What is a Mirrorless Camera?

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Written By Nate Torres

As an aspiring photographer, I was overwhelmed by the number of camera options available when I first started exploring the world of photography.

I found myself asking questions like, “What’s the difference between a DSLR and a mirrorless camera?”

If you’re in the same boat, keep reading to learn more about one of the newest types of cameras on the market – the mirrorless camera.

I remember the first time I picked up a mirrorless camera – it was smaller, lighter, and more compact than the DSLR I had been using.

As I started to research more about mirrorless cameras, I was intrigued by their unique design and advanced features.

With no mirror mechanism, mirrorless cameras are able to pack in powerful features like in-body image stabilization, fast autofocus, and high-speed continuous shooting.

In this article, we’ll dive into what a mirrorless camera is, how it differs from a DSLR, and the advantages and disadvantages of using one.

You’ll learn about the technology behind mirrorless cameras, their unique features, and why they’re becoming increasingly popular among photographers. By the end of this article, you’ll have a better understanding of whether a mirrorless camera is right for you.

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What is a Mirrorless Camera?

The definition of a mirrorless camera can be boiled down to “A camera with no mirror inside it”. To be precise, the cameras do not have the Reflex Mirror.

Without the reflex mirror, light can directly pass through the lens and onto the digital sensor. The screen then previews the image you are going to shoot.

The feature is quite handy for photographers that would like to avoid “chimping.” In short, chimping is when photographers repeatedly look at their cameras over and over, and over.

Back in the day when they were first introduced to the public, mirrorless cameras were not considered interchangeable lens cameras. But times have changed, and there are numerous modifications and enhancements for this type of camera.

Thus, making it more customizable and appealing to the masses.

What is the Purpose of a Mirrorless Camera?

Well, there is a myriad of reasons behind the purpose of a mirrorless camera and why you should get one. The mirrorless camera itself brings various advantages that contrast the traditional DSLR camera.

People wanted a camera that was small, simpler, lighter, and quieter when operated.

While most mirrorless cameras still use a mechanical shutter, there are also lines that use an electronic shutter. This makes photography with it completely silent.

You can also say that it is a camera meant for people who are just starting out in photography but are willing to splurge a sum of money for simplicity’s sake.

Higher-end mirrorless cameras are gaining popularity and have been frequently used by people to document their travels and take street photography.

Its small and less intimidating body makes it easier for photographers to sneak a shot at an unsuspecting subject.

The quiet operation will also prevent the subject from being startled or feeling uncomfortable.

But how does this little photographing machine work?

How Does a Mirrorless Camera Work?

Well, unlike how you imagined it to be, it is quite straightforward actually.

While the DSLR uses a mirror to bounce light into the viewfinder and image sensor, the mirrorless camera just scraps the mirror idea and directly exposes the sensor to light.

This method generates a live preview of your scene or the object you are photographing on the electronic viewfinder.

Pressing the shutter button will trigger a door to slide up over the image sensor. This door will eventually slide down and expose the sensor to the light. After opening, another door covers the sensor, effectively stopping the exposure and catching the picture.

Simple right? Who knew that a minor change would lead to such advantages in photography too?

how does mirrorless camera work
visual showing how mirrorless cameras work

DSLR vs Mirrorless Cameras

To put it simply, your standard DSLR camera has a mirror, while mirrorless (as the name suggests) does not. But that isn’t enough of an explanation, right?

Let us talk about their basic mechanical differences:

Advantages of DSLR Cameras

The DSLR stands for “Digital Single-Lens Reflex”. DSLR cameras are camera bodies that allow light to enter through a single lens.

The light hits the mirror inside and gets reflected into the OVF (optical viewfinder). The mirror helps you preview the image by peeking through the viewfinder.

By pressing the shutter button, the mirror inside the camera will flip up. The shutter will open, allowing the lens (light) to instantly hit the imaging sensor (the place where your photographs are created).

1. Optical Viewfinder

DSLRs have an optical viewfinder that shows the actual scene through the lens, which some photographers prefer over electronic viewfinders.

2. Battery Life

Generally, DSLRs have longer battery life compared to mirrorless cameras, as they don’t need to power electronic viewfinders continuously.

3. Lens Availability

DSLRs have been around for a long time, so there’s a wide range of lenses available, including many older models that are still compatible.

4. Optical Prowess

In terms of sheer optical performance, some high-end DSLR lenses can offer exceptional image quality.

5. Proven Technology

DSLRs have been used by professionals for many years and have a proven track record of reliability and durability.

Advantages of Mirrorless Cameras

On the other hand, mirrorless cameras do not have this mirror mechanism.

Mirrorless cameras lack an optical viewfinder, this makes their imaging sensor constantly exposed to light.

dslr vs mirrorless camera
DSLR camera vs. mirrorless camera

So how do you preview the image? Luckily, these cameras have an EVF on the LCD screen on the back of your camera.

Other notable differences between the two cameras are (but are not limited to):

1. Electronic Viewfinder (EVF)

Mirrorless cameras use electronic viewfinders or LCD screens for composing shots. An EVF can provide real-time feedback on exposure, white balance, and other settings, giving you a more accurate preview of the final image.

2. Image Quality

Mirrorless cameras and DSLR cameras are quite close in image quality given the optimal conditions.

But this is where you should consider all the various attachments for the DSLR cameras compared to mirrorless cameras.

3. Camera Size

DSLR cameras are large and heavy, making them less suitable to carry around all day.

While mirrorless cameras are quite small and light, which is better for carrying around all day.

But… DSLR cameras and their attachments can give a boost to your photo qualities.

Considering their weight, it may be a wiser choice to bring a few of them or none at all when traveling.

dslr heavy
DSLRs can get heavy

4. Silent Shooting

Mirrorless cameras can often shoot in a silent mode, which can be advantageous for discreet photography in quiet environments.

5. Autofocus

Mirrorless cameras use a technology called contrast detection for their autofocus system. This technology makes the camera unable to measure distances between the lens and subject with precision.

DSLR cameras use phase detection for their autofocus system, making them much better.

If you are in a low light situation with a mirrorless camera, the lens would move to a spot with better contrast.

The latest mirrorless cameras, however, are equipped with phase-detect autofocus systems that can exceed the performance of your DSLR cameras.

Seems quite intriguing right? But before you recommend a mirrorless camera to a friend just starting out, here are some things to consider.

What are the Disadvantages of a Mirrorless Camera?

Without the mirror, the camera brings more features to the table that were inaccessible for DSLR cameras.

Yet, because of that same feature, it led itself to some problems:

1. Shorter Battery Life

The biggest issue with this technology is its short battery life. The constant use of EVF/LCD screen while shooting will definitely drain your battery faster.

Adding to the problem is its small size, which uses a smaller battery.

2. Limited Lens

With mirrorless camera photography just starting out, these cameras have a much more limited selection of lenses that are interchangeable.

This is different from the DSLR that have many options from various brands. If I am not mistaken, Olympus has the most selections of lenses that you can choose from.

3. Steep Price Tag

With its smaller size, you could assume that it would be cheaper than its DSLR counterpart. Unfortunately, they go for about the same price. But there are always budget mirrorless cameras that do just as well.

It does not directly correlate with affordability. Meaning that if you have a low budget starting as a photographer, it is more cost-effective to go for a DSLR camera.

While the prices are similar, entry-level DSLR cameras usually have more features and superior specs (compared to entry-level mirrorless cameras).

Breaking the bank does not sound appealing. It itself has been the main reason for new photographers taking two steps back and thinking it through thoroughly.

What Should Beginners Consider When Deciding to Buy a DSLR or Mirrorless Camera?

To influence a new photographer, we must consider these options, so it fits them perfectly.

1. Size

One of the most brought up topics in the discussion is size.

Mirrorless cameras are often idolized because of their absence of mirrors and pentaprisms that make them so exceptionally light.

They are also generally portable and light, which is very appealing for new photographers.

Entry-level DSLR cameras also provide a condensed version of themselves, which are also small and light.

2. Price

Money will also hold you back from buying that fancy mirrorless camera you saw on YouTube.

While both entry-level camera formats sit around $600, DSLR cameras can be much cheaper and provide you with a decent level of photography at their price points.

Cutting corners and aiming for a used DSLR or Mirrorless might sound appealing. Their price has dropped a lot, and they seem like a particularly good offer.

But when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. A second-hand unit might seem like a bargain, but pay attention to its condition, age, release date, model issue, etc.

An outdated camera will definitely not help you when comparing its performance and file size.

Purchasing cameras from reputable buyers and platforms should also be considered. I recommend you learn more about cameras before bidding or sealing a deal.

3. Autofocus

Cameras generally have one type of autofocus detection system. Every system has its own flaws and advantages, which is why better cameras use a hybrid version of the two. Putting it simply:

  • Contrast Detection: Better for shooting still subjects/objects.
  • Phase Detection: Better for shooting fast-moving subjects.
  • Hybrid System: A great all around

I recommend getting cameras with either a hybrid system or a phase detection system.

Mirrorless cameras are pretty decent as a gateway to entering the world of photography. They have their advantages, but they also have some concerning problems.

There are some things that some camera lines will not ever be able to fulfill, yet we must understand that there is no such perfect product in the market. For now.

How Can You Tell if a Camera is a Mirrorless Camera?

You can easily differentiate between a mirrorless camera and a DSLR by looking at its size since DSLR cameras are much bulkier and heavier.

But we need to be more accurate and thorough when identifying, so here are a few more hints!

If you remove the lens from your camera, you will see its mirror. The mirror itself is in front of the sensor and should be the first thing you see.

You will then find a pentaprism on top of your camera.

In mirrorless cameras, both of those parts are replaced by a double-duty sensor inside.

This sensor can both electronically display your images (also known as the EVF) and capture the image.

Do Mirrorless Cameras Take Better Pictures?

There is no one size fits all, each camera can take magnificent images given the right lens and exposure settings. Here is your daily dose of “the gear doesn’t matter, it’s all about the photographer.”

Both cameras can take high-quality images with small amounts of noise. Traditionally, mirrorless cameras had lower quality, but times have changed and now they perform better.

Mirrorless cameras do not exactly take better pictures because of the myriad of attachments and settings that also determine the “make or break” of an image.

The EVF that a mirrorless camera provides may give the impression that you are taking better images, but it is nothing more than a tool.

Better pictures stem from knowledge, experience, and some gear.

But knowledge comes first! You should experience and learn the techniques and subtle stuff about photography too.

Final Remarks

A mirrorless camera is essentially a simple, lightweight camera with no reflex mirror and pentaprism that gives you access to live view.

It may not guarantee good shots, but the live view accurately displays your finished image. Buying a mirrorless camera does not mean you are lazy at photography, every camera has its own pros and cons.

Just keep studying and experimenting, you will definitely get better in no time.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do mirrorless cameras take better pictures?

Whether a mirrorless camera takes better pictures than a DSLR or other camera type depends on a variety of factors, including the quality of the lens, the resolution of the sensor, and the skill of the photographer. However, mirrorless cameras do offer unique features and advantages such as smaller size, faster autofocus, and advanced video capabilities that can make them a better choice for certain types of photography.

Should a beginner buy a mirrorless camera?

Whether a beginner should buy a mirrorless camera depends on their specific needs and budget. Mirrorless cameras can offer advantages such as compact size, advanced features, and improved video capabilities, but they also come at a higher cost. Ultimately, it’s important to consider factors such as personal preferences, intended use, and budget before deciding on a camera type.