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Pint-Sized Picture Machines: 4 Compact System Cameras Tested

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That vacation to Yellowstone is too exciting and too beautiful to document with just a smartphone. This emerging category of hybrids delivers DSLR-grade images sans the DLSR-grade bulk.

The Basics

Are these DSLRs or point and shoots?

Neither. They eliminate the bulky mirrors and prisms that power a DSLR's viewfinder, so these cameras are smaller, lighter, and cheaper. But their manual controls, interchangeable lenses, and big sensors (typically either APS-C or micro four-thirds, the same units found in consumer DSLRs) make them far more versatile than point and shoots.

I'm not ready for a step up in complexity.

These models have simple interfaces, so if you're used to a point and shoot, the only step up you'll take is to much better photos.

Are there any drawbacks?

These are bigger and heavier than point and shoots—no slipping them into your pants pocket. And because there's no DSLR-style viewfinder, you have to compose with a tiny electronic viewfinder or back-panel LCD. The broad range of maximum-zoom apertures here (typically f3.5-f6.3) can make it difficult to get a shallow depth of field.

Buying Advice

All the cameras in our roundup take sharp, accurate shots that can be printed beautifully as large as 16 by 20 inches. The differences are in their interfaces: Some serve pros looking for a backup camera, while others are beginner-friendly. Here's a quick test: Pick up a camera and try to adjust the ISO, video frame rate, and exposure settings in less than two minutes. If you fail, look for something simpler or prepare to spend some time learning.

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