Mirrorless Camera Buying Guide – My Favorite Cameras

Posted by on December 22, 2016

Photo-John's Favorite Mirrorless Cameras
If you’re shopping for a new DSLR or other interchangeable lens camera, you’ve come to the right place. This mirrorless camera buying guide gets regular updates and it’s now current for the winter of 2016/17. Mirrorless cameras have replaced digital SLRs as the best interchangeable lens camera option for most photographers. And rightfully so: they’re smaller, lighter, less conspicuous and offer better features and performance than most DSLRs. With very few exceptions, when people ask me what camera to buy, I recommend mirrorless cameras over DSLRs. This mirrorless camera buying guide will give you an overview of the pros and cons of the various mirrorless camera systems followed by detailed information and shopping links for my favorite mirrorless cameras.

Take me straight to the mirrorless camera recommendations >>

Why Choose A Mirrorless Camera?

Just two or three years ago the digital SLR was the pinnacle of photographic technology and performance. That’s changing fast, though. Most real innovation is now happening with mirrorless cameras and I’ve been a fan for a long, long time. DSLRs are fast becoming specialty tools for professional sports photographers, commercial photographers, and photojournalists. There are great DSLRs, of course. But most photographers – even pros – would be better off with a mirrorless camera.

Sony Alpha A6000 Sensor

By dispensing with the traditional SLR’s mirror and optical viewfinder, camera makers are able to make mirrorless cameras much smaller and lighter.

Size is the most obvious difference between digital SLRs and mirrorless cameras. Removing the mirrors and/or prism required for a DSLR’s optical viewfinder allows camera designers to make mirrorless cameras much smaller and lighter. That’s great since most of us are better served by a smaller, lighter camera. Even pros who already have a full-size DSLR will benefit from having a mirrorless camera as a backup. The reality is you can now get nearly the same performance from a mirrorless camera that you do from a DSLR. Mirrorless image quality is as good or better, mirrorless cameras offer the same features and control (sometimes they’re even better than a DSLR), and because most mirrorless cameras and lenses are smaller and lighter, there’s a lot less temptation to leave them at home. There are very few situations where I wouldn’t rather have a mirrorless camera than a digital SLR.

Why Not Mirrorless?

There are two areas where mirrorless cameras still fall short of digital SLRs: auto focus performance and lens selection. Mirrorless systems are getting closer by the minute, though; and for most people they’re probably just as good or better than DSLRs.

Let me elaborate on auto focus because I’ve found most people don’t really understand. There are two types of auto focus – single-shot and continuous. Most people only use single-shot AF and that works great in mirrorless cameras. In fact, I believe single-shot auto focus is actually better in mirrorless cameras than DSLRs – especially in poor light. But if you’re a professional sports photographer who relies on continuous auto focus to track moving subjects (I do), then a professional-level Canon or Nikon DSLR is still your best bet. There are a couple of new mirrorless cameras I haven’t tried yet that may make me change my mind, though. The Sony A6500 and Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II are both supposed to have excellent continuous auto focus and they’re both in my favorites list, below. But since I haven’t tried them yet, I can’t actually vouch for their sports auto focus performance.

Because mirrorless camera systems have only been around for a few years, dedicated lens options are still somewhat limited. That’s changing quickly though, with many new lenses every year, including pro-level fast-aperture primes and zooms. Olympus has been doing an especially good job rolling out new, pro-level lenses for their Micro Four Thirds mirrorless system cameras. There are also adapters for almost any kind of mirrorless camera / lens combo you can think of, including converters that enable auto focus with non-native lenses. That makes transitioning from a DSLR system a lot easier because you can buy a converter and continue to use the lenses you already own. Or if there’s a specific lens you really like, you can probably use it with the mirrorless camera of your choice.

Choosing the Right Mirrorless Camera

There are more variables with mirrorless cameras than DSLRs, so choosing the best camera is a bit more difficult. You need to be more thoughtful about sensor size, camera size, lens options, camera features and camera performance. For me, the purpose of a mirrorless camera is convenience and portability. So I want a camera that’s significantly smaller and lighter than my DSLRs. That may not be the case for you, though. Think about what it is you want your camera to do and choose accordingly.

Sensor size is one of the more important considerations when choosing a camera. Currently, there are six or more different sensor sizes being used in mirrorless camera systems – from tiny point-and-shoot chips to 24x36mm “full-frame” sensors. There are even a couple of even larger, medium format sensor mirrorless cameras now, although we won’t concern ourselves with those in this guide. Sensor size is game of compromise and you need to decide what sensor best fits your needs. Smaller sensors allow camera makers to make smaller cameras and lenses. However, sensors with less surface area don’t produce the same image quality as larger sensors. Larger sensors will always produce better image quality. They also generally mean bigger, more expensive cameras and lenses. The diagram below shows the relationship between different sensor formats, from 24x36mm “full-frame” down to 1/2.3-inch, the standard sensor size for most point-and-shoot cameras.

Popular Digital Camera Sensor Sizes

Personally, I think Panasonic and Olympus nailed it with the Four Thirds sensor. It’s small enough that they’re able to make cameras and lenses considerably smaller than most of the competition. And for most people and situations, the image quality compromise won’t be an issue. In fact, most people would be hard-pressed to spot any difference in quality between the latest Micro Four Thirds cameras and cameras with larger sensors. Even low light performance is surprisingly good if you’ve got a fast aperture lens. APS-C sensor cameras do have better image quality. But you should always ask yourself – “What do I really need?” Personally, I choose a mirrorless camera for its smaller size. I think the Four Thirds format is the best mirrorless sensor size for most people, followed by the larger APS-C sensor.

For professional photographers and others who don’t want to compromise image quality at all, Sony’s Alpha A7 mirrorless cameras offer full-frame performance in a surprisingly compact camera. One thing to keep in mind however, is the larger the sensor, the larger the lenses will be. So even though Sony’s full-frame A7 mirrorless camera bodies are very small, the lenses are about the same size as comparable DSLR lenses. That means a full A7 kit will end up being about the same size and weight as an equivalent digital SLR system.

Choosing the Right Mirrorless Camera

Sensor size is the main determining spec for image quality but it’s not the only thing you should consider when choosing a camera. If you’re used to using point-and-shoot or smart phone camera, you might be perfectly happy using the LCD display to compose. But if you’re looking to replace a DSLR, you probably want a camera with an eye-level viewfinder. The viewfinders in mirrorless cameras are all EVFs – electronic viewfinders. They’re essentially tiny LCD displays. There are photographers who don’t like EVFs – probably because they used to be grainy and slow to refresh. That time is long gone, though. I prefer an EVF over a traditional optical viewfinder, now. They allow you to use camera menus and review photos and videos without removing your eye from the viewfinder; they can emulate your exposure making adjustments quicker and more intuitive; and you can use the EVF while recording video, which adds a third point-of-contact with the body, significantly improving the steadiness and quality of handheld video. I can’t emphasize this point enough – if you record a lot of video, having a camera with an EVF will make a huge difference in the quality of your videos.

Built-in Wi-Fi is a feature I really don’t want to be without anymore and I believe every camera should have it. With built-in Wi-Fi you no longer need to take a picture with your “real” camera and another with your phone for social media. Built-in Wi-Fi allows you to wirelessly transfer photos and videos from your camera to your phone so you can share them on the spot. The camera creates its own network so you don’t need logon to another Wi-Fi network. Just connect your phone to your camera, transfer the photo and use your favorite apps to process and share – just as you would with smart phone photos. But with built-in Wi-Fi you’ll have all the benefits of your mirrorless camera’s larger sensor, better optics and better controls. The only camera in this guide that doesn’t have Wi-Fi is the Nikon 1 AW1 waterproof camera. And as soon as Nikon introduces a new waterproof mirrorless camera with Wi-Fi, I’ll be recommending that camera, instead.

My Favorite Mirrorless Cameras

The information above should help you understand the pros and cons of mirrorless cameras and why I believe they’re the best choice for most photographers. Now we can get on to the mirrorless cameras I think are the best. If you disagree with my camera picks or think I’ve left an important camera out, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section at the end of the article. Remember these are my favorite mirrorless cameras, based on my needs and preferences. I encourage everyone to share their opinions and experience. Your comments help make this a better mirrorless camera buying guide.

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Sony Alpha A6500 Mirrorless CameraSony Alpha A6500 – $1399 (body only)

I haven’t had a chance to use the Sony A6500 yet because it just came out. However, based on my experience with the A6000, and the A6500’s impressive specs, it’s an absolute no-brainer for my number one mirrorless camera pick. The A6500 is a true professional-level mirrorless camera with a chassis, speed, image quality and video features designed to meet the needs of the most demanding photographers.

The A6500 has 425 phase-detect AF points (more than any other current camera) covering nearly the entire sensor and Sony claims the auto focus performance is the best in its class. It can also fire up to 11 frames per second for over 300 shots – on par with the very best professional digital SLRs. When I tested the A6000 a couple of years ago, I felt Sony was right on the edge of being able to meet or beat Nikon and Canon’s DSLR action shooting performance. The A6500 could be the camera that hits that mark. For video, it’s an absolute crusher. The built-in electronic viewfinder means you can hold the camera up to your eye for added stabilization; and a new touchscreen LCD display makes it easier to precisely select and move your focus point. The A6500’s video specs are very impressive. It has 4k video, of course. But it’s the high and low-speed video options that really made me drool. The A6500 can record full HD at 120 FPS; and it has a wide range of built-in time lapse settings, as well. Excellent image quality, outstanding video features and groundbreaking speed make the Sony A6500 my first pick for this year’s mirrorless camera draft. There’s a good chance I’ll pick one of these up, this winter. Keep your eyes open for a detailed, hands-on report.

  • 24.2-megapixel APS-C Exmor CMOS sensor
  • Sony BIONZ X image processing
  • Built-in 5-axis image stabilization
  • 4K and full HD at 24p, 30p, 60p and 120p XAVC S video
  • Sensitivity: ISO 100-25,600 (expandable to ISO 51,200)
  • 425-point phase detect auto focus system
  • 2.4-million-dot OLED electronic viewfinder (EVF)
  • 3-inch 921k tilting touchscreen LCD display
  • Max Burst: 11 FPS
  • Built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi with NFC

Buy Sony A6500

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Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II Mirrorless Camera
Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II (body only) – $1999

The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II is Olympus’s latest professional-level flagship mirrorless camera. Olympus was one of the original mirrorless camera makers and their Micro Four Thirds System cameras have long been among my favorites because of their perfect balance of size, performance and intuitive controls. The 18 x 13.5mm (4/3-inch diameter) Four Thirds sensor means Micro Four Thirds lenses can be considerably smaller than most other mirrorless system lenses and that keeps the whole camera kit super-compact and travel-friendly. The Micro Four Thirds System also has the widest range of lenses of any mirrorless system, including a lot of pro-spec, fast-aperture zooms and primes.

From the outside, the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II looks pretty much the same as the original E-M1. It has the same excellent controls, burly weatherproof construction and handsome retro styling. But inside, it’s a very different camera. It has a new, higher-resolution 20-megapixel Live MOS sensor and the camera’s processing power has been increased considerably, thanks to Olympus’s new TruePic VIII Dual Quad Core processor. The benefits of the new processor are improved image quality, a much better 121-point hybrid auto focus system, 4K video and burst speeds up to 18 FPS – faster than even the most expensive DSLR. Olympus’s industry-leading 5-axis mechanical image stabilization ensures the sharpest images possible, regardless of lighting conditions. I’ve seen reports of photos shot handheld at a full second or slower with the OM-D E-M1 Mark II. If the standard 20-megapixel resolution isn’t enough, the E-M1 Mk II also has a 50-megapixel Hi Res mode that combines multiple exposures for one wonderfully detailed, ultra-high-resolution image. Put all of that in one of the most compact, intuitive and full-featured camera bodies on the market and you’ve got what is arguably the best travel camera ever made.

  • 20.4-megapixel Four Thirds Live MOS sensor
  • Built-in 5-axis image stabilization
  • 50-megapixel High-Res capture mode
  • 4K video with Full HD at 60p and built-in stereo mic
  • Sensitivity: ISO 200-25,600 expandable to ISO 64
  • 121-point Dual F.A.S.T. AF auto focus system
  • Max Burst: 18 frames-per-second
  • Built-in intervalometer (time lapse)
  • 2.36-million-dot electronic viewfinder (EVF)
  • 3-inch vari-angle touchscreen display
  • Built-in Wi-Fi
  • Weatheproof construction

Buy Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II

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Nikon 1 AW1 Waterproof Mirrorless Camera
Nikon 1 AW1 – $799 (with 11-27.5 kit lens)

Because of its rugged, waterproof versatility and excellent action performance, the Nikon 1 AW1 has been in every iteration of this mirrorless camera buying guide. If you’re a mountain biker, SCUBA diver, snowboarder or any other kind of outdoor, action sports aficionado, the Nikon 1 AW1 is probably the camera you’ve been dreaming of. It has amazing action shooting capabilities with outstanding continuous auto focus, great full-HD video and the ability to capture still photos at a mind-blowing 60 frames per second. But what really sets the AW1 apart is it’s the only interchangeable lens digital camera you can take in the water without a protective housing – up to 49 feet (14.9m), even! If you spend any time taking pictures or recording video in the water, rain or snow, the Nikon 1 AW1 should definitely be on your mirrorless camera wish list. The only feature it’s missing is built-in Wi-Fi.

  • 14.2-megapixel 1-inch “CX” sensor
  • 1920 x 1080 60i full HD video with built-in stereo mic
  • Sensitivity: ISO 160-6400
  • Burst: up to 60 frames per second at full resolution
  • 3-inch LCD display
  • Waterproof to 49 feet (14.9m)
  • Shockprood to 6.6 feet (2m)
  • Freezeproof to 14F (-10C)
  • Built-in GPS

Buy Nikon 1 AW1

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Olympus Pen E-PL8 Mirrorless Camera
Olympus Pen E-PL8 – $649 (with 14-42mm kit lens)

Olympus’s “Pen” cameras were among the very first mirrorless system cameras to hit the market and I’ve been a fan from the beginning. If you’re looking to step up from your phone or a point-and-shoot camera, the Olympus Pen E-PL8 is a great choice. It’s got beautiful retro styling and many of the same features as Olympus’s high-end OM-D cameras, but in a much smaller, more affordable and user-friendly package. The E-PL8 has a 16-megapixel Live MOS sensor that blows away the image quality of any smart phone and nearly every point-and-shoot camera. The PASM shooting modes give you more control if you want it (the E-PL8 also has full auto and scene modes) and Olympus’s built-in Art Filters allow you to apply all kinds of cool in-camera effects to your photos and videos. Even selfie photos will be better, thanks to the E-PL8’s handy flip-up touchscreen display.

  • 16-megapixel Four Thirds Live MOS sensor
  • Built-in 3-axis image stabilization
  • 1920 x 1080 full HD video
  • Sensitivity: ISO 100-25,600
  • 3-inch 180-degree tilting touchscreen display
  • Burst: 8.5 FPS
  • Built-in Wi-Fi
  • 23 built-in Art Filters and Art Effects

Buy Olympus Pen E-PL8

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Fujifilm X-E2S Mirrorless Camera
Fujifilm X-E2S – $999 (with 18-55mm kit lens)

There are lots of great things about Fujifilm’s X-Series mirrorless cameras – the stellar Fujinon lens line (even their 18-55mm kit lens is excellent), the sturdy metal build, handsome vintage looks, traditional metal dials, etc. But for me, the main selling point is Fujifilm’s fantastic X-Trans sensor. In my opinion, it’s the best APS-C sensor on the market, with a subtle tonal range that really sets the X-Series cameras apart from other mirrorless systems.

Although Fujifilm makes a whole range of X-Series cameras, including the X-T2 DSLR-replacement camera (one of the top camera choices among pros who use mirrorless), my pick is the smaller, less conspicuous X-E2S. It isn’t quite as fast and the sensor doesn’t have the same resolution as the flagship X-T2 and X-Pro2 cameras, but it’s smaller, lighter and sells for $900 less. And if your main goal is a compact kit for travel, street and people photography, the X-E2S is a nearly perfect camera. It’s low-profile, easy to travel with and the image quality and performance are outstanding. If you’ve got the money for a more expensive camera, most photographers would benefit more from using that money for a second lens, instead.

  • 16.3-megapixel APS-C format X-Trans II sensor
  • 1920 x 1080 60p full HD video
  • Sensitivity: ISO 200-6400, expandable to ISO 100 and 51,200
  • 2.36-million-dot electronic viewfinder (EVF)
  • 3-inch LCD display
  • Burst: 7 FPS
  • Built-in Wi-Fi

Buy Fujifilm X-E2S

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Sony Alpha A7R II
Sony Alpha A7R II (body only) – $3199

If you want the absolute best-of-the-best, no-compromise mirrorless camera, the Sony Alpha A7R II is what you’re looking for. Thanks to its fantastic 42-megapixel full-frame sensor, the A7R II is the camera I recommend for professional landscape and commercial photographers. I don’t recommend it as a DSLR alternative, either – I believe it’s a better camera for most professionals. Thanks to a backlit sensor with no anti-aliasing filter the A7R II has class-leading image quality that’s totally useable all the way up to ISO 25,600. And even at the expanded ISO 102,400 setting the image quality is pretty decent.

Along with the class-leading sensor, the A7R II has a sturdy build, great controls and a complete feature set. It has 4k video, 5-axis image stabilization, a 2.4-million-dot OLED electronic viewfinder (EVF), 3-inch tilting LCD display and built-in Wi-Fi for easy sharing. Compare the A7R II to the most expensive DSLRs and see how they measure up. Unless you’re a professional sports photographer, I don’t think there’s anything a digital SLR can do that the A7R II can’t do just as well. It’s no wonder videographers and photographers are abandoning their Nikon and Canon systems for Sony’s A7 mirrorless cameras.

If 42 megapixels seems like overkill but you like everything else about the A7R II, check out the more reasonably priced, 24-megapixel Sony Alpha A7 II. That’s the Sony full-frame mirrorless camera I would buy for myself.

  • 24.3-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor
  • 5-axis sensor shift image stabilization
  • BIONZ X image processing
  • 1920 x 1080 60p XACD S and AVCHD full HD video
  • Sensitivity: ISO 100 to 25,600
  • Max Burst: 5 FPS
  • 2.4-million-dot OLED electronic viewfinder (EVF)
  • 3-inch 1.2-million-dot tilting LCD display
  • Built-in Wi-Fi with NFC

Sony Alpha A7R II

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Mirrorless Camera Guide Conclusion

I hope this guide helps you better understand the pros and cons of mirrorless cameras and the differences between the different brands and systems. I truly believe mirrorless cameras are the best option for most people who want a high-performance interchangeable lens camera system. The benefits of DSLRs are quickly being eclipsed by mirrorless performance and in a few years we will probably see them as awkward, clunky anachronisms. My recommendation is to invest in the future and the future is mirrorless.

As I said in the intro, the cameras listed above are my personal favorites. If I left out a camera or brand you think is important, please tell us about it in the comments section at the end of this article.

If you found this article useful please share it with your friends and use the red “Buy It” links to shop. Using those links helps fund Photo-John.net and makes it possible for me to continue writing and updating camera buying guides like this one.

3 Responses to Mirrorless Camera Buying Guide – My Favorite Cameras

  1. Photo Dad December 30, 2014 at 11:38 AM

    I sure like my four thirds format Olympus OM-D EM-5 mirrorless SLR. I take it everywhere on my bicycle, and I get a lot of good pictures. The sensor is so fast I almost never need the flash (I don’t even carry it (the flash) most of the time, so on those rare instances when I need it, I haven’t got it, but that’s a small price to pay). It would be hard to persuade me to go back to my huge Canon with the monster lenses.

    Reply
  2. Jason December 31, 2014 at 1:28 PM

    I have a Ricoh GR which has been great for a pocketable take-along unit. I’ve bought into the Fuji system recently though, and have been having great results with the X-E1, which are extremely affordable now the E2 is out.

    It’s made my Canon consumer level DSLRs paper weights. I’ll be first in line for the Canon 5D IV, but that’s for paid gigs.

    Reply
  3. Derek December 31, 2014 at 2:28 PM

    I’m convinced. I changed from a Sony DSLR to an Olympus E-P3 a few years ago while doing automotive photography. Loved the smaller footprint, less weight, and most importantly the picture quality. Recently upgraded to an Olympus OM-D E-M1 and pro-grade lenses to match. There were a few more buttons and dials to learn, but everything is picture-perfect for all the web-publishing that I do.

    Reply

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