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20 October 2021

Mirrorless vs DSLR cameras: what's the difference?

Not quite sure of the difference between DSLRs and mirrorless cameras? We've rounded up the pros and cons of each to help you decide which is the best for you
Jake Massey

When you think of professional photography, often a DSLR comes to mind. However, mirrorless cameras have become increasingly popular over the past decade.

The difference in image quality between the two is narrowing and technological advancements are pushing many in favour of mirrorless cameras rather than the traditional DSLRs. We've pulled out the key differences below and picked out the best in each camp, so read on for more analysis of the pros and cons of DSLRs versus mirrorless cameras.

Already know what type of camera you want? Head over to our full DSLR and mirrorless camera reviews and use our filters to narrow down your choice

What are the main differences between DSLR and mirrorless cameras?

Digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) and mirrorless (often referred to as compact system) cameras are both interchangeable lens cameras, with features for more advanced photography. There are ranges of models available for each, from those aimed at entry-level photography enthusiasts to professionals.

Both cameras typically have big sensors, allowing them to let in more light and capture more detail than a standard digital camera. 

A key difference between the two lies in way image previews are displayed: 

  • DSLR cameras have a reflex mirror inside them, which bounces light up into the optical viewfinder
  • With mirrorless cameras, light goes directly into the image sensor. Viewfinders on mirrorless cameras are electronic and show the same preview of the image that you'd see on the LCD screen. 

While what you see through an electronic viewfinder (or on an LCD screen) is very similar to what you'd see through an optical monitor, there are some subtle differences, as we explain in more detail in our guide on optical vs electronic viewfinders

Below, we've rounded up our pick of the DSLR and mirrorless cameras that have performed the best in our tests alongside some great-value models that are well worth a look if don't want to spend big.  

Only logged-in Which? members can view our recommendations in the table below. If you’re not yet a member, you can get instant access by joining Which?

Best DSLR cameras

  • 76%

    This high-quality camera comes with a price to match, but it’s worth the investment. It has high-speed shooting, super-fast autofocus and amazing picture quality – perfect for professionals.

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  • 74%

    This camera packs 4K video capabilities into a decent camera that’s not outrageously expensive, and for those who prefer a DSLR to a mirrorless model, it’s a good option.

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  • 73%

    This camera is an amazing starter model at a brilliant price. It’s ideal if you’re looking for something that’s easy to use, allowing you to learn more about photography, but also has top-quality photo and video performance.

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  • 71%

    It offers functionality above and beyond a compact model, and image quality is good; the camera produces balanced, highly-detailed shots with good colours and natural skin tones, especially when used in bright, evenly lit scenarios.

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Models and prices last checked March 2021. 

Best mirrorless cameras

  • 86%

    The king of cameras, this model is the best we’ve seen. It scores higher than all other mirrorless and DSLR models, thanks to outstanding image quality and superior focusing, even in low light. It’s practically faultless.

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  • 84%

    One of the best mirrorless cameras we’ve ever tested and a true success for this brand in a saturated market where it’s difficult to stand out from the pack. By delivering outstanding quality in stills and video, alongside upgraded performance features such as in-body stabilisation and an improved autofocus, this brand has bagged itself another Best Buy.

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  • 82%

    This affordable Best Buy takes fantastic shots and still has enough of the latest technology and features to make it a great choice for both beginners and enthusiasts.

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  • 75%

    This model promised to be an alternative to your smartphone’s camera, and it's a better one at that. As a starter model, you won’t find it difficult to use, but it offers great picture and video quality, plus plenty of features.

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  • 71%

    This is an outstanding price for a high-performing, compact mirrorless camera. Picture and video quality is impressive (although, video is far better when shooting in good lighting) and we had no real issues apart from the zoom, which could be smoother. It’s a great choice if you want the option to change lenses, at the price you might pay for a compact model.

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  • 68%

    While this camera can’t quite break into the ranks of our Best Buys, it’s still a good model – compact, stylish and it takes great pictures, although it does struggle with video shots in low light conditions. It’s worth considering if you’re looking for a flexible camera.

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Some of the models we've selected aren't recent launches, but they're still some of the highest performing cameras out there. You can check our camera reviews page for new reviews bimonthly. Models and prices last checked March 2021.

What are the pros and cons of DSLRs and mirrorless cameras?

Despite mirrorless cameras becoming more widely available and closer to DSLR cameras in quality, there are pros and cons to each type. 

With an ‘old-school’ DSLR, there tend to be perks, which is most noticeably the superior speed when autofocusing or tracking subjects – although, this is changing.

Traditionally, DSLR cameras use ‘phase detection’ autofocus modules in the body of the camera, which make autofocusing and tracking subjects fast. 

Mirrorless cameras rely on sensor-based autofocus, which analyses the maximum contrast between pixels on the camera’s sensor. When the contrast is highest, the subject is in focus. This method is traditionally slower and also tends to struggle with moving subjects, as it doesn’t involve measuring distance, just the level of contrast. 

However, advancements in high-end cameras will see ‘hybrid’ autofocus systems featuring in the best mirrorless cameras, narrowing the gap between the autofocusing speeds of DSLR and mirrorless cameras.

Mirrorless camera set up to take a photo

Pros of DSLR cameras

  • DSLRs have optical viewfinders, which don’t have the risk of delay
  • Traditionally, they have faster autofocus and tracking subjects (although, the gap between the two is closing)
  • There’s a large library of lenses and accessories available for DSLRs
  • DSLRs usually have longer battery lives.

Cons of DSLR cameras

  • They tend to be bulky and heavy
  • DSLRs often have slower continuous shooting speeds.

If you prefer shooting via a traditional viewfinder and like to see a wide selection of accessories and lenses available, a DSLR is the way to go. If shooing via viewfinder, you can also be confident that autofocus is going to be at its very best. 

Pros of mirrorless cameras

  • Mirrorless cameras are often smaller and lighter than DSLRs
  • They often have fast continuous shooting
  • You’ll get better video quality thanks to better live view autofocus and entry-level mirrorless models more often support 4K
  • They tend to have more scene modes and automatic settings

Cons of mirrorless cameras

  • Some mirrorless models don't have a viewfinder
  • Electronic viewfinders can experience delay, particularly non-hybrid systems. 
  • There’s a smaller collection of lenses and accessories for mirrorless cameras available
  • Mirrorless cameras have a shorter battery life

If you need interchangeable lenses, but want something lighter and more compact, mirrorless is your best option. The gap between DSLR and mirrorless cameras is constantly closing, so you won't be compromising on picture quality. 

Just bear in mind that older and entry-level mirrorless models can come with laggy viewfinders. Look for our viewfinder star ratings in our reviews to see if a mirrorless camera's technology is up to scratch.