I have been receiving quite a few emails lately asking which mirrorless interchangeable lens compact cameras I would suggest, so I figured I would give a quick rundown on who I feel would benefit from each of the current stock out there and which I feel are the “best” choices.
Much of my experience with these newer cameras which I like to call MILC’s (mirrorless interchangeable lens compacts) not EVIL’s, which sounds cooler, but is an incorrect moniker seeing that most of these cameras don’t have electronic viewfinders, or require one to be purchased separately, has been limited to playing around and reading up on them. I’ve not shot any paid gigs with any of them, so take all this as it is intended, just my opinion. Also, I in no way will assume I know what is best for another photographer. This being said, I do feel that each of the current cameras offer a different approach and in turn can appeal to a different shooter, each of which with their own pros and cons.
Here are the current cameras that actually exist (I know Photokina is just around the corner and I for one am excited to see if anything new is announced).
- OLYMPUS (micro 4/3 standard – EP and EPL series)
EP2 – The Olympus Pen EP2 is, in my opinion, the coolest looking of all the MILCs and its beautiful accessory electronic viewfinder provides stunning clarity (which is good because its LCD stinks compared to the others…). It’s in camera JPEG processing renders a beautiful image and in body, sensor based stabilization is key for anyone looking to use older, legacy glass. Where I feel it really falls short are in its 230k dot LCD screen, somewhat confusing menu navigation and interface, and sluggish AF compared to the others (aside from perhaps the Samsung NX10). The LCD screen wouldn’t be as big a deal if it weren’t the main component for composition, fine focus and review. Purely as a picture taking device, it is wonderful, but it is behind the others in most other interface based categories. (You may still be able to find an EP1 around too which if its cost is low enough and you don’t plan to buy or use the accessory EVF, which is not compatible with the EP1, it may be worth it)
EPL1 – The EPL1 can be considered an EP2 ‘light’ by form, but shares almost all internal function with it’s higher end sibling the EP2. It’s price point and menu interface are directed squarely at a budding beginner looking to work their way through from a point and shoot into a more manually controlled experience. Good value, but same shortcomings as the EP2.
***Recently Announced EPL-2 – Announced just prior to the CES show, Olympus has redesigned and seemingly upgraded the popular EPL-1 to include a higher resolution screen, dedicated video recording button and ISO up to 6400. Until we start to see production models role out, it will be hard to assess real world improvements, but I’m excited to see if Oly has ironed out a couple of the bumps.
- PANASONIC (micro 4/3 standard – GF, GH and G series)
GH1 – The next in the Panasonic line to be upgraded it seems, the GH1 was the first MILC/EVIL to provide full HD video capture. Building on the groundbreaking G1, the GH1 upped the ante for the micro 4/3 lot, and set the bench mark for the mirrorless market in most all ways. As we see the quickly growing market segment rise around the GH1, coupled with its price drop, one can only guess that a GH2 is on the horizon. If I were looking at this camera, I would wait to see if a GH2 is announced shortly if only to see the price potentially drop a little further. After the GH2 is announced though, I wouldn’t wait too long to grab a GH1 (if this is what one would want to buy) as I don’t think they will be around for much longer.
***Recently Released GH2 – It is by most all accounts, an improvement in all ways to the popular, and high performance GH1. 16+mp on a newly designed Panasonic Live MOS sensor with beautiful HD video.
G2 – The second iteration of the original MILC/EVIL (the G1) it has added video capture and an articulating touch screen. Its price point sits nicely behind the GH platform and has added some bells and whistles of its own. Unless video was one of my main concerns, I would probably buy this over the GH1 currently.
G10 – The G10 is the most puzzling of all the MILC/EVIL cameras to me. It is a dumbed down G2, which is itself a dumbed down GH1 really. 3 very similar models all within a few hundred dollars of each other seem a bit strange to me, but if you are bargain shopping, you want a small dSLR style body and access to the micro 4/3 system, I guess it would make sense.
GF1 – The Panasonic GF1 takes most of what the G and GH lines offer and packs it into a very compact, yet robust package. It is the only Panasonic that directly competes with the EP2, EPL1 and the Sony NEX3/5 cameras in form and function. It’s pros over the Oly cams are that its AF is faster, its 460k dot LCD is nicer and its menus easier and more intuitive for the average shooter. It does not have in body IS which if it had that, would make it a fairly easy choice over the Oly’s by most accounts. It falls short to the larger sensor and beautiful 920k dot LCD of the NEX3/5 but allows you to control your experience much, much more. Still one of, if not the best buys in the MILC category in my opinion as it is compact and benefits from being the third generation in the Panasonic camp (after the G1 and GH1).
***Recently Announced GF2 – Decreasing the overall body dimensions and adding the popular touch screen interface, most else has stayed the same in relation to the GF1. We should start to see some real world reviews as these begin to ship in early 2011.
Panasonic and Olympus are the joint members behind the micro 4/3 standard. Currently they are leading the MILC charge, but because so many players are offering larger sensors and proprietary systems, they’re going to have to look to cater to what the others cannot. In my opinion, this is smaller, faster lenses by comparison (and a system wide price drop, especially on lenses which wouldn’t hurt their system’s accessibility).
- SAMSUNG – (APS-C format w/NX mount – NX series)
NX10 – Samsung had entered the mirrorless market with the first APS-C sized sensor camera in a small package. Going a similar route to the GH and G lines from Panasonic, they have chosen to include the electronic viewfinder in place of a more traditional pentaprism viewfinder on a dSLR camera. This is nice for those looking to bridge the gap between small compacts and their larger dSLR brethren, but in my opinion, it is a safe road that doesn’t do enough to push this camera category into a new, exciting realm. I feel that when it was announced, the only real benefit was its larger sensor (now matched by the Sonys), but from my personal standpoint and needs from this type of camera, it doesn’t really do anything for me. Nothing against it, as I think it is a nice camera, but I don’t see any compelling reason to purchase it over a more established system like the Panasonic G or GH lines, or even a small entry level dSLR. If you are a fan of Samsung, or really feel that the APS-C sensor is going to give you more than you would get with a m4/3 sensor, needing a built in EVF all the while being happy with the current lens options, go for it.
***Recently Announced NX11 – adds the iFunction from the NX100 and an AMOLED screen. Looks like the same sensor from the NX10 and by early accounts a simple incremental upgrade? We shall wait and see.
NX100 – A beautifully crafted body with a couple new bells and whistles should help diversify the Samsung NX line. Still shares most of the same functional shortcomings from the NX10 though…
- SONY – (APS-C format w/E mount – NEX series)
NEX5/3 – With very few differences between the NEX3 and NEX5 aside from an articulating screen, stronger body material and smaller form factor in the case of the 5, Sony has boldly produced the smallest interchangeable lens camera available period. It has pushed the envelope and provided a compelling alternative to the micro 4/3 standard cameras. The only problem I see is that both the NEX5 and NEX3 are remarkably handicapped from a photographers standpoint. Don’t get me wrong, they are fully capable of beautiful imagery, but they are, in my experience, excruciatingly limited if you want any manual control over your image making. If you want the coolest interchangeable lens point and shoot camera available, the current NEX system is it. If you want to think about controlling your photography manually, you will most certainly be frustrated. These cameras can be adjusted, but most simple adjustments are buried in menus. To me and for what I personally expect from my cameras, this is a huge problem. I give Sony huge points for design and really feel that they could have immediately swept this new segment had they built their cameras to appeal not only to the P&S crowd, but both budding photographers looking to grow into a system and more advanced shooters looking for a full function compact. I will keep an eye on the NEX system, but right now, I can’t personally say I’d be happy with either of these cameras.
If with their next release Sony addresses this, I think we will see a new leader in the MILC category. I feel that they have done what I feel is necessary to provide a compelling argument against the dSLR systems out there by making a high quality system camera small. Of course, they went and shot themselves in the foot by immediately dismissing anyone looking to invest in a more serious shooting tool, and because of that, I look forward to seeing what the others come up with in response.
So, what should you buy?
I know that everyone has their own criteria and I don’t expect it to mirror mine. Look to the system. The questions I would ask myself before deciding would be; Which camera and subsequent system offer you what you want or need? Is overall size of concern? Are in camera features important? Does video matter to you? Do the lenses that you want exist, and are they priced realistically enough compared to those of a more established dSLR system? Every manufacturer will need to continue to bring high quality lenses to market as well. To me, there is a HUGE void of actually small lenses. Not just small by comparison to a slow kit 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, but SMALL pancake style lenses. I want to fit a high quality compact camera in my pocket and I don’t think I’m the only one. With that in mind, there really are only a few combinations currently available that would see me able to justify leaving my larger cameras at home. If I’m dragging around a camera bag, does an extra pound or two really matter? Not to me.
So, from my point of view, my suggestions are as follows:
- If you are only looking for a point and shoot experience where the camera automates everything for you, go with the Sony NEX3 or NEX5 hands down. It is a cool platform and should grow into a decent system. Who knows, by the time you’re ready to graduate to a more advanced camera, maybe Sony will have finally come out with one in an E mount! The Olympus EPL1 might be of interest as it automates all elements of exposure very easily with guiding menus but, unlike the Sonys, it gives you the ability to very easily control them. It’s poor LCD screen compared to all the others certainly should be taken into consideration though, even at its price point.
- If you like the idea of an integrated electronic viewfinder and gravitate toward the more traditional form and function of a dSLR camera body, go with the Panasonic G2, GH1, or perhaps wait to see if the anticipated upgrade to the GH1 (GH2?) is announced within the month.
- Primarily a video person? – GH1, or wait for the GH2.
- If you want to slim down, and want the ability to control your exposure like you would with a dSLR camera, I would suggest looking at the GF1 and EP2. I personally chose the GF1 and would again today over all others, but one big thing the EP2 offers that the GF1 does not is in body stabilization which could be huge if you plan to shoot with old lenses. Either of these cameras are serious enough for a demanding shooter and intuitive enough for the curious novice.
Obviously there is a market for each of these cameras and arguments for one over the other. Do some research and figure out what you want and need from a camera system.
For those who haven’t read my other articles on my experiences with the GF1, I have been very happy with it and so far do not see any compact camera that offers me a compelling enough reason to switch. If I were deciding today which camera to buy, I would wait for the impending announcements, but I have to say that I still feel the GF1 is the most complete choice when size, function and system compatibility are concerned. I look forward to it being knocked off my proverbial pedestal as I will then be very excited to upgrade. I happen to fall into what I see as one of three fairly distinct categories though, so your choice may not line up with mine. But, for those who’ve been asking my advice, this is a more rounded answer based on my opinions. I’d be interested to hear others thoughts as well, lets continue this as a dialogue folks, we never know who is listening. 🙂
There are TONS of rumors about Pentax, Canon and Nikon getting into this game as well. Where I see anything beyond brand loyalty playing to their benefit will be a small PEN/GF1/NEX style camera immediately compatible with their current lens mount which would not force an already invested shooter into another line of lenses while providing a new shooter an already established, quality lens line. This along with engineering a couple quality pancake lenses to complete the circle that could also be used on their existing camera bodies sharing the same mount would be a grand slam. The key is to provide something that will compliment the current line, not compete with it. Provide photographers with a nice compact alternative to quality point and shoots, not a slightly smaller version of an entry level dSLR. Will this happen? I sure hope so as I see this as the only real challenge that would force all others to up their respective games. Bring it on! No matter which you feel is best, it always helps if your system needs to continue to advance to keep up.
Stay up to date with the rumors and lets see what Photokina will bring! Where there’s smoke…….