Mirrorless cameras are hugely popular and offer welcome advantages over DSLRs. Not only are they smaller, lighter and more convenient to carry, they allow you to build a compact system that’s tailored to your style of photography. We’ve rounded up the best mirrorless cameras on the market.
The primary difference between a mirrorless camera and a traditional DSLR is that the latter is fitted with an internal mirror that bounces the image acquired through the lens up towards a phase-detection autofocus (AF) module in the ceiling of the camera before exiting through the optical viewfinder. Once focus is acquired and the shutter button is pressed this mirror raises up, exposing the sensor and capturing the image. In a mirrorless camera, however, there is no internal mirror, so light passes straight through the camera and directly onto the sensor.
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When mirrorless models first came out this lack of a phase detection meant they had to use contrast-detect technology to acquire focus, which is slower than phase-detect AF. However, these days many mirrorless cameras use on-sensor phase-detection AF, often in combination with contrast-detect AF to produce AF speeds that rival those of DSLRs. In addition, the fact that there’s no mechanical mirror means mirrorless cameras are generally capable of much higher continuous shooting speeds. Some of the fastest mirrorless cameras can now rattle out a burst at up to 60fps after activating the electronic shutter.
Best mirrorless camera buying guide – EVF and sensor
One further issue with early mirrorless cameras was that the lack of an optical viewfinder meant an electronic one was required in its place. Early EVFs were clunky at best, offering a small and pixelated view. These days, however, that’s simply not the case and the difference in quality between the high-resolution EVFs that many mirrorless cameras are now equipped with and their optical counterparts on a DSLR are much less pronounced.
If you’re going to be shooting high-speed sport and action, the other thing you’ll look out for is an EVF that features no viewfinder blackout. Viewfinder blackout refers to the period of blackout between each frame captured – something that can make it harder to keep up and track a subject successfully through the frame. The Sony Alpha 9 is currently one of the best mirrorless examples on the market with no EVF blackout.
Related: Best DSLR cameras
While the very first mirrorless cameras were fitted with smaller Micro Four Thirds sensors jointly developed by Panasonic and Olympus, these days they’re equipped with a wide range of sensor sizes including APS-C and full-frame. Which of these is right for you will of course depend on your individual requirements and budget.
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Below you’ll find a jargon buster that reveals some of the complex terminology associated with mirrorless cameras and our compilation of the finest examples to give you a better idea of which are best to buy.
Mirrorless camera jargon explained
Hybrid AF Systems: There are an increasing number of mirrorless cameras using innovative hybrid AF systems that combine on-sensor phase-detection with traditional contrast-detect AF. And with the new breed of ultra-fast processors dedicated to autofocus duties some mirrorless cameras are now able to outperform DSLRs in terms of AF speed.
Rear display: An increasing number of mirrorless cameras are now adding touchscreen functionality to the rear display, which makes operating the camera much speedier and more intuitive. How the screen is attached to the camera body is another important consideration – some are fixed, some can be tilted, while others use the infinitely more flexible vari-angle design.
Video: More and more new mirrorless cameras are adding 4K video capture. For those serious about video, the Panasonic Lumix GH5 is currently the only mirrorless model to offer broadcast quality 10-bit 10:2:2 4K capture. Be sure to check whether your desired model sports a dedicated microphone and/or headphone input as this does vary between models.
Media slot: All mirrorless cameras come with at least one SD memory card slot, although an increasing number of high-end models sport two. These can usually be configured to record data in a number of ways including using the second slot as an overflow or for raw images, or using one card for stills and the other for video. Support for the even faster UHS-II cards is currently limited to more advanced models.
Design: Broadly speaking, mirrorless cameras tend to fall into one of two camps in terms of their general styling: there are those that take classic rangefinder cameras as their inspiration, while others are designed to mimic the appearance and handling of a DSLR. Which is best for you is all down to personal preference. Just be sure to take build quality into account, as cheaper examples are unlikely to benefit from a tough magnesium alloy chassis and weather-sealed construction.
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Best enthusiast mirrorless camera
- 24.3MP APS-C X-Trans CMOS II sensor
- ISO 200-12,800 (expandable to ISO 100-51,200)
- 14fps continuous shooting (via electronic shutter)
- 3-inch/1.04m-dot tiltable touchscreen LCD
- 2.36m-dot EVF, 100% coverage at 0.62x
- 4K video capture
Released at the start of 2017 the X-T20 succeeds 2015’s X-T10 model bringing with it a range of improvements that are, at least in part, borrowed from Fujifilm’s flagship X-T2 model. This includes Fujifilm’s latest X-Trans CMOS II sensor, which provides 24.3MP of effective resolution compared to the X-T10’s 16MP. This is paired with Fujifilms’s X Processor Pro image processor to provide a native sensitivity range of ISO 200-12,800 that can be further expanded to the equivalent of ISO 100-51,200. While continuous shooting remains at a steady 8fps using the mechanical shutter, the X-T20 can also shoot at up to 14fps via its electronic shutter.
The X-T20’s hybrid autofocus system has also been improved and now employs a total of 91 AF points, compared to 49 on the X-T10. The new AF module includes 49 phase-detection AF points, located in the central portion of the viewfinder. The rear LCD also benefits from a higher resolution (1.04m-dots vs 922k-dots) and touchscreen control – a feature that the X-T10 lacks altogether. In addition, the X-T20 is also capable of recording 4K video whereas the X-T10 maxed out at 1080p Full HD capture.
The X-T20 retains the same 2.36m-dot electronic viewfinder as its predecessor, and this provides 100% coverage at a magnification of 0.62x. In terms of design, the X-T20 shares the same stylish retro rangefinder aesthetic of its predecessor, with milled aluminium dials on the top-plate and dual control wheels providing a pleasingly tactile user experience. While the predominantly magnesium-alloy construction looks great and adds undoubted durability to the camera overall, the X-T20 is not weather sealed like the more expensive X-T2.
At time of review the Fujifilm X-T20 was available for £799 body-only, or £1099 with an XF 18-55mm lens.
Sony A7 II
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Best full-frame mirrorless camera
- 24.3MP full-frame CMOS
- ISO 100-25,600 (expandable to ISO 50)
- 5fps continuous shooting
- 3-inch/1.22m-dot LCD
- 2.4m-dot EVF
- 1080p Full HD video capture
Sony currently offers three models within its full-frame A7 range, all of which are built for different purposes: the 12.2MP A7S II with its expansive dynamic range and extended ISO capabilities is primarily targeted at photojournalists, while the 42.4MP A7R II is geared more towards commercial photographers whose chief priority is billboard-sized resolution. The 24.3MP A7 II, meanwhile, is best thought of as an all-rounder that sits somewhere between the other two to deliver a finely balanced combination of resolution, flexibility and customisation.
Released in 2015, the A7 II succeeds the first-generation A7 model that came out in 2014. While the original was hailed as something of a technological breakthrough on account of being the first mirrorless camera to incorporate a full-frame sensor, it did suffer from some notable handling issues. The A7 II sets out to address these, while also building on the strengths of its predecessor. To this end, it’s an unqualified success; the handgrip is more pronounced for a more secure grip, and the button layout has also been rearranged to make operating the camera much more intuitive.
Internally the A7 II shares the same 24MP full-frame sensor and BIONZ X image processor of its predecessor, which provides a native sensitivity rage of ISO 100-25,600 (expandable to ISO 50), along with a continuous shooting speed of 5fps. In addition, the A7 II also uses the same 124-point Hybrid AF system as the original that employs 99 phase-detection points alongside 25 contrast-detect points for impressively speedy focus acquisition. While there’s no 4K video support, the A7 II does provide an impressive array of 1080p Full HD and 720p HD video capture options.
One new feature for the A7 II is the addition of built-in Sony SteadyShot five-axis image stabilisation technology. This provides up to 4.5 stops of compensation, which is extremely useful for shooting handheld at slower shutter speeds or with longer lenses. In terms of build quality the A7 II is encased within a durable weather-sealed magnesium alloy shell.
At time of review the Sony A7 II was available for £1249 body-only, or £1549 with a FE 28-70mm OSS lens.