settings on your camera, such as exposure compensation. While looking through the viewfinder, you’ll see no effect, but while looking at the LCD screen, you will. This is because the LCD screen is seeing exactly what your camera’s sensor is seeing. Now, think about that LCD screen as an electronic viewfinder on a mirrorless camera. Basically, camera manufacturers just shrunk that LCD screen down so it’s small like a traditional viewfinder. So cool.
If you’ve ever shot a scene with a mirrorless camera, I’m sure you noticed something right away. The noise of a traditional DSLR camera wasn’t there. Sure, there’s some noise that stems from the shutter moving, because yes, that still needs to happen, but all that noise from the mirror slapping around is gone. Again, while mirror noise might not bother you while taking photos at a loud party or a dirt bike track, it may because an issue while photographing a symphony orchestra or something like that.
Speaking of mirrors, have you ever wondered how the camera gets that mirror to move so fast? It really can flip up and down at remarkable speeds, but as you probably already know, it can only move so fast. One of the major purchasing points of mirrorless cameras is that they have the ability to take more frames per second than their mirrored counterparts. Inside DSLM cameras, only the shutter needs to move while inside DSLR cameras, the shutter and the mirror needs to move. For every single shot. That definitely slows things down.
The DSLM Pitfall
There are a few areas that have kept the mirrorless camera down when it comes to popularity. One of those areas is that many photographers never warmed to the idea of having an electronic viewfinder that’s, well, electronic and small and digital and low in resolution. These electronic viewfinders simply weren’t clear enough to show a scene the way people wanted to see it while photographing. The optical viewfinder was better because you wouldn’t see any grain and there would be no lag as you’re moving around a scene. I’m sure these things kept a lot of people away.
The good thing is, the areas I just spoke of have come a long way. With today’s mirrorless cameras. magnification quality is almost as good as optical viewfinders and since these types of cameras now have faster refresh rates, that lagging hardly even exists anymore. And if you’re reading this post after 2018, none of what I’m writing may even be an issue.
The greatest challenge for mirrorless cameras has been focus speed. When these cameras first came on the scene, they used a system that’s called contrast-detect AF (auto-focus). This type of system uses the camera’s sensor to make the necessary contrast measurements, which is very precise. You get a great focus. The issue is, it’s slow. While smaller lenses generally hasten focus speed, the lens sizes mirrorless cameras use are larger than those that compact cameras use, and the focus technology that mirrorless cameras use is that of the compact camera. While focusing on still objects works just fine, attempting to focus on moving objects just doesn’t work that well. The sensor simply can’t calculate what it needs to fast enough to offer a decent focus measurement.
When it comes to DSLR cameras, something called phase-detect AF is used to determine focus. This type of focus is much faster than the other, but it can sometimes offer a result that’s of a lower quality and that’s less accurate. This is because these types of cameras use a focusing sensor as opposed to the actual image sensor to determine focus. The image sensor offers a more accurate focus, at a cost – speed.
In recent years though, camera manufacturers have developed technology that combines the two different types of auto-focus, right on the camera’s main image sensor. They call this a hybrid AF system. It’s actually such a good compromise of speed and quality that it’s now used on both DSLR and DSLM cameras. So really, the gap in speed and focusing ability is being narrowed every day. If I had to guess, I’d say that more and more photographers are gravitating towards the mirrorless alternative. It seems to be turning into a real contender. Those photographers with reservations about specific technical concerns are seeing those concerns vanish right in front of their eyes. They might just make the switch. Now you see why so many of us have difficulties when it comes to purchasing new camera equipment. Things keep changing and getting better and we keep waiting for those great things, which get old very quickly. Such is the life, I suppose.
There’s a lot that goes into choosing a technology for which type of camera you use. I hope I’ve shed some light on some of the areas you look closely at. While there are many more aspects of cameras and photography to consider, I think I touched on the largest and most important ones in this post. If you have any questions regarding what I’ve shared today, please leave them for me in the comment section down below. Thanks for reading!