Take a look at a compact system camera. These shooters weigh less than a third of what a typical DSLR does. Yet, miraculously, they take pictures as good as most mid-level DSLR cameras. That’s because of the huge electronic image sensors and the ability to use professional-grade interchangeable lenses.
Unlike a single-lens-reflex camera, compact system cameras don't have a little mirror that flips up inside when you take a photo. However, they do have mounts that let you attach telephoto or wide-angle lenses, though these typically cost extra. Because of their simpler construction, they tend to be more durable than DSLRs, and some can be paired with third-party waterproof housings.
If you're looking for a compact system camera to use for outdoor photography, you'll want to pay extra attention to the speed of the autofocus and the performance of the camera in low light (we list the top ISO settings here). We've left the number of megapixels out because, with the newer technology, the pixel count doesn’t say much about image quality.
The Best Small Cameras: Sony NEX-3N
When it comes out next month, the NEX-3N will hold the record for the lightest interchangeable-lens camera. It may be diminutive, but inside, it has a huge image sensor that soaks up color and light in low-light conditions. Especially handy features include the LCD screen on the back, which tilts up 180 degrees, and the zoom lever on the top.
Continuous Speed: 4 frames per second
Sensitivity: ISO 16,000
Weight (With Batteries): 9.5 ounces
Lens System: Ships with a 16-50mm lens. Fits the numerous lenses available for Sony’s E-mount cameras.
The Best Small Camera: Olympus OM-D E-M5
Don’t let the retro Cold War looks fool you. Inside, the E-M5 is one of the most technically sophisticated small cameras available. It has extremely fast autofocus, very sensitive imaging, and built-in image stabilization (especially helpful when using the long zoom). Plus, it’s the only one listed here with a dust and splash-proof housing, providing a last line of defense when your pack gets soaked.
Continuous Speed: 9 frames per second
Sensitivity: ISO 25,600
Weight: 15.0 ounces
Lens System: Ships with a 12-50mm lens. Fits the numerous lenses in the Micro Four Thirds standard, and has an adapter for other lenses.
The Best Small Cameras: Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF5
Panasonic’s GF5 is a good entry-level camera in this class; because it’s been on the market for almost a year, you may find discounts at half the retail price listed below. The GF5 comes with a very compact lens, which makes it easy to slip into the front pouch of a backpack. The rubber grip helps keep it steady in less-than-optimal conditions, and the high-res touchscreen and MP4-format video mode make it easy to share HD video files.
Continuous Speed: 4 frames per second
Sensitivity: ISO 12,800
Weight: 9.42 ounces
Lens System: Ships with a 14-42mm lens. Fits the numerous lenses in the Micro Four Thirds Standard, and has an adapter for other lenses.
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