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 naming conventions 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 that from 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 is that there's no mirror box in the build and, therefore, in most cases, they're smaller. 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 2015 to suit all tastes and abilities. Whether that's based on budget for a first time buy, or a larger chunk of cash for a second model, 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 you grasp what means what.
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 NX Sony A-series (E-mount) 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.
Panasonic Lumix GF7
The Lumix GF7 ticks both the pocketable and budget boxes. Pop a small lens on the front and you can literally fit it into a bag or pocket and barely notice it.
It doesn't scrimp on the quality front either, despite its affordable price point. Saying that, the two-year-old GF6 offers much the same for even less cash, if you can find one.
The GF7 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. If you're looking for more pro features, however, such as a viewfinder and/or hotshoe then look elsewhere.
If you're looking for an affordable system camera, Panasonic offers many unbeatable features, especially at this price point.
PRICE: around £389 with 14-42mm lens
FULL REVIEW: Panasonic Lumix GF7 review
Best pocketable / compact camera alternative
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:
Panasonic Lumix GM1
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 in its endeavour.
The GM1 is small, really small. 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. 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.
The tail-end of 2014 saw the viewfinder-featured GM5 make its way to market, but if you're after a simpler screen-based snapper than the GM1 is well worthy of its place in our list. If there was a second battery in the box we'd be even happier, as that's the camera's main weakness. Well, that and actually finding one, as the GM5 is far more readily available - but both models will not continue in the UK, so if you want small then now's the time to get buying.
PRICE: around £420 with 12-32mm lens
FULL REVIEW: Panasonic Lumix GM1 review
Best affordable built-in viewfinder solution
It's got the rear screen for compact-like use, but there's also a built-in viewfinder in tow too. Usually that means spending mega bucks, but there are some more affordable alternatives out there. We're particularly keen to see the new Fujifilm X-T10, as we suspect that will be well up there as a contender, but for now we have two 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: around £500 with 16-50mm power zoom lens
FULL REVIEW: Sony A6000 review
Panasonic Lumix GX7
The Lumix GX7 (soon to be replaced by the GX8) 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: around £469 with 14-42mm lens
FULL REVIEW: Panasonic Lumix GX7 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 than Fujifilm. 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 X-E2's 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: around £499 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: around £900 body only
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 although there were no weather-sealed lenses at launch to join the proofed body, the arrival of the 18-135mm WR and 50-140mm f/2.8 lenses cement this Fuji in among our favourite compact system cameras.
If the X-T1 is a bit too pricey then the "lite" version Fujifilm X-T10 is also highly recommended.
PRICE: around £879 body only
FULL REVIEW: Fuji X-T1 review
Samsung's take on the compact system camera isn't really compact at all, it's more a straight-up DSLR replacement with some added electronic bells and whistles. At first we didn't think we would like this camera much, as we just couldn't see where it would fit. But then, after two weeks of use on holiday, things began to click.
Yes it's large, but it has the best CSC battery life we've yet experienced, the image quality from the 28MP APS-C sensor is impressive, and with features like a 15 frames per second burst mode there's little to nothing else out there that can touch the NX1.
However, some software stability issues, iffy screen colours, viewfinder ghosting, and limitations to the higher ISO sensitivity settings hold the camera back a little. As might the size if you're looking at a compact system camera for the sake of it being small in the first instance.
PRICE: around £1,249 body only
FULL REVIEW: Samsung NX1
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 was one of the best cameras to arrive in 2014 - a legacy that will continue into 2015.
PRICE: around £1,049 body only
FULL REVIEW: Panasonic Lumix GH4 review
Best full-frame mirrorless camera
Sony Alpha A7 / Mark II
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 under £1,000 for the body only, it's the most affordable pathway into full-frame. The newer Mark II model adds 5-axis image stabilisation, but adds £250 to the price tag.
There are also A7 S and R alternatives (both original and MkII versions), but they cost a chunk more for their differentiating features (video, build and resolution). However, we would like to see improved battery life, but grab a couple of spares (or the optional battery grip if you don't mind the additional scale) and a prime lens and it's stunning.
The Alpha A7 is a camera out there all on its own. It doesn't feel comparable to a full-frame DSLR for all things, but in some cases that's 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: around £850 body only
FULL REVIEW: Sony Alpha A7 review