Hello and welcome to my blog! For those of you who’ve read some of my other articles I’m sure you know how I feel about the GF1, and for those who are just stumbling across the blog, welcome and thanks for taking the time to stop by. While I’ve been shooting with the GF1 for over a year now, I have just recently been gifted the opportunity to use, and review a Sony NEX5. Thank you Sony, and my friends at Lensbaby for making this happen. While new cameras are continuing to be announced and released, I still feel that these two cameras provide the most compelling overall packages if you’re looking for a high performance compact/pocketable camera. Getting to extensively use the NEX5 has gone a long way in dispelling some of the shortcomings I’d felt it really exhibited upon my first interaction with one a few months back. I feel that the GF1 is the best balance of function and size in the micro 4/3 realm, so I was very curious to see how it stacked up against a very cool camera in the NEX5. I do feel there are some serious pros and cons for each of these cameras and depending on your needs, one may be head and shoulders above the other.
Let me start by saying that I know the GF1 has recently been “discontinued” on a couple sites and Panasonic has announced the GF2 (and 3!), but I don’t see the GF2/3 as a ‘replacement’ for the GF1 and as the GF1 and NEX5 have been the two highest selling mirrorless interchangeable lens compact cameras (MILC) in the Japanese market (which is the main market that Panasonic and Sony seem to market and develop to) I wanted to compare the two cameras which have risen to the top of the heap in this new and quickly growing market segment.
Let’s start with SIZE.
Both cameras are remarkably small and as we all know, even the GF2 doesn’t eclipse the NEX5 (and the GF3 is close, smaller in some dimensions, larger in others) as the smallest mirrorless interchangeable lens compact camera on the market currently. While being the smallest is pretty cool, for me, the NEX5 is too small. I have large hands, admittedly (my 6th grade self would make sure to mention that I can palm a regulation sized basketball), and while the ergonomics on the NEX5 go a long way to sit comfortably in hand, I have a hard time feeling secure while holding it. How small is too small? For me, it is the NEX5. The GF1 is pretty small, and in my opinion, small enough. With a small lens on it, I can fit it into most larger pockets easily. Get your hands on both to see for yourself as I feel someone with small to average sized hands will fit the NEX5 much better than mine. I will say though, even with it’s miniscule size, the NEX5 seems to have been built to allow access to the functional buttons really well as long as your hands fit the camera. I would think that when you start to use the NEX5 with larger, heavier lenses, the balance might be tricky as I know for a fact that the GF1, when used with some of my larger legacy lenses is a bit awkward balance wise.
The other major consideration when taking size into account is the relative size of lenses. I am a huge fan of the Panasonic 20mm (40mm e-fov) f/1.7 pancake lens. It is fast, it is small, and pound for pound it is a beautiful lens. It is also, almost identical in size to the Sony 16mm (24mm e-fov) f/2.8 pancake lens in weight and dimension. This to me is where one big decision will come into play. With an APS-C sensor vs a 4/3 sensor, to get a physically small lens (which to me is the main benefit to keep a small system camera ‘small’) you will inevitably have to sacrifice speed in a lens, the larger the sensor it has to project onto. To me, this is a pretty big deal and a decision that I don’t take too lightly. Will the performance of a larger sensor overtake my desire to have faster lenses available in a dedicated mount while staying relatively pocketable?
Next, SENSOR SIZE pros and cons.
What could possibly be a con for a larger APS-C sensor in a compact camera one might ask? Well, as I touched on above, you will end up with either slower (to accommodate overall physical size), (and)or larger lenses. While this really isn’t a huge deal for many, it can be a big deal when wanting to eat your cake, and I like cake. The smallest system camera is only relatively as “small” as it’s smallest lens for all intents and purposes, and to get small, something has to give. I like fast lenses above most all other aspects of photography. I’m one that considers f/2.8 to be slow and I can always stop a fast lens down for the times I require a deeper DOF, or need to deal with bright light, but you can only open up a slow lens so far. This means prime lenses are my preferred optical tool of choice in most applications. My main reason for purchasing a MILC was to replace my pocket camera. One that I could carry around in a large pocket, or small bag/lens case for the times I wanted to save my neck and shoulders from the weight of my DSLRs and lenses. This is my personal need for this type of camera so this shouldn’t be a deal breaker, but something to take into consideration if fast lenses are part and parcel to your shooting style. Of course, you can get an adapter and use all kinds of fast lenses on the NEX5/3 (or GF1/2), but you then lose auto functioning and the size “benefit” is gone. This being said, I have really enjoyed the NEX5’s E-mount 16mm (24mm e-fov) f/2.8 lens. It is slow in low light, but its wide angle of view helps to soften the effects of camera shake as it is more forgiving than longer focal length lenses which means I can feel pretty comfortable shooting down to 1/13 – 1/25 second handheld and as long as I can get my subjects to stay still, I can avoid using flash. YMMV…
The larger, APS-C sensor on the NEX5 outperforms the GF1’s micro 4/3 Panasonic sensor in most every way. A huge accomplishment for Sony to have built such a small camera with such a large sensor, and when the question of pure IQ is brought up, the Sony will win as long as the exposure allows for the shot to be taken. For instance, in low light (which while out and about is one of my main reasons for having a small, large sensor camera) you will need good high ISO performance and a fast lens. The Sony wins the battle of the former but loses out on the latter. By my eye, the Sony has 1 to 1+1/3 stop high ISO noise performance advantage. This is good for the Sony when you take into consideration that the 16mm pancake is 1+2/3 stops slower than the Panasonic pancake. Basically a wash. The resolution goes to the Sony as well. I’m a fan of a higher pixel count in most situations as I don’t buy the “only if you print large” argument because there are other benefits to more pixels. (Cropping and maintaining the ability to print large is one huge one for me) While the 14.2mp APS-C vs the 12.1mp m4/3 sensor isn’t quite the gap that a 12mp vs 20+mp full frame sensor exhibits, it is still a noticeable difference in image, and file size.
Below are 100% crops under controlled lighting at the specified ISO settings shot in RAW. I shot with the 16mm and 20mm pancakes respectively at f/8. I’ve included the ISO 6400 and 12800 crops from the NEX5 (as these are settings that the GF1 does not natively adjust to in camera), but for me, they are too noisy to really be all that useful. I will say though, I’d rather have a noisy shot than no shot at all, so while I feel the ISO6400 and 12800 shots are pretty messy, I’m sure that in a pinch you could get a decent shot after running them through your noise removal software of choice. Of course, with the faster Panasonic lens, you get a stop and change to also help in low light. (click on the images to see a larger version)
NEX5 @ ISO 800:
GF1 @ ISO 800:
NEX5 @ ISO 1600:
GF1 @ ISO 1600:
NEX5 @ ISO 3200:
NEX5 @ ISO 3200 close up (300%):
GF1 @ ISO 3200:
GF1 @ ISO 3200 close up (300%):
NEX5 @ ISO 6400 and 12800:
To my eye, both do fairly well up to ISO 1600. One thing to note is the control of moire where the GF1 seems to outdo the NEX5 at each setting (see the lines below the color and luminance value charts). While noisy, there is still decent detail and color and I wouldn’t hesitate to use either with a little NR. The 3200 shots start to get a bit messier and the Sony, again to my eye pulls away from the GF1. The chroma noise on the GF1 is more pronounced as seen in the dark areas in the close up crop, but this is also in a controlled lighting setup where I doubt I’d ever need to try and use ISO 3200. I would guess, in real world shooting, in very low light, ISO 3200 on either camera would produce a noisy picture. The ISO 6400 and 12800 shots from the NEX5 are what they are. That the camera can adjust to these settings is cool, but to me, I doubt I’d ever push it that far. Nice to know that they’re there if needed though I guess. I’m not huge on pixel peeping so I don’t normally do these types of tests and honestly I think that both do a great job when taking into consideration how tiny the camera in your hand is. The NEX has the obvious APS-C sensor advantages here, but for me, it doesn’t provide as huge a gap as I would have originally guessed. Rest assured that either of these cameras will perform on par with most current entry level dSLRs give or take a stop to the average eye I’d say.
Lets look at the INTERFACE.
Sony uses 3 “soft” buttons which have their functions labeled on the screen. In my opinion, this is the biggest drawback to the NEX5. While in form, the NEX5 is a beautiful camera, in function, it is challenged from a photographers point of view. I admit, after shooting with it for a few weeks, I’ve come to know where the settings that I tend to use and change on a regular basis live, but they are buried in menus. This found me tending to allow the camera to automate more than I usually like to have a camera automate. Fine if you are pointing and shooting, but not great if you are interested in a more interactive photographic experience. My take on the NEX5 is that it seems as if Sony had their cell phone design team meet for lunch with the compact camera design team to come up with an interface that they felt would be appealing to a point and shoot convert. In that way, I think they succeeded and did a wonderful job. For a photographer coming the other direction and looking for a good companion to, or replacement for a dSLR for instance, will have a lot of relearning to get acquainted with the interface on the NEX cams, and while you can and will get used to it, going back to a dSLR or more performance driven camera, you will realize how much time you lose changing settings on the NEX5. The NEX5 is also noticeably slower in response, and when wanting to get out of menus by way of a shutter button press (when you want to immediately start shooting) it is slow and requires a near full button press on the shutter to ‘wake’ it up. The GF1 is noticeably less sluggish in this regard and the shutter button is more sensitive allowing you to get back to shooting more quickly. The AF on the GF1 is also more peppy. I didn’t measure it in fractions of a second or anything, but I didn’t need to to notice the difference. Props to Sony for the beautiful 921k dot, articulating LCD screen as it was a pleasure to compose and review on. The GF1’s 460k dot LCD is nice, but it is one area that I feel could be improved upon, especially when it is the main compositional viewing aid. One interesting thing to me was that the LCD on the GF1 (while both are technically 3″ screens, measured diagonally) has a larger viewable area. On the NEX, the screen is cropped to allow for the soft button instructions. The GF1, in my opinion wins hands down as far as interface goes. Dedicated buttons to change ISO, white balance, AF operation, as well as a mode dial and shutter drive switch make for a much quicker and more manageable photographic tool from a control standpoint. The NEX5 has done well to keep an uncluttered top and rear panel while still offering a dedicated movie button and multi function control wheel, it’s just more geared to someone more apt to have everything set up to be automatically determined by the camera. The functions are manipulatable in the NEX5, it is just much more laborious to do so. A matter of personal preference, and honestly, if you’re not looking for this much control over your shooting, don’t mind taking the time, or aren’t one to change settings often it may be very excusable. Trade offs as it were.
How about the BELLS AND WHISTLES?
I’m not normally one to be swayed by the latest in in-camera tricks and processing, but I must say, the Sony NEX5 has some amazing tricks up its sleeve. The sweep panorama is awesome. This feature alone shows how ingenuity and competition between camera manufacturers can produce really cool in camera features. Allowing to shoot a panoramic series in RAW which is seamlessly processed in camera is just plain cool. (It’s not without its quirks, but I had a decent success rate.) This is one feature I wish I had on every camera. Sometimes, when out and about, having to plan out a properly exposed and panned panorama is just too much trouble, not to mention you should be employing a tripod, spirit level, etc. While I don’t doubt that a more meticulous approach by someone who knows how to shoot to stitch a panorama in software would be capable of producing a much better image, for the rest of us, it is a really cool feature and one I thoroughly enjoyed.
The other big whistle is the in camera HDR processing. While I know this is the latest craze and seemingly the feature that is showing up in more and more entry level cameras, the fact that you have to shoot in 8bit Jpegs, while it would work in a pinch, in my opinion is more gimmick than useful. I’d rather have a RAW file to work with, and/or capture for HDR in the ‘Old Fashioned Way‘. With this type of in-camera compression, and only capturing in Jpeg, I found that my results with the AutoHDR were flat and muddled by comparison to an HDR bracketing series processed in software, or a well exposed RAW file later processed to utilize the depth of info in highlight and shadow retention. I would rather see a deeper bit depth in RAW files which would allow for smoother tonal transition and if coupled with better processors, would broaden the dynamic range in a single file. It will win praises from those who don’t like to take time to post process to their taste as it will provide you with a quick and dirty, more dynamically diverse image file, but it is a compromise compared to doing it yourself either via bracketing and/or shooting in RAW.
The other various scene modes are similar to most other current cameras (landscape, night time, fireworks, etc) and to me are more limited by the lens being used than anything. No matter what, unless you’re shooting with a fast lens and high ISO, you won’t get a fast enough shutter speed in candle light to make any shot worth saving unless you like that “artistic” blurred ghosty look of unfocussed night time shots. I’m more a fan of shooting in a manual mode and understanding what I need to do to get the shot regardless of the light, or scene in front of me, but I also really enjoy photography from a more technical point of view and choose not to use the auto modes as a personal choice. As a result I didn’t fully explore any of these settings in either camera. Neither of these cameras has in body image stabilization which is a shame. Especially when you take into consideration all of the cool legacy lenses you can use with these (vs. the very few actual proprietary lenses available) it is too bad that owners of either of these small, easily shakeable, harder to hold steady small cams are required to buy lenses with stabilization.
The NEX5 comes with an accessory flash, which, much like the clever pop-up flash on the GF1, did a good job for fill. Again, dialing in flash exposure compensation on the NEX5 is a journey through menus to find and adjust it. Seeing that the NEX5 body didn’t incorporate a flash to maintain its miniscule size, having the accessory flash available is handy. May I ask one question though, Sony, where is the hotshoe? Not having a hotshoe on a “serious” camera is inexcusable to me. I know that Sony uses that crazy proprietary Minolta mount hotshoe thing on its dSLRs, but at least that allows for external flash, and hotshoe mount adapters to use things like wireless triggers, external flashes, shoe mount external microphone, spirit level, etc. Not a big deal for a casual shooter, but again, this points me to the conclusion that they are strongly targeting cell phone/point and shoot photographers versus enabling a more serious shooter with the ability to compliment their existing setup with a fully functional compact camera. To me, I’d rather see the camera just a little bit bigger, incorporate a couple more dedicated buttons and a hotshoe. It would still be functional from a P&S convert’s point of view, but also keep the more serious shooters happy while staying small enough to fit into a large pocket. Room to grow no doubt as there has yet to be a universally perfect camera released. Much like my utter confusion when Panasonic released the G10 and G2 cameras, I think that the NEX3 and NEX5 are too similar to really separate themselves from each other and as a result, are resources somewhat wasted when they could have been directed to diversify the respective lines.
I could go on and on about how these two cameras compare to each other, and many folks have. To me, I feel that just about any current camera can make a nice enough image when you look at sensors, processors and whatnot. I’m interested in how the handling and feel of a camera’s image making experience suits a particular style. I’ve been getting asked about these MILC cameras, especially the GF1, and I wanted to help some of these folks see the differences between what I see as two of the best current, compact system cameras. Both are wonderful little machines capable of killer images that I feel can, and should be improved upon in the future but offer two very different shooting experiences compared to each other. So, brass tax and my personal pros and cons for the NEX5 vs the GF1…
First the GF1:
- Better functionality and interface
- Smaller, faster lenses available in m4/3 mount
- Better size for my large hands
- More proprietary lens options
- Accessory port allows for EVF (electronic viewfinder)
- Quicker response, AF, wake…
- Smaller sensor
- Currently, lenses are pretty expensive
- Resolution on the EVF is pretty crummy
- 460k dot LCD is nice, but it ain’t a 921k dot screen!
- Noticeably weaker high ISO/noise performance (by one to two stops)
And, the NEX5:
- Beautiful articulating 921k dot LCD screen
- APS-C sensor
- In camera Sweep Panorama and HDR are handy tools
- Small size/light weight, if looking for the smallest camera and use the 16mm pancake
- The system is more realistically priced
- Menu based interface is clunky and takes too many button pushes to get to important adjustments
- Lenses need to be slower to stay ‘small’
- System is still needing more lens options (should be remedied within the year)
- Is too small for my large hands
- No hotshoe
- Wake time/response lag can and should be improved.
Like I’d mentioned above, there is no universally perfect camera and I feel that with a couple tweaks, either of these cameras could be immediately much, much better. For the GF1, unfortunately my hopes and desires weren’t answered in the GF2. I’d still like to see the next GF series (or similar camera) include a higher res LCD (and higher res add on EVF), 14 bit RAW files, IBIS and perhaps a little weather sealing while keeping the body about the same size (a boy can dream…). If Olympus does this with the next EP camera, I’d be happy to give it’s tires a kick or two as well. While size is an issue, I’d rather have a camera that is 7% larger (or whatever the GF1 is over the GF2) that includes a more performance driven engine below the hood. A cool panorama stitch would be a fun in camera perk in my opinion as well, but this is more me still riding the high from the NEX5’s cool feature.
In the case of the NEX5, I would like to see the body grow in height just by a tiny bit for better physical handling. Why not a NEX3 some might say? Well, add the articulating screen and better build to the 3 and we’re moving in the right direction in my opinion. Being able to get more than one finger on the grip, to me, would go a long way in stabilizing my shooting experience and when using larger lenses I feel it would help balance the camera overall. I’d love to see a complete overhaul on the interface with more dedicated buttons for ISO, WB etc and a hotshoe would help, even if needing a Minolta>standard adapter for use with wireless triggers, etc. An add on EVF (like the PENs and GF series cameras) would also help for another stabilizing point of contact and bright light viewing/composing. IBIS would be universally welcomed as well I’m sure assuming it didn’t increase the overall body size much, or perhaps better yet, keep either the NEX5 or 3 as the “smallest” and transform the other into a more photographer first camera with the extra functionality, hotshoe, etc. (***There are rumors that a new NEX camera is on the horizon, so maybe we’ll see some adjustments…)
I can see where a niche following might gladly excuse increased functionality for the best at X, Y or Z or the smallest this or that, but for many of us, I feel that a compromise in a couple ways to gain a more complete image making tool might be the deciding factor in one camera over another.
In conclusion, the more I’ve played with the NEX5, the more I’ve really enjoyed it. I think that even with its faults, it is a capable image making device. For me personally, it is too small for my hands and looking at the fact that lenses will have to be larger and/or slower to stay ‘compact’ to me defeats my main criteria for a high end compact camera. This may be a sticking point in the debate between which camera is “better” as I could argue the benefits/drawbacks to one system either way entirely differently depending on personal criteria.
Overall system size without compromising lens speed? GF1.
Lowlight sensor performance? NEX5.
Lowlight lens performance? GF1.
In camera processing, bells and whistles? NEX5.
Interface and control from a photographer’s standpoint? GF1.
I am one who will do a lot of personal research before deciding on a camera, lens, strobe, etc and know that my decisions may not sync up with anyone else. For my compact camera, I will sacrifice a larger sensor and all that it brings with it for an overall size reduction in the system as long as that system provides physically small, fast lenses, which the m4/3 lot has in the 20mm f/1.7 lens (I don’t consider the 17mm f/2.8 or the 14mm f/2.5 to be notably “fast” but they are very small, and at least as ‘fast’ as Sony’s 16/2.8.) For the NEX system to have an f/1.7 (or faster) lens, it would be noticeably larger which to me starts to negate any size advantages. I am looking for a supplementary compact ‘pocket’ camera to replace an LX3/5, G12/P7000 or S95, et al though, not my “main” system camera.
Can you live with slower, or physically larger proprietary lenses? Then the NEX system should certainly be looked at. Sony supposedly has 3 new NEX cameras to be announced in 2011 if we listen to recent rumors, so I hope that they address the interface and give photographers the option to deal less with menus, and give them access to quick buttons to change integral functions quickly and easily. Sony isn’t resting as they continue to make waves in the DSLR and mirrorless markets which I think is great. I love innovation and the competition it produces. I see the NEX cameras appealing most to people who are not coming from an existing DSLR system, but the folks looking to get into their first interchangeable lens system camera. I’m an old dog and the NEX requires too many new tricks when it comes to interacting with a camera to make a photograph for me, but after using the NEX5, I don’t think I was in the target market anyway.
Regardless of my personal opinions, I do feel that the NEX5 is one of the most progressive compact cameras available today. It provides great image quality in the smallest body giving a shooter access to an interchangeable lens system. The GF1, in my opinion, is the best all around, pound for pound camera in this new MILC category. There are areas that it is bested, but I feel it has balanced its benefits and drawbacks into a camera that will keep a serious shooter happy for a long time. Depending on which site you search it out on, it is close to being discontinued and at the current prices, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick one up if I were on the fence. There will inevitably be new cameras on both platforms that will respectively raise the bar, but it will not take away from these two groundbreaking cameras. Both the NEX5 and GF1 have found places in my heart, but for me, I’m not going to be selling the GF1 off anytime soon.
There are many differences in approach to the way that these cameras interact with the shooter, and to me, that is entirely a personal choice. What works for one may not for another. One thing to take into consideration when overall size is a deciding factor, is to look at the available lenses. It’s one thing to have the smallest body, but that may go out the window if you start plugging the bulkier zoom lenses on there. (I guess what I’m saying is that I wouldn’t buy a NEX5 just to be able to say I have the “smallest” MILC camera, but as long as it fits your hands, you’ll have a great, small, camera) I also don’t feel that the tiny MILC cameras are really all that well balanced with the larger zoom lenses anyway and if you are wanting to replace a dSLR system entirely, or really want a 100-300 style zoom, maybe look at the larger bodied (yet still fairly light weight) dSLR style bodies like the G2, GH2, Samsung NX10/11, etc as they will be better balanced with the larger lenses (not to mention give you that extra point of physical contact for stability when looking through the EVF pressed firmly against your brow.) While I was very critical of the NEX5 originally, getting to use one extensively has certainly softened my stance. While I feel it isn’t quite the camera for me, it is a better performer in fashion and function than I had originally given it credit for. While I focused in on the two most successful 2010 MILC camera sales leaders, there are many others out there and more coming, so get your hands on as many cameras as you find interesting to see how they feel, and interact with you. You can read internet articles until you’re blue in the face, but it really comes down to your individual set of criteria and how a particular camera fits those needs and feels in hand. Feel free to fire off an email or comment and I’d be happy to try and help answer any questions from my personal experience. Also, if you’re interested in receiving email alerts for new articles, tutorials or general blog posts, just enter your email at the top right of the page.
For further info on the NEX5 and other Sony Cameras, check out Sony’s website HERE.
Panasonic still, as of this writing, has the GF1 listed on its website HERE.
Thanks for reading and happy shooting!
For further reading on Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Compact cameras, here are a couple other articles…