Epson introduced the world to the first mirrorless digital camera, the R-D1, in 2004, and photographers weren’t sure what to make of it. But in the decade-plus since every major camera company has thrown its proverbial hat into the mirrorless ring. Though there was a time in the not-too-distant past when shooting with a digital SLR was the only surefire way of achieving the absolute best image quality, the mirrorless camera has since proven itself as not only an incredibly potent alternative but as the inevitable future.
In fact, the DSLR seems all but destined to go the way of the dodo. Modern mirrorless cameras have not only exceeded DSLRs in raw performance but have rapidly addressed their oft-cited shortcomings: short battery life, low-quality viewfinders, and sketchy durability are all issues of the past and at this point, it's a matter of when not if the last DSLR users will relent.
Ultimately, these days the best mirrorless cameras are just the best cameras and you can't go wrong with any of these picks.
Best Professional Mirrorless CameraNikon Z9 Read More
Best High-End Mirrorless CameraCanon EOS R5 Read More
Best "Prosumer" Mirrorless CameraSony A7 IV Read More
Best Affordable Mirrorless SystemFujifilm X-S10 Read More
Best Money-No-Object Photographer's MirrorlessLeica M11 Read More
What Is a Mirrorless Camera?
Luckily, of all the strange jargon and terminology in photography, a "mirrorless camera" is quite easy to define. Really it's just a digital camera with nothing between the lens and the sensor (the bit that actually records the photo). The image is viewed in real-time through an electronic display, either in the form of a screen or a viewfinder. There are a couple of interesting fringe cases where the viewfinder isn't a screen (namely, rangefinder cameras and Fujifilm's super weird/great hybrid viewfinder), but we'll cross that bridge when we get there.
Mirrorless or DSLR: What's the Difference?
Tech writers used to have to hem and haw and talk readers through the various pros and cons of buying a mirrorless camera over a DSLR - the established dominant style of "nice" digital cameras since Nikon introduced them in 1998. The fact of the matter these days is there's really no reason to buy a DSLR unless you have a very specific use case. The classic goliaths of cameras - Nikon and Canon - both still make flagship DSLRs for now — the EOS-1D X Mark III and the D6, respectively — and they're really excellent cameras, but it seems like a matter of time before they're phased out.
What to Look for
Sensor Size: Camera sensor size can be a tough spec to grasp, but generally, just think bigger is better. Sensor size and lens quality are two key factors to great imagery. Generally, a bigger sensor will help with things like background blur and low-light performance. The sensor sizes you'll most often encounter when shopping for a mirrorless camera are APS-C (better) and Full Frame (best). There are larger options than Full Frame — these days just bundled together under the catchall "Medium Format," but the benefit to the average consumer is marginal, and you start to run into issues with size and speed.
Lens Ecosystems: We'll be looking (mostly) at mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses, so a huge part of your consideration when shopping for a camera is the family of lenses that come with it. Common wisdom in photography is that lenses are where you want to spend most of your money - they generally hold their value quite well and will have an outsized impact on how the image looks. For example, a $500 camera with a $2000 lens will almost always take a better photo than a $2000 camera with a $500 lens. There are, of course, exceptions and nuances that this example ignores, but the point stands: spend more money on lenses. To that end, you're gonna want to shop around and see which camera system — Sony, Canon, Nikon, etc. — has the lenses that you want.
Video Chops: One area where mirrorless cameras always annihilated DSLRs was video, so if you're in the market for a mirrorless camera and want to shoot video, keep a close eye on the video specs. Some manufacturers will even make cameras that are at similar price points, but one is better for video and one is better for stills (Fujifilm and Sony are notorious for this).
Size and Ergonomics: This is a tough one to shop for on the web, but mirrorless cameras, while generally compact, vary wildly in how big they are and how they feel to hold. Try and get a hold of a camera in person before buying.
The Best Mirrorless Cameras to Buy
- Sensor: 45.7-megapixel full-frame stacked CMOS
- Autofocus: 493-point phase-detection
- Lens Mount: Nikon Z
- Video: up to 8K/30p or 4K/120p
Year released: December 2021
Starting high, if you want the best professional-use mirrorless camera on the market today, look no further than Nikon's newest flagship, the Z9. It's got an excellent stabilized and shutterless 45-megapixel stacked CMOS sensor, wicked fast autofocus (including Nikon's awesome 3D-Tracking), and can shoot 20fps in RAW or 120fps in 11 megapixel JPEGs. On the hardware side, there's a burly, weather-sealed (and surprisingly large) magnesium body and a big battery that's officially good for 700 frames on a charge (though in real-world use, you'll likely see double or even triple that).
Simply put, the Z9 is the camera that most convincingly argues for the death of the DSLR. It does everything, and it does it better (and for a few hundred dollars less).
Canon EOS R5
- Sensor: 45-megapixel full-frame CMOS
- Autofocus: 1,053-point phase-detection
- Lens ecosystem: Canon RF
- Video: up to 8K/30p or 4K/120p
- Year released: July 2020
If you want absolutely top-tier imagery and performance without the (overkill for most) speed and build of the Z9, the EOS R5 is your game. It's made and marketed as the mirrorless cousin to Canon's legendary EOS 5D DSLR and it plays its role beautifully. A full-frame 45-megapixel sensor pairs with perfect Canon ergonomics and autofocus to create the best price-no-object mirrorless camera for most people. 8K video and legendary Canon durability are icing on the cake.
Sony A7 IV
- Sensor: 33-megapixel BSI-CMOS
- Autofocus: 759-point phase-detection
- Lens ecosystem: Sony E
- Video: 4K/60p video in Super35
- Year released: December 2021
Sony arguably started the mirrorless revolution with the a7 series and four generations later, it's been refined and perfected. While there's the high-res, stills-focused A7R and the video-centric A7S, the middle A7 IV is the perfect mix for most people. It's got a solid 33 megapixel sensor that produces excellent photos, snappy autofocus, and great video performance. The A7 IV is still hampered by Sony's less-than-intuitive user interface and is expensive at $2,500 but if you need a time-tested camera to do a bit of everything, it's a fantastic option.
- Sensor: 26.1-megapixel X-Trans BSI-CMOS
- Autofocus:425-point phase-detection
- Lens ecosystem: Fujifilm X
- Video: 4K/30p
- Year released: November 2020
Fujifilm's interchangeable mirrorless X system cameras have been almost universally excellent. The system is built around a smaller (but no less capable) APS-C sensor that uses Fuji's proprietary X-Trans technology (in its simplest terms, X-Trans rearranges the sensor's color receptors to increase resolution and color accuracy). While the flagship X-T4 and X-H2S are both great showcases of Fuji cameras, the best in our mind is the much more affordable X-S10. The X-S10 is super compact but boasts a ton of intuitive, external control dials, a powerful 26-megapixel sensor, in-body image stabilization and a capable hybrid autofocus system. All of this for less than $1,000 is a huge value. This camera excels at video, but we've always loved Fujifilm for its stills performance. Their film simulation modes and easy phone connection make the X-S10 a truly fun camera to shoot around on. Pair the camera's performance with Fujifilm's line of excellent (and reasonably affordable) prime XF lenses and you've got a ton of camera for not a ton of money.
- Sensor: 60-megapixel full-frame BSI CMOS
- Autofocus: None
- Lens ecosystem: Leica M
- Video: None
- Year released: January 2022
It's a bit of a cheater's pick, but Leica has been making mirrorless full-frame cameras for far longer than any other brand on their list. Their ultra-high-end rangefinder cameras are as close as you can get to a fully analog experience in a digital world and the latest M11 is the brand's best digital offering so far. What the camera does have: a 60-megapixel sensor that can scale down to 36 megapixels for better performance, near-perfect connectivity to iOS devices, and a bright optical viewfinder. What it doesn't have: autofocus or video. It's also worth mentioning that with a lens, you're gonna be well north of $10,000. But (and this is a huge 'but'), the pure photographic performance of Leica's sensor technology paired with the unrivaled quality of their lenses means there isn't really another full-frame camera that can compete with the M11 in terms of pure image quality. It's also a zen-like experience to shoot one and a rewarding challenge to master it. The Leica M-Series has always been the kind of camera you buy with your (gilded) heart instead of your head, the M11 just makes it a little more justifiable.
Other Cameras to Consider
Sony A1 ($6,500+): Released in late 2022, the A1 is Sony's highest-end and most expensive full-frame mirrorless Alpha camera. It boasts a 50.1-megapixel sensor and extremely fast autofocus, capable of capturing 30 full-resolution still frames per second.
Canon R3 ($5,999+): The Canon R3 is the still closest rival to the Sony A1 in the super high-end mirrorless market. Canon's flagship mirrorless camera boasts a smaller 26.1-megapixel sensor, but it boats wider sensitivity (for superior low-light photography), as well as elite stabilization and a faster autofocus.
Sony A7RV ($3,898+): The Sony A7RV actually has a bigger 60-megapixel sensor than the A1 and the exact same sensitivity range (ISO 100-32,000) — and it's significantly more affordable. What gives the A1 the edge (and the big price increase) is its far superior video shooting ability and continuous shooting speeds.
Fujifilm X-T5 ($1,699+): Released in late 2022, the Fujifilm X-T5 is a pretty big upgrade over its predecessor, the X-T4 (and X-T3). It's smaller, lighter and is less video-focused than the X-T4, which photographers will like. And it has many of the same hardware — including the same 40-megapixel APS-C sensor and X Processor — as Fujilfim's higher-end X-H2.
Fujifilm XT-3 ($980+): Originally released in 2018, the Fujifilm XT-3 is still one of our favorite mirrorless cameras to buy today — especially now that you can get a great deal on one because Fujifilm has released its successors, the XT-4 and XT-5. The XT-3 has a 26-megapixel X-Trans 4 sensor, a super-fast auto-focus, a sharp viewfinder with intuitive controls and, obviously, a pretty hip retro design.
Sony A7C ($1,798+): The Sony A7C was released in late 2020 and is a great full-frame mirrorless camera for beginners because of its small size and its solid image quality. It's roughly the size of a travel camera but packs a very big 26-megapixel sensor and a super-snappy autofocus system. It also is a gateway to using Sony's high-end ecosystem of full-frame lenses.