Since the beginning of digital photography, DSLR cameras have been regarded as the gold standard of image quality.
But over the years, mirrorless cameras have been slowly closing the gap as new technological advancements dramatically boost their abilities while maintaining a competitive price point.
When it comes time to buy your next landscape photography camera, it might be hard to choose between a mirrorless or DSLR camera, but we're here to help make things clear.
In this post, we'll dig into the mirrorless vs DSLR debate and explore how each type of camera works, what features they offer that are specifically useful for landscape photographers and help you decide which will be best for you.
A lot of confusion is created by the name 'mirrorless', because many photographers don't stop to think about how the light is handled within the body of their cameras.
Instead, you're probably wondering what mirrors are doing in your camera at all! We won't get too technical in our explanation, but it's important that you understand the basics of how each system works.
In a typical DSLR, light comes in through the lens, but before it hits the camera's sensor it is reflected upwards by a mirror (or a series of mirrors) that allows the light from the lens to be seen in the optical viewfinder.
This ensures that what you see through the viewfinder is exactly what your camera's sensor will see. When the shutter is fired, this mirror moves into a different position, allowing the light from the lens to reach the camera's sensor which records the image.
A mirrorless camera doesn't have any of these complex mechanical systems, so the camera's sensor is simply receiving and processing light directly through the lens at all times.
This means that while it is impossible to have an optical viewfinder on a mirrorless camera, you can still see what's going on by using the electronic viewfinder screen on the back of the camera, and it will still be an exact match to what your final image will look like.
Sensor size is one of the most important elements that affects the image quality of your photographs.
Many people get caught up in the number of megapixels a camera has, but don't bother to consider the sensor size, and this is a big mistake.
The larger the camera's sensor is, the better the image quality will be, but let's take a close look at exactly why that is.
Every camera sensor is made up of light-sensitive elements called photosites, which correspond to the number of pixels in the photos they produce.
If you have two equally-sized camera sensors, one with 18 megapixels worth of photosites and one with 36 megapixels worth of photosites, the photosites on the 36MP camera will have to be half the size of the 18MP sensor in order to fit into the same space.
This means that the camera will have to do a lot more processing of the 36MP image in order to make sure that there hasn't been any light bleed or other issues between the different photosites, and whenever that much processing is required in-camera you start to lose image quality.
A larger sensor size means that the photosites can be larger and not so tightly packed together, which results in a bunch of image quality improvements.
Larger sensors capture a wider dynamic range, have better ISO sensitivities and better digital noise control. These improvements can make a huge difference when shooting landscapes, because they tend to naturally include wide dynamic ranges when shooting land and sky together.
Image resolution is the second most important aspect to consider after sensor size.
While we cautioned you not to get too caught up in the megapixel count provided by your camera, it's still something you have to take into account because it will affect what you'll be able to do with your photographs once you capture them.
Shooting with a high resolution camera will give you a great deal of flexibility if you want to print your images, because you'll be able to create much larger prints while maintaining proper image quality.
Even if you only want to work digitally, shooting in high resolution will give you the ability to recrop and recompose your shots in post-processing and still wind up with a large, high quality image.
Often when shooting landscapes we can't quite get the exact shot we need in-camera because something gets in the way despite our best composition efforts, but if you've got a high resolution source image you can simply crop out what you don't want and still have a great photo.
Most cameras available on the market today average out at around 24 megapixels, but they can range between 18 to 50 megapixels, depending on what will fit in your budget.
Unless you're planning on making incredibly large size prints, you don't need to go as high as 50MP, but you'll probably want at least 20 or 24.
A 24MP camera will create an image with roughly 6000 x 4000 pixels, enabling you to create a film-quality print at a size of approximately 20" x 13.3".
It's important to note that higher resolution images take up much more space on your memory card, so you'll have to make sure that you've got a sufficiently large memory card.
A single 24MP photo in uncompressed RAW mode can be as big as 48 megabytes, which means you'll only fit approximately 150 images on an 8 gigabyte memory card, so you're probably better off with a much larger capacity.
If you're shooting with a 36MP camera, you'll need to use a 64GB card at minimum.
Live view is a fairly simple function that allows you to see what your camera sensor will record before you click the shutter button.
It is different from simply looking through the optical viewfinder on a DSLR because the image you see with live view will reflect the camera's current exposure and white balance settings.
This can be extremely useful when it comes to shooting landscapes, because you'll be able to tell ahead of time if you're using the proper exposure or if you need to adjust any of your settings instead of wasting a whole bunch of time and memory card space.
For quite some time, the live view feature was only offered by mirrorless and compact cameras.
Because of the mirror systems we explained earlier, it was very difficult for DSLR manufacturers to include the live view feature since light wasn't reaching the sensor unless the shutter was pressed.
However thanks to recent advancements in DSLR technology, most new DSLR cameras offer some type of live view mode.
The only real drawback to live view mode is that it uses a huge amount of battery power.
Because it has to keep the camera's sensor, image processors and preview screen running all the time, your battery life will be dramatically reduced, especially when compared to shooting with a DSLR using just the optical viewfinder.
When you're testing out a new camera model in the store or just shooting in the studio, the weight of your camera probably doesn't seem like a big concern.
But when you're actually out in the world on-location and you have to carry all of your equipment on your back no matter where you go, suddenly it becomes a lot more important.
There's nothing worse than going out for a photography hike but having to turn back early because your camera bag is too heavy!
It's not just the weight of the camera itself that you have to take into consideration, of course.
If you want to be fully prepared with a DSLR camera, you're going to have to take a range of lenses with you that will enable you to capitalize on any scene composition you run across.
Being prepared with a mirrorless camera is much easier, because mirrorless camera lenses tend to be much smaller overall.
One of the most appealing features of mirrorless cameras is their small size.
They tend to be much closer to the size of a compact point and shoot camera, which makes it much easier to bring them with you when you head out to do an on-location landscape shoot.
DSLR cameras are much larger and heavier to accommodate all the optical mirror mechanisms, and a fully-loaded camera bag can really start to weigh you down - literally!
Of course, this extra size means that DSLRs can incorporate comfortable handgrips to ensure you can support all the added weight, but it's still hard to beat the small size of a mirrorless camera.
Instead of an optical viewfinder like you find on DSLR cameras, mirrorless cameras use what's known as an electronic viewfinder.
An electronic viewfinder or EVF is exactly the same thing as live view mode on a DSLR, and it's just as useful. It provides a perfectly accurate preview of what your final photograph will look like, instead of the unadjusted view through the lens that you get through an optical viewfinder.
While some photographers swear by them, optical viewfinders are far from perfect.
Some optical viewfinders on DSLRs don't actually show the exact same scene as the final photograph, although it's usually pretty close.
Some only show 98% of the scene, which can result in having extra unwanted elements around the edges of your photos, and on lower-quality DSLRs the image can be almost too dark to be much use beyond basic composition.
A good electronic viewfinder has none of these issues, which can save a great deal of time when you're composing your shots and choosing your settings.
They're also extremely useful for learning how to use your camera in manual mode, because you can directly see the results of your settings as you change them, helping you to get a sense of how different combinations of aperture, shutter speed and ISO will affect your photographs.
Focus peaking is one of the most useful features ever found on a modern digital camera. Essentially what it does highlight the areas of your image that are in the sharpest focus using a color overlay on your camera's screen.
Since all mirrorless cameras are using electronic viewfinders all the time, this is easily done, and provides a huge advantage over typical manual focus cameras.
Strangely enough, focus peaking isn't available on any of the DSLRs offered by any of the major camera manufacturers.
Apparently it is possible to load unofficial firmware onto some Canon DSLR cameras that provide additional features such as focus peaking, but this is a pretty dangerous option that will definitely void your warranty and may even turn your expensive camera into nothing more than an expensive paperweight.
While it's a cool feature, it's probably not worth ruining your camera just to get it. We do not recommend it.
Because mirrorless cameras are mirrorless, there's a lot less going on inside the camera body.
They don't need to include the heavy, cumbersome mirror systems that are found inside DSLR bodies, which makes them much lighter.
While this might not seem important at first, having a lightweight camera can make a long walk searching for the perfect scene a much more enjoyable experience!
Mirrorless cameras also tend to have much smaller lenses than a DSLR, and sometimes DSLR lenses are so heavy that they have to have their own tripods!
This also saves a great deal of weight, and also gives you a lot more flexibility when it comes to how you handle your camera.
The final perk of choosing a mirrorless camera is the price.
Even the most expensive mirrorless cameras are still around the price of an entry-level DSLR, usually around $1000.
Top mirrorless cameras can reach $4500 and that's for the very top of the line mirrorless cameras.
A top of the line DSLR camera might cost as much as $8000, and that's just for the camera body alone without any of the necessary lenses.
Purchasing additional lenses for a mirrorless camera is also usually much cheaper than purchasing DSLR lenses, which can sometimes cost more than the camera!
Most additional lenses for mirrorless cameras range between $200 to $600, although there are a few new releases that fall outside this range.
Unfortunately, because mirrorless cameras don't have an optical viewfinder but instead have to be registering and processing all the light that passes through them when they're turned on, they tend to have much shorter battery life than a comparable DSLR camera.
Additionally, constantly using the electronic viewfinder screen uses up quite a bit of power, and you can't take pictures without it.
By comparison, DSLRs only use power when the shutter is fired or when you're reviewing your shots, so their batteries tend to last quite a long time.
Mirrorless cameras often come with good quality lenses, but unfortunately they tend to have an extremely limited range of additional lenses available for sale.
Most mirrorless cameras will have a wide angle lens, a regular mixed-use lens and a telephoto zoom lens, but only one model of each type.
If you're lucky, you might also be able to get a macro lens, but this is still pretty limiting when it comes to your lens choice.
Some mirrorless cameras can use DSLR lenses with an adaptor though. This increases the options available with some pitfalls. Sometimes the adaptors do not allow the autofocus or provide a much slower focus.
DSLRs will have a huge range of lenses from a number of different manufacturers, and they cover a wide range of optical qualities and price points.
This gives a great deal of added flexibility and lets you choose just what you're comfortable with - and what you can fit into your budget.
Unfortunately for the quality-minded photographer, the quality of the images produced by a top of the line mirrorless camera still can't compete with the image quality produced by a top of the line DSLR camera.
Of course, there's a huge difference in price between those two options, possibly as much as $8000 difference in fact, but if image quality is your biggest concern and you have an unlimited budget, then you're still better off using a DSLR instead of a mirrorless camera.
The biggest reason for this difference in quality comes back to the sensor size that we discussed earlier at the beginning of the post.
Most mirrorless camera systems tend to have smaller sensors than a full frame DSLR, but this isn't always true.
While they use different language to explain it, any mirrorless camera that has a "1 inch class" sensor is roughly equivalent to a full frame 35mm sensor.
The other major factor that affects the image quality of mirrorless cameras is the optics in their lenses.
While they often have decent quality optics that are optimized for the particular camera they function with, they simply cannot compete with the latest and greatest $3000 DSLR lens.
So even after all that exploration of the great DSLR vs mirrorless camera debate, it's still hard to choose an overall winner.
Mirrorless cameras tend to win on portability, ease of use and price, but they can't stand up to the power and flexibility of a DSLR - at least, not for now.
Because camera manufacturers are always looking for the next best thing, they're currently investing a great deal of money into developing better quality sensors, better batteries and more powerful (and power efficient) image processing chips.
For example, Sony is one of the biggest manufacturers of mirrorless cameras, and they've been looking to get an edge against Canon and others who are dominating the mirrorless camera world.
They're developing a new mirrorless camera called the Sony A9, and it's completely changing the way that people think about mirrorless cameras.
It's priced like a professional level DSLR at $4500, which is unheard of for a mirrorless camera, and while it hasn't been released yet it's still creating a great deal of excitement from professional photographers.
Canon is also in the process of pushing it's EOS M line, a mirrorless camera series that overcomes one of the biggest issues for mirrorless cameras: the available lenses.
By using a special adapter system, it's possible to use some of Canon's DSLR lenses on the M line camera bodies, although it's still not quite in the same class as the upcoming Sony A9.
If you're just starting out in the world of photography, you might be better off with an inexpensive mirrorless camera system that helps to ease you into the basics of photography and helps to whet your appetite for even more powerful cameras without using up your entire photography budget immediately.
If you've already got a bit of experience with photography, or if you've already invested in a particular DSLR system, you're probably better off sticking with DSLRs and simply investing in a newer camera body and the best quality lenses that you can afford.
Of course, the right choice for you is something that you're going to have to decide for yourself.
The debate is still ongoing, and every year there are new entries from each side, so there may never be a final winner.
For some landscape photographers, mirrorless cameras will always fit their needs, and for others, DSLRs will always be the best choice - it really depends on what you need from your camera.
Hi, I am Luca, founder and editor in chief at photographyambition.com. I am crazy about photography and I always have a camera with me. When I am not busy with my day job, enjoying my family or taking photos, I am on Photography Ambition to share what I have learnt so far.
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