When in 2004 Epson released the R-D1, the world’s first mirrorless digital camera, photographers weren’t sure what to make of it. Ten years later every major camera company has thrown their proverbial hat into the mirrorless ring. Though there was a time in the not-too-distant past when buying a digital SLR was the only surefire way of achieving the absolute best image quality, over the past two years the mirrorless camera has proven that it’s no slouch.
In fact, with digital sensors equal to those found in DSLRs, interchangeable pro-quality lenses (in most), and magnesium-alloy construction, mirrorless cameras are quickly becoming the choice of many professionals looking to downsize their gear. This brings us to perhaps the most valuable facet of the mirrorless camera: size. Mirrorless cameras and lenses not only deliver top-notch image quality, they do it at half the weight of most DSLR systems. It’s safe to say 2014 will be the year of the mirrorless camera, and we’ve rounded up our favorites to help you prepare.
Best Bang-For-Your-Buck Mirrorless Camera: Samsung held nothing back when they designed their new flagship mirrorless camera — except for price. This svelte beauty boasts a 20MP sensor, an OLED touchscreen, and a top shutter speed of 1/6000 per second. With a hybrid autofocus system and the ability to shoot 1080p video, no photographic opportunity will evade it. Samsung’s new 45mm 1.8 lens even shoots 3D photographs, and as a “SMART” camera it’s ready to instantly share photos and videos with your friends and family via built-in wi-fi. While the lens selection offered by Samsung is still a bit limited, the creative possibilities offered by this system are innumerable.
Best Stylish Mirrorless Camera: In the sixties and seventies Olympus produced a line of small film cameras called the PEN series. In 2009 Olympus launched a digital version of the PEN series, the E-P1, and showed the photography world what a mirrorless camera could do. The E-P5, released this past year, sits firmly atop the PEN line and continues Olympus’s strong showing in the category.
The E-P5’s aesthetic is utilitarian chic: crafted from aluminum alloy, this camera is tough whilst maintaining a light weight, and the retro design will appeal to stubborn classicists and the style-minded alike. But while the design is old-school, the inside of the E-P5 packs all of the latest technology: a 16MP sensor, built-in wi-fi, lighting-fast autofocus, and, perhaps most impressively, a five-axis in-camera image-stabilization system that allows handheld shooting at low shutter speeds. For those days when you need to shoot fast action, the E-P5’s mechanical shutter can snap at up to 1/8000 per second (that’s fast as hell for a small camera). The E-P5 is priced right in the middle of the mirrorless market at one thousand dollars for the body alone; if you’re ready for a retro-styled powerhouse with outstanding image quality, you’ll find it a worthwhile investment.
Best Mirrorless Camera for the Analog Shooter: Fujifilm, the maker of the world’s most vividly colored 35mm film, has taken their appreciation for satisfying aesthetic and applied it to the X-E1. Attractive doesn’t begin to encapsulate the Fujifilm X-E1; this camera is downright sexy. Crafted from magnesium, with functional analog dials, the Fujifilm X-E1 is the camera for the deliberate photographer, one who takes his time and appreciates creating art with a piece of art.
With its APS-C sized XTrans sensor, the X-E1 is capable of producing stunning images, and the X-E1 even features film simulation modes so you can recreate the days when your dad shot his 35mm camera with Velvia and Provia. It also helps that Fujifilm’s X-mount lenses are currently considered some of the sharpest optics on the market. For twelve hundred bucks for the body and a kit lens, the X-E1 isn’t bursting with new-age amenities — but with a 16MP sensor and a 2.36M dot OLED electronic viewfinder, it’s far from lacking in any department.
Sony Alpha NEX-7
Best High-Megapixel Mirrorless Camera: Though the Sony NEX-7 was released in 2011, it still has the highest resolution of any camera in this roundup. We know that megapixels don’t mean everything when choosing a camera, but any way you slice it, 24.3 is a hell of a lot. A classic in the making, the NEX-7 has received accolade after accolade from camera reviewers for its image quality, ease of use, and well-rounded feature set. Its three-inch screen is not only tiltable, but it also has a “Sunny Weather” mode for increased visibility on bright days; ten frames per second makes the NEX-7 expeditious to say the least. With a vast selection of Sony E-mount and A-mount (usable with an adaptor) lenses available, you won’t be at a loss for gear. Along with an 18-55mm kit lens it comes to an entirely reasonable $1,250, which isn’t half bad considering the image quality and reliability you’ll get out of this rig.
Best Mirrorless Camera for the Lens Hoarder: Though it sits at the head of the somewhat niche Panasonic Lumix line, the GX7 is rife with features that appeal to a broad audience. Of course there are the nearly standard 16MP sensor and a tiltable screen, but it also brings some pro-directed features to the table: focus peaking illuminates out-of-focus areas of each shot and an articulating viewfinder provides optimal optical customization. The GX7’s magnesium alloy construction means that it’s made to be used well and used rough.
But if we’re honest, the most appealing aspect of the Panasonic GX7 is its lens mount. Because the GX7 has a Micro Four Thirds mount, it’s compatible with over forty Panasonic and Olympus lenses covering nearly every focal length and aperture. At this price point, it’s the ultimate jumping-off point for nearly limitless expandibility.
Leica X Vario
Best Iconic Mirrorless Camera: We would be remiss if we didn’t include at least one in-your-dreams camera in this roundup. When Leica announced the X Vario in June, the photographic world was fairly underwhelmed with the fact that its 28-70mm 3.5-6.4 lens was not only fixed (meaning you can’t take it off), but also quite slow in terms of its light gathering capabilities; the camera’s top speed is only five frames per second. It didn’t help that bringing one home meant parting with close to three grand. But after a few months of deliberation, most reviewers agree that Leica has produced yet another masterpiece. No, the X Vario doesn’t have all of the bells and whistles of every other camera in this roundup, but what it does have is the Leica name, and that’s synonymous with one thing: damn fine photographs. The lens is surgically sharp; the 16MP sensor is brand new; the pictures you take will take people aback. If you can afford this camera, get it. We’ll try not to turn green with envy.