Best compact system camera: 6 top CSCs go head to head

Mirrors add weight and bulk to your camera and potentially introduce bounce-blur, but compact system cameras (CSCs) omit the reflex mirror.

All but the Leica in this group also do away with any kind of optical viewfinder, substituting it with a high-res electronic finder.

The net result is a relatively compact camera that’s smaller and more lightweight than a traditional digital SLR, yet retains the benefit of interchangeable lenses.

Some of the top-end CSCs on the market offer direct-access shooting controls, image sensors of anything up to full-frame in size, and a wealth of sophisticated features. Some are as big and weighty as SLR bodies.

The emphasis for the cameras in this test is not so much on downsizing or compactness, but simply delivering a great camera that enables creative photography. Let’s take a closer look at what all the cameras have to offer…

The Contenders

Fujifilm X-T1, £880 / $980
Available in original black or graphite, the 16.3MP APS-C format XT-1 from Fujifilm serves up a feast of hands-on controls and lots of new tricks.

Leica M-P 
(typ 240), 
£5,150 / $7,000
The classic rangefinder camera in its latest digital guise, with a full-frame 24MP CMOS sensor. Who needs autofocus anyway?

Olympus OM-D E-M1, 
£900 / $1,300
Small, tough and beautifully built, the 16.3MP E-M1 takes pride of place in Olympus’s Micro Four Thirds stable.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4 
£1,050 / $1,700
More of a heavyweight Micro Four Thirds camera than the diminutive Olympus E-M1, the 16.1MP GH4 boasts 4K video.

Samsung NX1 £1,300 / $1,300
The latest Samsung powerhouse is a 28.2MP APS-C format camera with a very fast 15fps burst rate and impressive video capture resolution.

Sony Alpha 7 Mark II 
£1,400 / $1,500
The second edition of this 24MP Sony is the first ever full-frame camera to feature sensor-shift stabilisation.

Best compact system camera: 01 Fujifilm X-T1

£880 / $980
The new ‘Graphite’ edition of the Fuji X-T1 adds features that the earlier Black edition also gets via a firmware upgrade. New tricks include a menu option for switching between the mechanical shutter and a faster electronic shutter, with speeds of up to 1/32,000 sec.

There’s also a Classic Chrome addition to the range of film emulations, plus a Natural Live View option, which displays previews as nature intended, rather than applying any in-camera effects.

A forthcoming update to V4 firmware will take the camera further still, with greater autofocus accuracy and tracking performance, plus a range of other enhancements.

The X-T1 packs an APS-C sensor with a modest pixel count of 16.3MP, fast hybrid phase/contrast detection autofocus system and a brisk 8fps burst rate, into a weather-resistant magnesium alloy body.

The X-T1’s plethora of dials makes it easy for photographers to get to almost any advanced shooting setting without having to navigate menus.

That’s welcome, considering the LCD isn’t a touchscreen, although it does have a tilt facility for easing high or low-level shooting.

Wi-Fi connectivity is built in, unlike the flash module, which is supplied as an external clip-on unit.

Performance

Sophisticated controls are matched by strong performance. Autofocus is quick, and metering is accurate and consistent.

Dynamic range enhancements work well to reign in highlights and boost shadow detail, while Fujifilm’s film emulations such as Provia (standard), Velvia (vivid) and Astia (soft) yield beautiful results.

Features: 4/5
Build/Handling: 5/5
Image Quality: 5/5
Value: 5/5

Overall: 5/5

Best compact system camera: 02 Leica M-P (typ 240)

£5,150 / $7,000
The Leica brand has been the subject of many a heated discussion over the decades, and the M-P seems certain to further that tradition.

Some simply won’t be able to get their heads around the notion of a 21st-century digital camera on which you can only set focusing and aperture via an attached lens.

Mod cons like Wi-Fi connectivity and touch control are entirely lacking, and the sensitivity range is comparatively stunted at ISO 200-3,200 (100-6,400 expanded).

The price will also be a major talking point: with the 35mm f/2 lens pictured above, the camera costs £7,300 / $10,000.

The top and bottom plates are hewn from solid brass, and the shell is magnesium alloy. The body is quite chunky yet slab-like in design, without any moulded grip areas.

This can make handling feel awkward and insecure, especially considering that the Leica is the heaviest camera in the group at 690g, excluding the lens.

The rangefinder system takes some getting used to, but it’s well implemented. The optical viewfinder incorporates guide lines to show how much you’ll be able to fit into images when using different focal lengths of lens.

A key upgrade in the M-P, however, is that it uses a CMOS rather than a CCD image sensor.

Performance

Despite its bare-bones layout of controls, the Leica is capable of gorgeous image quality, in both raw and JPEG modes.

However, image noise is more noticeable than in the competing cameras in this group, especially at sensitivity settings of ISO 1,600 and upwards.

Features: 2/5
Build/Handling: 4/5
Image Quality: 4/5
Value: 2/5

Overall: 3/5

Best compact system camera: 03 Olympus OM-D E-M1

£900 / $1,300
The most upmarket of Olympus’s OM-D range of CSCs, the E-M1 is one of the smallest and lightest models on test. Slightly bigger and heavier than the Fujifilm X-T1, the E-M1 has a smaller image sensor, but the same pixel count of 16.3MP.

The Olympus OM-D E-M1 boasts a hybrid autofocus system with phase/contrast detection. Autofocus is available on heritage Four Thirds lenses, as well as Micro Four Thirds lenses made by Olympus and other manufacturers.

Further highlights include a five-axis sensor-shift image stabiliser, directly competing with the Sony A7 II camera. It works well for both stills and video shooting, as well as giving a stabilised view in the electronic viewfinder and rear LCD screen.

The latter is a high-res touchscreen with up/down tilt facility. It’s neat being able to touch areas of the screen to assign autofocus points, but Olympus missed a trick by not extending touch control to menu navigation.

Despite the E-M1’s small size, it’s comfortable thanks to the deep sculpting in the finger grip to enable a secure hold. Handling is enhanced by direct-access buttons and dials, providing shortcuts to settings.

Performance

Metering is consistent and accurate, and autofocus is swift. The auto white balance system tends to stray to the warm side, especially in direct sunlight.

With the relatively large 2.0x focal length magnifier of the Micro Four Thirds system, it’s more difficult to get a tight depth of field, but Micro Four Thirds lenses tend to be quite compact. Retention of fine detail in images could be better.

Features: 4/5
Build/Handling: 4/5
Image Quality: 4/5
Value: 4/5

Overall: 4/5

Best compact system camera: 04 Panasonic Lumix GH4

£1,050 / $1,700
Compared with the other Micro Four Thirds cameras, the GH4 looks bigger and beefier.

The increase in height enables the fitment of a built-in flash module, and part of the heavier weight is accounted for by a larger and higher-capacity battery, capable of 500 shots between recharges, compared with the Olympus E-M1’s 330 shots.

Both take the same mount Micro Four Thirds lenses, although the GH4 has purely contrast-detection autofocus, rather than the E-M1’s hybrid system.

One of the improvements over the older GH3 is that the Panasonic GH4 captures 4K Ultra High Definition video.

There are also knock-on benefits for stills shooting, with a fast and powerful image processor that enables a burst rate of up to 12fps.

The GH4 has a clear, high-resolution electronic viewfinder, and a high-res LCD screen to match. The GH4 is the only camera in this group to feature full screen articulation rather than just a tilt facility.

It’s well connected too, with built-in Wi-Fi and NFC (Near Field Communication) connectivity.

The handling benefits from SLR-like styling that incorporates a deeply sculpted finger grip and plentiful controls for the finer points of shooting settings.

Performance

One thing that isn’t updated in the GH4 is the pixel count of the sensor, which remains at 16.1MP.

Image quality is very good overall, but you can sometimes feel short-changed by the level of fine detail that’s reproduced in images. Even so, it hangs on to detail better at high ISO settings than the competing E-M1.

Features: 5/5
Build/Handling: 4/5
Image Quality: 4/5
Value: 4/5

Overall: 4/5

Best compact system camera: 05 Samsung NX1

£1,300 / $1,300
Like the Fujifilm X-T1, the Samsung NX1 is based around an APS-C format image sensor, but this time the megapixel count is hiked up to 28.2MP, the biggest value in the group.

It’s also the biggest camera in the group, although it’s still some 40g lighter than the Leica.

The design looks more high-end SLR than CSC. For example, the Samsung is the only camera in the group to sport a secondary info LCD on its top panel.

Under the skin, a powerful new processor helps to enable a fast burst rate of up to 15fps. That’s no mean feat considering the 28MP image size.

The native sensitivity range goes from ISO 100-25,600, boosted to ISO 51,200 in expanded mode. Video capture resolution is impressive, matching the Panasonic GH4’s 4K Ultra High Definition credentials.

Further finery includes a hybrid phase/contrast autofocus system, a tilting touchscreen and a large, bright electronic viewfinder.

There’s Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity plus a built-in pop-up flash, wrapped in a weather-resistant magnesium alloy shell.

Handling is good, and the layout of buttons and dials is logical, while giving instant access to wide-ranging shooting settings.

However, this is a big, hefty camera, even when paired with Samsung’s 16-50mm f/2.8 OIS lens, pictured above.

Performance

It’s rare that we’d recommend a CSC for action and sports photography, but the Samsung’s fast autofocus and continuous drive rate make it well suited.

There’s excellent retention of fine detail too, with well-suppressed image noise even at high ISO settings.

Features: 5/5
Build/Handling: 4/5
Image Quality: 5/5
Value: 4/5

Overall: 5/5

Best compact system camera: 06 Sony Alpha 7 Mark II

£1,400 / $1,500
The diminutive Sony A7 Mark II is smaller than the Micro Four Thirds Panasonic GH4, yet has a full-frame sensor.

It’s actually the same 24.3MP CMOS sensor that was used in the original A7, but the Mark II adds sensor-shift stabilisation.

It’s the first full-frame camera to feature built-in stabilisation, and in this group, only it and the Olympus E-M1 with its relatively small Micro Four Thirds sensor give in-body stabilisation.

Both feature advanced, five-axis stabilisation, giving a clear benefit when attaching any lens.

The A7 Mark II is comfortable, aided by its deeply sculpted finger and thumb grips. Controls are plentiful and menu navigation is easy, helped by a multi-way pad that features a rotary dial, as used in the Panasonic and Samsung cameras.

You’ll rely on it more, however, as the Sony lacks a touchscreen. At least the screen has a tilt facility, and the camera itself has built-in Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity.

The autofocus system gets a speed boost, with a greater ability to track moving subjects.

This makes the A7 Mark II better suited to action photography, although the 5fps maximum burst rate is quite pedestrian.

Performance

The A7 Mark II delivers excellent retention of fine detail. In our tests, the stabiliser gave a four-stop benefit in handheld shooting, equalling the performance of the competing system in the Olympus E-M1.

However, the Sony makes the most of its bigger image sensor in terms of sumptuous image quality. The camera is supported by a growing range of excellent full-frame compatible lenses.

Features: 5/5
Build/Handling: 5/5
Image Quality: 4/5
Value: 5/5

Overall: 5/5

Best compact system camera: image quality comparison

Best compact system camera: lab results

Best compact system camera: spec sheets compared

Best compact system camera: The Verdict

The Sony A7 Mark II’s compact build plays host to a stabilised full-frame sensor, which is a world first for any digital camera.

The growing range of compatible lenses make it a serious alternative to top-flight full-frame SLRs, yet its small size and light weight add convenience, without any adverse effects on handling.

Most of the same holds true for the Fujifilm X-T1, which punches well above its weight in terms of image quality for a 16.3MP APS-C format camera.

It’s a really tough buying decision between these two cameras, but the Sony wins out, especially if you prefer the reduced depth of field available from a full-frame body.

The Samsung NX1 is another very exciting APS-C format camera that mimics full-blown SLRs in its size and styling.

The image sensor’s pixel count of 28.2MP will be extremely attractive to many, and the overall standard of build, handling and image quality is very good indeed, putting it in third place.

Next up are the two Micro Four Thirds cameras, the Panasonic GH4 edging ahead of the older Olympus E-M1.

We prefer the GH4’s fully articulated screen, 4K Ultra High Definition video and marginally better overall image quality.

Last up, the Leica is a true ‘Marmite’ camera – you’ll either love it or hate it, even if you can afford it.

Our rankings

1st Sony Alpha 7 Mark II
What’s good: Full-frame image sensor; five-axis stabilisation; great handling; small size.
What’s bad: Lacks a touchscreen; full-frame compatible lenses can dwarf the body.
We say: For creative full-frame photography in a small, lightweight package, it’s unbeatable.

2nd Fujifilm X-T1
What’s good: Superb image quality; slick retro styling; excellent build quality; compact design.
What’s bad: 16.3MP is fairly modest for an APS-C image sensor; no touchscreen facility
We say: It’s a fabulous camera, a real joy to use, and great value at the price.

3rd Samsung NX1
What’s good: High-tech thrills with a 28.2MP sensor; 4K video and 15fps burst rate for stills.
What’s bad: Relatively big and heavy; colour balance tends to be slightly cool.
We say: It’s the best Samsung camera to date, and a particularly good CSC for action sports.

4th Panasonic GH4
What’s good: 4K video capture; fully articulated touchscreen; built-in pop-up flash.
What’s bad: Relatively small Micro Four Thirds image sensor; lacks the EM-1’s image stabiliser.
We say: It’s a slightly better buy than the older Olympus E-M1, especially if you’re into 4K video.

5th Olympus OM-D E-M1
What’s good: Five-axis image stabiliser; tough but compact build; tilting touchscreen.
What’s bad: Colour balance can be a little warm; touchscreen doesn’t work for menus.
We say: One of our previous favourite CSCs, but it’s lost ground to newer competition.

6th Leica M-P (TYP 240)
What’s good: High-precision quality build; full-frame sensor; good manual controls.
What’s bad: Lacks autofocus or automatic aperture selection; ‘noisy’ at high sensitivities.
We say: It’s classy and well suited to manual photography, but fiendishly expensive.