Mirrorless cameras are a high quality, portable and affordable alternative to DLSR cameras. Most even offer some of the same types of features that DSLRs are praised for, like large image sensors and interchangeable lenses, while also being much lighter, smaller and quieter than their pricier DSLR counterparts.

When it comes to choosing the right mirrorless camera for you, there are two factors to consider: sensor size and lenses. We’ll look at the most common types of mirrorless cameras and help you figure out which one is best for your budget, skill level and the types of photos you like to take.

What makes a camera “mirrorless?”

Unlike hefty DSLRs, mirrorless cameras don’t use a mirror to reflect the image into the viewfinder, which is where you see the image before taking it. Instead, most of these cameras use a rear LCD or electronic viewfinder to show you the image directly from the sensor before you take the picture.

Mirrors and viewfinders

The benefit of viewing your image through a rear LCD or electronic viewfinder instead of an optical viewfinder (when you put your eye up to the camera) is that you are seeing the photo exactly as it will look when you snap the photo. This live preview shows you real-time changes to all of your in-camera settings like exposure, shutter speed and ISO. Essentially, the picture you see is the picture you will get, whereas a DSLR optical viewfinder will only show you the image as your eyes see it.

The only downside to this is that electronic viewfinders and rear LCD screens drain battery power faster than optical viewfinders.

Image quality & sensor size

Inside every digital camera is a sensor—a light-sensitive silicon chip that captures the light particles that make up the picture. These sensor chips register the image in the form of pixels. A larger sensor means more pixels, and more pixels means sharper detail in each image. Basically, the bigger the sensor is, the better quality the image will be. Better image quality allows you to make larger prints or view the image magnified without causing it to lose detail or become distorted and pixelated.

Mirrorless cameras have sensors that come in three different size ranges: full-frame, ASP-C and micro-four-thirds. Generally, the smaller the camera, the smaller the sensor.

Full frame sensors

Full frame sensors are the same physical size as a 35mm film frame. Full frame is the largest sensor you will find in most consumer cameras and DSLRs, measuring 35mm × 24mm. These sensors offer both a wide angle of view and the ability to shoot high quality, large images.

Pros:

• Great for low light situations, wide angles and landscape photography• High quality ISO capabilities and fast autofocus • Good for portraiture and achieving a very shallow depth of field (blurred background)• A good choice for shooting HD video and imagery requiring a large dynamic range

Cons:

• Often found in the largest and most expensive camera bodies in the mirrorless category

APS-C sensors

One sensor size down from full frame, APS-C sensors—also referred to as cropped sensors—can be up to 40 percent smaller than full frame sensors. Overall this produces a narrower angle of view compared to full frame sensors, which is great if you like to zoom in tight on images.

Pros:

• Often found in small, lightweight camera bodies• Great for telephoto and street photography • Larger depth of field is good for landscapes• Quick autofocus is good for photographing subjects in motion and under low light conditions

Cons:

• Produces slightly smaller, cropped, images compared to full frame sensors • Offers a slightly narrower angle of view (focal length) than full-frame, which means it’s not as good for very wide angle shots • The larger depth of field is not ideal for professional-style portraiture, because it keeps the background as sharp as the subject

Micro-four-thirds sensors

A mirrorless cameras with a micro-four-thirds sensor is a step up, in terms of image quality, from a point-and-shoot camera. These are the smallest sensors in the mirrorless family, measuring about 18mm × 13.5mm (roughly one-half the size of a full frame sensor and slightly more square in shape), but what you lose in image size, you gain in price and portability.

Pros:

• Good for everyday photography, thanks to their small, portable size• Affordability: large selection of budget-friendly lenses

Cons:

• Uses contrast-detect autofocus, which is slower than other types of autofocus, especially in low light• Not ideal for wide angle photography • Less depth of field (making it harder to achieve the blurred background look)• Poor performance in low light or at a very high ISO setting; so plan to use it only for daytime photography or with a flash when light is low

Choosing a mirrorless camera

Mirrorless cameras are available in a range of prices that reflect sensor size and image quality, among other things. We’ll look at three levels of mirrorless cameras and cover the benefits of each.

Professional grade mirrorless camera

The most expensive mirrorless cameras will often feature a full frame sensor, high quality HD or 4K video, fast image processing (can shoot action shots and bursts without lag) and may have Wi-Fi and social capabilities. Generally, it’s all served up in a durable, sometimes weatherproof camera body that offers maximum setting control.

Best for: People who want maximum flexibility, know their way around a camera and are comfortable investing more money in a professional style camera. These are small cameras designed for big pictures.

Mid-range mirrorless camera

These cameras will be less expensive and mostly rely on APS-C and micro-four-thirds sensors. These mid-range cameras may have both a rear LCD screen and an electronic viewfinder, which can make it easier to preview images in bright light. They will often offer users a good deal of manual control, image stabilization and reasonable quality video. But they may not be best for continuous shooting.

Best for: Intermediate photographers who want good quality imagery, some video capabilities and manual control. These cameras are great for those making the switch from an SLR to a mirrorless camera, who would rather trade the bells and whistles of a professional grade camera for a more reasonable price point.

Entry-level mirrorless camera

These cameras make a great step up from a point and shoot camera, giving users more flexibility and control, while remaining portable and budget friendly. Entry-level mirrorless cameras will generally have a rear LCD screen and a smaller sensor, plus slower autofocus and image processing than higher priced mirrorless cameras

Best for: Casual clickers who don’t want to spend a lot of money, but still want the ability to use interchangeable lenses and create higher quality imagery than you’d get from point-and-shoots. These are a great option for new photographers, students and budget-minded travelers.

To lens or not to lens

Many mirrorless cameras have the ability to use interchangeable lenses, while a few come with an attached, fixed lens. Most cameras that use an interchangeable lens system only work with lenses designed for that specific system. A Canon lens usually won’t fit on a Sony body, for example.

Interchangeable lenses offer users the ability to control their photography much more. Choosing the right lens—from prime lenses to zooms—depends on the type of image that you want to end up with. The magic of many mirrorless cameras is that you actually have that choice—meaning you can change your mind (and photography style) as often as you choose to buy a new lens.

As a money saving hack: if you already own a few lenses from an older SLR camera, buying a mirrorless camera means you can probably continue using those lenses, with an adapter, on a compatible mirrorless camera.

And what if you decide to buy a model without interchangeable lenses? You can still create beautiful pictures, just keep in mind that you’ll have less control over them.

Regardless of your skill or interest level or the type of mirrorless camera you choose, you can’t go wrong with these small, lightweight digital dynamos. Get ready to make some amazing photos!