Best compact system cameras 2014: The best mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras available to buy today
You're looking to buy a compact system camera (CSC) but don't know what to go for? Perhaps the term alone confounds: we've seen plenty of names being thrown around of late, from simple "mirrorless" through to terms such as "digital single lens mirrorless (DSLM)".
Whatever you choose to call them, we're not going to get hung up about it. You're probably interested in such cameras because they offer image quality well above a compact camera and the ability to change between lenses to obtain different views on to the world. It's that creative control in a small package that's of interest.
Compact system cameras are, as that name suggests, a whole camera system that, in many respects, are comparable to their DSLR camera equivalents. The key difference, in most cases, is that they're smaller - because there's no mirror box in the build - and, therefore, more manageable to cart around. Some have electronic viewfinders, others just a rear screen for preview so you can use them like an enlarged digital compact.
In this best-of feature, we round up the best mirrorless system cameras of 2014 to suit all tastes and abilities. Whether that's based on budget for a first time buy, we've got the goods for beginners or aspiring pros. Whether that's a point-and-shoot solution, or an all-in-one solution with viewfinder, there's an option for everyone.
Whatever your level, we'll guide you through the hottest products available - and only models that we've reviewed in full to assure their quality - to save you time when it comes to working out what the best options are for your needs. We'll be regularly updating this feature to keep it up to date with the latest and greatest models.
A quick lesson in lenses
First thing's first: cameras don't work in a one-size-fits-all way. Brands like to keep their own heritage and, as such, manufacturers tend to have individual lens mounts.
The exception is Micro Four Thirds which is supported by Panasonic Lumix G, both Olympus Pen and Olympus OM-D models and now the Kodak PixPro S-1. Elsewhere there are a whole host of considerations, each tied to their respective manufacturers: it's E-mount for Sony Alpha (formerly NEX), XF-mount for Fujifilm, NX-mount for Samsung NX (and specifically the smaller NX-M mount for the NX Mini), 1-mount for the Nikon 1-series, EF-M for Canon EOS M, and Q-mount for Pentax Q.
Each of those companies also makes or had made DSLR cameras, so don't fall into the trap of buying a lens just because the manufacturer name matches up. It's the mount that's key.
Focal length equivalent
Each lens will have a "mm" marking on it, such as 12-24mm, to convey the angle of view it will deliver. The lower the number the wider the angle of view, so more will "fit in" to a scene.
It's a bit more complex than that as different camera systems have different sensor sizes that give different focal length equivalents, but stick to that rough rule above and you'll have an approximate bearing on what you're getting. If you want to know more, bring it up in the comments below and people can help your grasp of what means what.
Best pocketable / budget mirrorless camera
There are only so many that can fit into this category based on price and, indeed, literally fit in your pocket. We could pick the Pentax Q, but we don't think its small sensor is up to the job at hand, while the Panasonic Lumix GM1 - reviewed further down the page - is still a touch too pricey to fit into this category.
Some current models have had a fair few months of shelf life prior to their prices plummeting. There are plenty of good enough options out there, from the Nikon 1 S1, to the Canon EOS M, but each has their own individual issues. With those considerations out of the loop, our current preference goes to:
Panasonic Lumix GF6
The Lumix GF6 ticks the box for both pocketable and budget. Pop a small lens on the front - whether a power zoom that collapses when switched off, or a decent quality prime (i.e., with no zoom) - and you can literally fit it into a bag or pocket and barely notice it. The impact on your wallet is none too bad either at this price.
But it doesn't scrimp on the quality front, despite its affordable price point. The GF6 produces decent quality images from its 16-megapixel sensor, has very fast autofocus, easy auto or manual shooting modes, and an LCD screen that can flip all the way up to face forward for selfies.
The GF6 is one of those "here it is" kind of solutions - there's no hotshoe so you can't expand into a viewfinder or flash, but as a step up from a compact camera it's ideal.
PRICE: £329 with 14-42mm lens (at time of writing)
FULL REVIEW: Panasonic Lumix GF6 review
Best first compact system camera
You know you're interested in a system camera. You want something small, but something that you can grow with too - whether that's buying into lenses, wireless flash, or other accessories and beyond. You want to pick a system that you'll stick with; one that's established and reliable. There are different options from all the brands, so it's a hard call.
You could go Samsung NX300 or Sony A5000 if you want a large-sensor system for the utmost image quality. You could option the Nikon 1 series as it's super small and super fast, but has among the smallest of sensor sizes and compromises image quality in low-light. All possible conclusions but, for us, the best size to quality balance - and the camp with the largest number of available lenses - goes to Micro Four Thirds models made by Panasonic and Olympus.
Olympus Pen E-PL5
Whether you want point-and-shoot or full manual control, the E-PL5 has it all on hand. It's easy to use, or more complex if you dig in deep - there are even features such as four-channel off-camera flash available for those clever enough to manipulate the light.
There's a lot of range in this camera, and for the price point it's a total bargain. Good quality build, decent image quality, great autofocus, and a huge lens system to expand into too. It'll last you for a good length of time and gives the flexibility to progress onto a more advanced Lumix G or Olympus OM-D model at a later date without needing to ditch any lenses.
It might lack some of the more modern stuff such as Wi-Fi connectivity, but we really don't think many will care too much.
PRICE: £325 with 14-42mm lens (at time of writing)
FULL REVIEW: Olympus Pen E-PL5 review
Best compact alternative
Panasonic Lumix GM1
You're not too fussed about changing lenses all the time. You want a small and pocketable camera with a large sensor that's steps ahead of where a standalone compact camera could be. Here's our pick:
The Panasonic Lumix GM1 sits on the fence between compact and compact system cameras yet gleefully sticks its tongue out at both sides. It's rare that a product feels like a hybrid of ideas and yet succeeds min its endeavour.
Given the choice of a GM1 or a similar price high-end compact camera we don't even need to think for a second about which we'd go for. The GM1 wins out every time. It's a product that sits in a special place, one that we can't help but view as a compact competitor rather than a through-and-through system camera; we'd be unlikely to use it with a lens larger than the 12-32mm kit included.
Overall the GM1 is a shrewedly positioned little camera that we can't help but think big, wonderful things about. If there was a second spare battery in the box for the list price we'd already be heading to the shops to buy one.
PRICE: £569 with 12-32mm lens (at time of writing)
FULL REVIEW: Panasonic Lumix GM1 review
Best mirrorless cameras with built-in viewfinder
It's got the rear screen for compact-like use, but there's also a built-in viewfinder in tow too. It's the all-in-one experience and we have two current favourites:
Sony Alpha A6000
The A6000 is like the NEX-6 reincarnate. And seeing as the latter mentioned camera was one of our favourite system cameras in the last few years that puts it in good stead.
For us the A6000 epitomises what compact system cameras are all about: small, light, easy to use and well built. Autofocus steps things up a gear in the continuous focus department, while build quality is and the 11fps burst mode works a treat too.
It's also so keenly priced that it will have a lot of the competition looking over their shoulders.
PRICE: £649 with 16-50mm power zoom lens
FULL REVIEW: Sony A6000 review
Panasonic Lumix GX7
The Lumix GX7 is bursting with features, including a built-in tilt-angle electronic viewfinder to the rear that, when faced front-on, you'll barely notice. It's among the only CSCs to have a built-in electronic viewfinder that can be physically tilted. Very cool.
This camera is a pleasure to use and produces excellent shots. Pro-spec features such as a 1/8000th sec maximum shutter speed further bolster the package deal that, straight of the box, is unlike anything else out there on the market.
In true Panasonic fashion the GX7 ticks plenty of boxes. But beyond feeling solely functional, this Lumix has soul too; it successfully flirts with the current design trends and pulls it all off with elegance.
PRICE: £749 with 14-42mm lens (at time of writing)
FULL REVIEW: Panasonic Lumix GX7 review
Best luxury / style mirrorless camera
Olympus Pen E-P5
A hotly contested category, no doubt. But one we knew the answer to in a heartbeat.
There's something about the E-P5 that's unlike any other compact system camera out there. You need to only look at the picture to see that.
The black-finish E-P5 model that arrived at Pocket-lint Towers may not have the same striking character of the silver and white body options, but the metal body design delivers a premium feel in the hand. That's where a chunk of the price comes from - and it's not cheap - but other features such as the same sensor as found in the top-spec OM-D E-M5 also supports its price position.
Substance and style meld into one excellent camera. If you're after a compact system camera without a built-in viewfinder then the E-P5 is as good as they come.
PRICE: £899 with 14-42mm lens (at time of writing)
FULL REVIEW: Olympus Pen E-P5 review
Best image quality mirrorless camera
Another hotly contested category, and one that's likely to shift as new cameras continue to launch with new innovations. Typically larger sensors produce better quality images, assuming they're paired with decent optics and the megapixel count isn't too high.
Sensor size order drifts upwards from 1/2.3-inch Pentax Q, to 1-inch Nikon 1, the 2x crop factor of Micro Four Thirds, the 1.6x APS-C format of Canon's EOS M, then the slightly larger 1.5x APS-C formats of Samsung NX, Fujifilm and Sony. At the very top there's the full-frame models from Sony - and we wouldn't be surprised if other manufacturers follow suit in the future too.
If you're after a CSC that's all about image quality then look little further. Unlike most conventional sensors, Fujifilm has done away with the low-pass filter which leads to sharper results and the Japanese company has also implemented a unique colour filter array that you won't find outside of this brand. It's all very complex, but all very clever. All you really need to know is that results are top notch.
We also love the hands-on layout of the build, and both retro style and retro approach to taking pictures thanks to physical aperture dials on the XF lenses.
Compared to its predecessor the autofocus is far swifter, there's a new sensor of Fujifilm X100S standards, and even an improvement to the electronic viewfinder's refresh rate when in low light conditions. On the downsides battery life remains the same so-so performer of its predecessor, while there could be more lenses available in the XF range to further widen appeal. But the available lens options - from primes to more "consumer" zoom lenses - is slowly growing and the quality is great.
If you're an action photographer then don't kid yourself, this camera won't be suitable. But if you're after a camera that successfully marries the old school of thought with the new in a visually striking package then there's a lot to love in the Fujifilm X-E2.
PRICE: £749 (body only)
FULL REVIEW: Fujifilm X-E2
Best enthusiast mirrorless camera
Olympus OM-D E-M1
As far as compact system cameras go there's little else as fully featured as the OM-D E-M1 on the market, and there's something cool about the retro-inspired design.
It's not a budget offering by any means, but aside from the price this relatively dinky mirrorless model has everything going for it. It pushed Micro Four Thirds image quality to another level, there's a "floating sensor" image stabilisation system that's awesome, all kinds of accessories to expand into and, as we say, it's a visual treat to the eyes.
The E-M1 is specialist and complex, but in a good way; it's incredibly detailed and leads the way in the compact system camera category. It's only real issue? The Fujifilm X-T1, if you can ignore the gap between the number of lenses available in each respective system; and the Panasonic Lumix GH4 if videography is your thing.
As Olympus wraps up its DSLR line it had to be sure that its modern-world OM-D replacement would be up to the job. And the E-M1 is the proof: a camera that's not only visually stylish but a classy performer too. If you're looking for an accomplished all-rounder then there's arguably no better option in this category, although the Panasonic Lumix GH4 puts up a strong case.
PRICE: £1,899 with 12-40mm lens (at time of writing)
FULL REVIEW: Olympus OM-D E-M1
If you're looking for a camera that captures an essence of the old but marries it with up-to-the-minute tech, then look no further than the Fujifilm X-T1.
It's the camera that sits at the helm of the X-series line, has a giant viewfinder aligned to the centre that's a pleasure to use, and lots of physical mode dials arranged around the all-metal body. It's got the balance of visuals and performance just right.
A better battery life and more refined autofocus would see it excel even more, and there are no weather-sealed lenses at launch to join the proofed body (these are due throughout 2014), but even in its current state it's among our favourite compact system cameras.
PRICE: £1,049 (body only)
FULL REVIEW: Fuji X-T1 review
Best mirrorless camera for video
Panasonic Lumix GH4
The Panasonic GH4 isn't just a camera for video capture by any means, as this could easily fit into the "enthusiast" category above. But its ability to capture 4K at usable frame-rates and 1080p at beyond broadcast standard compression makes it a standout product. This is the model that sees the GH series finally land with a bang.
We've used the camera somewhat differently to a DSLR, but haven't found it to limit our abilities at any turn. The sensor size has meant an easy-to-carry device with sufficient zoom from the 16-140mm lens, and the 2,360k-dot OLED electronic viewfinder does a decent job too, even if it's not as impressive as the Fujifilm X-T1 in this regard.
Image quality is roughly on par with its nearest competitors, although processing has been balanced towards sharpness which can sometimes reveal a lack of smooth gradation, with clusters of pixellated colours showing up in areas. That might have cost the GH4 its perfect score, but it's the 4K movie mode that sees the GH4 land in a special place. It's so far ahead of the competition in this regard that it's currently untouchable. We're sure plenty will all but ignore the stills shooting ability and buy a GH4 for its 4K capture capabilities.
It's no longer so much "compact system vs DSLR", it's about which camera is best, and the GH4 ticks so many boxes it'll be known as one of the best cameras to arrive in 2014.
PRICE: £1,299 (body only)
FULL REVIEW: Panasonic Lumix GH4 review
Best full-frame mirrorless camera
Sony Alpha A7
The Sony Alpha A7 is unlike any other compact system camera - because it has a full-frame sensor. But that big point of interest doesn't make it a huge camera: it's small in scale and, at £1,299 for the body only, is the most affordable pathway into full-frame.
We're excited about it, as are the industry and the public: the A7 beat off quality competition to be crowned the Best System Camera 2013 in the Pocket-lint Gadget Awards.
It's a great first step, but there are areas that need to be improved - battery life is poor, and the 28-70mm kit lens isn't great. Grab a couple of spare batteries (or the optional battery grip if you don't mind the additional scale) and the 35mm f/2.8 Zeiss lens and it's stunning though.
The Alpha A7 is a camera out there all on its own. It doesn't feel quite comparable to a full-frame DSLR, but we mean that as a positive. It's a different system, with a different ethos and, combined with the right gear, it'll bring you one thing that's the same as any other system worth its salt: glorious full-frame pictures.
PRICE: £1,299 (body-only)
FULL REVIEW: Sony Alpha A7 review