The Best Mirrorless Camera for Beginners

The $600 Sony a5100 is the entry-level mirrorless camera we recommend for most beginners. It stands out from the competition by delivering superior photo quality while being easier to use right out of the box thanks to simple menus and controls, plus it offers enough flexibility to keep up with a new photographer’s developing skills. After 60 hours of research and 25 hours of testing, we found the a5100 takes photos as well as cameras that go for hundreds more by employing a sensor that rivals DSLRs and a class-leading hybrid autofocusing system. The a5100 also boasts one of the largest catalogues of available lenses from both Sony and other manufacturers.

Sony a5100

The Sony a5100 takes photos as well as cameras that go for hundreds more by employing a sensor that rivals DSLRs’. Easier to use out of the box than the competition, too.

The a5100 offers a careful balance of impressive capability and usability. Boasting many of the same specs as the higher end model in Sony’s new Alpha series but priced significantly less, the a5100 delivers high performance for good value. Most importantly, it captures clean, high-quality images.

Also great

Panasonic Lumix G7

The Panasonic Lumix G7 is slightly larger and heavier than our main pick, but it does offer a wider lens library, 4K video capture, and a convenient touchscreen.

If our pick is unavailable, or if you need something with 4K video recording capabilities, the Panasonic Lumix G7 is a great option. Reviewers universally liked this camera when it came out in 2015 and sold for $800, but now it typically sells for under $600, making it an excellent value. The G7’s interface isn’t as beginner friendly as the a5100’s, but shooting on full auto mode is easy enough. And the G7 offers convenient manual controls that you’ll come to appreciate as you gain experience as a photographer. The Micro Four Thirds standard also offers the largest selection of lenses of any mirrorless format, so this camera has plenty of room to grow.

Who should buy this

If you’ve been wanting to take your photography to the next level but feel limited by your smartphone’s camera or your point-and-shoot model, or if the DSLR you bought still feels too intimidating and bulky, an entry-level mirrorless model might be just the change you’re seeking. This type of camera offers plenty of auto-mode readiness, so you can just start shooting, but it also gives you the versatility to expand your photography prowess as you get ready to employ more manual control and test out new lenses. And it produces far better images than a smartphone.

If you have a DSLR that’s less than four years old, you probably don’t need to change over to mirrorless. The image quality on an SLR around that age is still really good, and depending on the model, it might even be better than that of the a5100. Especially if you’ve invested in a lot of lenses, you have no need to upgrade. Similarly, if you’ve dropped hundreds of dollars on lenses for one mirrorless system, it doesn’t make sense to swap over to a completely different one.

If you have more to spend and want a bigger upgrade, check out our guide to the best mirrorless camera under $1,000.

How we tested

After poring over just about every review and comparison we could find on the remaining models, we were left with four candidates to investigate further: the $550 Olympus E-PL7, the $400 Samsung NX3000, the $500 Panasonic GF7, and the Sony a5100. These days, however, the Olympus E-PL7 is no longer easy to find in stock. Meanwhile, the Panasonic Lumix G7 has dropped significantly in price, making it a nice alternative to these cameras, so we recently added it to our test pool.

The top contenders we found worth field testing (from left to right) were the Sony a5100, the Panasonic GF7, and the Olympus E-PL7.

Once in hand, the NX3000 obviously fell short of the competition. Due to its poor interface and bizarre hardware setup, it didn’t stack up to its rivals, and we found it a chore to use. But more on that later.

That left the Olympus E-PL7, the Panasonic GF7, and the Sony a5100, which we spent many hours testing under various lighting conditions. For the latest update to this guide, we leaned heavily on tests of the Panasonic Lumix G7 we found on the Internet, as well as on our camera editor Philip Ryan’s experience shooting with the G7 and these other models in the past. We especially wanted to see how they performed in the situations most novice shooters find challenging, putting each camera’s autofocus, low-light and flash capabilities to the test.

Our pick: Sony a5100

Sony a5100

The Sony a5100 takes photos as well as cameras that go for hundreds more by employing a sensor that rivals DSLRs’. Easier to use out of the box than the competition, too.

The Sony a5100 is the best mirrorless camera for new users because it takes great pictures at a great value—currently priced at $500 on Amazon. Compared to the competition, it delivers superior photo quality while being easier to use right out of the box, with features like an In-Camera Guide specifically aimed at helping novice shooters get to know the camera.

We loved the a5100’s compact size, autofocus abilities, fast shooting speeds, impressive low-light capabilities, high-resolution and highly responsive touchscreen, Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity, and wide selection of lenses.

The Sony a5100 packs a punch of excellent features in a compact size that’s easy to use right out of the box.

The Alpha series is the recently changed name of the NEX series, which included our previous pick, the Sony NEX-5T. The a5100 sits between the even more basic a5000 and Sony’s higher-end mirrorless model, the a6000. For about $200 less, the a5100 offers the best features of the a6000 in a compact design, including a large 24 megapixel APS-C sensor, powerful processor and hybrid autofocus system.

What’s the advantage to having a sensor that size? Broadly speaking, the larger the sensor, the better the image quality, as big sensors can capture more fine detail, a wider range of darks and lights in one image without losing either, and will do a much better job of generating clean images in low light. The a5100’s sensor scored very well in testing by DxOMark, who specialize in measuring direct sensor outputs from cameras. They labeled the a5100 sensor’s performance “excellent” and scored it nearly as high as the a6000’s sensor. The a5100 has a sensor comparable to the sensor in a DSLR—which means it has pretty similar image quality. So this camera will take images on the same level as a big and bulky DSLR camera but in a much smaller package.

We found the Sony a5100 was easy to tote around while sightseeing in Paris.

Compared to our other finalists, this bigger sensor means the Sony a5100 performs better in lower light, capturing cleaner images at higher ISOs than the competition, with less of the speckles and smearing known as “noise.” In our testing, we found the Sony performed well when shooting around Paris at night, with in-camera noise reduction doing a fairly good job of keeping the images looking decent up through about ISO 3200. In DxOMark’s scientific testing, they found the a5100 can take images at up to an ISO of 1347 without compromising image quality. By comparison, the Olympus E-PL7 begins to lose quality at ISO 873; and the Panasonic GF7 at ISO 718 (based on the Panasonic GX7, which has the same sensor).

We found the Sony a5100 performed well in low-light situations with minimal noise even at higher ISOs, as in this example taken at ISO 1600.

One of the a5100’s most impressive features is its autofocus system. Compared to other cameras, it covers more of the area you’re photographing and in finer detail than most of the competition. That means it can more easily track smaller details as they move from one side of the frame to the other. It has a 179-point hybrid autofocusing system covering 92 percent of the frame, the same as the more expensive a6000, which DPReview called “class-leading.” Using both contrast-detection and phase-detection points, the Sony is capable of very fast focusing speeds, quickly finding focus, even if your subject is moving. You’ll find that the Sony a5100 spends less time “hunting” for a focus point and that more of what you’re trying to take a photo of will be in focus, more often, which truly makes all the difference when it counts, like when you’re trying to take that photo of your son’s quick-moving soccer game.

The a5100 comes with the same kit lens that impressed us on the NEX-5T, a compact 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 power zoom. As the Imaging Resource’s Dave Pardue reported, “the background blur is fairly good … it won’t win bokeh awards for the creamiest and smoothest out there … but for a kit lens it’s certainly pleasing enough for all but the most critical shooting situations, and something you simply can’t achieve with most smartphones today.”

The a5100 easily slips into a jacket pocket or small purse. It is about as wide as a deck of cards, around an inch longer, and at the largest part of the grip, as thick as two stacked decks (but generally thinner). It clocks in at under 10 ounces, so you’re not going to feel like you have a weight around your neck when shooting with it for a whole day. While sightseeing around Paris, we felt it was just the right size for toting everywhere.

The a5100 is a natural step up for the smartphone shooter who wants to improve their picture making. Where even the best smartphone tends to fail—low light, flash photography, fast-moving subjects like a small child—the a5100 proves itself quite capable. And it does while still offering what you love about your smartphone: portability, a high-resolution and responsive touchscreen, and a simple user interface. And you can still take a selfie.

The Sony a5100 is selfie-ready, and you might find the countdown feature makes selfie shooting easier than on your smartphone.

You can also have fun with filters too, as the a5100 offers more than a dozen “Picture Effects” similar to those we’ve grown accustomed to when using our smartphones such as Toy Camera and Retro. The camera will let budding photographers continue to develop their skills as they explore Sony’s extensive lens library, though the kit lens is a great starting point, already offering the optical zoom missing from your phone.

The a5100 feels specifically aimed at this audience of smartphone users ready to step up their game. It offers everything a camera should, overwhelming the user with too many options and features. The In-Camera Guide (the question mark button on the back of the camera body) offers help and shooting advice with the simple press of a button. Like a mini instruction manual on the back of the camera, the advice is aimed at beginners, with practical shooting tips like adjusting saturation to achieve a bluer sky. We’d guess you’ll be far more likely to take a gander at these tips and tricks than you would to actually carry around and reference the printed version.

If you like to record video, the a5100 supports XAVC S codec, which allows for 1080p video at 60- or 24-fps video at a 50Mbps bit rate. For those of us that aren’t videographers, that means you can record very high-quality videos, better quality than most DSLRs and even better than the Sony a6000. You can also simultaneously record a smaller, more shareable MPEG-4 version for instant social media posting while you wait to edit your larger video files at home. As DP Review’s Jeff Keller put it, “There are no other inexpensive mirrorless cameras at this time that can record 1080p video at 50Mbps, and the tools that Sony has provided (focus peaking, zebra, uncompressed output over HDMI) are an added bonus.”

Runner-up

Also great

Panasonic Lumix G7

The Panasonic Lumix G7 is slightly larger and heavier than our main pick, but it does offer a wider lens library, 4K video capture, and a convenient touchscreen.

If our main pick sells out or becomes unavailable, consider the Panasonic Lumix G7. It’s more expensive than the Sony a5100 and can’t quite capture as much detail, but it records 4K video, focuses well in low-light situations, and has a touchscreen that flips out to the side of the camera and can angle up and down or all the way forward, making it easier to take selfies or to shoot at very low or high angles. While the G7 is both larger and heavier than the a5100, it remains smaller and lighter than most DSLRs.

It might be more camera than some beginners need, but you can always opt to shoot in full auto mode. Plus, it has two command wheels, which you can use to control settings such as aperture size and shutter speed. This design is helpful if you plan to learn enough to eventually shoot in manual mode.

In the screenshot above from DPReview’s image-quality comparison tool, you can see that while the G7 captured an admirable amount of detail in this lock of hair, the a5100 captured even more. Both cameras should be plenty pleasing for the vast majority of people.

Other reviewers from respected testing sites, including CNETDPReview, and Imaging Resource, all praise the G7 for its speedy focusing, detailed images, accurate color reproduction, and ability to capture 4K video. “I liked the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G7 a lot more than I expected,” writes CNET’s Lori Grunin, calling it an “interchangeable-lens model that’s a good, as well as smaller and lighter, alternative to many comparable dSLRs.” DPReview cautions that the “user interface can be a little unwieldy,” while also noting that it has “moments of genius in the ability to use the rear screen as a touch pad to set AF point when shooting with the camera to your eye.” According to Mike Tomkins at Imaging Resource, the G7 offers “a whole lot of camera for your money,” and that review was written when the camera sold for $200 more than it typically does today.

Since the G7 is a part of the Micro Four Thirds system, plenty of compatible lenses are available. However, this camera uses a sensor that’s physically smaller than the APS-C–size sensor in the a5100. This means that when you’re selecting lenses for this Panasonic camera, you’ll have to use a wider-angle lens to get the same view you’d get through the Sony. For example, a 12mm Micro Four Thirds lens would give you the same view you’d get with a 16mm lens on the Sony. If you like to shoot with a lot of zoom, this difference can be helpful, since a 200mm Micro Four Thirds lens will give you a view that’s a little more zoomed in than a 260mm lens would be on the Sony.

The competition

The Panasonic GF7 was hampered by a worse battery life and being harder to use.

The Panasonic GF7, also $500, put itself out of the running with its many bright shiny features that just didn’t perform so well in practice. Features like the soft skin portrait mode or the creative modes slowed down the live view so much that the camera felt inept and cheap as it tried to keep up. A short battery life—rated at 230 shots per charge versus, for example, 400 shots from the Sony a5100—also means you won’t get very far on a single charge. It wasn’t quite as easy to navigate as the Sony either and the tiny grip didn’t feel as good in hand, though the actual image quality was solid.

In a category of camera clearly aimed at the smartphone photographer wanting to do more, the NX3000 annoyingly misses some of what users love about their smartphone shooting—like touchscreen control. I found myself futilely pressing the low-resolution 3-inch, 460,800-dot screen over and over again before realizing this was a dealbreaker I couldn’t untrain myself to overcome. The NX3000 also forces strange camera choices on the user like on-lens-only zoom and a microSD card, but the lack of touchscreen alone knocked this camera out of the running. Even a slightly lower price of around $400, this camera isn’t worth the compromises.

Nikon’s recently announced Nikon 1 J5, priced at $500, also caught our eye with its fast focusing speeds, 60 frames per second burst abilities, 20-megapixel sensor, redesigned body and tilting screen. But the camera’s small one-inch sensor means the images won’t be par with what you’ll see from the likes of APS-C or Micro Four Thirds cameras.

We also considered other contenders from Sony’s Alpha series including the $400 Sony a5000 and the older DSLR-style mirrorless Sony a3000, now about $270. The a5000 is the step down from the a5100, and it’s a significant step. For only about $100 more, the newer a5100 offers a higher resolution sensor (24 vs 20 megapixels), outstanding autofocus system (179 vs 25 focus points), superior video capabilities (the a5100 outperforms even the step up a6000 when it comes to high quality video recording), higher-resolution touchscreen (921,600 vs 460,800 dots) and better burst mode (6 vs 3.5 frames per second).

The Sony a3000 is a bit of a strange duck as a mirrorless camera that’s the size of a DSLR, which sort of defeats the purpose of purchasing a mirrorless camera. Again, the sensor, video capability, screen resolution (not touch and not articulated for selfies) and burst mode can’t compare to the a5100, but it’s the large form factor that really throws the a3000 out of the ring.

We previously recommended the NEX-5T, both as a main pick in a previous iteration of this guide, then as a step-down pick more recently. However, it has been discontinued, and is getting harder and harder to find. If you can grab one for less than $400, it’s still a good option, but they’re rare.

The $299 Samsung NX Mini was eliminated as well: its tiny lens system rather defeats the purpose of having an interchangeable lens camera.

We also took a look at the latest from Fujifilm, the X-A10. But as we found in the Fujifilm X-A2 it replaces, buying one of these cameras also means buying into a system of lenses that cost far more than the competition’s, which means they’re not a great pick for most amateur/beginning photographers. If you are willing to shell out major money for great lenses, we suggest taking a look at the Fujifilm X-A3 instead, which offers greater resolution plus a touchscreen for only a bit more money.

Canon’s EOS M10 just fits into this category of beginner mirrorless cameras with an entry price of $600. Like its competitors, the M10 strives to appeal to the selfie shooter set, employing built-in wi-fi and NFC, a high-res (1.04 million dot) 3-inch 180-degree rotating LCD screen and a Self Portrait mode with skin smoothing and brightening effects. It has the same image sensor as previous models, but a new, faster AF system and newer processor which should lead to lower high ISO image noise. But we’re still left wanting a far broader selection of lenses to choose from than Canon’s mirrorless model provides: even with two lens announcements alongside the M10 camera (the new collapsible EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 and a silver version of the current EF-M 55-200mm f/4.5-6.3) users still limited to picking from just a kit lens, a wide-zoom, a normal prime, and a zoom lens.

Wrapping it up

With excellent picture quality and easy usability, the Sony a5100 is our pick for an entry-level mirrorless camera priced under $600. As simple to shoot with as a camera phone, the a5100 outshines any smartphone with images as good as you’ll see from a DSLR with its easy-to-use interface, capable zoom lens, effective on-camera flash, impressive autofocusing, and low-light performance.

Sources

  1. Jeff KellerSony a5100 First Impressions ReviewDP ReviewAugust 2014
  2. Kevin CarterSony A5100 sensor review: Uncompromising performanceDxOMarkSeptember 15, 2014
  3. Joshua WallerSony Alpha ILCE-5100 (A5100) ReviewePhotoZineOctober 6, 2014
  4. Kevin LeeReview: Sony A5100The PhoblographerNovember 20, 2014
  5. Mike TomkinsSony A5100 ReviewImaging ResourceAugust 18, 2014
  6. Gordon LaingSony A5100Camera LabsDecember 2014
  7. Karen SheardSony Alpha 5100 ReviewWhat Digital CameraSeptember 2014
  8. Amy DaviesSony Alpha a5100 reviewTechRadarSeptember 29, 2014
  9. Jonathan DevoSony Alpha 5100 reviewAmateur PhotographerSeptember 17, 2014
  10. Mike LoweSony Alpha A5100 review: Compact-a-likePocket-lintJanuary 2015

(ERIN LODI,PHIL RYAN)

 

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