Mirrorless vs. DSLR Cameras for Bird and Wildlife Photography What advantages and disadvantages do mirrorless cameras provide?

In this video wildlife and nature photographer Steve Perry (from backcountrygallery) looks at the advantages and disadvantages of mirrorless cameras vs. DSLR cameras for shooting wildlife.

What is the relevance of DSLR today?

The world is moving to mirrorless cameras. Nikon will likely not announce any more DSLRs and Canon seems to allocate most of its R&D to mirrorless as well (Sony, Panasonic, Fujifilm, and Olympus have moved to mirrorless a long time ago).

So what is even the point of this video? well, we have two answers for that (Perry does not touch on that in the video but we have our own line of thought here):

  1. People hold on to their photo gear for years and as long as it is not broken they might keep using it so unlike smartphones which usually get replaced every 2-3 years by most people, DSLRs might still be used even 5-7 years after they are bought and well after they stopped being produced.
  2. The second-hand market for DSLR cameras is huge and if you are interested in bird/wildlife and primarily stills you can get a camera and lens for far less than a new mirrorless system with many more lens options in many cases.

DSLR vs. mirrorless for bird and wildlife shooting – Mirrorless Advantages

So as we noted, DSLRs are still relevant in this market segment and we expect them to be for a few years still. However, if you are on the fence, here are the reasons why you might want to consider moving to a new mirrorless system according to Perry:

  • AF points across the frame – this is certainly a big one. The ability to choose a focus point over 100% of the frame (over very close to that) is huge and a major improvement compared to even the best high-end PRO-level modern DSLRs.
  • AF subject tracking – the ability of the AF system to track a subject across the frame is significantly enhanced in most advanced mirrorless cameras compared to the best DSLRs.
  • Animal eye detection – this is a new feature that only recently started to be added to some of the most recent mirrorless models but as it improves it is going to be a true game-changer to any bird/wildlife shooter (such technology never existed on DSLRs and will probably never will).
  • Silent shutter – while some DSLRs had less noisy shutters, some of the modern mirrorless cameras are truly 100% silent, meaning you can shoot without disturbing the animal.
  • Faster frame rates – while some PRO DSLRs were very fast, there is simply nothing that can touch the Sony A1 30fps on the DSLR side (and this is going to be true for the upcoming Canon and Nikon mirrorless top models soon).
  • True to life exposure – if you use a viewfinder (and with DSLR you mostly do) what you see in it doesn’t represent the actual exposure of the resulting image. On mirrorless what you see in the viewfinder is what your image will look like (at least in terms of exposure). You also have histogram/zebras in the viewfinder to help nail exposure (among other useful info of course)
  • No AF tuning – if you used DSLRs for many years you probably ran into the annoying issue of having to calibrate the AF between the camera and the lens. With mirrorless, this is mostly a thing of the past.
  • NO EVF blackout – this is true of only a handful of high-end mirrorless models for the moment (A9 II/A1 with the upcoming Canon R3 and possibly the Nikon Z9 as well) but this means that you never miss even a fraction of a second to blackout – a huge problem on DSLRs (and until now most mirrorless cameras as well, but this might change in the future).
  • No glasses – with DSLRs even with a diopter set correctly you still needed your glasses to view the image on the screen. With EVF on mirrorless cameras, you can do everything with the EVF and never worry about your glasses (just don’t run into a tree).

DSLR vs. mirrorless for bird and wildlife shooting – DSLR Advantages

There are some disadvantages that are still worth considering:

  • Slow power on – mirrorless cameras have more computing elements than DSLRs and by their very nature require a longer boot up time. While you can turn a DSLR on and shoot almost immediately, with mirrorless (even the latest ones) there is still a little wait (we suspect that at least with higher-end models this will be reduced in the future).
  • Viewfinder lag – this is true for some low-mid level EVF systems on mirrorless cameras (not so much on the recent high-end models) but it is something to keep in mind that you don’t have with an optical viewfinder on a DSLR.
  • Lower battery life – high-end PRO DSLRs have huge batteries that can last for several days of shooting in some cases. This is not true for mirrorless cameras (yet) but it might change with the new Canon/Nikon models and the Z-type batteries on Sony cameras is usually powerful enough for a full day of shooting (and you can always take an extra one or use a grip if not – even with it the camera is still smaller than a full-body DSLR).
  • Lens options – while Sony created quite a range of mirrorless lenses (including some good 3’rd party options), for wildlife and especially bird shooting there are still not as many options (or as many affordable good options) as you have with Canon or Nikon DSLRs – but this will also change pretty soon and Canon/Nikon mirrorless will also bring with them more mirrorless lens models to the game.
  • Too small of a body – this is a very subjective point. Some people prefer the large size of DSLRs (especially if they have very big hands or use gloves). We actually prefer the smaller mirrorless Sony body size. Nikon and Canon decided to go with larger mirrorless models so to each his own.
  • No cross-type AF points – DSLRs (and especially PRO DSLRs had cross-type AF points which can nail focus both horizontally and vertically (and in some cases even in an X pattern). This doesn’t exist on mirrorless cameras but to be honest some mirrorless AF systems are so good now that we are not sure if this even matters anymore.
  • Stuck on backgrounds – Perry suggests that when you have a close subject out of focus mirrorless finds it more difficult than DSLR to focus on the close subject compared to DSLRs. We ran into this problem ourselves with several Sony cameras and lenses although we didn’t compare it to a DSLR so we can’t speak for that. Using MF to help focus on the close-up objects help but it is possible that firmware updates can fix these issues.

You can check out many more helpful photography tips in our Photography tips section here on LensVid. We have a special page dedicated to all of Perry‘s videos which you can find here.

Iddo Genuth
Iddo Genuth is the founder and chief editor of LensVid.com. He has been a technology reporter working for international publications since the late 1990's and covering photography since 2009. Iddo is also a co-founder of a production company specializing in commercial food and product visual content.

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