Compact system camera types and users
- Best mirrorless compact system cameras for beginners
- Best mid-range mirrorless compact system camera
- Best advanced mirrorless compact system camera
They come in a bewildering array of shapes, sizes and prices, so how do you choose the best CSC (compact system camera)?
Compact system cameras are aimed at photographers at all levels, from beginners upgrading to their first interchangeable lens camera, through enthusiasts looking for lighter and more portable alternatives to a DSLR, to professionals finding new ways to capture sports, action and video.
CSCs don't have the same design constraints and DSLRs so they come in a wide and confusing range of sizes and shapes – so we've produced this guide to explain how mirrorless compact system cameras work and the key things you need to know before you choose.
Compact system cameras vs D-SLRs
The big appeal CSCs is that you can also change lenses and enjoy cutting-edge imaging performance, but with a much smaller and lighter camera body. So they offer SLR-like versatility in a more streamlined and discreet package.
CSCs are known as mirrorless cameras because they don't have the reflex mirror and optical pentaprism or pentamirror viewfinder of SLRs. Instead, the live image captured by the image sensor is fed to the LCD display, just as it is with a compact digital camera.
In fact it's this basic similarity to a compact camera that makes CSCs attractive to beginners who want to take a step up. DSLRs can appear daunting, but compact system cameras for beginners have the same kind of viewing system and automated modes that novices are used to.
But compact system cameras are also starting to rival digital SLRs in a very direct sense, copying the D-SLR design with a viewfinder and 'pentaprism' shape on the top of the camera, but using an electronic viewfinder rather than the optical sort. This offers the look and feel of a digital SLR, but with lower weight, smaller dimensions and fewer moving parts.
Faster focusing and hybrid AF
Compact system cameras have traditionally been at a slight disadvantage compared to DSLRs for autofocus performance. With the DSLR design, a dedicated autofocus module checks the focus before you shoot, using fast 'phase-detection' AF technology.
This relies on the flip-up mirror of the DSLR design, and compact system cameras don't have this. Instead, they have to use the image on the sensor itself to focus, using so-called 'contrast' AF. This is precise, but much slower than the phase-detection autofocus systems used on digital SLRs.
Recently, though, manufacturers like Nikon, Fuji, Sony and Olympus have been adding phase-detection capability to their camera sensors to produce fast and accurate 'hybrid' autofocus systems. The gap in autofocus performance between compact system cameras and DSLRs is closing rapidly.
03 Electronic viewfinders
It's not always easy to see an LCD screen in bright light, however, which is why many compact system cameras also have electronic viewfinders (EVFs). These are miniature LCD screens which you view through an eyepiece. You find EVFs on more advanced compact system cameras.
These can be on the top of the camera, which makes it look just like a regular DSLR (above), or placed in the top corner of the camera body. The DSLR design is probably more intuitive for most users, but it makes for a bigger camera.
Electronic viewfinders add to the cost of a compact system camera, but they are so useful that it's worth stretching your budget to get one. The only good reason for getting a CSC without a viewfinder is if it's really cheap or really small.
Sensor size and megapixels
As with other types of camera, the sensor size is the most important factor for image quality, followed by the resolution (in megapixels).
Physically larger sensors tend to produce less noise at higher ISOs and produce stronger depth of field effects – it's easier to isolate your subjects against defocused backgrounds. Full-frame sensors are the biggest, followed by APS-C, Micro Four Thirds and 1-inch sensors.
Until recently, most compact system cameras used either Micro Four Thirds sensors or APS-C sensors. It's a little smaller than APS-C, but the image quality is still very high and it does mean that the cameras and lenses are more compact. Compact system cameras with APS-C sensors are more common, however, and deliver images with the same quality as APS-C digital SLRs. Samsung, Sony and Fuji use APS-C sensors.
But the 1-inch sensors used by the Nikon 1 and now the Samsung NX Mini offer an interesting compromise between size and quality. At the other end of the scale, the Sony A7 series uses full-frame sensors. In the eyes of pro photographers, this will be the best CSC yet.
Continuous shooting speed
Compact system cameras are now starting to rival digital SLRs in every area of the market, not just 'amateur' cameras. The autofocus speeds may not yet be quite up to the performance of the best DSLRs, but other aspects of the mirrorless design make it more efficient for continuous shooting. The Samsung NX1, for example, can shoot continuously at 15 frames per second – that's faster than any pro DSLR.
Even the comparatively mainstream Olympus OM-D E-M5 II can shoot at 10 frames per second, and this is a camera not designed specifically for sports photography. The Panasonic GH4, as well as being able to shoot 4K video at 30fps, can shoot full-resolution 16-megapixel stills at 12 frames per second.
Lens range and why it matters
Some CSC manufacturers give you a wider choice of lenses than others. This may not matter if you plan to use only the standard 'kit' lens supplied with the camera, but if you want to use telephotos, super-wide angle lenses or other specialised optics, it's a good idea to check the range (and price) of the lenses offered by each maker.
As the longest-established format, Micro Four Thirds CSCs from Olympus and Panasonic offer the widest choice, though other makers like Samsung and Sony are working hard to catch up. The best CSC for you isn't necessarily the camera with the biggest specs, but could be the one with the right range of lenses.
Articulating and touch-screen displays
Many photographers were sceptical about touchscreens when they started appearing on cameras, but they come in handy for quickly setting autofocus points, for example. Articulated touchscreens are doubly useful if you're shooting movies, macro subjects or any kind of low-angle shot.