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 2016 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 seen 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for Fujifilm, NX-mount for Samsung NX (and specifically the smaller NX-M mount for the NX Mini; although Samsung has withdrawn from the UK market now), 1-mount for the Nikon 1-series, EF-M for Canon EOS M, and Q-mount for Pentax Q.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 / budget buy
You know you're interested in a system camera. You want something small, but something that you can grow with. 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. Increasingly manufacturers are focusing more on the higher-value segment of the market, so fewer budget options are appearing.
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. 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 for one/or a flash then look elsewhere.
If you're looking for an affordable system camera, Panasonic offers many unbeatable features, especially at this price point. Although some territories have seen a GF8 replacement model, that won't be coming to the UK - so the GF7 is an end-of-the-line product and, therefore, a bit of a bargain. Leave Panasonic to focus on the higher-value section of the market, which might act as an excuse to springboard yourself to a more advanced camera later down.
PRICE: around £319
FULL REVIEW: Panasonic Lumix GF7 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.
Panasonic Lumix GX8
The Lumix GX8 is bursting with features, including a built-in tilt-angle electronic viewfinder, vari-angle LCD screen, and an autofocus system that takes on the Fujifilm X-T1/X-T10 and wins. But its four-figure asking price (with a lens) also makes it expensive - it's a different beast compared to its GX7 predecessor.
Shortcomings are few and far between, but there are some niggles: the absence of a drive mode dial does seem odd, especially as an on-board flash has been sacrificed; some minor layout foibles could be improved, such as the placement of the top thumb dial's function button; continuous autofocus still has its issues; and the battery life fails to impress.
But let's not skip the positives. This camera boasts the best image quality we've seen from any Micro Four Thirds camera to date - some larger sensor competitors, such as the Fujifilm X-E2S might still pip it though - plus it's a a pleasure to use and boasts plenty of pro-spec features.
PRICE: around £699 body-only
FULL REVIEW: Panasonic Lumix GX8 review
Retro done right, that was our sentiment about the X-T10, the cut-price little brother to the X-T1 (which did feature in our list until recently, but, in some respects, the X-Pro2 has pushed it overboard).
Its combination of retro design, quality construction, top notch image quality and decent general performance make it a great all-rounder.
To find shortcomings with the X-T10 only really shows face in the autofocus and so-so battery life departments. Its autofocus system can't claim top prize in its field, lagging behind the likes of the Panasonic Lumix GX8, and without touchscreen or more complex focus options. But for the right photography that's not going to be a nail-in-coffin deal-breaker.
PRICE: around £449 body-only
FULL REVIEW: Fujifilm XT-10 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 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.
Fujifilm X-E2 / X-E2S
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.
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.
Got a bit more cash and want the very latest? Then the recently announced X-E2S tweaks the design and ups the viewfinder resolution to 2.36m-dots.
PRICE: around £399 body-only (X-E2S is around £599)
FULL REVIEW: Fujifilm X-E2
Best enthusiast mirrorless camera
Olympus OM-D E-M5 II
Although image quality and autofocus ability aren't giant leaps ahead compared to the first-generation E-M5 model, the Mark II shows that OM-D has landed. It's a good-looking, classy performer that takes the original's concept and elevates it to a higher level.
With features such as High Res Shot and LiveComp, Olympus puts its own stamp on its Micro Four Thirds line. And with a great viewfinder and improved 5-axis stabilisation system, the OM-D E-M5 II secures its place as one of the best compact system cameras out there for enthusiasts.
However, it's not quite perfect. Battery life could be better, low-light image quality finds natural limitations, the menu system can feel overly complex, while new design features such as the rotational thumbwheels can be knocked out of place all too easily. There's also no 4K video, unlike some competitors such as the Panasonic Lumix GH4.
PRICE: around £769 body only
FULL REVIEW: Olympus OM-D E-M5 II review
We're going out on a limb here, because while the Pen-F might not be the class-leading camera in every single department (let's not forget the E-M5 II above), just take a look at this stylish-like-the-60s camera. It's a beaut, incredibly built and alluring to those with discerning tastes. Deciding between Panasonic GX8 and Fujifilm X-T1 just had a spanner thrown in the works.
At £999 body-only the Pen-F certainly is not cheap, but with features such as 5-axis image stabilisation that its competitors can’t offer, plus a built-in electronic viewfinder that easily matches them, Olympus sure is firmly on the compact system camera map this release.
There's even a quick-access dial on the very front of the camera for quick adjustment of four creative functions: Mono, Art Filters, Colour Profile and Color Creator. Talk about doing something different, that's what Olympus is going for here.
PRICE: around £999 body-only
PREVIEW: Olympus Pen-F preview
Best viewfinder in a mirrorless camera
The X-Pro2's tweaks and tinkers forge a far more accomplished camera than the original X-Pro1 for the modern professional. It's faster, better to use and those small details make all the difference.
Sure, it's a quirky camera, but that's kind of what we loved about the X-Pro back in 2011. The X-Pro2 stands out from the crowd with its complex "advanced hybrid multi viewfinder" (that's what Fujifilm likes to call it), making for a camera experience that's positively retro, but positively professional. Think rangefinder-like use thanks to a corner-positioned digital rangefinder overlay screen (as found in the X100T) which can show a 2.5x or 6.0x magnification of the active focus point for precision manual focus, ensuring correct focus for close-up shooting.
We'd still like to see a vari-angle touchscreen rather than fixed panel only, but given that the X-Pro2 seems to be looking inwards to its existing pro user base rather than outwards to newcomers, we suspect the target audience will see the appeal.
PRICE: around £1350 body-only
PREVIEW: Fujifilm X-Pro2 review
Best mirrorless camera for video
Video or movie capture has been going from strength to strength in mirrorless cameras, with many now very capable. Our current favourite is the Panasonic, but diehard videographers may call out the Sony A7S II as the top ranking model in this category (we haven't reviewed it as yet).
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 continued in 2015 with advanced firmware updates and, in 2016, it's still a hugely desirable camera.
PRICE: around £899 body only
FULL REVIEW: Panasonic Lumix GH4 review
Best full-frame mirrorless camera
Sony Alpha A7 II
The Sony Alpha A7 II, the second in the full-frame series, offers a larger sensor than its competitors. That big point of interest doesn't make it a huge camera though: it's small in scale and, at under £1,000 for the body only, it's the most affordable pathway into full-frame (the only other option, for now, is the massive Leica SL). There's even on-board 5-axis image stabilisation.
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 the A7 II is quite stunning. It's a camera out there all on its own: not 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.
There are also A7 S and R alternatives, for video and high-resolution points of interest, respectively, but they cost a chunk more than the standard model.
PRICE: around £850 body only
FULL REVIEW: Sony Alpha A7 II review