Which camera is better for beginners - DSLR or mirrorless?

Finally taking your photography to the next level? We'll help you make the right choice

So you’ve been taking lots of photos as a hobby and have finally decided to pursue photography seriously. You’re ready to splash the cash on a brand new digital camera, but now you have a choice: Should you get a DSLR or a mirrorless camera?

A Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera is named so because it has a mirror that reflects the light coming through the lens to a prism, then into a viewfinder so you can see what you will be capturing. Clicking the shutter button flips the mirror and opens the camera’s shutter to allow light to fall onto the image sensor, giving you your desired shot.

A mirrorless camera (otherwise known as a CSC or compact system camera) is just as its name implies, a camera with no mirror. Light will pass straight through the lens onto the camera’s image sensor. You will still be able to see what your camera’s lens is pointing at on the rear display (called Live View). And without a mirror, there’s no optical viewfinder. Instead, some mirrorless cameras have an electronic viewfinder (EVF) that displays the same output as the Live View. It’s useful in bright sunlight, and some people also prefer shooting with a viewfinder. 

It's a simple distinction that makes a big difference to the size of the camera and that also dictates how it's going to be used. For example, a super-compact mirrorless camera like a Nikon 1 J4 will have fewer control dials and are a little more like point-and-shoot cameras, while the bulky Canon 1D will have every conceivable feature at your fingertips for quick changes on the fly.

So which do you buy? A lot depends on how you use the camera. We’ve compared the best and worst aspects of both to help you think about what suits you best.

Weighing the competition

Without a mirror, mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter than their DSLR counterparts. Take, for example, the mirrorless Sony A6000: it is 40% thinner (4.5cm vs. 7.6cm) and 30% lighter (285g vs. 430g) than the Nikon D3300 DSLR camera.

A lighter load means you can carry more stuff in your camera bag, and you won’t have a strained neck bringing a mirrorless camera on your next holiday. Heck, it's the main reason why many professionals have added a mirrorless system to their arsenal.

Winner: Mirrorless

Who focuses faster?

When mirrorless cameras first gained traction, one of its biggest complaints was its slow autofocus (AF) speed. DSLR cameras use phase detection AF, which is faster and more accurate than the contrast detection AF on mirrorless cameras. Contrast detection AF performs even more poorly under bad lighting.

Technology has caught up, though, and newer mirrorless cameras utilise a hybrid AF of both contrast and phase detection AF that can match if not surpass DSLR autofocus speeds, if not its reliability. It won't be long before the DSLR's advantage in this area, especially in the professional segment, will be negated.

Winner: Draw, both cameras offer relatively fast AF at the entry level