When it comes to buying a camera, your choice boils down to two main options: Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) or mirrorless. DSLR cameras have long been the go-to prosumer camera for capturing detailed photos thanks to their bigger sensors and variety of lenses that more basic digital cameras and smartphones can’t match. However, mirrorless cameras are the new kid on the block, offering the same advantages in image quality as DSLR cameras but in lighter bodies and with advanced features like live digital image processing to help you properly expose photos.
The Difference Between Mirrorless and DSLR Cameras
When you look through the viewfinder of a traditional DSLR camera, you’re actually seeing a reflection from a mirror behind the lens. As light passes through that mirror it refracts to the viewfinder. When you capture an image, the mirror shifts out of the way. This system saves on battery life because there is no processor or always-on display, which a mirrorless camera requires.
Mirrorless cameras ditch the bulky mirror mechanism to instead relay a live-processed view to a screen and electronic viewfinder (EVF). They often start at a higher price point than a DSLR and there are fewer lenses available, but DSLR owners making the conversion can always grab a mount adapter. What you see on the EVF or monitor is what you get when you shoot. But since mirrorless cameras are constantly powering the monitor, their batteries often die faster.
How We Tested
We spent a week shooting photos in RAW format with each camera in environments from our controlled studio to outdoor scenes. The four areas we focused on were autofocus speeds, low-light performance, tracking objects in motion, and battery life. To test autofocus, we set each camera atop a tripod and unfocused it. Next, we timed how long it took the system to refocus on a still subject standing seven feet away in an all-white studio background. After this, we tested ISO by raising its sensitivity while shooting a portrait.
We hit the road to take pictures in different scenes and lighting conditions. To test tracking performance with a moving object, we had cyclists ride 12 miles per hour straight downhill as we panned our cameras along their path. Bright sunlight during the day provided high-contrast shots so we could look at details in dark areas to assess dynamic range. Below are galleries filled with test photos from each camera so you can compare details and differences in visual quality that we touch on in the reviews below.
Best Beginner Camera
Canon EOS M50 Mark II
Canon’s EOS M50 compact mirrorless camera assists beginners with a single mode dial filled with shot presets for portraits, sports, and landscapes. This simplifies operations for users growing manually controlling aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. At under $900 with a 15-45 mm lens included, the EOS M50 offers an affordable entry. The camera comes equipped with higher-end features like a screen that pops out and articulates. You can keep it flat, rotate it to see what you’re shooting from various angles, or flip it over to record selfies. This versatility came in handy as we shot overhead car portraits and used it for vlogging.
While it may be the smallest camera in our testing pool, the M50 is mighty. Autofocus performed impressively on still subjects and while shooting a Volkswagen in a parking lot, the shadows retained texture in darker areas of gravel while red doors in the background popped. For a portrait, the image captured facial hair stubble and flushed cheeks.
In everyday scenes around town and our office, shots came out sharp whether we dialed in the settings or switched over to Scene Intelligent Auto profile, which optimizes exposure automatically. Canon’s detailed menu explains what each preset profile prioritizes, be it motion or background blur. This navigable interface pairs with a high performance level so stunning shots come easily. It’s not intimidating, and anyone without camera experience can use it as a point-and-shoot to create finely tuned images.
In our studio test, the M50 easily tracked a still subject’s eyes, focusing on him in just 1.1 seconds. That’s fast for a camera in this price range but works out to double the speed of the rest of the pool. At 1600 ISO, pictures begin to lose detail, and bumped to 3200, noise seriously clouds the image. Still, the camera squeezed out a decent night shot with the intelligent scene detection, capturing the reds of a Chevy Trailblazer or light green hues in blades of grass. Similarly, it did pretty well in our panning motion shot. As our cyclist rolled by, it focused precisely, but speed is limited for catching something like a sports game or car race. The slower burst speeds ultimately miss out on some actions, like the peak of a shirt flapping in the wind.
The M50 can transfer photos directly to your phone wirelessly through the Canon Connect app, but this puts a strain on an already limited battery life of just 300 shots. Unfortunately, its limited battery life means you may need to hold a spare if you plan to shoot longer events. Overall the M50 is easy to use, well-built, and affordable. But if you plan to shoot more challenging scenes with subjects in motion or night shots, then you’ll want to grow with a camera with more functions.
Best Beginner DSLR Camera
At 1.14 pounds, the Rebel T8i, a 24MP DSLR, is described by my co-tester as “toy-like.” That’s an attribute you wouldn’t expect for a camera that houses a complex mirror mechanism. Its shutter speed is fast, the optical view is unaffected by digital processing so there’s no latency or noise, and it can grab up to 1,240 shots before its battery dies.
Photos came out sharp enough to read a distant billboard in our car test shot and spot flyaway hairs in a portrait. The dynamic range is decent—we noticed some lost detail in blown-out sky highlights during the day. With the T8i, colors have less depth and can fall a bit flat until fixed in post.
The T8i’s streamlined layout includes a dedicated aperture wheel and live view button for the screen. Once behind the lens, you can easily control settings while looking down the viewfinder. Adjusting the ISO is a wheel scroll away, and noise in higher ISOs was more subdued than in photos shot at the same level on the M50. While the shutter can click within a second, it takes a longer time for the system to focus on a subject, with an average focus speed of 2.7 seconds. That means you’ll be looking down the optical viewfinder longer.
Keep in mind that what you see isn’t indicative of your final image, whereas a mirrorless camera is constantly processing an image to show you how your ISO and aperture settings will look. If you appreciate the skill, speed, and optical viewfinder experience of this type of classic DSLR camera, the T8i model works for most people. It’s simple to navigate, produces crisp images, and the battery lasts nearly four times as long as with a mirrorless camera.
Best Travel Camera
Fuji’s X100V is often called out as the poor man’s Leica. Why? For just $1,400—compared to $5,795 for a comparable Leica Q2—you get a more beginner-friendly camera that still takes fantastic photographs. This compact Fuji is unassuming on the streets and won’t take up much space in your camera bag; tipping the scales at just 478 grams, the X100V is lightweight but doesn’t feel cheap. After a week of testing, I was very impressed by its autofocus, viewfinder, and JPEG quality—though it can also shoot RAW images.
The Fuji performed surprisingly well in our subject-tracking test—it’s not generally billed as a camera to use when shooting sports or fast-moving objects. Autofocus tracking was plenty fast. The standard 23mm prime lens (which isn’t interchangeable) was actually an absolute joy to use; at F2.0, Fuji’s pancake lens lets in plenty of light, blurring the background nicely while keeping the subject sharp. Enthusiasts will probably groan about the lack of interchangeable lenses, but this is simply unfounded for its price.
Another unique feature of the X100V is its hybrid viewfinder, located in the top left of the camera. It can serve as both an electronic viewfinder (EVF) and a more old-school range finder. While the “what you see is what you get” nature of the EVF was super helpful, it was difficult to frame shots in the tight confines of the compact viewfinder. The optical range-finder made it much easier to create each photograph thanks to the smaller frame lines that show what you’ll be capturing. This setup took some getting used to, but it’s actually super helpful to see the edges of the frame while composing shots.
Last but not least, I really enjoyed the look of the JPEG files straight from the X100V. As a photography enthusiast who’s been taking photos for most of his adult life, I often find myself caught up in the workflow of photography, always shooting raw images and editing in Adobe Lightroom to eke everything I possibly can from every image. However, the JPEGs from this Fuji compact satisfied straight out of the camera. This is a great choice for new shooters and a breath of fresh air for the experienced photographer.
Canon EOS R7
The EOS R7 is Canon’s semi-professional camera with a deep grip that carries comfortably even while equipped with larger lenses. The 32.5-megapixel sensor records a high level of detail that holds its own against full-frame rivals. Crop deeply into an image, and you lose little sharpness. If you’re shooting lower-light scenes or want to capture moving subjects, the R7 is a step up from the cameras above. But the snappy, continuous autofocus and high burst speeds (15 frames per second mechanical and 30 fps when using the electronic shutter) are the R7’s biggest draw. This camera locks onto subjects quickly and sticks to them like glue—perfect for shooting sports, moving cars, or wildlife.
Photos captured in RAW file format jumped out with depth of dynamic range that retains details without harshing edges or blowing out light. Indoor shots with lit windows greatly benefitted. In low-light, detail captured in shadows included the distinction between leaves in trees or concrete texture in the shadows of the Volkswagen shot. You can salvage plenty of detail from RAW shots, but even basic JPEG files are surprisingly rich. The R7 also captured the most natural color and texture in portraits.
Autofocus performance rivals Sony’s pricier cameras and outperforms the XT-4. In our studio setting, it averaged a 0.5-second find speed, one of the fastest we tested. Its ISO performance in lowlight was some of the best, with grain showing up around the 10K ISO mark. The in-body stabilization stays locked without distortion, even with some jitter while shooting long shutter speeds by hand. Since the R7 is a more complex tool, it has more options than the M50 or T8i, like a custom function button as well as gaskets to weather the rain. The EOS R7 gives professional-level cameras a run for their money with top-of-the-line autofocus performance and captures without using a full-frame sensor.
Best Pro-level Camera
Sony A7 IV
Of all the cameras we tested, Sony’s A7 IV is by far the most pro-oriented of the bunch. It’s the only full-frame body, has the best high-ISO performance, and has the most advanced autofocus system we’ve seen yet. However, it’s true when they say “you get what you pay for,” as the A7 IV is comfortably the most expensive camera we saw, coming in at right around $2,500 for just the body.
Being the only full-frame camera—giving it the biggest digital sensor—it can capture more color information than its competitors, along with more efficiently using light. You’ll notice from the test shots above that the A7 extracts a ton of detail in both the highlights and shadows that would otherwise be lost. This dynamic range is an absolute joy to work with in post-production, but will be overkill for a casual photographer who shoots in JPEG format and leaves their photos untouched.
Offering up only 520 shots per battery, the A7 IV has quite an appetite for burning through batteries; we were able to eke out 580 shots using only the rear screen. Shooting video will drain the battery even faster. That each Sony’s NP-FZ100 battery packs run $78 would be problematic for someone like myself who shoots motorsports with a DSLR that can burn through 1,300 shots per battery. More batteries means more things to bring, which also means more things to lose or forget.
The culprit of this fairly poor shot count is likely the A7 IVs electronic viewfinder, which was impressive given its 120 fps refresh rate and 3.68 million-dot (pixel) resolution. Compared to its closest competitor on test—Fuji’s X-T4— Sony’s EVF is only slightly better, given its resolution and refresh rate. Spoiler alert: It’s also an absolute joy to use, whether you’re tracking a moving subject or shooting portraits while locked on a tripod.
Sony’s A7 IV is no doubt the most capable (and expensive) camera that we tested. However, we’d only recommend it for professional shooters or serious enthusiasts. You really have to know what you’re doing to extract the best from the Sony; think of it more as a tool that allows the pros to craft the exact image they desire.
Best Electronic Viewfinder
Fujifilm’s X-T4 is often labeled as the king of the crop-sensor camera world, with nearly every review bearing a similarly clickbait-y title to that effect. I was curious if all the talk was, well… clickbait. After a couple of days of testing, I was thoroughly impressed with how Fuji’s new XT body performed while equipped with the Fujinon 16-55 F2.8 lens.
Straightaway, I found the electronic viewfinder (EVF) to be a game changer. In my eyes, it performs closest to the EVF in the Sony A7 IV—a full-frame camera that costs nearly $800 more than the Fuji. The 3.6 million-dot display shows a sharp preview of what the sensor is looking at. Even with such high resolution, the EVF reacts promptly when tracking moving subjects thanks to its 100 fps maximum refresh rate.
The X-T4 body is nothing if not striking to look at. Its eclectic aesthetic marks a crossover between a more traditional film camera and mirrorless powerhouse. The dials on the top of the camera for ISO, shutter speed, and exposure compensation all provide a very defined detent when clicking to new positions—not to mention they’re very nice to look at. The handgrip also feels exceptionally chunky and secure in the hand, which is great news for someone like myself who definitely hasn’t dropped a camera before. I plead the fifth.
The X-T4—like many other mirrorless cameras—struggles with battery life. Fuji’s new high-capacity NP-W235 battery can only squeak out 600 shots before it conks out. However, the new NP batteries will only set you back $65 a pop, compared to the nearly $80 you’ll have to dish out for an equivalent Canon LP pack.
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