Photography lovers are often a "cake and eat it, too" kinda crowd, demanding better quality and additional features for less money and a more compact size.
And why not?
If camera makers want us to resist using our smartphones to capture memories, they ought to deliver the goods.
Perhaps, then, it's no surprise there's an increase in popularity for "tweener" cameras: they're not much bigger than point-and-shoot cameras, yet they deliver the speed, performance and versatility of those bulky digital single-lens reflex (dSLR) cameras – including support for interchangeable lenses.
Sometimes referred to as "compact system cameras" or "advanced interchangeable lens cameras," these models often do away with an internal mirror and pentaprism to keep the body petite.
Whether you're looking to treat yourself or want to pick up a gift for a loved one, here's a look at a few picture-perfect picks.
Sony Alpha NEX-5R
While it's about half the size of a dSLR, Sony’s Alpha NEX-5R ($699.99, with 18-55mm lens) offers professional quality photos – thanks, in part, to its 16.1-megapixel APS-C size HD image sensor and advanced autofocus system. But this camera also boasts built-in Wi-Fi connectivity that lets you immediately upload your favorite shots – to a computer for safe keeping or a social media site, like Facebook. There’s also support for a number of apps, such as PlayMemories Mobile, that let you wirelessly transfer photos directly to Android smartphones and tablets for viewing, editing and sharing. The NEX-5R is also an excellent 1080p HD video camera with a number of shooting options.
Nikon 1 V2
Wielded by Ashton Kutcher in television commercials, the Nikon 1 V2 ($749.99; body only) leverages Nikon's heritage in the dSLR space to create a small but powerful compact system camera -- measuring just 3.2 inches (tall) by 4.2 inches (wide) and 1.8 inches (deep).
Whether you want to enable all the automatic options or opt for full manual control, you can take advantage of superior image quality – powered by a 14.2-megapixel CX-format high-speed CMOS sensor – along with crisp Full HD (1080p) videos, rapid autofocus and optional effects and filters. Compared to its predecessor, this model includes a built-in flash, textured grip and a handy dial to easily access the camera’s features.
Canon EOS M
Available since last summer, Canon's EOS M ($729.99, with 18-55mm lens) is the company's first mirrorless camera. And it’s a winner, according to many critics -- including a score of 4 stars out of 5 from tech supersite CNET.com.
Features include an 18.0-megapixel CMOS (APS-C) sensor, DIGIC 5 image processor, a hybrid CMOS autofocus system (for superfast speeds during photo and Full HD video capture) and ISO ranging from 100 to 25,600 to shoot in all kinds of lighting conditions.
If you already own Canon lenses you’ll be happy to know the EOS M is compatible with the full line of EF and EF-S lenses (mount adapter required). The camera supports SD, SDHC, SDXC and the new Ultra High Speed (UHS-I) memory cards.
Panasonic Lumix G5
Extremely light at just 0.87 pounds, Panasonic's DMC-G5 ($799.99, with 14-42mm lens) is the latest in the company's Micro Four Thirds cameras, a nearly 5 year-old standard jointly created by Panasonic and Olympus for mirror- and prism-less interchangeable lens digital cameras.
Despite its compact size and lightweight design, the G5 features a newly integrated 16.05-megapixel Live MOS sensor and redesigned Venus Engine for ultra-clear and colorful photos and video.
Available in black, the G5 also has a built-in flash, 23-point autofocus system, 20 frames per second burst shooting and 14 different filters for creative options.
Olympus OM-D E-M5
Finally, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 ($1,099.99, with 12-50mm lens) is a compact and lightweight mirrorless camera with an advanced Electronic View Finder (EVF) that enables shooters to see important info – such as exposure levels and white balance – but also preview art filter effects in real-time.
A new 16-megapixel Live MOS image sensor and TruePic VI image processor yields highly-detailed, colorful and lifelike images, advanced image stabilization, fast autofocus and up to 25,600 ISO. The E-M5 can also be brought in multiple environments because of its dust- and splash-proof construction, housing multiple seals to protect the camera from rain, water spray, sand and dust. The camera is compatible with a number of Micro Four Thirds lenses, such as telephoto, macro and wide-angle options.