Welcome back to my Travel Photography Tips series! We’ll be going over the differences and individual benefits of mirrorless cameras vs. DSLR cameras and which type, in my opinion, is the best for travel. For my examples, I’ll be showing photos I’ve taken with my full-frame DSLR, a Canon 5D Mark ii, and my ASP-C mirrorless camera, a Fuji X-T20.
DSLR vs. Mirrorless – What’s the difference?
To put it plainly, DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex. If you don’t know what that means, good because I don’t either. What I do know is that DSLR cameras have been a photographer’s bread-and-butter for the last 15 years. This camera type uses mirrors to reflect light onto the camera’s sensor (if you need a refresher on what that means, do a quick skim of Travel Photography Tips 1 – Aperture, Shutter Speed & ISO). They used to be the professional photographer’s unanimous weapon of choice, but lately there’s started to be a changing of the guard. The DSLR market is dominated by two brands: Canon & Nikon.
Mirrorless, on the other hand, is a smaller, lighter, and more compact type of camera body. The main reason why this is possible is through trading mirrors and mechanisms for electronics and sensors. Most of the heavy components were removed from the camera body, allowing for a more portable powerhouse that directly competes with its DSLR counterpart. The main mirrorless brands to pay attention to are: Sony, Fujifilm, Panasonic, and Olympus.
I’m going to be breaking down both camera types across several characteristics: Photo Quality, Portability, Battery Life, Lens Selection, and Cost. Let’s start with the most important characteristic: Photo Quality.
There’s a common misconception about cameras that you’ll be surprised to realize: megapixels don’t matter that much. Sure, the higher the megapixels, the more detailed your shots will be, but the human eye can only distinguish so much. Some of the cheapest DSLR and mirrorless cameras on the market will have at least a 16-megapixel sensor. Once you move up to something more professional (in the $1,000+ range and perhaps a full-frame sensor), you won’t see options below 20 megapixels. The only time you’ll need all of that detail is if you’re printing a massive poster or billboard.
The DSLR cameras have been around for a while, which means there’s been more time to perfect their technology. Just looking at the Canon line of cameras, there have been 4 iterations of their flagship, full-frame camera: the Canon 5D. That’s not including the other full frame lines as well as their crop-sensor Rebel series. The longevity of the brand means their photo quality is going to be pretty damn good, since they’ve taken the time to perfect their technology.
Mirrorless cameras, on the other hand, are comparatively new to the market. That being said, the mirrorless technology has jumped in leaps and bounds over the most recent years, with Sony in particular usurping some of Canon and Nikon’s best camera bodies. Fuji has also carved out a niche in the mirrorless market as a retro photographer’s dream, mixing actual physical controls with a beautiful aesthetic and gorgeous color output. The above shots show the photo quality of a full frame Canon DSLR camera compared to the crop-sensor mirrorless Fuji camera. Both were shot with a 35mm equivalent lens and both created equally beautiful images.
Mirrorless Cameras have made up quite a bit of ground in the photo quality department. In fact, the Sony a7III is widely considered to be the current best overall camera on the market, surpassing the Canon 5D Mark IV and Nikon D850. Even in my own usage, my crop-sensor Fuji X-T20 produces similar quality photos to my Canon 5D Mark II.
The portability of a camera cannot be understated. If you’re backpacking through the mountains of Zion National Park, would you want to sling the bulky, 5lb Canon DSLR / 35mm lens combo around your neck? Probably not, unless you have a Chiropractor on speed-dial.
When traveling for long periods of time, pack space is of the utmost importance. Every ounce counts when you’re lugging around a 40L+ pack, so bringing a slim and light camera is essential.
Having most of the heavy, mechanical components removed means the mirrorless cameras often have a much slimmer and lighter body. This means less strain on your neck and less space in your pack.
This comparison is one of the easiest of the bunch. DSLR cameras pack hefty batteries and have fewer electronics to power. Mirrorless cameras have everything from electronic viewfinders to electronic shutters. While those nifty features are handy to use, they drain battery life much faster. When combined with much smaller battery sizes in the mirrorless cameras, it’s really no contest. During my roadtrip through Utah, I only went through 1.5 of my Canon DLR’s batteries through the entire week. By comparison, I burned through 4 of my mirrorless Fuji batteries during my trek through Iceland. Huge difference, right?
The massive batteries combined with having less electronics means that the DSLR far outlasts the mirrorless camera. Not having to worry about your batteries dying is a nice for peace-of-mind.
Lenses are a huge part of getting good photos, so make sure you pick a style and brand that will match what you’re looking for. Brands like Nikon and Canon have been perfecting their line of lenses for years, and they have a reputation to match. There’s a reason why the red ring of the Canon L lenses is burned into the mind of many photographers, because it’s the gear you dream and save up to buy.
The mirrorless camera brands have also stepped up their game when making lenses. The Sony pro-level lenses are very good (and very expensive), and Fuji has mastered the creation of cheap yet pristine glass. That being said, I would still personally put the DSLR lenses above the native mirrorless glass. There are adapters that allow for the use of Canon and Nikon lenses on Sony bodies.
Third-party lenses have also started to make viable options. Sigma’s Art line of lenses are tac-sharp and significantly cheaper than the Canon and Nikon alternatives, while brands like Rokinon and Tamron are starting to step up as well. Most of these third party lenses are compatible with Canon, Nikon, and Sony camera bodies, so you’ll be able to use them regardless of which you choose.
While third party lenses have made a huge jump in quality, the native Canon and Nikon lines of lenses reign supreme in terms of build and photo quality.
The cost of both mirrorless and DSLR cameras depends if you’re looking at entry-level camera bodies or full frame, professional bodies. Both styles of camera match up on price point, with the beginner’s bodies costing between $400-600, and the higher-end, professional bodies can be upwards of $3,000. The cost of the camera body truly depends on personal preference. You can see some examples of the entry-level and professional-level camera bodies below:
From the introductory price point all the way to the $3,000+ professional level cameras, you can find quality offerings from both DSLRs and mirrorless body styles.
Overall Best Body for Travel: Mirrorless
Even though DSLR bodies “won” in more of the categories, the mirrorless cameras’ combination of great photo quality in a much more compact and storable package reigns supreme, in my opinion. The lesser battery life is a drawback, but toss a few of the diminutive batteries in your pack’s side pouch and you’re good to adventure! That being said, either choice will be a worthy addition to your pack.
What camera body do you like better?
Having shot with both DSLR and mirrorless cameras across a wide variety of subjects and scenarios, I absolutely love shooting mirrorless. My Fuji X-T20 is a light little powerhouse that gives me incredible photo quality in a compact package. In fact, all of my photos from Iceland were taken with my Fuji! What do you think, are do you like the idea of a traditional DSLR or would you rather shoot with the modern mirrorless camera?
Comment below and let me know!
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