A Beginner’s Guide to Choosing a Mirrorless Camera

You’ve probably been to the mall looking for a product only to find dozens of options. We are drowning in options that were not available years ago. The digital camera industry is perhaps the most affected by the current epidemic of choice. Mathieu Gasquet and I started reviewing mirrorless cameras several years ago. We were both surprised at the number of models available for each brand. In the six years since the first mirrorless camera appeared on the market, there have been 36 Micro Four Thirds system cameras, and 19 Sony E-mount cameras. This is a remarkable number considering that film cameras are only released every two to three years.

Why is there so much choice? While we all know too few choices can lead to unhappiness and not enough of our needs being met, there are also other potentially disastrous consequences.

Impulsive buying is common as people are presented with too many options and prefer to make a decision quickly rather than making an informed decision. We also have total decision avoidance. Camera brands are likely to suffer from both these outcomes. The former buyer won’t be happy with their purchase and the latter will not invest in new products. Ironically, we are wired to desire this excess choice regardless of its negative effects on our ability to navigate life and make informed decisions.

How to choose the best mirrorless camera

Many people ask us which mirrorless camera they prefer. It’s not an easy question to answer because no two photographers have the same needs. Different photography goals, budgets and interests mean that what works for one photographer might not work well for another. To illustrate this, I created four fictional case studies to represent the most common questions we get from people asking us “which mirrorless should i buy?”

Note This list was last updated in February 2017.

Case A: Larry – Beginner

Larry is an iPhone photographer who wants to take professional-looking photos.
Budget: $500

Larry will find that everything about his mirrorless camera is a significant improvement on his smartphone. He will need to learn the basics of shutter speed and aperture, ISO, exposure compensation and lens selection, as well as how to use light to his advantage. He will need a camera that is easy to use, but also allows him to experiment and get messy.

Larry is fortunate that each brand of mirrorless cameras has an assortment of interchangeable entry-level models. These allow you to adjust basic settings without having to use all the dials and functions expected by advanced users.

The same goes for entry-level models. This is to keep costs down and make the camera as simple and straightforward as possible. An entry-level camera will not have an EVF (electronic visionfinder) or a hot shoe. Others, such as burst speed and high ISO values, may be slower than the market standard but it won’t bother a beginner.

It is often very similar in image quality between contemporary low-end and higher-end models from the same brand.

Model to consider:

  1. Sony a5000 with 16-50mm kit lenses

The Sony a5000 is the perfect example of a technologically-advanced mirrorless in a very affordable package. It features the highest number of megapixels (20MP AAPS-C), and is capable of low-light shooting at 3200 ISO. Full HD video can be recorded in AVCHD format in 50i or 25p for occasional movie-makers. The Sony Nex and Alpha series are known for their compact and sturdy design.

He might also enjoy:

  1. Fujifilm X-A3 16-50mm kit lens
  2. Panasonic Lumix GF85 kit lens with 12-32mm

Case B: Shelly, Advanced Amateur

Shelly has had a basic DSLR and a kit lens for several years. Shelly has become a skilled photographer, taking pictures of her family and the flowers/insects in their garden. She would love to improve her photography. She became curious about switching to a mirrorless camera after reading about its benefits, such as compactness and lighter weight.
Budget: $1000

Shelly is a photographer who has reached a crossroads. She knows the basics of photography, has an interest in certain genres, and has yet to find a system that suits her needs. She doesn’t feel financially tied to the system because she hasn’t yet made an investment in a set of lenses.

Shelly would switch to mirrorless cameras primarily because they are compact and lightweight. It is crucial that she selects a model that meets these requirements. It is important that her new camera has features that will allow her to grow as photographer. This includes a viewfinder that aids with composition and a hot shoe that allows her to attach extra accessories like an external flash. And, of course, images that are at least as good as her DSLR.

G.A.S. is a dreadful condition that can lead to the death of a person. G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) will make her want to have as many features as she can, such as a tilt/touch screen and WiFi.

Model to consider:

  1. Panasonic Lumix GX8 with 12-32mm kit lens

The GX8 is Micro Four Thirds’ second rangefinder-style camera with a tiltable EVF. It is well-built and designed. The 20.3 MP Micro Four Thirds sensor, tilting touch LCD, Wifi, NFC and NFC connectivity are all included. Professional video features include 4K video at 30 frames per second. It is a Micro Four Thirds camera and has many high-quality compact lenses.

She might also enjoy:

  1. Fujifilm X-E2 kit lens 18-55mm
  2. Sony a6300 equipped with 16-50mm kit lens
  3. Olympus OM–D E-M10 II kit lens with 14-42mm

Case C: Phil – Professional looking for a second fixed-body

Phil is a professional photographer and is happy with his DSLR. For informal shooting, he is interested in a compact professional camera.
Budget: $1500

Phil has been a professional photographer over 30 years and is happy with the system that he chose. Phil has all the equipment and lenses he needs for weddings, portrait sessions and sports events. He decided to buy a lighter, more compact camera to bring with him to informal events or on vacation. He doesn’t like carrying around heavy lenses or extra gear (he does enough while on assignment), so the new high-end fixed lens compact cameras caught his attention.

Phil is looking for a discreet camera that can deliver high quality images, low-light performance, fast autofocus, and a good camera image quality.

Model to consider:

  1. Fujifilm X100F

Fujifilm X100F, the fourth generation X100 camera by Fujfilm is one of the most loved models in the entire X Series. It has a 24.3MP APS-C X-Trans CMOS III sensor, X-Processor Pro, and a fixed 23mm f/2 lens (35mm equivalent). Its advanced hybrid viewfinder features 100% OVF coverage, real-time parallax correction and a high-definition electronicVF. It is one of the most analog-like compact cameras on the market. This is due to its vintage exterior design and external dials. It is a discreet compact camera that has a subdued exterior and almost invisible leaf shutter.

He might also enjoy:

  1. Sony RX100 V

Case D: Pat – A professional who wants to change to mirrorless

Pat is a professional photographer and owns two DSLRs as well as a variety of professional primes, zooms, and lenses. Due to the heavy gear she uses, Pat is experiencing back pain and would like to change to a lighter and more professional system.
Budget: $3000/irrelevant

Pat was shocked when her doctor advised her to stop carrying heavy equipment around for her job. After 15 years of success as a wedding photographer, Pat is now facing the difficult decision of switching to a lighter job or changing careers.

Pat is aware that a system must be able to deliver the same image quality and performance as her DSLR. It also needs to cover the same focal lengths. She is also interested in compatible flash units, professional support, battery grips, filters and filters.

Her budget is flexible because she’s trading in her old gear to get a new one.

Model to consider:

  1. Olympus OM–D E-M1 Mark 2

Olympus’ OM-D E-M1 Mark II mirrorless camera is among the most compact, lightweight and complete on the market. The camera is part of the Micro Four Thirds range and has many professional lenses available from M.Zuiko Lumix and other third-parties. All of these can be stabilized by Olympus’ 5-axis stabilization. The camera has excellent image quality, excellent autofocus in AF-S as well as AF-C, a large, high-resolution EVF and great ergonomics. E-M1 Mark II owners in the USA and Europe can get professional support.

She might also enjoy:

  1. Panasonic Lumix GH5
  2. Fujifilm XT2
  3. Sony A7S II

It is not easy to buy a new camera. However, I hope these case studies will help you make your decision. We invite you to read the many reviews and comparisons on Photography Life. You can also visit MirrorLessons where Mathieu, my partner, and I compare and review mirrorless cameras in the field.