If you’re looking for the quality, power and versatility of a digital SLR but find their size and controls intimidating; a mirrorless, a.k.a. compact system camera might be the perfect solution. Mirrorless cameras have interchangeable lenses, manual controls and large sensors, just like a DSLR. For most photographers and situations there’s little or no difference in quality and performance between a DSLR and a mirrorless camera. Mirrorless cameras are smaller, lighter and less conspicuous, making them great for travel, street photography, backpacking and carrying with you on your daily adventures. In this Holiday Mirrorless Camera Guide, we’ve picked out eight cameras for different budgets and different kinds of photographers. Whether you’re shopping for a student, your family, or an experienced photographer who already owns a DSLR, there’s a camera in this list that will be a perfect fit.
Olympus OM-D E-M1
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 is a full-featured DSLR-style mirrorless camera with a 16-megapixel Four Thirds sensor, an outstanding electronic viewfinder (EVF), built-in 5-axis image stabilization, and a tilting touchscreen LCD display. The body is fully weather-sealed with a burly metal chassis and the Micro Four Thirds lens mount offers the most lens options out of all the mirrorless camera systems. The E-M1 even has built-in Wi-Fi. Install the free Olympus app on your Smart Phone or tablet and you can wirelessly transfer photos and videos to your phone and share them to Facebook, Instagram, etc.; or use your mobile device as a wireless remote (check out our digital camera Wi-Fi demo video to see the E-M1 in action). With a super-fast burst rate and Dual Fast hybrid auto focus, the Olympus E-M1 is even a capable sports camera.
With fantastic image quality, great lenses, a sexy old-school design and a built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF), Fujifilm’s X-E1 was one of our favorite cameras this year. And I’m not just talking about mirrorless cameras. It was one of our favorites – period. The X-E2 is brand new and builds on the original platform with built-in Wi-Fi (watch our digital camera Wi-Fi demo video) and Fujifilm’s new X-Trans II sensor, which could be the best APS-C sensor in any camera right now. The image quality from the new sensor is stellar. The X-E2 has embedded phase detect AF on the sensor and the auto focus is much better than previous X-Series cameras. Fujifilm also continues to add to their X-mount lens options, which arguably have the best optics of all the mirrorless lens lines.
Nikon 1 AW1
The Nikon 1 AW1 is one of the most exciting cameras of 2013. That’s because it’s the very first waterproof, interchangeable lens digital camera. That’s right – the AW1 is waterproof to near fifty feet. It’s also shockproof and freezeproof, making it an excellent choice for active outdoor photographers who want a serious camera they can use for surf, snowboard, kayak or mountain bike photos. Until now, your only options were waterproof point-and-shoots or bulky waterproof camera housings that cost hundreds or even over a thousand dollars – camera not included. The Nikon 1 AW1 also has one of the best auto focus systems for video and action photos, making it even more compelling for skiers, mountain bikers and others who want a good outdoor camera for action photos and video.
Samsung Galaxy NX
One of the most exciting and innovative cameras of 2013, the Samsung Galaxy NX is the first interchangeable lens camera with 4G mobile connectivity and an Android operating system. It has a large 20-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor for great image quality, a built-in electronic viewfinder, and a huge 4.8-inch touchscreen display that looks just like an Android Smart Phone – because it pretty much is. The Galaxy NX can do everything an Android phone can do, except make a phone call. You can install all the same apps you have on your phone and tablet. So when you take a picture, you can process it in in the camera, with the app of your choice, and then upload it straight to Facebook or Instagram with the camera’s 4G mobile connection. You do have to pay for mobile service but you’ll never have to use a camera phone to take pictures or wait to get home to share photos again.
Olympus E-PM2 Pen
The Olympus E-PM2 “Mini” Pen is one of the best mirrorless camera values out there. It has the same great 16-megapixel Four Thirds sensor as the original Olympus OM-D E-M5, and it allows you to use the full range of Micro Four Thirds lenses, the largest lens line available for mirrorless cameras. With a touchscreen LCD display and Live Guide controls that help beginners get creative with exposure, the E-PM2 was designed for point-and-shooters who are moving up. But it has PASM manual modes with RAW shooting for more experienced photographers, as well. It’s also a whole lot smaller and lighter than most mirrorless cameras, making it a great choice for a walk around or travel camera.
Sony Alpha A7R
The Sony Alpha A7R is our no-holds-barred, no-budget-limitations mirrorless camera pick. Sony announced the world’s first full-frame mirrorless cameras this fall, the A7 and the A7R. The A7R has a 36-megapixel full-frame sensor with ridonculously good image quality. It’s no big deal to use it at ISO 6400, and you can make beautiful, detailed 24×36-inch prints from A7R image files. The A7R is as good or better than the very best, most expensive digital SLRs – but it’s smaller than even the most diminutive, entry-level DSLR. If money is no object and you want a compact camera with no-compromise image quality, buy the Sony Alpha A7R with Sony’s new Carl Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 full-frame lens. It doesn’t get any better.
Panasonic Lumix GM1
Panasonic was the first manufacturer to make what we now consider a mirrorless camera. Like Olympus, they use the Micro Four Thirds lens mount, which offers the most lens options of any mirrorless camera system. The Lumix GM1 is their latest – and smallest – mirrorless camera. With Panasonic’s new 12-32mm zoom lens, the GM1 will actually fit in a pants pocket – pretty incredible for a camera with manual shooting modes, a 3-inch touchscreen LCD display and full-HD 60p video. It also has built-in Wi-Fi (watch our digital camera Wi-Fi demo video) so you can start making all your Instagram and Facebook photos with a real camera that has manual controls and great low-light image quality.
Sony Alpha NEX-6
Sony’s Alpha NEX mirrorless cameras offer a great size to performance balance and their E-mount lens options keep getting better. The NEX-6 has an excellent feature set and thoughtful, well-placed controls, for both beginners and pros. The large 16-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor provides top-notch image quality right up to ISO 3200; and the hybrid auto focus system gives the camera better auto focus performance in all conditions – even with moving subjects and video. A 3-inch tilting LCD display and built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF) make it easy to compose, share and check your photos and videos in any kind of lighting. You can also use the EVF while you’re recording video, something you can’t do with DSLRs that have traditional optical viewfinders. Top it off with built-in Wi-Fi so you can share your NEX-6 photos and videos from your Smart Phone, and you’ve got a compact all-purpose DSLR killer of a camera.