The best mirrorless cameras for 2019

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

After reviewing more than 80 different models, it may come as a surprise that our pick for the best mirrorless camera is one from an entirely new system:  The Panasonic Lumix S1. It a very well-rounded machine with capable still and video features, one of the most functional designs we’ve ever seen, and class-leading image quality with a 96-megapixel high resolution mode. That this is Panasonic’s first attempt at a full-frame camera makes it all the more impressive.

But the S1 swims in a sea of impressive cameras, and its high price and heavy build will keep it out of reach of many potential customers. Here are the rest of our favorites mirrorless cameras, from humble beginner models to powerful professional tools.

At a glance

Best Mirrorless Camera Overall: Panasonic Lumix S1

Panasonic Lumix S1
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: Impressive image quality, robust design, and functional controls

Who’s it for: Professionals, landscape photographers, and serious photo enthusiasts

Why we choose the Panasonic S1:

The Panasonic Lumix S1 isn’t exactly what we expected from a mirrorless camera — but in many ways, it exceeds expectations enough to be the most impressive model on the market. Besides the excellent image quality coming from the full-frame 24-megapixel sensor, a 96-megapixel high-resolution mode lets you capture even more detail when using a tripod. We were very impressed with the out-of-camera JPEG image quality, which produces excellent color and contrast, while the RAW images offer plenty of flexibility and strong high-ISO performance.

The S1 uses contrast detection autofocus instead of the usually faster phase detection, but Panasonic narrowed the gap thanks to its proprietary Depth From Defocus technology. Autofocus tracking and subject recognition is very good, even in low light, and while speed is often indistinguishable from competing phase-detection systems, we did notice some occasional misses that cropped up seemingly at random.

A comfortable user interface seals the S1’s position atop this list. The control scheme doesn’t skimp on anything and is highly customizable, offering more direct access control than mirrorless cameras from other brands. It also offers both SD and XQD card slots, with support for even faster CFExpress cards coming in the future. The body is fully weather sealed and houses one of the best electronic viewfinders we’ve seen, with 5.7 million pixels of resolution and a refresh rate of 120 frames per second.

On the downside, all of this makes the camera quite heavy. At about 2.25 pounds, it weighs more than some full-frame DSLRs. The Lumix S1 may not be the best camera for travel photography because of that, but the Lumix S1 is otherwise a tremendous achievement that leaves very little to be desired.

Read our Panasonic S1 review

The best full-frame mirrorless: Nikon Z 6

Nikon Z6 Best Camera 2018
Hillary Grigonis / Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: Full-frame image quality with DSLR-like handling

Who’s it for: Professional and enthusiast photographers, particularly those that already have some Nikon

Why we picked the Nikon Z 6:

The Nikon Z 6 is the mirrorless camera for the DSLR hold-outs. While smaller than Nikon’s full-frame DSLRs, the grip (and menu system) feels very much like a DSLR. With professional-level weather-sealing, the Z 6 is an incredibly well-made camera. While we haven’t always been fans of the early electronic viewfinder, the EVF on the Z 6 is both big and detailed, with 3.7 million pixels, while offering numerous advantages over an optical viewfinder, like focus peaking and an accurate exposure preview.

The Z 6 sports a 24.5-megapixel sensor that’s better in low light than the 45MP of the costlier Z 7. Combined with the 5-axis in-body image stabilization, the Z 6 delivers impressive low light results — and can even outperform Nikon’s full-frame DSLRs at high ISOs. The new Z lenses are very sharp, although not always cheap.

While the still image features borrow heavily form Nikon’s DSLRs, video on the Z 6 has taken a giant leap forward. 4K can be output with 10-bit 4:2:2 color in the new N-Log profile to an external recorder, something even Sony’s third-generation mirrorless cameras can’t do. A future firmware update will bring RAW video output — a first for any hybrid camera.

The Z 6 also uses a 273-point hybrid autofocus system that combines contrast and phase detection. There’s still room for improvement, particularly when focusing in low light, but continuous autofocus is available even at the maximum 12-frame-per-second shooting speed. A recent firmware update also brought eye-detection autofocus to the Z 6, a feature we’ve praised on Sony cameras for years now.

If the Z 6 was Nikon’s third or fourth attempt at making a pro-level mirrorless camera, it would be less impressive. But if this is what Nikon can do with its first try, then we can’t wait to see what else is in store for the Z series.

Read our Nikon Z 6 review

The best low-light mirrorless camera: Sony A7 III

Sony A7 III
Why should you buy this: While Sony calls this their basic camera, the performance is anything but.

Who’s it for: Pros and enthusiasts who want both portability and strong performance in tough lighting conditions

Why we picked the Sony A7 III:

The Sony A7 series has long given us some of our favorite digital cameras — and the A7 III brings some of the best qualities of the series together in one camera. With the low light performance of the A7S II, the dynamic range of the A7R III, and some of the A9’s blazing speed, the A7 III is plenty of camera for many photographers — and yet it’s the least expensive current full-frame model in the series.

The A7 III sports a backside-illuminated (BSI) 24-megapixel sensor that delivers impressive image quality, with great results even at very high ISOs in low light scenes. Equally impressive is the dynamic range, which helps keep more of the details in the shadows and highlights intact. The five-axis stabilization system doesn’t hurt, either, and further improves low light performance by letting you shoot at slower shutter speeds. The camera also offers a solid 4K video mode, with a plethora of customizable options for adjusting the look of the picture, although it lacks the 10-bit output of the Nikon Z 6.

Sony has had time to fine-tune the A7, and the third generation is a refined, high-end product. Autofocus is quick to lock on even when lighting is limited and the 10-fps burst rate holds for 40 RAW files. Perhaps most impressive is how much Sony has improved the battery, which can power the camera for over 700 exposures, the best we’ve seen in mirrorless.

The control scheme and menu system aren’t our favorites, and the 2.3-million-dot electronic viewfinder falls behind competing models, but the A7 III offers plenty of features and unbeatable low light performance for the price.

Read our Sony A7 III review

The best cheap mirrorless camera: Fujifilm X-T30

Fujifilm X-T30 review
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: Excellent images and solid performance for less money than a flagship phone

Who’s it for: Photographers who want great pictures in a portable form factor at a good price

Why we picked the Fujifilm X-T30:

Full-frame cameras may be all the rage these days, but Fujifilm continues to prove there’s plenty of value in the smaller APS-C format. The Fujifilm X-T30 isn’t the cheapest camera you can buy, but it may just be the most valuable. It takes the best features from the impressive X-T3 and whittles away a few of the less essential options to make an affordable, but still very capable, camera. What you get is a camera with a less robust body and a few high-end features, but one that produces image quality that’s just as impressive as the camera that costs almost twice as much.

The X-T30 uses a 26-megapixel X-Trans sensor that’s capable of capturing some excellent images as well as 10-bit 4K video. A 425-point phase-detection autofocus system is fast, accurate, and fills the entire frame. The X-T30 can’t keep up with the X-T3’s burst rate and larger image buffer, but its 8 frames per second are still plenty for most photographers.

The camera can also handle 4K video quite well, offering both Fujifilm’s F-Log profile and 10-bit 4:2:2 output making it suitable for even some professional video applications. It’s one of the best video modes we’ve seen in a camera that doesn’t breach the four-figure price barrier.

Fujifilm wraps all of that tech into in a body that’s a mix of retro and modern, with both physical dials and a touchscreen. Compared to the X-T3, the biggest things missing are the second SD card slot and weather-sealing, but the X-T30 is a stellar shooter for the price.

Read our Fujifilm X-T30 review

The best mirrorless camera for recording video: Panasonic Lumix GH5

best digital cameras Panasonic G5 lifestyle
Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends
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 who put as much emphasis on motion content as they do on still photos.

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. (The recently released Lumix GH5S takes video quality to a new level, but the standard model remains the better choice for most users thanks to its 5-axis image stabilization.)

While video is a big selling point for the GH5, the camera can hold its own among other Micro Four Thirds shooters for still photos. The five-axis image stabilization plays a role for both videos and photos, the Depth from Defocus autofocus is nearly as  quick as on the Lumix S1, and burst shooting is even faster, up to 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 focus point after the shot, merge several images together for a deeper depth of field, or shoot reduced-resolution still photos 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.

Read our Panasonic Lumix GH5 review

The mirrorless camera for beginners: Canon EOS M6

Canon EOS M6
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this: A beginner-friendly camera with a beginner-friendly price tag.

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

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 incredible features, camera companies aren’t leaving entry-level users behind. The Canon EOS M6 is a beginner-friendly camera that won’t break the bank.

The M6 shares the same sensor as the pricier, more advanced EOS M5, which means image quality is identical to the higher-end model — and we always love to see budget cameras that don’t skimp on image quality. The build quality is also similar and feels solid and durable in the hand. It has a good control layout, with dual command dials that work great in manual exposure mode, giving it some room to grow into.

So if image quality and build are similar, what did the M6 give up to hit that price? It ditches the electronic viewfinder of the M5, leaving only the LCD screen for composing your shot. Like the M5, there’s no 4K video, and since Canon was a bit late to the mirrorless game, there aren’t as many lens options compared to other brands. There is also Canon’s new EOS M50, offers 4K for a similar price point, but we prefer the control layout of the M6.

Read our Canon EOS M6 review

The best compact mirrorless camera: Olympus PEN E-PL9

Why you should buy this: Compact, beginner-friendly design meets fast performance

Who’s it for: Beginners and anyone who wants better photos than a smartphone without the bulk (or work)

Why we picked the Olympus PEN E-PL9:

Sure, full-frame mirrorless cameras offer superior image quality, but the larger sensors can get in the way of what the mirrorless camera was originally designed for in the first place — compact size. The Olympus PEN E-PL9, built on the same Micro Four Thirds format as the Panasonic Lumix GH5, is easy to bring along anywhere thanks to the ability to fit in a small bag, purse, or even a jacket pocket. The camera is also beginner-friendly and easy to use for those simply looking for better quality without diving into the realm of manual controls (though those manual controls are certainly there for those who want them).

The 3-axis image stabilization, while not Olympus’ best, is still very helpful for handheld shots. In practice, we occasionally shot shutter speeds as slow as 1/2 second and still got sharp results. Olympus also did well with the HDR and panorama modes, both useful features for outdoor landscape photography when you don’t want to fuss with manual settings.

When it comes to getting an affordable travel camera, the E-PL9 is an excellent option, even if it doesn’t technically live up to the image quality of larger-sensor competitors. It’s the ideal camera for anyone looking to step up from smartphone photography without getting anything too heavy.

Read our Olympus PEN E-PL9 review

What is a mirrorless camera?

A mirrorless camera is a type of camera that uses interchangeable lenses. It’s related to the digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera, but do not confuse the two as the same. A DSLR use mirror to reflect light from the lens to an 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 (hence the name) and instead use electronic viewfinders, or simply no viewfinder at all (as is the case with the E-PL9). This allows for lighter and smaller designs, but professional models can still be somewhat bulky and heavy. Like DSLRs, mirrorless cameras let you attach a variety of lenses and typically use larger sensors than point-and-shoot, which leads to superior image quality.

Are mirrorless cameras better for video?

While there’s no technical reason why a DSLR couldn’t be built with the same video specifications as a mirrorless camera, the latter tends to have some inherent advantages. A mirrorless camera’s electronic viewfinder, for example, can be very useful when shooting video in bright light, whereas the optical viewfinder of a DSLR simply cannot be used in video mode. Due to their nature as live-view-only cameras, mirrorless cameras also often feature better autofocus systems than a DSLR in live-view mode. Canon offers one exception to this, with its fast Dual Pixel Autofocus that is found on both its mirrorless and DSLR models. Some of the best video cameras on the market, like the Panasonic GH5, are mirrorless cameras — but this has as much to do with the brand’s experience making video cameras as it does with the format itself.

Can a DSLR lens be used with a mirrorless camera?

Oftentimes, yes, but it always requires an adapter. Canon EF-mount DSLR lenses can be adapted to Canon RF and EF-M mount mirrorless cameras via a first-party adapter that offers near-identical performance. Likewise, Nikon F-mount DSLR lenses can be attached to Z-mount mirrorless bodies via Nikon’s FTZ adapter. It is also possible to attach Canon and Nikon lenses to the likes of Sony and Micro Four Thirds mirrorless cameras, but this must be done through a third-party adapter and the lenses may not perform as fast as they do on their native systems.

Should I buy a DSLR or a mirrorless camera?

Mirrorless cameras have grown increasingly popular and are our go-to recommendation for most photographers today. The biggest advantage a DSLR still offers is battery life, which often rates well over 1,000 shots per charge. We’ve found DSLRs also tend to offer more reliable autofocus performance in low light, but mirrorless cameras are getting better here with each new generation. Like it or not, mirrorless is the future, and that’s probably where your investment should be made.

Who makes the best mirrorless camera?

While we put a Panasonic at the top of this list, the truth is that many brands make great mirrorless cameras today. If you’re looking to buy your first camera, consider which features are most important to you and look for the brand that does the best job with them. That could be autofocus performance or it could be video quality; you may want more speed or more resolution. Sony has the most experience with full-frame mirrorless, but we’ve been very impressed with out quickly Nikon and Panasonic have caught up to, and even surpassed, Sony in some ways. Olympus has the best image stabilization in the OM-D E-M1 X, a camera that didn’t find a place on this list, but is still very good.

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