If you’re reading this you are likely shopping for an interchangeable lens
Mirrorless or SLR?
If you don’t follow the camera market closely, your brain is likely still wired to think of SLRs as the only interchangeable lens option. That’s not the case. Mirrorless cameras, which swap out the optical viewfinder and mirror box assembly that feeds it
Mirrorless systems tend to be a little pricier than SLRs at the lower end of the market, especially if you want one with a built-in EVF. Whether or not the extra upfront cost is worth it is a question you’ll have to answer—but we think it is, especially if you value speedy autofocus when recording video, something you won’t get with every SLR.
Buying a camera system isn’t just about picking a brand. Some camera makers maintain multiple ones, and lenses are not typically cross-compatible. Canon, for instance, has four different lens mounts in production, and both Pentax and Fujifilm have two apiece. Let’s break them down.
Canon has four lens mounts right now—EF, EF-S, EF-M, and RF. The EF-S is used by its APS-C SLRs, EF-M by its APS-C mirrorless cameras, EF by its full-frame SLRs, and RF by its full-frame mirrorless camera. You can use EF lenses on EF-S bodies, but not vice versa. There are adapters available to use EF and EF-S lenses on EF-M and RF bodies, but you’ll never be able to use an RF lens on an EF-M body or vice versa.
That’s a lot of alphabet soup to digest. It just means that, if you buy Canon, you should take care in choosing your system as there aren’t always clear upgrade paths that allow you to take existing lenses from one camera to another. We’re going to skip talking about the full-frame cameras here and concentrate on the APS-C options.
Canon EOS M Mirrorless Cameras
The EOS M system, which uses the mirrorless EF-M mount, has been around for a few years now. The cameras are good, using the same image sensors as Canon’s Rebel SLR line, and while the lens selection isn’t vast, Canon has worked to keep the entire system compact. If you want
Canon EOS SLRs
The EF-S mount is much better established. It’s used by Canon’s Rebel SLR line (as well as some more premium models) and offers one of the biggest libraries of lenses out there, with support from both Canon and third parties like Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina. Additionally, most current Canon SLRs put phase detection autofocus (Canon calls it Dual Pixel AF) right on the sensor, like a mirrorless camera, and while you still have to hit a button to switch between image and video capture, autofocus when rolling is a viable option.
Fujifilm has two systems. Its X series
Fujifilm X Cameras
The biggest reason to go with a Fujifilm mirrorless camera is the lens library. Almost every lens we’ve tested for the system has been a strong performer and a good value, and the cameras have been around long enough for Fujifilm to fill out the line with options at varying price points. There are small, sharp, weather-sealed prime lenses, both affordable and pro-grade zooms, and exotic telephoto lenses available.
The cameras also benefit from Fujifilm’s history as a maker of film stocks. It has put the same kind of science of color into its image processing engine, and X cameras are able to mimic the looks of many classic films, including Velvia, Kodachrome, and
Leica is one of the few European camera makers still around—Phase One and Hasselblad, makers of high-end medium format gear, are the others. Its most popular camera series, the M rangefinder, appeals to very few. It also has a more consumer-friendly mirrorless system, the L-mount, which is available in APS-C or full-frame
Nikon doesn’t currently have a low-cost mirrorless system. It discontinued the 1 series, which never gained traction in the market, and has refocused on the premium segment with its full-frame Z mirrorless systems.
That leaves the venerable F-mount SLR series as the best point of entry for consumers. Nikon’s most basic SLRs have well outpaced Canon’s lowest cost SLR in image quality and features, but it gets muddier when you move up to the next tier. For still images, Nikon cameras offer slightly stronger performance in
The lens library is one of the strongest out there. Nikon offers several dedicated for the APS-C sensor size—you’ll know as they bear a DX designation in their name. If you decide to upgrade to a full-frame camera down the road you’ll be able to use DX lenses—Nikon SLRs and mirrorless cameras can be set to automatically crop the frame to match the smaller image circle that APS-C lenses project.
Olympus and Panasonic are typically lumped together as the companies use the same lens and sensor system, Micro Four Thirds, in their cameras. The system is a bit different from others. For one, its sensors use a 4:3 aspect ratio, rather than the 3:2 you find in APS-C and full-frame cameras. For another, the sensor size, about 17 by 13mm, is smaller than the 24 by 16mm dimensions of APS-C and the 36 by 24mm you get with a full-frame camera.
Micro Four Thirds Cameras
Micro Four Thirds is the most mature of all the mirrorless systems. It’s been around for about a decade, so there are plenty of lenses to choose from, at all levels of price. Panasonic has a bit of an edge in quality when it comes to entry-level models, as it puts electronic viewfinders in even its lowest-cost model, but both companies make fine cameras, even if they aren’t class-leading. You can also buy Micro Four Thirds cameras from companies like Kodak and YI at bargain prices, but they’ve underwhelmed us.
Pentax, now owned by Ricoh, is a recognizable name to photographers who have been around long enough to remember what life was like before autofocus. Its digital offerings have long adhered to a strong philosophy: excellent image quality, compact optics, and strong value for your dollar.
Pentax currently sells APS-C, full-frame, and medium format cameras. Its 645 medium format system uses its own lens mount, but the two smaller sensor sizes use the K-mount, which dates back to 1975. Because of this continuity, you can use almost any K-mount lens with modern digital SLRs, of
While the cameras do offer some solid features, including weather sealing at even basic price points, they lag behind the competition in other areas, including autofocus speed and video quality. But for landscape and nature photographers they are still worth a look, especially if you are on a tight budget and put a priority on the ability to use your camera in rough weather—just make sure you use a lens that is also weather sealed (not all are) when you do.
Sony has gobbled up the remnants of
Sony A-Mount Cameras
In terms of systems, Sony maintains two mounts. The A-mount, which dates back to Minolta SLRs, is used by Sony’s SLT line. SLT cameras still have a mirror, but it’s a semi-transparent (pellicle) design that doesn’t move. It directs some light to a dedicated focus sensor, and the rest passes through to the image sensor. There are some advantages—the cameras use an EVF, so you get a real-time preview of your final image, complete with any color or exposure adjustments you make—and because the same focus sensor is used for stills and video, both are speedy.
But the A-mount is an old one, and many of the lenses are out of date. If you’re already invested in the system you might want to hold on, but we don’t recommend it for new customers.
Sony E-Mount Cameras
Instead, look at Sony’s mirrorless cameras if you’re just getting started. You can opt for an APS-C or full-frame camera, both of which use the same E mount. Sony designates APS-C lenses as E and full-frame as FE, and the lenses are cross-compatible with either body with the expected limitations—a cropped angle of view when using an FE lens on an E body, and lower-resolution output when using an E lens on an FE camera.
Which Camera System Is Right for You?
There’s a lot to consider when buying a camera with swappable lenses. If you expect to move beyond the lens or pair of lenses bundled with a camera, identifying which system has the lenses you want is an important step. To help you figure it out, check out our guide to The Best DSLR and Mirrorless Lenses—it talks about the different types of lenses and highlights our favorites from various systems.
You might end up with a camera from Canon or Nikon—both companies will please many users. But if your wants are a bit more focused, don’t count out other brands. You could find one that’s a perfect fit, even if it doesn’t sit atop the sales charts.