If you’re looking to buy a new camera, don’t sleep on the ever-evolving mirrorless market, as many models are rivalling DSLR cameras for versatility, speed and features.
Cheaper mirrorless or compact system cameras (CSCs) are a great choice for anyone wanting to step up from snapping with their phone or fixed-lens compact camera. More high-end versions offer features aimed at professional photographers.
As the name suggests, the makers of these cameras have done away with the bulky mirror systems used in digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras and replaced them in most cases with a purely electronic viewfinder. Some give a live view of a scene on the rear screen instead. This means they can be smaller than a standard DSLR, often fitting into the palm of the hand, even with a small lens attached. The lack of mirror makes them virtually silent, too.
The smaller size won’t suit everyone, though. Many photographers still prefer the better grip and balance they can get with a larger DSLR body, especially when using bigger lenses.
Mirrorless cameras are also highly user-friendly if you have done much of your photography on a smartphone until now. You can compose an image and make adjustments on a touchscreen, just as you would when snapping away with your iPhone.
That said, screens can be less easy to work with if you’re wearing gloves in cold weather or in the rain when many photographers prefer to have physical buttons and dials to work with. Cheaper models that don’t have viewfinders are also sometimes harder to use in very bright conditions.
Many keen photographers used to shy away from CSCs as the electronic viewfinders on earlier models often exhibited a delay between what was going on in front of the camera and what they saw. Modern ones are far better, offering much higher resolution images and a reduced lag between what’s happening and what you see, although they are still not quite as good as the true-life view offered by a DSLR.
An electronic viewfinder can also display the effects of any in-camera changes you make, to the white balance for example. Some manufacturers have also managed to stop the viewfinder scene blacking out between shots – say when you are shooting a burst of sporting action – giving you a continuous view of what’s happening in front of your lens.
The more basic mirrorless cameras also tend to be cheaper than the lower-end DSLRs and are usually loaded with features such as moveable viewing screens and 4K video, making them great for blogging or when making movies of your travel adventures where that smaller, handy size will come into its own if you are looking for a camera you can stash away in a rucksack.
Most of them also use DSLR-style removable lenses, so you can trade up from the standard mid-range “kit” lens that’s usually provided and stick on wide-angle or telephoto lenses to open up new shooting possibilities. Some manufacturers also offer adaptors so you can use lenses designed for DSLRs – something you might appreciate if you have built up a nice collection of quality lenses over the years.
They often incorporate a pop up flash, but if you really want to get creative look out for a model with a hot shoe fitting so you can add a more powerful flashgun.
One major downside to mirrorless models is that they tend to have a shorter battery life thanks to power-hungry features such as live view. The smaller bodies also limit the space available for the power pack.
You will typically get around a third of the shots of a DSLR before you have to top them up – reckon on around 400 to 500 from the average mirrorless. It shouldn’t be a major problem if you have access to mains power – just don’t forget to take that top-up cable on your travels.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.
We adore the classic design of this model which harks back to film cameras from a few decades back. Sticking with the retro theme, it offers a “film simulation” mode in which clever software recreates the look of Fuji’s classic “analogue” film brands of the past such as Velvia and Provia. There’s a “hybrid” viewfinder in which you can swap between old-style optical or electronic, while video footage can be recorded in very modern 4k. A largely aluminium body adds to the quality feel and there’s a fast 23mm lens plus a built-in flash. Definitely one for fans of street photography to consider.
Lumix DMC-GX80 with 12-32 lens
Don’t be fooled by its tiny dimensions, this camera packs some serious features. The body is small enough to hide behind an iPhone 7 yet offers 4K filming, 10 frames per second shooting and 16 megapixel (MP) resolution. There’s a range of shooting modes including vivid and monochrome, plus plenty of photo effects to play with. Panasonic says it’s good for 270 shots on a full battery. Bundled with a 12-32mm lens, it makes a great alternative to a DSLR if you’re in the market for a travel camera.
Olympus PEN E-PL8 with 14-42mm lens
This small and stylish model looks amazing and has the performance to match. We love the stunning blue model in particular with its leather-look grip and brushed alloy body. There’s a 3in tilting touchscreen to let you shoot from unconventional angles, 4K video shooting and great wifi and Bluetooth connectivity. You can swap out the kit lens for other Olympus offerings, while phone photography fans will feel right at home with the extra effects if offers such as sweep panorama and HDR shooting.
Sony A6000 with 16-50mm lens
You’ll really notice the image quality offered by the 24.3MP APS-C sensor built into this offering from Sony. The boxy shape is functional rather than fancy, but the controls are well thought out and easy to use. There’s a simple dial on the top for the various shooting modes, with the more detailed settings controlled by a range of buttons and a click wheel on the back. The tilting 3in screen makes it easier to shoot from low or high angles, and you can also use your phone as a remote control or viewing screen if you need to operate the camera from a distance. As you would expect from the brand, the bundled 16-50mm kit lens is excellent.
Nikon Z50 with 16-50mm len
We weren’t sure about the looks of this Nikon at first but they have grown on us. The performance is top-notch with a 21.5MP APS-C sensor (known as a DX in Nikon circles), shutter speeds from 1/4000 of a second to 30 seconds, and both JPEG and RAW shooting capability. It’s another very DSLR-looking camera, with a pop-up flash and a hotshoe if you want to use a larger flashgun. Fans of phone photography will like the fact you can focus and take images just by tapping the tilting rear touchscreen. Anyone who spends much of their time out and about taking landscape or outdoor shots will appreciate the extra protection offered by the weatherproofed body.
Fujifilm X-T4 with 18-55mm lens
There’s a cracking lens packaged with this gorgeous camera. The XF 18-55mm lens opens up to a maximum f2.8 aperture, letting you use it in really low light without flash, or add some pleasing bokeh effects to portraits. The body is a beauty, too – classically styled but packed with technology including built-in image stabilisation to help you get amazingly smooth video footage. It’s got a 26.1MP sensor and a new battery that is claimed to offer up to 600 shots between charges.
Canon EOS M200 with 15-45mm lens
If you’re looking for your first mirrorless camera you could do a lot worse than this little beauty. The tiny 108mm-wide body packs in a 24MP APS-C sensor plus a large 180-degree tilting viewing screen that’s great for taking selfies. The inclusion of wifi and Bluetooth means you can operate it via remote control and transfer images easily to other devices. As your skills improve you’ll be able to swap the packaged 15-45mm kit lens for other offerings from Canon and compatible manufacturers and really get your creative juices flowing.
Olympus OM-D E-M10 MkII with 14-42mm lens
The five-axis image stabilisation on the little Olympus means travel photographers no longer have to lug around a tripod. If you do need to take a late night cityscape, simply find a solid position to set it down and then use your smartphone as a remote trigger instead of touching the shutter release. It’s only got a 16MP sensor, but that’s still plenty for the vast majority of us. There’s a really clear electronic viewfinder, or you can press the touch-sensitive rear screen smartphone-style to choose a point to focus on. With 4K video, you can capture moving images of your travels too.
Canon EOS M50 with 15-45mm lens
This model appears a lot more like a traditional DSLR than many others in our round-up, but with a body less than 12cm across in size, it will fit into your hand. The electronic viewfinder on top of the body only adds to the look and the APS-C sized 24.2 MP sensor gives DSLR quality results too. Bloggers will love the big flip around viewing screen and 4K video capabilities, while keen photographers will appreciate the 10 frames-per-second shooting ability and wifi connectivity.
The verdict: Mirrorless cameras
We’re suckers for classic camera looks so it’s no surprise that the Fujifilm X100V turned our heads – especially when it packs such serious picture-taking punch. The 23mm fixed lens won’t suit everyone, but if you favour portraiture and street photography you’ll love it.
If your budget doesn’t run to the thick end of £1,300, or you want to be able to swap lenses, take a look at the Sony. The design has been around for a while but still offers cracking results. Want something quirky but capable? Check out the little Olympus PEN with its gorgeous retro looks.
IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.