Compact camera taster

DSLR: Compact system cameras explained

  • The differences between compact system cameras and DSLRs.
  • The pros and cons of compact system cameras.
  • Find out about the lenses and sensors used by different camera brands, to help you choose the best model for you.

Compact system cameras (CSCs) offer users the kind of high-quality photos that were once the preserve of DSLRs, but in a lighter, more portable package. 

CSC cameras from different manufacturers use different systems, so it's worth considering the benefits of each and how they compare to DSLRs.

Check out the top-rated Best Buy compact system cameras to find the perfect one for you.

Compact system cameras vs DSLRs

DSLRs capture terrific shots, but their bulky bodies and often baffling range of buttons and dials can put off first-time owners. 
Panasonic Lumix G5

Compact system cameras offer a smaller, lighter alternative to DSLRs.

Compact system cameras provide an option for photographers seeking excellent picture quality without the need for a heavy, complicated camera.

Main differences

  • There's no mirror in a system camera, so they're slimmer and lighter than DSLRs.
  • The lack of a mirror means system cameras don't have an optical viewfinder. Some system cameras have electronic viewfinders instead, while others have no viewfinder at all and rely on the screen.

Like DSLRs, compact system cameras have larger image sensors than compact cameras - this is crucial for the resulting picture quality, particularly in low light. The actual sensor size depends on the system the manufacturer uses. 

We put compact system cameras and DSLRs through identical lab tests. See our DSLR reviews to find the best DSLR or compact system camera for you.

Advantages of a compact system camera

  • Slimmer, lighter bodies than a DSLR
  • Smaller lenses than DSLR equivalents
  • Improved low-light performance vs point-and-shoot cameras
  • More manual controls than most pocket cameras
  • Faster response than most pocket cameras
  • Often designed to be approachable for first-time system camera users

Disadvantages of a compact system camera

  • Typically slower to start up than a DSLR
  • Fewer buttons and dials than a DSLR
  • Many models lack viewfinders
  • Some models have no built-in flash
  • With a lens attached, they're often too bulky for a pocket
  • New types may initially only have a small range of lenses available.

Is a compact system camera right for you?

If you're considering a compact system camera, it's likely that you're either looking to trade up from a compact camera to get better quality shots, or you're looking for a good camera that's smaller and lighter to carry than a DSLR.

Compact system camera rear

Point-and-shoot camera users will find the straightforward design of some compact system cameras particularly approachable.

Want to 'step up' to a system camera from a compact camera?

If you're looking to go up a step in picture quality and you might want to explore advanced manual controls in the future, an entry-level compact system camera could ease you in.

To get the balance of more advanced features, while still keeping many of the fun aspects of a compact camera, look for a compact system camera that is:

  • Small and light.
  • Includes auto and scene modes and filter effects, as well as manual modes.
  • Isn't loaded with lots of buttons and dials.

Cameras like the Olympus PEN Mini E-PM2, Panasonic Lumix GF5 and Sony NEX 5R are slim-bodied cameras with accessible automatic modes and fun shooting options, making them ideal for novice users.

Lumix G3 rear

DSLR-owners may prefer advanced compact system cameras that offer features like viewfinders and control dials.

Want a lighter alternative to your DSLR?

If you're familiar with DSLRs, but want similar quality and functionality in a smaller camera, a system camera may appeal.

You may have to make some compromises - start-up time is generally longer than a DSLR, and although some system cameras lack direct manual controls and a viewfinder, there are well-equipped models available. Some have built-in electronic viewfinders or allow you to attach one.

For a DSLR alternative, look for a system camera that is:

  • Small and light.
  • Has a viewfinder, or the option to attach one.
  • Includes plenty of buttons and dials.

Higher-spec system cameras to consider include the Panasonic Lumix G5, with built-in viewfinder, hot shoe for an additional flash, and plenty of buttons and dials for quick changes of the settings. 

Or the Samsung NX20 which, when used with iFunction lenses, lets you change settings using a control ring on the lens and offers a scaled-down DSLR-style design. These models may be smaller than DSLRs, but the difference isn't overwhelming.

Compact system camera brands

A large number of manufacturers produce compact system cameras. There are a wide variety of systems to choose between, each with their own compatible lenses and accessories.

Nikon 1 system

Nikon J1 hand

Nikon J1

Nikon has joined the compact system cameras market with the Nikon 1 system – its first two models are the Nikon J1 and Nikon V1 system cameras.

While the J1 has been developed as a simple point-and-shoot camera with interchangeable lenses, the pricier V1 camera is intended for enthusiasts, adding an electronic viewfinder to its line-up of features. 

The Nikon 1 system offers exceptionally small camera bodies, but the downside is an image sensor that is roughly half the size of a DSLR's.

Panasonic and Olympus micro-four-thirds 

Olympus PEN E-P3

Olympus PEN E-P3

The micro-four-thirds system was the first type of compact system camera to hit the market, in a joint development between Panasonic and Olympus. Micro-four-thirds lenses from either brand are useable with eachother's camera systems. 

While the micro-four-thirds sensor is smaller than a DSLR's, it's larger than the Nikon 1 sensor and significantly larger than the sensor found on a point-and-shoot camera.

Olympus has pushed the retro-styled PEN cameras, such as the Olympus PEN E-P3 - a compact model with stripped down features - or the more advanced, but still very compact Olympus OM-D E-M5.

Panasonic, meanwhile, offers advanced models such as the Panasonic Lumix G5, as well as slimmed-down simplified models like the Panasonic Lumix GF5.

Sony NEX system

Sony NEX-C3 camera

Sony NEX-C3

Sony's NEX cameras boast a DSLR-sized sensor in an exceptionally slim camera body.

If there's a downside to the NEX cameras, it's that the stripped-down features of the lower-end models such as the lack control buttons, so you have to use the menu system frequently to change the settings instead.

Built-in wi-fi has been introduced on the mid-range Sony NEX-5R, so you can wirelessly upload, back-up and share photos. 

At the higher-end, the Sony NEX-7 offers advanced features, including an electronic viewfinder and an increased number of control dials.

Samsung NX system

Samsung NX210

Samsung NX210

Like Sony's system, Samsung's similarly-named NX system offers a DSLR-sized sensor and works with Samsung's iFunction lenses. 

An iFunction lens is often sold as the standard kit lens for NX models and lets you control camera settings by turning a ring on the lens.

2012 has seen Samsung rolling out built-in wi-fi in on a number of system cameras. These range from the very compact Samsung NX210 - for users seeking a particularly compact design - to larger models like the Samsung NX20 which has a built-in electronic viewfinder and more DLSR-like features.

Pentax Q camera

Pentax Q

Pentax Q system

Pentax has also stepped into the fray with its pint-size Q camera system.

While the first Pentax Q camera is significantly smaller than many of its rivals, it has an image sensor no larger than you're likely to find in a compact bridge camera.

And while both the body of the Q camera and its lenses are extremely small, there are still plenty of control dials and buttons on its shrunk-down design.

Pentax KAF2 system

Pentax K-01

Pentax K-01

KAF2 system cameras, including the Pentax K-01 and Pentax K-30, qualify as a compact system cameras as they lack a DSLR-defining mirrorbox, but their sensor size matches those found in many DSLRs.  

Thanks to the lens mount, they're compatible with a broad array of existing Pentax K-mount DSLR lenses. 

So although many new systems have few lens options when they launch, there are a number of compatible new and second-hand lenses for these Pentax cameras.

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