That vacation to Yellowstone is too exciting and too beautiful to document with just a smartphone. This emerging category of hybrids delivers DSLR-grade images sans the DSLR-grade bulk.
Are these DSLRs or point-and-shoots?
Neither. They eliminate the bulky mirrors and prisms that power a DSLR’s viewfinder, so these cameras are smaller, lighter, and cheaper. But their manual controls, interchangeable lenses, and big sensors (typically either APS-C or micro four-thirds, the same units found in consumer DSLRs) make them far more versatile than point and shoots.
I’m not ready for a step up in complexity.
These models have simple interfaces, so if you’re used to a point and shoot, the only step up you’ll take is to much better photos. They’re also usually packed with beginner-friendly features, like super-fast autofocusing systems that let you pick one particular element of your shot (a person’s face, for example) and snap it into focus just by tapping that part of the camera’s touchscreen. Some models will even fire the shutter when you tap the screen, so you don’t have to press any buttons. Also, they all come with plenty of on-camera software that lets you adjust your photos after you take them, and (in some models) you can transfer the photos wirelessly to your computer or your phone so you can immediately upload them to Facebook, Instagram, or wherever.
The best part: they all come bundled with decent lenses, and they take amazing pictures right out of the box using the elementary full-auto mode, but when you’re ready to dive deeper, you can start adding different lenses and enjoy a nearly limitless level of control over the mechanics of the camera. They’re good enough to satisfy pro photographers, and they’re great for people who are ready to get serious and just need a serious tool to learn with.
Are there any drawbacks?
These are bigger and heavier than point and shoots — no slipping them into your pants pocket — and they’re more expensive. The basic starter kit (camera body and a lens) is affordable, but once you start swapping lenses, you’ll be opening your wallet much wider. Also, most lack traditional DSLR-style viewfinders, so you’ll have to compose your shots with a tiny electronic viewfinder or back-panel LCD. The optics are pretty advanced, with one exception: the broad range of maximum-zoom apertures here (typically f3.5-f6.3) can make it difficult to get a shallow depth of field.
All the compact system cameras we’ve seen so far can take sharp, accurate shots that can be printed beautifully as large as 16 by 20 inches. The differences are in their interfaces: Some serve pros looking for a backup camera, while others are more beginner-friendly. Here’s a quick test: Pick up a camera and try to adjust the ISO, video frame rate, and exposure settings in less than two minutes. If you fail, look for something simpler, or prepare to spend some time learning. Don’t let the limitations of the kit lens turn you off — you can score a deal on an aftermarket lens more to your liking, and there are lens rental services online.
Photo illustration by Simon Lutrin/get-gadget