Tech review: The best mirrorless camera for beginners

The Sony a5100 takes photos as well as cameras that go for hundreds more by employing a sensor that rivals DSLRs'.

The Sony a5100 takes photos as well as cameras that go for hundreds more by employing a sensor that rivals DSLRs’.

(The Wirecutter)

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After 60 hours of research and 25 hours of testing, we found the $600 Sony a5100 is the best mirrorless camera for beginners. It stands out from the dozens of competitors we considered 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.

How we decided

We looked over the entire range of mirrorless cameras currently available for less than $600 and narrowed the field down to four final candidates for hands-on testing: the $550 Olympus E-PL7, Samsung's $400 NX3000, the $500 Panasonic GF7 and the Sony a5100. We toted them around everywhere 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

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

The Sony a5100 is the best mirrorless camera for new users because it offers a careful balance of impressive capability with easy usability at a great value—currently priced at $600 on Amazon.

We loved the a5100's compact size, fast shooting speeds, impressive low-light capabilities, high resolution and highly responsive touch-screen, Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity, video performance and wide selection of lenses. Boasting many of the same specs as the higher-end model in Sony's Alpha series—including a large, 24-megapixel APS-C sensor, powerful processor and "class-leading" hybrid autofocus system—but priced significantly less, the a5100 delivers high performance for good value. Most important, it captures clean, high-quality images.

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.

The a5100 uniquely targets newbie photographers and smartphone shooters ready to step up their game with an in-camera guide aimed at helping novices get to know the camera. It soars where even the best smartphone tends to fail—low light, flash photography, fast-moving subjects like a small child—while still providing the portability, simple user interface and selfie capabilities we've come to expect in a camera.

The runner-up

If our main pick sells out or becomes unavailable, the Olympus E-PL7 is also an attractive option. The $550 E-PL7 is the latest in the PEN line from Olympus with a micro four-thirds sensor, and access to the largest library of lenses of any mirrorless camera format. There are some trade-offs that caused this camera not to be our top pick, mostly that it's not as beginner friendly as the a5100 and lags behind in image quality at high ISO.

In closing

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, an easy-to-use interface, a capable zoom lens, effective on-camera flash, impressive autofocusing and low-light performance.

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