A mirrorless camera has many of the same benefits of a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera, but without the bulk. These small cameras offer high performance — with speed and image quality almost as good as that of many DSLRs — and portability. A model like the Sony NEX-3N and a small prime (non-zooming) lens will fit into a large pocket — portability you won't get with an DSLR.
The downside of mirrorless cameras for people used to using DSLRs is having to acclimate to an LCD screen to preview photos. Some high-end mirrorless models compromise by offering an electronic viewfinder, which could ease the process of switching from an DSLR. As with DSLRs, lower-cost mirrorless cameras are typically sold in a kit with a zoom lens.
Here are our top picks for mirrorless digital cameras, for novices and professionals alike. (All prices are manufacturers suggested retail price. You may find some cheaper.)
Best Mirrorless Camera for Beginners: Sony NEX-3N ($499)
Sony's entry-level mirrorless camera, the NEX-3N ($499 with 16-50mm zoom lens), prioritizes ease of use over complicated features. That means the NEX-3N 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. Sony claims the NEX-3N is the smallest interchangeable lens camera currently available, and the included lens folds 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 13 lenses, ranging from a very wide 10-18mm zoom lens to a long 55-210mm 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 ($549)
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 ($1,099)
For the photographer who wants complete control over the picture-taking process, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX7 ($999 for body only, or $1099 with a 14-42mm zoom) is the mirrorless camera to choose. This powerhouse shoots 16-MP images. It has both a tilting LCD and a bright electronic viewfinder, which makes it easier to use in sunny conditions that could drown out the LCD screen.
There are lots of controls on the retro-styled body. Dual control dials (one on the front and one on the back) make for easier manual control — you can tweak both aperture and shutter speed at the same time, for example. Inside the camera is a sensor-shift image-stabilization system, which works with all Micro Four Thirds lenses — a big bonus for low-light shooting. 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 smartphone or tablet, via the Panasonic Image app. Although the GX7 is not cheap, it represents a great value for the features it offers.
Best Mirrorless Video Camera: Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera ($999)
If you want to shoot professional-quality video, then you need pro equipment. The recently launched Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera ($999, body only) is basically 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, 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 doesn't take still images. However, it does have a Micro Four Thirds lens mount, which means you can use the same lenses for shooting stills and video. If you want to carry just one high-end camera, then go for the Panasonic GX7, which takes very-high-quality video and stills. But if you are a serious video shooter, then the Black Magic is a great, albeit pricey, addition to a mirrorless shooting kit.
Best Mirrorless Camera for Canon Lens Owners: Canon EOS M ($375)
If you have a collection of Canon lenses, the Canon EOS M is the easiest way to transition to mirrorless shooting. The EOS M uses a different lens mount (called the M Mount) than Canon's DSLR cameras, 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.
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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. (Nikon's adapter for its mirrorless cameras multiplies the focal length by 2.7 times, rendering most lenses unusable.) It's a compromise, though: The EOS M is slow to focus, and the adapter makes it even slower.
The EOS M costs a modest $375 with an 18-55mm zoom. Only two other M Mount lenses are available, but with the EOS M EFS adapter, you have access to the many EFS mount lenses available from Canon and other manufacturers.