So you want to get a kick-ass camera and have stumbled upon the SLR versus mirrorless camera debate. Mirrorless cameras from Sony, Olympus, and Fuji are all the buzz lately, but photographers and faux-tographers still swear by their humongous SLRs with the intensity of rabid Duterte followers.
It's a royal rumble as big as Batman v Superman, it's just as controversial, and it's just as likely to put you to sleep. If you want to find out which kind of camera is right for you without the camera jargon snooze fest, you've come to the right place. We'll demystify the gobbledygook, dispel the BS, give you the facts, and arm you with everything you need to pick a winner. Angry photographers, head straight to the comments section please.
In the beginning, there was the Single-Lens Reflex Camera
Sure, there were cameras before the SLR—like the rangefinder—but let's just agree to start here. The SLR camera was a big deal in the days of film because for the first time, a camera allowed the photographer to look through the lens and see precisely what he was going to shoot. SLR cameras do this with a prism and mirror. All you need to know is that the mirror steps out of the way of the film (or sensor in digital cameras) a split-second before you take the shot.
SLR cameras are all about precision. With massive camera systems developed by Canon and Nikon, they are the de facto standard in professional photography.
Round 1 Winner: SLR. The pros love them. Pictured above is the Canon EOS 5DS, which boasts 50 freaking megapixels. Drool, landscape photographers, drool.
Along came a mirrorless camera
When digital cameras rolled into town, so did the LCD screen. This little screen allowed you to preview your photos before they ever landed on your computer. Mirrorless pioneers like Olympus, Panasonic, Leica, and Epson were quick to realize that this made the whole SLR thing mostly superfluous. Who needed that mirror contraption when you could see everything on the LCD screen? And more importantly, without the mirror and prism, cameras could now be much smaller.
Today's mirrorless cameras promise equal image quality—or good enough image quality—at a fraction of the size of an SLR camera. This is an important development in photography, where the saying goes, “The best camera is the one you have with you.” Or the mirrorless camera you threw into your backpack. Not the honking big pro SLR you left at home.
Round 2 Winner: Mirrorless. Get with the times. Smaller is good. Pictured above is the Sony a7R II, which has a 42-megapixel full frame sensor in a tiny mirrorless body. It's the holy grail of cameras.
Bigger is Better
At the frontline of the SLR v Mirrorless battle is the idea that bigger is better. In photography, they're talking about sensor size, and there's no arguing about the truth of this. The bigger your camera's sensor is, the better the photos will be. (The same reason why your iPhone will never be better than an SLR camera.)
In the early years of mirrorless, bigger was definitely better. Olympus and Panasonic's Micro Four Thirds System provided image quality that was “good enough” but not superior to your average APS-C sensor SLR. And Nikon's mirrorless system used an even smaller (CX) sensor that punched far above its weight class but couldn't hold a candle to SLR cameras.
Today's mirrorless cameras are another matter entirely. Fujifilm makes mirrorless cameras with an APS-C sized sensor. And Sony makes mirrorless cameras with a full frame sensor that can go toe to toe with top-of-the-line SLR cameras from Canon and Nikon.
Round 3 Winner: Mirrorless. Same quality. Smaller size. Pictured above is the Fuji X-Pro 2, which boasts a gorgeous selection of Fuji lenses. With that optical hybrid viewfinder, this camera has SLR killer written all over it.
It's the System, Stupid
“Serious” photographers talk about “the system,” or the bunch of lenses, flashes, and accessories you can use with your camera body.
Canon and Nikon's SLR systems have been around for decades, and they've got you covered no matter what your shoot requirements may be. Long, waterpoof lenses for shooting birds in the Amazon? Check. Night shooting? You betcha. Birthday parties? Pfft.
Mirrorless camera systems meanwhile have had a lot of catching up to do. That said, systems like those from Fuji, Sony, and the Micro Four Thirds consortium (Olympus, Panasonic) have been around for a while now and have caught up quite a bit. How many lenses do you need?
Round 4 Winner: SLR. Choices, choices, choices. Pictured above is the Nikon D750, a full-frame SLR which has gotten autofocus upgrades and improved video.
SLR cameras are often built with a magnesium frame. This makes them tough. Mirrorless cameras? Not so much. But more and more mirrorless cameras are being built with professionals in mind, like the Olympus E-M1, or the Fuji X-Pro. That said, most people aren't Nat Geo wildlife photographers. Do you really need a magnesium frame for kiddie parties and high school reunions?
Round Winner: SLR. Built tough.
With the difference in image quality between mirrorless and SLR cameras narrowing or disappearing altogether, the SLR has maintained its edge in things like autofocus. Some mirrorless systems use contrast detect autofocus, which is fast and mostly good, but inaccurate with moving subjects. SLR cameras commonly use phase detect autofocus (PDAF). But PDAF doesn't belong solely to SLR cameras. Recent mirrorless cameras, like the Fuji X-Pro 2, have PDAF also.
Round Winner: SLR. Mirrorless is catching up, but SLR still autofocuses more reliably.
When you look through the viewfinder in an SLR, it's like looking through a telescope. You see reality. Photographers find this invaluable.
Or are they just being old-fashioned? When you look through an electronic viewfinder, you see what the camera is seeing. Boost your colors and you will see more vibrant colors. Apply a filter, and everything you see will be filtered. What you see is what you get.
Meanwhile, Fuji with its hybrid optical and electronic viewfinders gives you the best of both worlds.
Round Winner: A tie. Different strokes for different folks. Pictured above is the Olympus E-M1. Its smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor punches far above its weight. What's really weird though is how much this camera together with its system of lenses feels like a real replacement for SLR systems.
Oh mirrorless cameras, how you've grown. No matter how loyal you might want to be to your DSLRs, these mirrorless wonders shine a path towards the future of photography. They're here to stay. You don't have to ditch your DSLRs though as both of these types have their pros and cons.