How to buy the best mirrorless camera
By Hollie Hennessy
Mirrorless cameras, or compact system cameras (CSCs), are lightweight affordable alternatives to DSLRs. We help you pick a first-class model.
Whether you’re looking for a step up from a compact camera, or a lightweight portable backup to your DSLR, there are plenty of great mirrorless cameras available.
The best models give you picture quality comparable to a good DSLR and a higher level of control than you’d find in smaller cameras, but in a light and compact form.
This guide includes the following sections. Skip straight to the one you're interested in:
- What is a mirrorless camera?
- What type of mirrorless camera should you buy?
- How much should you spend on a mirrorless camera?
- What makes a good mirrorless camera?
- DSLR v mirrorless cameras - key differences
- Which brands make mirrorless cameras?
So what are mirrorless cameras? They have a similar look and feel to a DSLR but, as they don't have an optical viewfinder like a DSLR, they don't need to have a reflex mirror inside to bounce light up into it. In a compact system camera (the alternative name for a mirrorless camera), light goes directly onto the image sensor, and a digital preview of the image appears in an electronic viewfinder or LCD display. This means that what you see is closer to how the final image will look.
They’re usually smaller, lighter and faster than DSLRs and better for video, but without the extensive library of lenses and accessories that DSLRs offer.
Compact system/mirrorless camera reviews - discover the best mirrorless camera for you, whatever your budget.
Most mirrorless cameras fall into three distinct categories: entry level, enthusiast and professional. This doesn’t mean that the pro-level camera will guarantee professional-quality shots, it just means that the features and settings are those that professional users need and want.
- Upgrade to compact, point-and-shoot cameras
- More creativity and control, but still simple
- Can now use interchangeable lenses
- Often only have an LCD display instead of a viewfinder
- Smaller sensor than higher-end models (can mean lower image quality)
- Often higher quality than entry models, similar to standard DSLRs
- Include electronic viewfinders and LCD displays
- More advanced controls
- High resolution
- Different sensor sizes, often large and full-frame (for the best quality images)
- Durable bodies, sometimes weather-sealed
- Fast image processors and autofocus
- High continuous shooting
- Advanced controls and menus
Entry-level cameras can start from around £300, while other high-end models are available for around £4,000. We've found Best Buy mirrorless cameras ranging from around £440 to more than £4,000. This means there's a wide array of great cameras to choose from, to suit all budgets.
The mirrorless camera market has matured considerably over the years, with improvements to autofocus, shutter speed and video recording quality, which means that some models have overtaken their DSLR counterparts.While the upper end of this price range might seem expensive, compared with high-end DSLRs that are priced at £5,000 or more, the ‘expensive’ mirrorless cameras are good value for what you get.
Like DSLRs, mirrorless cameras can be purchased body-only (meaning it doesn’t include any lenses) to pair up with any lens you desire or as part of a bundle with a simple lens kit to get you up and running. After you choose your preferred sensor size or brand, it’s worth considering what kind of lenses you might already own, or what types of lenses exist for the various cameras you are considering. Some manufacturers have a wider range of lenses for their mirrorless models than others, and this might be important to you if you like different lens options.
- Sensor size Thanks to their larger sensors, which are better at harvesting the available light and transforming it into a clear, crisp photo, mirrorless cameras produce better pictures than compact or bridge cameras. Some use the one-inch sensor size used by a handful of advanced compact cameras, but most use a micro-four-thirds sensor or the APS-C sensor size used in many DSLRs. What’s more, a few high-end mirrorless cameras are now using full-frame sensors - the same size as high-end DSLRs. These can produce incredibly rich and detailed shots.
- Lens compatibility When you buy a mirrorless camera, you’re buying into a system, so make sure that the one you choose has the lenses to satisfy your photographic needs in years to come. Many entry-level models come with budget or kit lenses that might not show off the camera at its best, so ask yourself if it is a false economy or whether it would be better to get a mid-range camera with a better lens.
- Fast shutter speed Mirrorless cameras often have faster maximum shutter speeds than DSLRs at equivalent prices. That’s great news for sports and wildlife photographers, who need to capture fast-moving subjects.
- Autofocus One downside is that some mirrorless models, lacking the advanced autofocus systems of DSLRs, struggle to sharply focus in high-contrast and low-light situations. However, the good news is that many newer models now offer a hybrid focusing system. For fast autofocus, especially in low light, consider a camera with a hybrid autofocus system.
- Electronic viewfinder Essentially a tiny LCD screen, an electronic viewfinder shows exactly what the lens sees, with 100% coverage. It also overlays additional information, such a shutter speed or Iso level, so you can identify settings at a glance without taking your eye away from the viewfinder.
- Video recording DSLR cameras set the stage for high-quality video, recording in Full HD, but most mirrorless cameras now offer 4K video recording, which is four times the resolution of Full HD. Apart from the difference in video resolution, the smaller size of the system camera allows for longer shooting, with less fatigue than shooting with a DSLR handheld. If you’re looking to record video seriously, look for models that feature connections for an external microphone, headphones or a video monitor.
- Wireless connectivity Some cameras allow you to wirelessly transfer images from your camera directly to your phone or tablet, or favourite social media site. You can even pair up your camera with a companion app, for either Android or iOS, to remotely control the camera and easily snap a family portrait.
Different internal workings DSLRs contain a mirror and a prism (similar to how a periscope works) to view a more accurate image, but, as the name suggests, mirrorless cameras don't.
Slimline vs chunky design Since mirrorless models don’t use a mirror to take photos, they’re a lot slimmer and more portable than DSLRs.
Bigger sensor, better photos DSLRs often have a large APS-C or an even larger full-frame-sized sensor. Mirrorless cameras predominantly rely on APS-C sensors or a smaller micro-four-thirds sensor. However, full-frame models are becoming increasingly common.
An electronic viewfinder means increased accuracy DSLRs have optical viewfinders which only show around 96-97% of the photo. EVFs (electronic viewfinders) on mirrroless cameras show exactly what you'll get, but there can be a lag.
Want to find out more? Read our guide on mirrorless vs DSLR cameras: what's the difference?
- Nikon's mirrorless line-up is represented by its Z series of full-frame cameras. You might also come across the 1 series, which is a discontinued line.
- Canon has released the EOS M series of mirrorless cameras which have APS-C sensors, as well as the EOS R series of full-frame cameras.
- Panasonic's line-up of Lumix DC cameras is exclusively mirrorless.
- Sony's mirrorless cameras are found in its Alpha range. APS-C cameras make up the a series while full-frame sensors sit in the a7 series.
- Olympus mirrorless cameras come with the Micro Four Thirds sensor. Their two ranges are the OM-D E-M and the PEN.
- Fujifilm's X series of APS-C cameras makes up most of its mirrorless line-up.
Which DSLR or mirrorless camera brand to buy - see how the brands fared when we compared them against each other.