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Things move fast in the camera world these days, as manufacturers push for new innovations to keep their lineups relevant in the age of smartphones. Since our last guide, new models from Canon, Sony and others have arrived with big improvements in shooting speeds, autofocus and video. That’s good news if you’re a buyer, because the latest cameras are better than ever and it’s easier to find deals on past models.
Still, it can be hard to keep track of every new camera that comes along, and that’s where we come in. Our 2021 guide will catch you up on all the latest models and bargains, so you can select a camera that fits your shooting needs and budget to a tee.
What to look for in a mirrorless camera
To learn more about mirrorless tech and why it’s taken over the camera world, take a look at last year’s camera guide for an explanation, or check out our Upscaled video on the subject for an even deeper dive.
Now, let’s talk about what to look for in a mirrorless camera. The most important factor is the sensor size. The largest is medium-format, used on relatively niche and expensive cameras from Fujifilm, Hasselblad and Leica models. Models like Fujifilm’s latest 102-megapixel GFX 100S offer the largest sensors, very high resolution, top-notch image quality and the shallowest depth of field possible. However, they’re also very expensive, with Fujifilm’s entry-level GFX 50R starting at $4,500.
The next category is full-frame, with models available from brands including Sony, Nikon, Canon and Panasonic. That format offers the next-best image quality, low-light capability and depth of field, but costs considerably less, with prices starting at around $1,000. You’ll still get beautiful blurred background bokeh, but focus can be very fine for fast lenses, so your subject’s eyelashes may be sharp, but not their eyes.
Moving down a notch, APS-C is offered on Fujifilm, Sony, Nikon and Canon models. Cameras and lenses are cheaper than full-frame, but you still get lovely bokeh, decent low-light shooting capability and relatively high resolution. With a sensor size equivalent to 35mm movie film, it’s ideal for shooting video.
Micro Four Thirds, used by Panasonic and Olympus, is the smallest mainstream sensor size for mirrorless cameras. It offers less dramatic bokeh and light-gathering capability than APS-C, but allows for smaller and lighter cameras and lenses. For video, it’s harder to blur the background to isolate your subject, but focus is easier to control.
Also key to your buying decision is resolution. High-res cameras like Sony’s 61-megapixel A7R IV deliver detailed images but the small pixels mean they’re not ideal for video or low-light shooting. Lower-resolution models like Panasonic’s 10.3-megapixel GH5s excel at video and high-ISO shooting, but lack detail for photos.
Image quality is subjective, but different cameras do produce slightly different results. Some photographers prefer the skin tones from Canon while others like Fujifilm’s colors, for example. It’s best to check sample photos to see which model best suits your style.
What about handling? The Fujifilm X-T4 has lots of manual dials to access shooting controls, while Sony’s A6600 relies more on menus. The choice often depends on personal preferences, but manual dials and buttons do make it easier to shoot. For heavy lenses, you may need a camera with a big chunky grip like Nikon’s Z6 II or Z7 II models
Video is more important than ever. Most cameras deliver at least 4K at 30 frames per second, but some models now offer 4K at up to 120p, with 6K and even 8K resolution. If you need professional-looking results, choose a camera with 10-bit or even RAW capability, along with log profiles to maximize dynamic range.
In-body stabilization, which keeps the camera steady even if you move, is another important option for video and low-light photography. You’ll also want to consider the electronic viewfinder (EVF) specs. High resolutions and refresh rates make judging shots easier, particularly in sunny environments.
Other important features include displays that flip up or around for vlogging or selfie shots, along with things like battery life, the number and type of memory card slots, the ports and wireless connectivity. Lens selection is also key, as some brands like Canon’s APS-C M-series have a limited choice compared to its full-frame RF-mount models.
Engadget’s top picks
Now that you know what to look for, let’s jump into our top camera picks for 2021. We’ve divided the selection into four categories: under $750, under $1,500, under $2,500 and over $2,500. We chose those price points because many recent cameras slot neatly into those categories. Manufacturers have largely abandoned the low end of the market, so there are very few mirrorless models under $500.
At the top end of that scale is Sony’s Alpha A6100, one of my favorite APS-C cameras from 2020. For $750, it offers the best autofocus in its class for both video and photos, while delivering good low-light performance and sharp 4K video. It even offers a flip-up screen and microphone input for vloggers. The downsides are a lack of manual controls, bad rolling shutter and a low-resolution EVF.
Moving down a notch is Fujifilm’s $700 X-T200. With gyro-stabilized video, 30 fps 4K and a flip-out display, it’s ideal for vloggers and video shooters. It’s equally well-suited to photos, with a 24.2-megapixel sensor plus 8 fps shooting speeds with eye- and face-detect autofocus. What I like less are the relatively low battery life and lack of subject AF tracking.
The best budget mirrorless camera is Canon’s EOS M200. For $550 including a 15-45mm kit lens, you get a 24.1-megapixel APS-C sensor that delivers sharp shots with natural colors and skin tones. It also comes with a flip-up display and 4K 24p video, albeit with a significant crop. The biggest downsides are the lack of a viewfinder, limited lens selection and relatively slow burst shooting speeds.
Honorable mention in this category goes to $599 Canon’s M50 II, a mildly refreshed version of the M50 with features like a flip-out screen, tap-to-record and focus, plus 4K video with a 1.5x crop.
If you can spend up to $1,500, the selection widens considerably. Tops in that category is Fujifilm’s great-handling, $1,500 X-T3. The 26-megapixel sensor delivers excellent detail with pleasing skin tones and natural colors. It excels for video too, with 4K 60 fps 10-bit internal shooting, along with microphone and headphone inputs. Less good are the lack of built-in stabilization, slightly slow autofocus and a tilt-only display.
For a budget full-frame model, Nikon’s $1,400 Z5 is my top pick. Its forte is the excellent 24-megapixel image quality with very good high ISO performance for low light shooting. It also comes with built-in stabilization for low-light shots or video smoothing. 4K video is available at up to 30 fps, though there’s a 1.7 times crop. Other downsides are the relatively slow burst speeds and bad rolling shutter, particularly for video.
A better choice for video is Panasonic’s $1,400 Micro Four Thirds GH5. It’s one of the cheapest models with 10-bit, high data rate 4K 60p video. It also offers effective image stabilization, pro inputs, dual high-speed card slots and a flip-out screen. Negative points are the small Micro Four Thirds sensor and relatively low 20-megapixel photo resolution.
Several cameras are worthy of honorable mention in this category, including Canon’s EOS RP, one of the cheapest full-frame cameras at just $1,000. Other good options include the fast and pretty Olympus OM-D E-M5 III and Sony’s A6600, which offers very fast shooting speeds and the best autofocus in its class.
Now let’s look at what you can get for under $2,500, the current sweet spot for full-frame mirrorless cameras. The leader of that category is the $2,500, 20-megapixel, full-frame Canon EOS R6. It offers outstanding image quality with Canon’s natural skin tones, and the Dual Pixel autofocus is responsive and quick. It does video equally well, delivering 4K 60p 10-bit footage, a flip-out display, a full complement of ports and a class-leading 8 stops of shake reduction. The only real downside is overheating that affects video recording longer than about 30 minutes.
Video shooters should look at Panasonic’s $2,000 full-frame S5. You can shoot sharp 4K 30p video down-sampled from the full sensor width, or 4K 60p from an APS-C cropped size, all in 10-bit color. With a new update it even offers RAW 5.9K external output to an Atomos recorder. You get a flip-out screen for vlogging and five-axis in-body stabilization. Photo quality is also good thanks to the dual-gain 24-megapixel sensor. The main drawbacks are the wobble-prone contrast-detect autofocus, slow burst speeds and a mediocre EVF.
For considerably less, Fujifilm’s $1,700 X-T4 is the best APS-C camera you can buy. With a flip-out display and in-body stabilization, it fixes the two main issues with the X-T3. And it still offers fast shooting speeds, class-leading 4K video features and great handling. However, it’s a bit bulkier than the X-T3 and the autofocus is inferior to Canon and Sony’s offerings.
Honorable mentions in this category go to the $2,000 Nikon Z6 II, which offers excellent image quality, solid video specs and great handling. Also take a look at the $1,800 Canon EOS R, $1,800 Sony A7C and $2,000 Sony A7 III, which is still competitive after three years.
Finally, here are the best cameras if the sky’s the limit in terms of pricing. At the apex is Sony’s 50-megapixel A1, a stunning camera with a stunning $6,500 price. It rules in performance, with 30 fps shooting speeds and equally quick autofocus that rarely misses a shot. It backs that up with 8K and 4K 120p video shooting, built-in stabilization and the fastest, highest-resolution EVF on the market. The only real drawbacks are the lack of a flip-out screen and, of course, that price.
The next best option is Canon’s $3,900, 45 megapixel EOS R5. For a lot less money, it nearly keeps pace with the A1, thanks to the 20 fps shooting speeds and lightning fast autofocus. It also offers 8K and 4K 120p video, while besting Sony with internal RAW recording and a flip-out display. The big drawback is overheating, as you can’t take 8K longer than 20 minutes and it takes a while before it cools down enough so that you can start shooting again.
Tied for second and third, and considerably cheaper, are Sony’s A7S III and A7R IV. With a 61-megapixel sensor, the $3,500 A7R IV (heavily discounted right now) is the highest-resolution full-frame camera available, but can still shoot at an incredible 10 fps. It has equally fast and reliable autofocus, an incredibly sharp viewfinder and in-body stabilization. Video isn’t a strong point, but it can handle 4K shooting at up to 30 fps — albeit with some line skipping and bad rolling shutter.
The 12-megapixel, $3,500 A7S III, meanwhile, is the best dedicated video camera, with outstanding 4K video quality at up to 120 fps, a flip-out display and category leading autofocus. It also offers 5-axis in-body stabilization, a relatively compact size and great handling. While the 12-megapixel sensor doesn’t deliver a lot of photo detail, it’s the best camera for low-light shooting, period.
Honorable mention goes to Panasonic’s $4,000 S1H, a Netflix-approved mirrorless camera that can handle 6K video and RAW shooting. And if max sensor size and resolution is paramount, Fujifilm’s $6,000, 102-megapixel medium format GFX 100S is the top dog.
You’re now caught up, but change is now the norm in the camera world. In fact, new models including Canon’s EOS R3 sports camera with 30 fps shooting speeds, the Nikon Z9 with 8K video and other models are set to debut later this year. We’ll have full coverage when they arrive, so stay glued to Engadget.com for the latest updates.