A mirrorless camera offers the best of both worlds: a smaller size closer to that of a point-and-shoot, with the large sensor and interchangeable lens flexibility of a DSLR. That's why mirrorless cameras are one of the main growth areas for innovation in the camera industry, with new models frequently upping the ante for what these cameras can do.
The downside of these small cameras is that you generally loose some of the features that their bigger DSLR cousins can offer. While DSLRs all have optical viewfinders (which are much easier to see in both low light and in bright sun), mirrorless cameras tend to offer only LCD screens for framing shots. Some mirrorless cameras offer electronic viewfinders, but of varying quality. And mirrorless cameras generally provide fewer controls on the camera body, leaving some controls buried in on-screen menus.
But recently, more sophisticated mirrorless cameras are emerging on the high end that are finding their way into the hands of advanced hobbyists. Even pro shooters are looking more closely at mirrorless cameras as a lightweight alternative to DSLR bulk.
Here are the top mirrorless cameras for a variety of users, from beginners to pros.
Best Mirrorless Camera for Beginners: Sony NEX-3N ($390)
Although it is last year's model, Sony's entry-level mirrorless camera, the NEX-3N, is still a great choice for beginners — especially with a price drop to $390, with 16-50mm zoom lens. The NEX-3N prioritizes ease of use over complicated features, which means the camera sacrifices some things (such as a full manual mode), but keeps the essentials: 16-megapixel resolution, a built-in flash and a large, bright, flip-up 3-inch LCD screen that can be used for self-portraits. The included lens collapses down to just 1.2 inches (3 centimeters) deep when not in use. The NEX-3N uses Sony's own E-mount lens mount, which offers a moderate selection of lenses: 21 in total, ranging from a very wide 10-18mm zoom lens to a just-released, very long 70 to 200mm zoom. In addition, Sony sells a $135 adapter that accommodates the larger Sony A-mount lenses made for its DSLRs.
Best Midrange Mirrorless Camera: Olympus PEN E-PL5 ($600)
Olympus was one of the pioneers of the mirrorless camera format, and that experience shows in the PEN E-PL5 ($549 with 14-42mm zoom lens). This camera offers a great range of features, including a bright, clear 3-inch LCD touch screen that flips up for more comfortable shooting. The E-PL5 also provides a lot of buttons on the body to access features more quickly than via a touch screen, but they aren't enough to overwhelm the user. This device offers fast focusing and an auto mode that makes for quick and sharp snapshots. The video mode is rather limited, however, offering only three video modes and lackluster image quality. Using the lens mount standard known as Micro Four-Thirds, the E-PL5 is compatible with a wide range of lenses from manufacturers, including Panasonic, Olympus, Sigma and Rokinon.
Best High-End Mirrorless Camera: Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX7 ($935)
For the photographer who wants complete control over the picture-taking process, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX7 ($749 for body only, $875 with a 14-42mm zoom) is the right mirrorless camera. This powerhouse shooter takes 16-MP images and has both a tilting LCD and a bright electronic viewfinder, which makes it easier to use in sunny conditions..
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There are lots of controls on the retro-styled body. A pair of dials (one on the front and one on the back) let you tweak both aperture and shutter speed at the same time in manual mode.. Inside, the camera uses a sensor-shift image-stabilization system, which can work alongside the lens stabilization present on many Micro-Four Thirds lenses — a big bonus for sharper shots in low light. The GX7 can also capture 1080p/60 fps video.
The GX7 includes Wi-Fi, allowing you to control the camera from — and transfer images to — an Android or iOS device via the Panasonic Image app. Although the GX7 isn’t cheap, it represents a great value for the features it offers.
Best Pro Mirrorless Camera: Sony Alpha a7 ($1,700, body only)
If you are making money from your shots, you need a camera that can take great photos, but which won't weigh you down. The new Sony a7 offers a great set of features: 24.3-megapixel images and a great OLED electronic viewfinder in a compact body that Sony claims is the world’s lightest full-frame mirrorless camera. The full-frame sensor is the same size as a 35mm film negative, which means better low-light shooting with less noise than smaller sensors can achieve.
The a7 also offers an impressive number of control buttons and dials, putting commonly used features close at hand for those who know how to use them. Dials on the front and back of the body, for instance, allow you to change both shutter speed and aperture with one hand, while still keeping the finger near the shutter button. And with a decent selection of lenses available for the E-mount that this camera uses, the a7 makes a good pick for the pro who doesn't want to wrestle with a big DSLR. (Sony also offers a 36-megapixel version of this camera, called the a7R, for $2,300. But the a7 is just fine for most users.)
Best Mirrorless Video Camera: Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera ($999)
If you want to shoot professional-quality video, then you need pro equipment. The Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera ($999, body only) is a professional camcorder in a mirrorless camera body. This device comes complete with most of the features that the pros use, like very high-quality, high-bit-rate video recording, support for recording in ProRes and CinemaDNG format video used by professional video systems, and a very wide dynamic range (the ability to capture detail in both very dark and very light parts of scenes).
This all makes for very attractive, professional-looking video. The Pocket Cinema uses the Micro Four Thirds lens mount, which means you can use the same lenses that fit on Olympus and Panasonic mirrorless cameras. However, the Black Magic itself shoots only video, not still images.
Best Mirrorless Camera for Canon Lens Owners: Canon EOS M ($375)
If you have a collection of Canon lenses in your camera bag, the Canon EOS M is the easiest way to transition to mirrorless shooting. The EOS M uses a lens mount (called the M Mount) that supports only three lenses (including the included 18-55mm zoom). But Canon offers a $140 adapter that allows you to use many models in Canon's EFS-series of lenses designed for its DSLR cameras (as well as third-party lenses made for Canon DSLRs).
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The features of the lens are preserved: Image stabilization still works, and the focal length remains the same as for Canon DSLRs such as the Rebel T5i. It's a compromise, though: The EOS M is slow to focus, and the adapter makes it even slower. Canon has announced an updated model (called The EOS M2) that improves the focusing speed, but at present this camera is available only in Japan.