Which is the best mirrorless compact system camera for you?
19th Oct 2014 | 12:00
There are so many mirrorless CSCs on the market now – how do you know which type you need?
For a long time the digital SLR (D-SLR) has been the camera of choice for keen photographers and professionals, but a new breed of mirrorless compact system cameras is challenging the status quo.
But the range of types and brands is confusing. Digital SLRs are broadly similar in their design, and you just need to choose one that matches your budget and your needs. Mirrorless compact system cameras, however, are very diverse.
So we've produced this guide to explain how mirrorless compact system cameras work and how to choose the right one for you. Our camera home page will keep you up to date with all the latest camera reviews, but here's where we explain what you need to look for.
If you already know the kind you're looking for, you can go straight to our top 5 lists:
- Best mirrorless compact system cameras for beginners
- Best mid-range mirrorless compact system camera
- Best advanced mirrorless compact system camera
Compact system cameras vs D-SLRs
The big appeal of compact system cameras (CSCs) is that you can also change lenses and enjoy cutting-edge imaging performance, but with a much smaller and lighter camera body. So they offer SLR-like versatility in a more streamlined and discreet package.
CSCs are also known as mirrorless cameras because they don't have the reflex mirror and optical pentaprism or pentamirror viewfinder of SLRs. Instead, the live image captured by the image sensor is fed to the LCD display, just as it is with a compact digital camera.
In the past this has meant that compact system cameras have had to rely on contrast-detection autofocus systems which are very precise but slower than the phase-detection autofocus systems used on digital SLRs. Recently, though, manufacturers like Fuji, Sony and Olympus have been adding phase-detection capability to their camera sensors, so the gap in autofocus performance is closing rapidly.
It's not always easy to see an LCD screen in bright light, however, which is why many compact system cameras also have electronic viewfinders (EVFs). These are miniature LCD screens which you view through an eyepiece. You find EVFs on more advanced compact system cameras.
Otherwise, compact system cameras offer the same buying decisions as digital SLRs. The key factors are the user level (novice, enthusiast, expert), the sensor size and resolution and the lens fitting. Each manufacturer uses its own bespoke lens mount, so it's a good idea to check to range and cost of the lenses available before choosing a camera.
As with other types of camera, the sensor size is the most important factor for image quality, followed by the resolution (in megapixels).
Until recently, most compact system cameras uses either Micro Four Thirds sensors or APS-C sensors.
The Micro Four Thirds format was developed jointly by Olympus and Panasonic and is used in all their compact system cameras. It's a little smaller than APS-C, but the image quality is still very high and it does mean that the cameras and lenses are more compact.
Compact system cameras with APS-C sensors are more common, however, and deliver images with the same quality as APS-C digital SLRs. Samsung, Sony and Fuji use APS-C sensors.
There are now compact system cameras with both smaller and larger sensors than this, though. Pentax started this trend with the Pentax Q series, which has 1/2.3-inch or 1/1/7-inch sensors – too close to those in regular compact cameras to be taken seriously, maybe. But the 1-inch sensors used by the Nikon 1 and now the Samsung NX Mini offer an interesting compromise between size and quality.
At the other end of the scale, the Sony A7 series uses full-frame sensors. Compact system cameras are now starting to rival digital SLRs in every area of the market, not just 'amateur' cameras.
Compact system camera types
Many makers are designing compact system cameras for photographers who want better image quality than they can get from a regular compact camera, but with the same automatic functions and ease of use and the ability to change lenses.
This means there is a good selection of low-cost compact system cameras, easy-to-use models aimed at novices and compact cameras small enough to slide into a jacket pocket or a small bag, and you can check our list of top mirrorless compact system cameras for beginners.
There are plenty of more advanced models too, aimed at photographers who already know the basics and want to step up to a camera that offers better quality and more photographic options and control than they can get from a compact camera.
Some of these mid-range mirrorless compact system cameras have electronic viewfinders, some don't. A few can accept clip-on viewfinders that connect to the camera electronically, though these have to be bought separately.
But compact system cameras are also starting to rival digital SLRs in a very direct sense, copying the D-SLR design with a viewfinder and 'pentaprism' shape on the top of the camera, but using an electronic viewfinder rather than the optical sort.
This type offers the look and feel of a digital SLR, but with lower weight, smaller dimensions and fewer moving parts. If you're currently thinking of getting a digital SLR, it's definitely worth checking out our list of advanced mirrorless compact system cameras too.
Five mirrorless CSC features to look for
Sensor size/resolution: Physically larger sensors tend to produce less noise at higher ISOs and produce stronger depth of field effects – it's easier to isolate your subjects against defocused backgrounds. Full-frame sensors are the biggest, followed by APS-C, Micro Four Thirds and 1-inch sensors. The resolution (megapixels) plays a part too, though most compact system cameras start at 16 megapixels, which is enough for all but the most demanding uses.
Lens range: Some CSC manufacturers give you a wider choice of lenses than others. This may not matter if you plan to use only the standard 'kit' lens supplied with the camera, but if you want to use telephotos, super-wide angle lenses or other specialised optics, it's a good idea to check the range (and price) of the lenses offered by each maker. As the longest-established format, Micro Four Thirds CSCs from Olympus and Panasonic offer the widest choice, though other makers like Samsung and Sony are working hard to catch up.
Electronic viewfinder: It's not essential for casual use, but an electronic viewfinder can be a major advantage if you intend to shoot a wide range of subjects in challenging conditions.
Phase-detection autofocus: CSC autofocus systems have got a lot faster in recent times, but conventional contrast-detection autofocus systems can struggle to keep up with rapid action. Increasingly, however, makers are introducing new, sensor-based phase-detection autofocus systems to speed things up considerably and approach or even exceed D-SLR focus speeds.
Articulating/touchscreens: Many photographers were sceptical about touchscreens when they started appearing on cameras, but they come in handy for quickly setting autofocus points, for example. Articulated touchscreens are doubly useful if you're shooting movies, macro subjects or any kind of low-angle shot.