Traditionally, the quality of digital photograph was always directly proportional to the physical size of the camera. But the new breed of Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera (MILC) are defying this stereotype.
The first generation of mirrorless cameras used the Micro Four Thirds system, created by Olympus and Panasonic. These cameras were smaller, lighter and had large sensors (though not as large as what a traditional DSLR offered).
Sony started the second round of innovation in this segment with the NEX series of cameras. The NEX also has a smaller body than a DSLR, but Sony managed to fit in APS-C size sensor – the same kind of image sensor that most DSLRs have.
The large sensor not only enabled much higher image quality but also high-quality HD video recording with autofocus. This was followed by Nikon with their 1 Series, Fujifilm with their X-Pro1 and now Canon, a late entrant into the segment, has announced the EOS M system.
There are some downsides to mirrorless cameras too. For starters, not many lenses are available, and the ones that are available, are expensive. Now that almost all major manufacturers have entered the segment, we should see lower costs and more innovation.
How They Differ
DSLRs have a much larger image sensor, mirror-box, a complex optical viewfinder system and lots of physical buttons – these aspects contribute to their much larger size as compared to compact cameras.
In the new crop of Micro Four Thirds cameras and interchangeable lens cameras that use DSLR-size APS-C sensors, the mirror and viewfinder is done away with, effectively reducing the overall size and weight. They also usually have touchscreens. Since one of the most important aspects, a large and high-quality sensor, is retained, you will end up with results that are very close to what a DSLR offers.
Mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras use larger lenses as compared to compact cameras. The lenses allow the sensor to capture more light and make for an overall sharper image from edge to edge. These lenses are not directly compatible with other DSLR lenses because each manufacturer uses a proprietary mount.
However, you still have a choice, ranging from 14mm ‘pancake’ lenses to 30-110mm zooms. Sometimes, you can also use a lens mount adapter to attach a DSLR lens, but a possible drawback is that the autofocus system in the lens may not work.
The larger image sensor in these cameras captures light more easily, giving you better images in low light and lower noise.
Manual controls for exposure (aperture, shutter speed), ISO (light sensitivity) and various creative modes/filters are always included in these kinds of cameras.
A higher quality interchangeable lens means that this kind of camera will deliver results close to what a DSLR will. Plus, the system is capable of expanding to meet future needs.
They tend to be larger and heavier than the usual point-and-shoot camera – definitely not ‘pocketable’.
An optical viewfinder is a rarity in a Micro Four Thirds or interchangeable lens camera – you only have the LCD.
They are expensive compared to entry-level DSLRs. In many cases, you can buy a DSLR with similar performance for the same amount or less.
Limited and more expensive accessories – since the market is limited, add-on lenses and accessories tend to be more expensive than DSLRs.
The absence of a mirror and in certain models, the lack of an optical viewfinder is the main reason for the compact size of mirrorless cameras. Usually, they are half the weight of a DSLR.
Most mirrorless cameras can record full HD video and that too with continuous autofocus – a feature that most DSLRs lack.