The best mirrorless camera you can buy (and five alternatives)

The best mirrorless cameras pack all the power of a DSLR, minus the bulk

The first mirrorless cameras debuted about 10 years ago, delivering the flexibility of an interchangeable lens system, but in a more compact form factor compared to DSLRs. Unfortunately, the early generations lagged behind their DSLR cousins, hindered by performance issues like slow autofocus.

Fast-forward to 2018, and mirrorless cameras have changed the game. Not only are they as strong as DSLRs, if you look at certain reports, they are outperforming them in sales as well. For the customer, this means there are far more appealing options than before. Whether you’re looking for something that’s capable enough for studio work, or compact enough for travel, many models will fit the bill. Here are our current favorites for best mirrorless camera in a number of categories.

Our pick

Sony A9

Best Digital Cameras Sony a9

Why should you buy this: Full-frame image quality meets phenomenal speed and performance.

Who’s it for: Professional and enthusiast photographers who want a camera that won’t miss a millisecond.

How much will it cost: $4,500 (body only).

Why we picked the Sony A9:

Mirrorless cameras, in theory, can be faster than DSLRs. Without that mirror, there are fewer parts to move to take a single picture. The Sony A9 is the first to truly put theory into practice. It can run laps around other full-frame cameras on the market, thanks to a 20-frames-per-second (fps) burst speed and a 693-point autofocus system.

The A9’s speed is due in part to a stacked sensor — the Sony A9 has one layer for pixels, one layer to read those pixels and a third layer taht serves as short-term memory for those pixels. While Sony has launched stacked sensor cameras before, the A9 is the first full-frame model to adopt the technology. It’s 24-megapixel resolution won’t match the A7R MarK III — at 42MP — for detail, but it’s faster performance makes it a much better option for sports and action photographers.

While the speed and the quality represent an incredible feat of engineering, the A9 rolls in a number of extras. The electronic viewfinder doesn’t black out while the camera is shooting — even at 20 fps — and the camera can operate completely silently when you want it to, thanks to an electronic shutter. Oh, and because shooting 20 images in 1 second is going to take up a lot of memory, Sony included dual SD card slots, too.

The Sony A9 isn’t exactly perfect — there are fewer lens choices than a Canon or Nikon, and there’s that $4,500 price tag — but when it comes to the camera that’s bringing the most innovation to pro-level photography, the A9’s stacked sensor and 20 fps speed is the one to beat.

Our Sony A9 full review

The best full-frame mirrorless camera

Sony A7R III

Sony A7R III review
David Elrich/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: It’s an all-around shooter that can handle any situation, from action to landscapes and even video production.

Who’s it for: Pros and enthusiasts who want a camera that’s just as capable for sports as it is for high-resolution studio shots.

How much will it cost: $3,200 (body only).

Why we picked the Sony A7R III:

Unless you have the cash to buy the $6,000-plus Leica M, Sony is the only company with full-frame mirrorless options. The A7R III is the latest model, replacing the already excellent A7R II. It was itself a contender for the top spot on this list, having just narrowly lost out to the A9. Compared to previous versions, the A7R III boasts twice the battery life, twice the autofocus speed, and twice the burst rate.

Cameras are often either high megapixel or high speed, but the Sony A7R III mixes 42.4-megapixel resolution with a snappy 10-fps burst speed. Essentially, the AQ7R III is like a sports car that still has enough room for six kids in the backseat. While the A9 is faster, the A7R III is more of a generalist, capable of performing well in a variety of situations.

Besides the mix of performance and image quality, the third camera in the A7R series also has an enhanced autofocus system and image stabilization. Much of the design has stayed the same, with the addition of a joystick for easier selection of those autofocus points. Sony has taken the full-frame mirrorless category title every year, with the only other competition coming from pricey Leicas. And while the line as a whole continues to impress, the a7R III offers the best balance between resolution and speed.

Our Sony A7R III full review

The best APS-C mirrorless camera

Fujifilm X-T2

fujifilm-x-t2-top-angle-2

Why should you buy this: Fantastic image quality without going full frame.

Who’s it for: Photographers who want beautiful pictures without the heft of full frame.

How much will it cost: $1,600 (body only).

Why we picked the Fujifilm X-T2:

The X-T2 may be more than a year old at this point, but its image quality will still have you asking, “What’s full frame?” The 24-megapixel X-Trans CMOS III sensor demonstrates that cropped APS-C sensors are capable of shooting amazing photography. Even if you’d rather not spend time working with your photos in post, the in-camera JPEGs are some of the best we’ve seen out of a camera. Combined with the new X-Processor Pro image processor, the X-T2 also yields impressive high ISO shots for working in low light.

What really sets Fujifilm apart, however, is its lens selection. Since it isn’t simultaneously supporting a full-frame system, all of the company’s XF lenses are built specifically for APS-C sensors. They have a wealth of options to choose from, including an unbeatable lineup of fast primes that make the system perfect for enthusiasts and pros, particularly street and travel photographers.

Instead of an ultra-compact design that’s common with mirrorless cameras, the X-T2 retains the X-T1’s elegant DSLR-like form factor. Yes, it’s a bit bigger, but it gives you a solid grip, an impressive electronic viewfinder, and plenty of physical controls. It’s also weather-sealed, making it rugged enough for shooting in the rain. Once you add a lens, the X-T2 costs more than $2,000, but we truly believe the X-T2 is the best enthusiast camera you can get that isn’t full frame. If you don’t need all the control and weather sealing, you can pick up the slightly scaled-back X-T20 for just over half the price.

Our Fujifilm X-T2 full review

The best Micro Four Thirds mirrorless camera

Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II

OLYMPUS OM-D E-M1 MARK II

Why should you buy this: Pro-level features wrapped up in a Micro Four Thirds body.

Who’s it for: Micro Four Thirds users who want class-leading photography features.

How much will it cost: $1,800 (body only).

Why we picked the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II:

Olympus is proving that Micro Four Thirds cameras can keep up with larger pro-level DSLRs, thanks to the OM-D E-M1 Mark II. Like the Fujifilm X-T2 above, the E-M1 Mark II isn’t new to 2018, but the camera’s high-end feature list still keeps the shooter at the front of the pack (and also means you can save about $200 off the list price).

Image stabilization tends to be a perk of Olympus cameras, and the E-M1 Mark II doesn’t disappoint here. It offers 5.5 stops of in-body stabilization, which can be upped to 6.5 with compatible stabilized lenses. Its smaller and lower-resolution 18MP sensor may not match the image quality of the APS-C and full-frame competition, but the E-M1 Mark II can handle 18 fps with continuous autofocus, or an incredible 60 fps with focus locked. What’s more, if the single-shot capabilities just aren’t enough for the scene, the camera can stitch a 50 megapixel image from eight separate frames with its High Res Shot mode.

Since Olympus is working to prove that professionals can also shoot Micro Four Thirds, all those features are wrapped up in a durable body with plenty of physical controls, an electronic viewfinder, and a tilting LCD screen. At around $1,800, there are some APS-C and even full-frame competitors at a similar price, so while the camera is excellent, the investment isn’t for every photographer. Interested in an even more compact and stylish MFT camera that won’t break the bank? You may want to check out the OM-D E-M10 Mark III.

Our Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II full review

The best mirrorless camera for recording video

Panasonic Lumix GH5

best digital cameras Panasonic G5 lifestyle
Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: The GH5 is a hybrid camera that’s can shoot both stills and video without cutting corners.

Who’s it for: Creatives that shoot both stills and video.

How much will it cost: $1,999 (body only).

Why we picked the Panasonic Lumix GH5:

All the cameras on this list shoot video, and most even shoot 4K. But in most cameras, video is a secondary focus. Not so with the Lumix GH5. Where many DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have short recording limits for 4K, the GH5 will happily continue shooting until the card fills up or the battery dies — and it boasts smooth-as-butter 60-fps 4K, to boot. Beyond that, it offers a number of video features targeting professional users, including 10-bit 4:2:2 recording, clean HDMI output, and an optional log gamma profile via paid firmware upgrade.

While video is a big selling point for the GH5, the camera can hold its own among other Micro Four Thirds shooters for photos. The five-axis image stabilization plays a role for both videos and photos, the autofocus is quick, and still photos are as fast as 9 fps with continuous autofocus or 12 fps with focus locked on the first frame. The GH5 also has several Panasonic-exclusive features, including 4K and 6K photo modes where you can choose the focal point later, merge several images together for a sharper shot, or shoot at 60 or 30 fps, respectively.

Like the hybrid photo-video capabilities, the GH5’s body feels more like a DSLR-mirrorless hybrid. It’s smaller than most DSLRs, but there are plenty of physical controls, a great electronic viewfinder, and dual SD card slots. While you can buy cameras with larger sensors for the same price, the GH5 has the best mix of photo and video options we’ve seen yet, and outclasses many cameras costing much more when it comes to pro video features.

Our Panasonic Lumix GH5 full review

The mirrorless camera for beginners

Canon EOS M6

Canon EOS M6
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: A beginner-friendly camera with a not-so-bad price tag to boot.

Who’s it for: First-time buyers jumping into mirrorless.

How much will it cost: $679 (body only), $799 (with 15 to 45mm kit lens).

Why we picked the Canon EOS M6:

Still reeling from the four-figure price points of the best mirrorless cameras? While the growth of the mirrorless ecosystem means there’s now a pro-level performer in every category packed full of features, camera companies aren’t leaving beginners behind either. The Canon EOS M6 is a beginner-friendly camera that you can pick up for around $800 with a lens.

The M6 shares the same sensor as the pricier, more advanced EOS M5, which means image quality between the pricey version and the beginner version is going to be identical — and we always love to see budget cameras that don’t skimp on image quality. The build quality is also similar without that plastic-like feel many budget cameras have.

So if image quality and build are similar, what did the M6 give up to hit that price point? It ditches the electronic viewfinder of the M5, leaving only the LCD screen for compositing images. And like the M5, there’s no 4K, and since Canon was a bit late to the mirrorless game, there aren’t as many lens options compared to other brands.

Our Canon EOS M6 full review

How we test

Mirrorless cameras have come a long way since the first models, and nearly all are now capable of producing pleasing images. To find the best models, we factor in criteria such as image quality, speed and autofocus performance, low-light strength, video features, durability, and any unique aspects that help them one-up the competition.

Our selections are based on our long- and short-term testing; experience with earlier models; familiarity with the companies’ technologies; consultation with industry experts, fellow journalists, and users; online forums; lab results (such as DxO); and other third-party reviews. We look across the board — not just our own experiences — to find consensus on what we think are the best-performing cameras you can currently buy. We also look at list pricing to determine if a product is worth the cost.

The camera market evolves constantly, with manufacturers often introducing better models with new features. So, you can expect our picks to change over time. But don’t worry: The models you see here will be with you for some time, and if we anticipate there could be better models in the horizon, we will state that upfront to help you decide whether you should buy now or wait.

What is a mirrorless camera?

A mirrorless camera is a type of camera that uses interchangeable lenses, also called (to a lesser extent) a Compact System Camera. It’s related to the digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera, but do not confuse the two as the same. DSLRs use mirrors to reflect light from the lens to the optical viewfinder (OVF). When the shutter button is pressed, a mirror flips up to allow light to hit the sensor.

Mirrorless cameras do away with the mirror system and OVF (hence the name), allowing for lighter and smaller designs (although professional models can be somewhat bulky and heavy). But like DSLRs, mirrroless cameras let you attach a variety of lenses and typically use larger sensors than point-and-shoot, fixed-lens cameras, which leads to superior image quality.

For more on the difference between DSLR, mirrorless, or point-and-shoot cameras, check out our guide here. We also have tips on how to buy a camera, and if you’re buying your first mirrorless camera, read up on how to select some lenses.

To learn more about the difference between the various sensors used by mirrorless cameras, read our explainer here.