Once upon a time, keen photographers bought a DSLR – it was the established order of things. But the mirror mechanism of a DSLR is complex and noisy and adds to the weight of the camera, and that's where the mirrorless camera, or compact system camera comes in. They keep the big sensors and interchangeable lenses of DSLR cameras but ditch the mirror to produce a smaller, lighter and simpler camera.
In fact, there are still pros and cons to both designs. If you want to find out more, read this: Mirrorless vs DSLR cameras: 10 key differences.
Some mirrorless cameras have a compact, rectangular body, some are styled like DSLRs with a 'pentaprism' on the top – though this houses an electronic viewfinder rather than the optical viewfinder you get with a DSLR.
Be aware, too, that cheaper mirrorless cameras don't come with viewfinders at all – instead, you compose the photo on the rear screen, just as you do with a compact camera or a smartphone. (If you're still not sure what kind of camera you need, read our easy to follow guide: What camera should I buy?)
No two photographers are exactly the same – we're all looking for slightly different things, so we've ranked the 10 best compact system cameras you can buy right now based not just on specs, handling and performance, but size, simplicity and value for money too.
1. Fuji X-T10
The X-T10 makes access to Fuji's terrific X-mount system affordable
Sensor size: APS-C | Resolution: 16.3MP | Viewfinder: EVF | Monitor: 3-inch, 920,800 dots |Maximum continuous shooting rate: 8fps | Maximum video resolution: 1080p
At first sight the X-T10 just looks like a lower-cost alternative to Fuji's flagship DSLR-style X-T1, and you might be expecting a whole bunch of compromises as a result. In fact, though, the X-T10 uses the same sensor and Fuji's latest AF technology, which the X-T1 needs a firmware update to match. The X-T10 has a slightly smaller viewfinder image and simplified external controls which don't match the retro appeal of the X-T1's, but apart from that it's hard to see any major benefit to the X-T1 that could justify the big price difference. We love the compact DSLR-style body, the superb Fuji image quality and film simulation modes, and Fuji's growing range of premium lenses. This is top-quality mirrorless technology at a mid-range DSLR price point.
Read the full review: Fuji X-T10
2. Olympus OM-D E-M10 II
The brilliant E-M10 II ticks boxes you probably didn't even know about
Sensor size: Micro Four Thirds | Resolution: 16.1Mp | Viewfinder: EVF | Monitor: 3-inch tilting display, 1,037,000 dots | Maximum continuous shooting rate: 8.5fps | Maximum video resolution: 1080p
It's a close-run thing between this and the X-T10 for the top spot in our list. We loved the original E-M10 for its size, versatility and value for money, but the E-M10 II adds features that take it to another level. The old camera's 3-axis image stabilization system has been uprated to the 5-axis system in Olympus's more advanced OM-D cameras, the viewfinder resolution has been practically doubled and the continuous shooting speed, already impressive at 8fps, creeps up to 8.5fps. Some will criticise the smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor format (roughly half the area of APS-C) but the effect on image quality is minor and it means that the lenses are as compact and lightweight as the camera itself. It's small, but it's no toy – the E-M10 II is a properly powerful camera.
Read the full review: Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II
3. Sony A7R II
Sony's highest resolution full-framer is going down a storm
Sensor size: Full-frame (35.9x24mm) Resolution: 42.4Mp Viewfinder: EVF Monitor: 3-inch TFT LCD with 1,228,800 dots Maximum continuous shooting rate: 5fps Maximum video resolution: 4K
The introduction of the 1300D means the 1200D isn't likely to be available for much longer but while it is it's possible to pick up a real bargain. So if you're not concerned about being able to connect your phone to your camera via Wi-Fi or NFC, it could be the one to go for. Although the first wave of Sony's Alpha 7 full-frame compact system cameras (CSCs) grabbed our attention, the second wave has really got photographers talking - especially the Alpha 7R II. Some attribute the rise in popularity of CSCs in countries that had previously largely ignored them to the launch of the series. So why all the fuss? Well despite being small enough to fit in unnoticed amongst other CSCs, the Alpha 7 series of cameras have a full-frame sensor. That means the sensor is the same size as a piece of 35mm film, which is good news for image quality and depth of field control.
The A7R II has proved especially popular because it has a pixel count of 42.2 million, so it generates huge images that have bags of detail, and noise is controlled well. What's more, it can also shoot high quality 4K footage and there are lots of professional-level video features available. In addition, there's an excellent stabilisation system and Wi-Fi/NFC technology built-in so you get sharp images at lower than normal shutter speeds and you can share them quickly via a connected smartphone.
Read the full review: Sony A7R II
4. Sony A6300
Forget any worries about slow focusing with this little beaut
Sensor size: APS-C Resolution: 24.2Mp Viewfinder: EVF Monitor: 3-inch TFT LCD with 921,600 dots Maximum continuous shooting rate: 11fps Maximum video resolution: 4K
You don't have to go full-frame to get the benefit of Sony's great camera technology and this APS-C format model makes a great choice for enthusiasts looking for an alternative to big, heavy SLR. One of the challenges for CSC manufacturers has been to make their autofocus systems as good as the ones in SLRs. The A6300's comes very close, especially in bright light; it's able to track moving subjects around the frame and as they move towards or away from the camera. There's also an excellent electronic viewfinder that makes it easy to see when the subject is sharp and correctly exposed. Image quality is very high and there's built-in Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity to allow to share images via a connected smartphone.
Read the full review: Sony A6300
5. Fuji X-T1
Classic handling, beautiful images – the X-T1 doesn't put a foot wrong
Sensor size: APS-C | Resolution: 16.3MP | Viewfinder: EVF | Monitor: 3-inch tilting display, 1,040,000 dots | Maximum continuous shooting rate: 8fps | Maximum video resolution: 1080p
Not so long back the X-T1 was our favourite compact system camera, but things change quickly in the world of cameras, and it's been pushed out of the top spot. Price has proved the X-T1's main enemy – it's a great camera, but it's held its price almost too well, so that the newer Fuji X-T10 is almost as great and much cheaper. The Olympus E-M10 II has come along too, with its brilliant blend of size, features and value, and competitive pricing means the Sony A7 II is now very good value for those who value performance above all else. The X-T1's external manual controls for shutter speed, lens aperture and ISO setting are still a joy to use and we love the results from its X-Trans sensor, but its rivals are getting ever stronger.
Read the full review: Fuji X-T1
6. Olympus OM-D E-M5 II
Amazing features, impressive results, inspired thinking… but not cheap
Sensor size: Micro Four Thirds | Resolution: 16.1MP | Viewfinder: EVF | Monitor: 3-inch articulating display, 1,037,000 dots | Maximum continuous shooting rate: 10fps | Maximum video resolution: 1080p
The E-M5 II is another technological tour-de-force from Olympus, with a 40Mp High Res mode that produces detail far beyond the sensor's native resolution (though only with static subjects), 5-axis image stabilization for both stills and movies (so it's great for 'run-and-gun' style videography), a fully-articulating touch-screen display and some clever and exciting low-light exposure modes. It's also small and perfectly formed – yet, for an enthusiasts' camera it's not cheap, and the controls can be baffling. It's a similar price to the Fuji X-T1 and faces a similar problem – it's desirable enough, but there's a newer, much cheaper camera in the range (the OM-D E-M10 II) that makes you question the price.
Read the full review: Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II
7. Panasonic G7
If you can get past its somewhat bland styling, the G7 has a LOT to offer
Sensor size: Micro Four Thirds | Resolution: 16MP | Viewfinder: Electronic | Monitor: 3-inch articulating screen, 1,040,000 dots | Maximum continuous shooting rate: 8fps | Maximum video resolution: 4K
Panasonic's D-SLR-style G-series cameras are easily overlooked, as the company tends to put its latest technology in its smaller, rectangular GX-series cameras – the new GX8 is the first to use Panasonic's new 20Mp Micro Four Thirds sensor. Nevertheless, they offer a good blend of features, technology, practicality and value. Indeed, the G7 is a pretty good stills camera for the money, but it goes a whole step further, adding in Panasonic's 4K movie capability and the option of grabbing 8Mp stills at a rate of 30fps. Interestingly, though, Panasonic has kept to its 'old' 16Mp sensor for this model, reserving its latest 20Mp sensor for the GX8. Nevertheless, this is a great camera, especially at today's prices, and its 4K imaging technology is still ahead of the curve.
Read the full review: Panasonic Lumix DMC-G7
8. Panasonic GX8
Panasonic's flagship CSC has a brand new sensor, but it's pricey
Sensor size: Micro Four Thirds | Resolution: 20.3MP | Viewfinder: Tilting EVF | Monitor: 3-inch tilting screen, 1,040,000 dots | Maximum continuous shooting rate: 8fps | Maximum video resolution: 4K
Panasonic's compact system camera range is pretty confusing. You might expect its DSLR-style G-series cameras to get the best and latest tech, but actually it's the the box-shaped GX8 that's the first to benefit from Panasonic's new 20Mp Micro Four Thirds sensor – this has performed really well in our lab tests, putting it on the same level as a good DSLR. The GX8 also comes with 4K video and the ability to grab 8Mp stills from it (it's like continuous shooting at 30fps). The rear screen is tilting and so, unusually, is the electronic viewfinder eyepiece. It's a very good camera, but the price is a sticking point, and the Sony A6000 (above) gives you more for your money.
Read the full review: Panasonic GX8
9. Sony A7
A more affordable way to go full-frame with a mirrorless system camera
Sensor size: Full-frame (35.9x24mm) Resolution: 24.3Mp Viewfinder: EVF Monitor: 3-inch TFT LCD with 921,600 dots Maximum continuous shooting rate: 5fps Maximum video resolution: Full HD
With 24 million pixels the A7 may not be able to able to capture quite the same amount of detail as its high resolution sibling, the A7R II, but as it has the same sized sensor you get the same level of control over depth of field. That means you can make your sharp subject stand out from a blurred background. As it's from the first generation of Sony's full-frame compact system cameras it lacks the handling refinements and stabilisation that come with the second. But you get a lot of camera for your money, so it's too much of a bargain to exclude from this list. And rest assured, the image quality is excellent.
Read the full review: Sony A7
10. Panasonic GH4
Is it a stills camera or a 4K video camera? The GH4 is brilliant but conflicted
Sensor size: Micro Four Thirds | Resolution: 16.1MP | Viewfinder: EVF | Monitor: 3-inch tilting screen, 1,036,000 dots | Maximum continuous shooting rate: 12fps | Maximum video resolution: 4K
The GH4 was a terrific, ground-breaking camera and its 4K video capabilities became legendary amongst professional film-makers. It's also a very good stills camera capable of shooting top-quality 16Mp images at up to 12 frames per second. You can even extract really good 8MP stills from 4K video shot at 30fps. But all this processing power has made the GH4 expensive, so unless shooting high-speed action stills and video is your speciality, you could be paying for power you won't use. It's a firm favourite amongst 4K film-makers and early adopters, however, and while prices have fallen since its launch in 2014, its reputation just seems to keep on growing. It's been standing still just a little too long, though, and 4K video capability is becoming relatively commonplace.
Read the full review: Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4
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