If you’re reading this you’re likely shopping for an interchangeable lens camera. You may be a longtime photographer thinking about changing systems, or an up-and-comer looking to move up from a smartphone. Either way, there are a bevy of options out there.
In today’s market, if you’re serious enough about photography to buy an interchangeable lens camera, you’re probably thinking about adding some additional lenses, too. It makes looking at the entire system, not just the camera you’re buying, an important aspect.
Here, we break down the different systems sold by the big three camera makers—Canon, Nikon, and Sony—and let you know what competitors have to offer as well.
Mirrorless or SLR?
If you don’t follow the camera market closely, your brain is likely still wired to think of SLRs as the only interchangeable lens option. But after decades of being the bee’s knees of camera tech, the flapping mirror and optical viewfinder have given way to mirrorless tech.
These cameras swap out the optical finder for an electronic one, and use the image sensor itself to autofocus for faster, more accurate results. They’re also where we see serious improvements in performance and capabilities emerge. We saw the first full-frame stacked sensor in the mirrorless Sony a9, and Canon promises to be the first with 8K Raw video support with its forthcoming EOS R5.
It’s because of this that, in 2020, we recommend most photographers look to a mirrorless model first. You can still buy good SLRs, and if that’s your preference, Canon, Nikon, and Pentax sell them.
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II
The question is, for how long? Canon has stated that it is all-in on mirrorless development, and doesn’t plan on bringing new EF lenses to market, though it’s still upgrading camera bodies. It rolled out the professional EOS-1D X Mark III this year, and Nikon is joining with the update to its NFL-sideline model, the D6, a camera we expect to go on sale this year.
Mirrorless systems tend to be a little pricier than SLRs at the lower end of the market. Whether or not the extra upfront cost is worth it is a question you’ll have to answer—but we think it is, especially if you value speedy autofocus when recording video, something you won’t get with every SLR.
See How We Test Cameras
Buying a camera system isn’t just about picking a brand. Some camera makers maintain multiple ones, and lenses are not typically cross-compatible. Canon has three distinct systems currently in production, while others, including Nikon, Fujifilm, and Panasonic, offer two.
Canon’s Alphabet Soup
Canon EOS SLR with EF-S Lens Mount
Canon has four lens mounts right now—EF, EF-S, EF-M, and RF. The EF and EF-S are used by full-frame and APS-C sensor size SLRs, respectively. For mirrorless, its EOS M system uses an APS-C sensor format and the EF-M lens mount, while the EOS R series is full-frame, with the RF lens mount.
If you buy an EF-S SLR you can still use full-frame EF lenses, but you can’t mount an EF-S lens to a full-frame EF camera. Either mirrorless system can use EF-S and EF lenses with an adapter, but the cross-compatibility doesn’t go beyond that. You can’t share a set of lenses between the two mirrorless systems.
That’s a lot of alphabet soup to digest. It just means that, if you buy Canon, you should take care in choosing your system as there aren’t always clear upgrade paths that allow you to take existing lenses from one camera to another.
Flashes are another matter. All of Canon’s current line uses the metering system, so any Speedlite will work with any camera. If you’re buying a third-party flash, just make sure it supports Canon E-TTL.
Canon Mirrorless: EOS M vs. EOS R
With Canon’s mirrorless options, it’s especially important to choose between the smaller, consumer-friendly APS-C sensor and the larger, full-frame format used by more serious photogs at the jump.
Canon EOS M50
The EOS M system, which uses the mirrorless EF-M mount, has been around for a few years now. The cameras are good, using the same image sensors as Canon’s Rebel SLR line, and while the lens selection isn’t vast, Canon has worked to keep the entire system compact.
Most of Canon’s EF-M lenses are small zooms with narrow apertures, but there are a handful of prime options. Sigma sells its trio of F1.4 primes for the system, adding a bit of appeal for enthusiasts in want of a very portable kit.
But If you want room to grow as a photographer, it’s not my top recommendation. The really great lenses aren’t there, and we don’t expect them to be. EOS M is a better fit for families who want something easy to use, quick to focus, and small enough to pack for trips.
Canon EOS RP
The full-frame RF system is much better suited for shutterbugs. It has exotic glass, including F1.2 primes and stabilized F2.8 zooms, though is a bit short on low-cost lenses. Canon has yet to release a truly killer EOS R camera to match, but if the forthcoming R5 camera lives up to its pre-release hype, it may be just that.
Canon SLR: EF-S and EF
Canon’s SLR mount dates back to the film days, so calling it well-established is an understatement. Its popular Rebel SLR series uses the EF-S mount, and full-frame models use EF.
Because of its age, and Canon’s long perch atop the sales charts, lens support is vast. In addition to dozens of lenses available from Canon itself, all of the major third-party lens makers support the system.
Canon EOS 90D
If you prefer an SLR, Canon’s current line has some strong features, including speedy Dual Pixel focus for live view photography and video in all but the very basic models.
You should take care to read reviews of individual models, though, because there are some older ones still on sale that aren’t up to snuff by today’s standards. Canon tends to re-use older technology in its entry-level models, and if you’re serious about photography, I’d look at a midrange model (the 90D is the latest) as a reasonable entry point into the system. Forget about the bare-bones T7; it’s way behind the times.
Fujifilm has two systems. Its X series uses APS-C sensors, while its GFX models use pro-grade medium format chips—bigger than those you’ll find in full-frame 35mm models. We’re going to assume you’re not in the market for a GFX.
The X system debuted nearly a decade ago, and has proven to be a hit with enthusiasts thanks to analog-style controls, retro aesthetics, and high-quality lenses. It also includes the only mirrorless camera you can get with an optical viewfinder, the X-Pro3.
There’s a good balance of affordable lenses and premium options, covering views ranging from ultra-wide to telephoto. Many offer weather protection, matching the build quality of Fuji’s top-end cameras. More importantly, almost every optic released to date has proven to be a stellar performer—there are but a few underwhelming Fujinon lenses.
The cameras also benefit from Fujifilm’s history as a maker of film stocks. It has put the same kind of science of color into its image processing engine, and X cameras are able to mimic the looks of many classic films, including Velvia, Kodachrome, and Acros. You can still work in Raw format and process to your heart’s content, but the in-camera looks for JPG shooters are above and beyond what’s offered by competitors.
L-Mount Alliance (Leica, Panasonic, and Sigma)
Leica is one of the legendary photographic brands, and is most closely associated with its rangefinder cameras, which use a manual focus M-mount. The latest is the M10-P.
It also has a more consumer friendly system, with support for autofocus. The L-mount was introduced in 2014, but lived in relative obscurity for years. That changed in 2018, with Panasonic and Sigma signing on board to use the mount for their cameras.
Since then, L-mount has gained a bit of traction. You can buy a high-end model like the Leica SL2, or opt for something that’s competitive with other full-frame cameras in terms of price, like the Panasonic S1 or Sigma fp.
Leica’s lenses cost as much as you’d expect, but the ones we’ve used live up to their pedigree. Panasonic and Sigma offer growing libraries, all with full-frame coverage. There are a handful fo APS-C models and lenses too, all from Leica. We’ve seen no indicators that Panasonic and Sigma will develop anything short of full-frame, though, especially with Panasonic continuing its support for the smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor format, covered in detail later on.
The L system has some special appeal for creatives who work primarily with video. It includes models that record Raw quality 4K—the Sigma fp—and Panasonic’s Netflix-certified S1H, with 6K video and 24MP stills.
There’s one area where it’s not quite as competitive—high-speed photography. To date, all L cameras use contrast detection autofocus tech, not quite as adept at high-speed tracking as competitors with phase detection too. If you need a camera that tracks subjects at 10fps or faster, L-mount won’t measure up.
Micro Four Thirds (Olympus, Panasonic, et al.)
The modern mirrorless camera movement started with Micro Four Thirds, a joint venture from Olympus and Panasonic. The sensor format is a little smaller than others, so focal lengths have to be a bit shorter to net wide angle views, but it also means that there are many compact options available.
Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III
There are certainly some limitations that come with the smaller sensor—to date, the most resolution we’ve seen from a Micro Four Thirds camera is 20MP, and the smaller format means that you need to reach to big f/1.2 lenses to shoot images with a razor thin plane of focus, when an inexpensive f/1.8 will net similar results on a full-frame camera.
But bokeh isn’t everything for everyone. If you’re buying into Micro Four Thirds, you should do so because you value a light kit. There’s also the cost proposition. Even at the entry level, it’s easy to find cameras with 4K recording and in-body stabilization, and for a bit more money you can get a camera with very strong weather protection too.
Olympus’s models tend to emphasize the rugged, all-weather features, and stabilization. It’s begun to add some computational features for long exposure and multi-shot imaging, and has a huge lens library. Panasonic cameras, especially the GH series, are the darling of the video world, thanks to very early support for 4K video. There are plenty of Panasonic lenses too, sold under the Lumix banner, and lenses are cross-compatible.
There’s some support from others as well. Sigma makes a few autofocus primes for the system, the same F1.4 trio it sells for competing mirrorless systems, and you can get manual focus lenses from Rokinon, Venus Laowa, and others.
Nikon supports two lens mounts, each with APS-C and full-frame sensor models available. Its SLRs use the F-mount, for compatibility with lenses dating back decades. Mirrorless models use the Z mount, and offer compatibility with Nikkor SLR lenses via an adapter.
Nikon Z 50
The company designates its APS-C sensor models as DX, with FX reserved for full-frame cameras. It previously supported a smaller CX format, but it discontinued the Nikon 1 cameras that used it prior to introducing the Z system.
There’s one DX mirrorless camera so far, the Z 50, but I see it as a hard sell for budding shutterbugs. Nikon isn’t likely to develop a range of dedicated Nikkor Z DX; its development roadmap is focused on full-frame lenses.
Nikon Z 6
Because of that, the FX sensor Z cameras are better starting points if you put an emphasis on the interchangeable lens aspect of an interchangeable lens camera. Nikon has continued to improve its first-generation models since launch with firmware updates, so the Z 6 and Z 7 remain competitive with features like eye detection for pets and people.
The lens system is still young, though, and you may have to reach for the FTZ adapter and an SLR lens at times. Nikon hasn’t released a dedicated macro lens for the Z system as of yet, nor any primes brighter than f/1.8. That’ll change with time, but is a concern if you’re buying today, especially given the general lack of third-party support for the system.
For SLRs, Nikon’s basic models offer more appeal for photographers on a strict budget when compared with what you can get from Canon. Despite not offering as many bells and whistles, the D3500 is as good a camera as you’ll find for under $500. You can move up the price chain to net faster focus and more features. Nikon’s most advanced DX SLR, the D500, is certainly gray around the temples, but still offers blazing fast focus.
Nikon’s full-frame SLRs are favorites of pros, and you shouldn’t forget about them if you prefer an optical viewfinder. The recent D780 is an especially appealing choice as an SLR, as the shooting experience when using the rear display is almost exactly the same as the Z 6, complete with on-sensor phase detection focus.
And the SLR lens library is one of the strongest out there. There are ultra-wide and fish-eye options at one end of the spectrum, and exotic telephotos at the other. And unlike with the newer Z mount, third-party options are ample when shopping for F-mount glass.
As for flashes, Nikon Speedlights and compatible third-party i-TTL flashes can be used across the line, regardless of lens mount or sensor format.
Pentax, an imprint of Ricoh, is a recognizable name to photographers who have been around long enough to remember what life was like before autofocus. Its digital offerings have long adhered to a strong philosophy: excellent image quality, compact optics, and strong value for your dollar.
Pentax currently sells APS-C, full-frame, and medium format cameras. Its 645 medium format system uses its own lens mount, but the two smaller sensor sizes use the K-mount, which dates back to 1975. Because of this continuity, you can use almost any K-mount lens with modern digital SLRs. Of course, many will be limited to manual focus.
While the cameras do offer some solid features, including weather sealing at even basic price points, they lag behind the competition in other areas, including autofocus speed and video quality—none support 4K, nor does autofocus match up to what you can get from a Canon or Nikon SLR, yet alone a mirrorless camera.
Pentax K-1 Mark II
The brand has its devotees, but it’s been a few years since we’ve seen a new Pentax camera, making it a tougher recommendation for photographers investing in a new system. Photographers who want ruggedized, all-weather gear with high-quality but lightweight lenses are much better served by Fujifilm’s X system today.
Ricoh promises to release a new, upgraded Pentax SLR later this year. It’s already been teased at trade shows. It may make us change our tune, but for the time being, Pentax cameras are best suited for photographers already entrenched in the system.
Sony entered the camera space after gobbling up Minolta. In recent years, it’s changed from an upstart with a new mirrorless system to a dominant force in the industry. An early bet on going full-frame paid off, giving the company a five-year head start on Canon and Nikon in mirrorless development.
Sony a7 III
The company still sells some A-mount cameras, an SLR system it acquired along with Minolta’s camera business. But you shouldn’t buy one today. It hasn’t released a new camera or lens in years, and we don’t expect any more down the road. Scratch the a68, a77 II, and a99 II off your shopping list.
The E-mount mirrorless system is, conversely, as alive and kicking as you can get. It includes APS-C models—the a6400 is the one we recommend most enthusiastically—and full-frame options too. The a7 III is as good a camera as you can find for the price, and the a7R IV offers best-in-class 60MP resolution.
It enjoys robust support from third-party lens makers, with autofocus options available from Rokinon, Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, and Zeiss. Boutique brands, Voigtlander, Venus Laowa, and others, round out your choices with throwback manual focus designs.
As for Sony’s first-party lenses, the offerings are vast, right up there with what you’ll find from Canon and Nikon. Its full-frame lenses are generally newer and of higher build quality than glass with dedicated coverage for the smaller APS-C sensor size, though.
We place Fujifilm slightly ahead when looking at purpose-built lenses for the smaller sensor size, but Fuji doesn’t give you a full-frame upgrade path. If you’re thinking about getting started with an APS-C model, but want the option to go full-frame later, Sony gains the edge.
Which Camera System Is Right for You?
There’s a lot to consider when buying a camera with swappable lenses. If you expect to pick up photography as a hobby, it won’t be too long before you’re itching to move beyond a starter zoom. While every system covers the basics, you may find one that’s better suited to your wants and budget than others.
You’ll also want to think about the sensor format. If you love images with loads of background blur, or shots with ultra-high resolution, you’ll like a full-frame camera more than an APS-C or Micro Four Thirds model. Conversely, you may find a smaller sensor better suited if you prefer a light kit for hiking and travel.
You may find that going with a model from the big three—Canon, Nikon, and Sony—best suits your needs and wants. But it’s worth it to explore all of your options. You could find a camera system that’s a perfect fit, even if it doesn’t sit atop the sales charts.