Mirrorless vs DSLR: 5 Factors for Filmmakers to Consider
5 important factors film and video professionals must consider when deciding between DSLR and Mirrorless cameras.
For those just starting off in the field of film and video, you may quickly discover that the prosumer digital video industry is divided into two main camera types. You have your DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras and your mirrorless cameras. Both these camera types feature interchangeable lenses, powerful sensors and just about everything you need for cinematic recording and a variety of video jobs.
No Film School has been a leader in the DSLR filmmaking revolution (check out our DSLR Cinematography Guide e-book) over the past decade. However, as mirrorless cameras have made great strides as of late, the debate between the two has grown. Let’s look at some of the key factors to understand and consider when deciding between mirrorless and DSLR.
DSLR vs Mirrorless History
While digital single-lens reflex camera technology has been around much longer, the rise of the DSLR comes in around 2008 when the first HD video models began to hit the market. In the coming decade since, DSLR’s have dominated the digital video industry as recording capabilities have exploded and lowering price points have created an entire “prosumer” generation which had never existed before.
Mirrorless cameras have made their biggest mark recently as an offshoot of this DSLR revolution. The name “mirrorless” is a reference to the fact that this camera type does not have the same optical mirror (or optical viewfinder) as DSLRs, instead opting for a more compact, simpler electronic digital display system. In recent years, mirrorless has made major strides into the market as manufacturers have begun to embrace mirrorless moving forward.
Camera Size and Weight
One of the first differences you’ll notice between the two when comparing mirrorless cameras and DSLRs is their size and weight. Because of how a DSLR is often designed, the front mirror mechanism requires a good deal of space which causes the overall camera body to be a bit larger and heavier. Mirrorless cameras, on the other hand, can be as small as some point-and-shoot offerings with a design which is optimized for compactness and being lightweight.
As you would expect, size and weight factors would favor mirrorless cameras over DSLRs. Though, how much of a factor this is depends on your intended camera use. If you’re shooting mostly on tripods or sturdy rigs, their size/weight differences shouldn’t matter much (and both come in much smaller and lighter than many higher-end cinema camera options). However, when you’re on the run and looking for minimal camera build-outs, having a smaller (and often more powerful) option at your side can be a blessing on your back or shoulder.
When most people discuss the merits of particular DSLR or mirrorless cameras, the biggest point of discussion is often sensor size. Perhaps you’ve heard the term “full frame” before, which refers to 35mm image sensor size, which to many is ideal for capturing shallow depth of field. While DSLRs are larger and can theoretically be more suited for these more ideal larger sensor sizes, in today’s market the real issue comes down to price point and other quality conditions as both DSLR and mirrorless have a several different sensor sizes to consider.
Rates of Compression
Similar to sensor size, compression is an important factor to consider between different cameras and body types. Compression in itself can be a great tool for filmmakers, as it often allows you to record more footage for longer periods of time. However, if you’re looking for the highest quality footage for the most range in your color and edit, you’ll want a camera that records larger files at a higher bitrate and less compression.
At this point, DSLRs are more likely to have lower rates of compression compared to their mirrorless counterparts when recording video. For more quick-turn around projects with little color correction and editing, this can be a good thing. But for more serious videographers and filmmakers looking for the best footage, mirrorless cameras are starting to win out.
When starting off with digital filmmaking and videography, auto-focus can be a very helpful in-camera tool. It’s also more and more a part of the everyday video professionals workflow with auto-focus and face-detection technology helping on everything from live events to personal vlogs. DSLRs were an early leader in contrast detection autofocus technology, however as mirrorless cameras have advanced they have caught up (and surpassed in several cases) with faster phase detection autofocus capabilities.
Auto-focus is one of the fastest advancing technologies in both camera types, with updates coming out monthly for many cameras in the form of firmware updates (like this recent update for the mirrorless Panasonic GH5 and GH5s). As such, AF is often a camera vs camera comparison.
Besides the deciding factors above, there are lots of other elements to take into consideration when exploring the options between mirrorless and DSLR cameras for video. Depending on if you’re already a film or video professional with gear of your own, you may want to take into account what types of lens mounts you’d prefer if you’d like to use the same lenses, or are looking for new investments.
Both mirrorless and DSLR cameras have issues with internal audio recording, which often means you’ll need to work with limited inputs or choose to use external audio recording devices. Accessories also come into play as DSLRs have been the dominant camera type for some time, so gear has been built in their favor. Although with the rise of mirrorless, that is becoming less of an issue.
Ultimately your decision will come down to which camera feels and works better for your projects and video workflow. If you’re interested in some further reading, here are some good camera guides, mirrorless recommendations and general camera buying advice.