Interchangeable lens cameras offer numerous benefits over fixed lens cameras, especially in terms of versatility, image quality and creative control. With the ability to swap out lenses for different situations, these cameras allow you to capture truly stunning photos and videos in a wide range of scenarios. In this in-depth guide, we’ll discuss the top 5 interchangeable lens camera systems on the market and provide key factors to consider when choosing the right system for your needs and budget.
Interchangeable lens cameras, also known as ILCs or system cameras, represent an expansive and exciting category in the world of photography. Unlike fixed lens point-and-shoot cameras or smartphones, interchangeable lens models allow you to switch out various lenses to suit different subjects and conditions. This brings much more flexibility and control for the advanced or professional photographer.
Some of the major advantages of interchangeable lens cameras include:
- Ability to swap lenses – From wide angles to telephotos, prime to macro, you can use specialized glass for landscape, portrait, sports, wildlife and more.
- Larger sensors – Most ILCs have bigger APS-C or full frame sensors compared to the tiny sensors in phones and point-and-shoots. This allows for vastly superior image quality.
- More creative control – With the ability to adjust aperture, shutter speed and ISO, you can achieve your desired depth of field, motion blur, and exposure.
- Higher resolution – Interchangeable lens cameras offer 20+ megapixels commonly, allowing for more detailed enlarged prints.
- Room to grow – Investing in an ILC system allows you to develop your skills over many years without needing to replace gear.
This guide will highlight the top 5 interchangeable lens camera systems on the market while also providing advice on how to select the right camera brand and model based on your photography interests and budget. Let’s dive in!
The Top 5 Interchangeable Lens Camera Systems
1. Sony Alpha Series
Sony shook up the camera world when it introduced its first mirrorless interchangeable lens models back in 2010. The company now offers an extensive Alpha mirrorless ILC lineup with both full frame and APS-C options. Here’s an overview:
- Models – A6400, A6600 (APS-C), A7 III, A7R III, A9 (full frame)
- Key features – Incredible autofocus, rapid shooting, great video, robust lens selection, full frame and APS-C options.
- Pros – Excellent performance and image quality, advanced autofocus (eye AF), real-time tracking, 4K video, in-body stabilization available.
- Cons – Menu system can be convoluted, battery life just average, expensive full frame bodies.
- Best for – Enthusiasts, professionals, videographers, and action/wildlife photographers.
With innovative technology like ultra-precise eye autofocus, real-time tracking, and 5-axis in-body stabilization, Sony Alpha cameras are hard to beat for capturing stills and video of moving subjects. The A6400 and A6600 deliver pro-level performance in more compact APS-C bodies, while the latest generation full frame models are ideal for professionals and demanding hobbyists.
2. Canon EOS Series
Canon’s EOS system is built around its hugely popular lineup of DSLR cameras as well as mirrorless EOS R models. The extensive EF lens collection combined with beginner-friendly controls has made EOS cameras wildly successful.
- Models – EOS Rebel T7i, EOS 80D, EOS 6D Mark II (DSLR), EOS R, EOS RP (mirrorless)
- Key features – Extensive lens selection, optical viewfinder (DSLR), familiar Canon interface, great for video, strong dual pixel AF in live view/mirrorless models.
- Pros – Intuitive controls, great ergonomics, stellar auto focus in DSLRs, huge lens ecosystem, affordability of Rebels.
- Cons – Large DSLR size, inferior live view autofocus, fewer lenses for EOS R system currently.
- Best for – Beginners, enthusiasts, portrait, sports, and wildlife photographers.
Canon offers outstanding lens options, intuitive designs, and proven ergonomics. For photographers who want traditional DSLR shooting or desire an easy transition to mirrorless, Canon is an excellent choice. The Rebel series provides affordable entry points while pro-level DSLRs and the new EOS R models appeal to advanced shooters.
3. Nikon Z Series
Nikon shook up its system in 2018 by introducing an all new Z mount for its mirrorless cameras. The Nikon Z system is growing rapidly and allows access to legendary Nikkor Z lenses as well as F mount DSLR glass with an adapter.
- Models – Z50 (APS-C), Z6, Z7 (full frame)
- Key features – Excellent overall image quality, solid 4K video, innovative lens mount design, robust DSLR lens compatibility.
- Pros – Great handling, trusted Nikon color science, excellent dynamic range and low light performance, 5-axis stabilization.
- Cons – Single card slot in Z6/Z7, lens ecosystem still growing.
- Best for – Enthusiasts, Nikon DSLR owners, portraits, landscapes, all around shooting.
While the Z system is newer, Nikon knows cameras and the Z models deliver outstanding image quality, familiar handling, and the ability to utilize your existing F mount glass. As the lens collection expands, the Nikon Z series represents an exciting mirrorless option.
4. Fujifilm X Series
Fujifilm may not be the first brand that comes to mind for ILC cameras, but the X series has become wildly popular with enthusiasts and pros. The retro styling houses cutting edge tech for outstanding stills and video.
- Models – X-T30, X-T3, X-T4, X-Pro3, X-H1, X-S10
- Key features – Excellent APS-C image quality, retro design and tactile controls, numerous film simulation modes, great selection of prime lenses.
- Pros – Superb image processing, stylish look, fun shooting experience, capable video features, solid lens roadmap.
- Cons – No full frame option, single card slot on most models, battery life just average.
- Best for – Enthusiasts, travel photographers, portrait, street, and video shooters.
Fujifilm may have perfected the APS-C sensor. Models like the X-T3 and X-T4 deliver pro results in highly compact bodies without the need for full frame. Fun analog controls and gorgeous rendering make the X series a photographer’s dream.
5. Olympus OM-D Series
Olympus designed its OM-D lineup for enthusiasts and pros needing maximum portability without sacrificing quality. The lightweight mirrorless cameras deliver amazing results in tiny packages.
- Models – E-M10 IV, E-M5 Mark III, E-M1 Mark III
- Key features – Compact and lightweight bodies, 5-axis in-body stabilization, extensive lens selection, high resolution modes, weather sealing.
- Pros – Lightning fast speeds, DSLR-quality in mirrorless size, excellent stabilization, ruggedness, affordable models available.
- Cons – Smaller 4/3 sensor limits low light performance, video features trail rivals.
- Best for – Travel, adventure, outdoor, street photographers and vloggers.
Backpacking up a mountain or shooting one-handed selfies, the tiny Olympus OM-D models are perfect travel companions. Pro-level weather sealing allows you to shoot in the harshest conditions while class-leading stabilization produces blur-free images and video.
How to Choose the Right Interchangeable Lens Camera System
Once you’ve determined that stepping up to an interchangeable lens model is the right move, here are the key factors to consider when selecting a camera system:
Determine Your Budget
Interchangeable lens cameras cover a huge price range from affordable entry-level models to high-end professional rigs:
- Entry-level – $500 to $1000 for the body only. Great for beginners.
- Mid-range – $1000 to $2000 for the body. Ideal step-up for enthusiasts.
- High-end – $2000+ for pro-grade cameras and flagship models.
Of course, you’ll need to budget several hundred dollars more for a starter lens or kit lens bundle. Consider both your current finances and your long term goals and commitment to photography when establishing your budget.
Consider Sensor Size and Resolution
Interchangeable lens cameras come in two main sensor sizes:
- APS-C – Smaller than full frame sensors but allows smaller camera size and lighter lenses. Used by Fujifilm, Sony, Canon, Nikon and others.
- Full frame – Larger sensors that mimic classic 35mm film size. Provide the best overall image quality but require bigger, heavier cameras and lenses. Used by Sony, Canon and Nikon.
You’ll also want to look at megapixels (20MP to 45MP typically). This determines how much resolution is available for cropping and printing large.
Think About What and How You Want to Shoot
Your intended subject matter should factor heavily in choosing a system. Landscape photographers may gravitate toward high resolution full frame cameras for detail and dynamic range. Sports shooters need high speed burst modes and advanced autofocus tracking. Portrait photographers often love Fujifilm’s film emulation modes. If video is a priority, look for 4K recording and frame rates up to 60fps.
Weigh Size, Weight and Portability Needs
If you’ll primarily shoot on-the-go, smaller mirrorless cameras make more sense over bulkier DSLRs. Olympus and Fujifilm mirrorless models strike an excellent balance of quality and compact size. Sony’s APS-C line is very portable as well. If you don’t mind lugging around a heavier system, pro-grade DSLRs still excel for sports and action.
Review Autofocus Capabilities and Shooting Speeds
For any moving subjects, you’ll want a camera with fast and accurate autofocus. Mirrorless models now compete with pro-grade DSLRs in this regard. Look for advanced focus features like face detect, eye detect autofocus, and object tracking. Maximum continuous shooting speeds allow you to capture fleeting moments.
Consider Lens Ecosystems and Availability
It’s not just the camera body that matters – you’ll want access to high quality lenses that meet your needs. A popular established brand like Canon provides over 80 EF lenses to choose from. Third party lens support is important too. Do your homework to make sure the system offers the focal lengths and capabilities you need.
Try Cameras In Person If Possible
Reading reviews only takes you so far. I recommend getting a camera in your hands at a local retailer to evaluate look and feel. Issues like comfort, menu layout and button placement are impossible to discern from specs alone. See which camera seems to fit your needs and feels intuitive. If you buy used online, still try to test the model in a store first before purchasing.
Frequently Asked Questions About Interchangeable Lens Cameras
What are the main advantages of interchangeable lens cameras?
The ability to swap lenses for different situations and subjects is the primary benefit. You’re no longer limited by a fixed zoom. Changing lenses allows more creativity and control over depth of field. Image quality is superior thanks to much larger sensors compared to phones and point-and-shoots. There’s also ample room to develop your skills over years with the same body as your needs grow.
Are interchangeable lens cameras better than smartphones?
Absolutely – interchangeable lens models provide vastly better image quality, low light performance, versatility and creative control compared to even the latest smartphones. The larger sensors, ability to adjust exposure settings, and high quality lens glass make ILCs well worth the investment for serious hobbyists and pros.
What lenses should I get with my new camera?
Most manufacturers offer kits that bundle the camera body with a versatile starter zoom lens (like an 18-135mm range). This allows you to shoot wide landscapes to tighter portraits with one affordable lens. Later you can add specialized primes lenses and telephoto zooms to expand your capabilities. A nifty fifty (like Canon’s 50mm f/1.8) is a popular second lens.
Are interchangeable lens cameras complex for beginners?
They can seem intimidating at first but don’t worry! The learning curve isn’t bad if you start with a beginner model from a user-friendly brand like Canon, Nikon or Olympus. Learn the exposure triangle (shutter speed, aperture, ISO) and how they affect your shots. Take Photography 101 courses online or in your community. Master basic functions, then add more advanced settings over time.
How do I clean my camera and lenses safely?
Use a soft microfiber cloth designed for lenses and glass. Rub gently – don’t press hard or wipe vigorously. Avoid touching the actual glass surfaces. Use compressed air to dislodge particles vs. cloth rubbing. For deeper cleaning, use lens solution sparingly on the microfiber cloth, then gently wipe. Be extremely careful when cleaning lens contacts and camera sensors. Consider a professional cleaning service for these sensitive components.
Should I buy used gear to save money?
Buying used can definitely yield big savings, allowing you to get more camera for your dollar. Just inspect gear thoroughly – test all functions, check for sensor dust, wear and physical damage. Buy from reputable used sellers like KEH Camera or local camera shops that stand behind what they sell. Protect yourself with PayPal purchase protection. Register the product and verify any warranty coverage.
We’ve covered the 5 best interchangeable lens cameras – from well-rounded systems like Sony, Nikon and Canon to category standouts like Fujifilm and Olympus. Each brand brings unique strengths to provide options tailored to your budget and intended shooting style. Use this guide to narrow down the field then try some contenders hands-on.
Investing in your first interchangeable lens camera opens up thrilling creative possibilities. You’ll also want to learn essential photography skills like composition, lighting and editing to maximize quality. But with practice and patience, an ILC lets you capture incredible photos and video at a whole new level. Just think of the journey ahead!