DSLR Camera & Mirrorless Camera Reviews & Comparison: Ultimate Buying Guide to the Best 4K DSLR or Mirrorless Camera for Sale
The market for DSLR and mirrorless cameras is steadily growing to the point where soon all new devices whose manufacturers want them to be considered truly modern will absolutely include ultra HD resolution as part of their specs listings. This applies particularly to high end professional cameras of all categories but it’s also applying across the board and especially in the world of consumer, prosumer and professional DSLR and mirrorless shooters like the ones we’re about to overview.
That said, the 4K in 4K cameras applies specifically to their video shooting capacity and makes up for only a small fraction of any given DSLR or mirrorless camera’s total capabilities. The 4K specs of these shooters have little to do with their photography chops or many of the associated specs these shooters come with. However, it is generally the case that since the better cameras on the market include 4K, they also include some of the best photo, general video and versatile shooting abilities in general. More than anything because they’re high quality models, not because they specifically include 4K video capacity.
The following are a sampling of what we’d consider the best such DSLR and mirrorless camera models on sale today. They offer up good to decent 4K video recording capacity and for the reasons in the previous paragraph also offer some truly robust and fine-tuned image shooting specs. From night shooters to lightning-fast fast action photo session winners, the following DSLR and mirrorless models have something to offer for just about anyone, from complete novice to full-blown pro.
Differences between DSLR and Mirrorless
In the most basic terms, the key difference between a DSLR and a mirrorless camera is that the DSLR comes with an internal mirror that reflects light entering through the lens through a prism and to an optical viewfinder. This mirror blocks off the sensor and only moves or flips up when you’re actually going to shoot. This is where the SLR part of DSLR comes in, it stands for “single lens reflex” and the D obviously enough stands for “Digital”, as opposed to the old analog SLR cameras.
Mirrorless cameras on the other hand –also known as “ILC” shooters, allow light from the outside world to flow straight through the lens and directly at a mirrorless camera’s internal sensor and then to the viewfinder if one is built in. This of course means that these camera types are generally smaller and more compactly built than their DSLR cousins and the difference is physically identifiable. Both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras generally do offer lens swapping capacity.
The third type mentioned above is the advanced compact camera. We’re only going to cover one of these in these listings but in essence, it’s almost exactly like your typical mirrorless model but without the ability to have its lens swapped out for another one.
Choosing Mirrorless or DSLR
As for which of these two main camera types is best for you, that can vary quite a bit. Most basically, DSLR shooters tend to offer a longer battery life and start up much faster then mirrorless models, because they offer fewer internal electronics. Furthermore, many high-end DSLRs tend towards more professional, heavy duty specs than their high-end mirrorless counterparts, though this isn’t invariably true. Finally, some users seem to be more comfortable with shooting action sequences through a DSLR’s optical viewfinders instead of the electronic versions in mirrorless cameras, though mirrorless models also often offer insanely fast autofocus.
On the other hand, mirrorless cameras tend to be superior low light performers due to their lens to sensor set-up and many low-cost mirrorless models are better than their low-cost DSLR counterparts, so if you’re looking for quality for fewer dollars spent, mirrorless is an excellent choice that also allows you to look through the viewfinder as you shoot. Furthermore, mirrorless cameras are usually superior performers when it comes to shooting video and for those of you who are specifically interested in the following shooters for their quality 4K UHD video capacity, mirrorless ILC is probably your better choice if you’re on a budget. Finally, the compactness of all mirrorless cameras over their DSLR cousins is a great benefit for portability and easy storage and handling. This is one particular feature that this writer truly loves about his own mirrorless camera –with no intent to write a biased comparison of the two camera types.
Finally, once again we should also mention advanced compact cameras. These are essentially mirrorless models without lens swapping, as we’ve already mentioned and they come with most of the same pros as their lens interchangeable ILC cousins. However, their cons list is a bit longer. Why? Mainly because advanced compacts generally come with a single fixed lens and a smaller sensor size. This means greater limitation if you’re looking for some really versatile shooting options for both photo and video. On the other hand, advanced compacts tend to be some of the cheapest 4K compact camera models on the market.
Key Things to Keep in Mind
Now, with the above descriptions in mind and as you read the following detailed overviews of specs, features and the cameras themselves, keep the following core principles firmly in mind for the sake of simplifying your own decision making on what camera to buy:
- No one spec absolutely decides the best possible camera. For one thing, what works best for you might be bad for another user and no one camera is perfect across the board, so focus on getting the camera that best meets a specific requirement you think you’re most likely going to need covered.
- Higher resolution –meaning more megapixels—and massive zoom are not the end-all and be-all of camera specs. Lots of other factors can make or break a camera’s photo quality regardless of higher or lower resolution or zoom.
- No one camera is likely to be a total winner in all five major camera criteria: photo quality, video quality, performance, design and general specs. So forget about getting the “best” camera. Again, focus on what works particularly well for your needs and budget, even if its megapixels are low.
- Always try your camera out before buying it. If at all possible, get a feel for its fit in your hands, for its lens, EVF or optical view finder, ease of use and how well it does what you want it to do.
- Camera price is by no means an absolute guarantor of overall quality. The two are related, to be sure, but often the camera which is best for your needs will cost a lot less than some other model with supposedly better specs in some category. So while you should keep price in mind as an indicator of quality, don’t let it sway you by itself.
Video & 4K video
As we’d mentioned above, 4K video shooting is only a small part of what any 4K-capable DSLR or mirrorless camera is all about. In contrast to professional 4K filmmaker’s cameras which are indeed mainly about their ability to shoot hours of ultra-High resolution video, Most of what DSLRs and mirrorless models are really about revolves around their photo and HD video chops.
Even for shooting most typical wedding or other home and semi-pro video footage, you’re likely going to want to do most of your filming in Full HD or even 720p. Sure, you’ll also want to capture some particularly great shots in 4K video but considering how much it drains the batteries on these shooters, this will rarely amount to more than maybe 30 minutes to an hour of footage.
That said, onto the more technical details. Most DSLR/Mirrorless cameras today offer up 4K UHD video at 3840 x 2160 pixels, for a total of 8.3 million pixels, or roughly equivalent resolution to that of an 8 megapixel still photo. DCI 4K at 4096 x 2160 pixels, which offers half a million more pixels in total is not so common, though a couple compact 4K camera models do offer it. As for frame rates, 30fps is the average for most shooters in 4K resolution, with additional 60fps shooting in Full HD (1920 X 1080p) also being available. Also, a lot of the cameras we’re covering here offer up either Full HD or 720 video at faster than 60fps speeds, normally at 120fps for 1080p and even faster for 720p content. These higher speeds also mean the ability to capture slow motion video on the fly.
Now, we also need to cover codecs quickly. For most of the cameras here, the common codecs for either 4K or HD and other video types are H.264, AVCHD and XAVC, with 4K cameras also offering HEVC/H.265 encoding. Furthermore, files usually come in formats like MOV, AVI, MP4 and MTS. These will depend by camera type and video resolution.
Finally, Bitrates are a crucial detail of video recording, especially for 4K footage. Bitrate represents the amount of data a camera can encode into a video per second and higher is as a general rule better. This applies especially to 4K video where bitrates of at least 100Mbps are what you’d want.
And again we also go into a comparison of mirrorless and DSLR on their video chops. As we’d earlier said, mirrorless models generally improve on video shooting over DSLR and this is mainly because they can maintain continuous focus with constant contrast detection, the focus process itself is easier and more responsive, and thus so is tracking subjects in a frame. Of course, the smaller size of your typical mirrorless model also means it’s easier on the hands when you’re doing continuous hand-held shooting with it.
While all of the cameras we’re covering here come with a whole load of specs that might even get confusing for a lot of less experienced buyers, only some of those numbers and descriptions are truly important for most users and here is our rundown of each.
Resolution in a digital camera is generally referred to by the term megapixels (each megapixel being equal to one million pixels). This number basically identifies how many pixels in total a camera sensor and photos offer up. Pretty much any modern camera offers photo resolution in the millions of pixels (far beyond 4K levels) and while even cheaper cameras offer plenty of megapixels, some of them don’t have the processing power to deliver photo capture quickly, so keep this little detail in mind when stumbling across a camera that’s amazingly cheap but promises lots of megapixels.
We should also note that some 4K cameras also offer up still shot sequences from their video footage in 4K resolution, letting you create sequences of dozens of individual 8.29 megapixel still shots from a piece of video.
When it comes to lenses, both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras usually offer the benefit of interchangeable lens construction, meaning that their lenses can be swapped out for other ones with greater or lesser zoom or with other shooting features. For many models, there are even adapters available for installing old legacy lenses from the analog days or other normally non-compatible lens types.
This aside, there are two main points to keep in mind for all lenses and these are focal length and aperture.
Focal length: The focal length of a lens is measured in millimeters normally and determines the magnification of an image in the device while also covering the breadth of scenery the lens can cover, which is called its angle of view.
As focal length goes up, things tend to look bigger and take up more frame space and lenses which offer up multiple focal lengths are what we’d call zoom lenses, whose zoom is based on a ratio of largest to smallest focal length, culminating in a specific multiple of magnification. Thus, a 70-300mm lens offers up a bit less than 5x of zoom.
Aperture: Now, as we’d said, camera lenses are also about aperture, and this is usually denominated by an f-stop, as it’s called, with an example on a zoom lens with variable aperture being something like this: f3.5-5.6. The lower an f-stop, the lower the aperture and vice versa. Furthermore, aperture varies across level of zoom. In basic terms, as aperture grows, the amount of sharpness around a photo subject expands and wider apertures in general also let in more light, with better depth of field (sharpness behind and ahead of a subject).
The main types of lens zoom for most interchangeable-lens cameras (both DSLR and mirrorless) consist mainly of the following, with the first two below being the main general lens types and those which follow being subversions that exist for both Prime and Zoom lenses:
- Zoom: lenses with variable focal length
- Prime: Fixed focal length, with different zoom levels for each lens. Prime lenses can be macro or the other end and offer telephoto zoom.
- Telephoto: roughly 70mm to 300mm, with more than 300mm available in super telephoto versions)
- Speciality: variable focal length
- Macro: about 50mm to 100mm
- Wide Angle: usually about 18 to 30mm
- Normal: about 30mm to 70mm
Different types of cameras come with different sensor sizes and this is where a lot of crucial performance is concealed in the details. For the sake of simplicity, we can say that most DSLRs offer up some of the largest sensors and that the fixed lens point and shoot advanced compact cameras we mentioned earlier usually offer the smallest sensors. Mirrorless cameras usually fall between these two although some mirrorless models can also offer very large sensors and even full-frame sensor technology.
In basic terms, sensor size itself revolves around the dimensions of the photoreceptor array which creates a digital image from pixels. Because of this, bigger sensors usually make better quality images and also usually mean larger camera bodies due to a need for more robust electronics and larger lenses. Typically, cameras with larger sensors are also more expensive.
For those of you who are looking for great performers in low light conditions, light sensitivity is an obviously important spec and it’s also known as ISO sensitivity, measured by a camera’s ISO rating. The higher an ISO number, the better a camera is at performing in low light through both its photo and video capacities. On the other hand, high light sensitivity can also mean more noise, especially when you dial up the ISO setting on your shooter, and by noise we don’t mean actual sound but grainy speckles in the visuals your camera creates.
Thus, while a higher max ISO in a shooter means better overall low light performance, those same maximal ISO ratings should be taken with some skepticism since using their top levels will probably produce crappy images, to put it bluntly.
Viewfinder technology is a particular feature of higher-end cameras and is now rarely seen in smaller, cheaper consumer compact cameras, which instead let you measure your digital image parameters through an LCD screen. While all of our digital cameras here offer LCD screens as well, the viewfinder they include is also a great extra technology for much clearer image measurement before shooting.
Among possible viewfinders, the electronic types (EVF) found mostly in mirrorless cameras are particularly useful because they allow for recording and viewing at the same time, for both photos and videos. Furthermore, viewfinders with 100% coverage are ideal, since they display the whole image as it will appear in its final form. Optical viewfinders are particularly good for shooting action footage but they do produce a momentary blackout on their display as shots are being taken.
With DSLRs, autofocus is usually based on what is called phase detection and with mirrorless models, the more usual focus mechanism is powered by contrast detection. Phase detection uses the mirror in a DSLR to divide entering visual light into a pair of images and then compare them to focus the lens on a given subject. In contrast (literally), contrast detection measures the contrast between pixels in the sensor until it finds enough said contrast to detect focus in an image. The contrast detection system of mirrorless cameras is generally slower and less effective than its DSLR counterpart but more models are emerging with hybrid technology built into them, allowing for the best of both worlds.
If you need to capture fast action and particularly in low lighting conditions, this type of hybrid technology is your best choice, especially when it’s combined with a strong continuous shooting ability and high ISO sensitivity.
Burst/Continuous Shooting Rate
For those of you who want some truly spectacular fast action photo capture capacity, a camera’s burst/continuous shooting rate is a crucial thing to keep in mind. This measures the number of frames per second or still shots a camera can manage in any given resolution. Most users would want a high frame rate and some good burst shooting specs at least some decent resolution and combined with good autofocus and auto-exposure specs at full resolution, a mirrorless or DSLR can offer some excellent footage for any fast or slow moving subject. Some 4K cameras also offer de-facto continuous shooting as part of their 4K video recording capacity, allowing a user to extract single image frames at 8.3 megapixel resolution from any piece of 30fps video.
We should also briefly mention a few other common features to virtually all modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras, particularly the more cutting edge 4K models.
First, there is their connectivity package. This usually includes both WiFi and NFC. The first of these is particularly excellent for transferring photos and lower resolution (non-4K) videos off your camera to an external storage on the fly. You can also often use that same WiFi connection to remotely control camera settings through a mobile device. In the case of many camera models, there’s even the possibility of cloud backup or remote editing on your smartphone or tablet as you take shots, for instant sharing to social media or other websites.
As for NFC, which stands for near field communication, this is a low power wireless connectivity standard which drains less battery juice than WiFi while still allowing for limited photo sharing between NFC-capable camera and other NFC enabled devices, through nearly touch proximity.
Finally, GPS is a neat feature of many 4K shooters, allowing you to pinpoint and record exactly where you were when any particular photo was taken through a GPS receiver in the camera itself. This is more typical of more outdoor, professional use cameras but in the few ILC or DSLR models that have the technology, GPS can be extremely useful for geotagging photos and even video during field shooting. Bear in mind however that GPS really drains juice.
What’s the Right Camera for You?
This is in no way an easy question to answer and the number of variable single factors which make one camera perfect for one person while an arguably better one isn’t the right fit are numerous. Thus, choosing your particular camera is going to be an absolute game of tailoring to your own needs.
That said, some general guidelines can be kept in mind. If image size and quality for pro photography are very important, choose a shooter with a large sensor, preferably full-frame. If you want something with high low light capacity, then go for maximal ISO rating, high quality hybrid autofocus and fast continuous shooting rates. On the other hand, if you want something that’s quick, easy to use, low on frills and takes decent hobby shots, choose a compact mirrorless. Many of these can come at a great price by the standards of 4K shooters.
Furthermore, bear in mind that image or video quality isn’t guaranteed with high quality specs. These specs only guarantee that someone who learns to use them can take the best possible shots with the technology. But skill means being able to also take great photos with very simple shooters. And conversely, a lack of learned skill in photography or video recording will show on even the most expensive pro shooter. This last piece of advice is fundamental and if you’re just starting, focus more on improving your abilities than on spending the most you possibly can.
The Best 4K DSLR, Mirrorless and Advanced Compact Cameras of 2016
As you’ll quickly note, the majority of these are in fact mirrorless models instead of DSLR shooters. The simple fact is that 4K video is more developed and more affordable in the mirrorless compact camera market and for overall quality vs. price, our rankings reflect this, with the DSLR models here being considerably pricier than their smaller mirrorless cousins.
Sony A7R II: $3,198.00
Sony’s A7R II is pretty much the very top of the line among the existing and already excellent Sony mirrorless models we’ve presented here, and it’s very steep price reflects this. However, this is an absolute pro mirrorless model of the highest caliber on the market. With a 42 megapixel full-frame BSI-CMOS sensor, superb 5-axis image stabilization, powerful EVF and some truly superb ISO at a max of 102,400, the A7R II performs in both light and dark conditions like very few cameras can manage.
On the other hand, it offers slightly less (399) focus points than the much cheaper a6300 and it’s battery life is definitely on the low side, being capable of only 290 shots at a time, which is understandable considering that we’re talking about 42 megapixels!.
Sony’s a6300 is yet another high quality low-light capable mirrorless camera for our list and it’s a particularly powerful example that we can’t help but love. Its predecessor the a6000 was one superb piece of HD prosumer compact camera technology and the a6300 ramps all of the best specs up still further while adding in very robust 4K video recording. Featuring an ISO of 100-51200 and a 24.2 megapixel APS-C sensor, the a6300 also offers up among the world’s fastest shooting speeds at 11fps and an insanely fast autofocus that clock out at 0.05 seconds, making it THE fastest in the world for now and far superior even to the autofocus of many DSLR models.
Throw in the super Super Bionz X image processor and 425 phase-detection autofocus points and what you get in this model is probably one of the best all-around mirrorless 4K cameras on the market in this price range.
Now here is one truly superb low light mirrorless performer from Sony. The A7S II is on the pricey side but it’s to be expected from what is a truly professional full-frame mirrorless camera with outstanding low light and regular brightness video and photo capacity. With 24.7 megapixel still resolution and 5-axis image stabilization, the quality of both photo and video caught on the A7S II is downright superb and the petite camera body easily fits into some very small bags or pockets even. Furthermore, an ISO range of 100-25,600 is more than enough for fans of nocturnal photos and video. Best of all, these ISO levels are further augmented by some excellent capacity for enhancing smooth brightness and reducing noise even in very low light conditions.
On the other hand, a shooting speed of 5fps is a bit on the slow side, especially for Sony, a company that’s known for creating blazing fast shooters like the a6300 and even their older a6000 HD mirrorless.
With its 16 megapixel Four Thirds CMOS sensor, the LUmix GH4 isn’t quite as powerful as some of the other models on this list but it’s still one of the highest rated compact 4K cameras on today’s market and while it has been superseded in overall quality and powerful specs since its original release in late 2014, it still delivers awesomely. This shooter can manage both 4K UHD 3840 X 2160 video at 30fps and Cinematic DCI 4K at 4096 x 2106 pixels while offering a very respectable ISO range of 200-25,600 with options for further extension. A 2.36 million dot OLED EVF allows for great shooting and photo control while superb portability and a total of 49 focus points work together to make this mirrorless shooter a very solid choice for fast-action shooting and a high degree of low-light photo and video capture.
On the other hand, the GH4 offers up no image stabilization and this was one serious oversight on Panasonic’s part.
Definitely one of the more affordable 4K mirrorless models on this list, the GX8 is one excellent 4K video shooter and also manages to offer some excellent fast action sports and street scene photo shooting. With a 20 megapixel Four Third CMOS sensor on a Micro Four Thirds mount, built-in WiFi, superb image stabilization and an extremely compact body that still allows for lens swapping, the GX8 is a superb choice for affordable on-the-fly video recording in 4K and HD. This little shooter also offers robustly fast 12.0 fps continuous shooting and is fully weather sealed, further enhancing its field chops.
On the other hand, in terms of professional features and processing power, the GX8 is a bit weak and its battery life is surprisingly low.
The Canon EOS 1D-C is one seriously powerful, big and professional 4K DSLR shooter from a true expert in the industry. It offers up a fairly decent but not astonishing 18.1 megapixel CMOS sensor, capacity for robust shooting in both 24p/30fps 4K UHD resolution and Full HD video at up to 60fps. A very robust 61-point autofocus, along with a highly versatile Canon EF lens mount and some very fleshed out features for film and TV production make the EOS 1D-C a much more serious device than its basic specs would suggest. Additionally, the camera is thoroughly equipped for use in some seriously hostile environments, with the ability to resist dirt, dust, water, impacts and heat in a way that few conventional DSLRs or mirrorless models could.
While we definitely think the EOS 1D-C from Canon is bloody expensive, this is without a doubt a true pro recording camera with more focus on serious video capture than simple field photography.
Samsung NX1: $1,049
With a whopping 28.2 megapixels of photo resolution and the ability to capture 4K UHD video at 30 fps, the NX1 is no slouch for a mirrorless camera, despite the fact that Samsung isn’t exactly a major player in the camera market. However, as we’ve reported before, this camera is more than good enough for even highly professional promotional video recording, as you can see here, with Joseph Gordon Levitt of all people.
No built in flash is a downside of the NX1 but its shooting speed of 15fps and DSLR-like appearance are great. Other winning features of the NX1 include continuous autofocus and autoexposure and an APS-C sensor that offers some superb low-light performance, especially with the NX1’s ISO range of 100-51200. Finally, we should mention that it has the decidedly rare (for a mirrorless camera) ability to grab DCI 4K video at 4096 x 2160 pixels.