Even though this topic has been touched on numerous occasions, I still get asked this one question rather often – which camera to buy? For someone who’s into photography, it is a very vague question. Almost impossible to answer without additional context as it spawns a number of followup questions – what are you planning to photograph? Are you going to invest more into the system? What lenses would you like to own? Are you planning to take up photography professionally? And for a beginner to be able to answer all these questions in return requires a certain amount of research. Truth is, not everyone is looking to take up photography professionally or even invest into more than one additional lens to accompany the kit zoom. A lot of people really only want a camera for family pictures – something a bit more capable than your average compact, something that would work in darker environments and be able to defocus the background a bit more, too, because it makes images look prettier. And the answer to the first question is usually very simple – everything.
Interestingly enough, for such buyers it is really a question of which type of camera to choose rather than which model, or at least it should be. And I am talking about the ever-heated mirrorless vs DSLR debate, of course. Now, we’ve discussed this with professional photography in mind before, but we’ve never really talked about it when choosing a camera for simple, casual, everyday family needs. When you look at it that way, it’s not really a heated debate anymore, it’s just a matter of what works best for someone who just wants a tool to take better pictures of their children and friends without ever having to think about the settings and features. So this time, I will ask the more knowledgeable readers to stand back a little and let the more casual buyers come forward, for in this article I will try and highlight the biggest differences between DSLR and mirrorless cameras from the perspective of such a buyer in the very simplest language, so that’s it’s easy to understand no matter what is your level of knowledge. There will be no “ISO’s”, apertures and shutter speeds here, just simple tips and conclusions which should help you narrow down your choice and stop jumping back and forth between the bigger and seemingly more capable DSLR and less impressive visually, but that much less bulky compact system cameras.
First Things First – What are the Options?
So, you’re not happy with the pictures you are getting from that tiny pocket camera. It’s sort of slow to react and takes a second to snap that photograph after you pressed the shutter button, doesn’t it? It’s probably even worse anywhere near dim light and the images are not only soft-looking and a little washed out, but also have those weird blotches of smeared color in those conditions. The good thing is you can take it anywhere you go, but once you are there, it’s not very comfortable to hold, is it? The buttons are tiny and it’s hard to keep it steady at arms length when photographing. So you grew tired of it, especially after seeing images like this one:
No blotches, no softness to speak of. Well, only a few years ago your only option would be buying a DSLR camera. It is one of those cameras that you bring up to your eye to compose the image and not hold it at arms length. It also has big grip for your hand and a larger lens at the front which makes for very comfortable handling. And the lenses come off, too. The best thing about it is the quality of the images, though. It is nothing like a pocket camera, especially in dim light. Suddenly, you don’t even need to pop the flash, something that rarely, if ever, makes a photograph look pretty. True enough, for the last decade or so digital SLR cameras have been the only step forward from a compact point-ant-shoot camera, and, by all means, they excel at that.
These so-called DSLR cameras look similar to the one shown above, correct? Now, though, there is another option. It’s not better or worse precisely, just different. You could see this new kind of cameras to be like a sort of a hybrid between a compact camera and a DSLR. A camera that attempts to merge strong points from both those camps. And you know what? Mirrorless or compact system cameras – they can be called either way – have done pretty much that. You’ve also most likely heard about these new cameras if you have friends who enjoy photography and follow such news, or maybe even seen them – for the last couple of years it’s been the new big thing in the market. In case you haven’t heard of them or seen them, this is how mirrorless cameras generally look like:
Naturally, these are specifically Sony cameras. Olympus cameras look a little different, as do Fujifilm cameras. There’s generally a little more variation in terms of design between different mirrorless cameras than there is between DSLR cameras and one of the reasons is very simple – their design is style driven as much as ergonomically dependent. Still, when talking about the more affordable models a basic formula applies – compact camera-like “bodies” (that’s how the bit without the lens attacked is called) with seemingly over-sized lenses attached to them.
Now you know how to distinguish one from another, and a compact camera from a mirrorless camera (the latter also has removable lenses, naturally). But that’s just the surface, the way these cameras look has no effect on the image quality they are capable of producing. So, what are the real differences and which one should you go for?
DSLR and Mirrorless – What Are the Differences?
Now that you know the two ways that you can take, it’s time to weigh the strong and weak points of each one so that you can make a well considered decision. I will outline the main advantages one type of camera has over the other, starting with mirrorless.
Mirrorless Camera Advantages
- Size – the most obvious difference between mirrorless and DSLR cameras is the size. The former are much, much more compact. You would not call them pocket cameras by any means, but the majority of high-end mirrorless cameras are actually more compact than the smallest DSLRs. Here is a roughly accurate comparison of two similarly priced cameras, one of each type:
Now, this is not exactly an apples to apples comparison, these cameras don’t have identical features and the DSLR is potentially capable of delivering somewhat better results technically. It’s also among the most compact DSLR cameras currently available, yet the mirrorless camera next to it is absolutely tiny. I can not stress enough the importance of the size aspect. Trust me, you are much more likely to take a small camera with you wherever you go than a larger one. Perhaps not at first due to all the excitement, but once the joy over owning a new camera wears off a little and you start to use it more and not just play around with the functions, small size is something you will appreciate. Generally, I would recommend looking for a camera of such size that you could fit it into whichever bag (or purse) you carry around with you. That way, you won’t even need to bother with a second bag just for the camera.
- Weight – almost as important as compact dimensions is the weight of the camera. You see, cameras tend to get bigger and heavier with time. Not literally, of course, a camera does not grow, but it does start to feel heavier. The more you use it, the more you sense how inconvenient it can sometimes be to carry a camera around due to its size and weight, and the more you want something smaller and lighter. So why not start with small and light from the very beginning?
- Simplicity – a lot of low-end mirrorless cameras are designed specifically for people moving up from compact cameras and as such are made to be very simple to use and understand. You won’t find many buttons or dials on these cameras, so you won’t have to worry about accidentally changing a setting and not knowing about it, for example. Everything is set up for your convenience and in such a way as to deliver saturated, pleasant images right from the start. In some cases, there won’t even be a learning curve – just a noticeable jump in image quality.
- Style – whether this particular point is important or not is very subjective, but it’s hard to argue that mirrorless cameras tend to be a bit more stylish. I won’t say much here – just look at the image of a DSLR camera next to an Olympus mirrorless camera above. The DSLR is, no doubt, very impressive and “professional” looking, but as far as design goes it’s actually rather bland next to the stylish Olympus Pen camera.
- Discretion – if your little one is particularly camera shy, you probably want him or her not to notice that he’s being photographed at least sometimes. Mirrorless cameras hold an advantage here and not just because they are smaller – generally, they tend to be quieter, too (so long as you turn all the sounds off).
DSLR Camera Advantages
- Size – you might be lost at this point and want to ask me “wait, what?” and yes, I did say size was an advantage that mirrorless cameras held over DSLRs which are bigger and less convenient to carry around. Yet when it comes to actually holding the camera, size turns into comfort. It may not be so important if you have fairly small hands, but for those with larger hands, especially men, mirrorless cameras will only be slightly more comfortable than compact point-and-shoot cameras. So if you plan to photograph a lot, this is something you might want to consider.
- Optical Viewfinder – most affordable mirrorless cameras don’t have an electronic viewfinder, the small eyepiece that lets you photograph by bringing the camera to your eye. All DSLRs have such a feature, only when you look through the viewfinder, you are not looking at a tiny screen, you are looking through the actual lens mounted on your camera and see what is happening in real time without any delay. This is useful for two reasons. Firstly, it is more comfortable to use an optical viewfinder (OVF) or an electronic viewfinder (EVF) in sunny weather. Secondly, holding a camera to your eye often proves to be more stable than holding it at arms length, especially if the camera is lightweight. It’s especially true in dim light when shaky hands may result in blurry images. If this feature is necessary to you for that added bit of comfort whilst photographing, but otherwise you’d prefer a mirrorless camera and your budget allows it, make sure to buy one with an electronic viewfinder or buy one separately (some compact camera systems have external, removable electronic viewfinders). But even then, looking at a tiny screen is more stressful for the eyes than looking through a set of lenses. Some prefer optical viewfinders whilst others admire EVFs more, but in the end all DSLR cameras have one of the options, no matter the price point.
- Battery – DSLR cameras tend to have bigger batteries than their mirrorless counterparts, and also use a bit less energy if you use the optical viewfinder to compose the image. All in all, you may be able to take several times more photographs on a single charge than with a mirrorless camera and if you don’t photograph that often there might be no need to charge the battery for over a month. This is especially useful when traveling.
- Speed – modern mirrorless cameras are not slow by any means, whether you are looking through images or photographing. There is no waiting around after you press the shutter button if that is what you’ve been used to so far. However, DSLR cameras generally are a bit more snappy in their operation, especially when it comes to quickly moving subjects (as children tend to be, for example).
- Price – it seems reasonable to expect smaller, simpler cameras to be less expensive, but both mirrorless and DSLR systems are similarly priced. It’s difficult to compare directly, but there’s not that much difference for a given set of features.
- Image Quality – here’s the big, important question. And the answer is simple – unless you want to buy a DSLR for $2000+, image quality will be more or less the same as that of mirrorless cameras. It’s something you do not expect given the compact dimensions of the later, and yet it is true. In this regard, Olympus cameras can lag a little bit behind other manufacturers in some situations, but then they are also the most compact of the lot.
- Those Lovely Diffused Backgrounds – let’s be honest, everyone loves when backgrounds just melt away. Now, whilst this characteristic is a little bit more complicated to explain, both DSLR and mirrorless cameras have the same potential to pleasingly melt backgrounds and make your subjects stand out, certainly much more than any point-and-shoot could. What else is needed to achieve this is a topic for a new article.
- Nikon D3300 (by the way, if you find a D3200 or a used camera from the D3xxx series, they are all great)
- Canon T3/1100D, T3i/600D, Canon T5/1200D and T5i/700D models
- Pentax K50 and K500
- Sony Alpha SLT-58
- Fujifilm X-A1, X-M1 and X-E1 models (the latter has an electronic viewfinder, too, but is meant for slightly more advanced users)
- Olympus E-PL5
- Sony NEX-5T, NEX-6, A5000 and A6000 models
Isn’t Gear Unimportant?
You’ve probably heard a lot of photographers say time and time again – equipment does not matter. And, in most cases, it is true. But not in your case, and let me explain why. You see, in order for equipment not to matter, one needs to master light, composition and being able to use whatever tools he or she has to the fullest. In other words, one needs to be a very good photographer. Do you need a camera so that you may become one? Then you will, and whichever type of camera you get will not stand in your way to achieving that. However, if you’r just looking for something to capture precious family moments with, it’s the jump to more capable equipment that will make the most difference for you.
Having said that, I would strongly recommend learning at least a little bit about light, composition and the basic settings. After all, one should not drive a car without first learning how to do it. And it just so happens that we have a good place for you to start learning some of these things.
Whether you choose mirrorless or DSLR cameras, there are plenty of models to choose from. Here are some of the cameras we think are really good.
Compact Camera System Options
As you can see, both options are different, but objectively, neither one is better than the other. I did my best to describe the advantages of both types of cameras, the final decision is really up to you to make. Personally, I have a soft spot for DSLR cameras, but for anyone who just needs a tool for better family pictures I always recommend mirrorless first, and DSLR second simply because of the convenience granted by the small size and weight. That said, DSLRs have an advantage when it comes to comfort.
The last thing I want to say is what I’ve been trying to not mention throughout the article, but I feel it can’t be avoided completely. For many years, the only option up from a compact point-and-shoot camera was a DSLR. It’s a tool that’s almost surrounded by a halo of sorts – for many who are not seriously into photography, DSLR looks serious and capable and professional. Hence, the person who owns a DSLR must be a professional. Nowadays, however, DSLR cameras are extremely common and simple to use, so don’t be influenced by a snobbish opinion that they are simply better for no specific reason. They are not, nor are they worse. Owner of a DSLR is not necessarily a professional, far from it. Likewise, compact camera system is the new big thing, they are popular, everyone talks about them. Professionals use them. And, like everything new, it’s a thing of fashion as much as a tool. Don’t be influenced by an opinion that they are somehow cooler than DSLR cameras, being newer in general. They are not, nor are DSLRs cooler. What matters is how you feel when using the tool, if its simple, if it gets out of your way and just lets you capture those great images for you and your family. What matters is which camera you think is cooler for you and suits you better. That is the one you should get.
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You posted photos but with the nikon d700 but didnt list it, why?
I am really looking for something that will give me nice clear photos, and I have kids so capturing that with fast moving kids is important to me. But I dont want a huge camera, or I wont use it.
I read your post and I still don’t know which one to pick. I purchased recently Nikon Coolpix L330 and it was worst decision ever. Great macro photos but not good for kids, very slow need loads of time to process photo and eats batteries (rechargeable) like crazy.
Anything pocket like and with decent quality and quick enough for toddler who don’t wait ??
Despite what others may say an iPhone does replace point and shoot cameras. On our recent trip to Vancouver BC my wife never used her P&S even once. Her phone was her convenient an easy to handle camera. Surprisingly good pictures.
Re picture quality: “In this regard, Olympus cameras can lag a little bit behind other manufacturers in some situations” where did you get your stats from? I have EM5 and got no problem with picture quality.
Most people are not professional photographers. Most are probably not even avid photo hobbyists. That most people group want memory snaps for their family album. Now that cameras are in smart phones (Note 3 has a 13 megapixel camera) most will be happy with that result.
For the rest of us non-professionals there is a group who do not see the benefit of DSLR cameras. I am one of them. I have opted for a bridge camera. Lots of options without the need to lug lenses and the need to stop everyone while doing a setup.
On our 10 day trip to London and Paris I saw just one couple changing lenses. That was in the garden at Monet’s home. At 18.62 oz weight and a 25 – 600 mm zoom lens why should I consider anything else?
My other “hobby / obsession” is adventure travel. If its exotic or out of the way I want to go. Unfortunately, I am not young anymore and have little desire to haul around even a smaller DSLR. I got about as light as I could with a DSLR in January when I went to South East Asia for a month. I took a D7100, a 17-70 Sigma (great all in one Contemporary version), a Nikon 70-300, and one flash with a small tripod for putting the flash off the camera. Even this was too much IMO.
So I decided to kill two birds with one stone. I wanted to see if I could use a micro 4/3 system professionally and also get a lot lighter for travel and everyday photography. So, I decided to dip my toe in the water and purchased an OMD-M10 with a 12-40 2.8 lens. I am soooo glad I did! First, I figured out that I could get what I wanted professionally out of this system (I am slowly switching) and just as importantly, I got a great small camera with a very good all in one lens. I also purchased their small Olympus FL-300R flash so I can get bounce flash for indoors. Now this all fits in a small Think Tank Urban Disguise bag. This kit is light and tiny compared to the DSLR setup. Admittedly, it is slightly less capable in terms of not having a longer lens or more powerful flash, but I didn’t even use the flash off camera on the last trip. I took about 3000 pictures and only used the long lens for maybe 50 of those shots. So, bottom line, this small system can handle 97+ % of all the pictures I might want while providing much lighter weight and, as a bonus, being much less obvious. I might even get a few more pictures with it because of its size.
So, I can say that for anyone looking for a small interchangeable lens system, the OMD-M10 will perform very well. It seems like a great combination of small size, flexibility, and image quality. The only negative is that the all in one lens I purchased (12-40mm 2.8) is relatively expensive ($1000) Fortunately, there are many great options and you could easily get the Olympus 25mm F1.8 prime (50mm equivalent focal length) for $400. Note that I don’t have this lens, but assume it is great quality based on having their 45mm 1.8 prime. This would make for a great everyday system for around $1000 that would deliver great quality.
Hi, I did the same. The Olympus e-M10 + 12-40mm 2.8 is a great allround combo. If you want really small/light and still professional results this is it! I bought it as holydays/weekend set but I am thinking seriously whether a mtf system can replace my bulky Nikon D800 set for more professional work. Tip: there is a new really wonderfull, small but relatively strong flashlight, the Nissin i40. Small and light enough to keep on the camera all the time, can bounce every direction and strong enough to use as a fill in flash even on sunny days. It has also a lot of other nice features. This made the combo really perfect to me.
Thanks for the tip, I will check out the Nissin. It sounds a bit more flexible than the Olympus.
I did purchase an OMD-M1 for professional use. I am using it for about 75% of my shots (pet photography) but still find myself using my Nikon DSLR’s for the rest. That will probably change as my confidence grows and I can get a high quality longer lens. I am waiting for Olympus to release their 40-150mm 2.8 “pro” lens. At that point, I will move entirely to m4/3 for professional use. I will also pick up a second OMD-M1. Regardless, the M10 will continue to be my travel camera.
I do think switching to m4/3 involved one compromise and that is shooting in low light. I tend to wait until its a little bit brighter for outdoor shoots. Indoors, I nearly always use lights so its not as important. If you really need low light performance there is really no great substitute for FF. Even the D7100 clearly has better low-light performance. For everything else, I think the Olympus is more than good enough.
I guess there weren’t any “casual buyers” for the “more knowledgeable readers” to “stand back” for!? Or maybe some of us aren’t as knowledgeable as we think! ;-)
I this case I have recommended successfully a Nikon J1-4 six times the last couple of years because of the price (with the huge discounts these models had) the size, simpleness and most important speed. Children are ____fast! I never experienced disapointment. These are the most underrated cameras at all – especially for family photos.
Thank´s for very good article (but it maybe a little bad timing.) I thing the good compact camera is enough for really non-photographers. The small & fun factor and easy of use is very important in this case (Olympus XZ-10/XZ-2, Canon S120, Sony RX100, cheap small CSC from Sony or Olympus) . I mean for those people know nothing about image quality and exposure or RAW.
More serious users (amateur photographers) prefer DSLR or advanced CSC with prime lenses, but they understand photography and they are photographers :-)
I agree with Romanas – phone is not the best option for family photos..
Interesting article and good comments from readers. I wonder however, why a compact camera such as the Panasonic TZ60 has been overlooked in a comparison like this. I use a Nikon D4 for photos in my real estate business, but have carried every TZ model since the TZ7 as my everyday “pocket” camera. One of my staff who is late middle aged and retiring from work asked my advice about finally buying a “good” camera to use in her retirement. I went through the pros and cons of DSLR and mirrorless formats, but then showed her my TZ60 and what it could do! At less than half the price of the alternatives (at least here in Australia), and after borrowing mine for a week of playing with it, she went out and bought a TZ60 for herself. The TZ60 is the best yet in the TZ line — 24mm wide angle, great telephoto capacity, RAW capture, High Def video — and it fits in your pocket. In my opinion the ideal family and travel camera!
To build on Mike’s comment, I want to point out that there are point-and-shoots out there now which have the same light-gathering capability and depth-of-field as an entry level DSLR with it’s kit 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6. The Panasonic LX7 with a 1/1.7″ sensor has an f/1.4-2.3 lens, making it equivalent to an APS-C camera with a 16-60mm f/4.3-7.0 (both in terms of focal length, light-gathering, and depth-of-field). The Sony RX-100 ii with it’s 1″ sensor is equivalent to an APS-C 18-67mm f/3.2-8.8, and the Sony RX-100 iii equivalent to an APS-C 16-47mm f/3.2-5.0.
I see very few people out shooting an entry level DSLR with any extras (lenses, flashes, etc.) and I think most of these people would be better served with a large-sensor / fast-aperture point-and-shoot. They are obviously smaller than APS-C interchangeable lens cameras while being just as fast/shallow depth-of-field and are both smaller and faster than even micro 4/3rds mirrorless cameras with their kit lenses.