The camera in your pocket is undoubtedly the one in your phone, and although they’ve improved a lot in recent years even the best phone cameras can’t compete with a Compact System Camera (CSC) for outright image quality. These cameras are also known as mirrorless and interchangeable lens cameras.
Forget those old, bulky, heavy cameras you might be imagining: modern CSCs are small and light so you can carry them everywhere. And they work like a phone, so you can see a preview on their screens before you take a photo.
Don’t be misled by megapixel ratings: although somewhat important it’s the size of the sensor and, crucially, the quality of the lens that determines image quality. The sensors and lenses on a mirrorless camera are far larger and lead to photos which are in another league compared to snapshots from a phone.
The fact that a bigger lens lets in more light means photos taken indoors or at night are better, but unlike a phone which has to fake a blurry background, you’ll get true bokeh from a mirrorless. It’s always easy to spot a portrait photo taken on a mirrorless because wisps of hair are in sharp focus and the background gradually blurs into the distance.
Some phones have multiple cameras for zoom and wide-angle shots, but an interchangeable lens camera allows you to change lenses and choose from a wide variety so you can build a collection and only carry the ones you need.
For example, a ‘pancake’ lens keeps the camera compact and is ideal for everyday photography, but a telephoto lens allows you to get close to the action on a safari or at a sporting event. Ultra-wide angle lenses are perfect for landscapes, and so-called prime lenses offer the kind of shallow depth of field often associated with ‘pro’ photos and which phones can only mimic.
If you’re keen to take your photography to the next level and capture those glorious sunrises, moody landscapes and rivers with silky smooth water, a phone simply will not do. A mirrorless gives you all the functions and manual control you need, along with the ability to attach polarisers and neutral density filters for even better image quality.
Take the £169 H300 for example. This isn’t a CSC: it’s a bridge camera which has a fixed lens that you can’t change. But it’s ideal for travellers on a budget, incorporating a 35x optical zoom and a 20.1 megapixel sensor. The zoom covers the entire range from wide-angle to telephoto and delivers sharp photos throughout that range.
A good step up is the a5100, a compact CSC compatible with Sony’s E-mount lenses. You can expect outstandingly sharp pictures thanks to the combination of the 24 megapixel Exmor sensor and the 4D Focus system that uses predictive tracking for moving subjects.
The tiltable 3in touchscreen makes it possible to shoot from different heights and it comes with a 16-50mm lens that’s perfect for landscapes and portraits alike. Built-in Wi-Fi makes it convenient to transfer photos to your phone on the go, too.
It may look similar but the a6000 adds a few extra features such as an OLED viewfinder. This small screen which you press your eye up to is useful in bright conditions where it can be harder to see the main screen clearly. The a6000, which is eligible for £50 cashback, is also more powerful than the a5100 and is able to shoot continuously at 11 frames per second, 5 more than the a5100. Burst shooting is useful for sports and other fast-moving subjects.
A bundle deal adds two batteries and a carry case, accessories you’re likely to need when travelling.
If budget is less of a concern and you want the absolute best, then check out the a7. This is a little bigger but has a full-frame sensor. At 35mm, this sensor is considerably larger than the APS-C sensor in the a5100 and a6000 and offers a corresponding jump in quality. The kit version costs £879 and comes with a great 28-70mm zoom lens, and you’ll get £150 cashback which brings the price down to £729.