Mirrorless vs DSLR for beginners – which is better?

When talking about the camera pros and cons of mirrorless vs DSLR for beginners, I don’t see any point in getting into too many details on the technical stuff. 

You just want to know which type of digital camera will give you the best results for your money, right? Plus the difference between DSLR and mirrorless technology.

There are two digital camera types for both mirrorless and DSLR cameras:

  • Compact camera (aka point and shoot cameras) – the lens is not removable
  • Interchangeable lens camera – in other words the lenses are separate from the camera body

For the purposes of this article we’re looking at digital cameras with interchangeable lenses only.

PS – if you really want to know the beginner cameras I recommend, keep reading to the end. Or scroll down.

BUT first, you should know why…

DSLR vs mirrorless – key differences

As a beginner photographer it’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the jargon and technical information about differences between mirrorless and DSLR cameras. So here’s a quick explanation of some key differences:

1. Viewfinder – seeing the image

Now, this might sound a bit obvious, but a DSLR camera has a mirror and a mirrorless camera doesn’t. DSLR stands for digital single lens reflex, which refers to the mirror mechanism. Film camera equivalents are called SLR cameras (single lens reflex). 

  • A DSLR camera has an optical viewfinder
  • A mirrorless camera has an electronic viewfinder

In a moment I’ll get into the details of why that makes a difference.

2. Autofocus – how the camera focuses on the subject

Both types of cameras have manual focus, as well as different autofocus options. However, mirrorless cameras also have eye autofocus, which is a game changer for anyone who photographs moving subjects.

How each type of camera focuses is also a key difference, especially in low-light conditions.

  • DSLR cameras mainly use phase detection autofocus
  • Newer mirrorless cameras use a combination of phase and contrast detection autofocus

More on this in a moment.

family portrait using DSLR camera

How does a DSLR camera work?

What’s the mirror for in a DSLR?

When you look through the optical viewfinder of a DSLR camera you see what’s in front of you. To be exact, the image you see is actually a reflection on a mirror of the scene in front of you.

When you click the shutter button to take a photo:

  • The mirror flips up
  • The shutter lifts
  • Light enters the lens
  • And hits the sensor to record the image

The optics are a bit more complicated than that, but that’s what it amounts to.

That’s why what you see goes black for a moment. The longer your shutter is open, the longer the mirror stays up and the more obvious this is.

So the mirror’s sole purpose on a DSLR is to reflect the scene in front of you through the lens and into the viewfinder so that you’re not shooting blind.

You won’t know what the image looks like until you take the shot. Experience teaches us how camera settings affect an image and over time you’ll be able to dial in the correct settings to create a particular look.

DSLR autofocus options

I mentioned earlier that DSLR cameras use phase detection autofocus and aren’t as good as mirrorless cameras in low light. However, that’s if you use the optical viewfinder to view the scene.

If you shoot in live view (and use the LCD screen to frame your shot), the focus mechanism used is contrast detection, which is much better in low light. 

For focusing on moving subjects DSLRs have Back Button Focus. I use this all the time, even when subjects aren’t moving. It can seem daunting at first for beginner photographers, but I highly recommend it for photographing children or pets.

How does a mirrorless camera system work?

Mirrorless camera viewfinder

A mirrorless camera doesn’t need a mirror mechanism to show you the image, because the image you see on the back of the camera or in the electronic viewfinder is a digital depiction of the scene in front of you.

So what you see is how the image will appear when you take the shot. It’s a preview of the image.

Mirrorless camera autofocus technology

Another huge advantage of mirrorless technology is the way it focuses. The chance of missing focus is significantly lower on mirrorless vs DSLR cameras. For three reasons:

  • Mirrorless systems can lock onto the subject with face detection and eye autofocus
  • Mirrorless models use both phase and contrast detection autofocus, so can focus better than DSLR cameras in low light conditions
  • The focus points go all the way to the edge of the frame, so you’re not restricted on where you can focus in the frame

As a beginner photographer it might seem that there’s no contest then between DSLR vs mirrorless.

I’d be inclined to agree, but ….there are always buts!

BUT you also need to know the disadvantages of a mirrorless camera for a balanced decision on which one is right for you – mirrorless or DSLR?

Mirrorless camera eye autofocus for running children

Running children are hard to focus on without eye autofocus, especially for beginner photographers, but back button focus is a great option if you use a DSLR camera

What are the disadvantages of a mirrorless camera?

  • Price point! They’re not cheap
  • Ergonomics – many photography with big hands find them too small
  • Battery doesn’t last as long as DSLR camera batteries
  • Electronic viewfinder can be a bit limited in low light
  • Not as many lenses to choose from 

It’s worth noting that each year more mirrorless lenses are released, so the choice is growing. Another point is mirrorless cameras are getting bigger as new technology gets added, but the entry level cameras are still smaller than DSLR cameras.

Pet photography with mirrorless camera

This is a great time to use a mirrorless camera, because the eye autofocus is so helpful on moving subjects – humans and animals

Disadvantages of DSLR

  • No eye autofocus
  • Video not as good on entry level cameras
  • Weight – high-end DSLRs can be quite heavy and bulky

One last point on mirrorless vs DSLR for beginners…

Because DSLR cameras have been around a lot longer than mirrorless cameras, there are more DSLR camera options, especially at the beginner level.

Here’s another really important one that I think is worth considering, regardless of whether you choose DSLR or mirrorless. It’s the same reason I recommend learning how to shoot in manual mode, or at the very least shutter priority or aperture priority, rather than doing everything in auto.

With a DSLR camera you’re forced to learn about camera settings, because you can’t see what the image looks like before you take the shot. So you have to think before you click.

So, if you go mirrorless, do yourself a favor and don’t just flick the dials until the image in the electronic viewfinder looks good.

To be a better photographer, take the time to learn:

Now that you know the differences, you can decide which is best for you and start looking at the individual cameras that camera manufacturers make.

Did you know the lens is more important than the camera?

Cameras are so good these days that as a beginner photographer I’d advise you to start with what fits your budget. Don’t be tempted to think that an expensive camera will produce better images.

You also don’t need the very latest camera on the market. A few decades ago professional photographers were producing great photos for billboards with digital cameras that weren’t nearly as good as our smartphones.

In time you’ll come to realise that your choice of lens is far more important than the camera body you use.

Further reading: Expensive lens or expensive camera – which is better?

Beginner camera and kit lens deals

Beginner cameras can often be bought with a kit lens as a package deal. My advice is that if you have the budget, buy just the camera body, whether it’s DSLR or mirrorless, and get a better lens than the kit lens recommended.

You’ll replace your camera body long before you replace your lenses, if you buy quality lenses. If you’re serious about improving your photography, you’ll outgrow a kit lens quite quickly and want to replace it sooner than you realize.

So, it’s worth noting that Nikon and Canon offer a much bigger range of quality lenses for their digital cameras than Sony. Nikon has the largest range.

In time that no doubt will change and they’ll all offer more mirrorless lens choices, but it’s good to go in with your eyes wide open.

That said, you don’t have to use own brand lenses. There are some really good Sigma lenses for example.

Pet photography with DSLR or mirrorless

For a still subject in normal daylight, the only advantage of a mirrorless camera is that it’s lighter, but a beginner mirrorless camera might be too small for you if you have big hands. The ergonomics of a beginner DSLR camera make it much easier to handle with big hands.

Best beginner cameras for mirrorless and DSLR

As this article isn’t about which camera is the best to buy as a beginner, I’ve included just a few suggestions from top brands, rather than an exhaustive list of cameras.

Best beginner DSLR cameras

I’d recommend going with Canon or Nikon. They make the best DSLR cameras and offer a huge range of accessories to go with them.

If someone tells you one is better than the other, it’s probably because they have the one that they say is best. Seriously. Both are fantastic. Especially at beginner level.

My personal preference is Nikon purely because that’s what I started with in film cameras in the 90’s. Yep – all that time ago back in the dark ages. When I switched to digital I felt no need to change manufacturers.

In no particular order the best DSLR cameras for beginners are:

  • Nikon – D3500
  • Canon – EOS M50 (especially popular with vloggers)

Best beginner mirrorless cameras

The top three mirrorless camera brands are undoubtedly:

  • Nikon
  • Canon
  • Sony

There was a time when Sony was way ahead of the pack, but Nikon and Canon have caught up fast in the higher level mirrorless cameras.

So, in no particular order, the best mirrorless cameras for beginners are:

Final word on mirrorless vs DSLR for beginners

If you want me to commit to choosing either mirrorless or DSLR, my next camera will be mirrorless, because that’s the future. And eye autofocus is a dream come true for a portrait photographer.

Unless anything major happens in the industry, I’ll stay with Nikon, so will buy either the Z6II or the Z7II. Not the absolute top of the range Z9 when it comes out – that’s way more camera than I need.

The reason I’m undecided is because I really don’t want to clog up my computer with photos that are massive in memory from all the megapixels – 24.5mp vs 45.7mp. That’s a HUGE difference and I really don’t need all those megapixels.

Nobody does, unless you need to be able to crop in really tight in post production and maintain good image quality to print really big. In which case, why not just compose the image the way you want it before you take the shot? But that’s a whole other discussion (some might say argument).

Further reading: How important are camera megapixels – printing and posting images online

Leave a comment

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3 thoughts on “Mirrorless vs DSLR for beginners – which is better?”

  1. I am confused (not an unusual state). You say “…the mirror’s sole purpose on a DSLR is to reflect the scene in front of you through the lens and into the viewfinder ….” and “A mirrorless camera doesn’t need that, because the image you see on the back of the camera or in the electronic viewfinder is a digital depiction of the scene in front of you.” I do not understand the difference between the two. As I understand it, I am seeing the scene in front of me regardless and it is recorded electronically. What am I not understanding?
    Thanx, Alice

    Reply
    • Hi Alice

      When you use a DSLR you’re seeing the scene in front of you, albeit as a reflection, because you’re basically looking through a tube (very basically). So your settings make zero difference to what you see in the viewfinder. They affect the image you take, but not the scene you see.

      With a mirrorless camera you’re looking at a screen (even if you’re looking through a viewfinder), just like when you take a photo on your phone. What you see is impacted by your settings, because they affect the real time image that you see in the viewfinder. So if your exposure settings are set to underexpose the image, for example, what you see in the viewfinder will be dark. As you adjust the exposure by slowing the shutter speed for example, you’ll see the image in the viewfinder brighten and when you take the shot this is what it will look like.

      Hope that helps.

      Reply
  2. Actually Sony’s A6000 is still for sale and uses the e mount system. Meaning it can use C sensor lenses and full frame lenses. And the A6000 is a 24mp C sensor. And a great buy for beginners.. Plus, you do know.. Sony makes Nikon’s sensors.. to Nikon’s specs.. and both companies have camera sensors rated at 100 at DXO .. Just sayin..

    Reply

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