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Shopping for a camera can be a daunting experience. There are a ton of models out there and an overwhelming list of features.

If you’re in the market for a new camera, the biggest decision you’ll need to make first is whether to purchase a DSLR or a mirrorless camera.

The differences between a DSLR and mirrorless

DSLR cameras have been around from the beginning of digital photography. For a long time they were the preferred option for professional photographers and those looking for the best image quality, a wide variety of lenses, durability, and performance. They are still widely used by both professional and amateur photographers.

However, in the past several years a new genre of camera has emerged, called mirrorless.

Where DSLRs rely on a prism and mirror system to show an image in the viewfinder, mirrorless cameras have scrapped that technology, bringing the image to the viewfinder (or LCD screen) electronically.

What this means is that mirrorless cameras have the distinct advantage of being smaller and lighter.

Why consider mirrorless

There’s an old saying that the best camera is the one you have with you. That’s why mirrorless is such an advantage. You are way more likely to carry a smaller, lighter camera with you than a heavy DSLR.

The technology of mirrorless cameras has been steadily improving year after year, and it’s safe to say that this is the direction the camera industry is headed.

The image quality of mirrorless now equals comparable DSLRs. Other features such as fast autofocus and burst mode are greatly improved in newer models, and there is also a wide variety of lenses now offered for mirrorless systems. Probably the biggest drawback of mirrorless is the fact that they do drain batteries quickly, so you’ll want to carry a couple of spares in your camera bag.

The three most important camera buying rules

#1: If it’s not fun to use, you won’t use it.

It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in life’s daily grind and let your camera sit. Having a big, bulky camera isn’t going to do you any favors when you have some free time and head out for a walk. You’ll take one look at it and decide not to bother. But if the camera is light and fun to use, you won’t need to think twice.

#2: Don’t expect a camera to make you a better photographer.

A big mistake people make is in assuming that buying a better camera will instantly equal better photographs. This simply isn’t true. Amazing photographs can be made with an inferior camera and uninteresting photographs can be made with an amazing camera. In the end, it truly comes down to the skills and vision of the photographer.

#3: Don’t forget about lenses.

If you’re looking for the highest image quality possible, the lenses you choose are just as important as your camera. For this reason, you’ll want to save some of your photography gear budget for lenses. I recommend purchasing the best lenses you can afford. Think of it as an investment. Whereas camera technology is continually changing, a high quality lens is something you’ll have for years and years. You can read more about lenses in this article. [Link to lens article]     

Important camera features to consider

Here’s a quick rundown of some important camera features. Keep in mind that there is no “perfect” camera. There will be trade-offs with each model. Picking a camera is really a process of balancing a lot of variables such as image quality, durability, weight, features, and price.

Also, the camera features that are important to you will depend on what subjects you like to photograph. For example, if you mainly photograph landscapes, you don’t really need a camera that is optimized for photographing fast moving action sports.

That said, here are some key features to consider when picking out a camera…

Sensor size

Cameras come with different sized image sensors and this will have a large bearing on the price of the camera.

Full-frame means the image sensor inside the camera is the same size as a 35mm film frame (36×24mm). And that typically means better image quality, greater low-light performance, sharper images, and increased ability to blur the background with a smooth, creamy depth of field.

It also means you have lots of data, so you can create larger prints. You’ll also have leeway to crop the image if you don’t get the composition right when you first take the shot and you’ll still have plenty of room to export a nice, high-quality image you can sell.

These nicer cameras with full-frame sensors also come with some disadvantages, too. They’re typically heavier, bulkier, come with lots of extra bells and whistles you’ll need to learn, and they export very large image files which means you may need a faster computer to efficiently process them and more hard drive space to store them.

Don’t get sucked into the trap of thinking that you have to have a full-frame sensor to be a professional photographer. Plenty of professionals don’t use full-frame cameras and have no problem selling their images.

The advantages of smaller “crop” sensor cameras (APS-C and Four Thirds) is that the entire camera system can be smaller. A smaller sensor means a smaller camera body to house it. This also means smaller lenses, a smaller tripod, etc… The weight and space savings really add up. It’s also easier on the wallet.

Image stabilization

This is a feature that will help you get sharp images while hand holding your camera (i.e. not using a tripod). If you primarily shoot on a tripod, this feature is not very important. However, for hand holding the camera, it can be a total game changer because it helps you get sharper images at slower shutter speeds than is typically possible. This is a great feature if you like to shoot events, street photography, portraits, or action. It means you will be able to shoot these subjects in lower light levels and still get away with hand holding your camera.

Some manufacturers, such as Olympus, choose to include stabilization in the camera body while other brands include it in the lens. Some lenses don’t include stabilization at all, so it’s a good feature to be aware of.

Burst mode

If you like to photograph fast moving subjects such as pets, kids, or action sports, you’ll want to get a camera with a fairly fast burst mode. It’s also called continuous shooting mode. This is the amount of images your camera is capable of firing when you press and hold the shutter button. This is going to vary per model, but a camera with a fast burst mode means you have a greater chance of capturing the action exactly how you want it.

Ease of controls

Some camera buttons and menus are easier to navigate than others. Ideally, you should be able to access commonly used settings with the touch of a button or through an easily accessible “quick menu”. One of the things you gain with a more expensive camera is usually the option of customizing the buttons as you’d like. If you’re brand new to photography, you’re not likely to need a lot of button customization, but you do want a camera that’s easy to operate.

Weather sealing

If you tend to bring your camera out into the elements often or if you are generally tough on gear, you definitely want both a camera and a lens that are weather sealed. Typically, the more expensive cameras offer this additional level of durability. If you find yourself in a sandy, wet, or dusty environment a lot, this is definitely a feature worth paying for.

Here are your top choices for a mirrorless camera today

Companies like Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, and Fuji have really paved the way when it comes to mirrorless. Canon and Nikon are playing catch up at the moment, but have recently come out with some eye catching mirrorless cameras of their own.

There are now a wide range of mirrorless cameras to choose from. Here are our top choices.

CameraSensorMega pixelsImage StabilizationBurst Mode (Frames per second)VideoEase of controlsLens AvailabilityViewfinder QualityWeather SealingPrice (Body only)
Olympus EM1 Mark IIIMicro Four Thirds20In-body. Excellent15 fpsGreatGoodExcellentGreatYes$1,699
Fuji X-T4APS-C26In-body. Very good.15 fpsGreatExcellentExcellentExcellentYes$1,699
Sony a7 IIIFull-frame24In-body. Very good.10 fpsGreatFineVery GoodVery goodYes$1,998
Nikon Z6Full-frame24In-body. Very good.12 fpsExcellentGreatFineGreatYes$1,796

Some notes…

1. Don’t get too carried away with the size of the sensor (“full-frame” being the largest, and “micro four thirds” being the smallest). As mentioned above, it’s important but it’s not the whole story.

2. Don’t get too concerned with the number of megapixels either. Again, it’s important, but it generally shouldn’t be the deciding factor.

All of these cameras have high-quality sensors that will produce images you can sell.  And all have enough megapixels for what you need.

The cameras on the list above are all relatively expensive, so let’s take a closer look at what each brand offers, as well as some budget options.

Olympus Mirrorless Cameras

Olympus and Panasonic share the same lens mount so their lenses are interchangeable. This means they have the widest assortment of pro-quality lens choices at this point. They also make excellent cameras which are known for their fantastic image stabilization and quality in a small, lightweight package.

If you can swing the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III body ($1699 without a lens), that’s a great choice. It’s fun. It’s lightweight. It shoots great video in addition to great photos. This camera is a cult favorite among Olympus shooters who love the ease of use and the fantastic image quality. At 20 megapixels, this camera will perform like a professional DSLR without the weight! It also offers an impressive 7.5 stops of image stabilization within the camera body. You can also get it with a high quality 12-40mm kit lens for around $2,399.

If you’re a little shorter on funds, consider the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III. It can be purchased for $449 (body only) or bundled with the 14-42mm kit lens for $599. This particular camera is beginner-friendly and fun to use at an affordable price. Note that the E-M10 Mark IV has recently been announced and is available for preorder now.

Fuji Mirrorless Cameras

The Fuji X-T4 ($1,699) is the top pick in the Fuji lineup. It can also be purchased with an excellent starter lens, the 18-55mm kit lens for $2,099. This is one of the best-selling cameras in the mirrorless world for good reason. It produces high quality images and fantastic video…and it’s a lot of fun to use.

The viewfinder on this camera is amazing. Another feature worth mentioning is that the controls for ISO, exposure compensation, and shutter speed are dials on the top of the camera rather than buttons you have to click through in the menu to find. Both of these are important for buyers with not-so-great eyesight.

Camera reviewers all over the internet drool over this camera. You can’t go wrong with it if you’re just starting out and you want to invest in a good line of cameras and lenses that’ll be around for a long time.

Find a local camera store in your area and see if they have this and the Olympus in stock. Whichever feels better in your hand should be the one you buy. It’ll be the one you like shooting with.

For a budget priced Fuji, you should consider the X-T200 which is priced at $599 (body only) or $699 bundled with the 15-45mm kit lens. This is a great beginner camera with impressive image quality for its class.

Sony Mirrorless Cameras

When it comes to full-frame mirrorless cameras, Sony has been leading the way with exceptional image quality, low light performance, and advanced autofocus systems. Their latest mirrorless camera, the Alpha 7s III, certainly lives up to this reputation.

Sony’s greatest claim to fame is their high ISO capacity. You can shoot in near dark with this camera and still get a great image. Most cameras don’t fare well after ISO 3,200. This new Sony goes all the way to 400,000+ ISO and is mostly usable around the 100,000 ISO range. It’s really quite impressive. The night and low-light shooting potential is amazing!

However, this technology and full-frame image sensor comes at a pretty steep price ($3,499 body only). You can also consider the excellent Sony A7 III, which comes in just under $2,000. This is one of the most beloved mirrorless cameras on the market because it packs so many versatile and amazing features into an affordable price point for a full-frame camera.  

Keep in mind that a full-frame camera system will always be bigger and heavier than a smaller crop sensor (APS-C) such as Fuji or Four Thirds sensor such as Olympus. Also, Sony menus can be complicated and frustrating to navigate, particularly for beginners.

For a much less expensive and compact option that still has very fast autofocus, check out Sony’s A6100 which comes bundled with a 16-50mm lens for $848.

Nikon Mirrorless Cameras

Nikon has made a splash into the mirrorless market with their Z series. In particular, Nikon’s Z6, with its full-frame image sensor, has been getting rave reviews. Featuring superb image quality and professional level features, Nikon is definitely trying to give Sony a run for its money with this camera.

Likewise, the new Z50 is Nikon’s impressive, entry level mirrorless camera. It boasts a speedy 11 frames per second burst rate, high quality 4K video, and a great little 16-50mm kit lens for under $1,000.

Canon Mirrorless Cameras

The EOS R is Canon’s first full-frame mirrorless offering. Although it takes a good photo, many reviewers feel it falls short compared to full-frame offerings from Sony or Nikon. The newly announced R6 is another full-frame option that offers advanced autofocus, solid video capability, and in-body image stabilization. At the time of this writing it is available for pre-order for $2,499.

For a good budget option, Canon offers the EOS M200 with a 15-45mm kit lens for $549. This is Canon’s smallest, lightest, and most beginner friendly option. Note that it only has an LCD screen. If you want to be able to look through a viewfinder, you’ll have to jump up to the EOS M50 for $599.

Mirrorless cameras for buyers on a budget

In addition to the budget priced cameras mentioned in the descriptions above, you could also consider the Panasonic Lumix line of cameras which offers something for everyone. For example, the Lumix DMC-G85 comes in at under $700 with a 12-60mm kit lens. Panasonic has developed a lot of smart features to help you get your exposure right, and even sort of pre-process your photos in-camera.

Finally, if you’re really on a budget, don’t forget that you can also buy used or refurbished cameras and lenses from most reputable camera stores like Adorama and B&H. KEH also offers great options for used gear.

And lastly, go here for advice on buying a memory card for these cameras.

It never hurts to rent a camera to try it out before making such a big purchase. Places like Borrowlenses or Lens Pro To Go make it easy to try before you buy. They will mail you the camera of your choice, along with a shipping label to easily return it. I’ve used both of these rental companies in the past and find it to be a great way to try out a new camera or lens before committing.

In the end, you want to pick a camera that fits your budget, feels good in your hand, and has the main features you need for the type of photography you like to do.

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