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DSLR vs Mirrorless vs Point-and-Shoot vs Smartphone Cameras: The Ultimate Guide to Their Pros and Cons 

It would be fair to say that the barrier for entry into the world of photography is lower than ever. Photography equipment is getting more and more sophisticated, and it’s extremely easy even for a beginner to get a hold of an affordable DSLR, especially a used one, and start making beautiful, pin-sharp photos. Furthermore, there are plenty of cheap or free resources online such as YouTube, video courses, blogs, eBooks, and magazines, which enable budding photographers to expand their photography skill set in no time.  

 

However, with all the different camera options and types available, it can be difficult to make sense of it all, which is why we have gone ahead and put together this ultimate guide, in which we have discussed all the main pros and cons of DSLR, mirrorless, point-and-shoot (compact), and smartphone cameras. Hopefully, it will help you make an informed choice, because one camera type is not necessarily better than the others. So, let’s start with DSLRs, shall we? 

  

DSLR Cameras

What You Need to Know about DSLR Cameras

SLR, or Single-Lens Reflex cameras have been around since the days of analogue photography and film, but the same basic principle is still used in modern DSLR cameras today. The only difference is that DSLRs use sensors instead of film to capture images. For years, DSLR cameras have been viewed as the only real option for professionals, as well as for hobbyists looking for the best image quality, but with the emergence of new technologies, especially mirrorless cameras, the gap has been closing slowly, but surely. Still, DSLR cameras are still superior in several different aspects. 

 

Top Tip: Capture your images using RAW. This file format captures uncompressed images in more detail and allows for non-destructive editing of elements like exposure, brightness, white balance, shadows/highlights, lens distortion, and colour space.  

Advantages of DSLR Cameras

Super Image Quality. Software trickery and multiple smartphone cameras are no match for image quality you get with DSLRs, nor are point-and-shoot cameras. Why? DSLR cameras have larger sensors, which means they are able to capture more light. It doesn’t have anything to do with the number of pixels, but rather their size. Mirrorless cameras and DSLRs are neck and neck here, although the way they achieve the same results is rather different, which brings us to our next point. 

 

Optical Viewfinder. Since mirrorless cameras have no mirror or pentaprism, they have no actual optical viewfinder, so they need to simulate it using an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Optical viewfinders have the advantage here because there is no lag nor issues with clarity, even though today’s EVFs have gotten really close at mimicking their optical counterparts. EVFs show you what the captured images will look like beforehand, but they often show higher contrast than the final image, which might require you to correct the exposure of your photos afterwards. Most point-and-shoot cameras and all smartphones don’t have a viewfinder at all. 

 

Low Light Performance. While the preview on the screen of mirrorless cameras is similar to the captured image in most situations, it can become grainy in low light or when capturing fast-moving subjects. DSLRs, on the other hand, have great low light performance, since they don’t have to rely on live preview (even though they have it). Instead, you can rely on the optical viewfinder to set up the camera according to the shooting conditions.  

 

Battery Life. Again, because they don’t have to use their LCD or utilise an EVF, which are battery-consuming, DSLR cameras can offer a longer battery life. We say “can”, because you can easily undo that advantage if you use the LCD at the back a lot for live preview or for viewing images.  

 

Lenses and Accessory Choice. Point-and-shoot cameras and smartphones come with fixed lenses. Mirrorless cameras do have very capable interchangeable lenses, but their selection pales in comparison to that of DSLRs, especially when it comes to large brands like Canon, Nikon, or Pentax. 

 

Fun Fact: You can attach the decades-old lenses you have used for your old film SLRs to your DSLR, provided that they use the same lens mount.  

 

Ergonomics and Robustness. DSLR cameras have better ergonomy due to their size, and there is more space for actual physical buttons, dials, and switches, which means you will spend less time scrolling through different menus on your camera’s LCD.  

Disadvantages of DSLR Cameras

Size and Weight. Even though DSLR cameras are packed with features which allow for manual control of just about every aspect of captured images, they are pretty bulky and heavy, which means it’s not very likely you will have them on you at all times. You will need to carry it around in your camera bag, along with additional lenses, flashes, and other accessories, which add even more weight. 

 

Learning Curve. It will take you quite a bit of time in order to figure out what all the different knobs and switches do, so arm yourself with patience.  

 

Loudness. Even though most DSLRs offer some kind of silent shutter option, they are still the loudest of all the options here, which can be inconvenient if you are photographing a more intimate setting.  

Mirrorless Cameras

 What You Need to Know about Mirrorless Cameras

Mirrorless cameras are catching up with DSLRs, and in many aspects, they have even surpassed them, which is why you will see many professional photographers happily using the former. Let’s take a look at their most important advantages. 

Top Tip: To broaden your choice of lenses, consider using an adapter to convert your old lenses for use with your mirrorless camera.  

 

Advantages of Mirrorless Cameras

Video Quality. Yes, DSLR cameras can capture video, even in 4K, but that’s not what they were originally built to do. Locking up the mirror and keeping the sensor exposed is a bit unnatural for them, so to speak. Mirrorless cameras’ construction allows them to do that with ease, which makes them ideal for videos. Plus, all of the latest video capture technologies are developed for mirrorless cameras first.  

 

Great All-Rounders. If you find that DSLR cameras are too heavy and bulky, and point-and-shoots and smartphones don’t offer enough features, mirrorless cameras can provide a nice balance, since they are relatively compact, and can perform most actions just as well, if not better, than DSLRs. They are also interchangeable-lens cameras. 

 

Shooting Speed. Apart from high-end DSLRs, mirrorless cameras are faster when it comes to burst shooting, since there are less mechanical parts involved in image capture (no mirror). They do use a mechanical shutter, but also have the option of an electronic shutter, resulting in even faster and more silent shooting. 

 

Viewfinder Information. In case of mirrorless cameras, image data is duplicated from the sensor, which means you can view settings like white balance, saturation, or contrast directly through the viewfinder. That even includes histograms. EVF also allows you to make use of focus peaking, which is unheard-of on other camera types. 

 

Top Tip: Zebra patterns are overlays shown in the EVF of your mirrorless camera as black and white stripes, indicating where the highlights and shadows are. Use the patterns to prevent them from burning out.  

 

More Autofocus Points. Even though some DSRLs are catching up with mirrorless cameras in terms of autofocus points, mirrorless cameras still have a better spread of those points across the entire frame, which makes for sharper images. 

 

 Disadvantages of Mirrorless Cameras

Electronic Viewfinder Limitations. EVF does have its advantages, but also a fair bit of limitations, such as processor lag, which is getting smaller every year, and loss of image clarity as a result of pixel density. As mentioned before, EVFs tend to perform worse than optical viewfinders in low light. 

 

Sensor Vulnerability. When you change a lens on your DSLR, the sensor is protected by the mirror that is mounted in front of it, which means that various particles are less likely to land on the sensor. When you take off the lens on your mirrorless camera, the sensor is completely exposed, requiring you to be a lot more careful during the lens change. 

 

Battery Life. Considering that you need to rely on your live preview screen and EVF at all times, mirrorless cameras are more taxing on their battery. 

 

Lens Choice. DSLRs still have the upper hand when it comes to the selection of lenses, since they have been around for much longer. 

  

Ergonomy. Their smaller body size makes them harder to grip, plus you will have to go looking through the menus for some of the options, since there is no space for actual dials and buttons. Mounting a large telephoto lens on a mirrorless camera can also be quite inconvenient. 

 

Point-and-Shoot Cameras

What You Need to Know about Point-and-Shoot Cameras 

It seems like point-and-shoot, or compact cameras, as they are also known, have become somewhat forgotten with the emergence of smartphone cameras. But, they aren’t ready to be relegated to the pages of history just yet. Let’s see what they bring to the table. 

Top Tip: Use a tripod regardless of the kind of camera you are have. Not only will you be able to stabilise your camera, but you will also be able to create panoramas, HDR images, long exposures, as well as tackle low-light situations.  

Advantages of Point-and-Shoot Cameras 

Compact Size and Portability. Point-and-shoot cameras are comparatively small, light, and extremely easy to carry around, nearly at all times, which means you will never miss out on a great shot because you didn’t have a camera on you.  

 

Easy to Use. You can pretty much use any point-and-shoot camera without any kind of setup, provided that the battery is charged, and there is no learning curve to speak of, since most functions are automated. You just point it and shoot, just like their name indicates. Most can be carried inside a purse, small bag, or a larger pocket. 

 

No Additional Costs. Apart from buying additional batteries and SD cards, which something you would do with any type of camera, you won’t have to spend more money down the line with your point-and-shoot camera, since it comes with a built-in flash and lens which cannot be changed. 

 

Huge Depth of Field. If you are going after images where both the background and the foreground are sharp, which is perfect for landscape images, point-and-shoot cameras are ideal, due to massive depth of field. However, it can also be a bad thing if you are going for shallow depth of field and blurry backgrounds. 

 

Zoom. Some point-and-shoot cameras have pretty impressive zoom capabilities, and because they feature retractable lenses, they are still very compact and portable. 

 

Price. Although the price range here can be extremely varied, most point-and-shoot cameras are much cheaper than DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. 

 

Disadvantages of Point-and-Shoot Cameras 

Image Quality. The sensors on point-and-shoot cameras are much smaller than those on DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, which means that less light is captured by the sensor, which results in a lower dynamic range,  and poor low-light performance, among other things. Some point-and-shoots can capture RAW images, but the whole point of having such a camera is to capture the images as they are, without having to edit them after the fact. 

 

Limited. Not having a lens which is interchangeable has its downside, too, because you are stuck in terms of zoom and focal length. Also, you cannot add an external flash, and the number of accessories is very limited and camera-specific. Also, most of the controls are automated. 

 

Slow shooting speed. If you are looking for a camera which is able to capture fast action or sports, you are probably better off with another type of camera, since point-and-shoots are notoriously slow in that aspect. Also, focusing is very slow and there is considerable shutter lag. 

Smartphone Cameras

What You Need to Know about Smartphone Cameras 

Smartphones have come a long way, and are now capable of capturing beautiful images, and some of them have even been used to shoot entire movies. Now, while your average smartphone camera is the least capable on this list, new multi-camera smartphones and their serious processing power are putting compact cameras to shame and getting dangerously close to DSLRs and mirrorless cameras in certain conditions. 

Advantages of Smartphone Cameras 

Compact Size. Point-and-shoot cameras are compact, but they look and feel like bricks when compared to smartphones. Since all smartphone cameras are an integral part of the phone, they fit inside any pocket, and even the largest ones are still lighter and more portable than point-and-shoots, let alone mirrorless cameras and DSLRs. 

 

Price. Smartphone cameras are the cheapest ones on this list, because they come with your smartphone, so there are no additional costs in terms of lens, flashes, and accessories. They only thing you really need is an SD card once your smartphone’s memory gets full. 

 

Ease of Use. Everyone can learn to use a smartphone camera in a matter of seconds, and it’s easy to choose different settings, modes, and effects using your smartphone’s screen. Furthermore, the ease with which you can share and upload your images using a smartphone puts all other camera types to shame. 

 

Top Tip: Use a tripod regardless of the kind of camera you are have. Not only will you be able to stabilise your camera, but you will also be able to create panoramas, HDR images, long exposures, as well as tackle low-light situations.  

 

Shallow Depth of Field with Multi-Camera Smartphones. Bokeh effect requires a shallow depth of field which can be utilized using a DSLR or a mirrorless camera and an appropriate lens, but withmulti-camera smartphones, you can create that effect to an extent. It is fake, but it works well in most cases. 

 

Disadvantages of Smartphone Cameras 

Small Sensor Size. Since they feature the smallest sensors of the bunch, smartphone cameras produce decent images by relying on post-processing and multiple cameras, if any. In ideal conditions, those results can range from good to spectacular. But, in low-light situations, all that processing power can only take you so far, because you can’t get around physics. 

 

Ergonomy. Even though smartphones are relatively light, their screens can be pretty large, which makes them difficult to hold and stabilize. Also, all the settings and buttons need to be accessed through the screen and by scrolling through menus. 

 

No Zoom. Although some advances have been made to fit more optics into your smartphone camera, actual zoom capabilities still leave much to be desired. And digital zoom is nothing more than taking an image and cropping it.  

 

Less Control. Although, for some smartphones, you can download apps which allow you to manually control some elements of shooting, if you are interested in controlling shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, exposure compensation, or trying different metering and focusing modes, smartphone cameras inevitably fall short.  

 

Battery Life. Smartphones are incredibly battery-consuming, and if you start using the camera a lot, that issue becomes even more apparent. 

Final Word 

And there you have it, all of the pros and cons of four major camera types. Now, as you may have gathered by now, DSLRs are not necessarily “better” than smartphone cameras or vice versa. It all depends on where you want to take your photography. In fact, in most cases, you will need to work with two or more camera types in order to achieve your photography goals. We hope that this guide will make your journey just a little bit easier. Good luck! 

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