The first mirrorless cameras debuted approximately 10 years ago, delivering the flexibility of an interchangeable lens camera, but in a (generally) compact form-factor. However, the early generations lag behind their DSLR cousins, hindered by performance issues like slow autofocusing.
Fast-forward to 2016: Mirrorless cameras have changed the game. Not only are they as strong as DSLRs, if you look at certain reports, they are outperforming in sales as well. For the customer, this means there are far more appealing options than before. Whether you’re looking for something that’s strong enough for studio work, or compact enough for travel, many will fit the bill. But here are our current favorites.
Why should you buy this: An all-around, feature-rich camera with strong performance
Who’s it for: Anyone who wants a compact, versatile camera that performs like a champ
How much will it cost: $1,000 (body only)
Why we picked the Sony A6300:
The A6000-series is one of the most popular mirrorless cameras, and there’s a good reason for that. The 24.2-megapixel A6300’s body is very compact, yet Sony packed every square inch with high-end features. For $1,000, you’re getting a lot of camera for your buck. It’s so versatile that it should satisfy photographers of every level, from casual users to advanced amateurs and even professionals.
The A6300 is a speedy camera. It has really fast autofocusing and burst shooting. In our experience we had no issues grabbing focus or capturing action shots. It supports Wi-Fi, so you can upload high-quality shots to Instagram or Facebook, and it not only supports 4K video, but it includes professional-level tools like time codes, S-Gamut/S-Log for post-production work, as well as a mic input. The A6300 is ideal for budding YouTubers, but we think it makes a good C or even B camera for filmmaking. It even has a built-in viewfinder – something many camera makers sacrifice in order to keep things compact. And, the A6300 supports Sony’s full line of E-mount glass.
Sony’a A6000-series is a well-rounded family of cameras, and the A6300 is an excellent buy for the price. We wish Sony included a touchscreen display and in-camera stabilization, but nonetheless, it’s a highly sophisticated camera. Only very demanding pros may find the APS-C sensor limiting, but it is capable for most photographers. But watch this space: Sony recently announced the A6500, which uses a faster processor and offers five-axis image stabilization. The A6500 could take the top stop from its sibling.
The best full-frame mirrorless camera
Why should you buy this: Sony is the full-frame mirrorless leader. Unless you have the cash to buy the $6,000-plus Leica M, Sony is your only other option.
Who’s it for: Pros and enthusiasts who enjoy shooting portraits and landscapes
How much will it cost: $3,200 (body only)
Why we picked the Sony A7R II:
Sony wowed us with the revolutionary A7, the first interchangeable lens mirrorless camera with a large full-frame sensor, and it has been raising the bar with subsequent models in the A7-series. The current flagship A7R II introduced the world’s first 42.4-megapixel back-illuminated (BSI) full-frame sensor, which is also one of the highest-megapixel sensors you can buy. The BSI architecture makes the sensor more sensitive to light, which makes the camera a capable low-light performer.
For filmmakers, the A7R II is a highly capable B-camera. It can shoot 4K in full-frame or cropped Super35mm modes, with the latter mimicking motion picture film. There are plenty of tools and features designed with filmmakers in mind. For photographers, the A7R II is fast: It uses a 399-point phase-detect autofocus system that excels at subject tracking. And, with an adapter, it can even autofocus Canon lenses. The five-axis image stabilization steadies any lens that’s attached.
The A7R II isn’t perfect. Battery life could be longer and a touchscreen LCD would be nice. Plus, it has heat issues when recording long periods of video, and it’s not ideal for super-fast action. But the shortcomings are worth it for terrific full-frame photos and videos, making it not just the best full-frame mirrorless camera you can buy, but one of the best full-frame cameras, period.
The best APS-C mirrorless camera
Why should you buy this: Fantastic image quality without going full-frame
Who’s it for: Photographers who want amazingly beautiful pictures
How much will it cost: $1,600 (body only)
Why we picked the Fujifilm X-T2:
The image quality the X-T2 produces will have you asking, “What’s full-frame?” The 24-megapixel X-Trans CMOS III demonstrates that cropped APS-C sensors are capable of shooting amazing photography – Fujifilm X-series owners have known this all along. Compressed JPEGs are some of the best we’ve seen out of a camera. Combined with the new X-Processor Pro image processor, the X-T2 is a strong ISO performer.
But as the mirrorless category gets crowded with great cameras, Fujifilm sought to set the X-T2 apart. It not only can shoot 4K (the first Fujifilm camera to do so), but it actually records from an oversampled 4K image, so you end up with crisper-looking videos. With features like 8-bit, 4:2:2, 4K and F-log profiles, the X-T2 is targeting photographers who dabble in video.
Instead of a compact design that’s common with mirrorless cameras, the X-T2 retains the X-T1’s elegant DSLR-like form-factor. Yes, it’s big, but it gives you the solid grip, and there are plenty of dials, buttons, and other customizable controls to suit your workflow. It’s weather-sealed, making it rugged enough for shooting in the rain. Once you add a lens, the X-T2 costs more than $2,000 – much more than the aforementioned A6300. But we truly believe the X-T2 is the best enthusiast camera you can get that isn’t full-frame.
The best Micro Four Thirds mirrorless camera
Why should you buy this: Performance and features, loaded in an affordable package
Who’s it for: Micro Four Thirds users who want a versatile camera
How much will it cost: $900 (body only), $1,000 (with 12-60mm kit lens)
Why we picked the Panasonic Lumix G85:
If Sony’s A6300 didn’t exist, then the G85 would have taken its place easily. It’s a strong competitor that’s packed with features and performance. And at $1,000, you get a kit lens (good option if it’s your first interchangeable lens camera) and a lot of camera for your money. The only thing that holds it back is the 16-megapixel Micro Four Thirds sensor, but even then, it is still a capable chipset. The removal of the anti-aliasing filter means better image quality.
Aimed at enthusiasts, the DSLR-like (buttons and controls galore) G85 uses a weather-sealed magnesium alloy body for strength and durability. Autofocusing is fast, and a new electromagnetic shutter design and five-axis image stabilization minimizes shakes. Aside from 4K video, the G85 includes Panasonic’s 4K Photo feature that lets you extract 8-megapixel stills from a 4K video. Other features include Post Focus (ability to change point of focus afterward) and Focus Stacking (to achieve greater focus).
The G85 is only bested by the A6300’s larger APS-C sensor and wider selection of lens options, and while you can find cheaper mirrorless cameras, you won’t find the level of construction, usability, performance, and features, including 4K video and five-axis image stabilization (although Panasonic’s GX85 should be considered, as it shares many attributes). But Panasonic may not hold onto this title for too long: Olympus’ OM-D E-M1 Mark II is an attractive newcomer, boasting a 20.4-megapixel sensor, fast image processor, and improved performance (although most likely with a higher price point). Regardless, the G85 won’t disappoint.
The best cheap mirrorless camera
Why should you buy this: A strong performer with a sub-$500 price tag
Who’s it for: First-time buyers jumping into mirrorless
How much will it cost: $450 (body only), $600 (with 16-50mm kit lens)
Why we picked the Sony A5100:
There’s a reason why you’re seeing a lot of Sony models on this list: The company has been killing it, introducing one impressive camera after another. For the entry-level, the A5100 is a low-price option that comes with many strong points.
The A5100 uses the same 24.3-megapixel APS-C sensor as the A6000, the predecessor to the A6300. While it uses a hybrid autofocus system that’s slower than the A6300’s, it’s still speedy for casual, everyday shooting. It one-ups the A6300 with its 3-inch touchscreen LCD, but loses a point due to the omitted viewfinder.
The camera doesn’t support 4K, but you can shoot Full HD 1080 video at 60p with high data rate. From our experience shooting with Sony cameras, the videos at this spec are high quality. It also has Wi-Fi so you can control the camera remotely or transfer images to a phone, and upload them to social media.
For $600 you can get the camera with a kit lens and call it day. We recommend getting the body only, and spending just a bit more on a quality E-mount lens. This way, you get quality images and the lens can move with you to your next mirrorless camera (within the Sony universe, of course), whether it’s the midrange A6000-series or high-end A7-series. Note: It has been a while since Sony updated the A5000-series (the A5100 was announced in 2014), so we anticipate a successor soon; otherwise, Sony could cede the title to new offerings from Olympus and Panasonic.
The best mirrorless camera for recording video
Why should you buy this: The GH4 is designed for shooting professional-looking video.
Who’s it for: Video makers, whether YouTube or cinema
How much will it cost: $1,500 (body only)
Why we picked the Panasonic Lumix GH4:
All cameras can shoot video, and many can even shoot 4K. But in most cameras, video is secondary. Not so with the Lumix GH4: While it uses the same mirrorless camera technology as other Lumix models, Panasonic designed this with videographers’ input in mind.
When cameras tout 4K video capture, it usually means the UHD 3,840 x 2,160-pixel resolution. The 16-megapixel (Micro Four Thirds) GH4 supports not only QFHD (3,840 x 2,160) at 30 frames per second, but also Cinema 4K (4,096 x 2,160) at 24 fps; with high-speed SD cards, the camera can shoot videos with high bitrate. There are plenty of filmmaking tools and features, like mic and headphone jacks; output to an external monitor (4:2:2/8-bit or 4:2:2/10-bit) via HDMI; V-Log L recording; and an optional Interface Unit for connecting professional equipment, like XLR microphones. The GH4 has a rugged magnesium alloy construction that splash and dust-proof, while both the viewfinder and 3-inch LCD use OLED technology for bright displays.
Photographers, don’t fret: The GH4 can shoot high-quality images. It has a 49-area hybrid autofocus system that’s fast. The two-year-old camera has been updated with Panasonic’s 4K Photo burst mode and Post Focus.
However, you can buy very good cameras that can shoot beautiful images, for less money. The GH4 is for budding filmmakers – whether it’s YouTube or indie cinema – who desire professional-level features out of a traditional camera body.
The best mirrorless camera for street photography
Why should you buy this: It is a luxurious, fashionable camera.
Who’s it for: Stealthy street photographers
How much will it cost: $1,500 (body only)
Why we picked the Olympus PEN-F:
The PEN-F’s classic design is on purpose – the all-metal body is supposed to reflect the camera craftsmanship of yesteryear, channeling the original PEN-F of the 1960s. It is a beautiful camera that’s not only nice to hold, but gives you the look of a street photographer.
There’s no film here: The PEN-F’s performance and features are more in-line with the higher-end OM-D-series from Olympus. It has a 20-megapixel Micro Four Thirds sensor, and autofocus is fast. There is a quality viewfinder, but you can also frame your shots with the movable LCD. Image quality is also great, and there is a dial on the front that lets you fine-tune every aspect of an image, such as colors, highlights, and shadows, or apply artistic filters. The mechanical shutter is capable of a 1/8,000th/second speed, but you can enable the silent shutter for covert street photography.
The PEN-F’s high price tag might turn away the budget-conscious, but it’s one of the more luxurious cameras we’ve ever held – akin to a Leica. It’s also a unique looking camera that will certainly draw crowds. With its great design, expensive feel, and strong performance, there aren’t many cameras like the PEN-F.
How we test
Mirrorless cameras have come a long way since the first models, and nearly all are now capable of producing pleasing images. To find the best models, in addition to image quality, we factor in criteria such as speed, low-light strength, video performance, durability, and any unique features that help them one-up the competition.
Our selections are based on our long- and short-term testing; experience with earlier models; familiarity with the companies’ technologies; consultation with industry experts, fellow journalists, and users; online forums; lab results (such as DxO); and other third-party reviews. We look across the board – not just our own experiences – to find consensus on what we think are the best-performing cameras you can currently buy. We also look at list pricing to determine if a product is worth the cost.
The camera market, however, evolves constantly, with manufacturers often introducing better models with new features. So, you can expect our picks to change, as well. But don’t worry: The models you see here will be with you for some time, and if we anticipate there could be better models in the horizon, we will state that upfront to help you decide whether you should buy now or wait.
What is a mirrorless camera?
A mirrorless camera is a type of camera that uses interchangeable lenses, also called (to a lesser extent) a Compact System Camera. It’s related to the digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera, but do not confuse the two as the same. DSLRs use mirrors to reflect light from the lens to the optical viewfinder (OVF). When the shutter button is pressed, a mirror flips up to allow light to hit the sensor.
Mirrorless cameras do away with the mirror system and OVF (hence the name), allowing for lighter and smaller designs (although newer and more advanced mirrorless cameras can be somewhat bulky and heavy). But like DSLRs, mirrroless cameras let you attach a variety of lenses, and most use larger, stronger sensors than point-and-shoot, fixed lens cameras.
For more on the difference between a DSLR, mirrorless, or point-and-shoot camera, check our guide here. We also have tips on how to buy a camera, and if you’re buying your first mirrorless camera, read up on how to select some lenses.
To learn more about the difference between the various sensors used by mirrorless cameras, read our explainer here.