What is a Mirrorless DSLR anyway?

As many of our Career Training graduates can attest, if there is one thing that RMSP Founder and Owner Neil Chaput de Saintonge loves to do, it’s talk about photo equipment. He has been helping rookies and pros alike for well over 20 years with their equipment questions. So today’s post should come as no surprise.

I recently sat down with Neil to get the scoop on an emerging trend in photography, and something he even refers to as nothing less than “revolutionary.”  I’m talking about mirrorless DSLRs. While the name pretty much gives it away as to why these cameras are so unique, Neil does a good job of painting the broad-brush picture of these new cameras. At the end of the interview, be sure to download Neil’s helpful comparison chart of all mirrorless cameras available today.

AK:  Neil, in a nutshell, can you describe for our readers what a “mirrorless DSLR” is?
NC: Mirrorless DSLRs are essentially traditional digital SLRs, but without the mirror and mirror housing.  By removing these components from inside the camera, manufacturers have made cameras that are lighter and smaller. This is a big plus for many consumers.

AK:  You have described these cameras as somewhat revolutionary in the world of photography. What makes you say this? Is it just your opinion, or is it looking like there is a new norm in the industry?
NC:  Mirrorless DSLRs are revolutionary in terms of their size and weight.  Because they are so light and compact, they are ideal cameras for many users. They are perfect for people who travel a lot with their camera. They don’t take up much room in a bag, yet are capable of producing terrific results. For not much more money than a point and shoot (in some cases), buyers can get a full blown DSLR with lenses, and it will be smaller and lighter and fully capable of capturing great images.  For most professional shooters however, these cameras aren’t going to replace their DSLRs.

As an interesting side note, mirrorless cameras have caught on big time in Europe and Asia, where they account for up to 50% of the camera market. Compare that to the U.S. market, where they represent less than 10%.

AK: Every camera out there has strengths and weaknesses. What are the strengths of mirrorless cameras?
NC: Their smaller size and lighter weight is their biggest strength.  I’d also say the weight and size of the lenses, the 12-16 MP sensors most models have, and the overall price of most models are also strengths. Plus every model currently on the market shoots HD video.

AK:  What kind of price range are we talking about here?
NC:  It varies by brand, but roughly speaking, they start at about $450 on the low end and go up to about $1300 – $1400 including a normal zoom lens. They are more expensive than most point-and-shoots, but keep in mind you get so much more camera for the price.

AK:  What are their weaknesses?
NC: Some mirrorless models have viewfinders, but not all. For many photographers that are used to holding their camera up to their eye to look through a viewfinder, looking at pixels on the back of the screen might take some getting used to. Mirrorless cameras are also not good for shooting sports or action. The pixels just can’t keep up. Another point that could be a weakness to some users is that none of the mirrorless cameras on the market have a full frame sensor. They all have a micro 4/3, APS-C or something even smaller. Here is a chart that illustrates sensor size across the spectrum, from point and shoot to full frame DSLRs.

chart from wikipedia.

AK:  Do these cameras operate in a similar way to traditional SLRs? Do they usually have a hot shoe for a flash? What capture modes are available? (RAW, jpg, etc)
NC:  Yes. They all behave exactly the same as other DSLRs with regard to f-stops, shutter speeds, and ISO.  They all shoot HD video and all offer RAW capture as well. Most models offer a hot shoe, which is important for adding an external flash and very important for studio shooting.

AK: Which companies are ahead of the curve in the mirrorless trend?
NC:  I’d have to say Sony and Panasonic.  I think these two brands have done the most to make their cameras great, but Sony only has a few lenses where Panasonic has a very large selection. Most of us are still waiting to see what Canon will come out with.

Sony NEX-7

Panasonic GX1

AK:  Are these cameras good for use in RMSP’s Career Training or Workshops programs?
NC:  Absolutely. The fundamentals of photography are still the same. F-stops, shutter speeds, and basic operations are the same as a DSLR. An exception would be in our Professional Studies courses, where a hot shoe is required for shooting in the studio.


BONUS:  Neil has compiled an invaluable, easy-to-read chart which compares 15 different models of camera by a number of features such as sensor size, cost, video capabilities, weight, etc. to download this useful tool, click here: mirrorless cameras

All information was obtained from the B&H website. Prices were current as of November 2011.



8 thoughts on “What is a Mirrorless DSLR anyway?


Maybe nitpicking but “Mirrorless DSLR” term in the article should be replaced by “Mirrorless DSL”. “R” in SLR/DSLR refers to the mirror and prism. By very definition these cameras lack them. Including it makes as much sense as dehydrated water.
Not on nitpicking side but on the issue that manufacturers and reviewers should pay more attention: what else but the size does the customer get from mirrorless DSL camera? For me even some DSLR’s are already ergonomically too small. Nikon D7000 for example is at the very edge, for me in particular too small. So, just shrinking the size and saving some cost on simplification is not enough. Volume released by the mirror/prism removal must be at least somewhat exploited for something new and useful. As Astronomer my first instinct would be to call for some form of active sensor cooling for better S/N… but that is just one idea. These cameras can hit it out of ballpark if manufacturers start thinking of things lacking in DSLRs for which now there is a space to be built in. Such real new features could bring customers in very quickly.

Ian G

Not to be nit-picky, but the word *reflex* is the important point (pentaprisms not necessary). A *reflex* mirror jumps out of the way so a picture can be taken.

By your definition, a Hasselblad with a waist-level finder would not be an SLR, and that is a ridiculous proposition.

But the main point is that the author of this story didn’t get it right, and the content is trivial. Grammatical and punctuation howlers abound as well.


What about noise? I would think a mirror-less camera would not have the clicking of a shutter and slap open and close of a shutter mirror? Or is that not really a factor? Just curious…

Chuck Pivetti

I’ve had a Panasonic Lumix DMC GH2 for about a month. It’s capable of producing good images, but it has way too many features.The User’s Manual is mindboggling.
The electronic viewfinder is very nice; a bright, 100% view with all current settings visible in the frame.I found that bracketing some landscape shots and processing them in Nik HDR worked beautifully. These were slow, contemplative shots from a tripod. But I find that when getting quick grab shots of people and action there is always something set that was not intended. I’ve used Nikons and Canons for the last thirty years, so a lot of the nomenclature in the menus is like a foreign language.
And the menus scroll from right to left instead of up and down like in real cameras.
I got the Lumix to use as a carry everywhere camera to use when I don’t want the bulk and weight of my DSLRs (for example when riding a bicycle). It is certainly lightweight and small. Other plus features are handy switches on the top deck to select drive modes, autofocus modes, and focus area or point
If it has a wireless flash feature, I haven’t found it yet.
By the way, Outdoor Photography dubbed these cameras EVIL for “Electronic Viewfinder, Interchangeable Lens” system cameras. (I would never consider one of the mirror-less models without the electronic viewfinder. A friend has the Olympus with an accessory EVF that swivels up and down, very nice but expensive and occupies the hot shoe so no accessory flash can be used with it).

Ken Stolz

Great article Neil!

Dave has an excellent point. For shooting at lectures, concerts, etc. – the lack of mirror noise is invaluable.

And Chuck makes important points as well. How the controls work is vital. I haven’t had a Sony 5n or 7 in my hands, but the reviews suggest that exposure, shutter speed, and ISO (the exposure triangle) are easy to manipulate. That’s why I HOPE Canon comes out with a MDSLR, MDSL, EVIL (whatever 😉 that has controls just like my G12 (dials for all three) with an APS-C sensor!

I want one for street shooting and backpacking.


The article mentions nothing about the short back-focus distance, which is where a lot of value is to be found if you have old, but awesome, lenses that can’t be used with a DSLR. I see those old Leica lenses going up in value as the 4/3rds cameras increase in popularity. I shoot the Canon D bodies due to their smaller size and take them everywhere, but a 4/3rds presents an even better alternative, especially when the adapted lens selection is potentially larger.

HD Cam Team

Very nice post!

One thing that would be very interesting to compare is how much degradation on the image quality (if any) appears due to the long and constant exposure of the different CMOS sensors to the light.

Since the mirrorless system keeps the sensor all the time gathering light to display the image on the LCD screen, it will warm or heat up faster than DSLR cameras. Hence, the more chances to get some kind of image quality issues (noise, hot pixels, etc., more visible in low light shooting). But of course, it depends on each sensor and the technology used to make it (which differs a lot on each one).

In current DSLRs, the longer the sensor is exposed (and then heated up), the more degradation on the image (stills and video). So it would be very interesting to see a comparison test of all current (and future) mirrorless systems.


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