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Our favorite mirrorless cameras deliver DSLR quality without the bulk

The mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera, or compact system camera (CSC), came about as a new category that slotted between DSLRs and point-and-shoots. Like DSLRs, CSCs offer lens flexibility, letting you swap glass to change the focal length and angle, but have a more compact form factor and lighter weight. As the name suggests, CSC makers can achieve this by removing the mirror that’s found in DSLRs, making them perform more like point-and-shoot cameras.

Early CSCs were marred by slow performance and autofocus systems, lack of usable viewfinders, and image quality issues, to name a few. But how things have changed: CSCs are now nearly as capable as their DSLR cousins, with faster autofocusing, responsive electronic viewfinders, powerful sensors and image processors, and more lenses – all working together to produce stunning image quality. And the category is only going to get stronger.

Whether you’re an experienced photographer looking to lighten the load of a DSLR, or a step-up user who’s craving something more than a point-and-shoot or smartphone, here are some of the latest and greatest options – DT tested and approved – all at varying price points to match your budget.

Sony Alpha A7 ($1,700, $2,000 with 28-70mm lens)

Sony Alpha 7 right offsetThere’s good reason why Sony’s Alpha A7 has been crowned the king of compact system cameras. It’s the first mirrorless model to use a digital full-frame sensor – something that used to be found only in DSLRs. But what makes the A7 so revolutionary is that it’s way smaller and lighter than full-frame DSLR counterparts. That means you can now capture high-resolution images in something that’s easy to tote. The A7 has a 24.3-megapixel sensor with a fast hybrid autofocus system and an excellent electronic viewfinder. The A7 is compatible with E-mount lenses, as well as A-mount DSLR lenses via an adaptor; there aren’t a lot of E-mount full-frame lenses right now, but Sony will expand the offering very soon.

A higher-end version, the A7R, costs $2,300 (body only) and has a 36.4-megapixel sensor with no low-pass filter and contrast-detect AF (everything else remains the same), but the A7 produces nearly equally-great stills and videos, which makes it a more attractive option despite the lesser features.

Read our full Sony Alpha A7 review.

Fujifilm X-M1 ($800)

Fujifilm X M1 front lensFujifilm, like all camera makers, has taken a beating in the point-and-shoot category, but no matter, because it’s its X-series of cameras that are the company’s shining stars. The X-M1 is a mirrorless interchangeable lens model that uses a 16.3-megapixel X-Trans CMOS APS-C sensor, a highly praised piece of camera sensor technology. Whether you’re a step-up user or an experienced photographer, the X-M1 delivers astounding stills. It’s hampered by slower autofocus and a top video quality of 1080/30p, but if action or movies aren’t a priority, the X-M1 is an excellent compact camera. Oh, lest we forget, the retro-inspired design makes the X-M1 a beauty.

Read our full Fujifilm X-M1 review.

Samsung NX300 ($750 with 20-50mm lens)

Samsung NX300 front angleSamsung has been working hard to improve the quality of its cameras, and the NX300 is a result of that – one of our favorite cameras in 2013. This 20.3-megapixel camera pack a DSLR-level APS-C sensor and has a speedy hybrid autofocus system, with a beautifully bright 3.3-inch tilting AMOLED screen. But what step-up point-and-shoot users would appreciate is the simplicity of the user interface, which has a smartphone-like ease-of-use feel with helpful dialogue boxes that guide you on the features. Samsung also has one of the best camera Wi-Fi/connectivity implementations, and the NX300 lets you easily share your photos to social networking site without making you jump through hoops. It’s also Samsung’s first camera to support a new 3D lens, but that’s a luxury novelty most users won’t need. We wish there was an electronic viewfinder option.

Read our full Samsung NX300 review.

Sony NEX-6 ($650)

sony-nex-6-review-front-lens-1000x667If Sony’s new A7 is too expensive or intimidating (or both) of a camera, the company’s NEX line of CSCs might be a better fit. This 16.1-megapixel (APS-C) camera produces exceptional stills and videos, and, unlike Samsung’s NX300, the NEX-6 offers both a tilting LCD and excellent OLED electronic viewfinder – the downer being that the LCD isn’t touch-sensitive, where the NX300’s is. In our review, we found the NEX-6 to be easy to carry and fun to use overall – another great option if you’re stepping up from a point-and-shoot. Some things we don’t like are the autofocus system that sometimes misfires and a Wi-Fi implementation that could be better, but for its price and picture quality, the NEX-6 is a superior CSC.

Read our full Sony NEX-6 review.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 ($1,400)

Olympus OM D EM 1 front no flashLet’s get this out of the way: the 16-megapixel Micro Four Thirds Olympus OM-D E-M1 is expensive, costing just $300 less than the full-frame Sony Alpha A7 (not to mention more affordable APS-C options). As the flagship camera from Olympus, the E-M1 is the mirrorless successor to the company’s now defunct DSLR line, with the ability to support all Olympus Four Thirds and MFT lenses. It has a sharp-looking, tank-like body that’s weather sealed to protect it against the elements. But it shoots excellent stills, has a terrific electronic viewfinder, and has a fast autofocus system and strong ISO performance. Like all pro-level cameras, there’s a ton of wonderful buttons and dials to play with – a bit intimidating for casual photographers, but handy for those who like quick access to settings. In the Micro Four Third world, the E-M1 is mighty.

Read our full Olympus OM-D E-M1 review.

Nikon 1 J3 ($600)

Nikon 1 J3 frontThe Nikon 1 J3 lives up to its “compact” name. Bundled with a 10-33mm lens, the J3 is also one of the more affordable CSCs. For step-up users, the J3 has a very familiar point-and-shoot look and feel, which is comforting for folks who want an interchangeable lens camera that’s easy to use and understand. A breeze to carry, it has a fast autofocus system and a very good 3-inch LCD. More-demanding photographers will be turned off by its performance at higher ISOs, smaller 14.2-megapixel sensor, challenging ergonomics, and a just-OK lens, but casual users may be more forgiving. If you want to upgrade to a “budget” CSC in baby steps, check out the J3.

Read our full Nikon 1 J3 review.