The Mirrorless Shootout


In between compact and DSLR.

The Story

If you're just tuning in, I covered the Canon G10, Nikon P6000, and Panasonic LX-3 in a previous comparison article, the Canon G12, Nikon P7000, and Panasonic LX-5 in another article. The competition at the high-end of the compact camera market is an ongoing one, and the results change a bit during each generation. Read those article for more background before continuing on to this one.

Update: Olympus has given us an E-PL2 and Panasonic a GF-2. I've added bits and pieces about these new models to the article, but in terms of image quality, neither of these models is any different than the older ones in my testing. Unless you need one of the (few) new features, an E-PL1 is for the most part as good as an E-PL2 and a GF-1 for the most part as good as a GF-2. Neither company moved the bar very far, probably because the updates seem more focused on manufacturing gains and slight ergonomic changes. If you look closely, you can find E-PL1 and GF-1 models at closeout prices, and I consider them better values than the current new models.

In June of 2009 Olympus and Panasonic presented a new alternative camera design, the so-called mirrorless camera. These interchangeable lens cameras were designed like modern DSLRs, but were far smaller due to the removal of the optical viewing system (mirror). In practice, they behaved much more like compact cameras in that you used the color LCD on the back of the camera to compose a shot, with the main imaging sensor was involved in metering, focusing, and composition preview.

I reviewed the first cameras in this category last year (the Olympus E-P1 and the Panasonic GF-1). Since then, we've had quite a few mirrorless cameras appear:

  • Olympus: E-P1, E-P2, E-PL1, E-PL2
  • Panasonic: GH-1, G1, GF-1, GF-2, G2, G10, GF-2, GH-2
  • Samsung: NX10, NX5, NX100
  • Sony: NEX-3, NEX-5

In this review, I'm going to stick to one camera from each maker. I'm ignoring the more DSLR-like cameras with optical (EVF) viewfinders, such as the G and GH series from Panasonic and the NX5 and NX10 from Samsung. What I'm looking to cover here is the cameras most likely to act as a competent compact replacement for a typical DSLR user. To that end I've narrowed things down to these four:

  • Olympus E-PL1
  • Panasonic GF-1
  • Samsung NX100
  • Sony NEX-5

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan
This is a single shot, so the Panasonic and the Sony (smallest camera in the test) are correctly proportioned here. The Olympus is close to the Panasonic in size, the Samsung is slightly bigger.

A couple of those choices need more explanation. I chose the GF-1 over the GF-2 mainly because the GF-2 isn't here yet (in the US) and the GF-1 represents a more sophisticated design that would appeal more to the DSLR user than the GF-2's more low-end approach. I chose the Sony NEX-5 over the NEX-3 simply for the more tangible body (metal instead of plastic). That said, the GF-1 and GF-2 use the same sensor, as do the NEX-3 and NEX-5, so if you'd rather pick the lower end model there, I suspect that my image quality comments will apply nearly perfectly.

One thing these cameras are not is pocketable. Well, let me take that back a bit, as I often carry my E-PL1 in a jacket pocket: you need a very big pocket to carry these cameras. You won't be stuffing one in a shirt pocket ala the Canon S95, nor will you find they fit in most larger pockets on your pants, shirts, or even dress vests. To "pocket" one of these cameras, you need a big pocket. On the flip side, they're substantially smaller and lighter than DSLRs, so assuming you're wearing a jacket or willing to carry a small bag with you, you'll not suffer much of a size/weight penalty. From smallest to largest in terms of body-only:

  • Sony NEX-5
  • Olympus E-PL1 and Panasonic GF-1
  • Samsung NX100

(the GF-2 changes the list slightly: NEX-5, GF-2, E-PL2, and NX100 going from smallest to biggest)

But those differences aren't that large. The bigger difference comes with the lenses. Both the Olympus and Samsung feature collapsing kit lenses, which reduce their size considerably. The Panasonic has a rather largish kit lens that sticks out quite a bit further than the Olympus. The Sony's body is dwarfed by the kit lens. Only the Panasonic includes a hood for the kit lens, and that makes the lens stick out more if you keep it on ;~). Note the weights in the table below. The Panasonic with kit lens is the heaviest. The Sony and Olympus are almost equal, though the weight is distributed differently between lens and body.

So why is it the lens is making so much of the "pocketable size" difference? Simple: these cameras use larger sensors, which require glass with larger imaging circles than those lenses in compact cameras. In some cases, far larger. Olympus and Panasonic use m4/3 sensors, which are about a quarter the area of the old 35mm frame. Samsung and Sony use APS sensors, which are about the same 1.5x crop Nikon DX users are used to (and about half the area of 35mm).

The goal of using a larger sensor is to get better image quality, in particular larger dynamic range and lower noise at higher ISO values. The goal of having interchangeable lenses is to make these cameras into something that's competent and flexible enough to actually replace a DSLR, but without the size and weight.

As I noted, I've been using such cameras in lieu of a compact camera for over a year now. I've dragged several of these bodies around the world with me, and I've shot tens of thousands of pictures with them. Obviously, I wouldn't do that if I didn't think that it worked in some fashion for me. And work it does. Don't dismiss these cameras lightly: they are very competent image makers. What typically turns people off from them is that the camera makers don't seem to have a clear target user in mind and have thus sometimes created strange mixes of (or just overall strange) control mechanisms. I see too much "let's see if we can target both types of users" mix in the designs of all these cameras, though the Panasonic is fairly consistent with it's LX-5 and GF-1/2 designs, which at least indicates that they think that's the "correct" design. Personally, I think the makers are trying to do too much with a single design, a sign that they're not 100% confident of the overall sales volume a more focused design would generate. I think they'd each sell more if they had two clearly defined models in their lineups using the same basic size/insides: (1) compact upgrader; and (2) sophisticated DSLR downgrader.

A compact upgrader wants automation with more performance. A DSLR downgrader wants full control with less size and weight but as little sacrifice in performance as possible. None of our contestants have nailed either group, though Sony comes close to getting it right for the compact upgrader.

At the moment, neither Nikon nor Canon have chosen to play in the mirrorless arena. Nikon is likely to be the next entrant, and I expect to see their model hit the shelves by about March 2011. Ditto Pentax. No word on Canon. Frankly, I think waiting for a maker to enter this market is probably a waste of time. Why? One word: lenses. The smaller distance from lens mount to image sensor on the mirrorless cameras--remember that big mirror was removed--means you need new lenses to compete in this arena. Yes, you can get mount adapters to use older lenses on these cameras, but that typically means that the whole combination of camera body and lens gets much, much bigger, and things like autofocus disappear or get a performance hit. So not only are you waiting for Nikon, Pentax, and Canon to make a mirrorless camera, you're waiting for them to make the lenses you'll want, too. Given Nikon's six to eight lens a year pace, you could be waiting awhile.

So let's meet our contenders. First up, some key specifications:
  Olympus E-PL1 Panasonic GF-1 Samsung NX100 Sony NEX-5
Sensor m4/3 12mp (4032x3024) Panasonic made sensor m4/3 12mp (4000x3000) Panasonic made sensor APS 14.6mp (4592x3056) Samsung made sensor

APS 14.2mp (4592x3056) Sony made sensor

Mount, Crop Factor m4/3, 2x m4/3, 2x NX, 1.5x NEX, 1.5x
Lens kit: 17mm f/2.8 or 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 kit: 20mm f/1.7 or 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 VR kit: 20mm f/2.8 or 20-50mm f/3.5-5.6 kit: 16mm f/2.8 or 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 VR
ISO range 100-3200 100-3200 100-3200 200 to 12,800
LCD, Viewfinder 2.7", 230k dot; optional xxx dot EVF 3", 460k dot; optional 220k dot EVF 3", 614k dot AMOLED; optional 201k dot EVF 3", 920k dot, positionable (up/down only)
Shutter speeds 15s - 1/2000 60s - 1/4000 30s - 1/4000 30s - 1/4000
Size 115x72x42mm (body) 119x71x36.3mm (body) 120x71x35mm (body) 111x59x38mm (body)
Weight 334g (body+battery)
484g (w/ 14-42
lens)
348g (body+battery)
543g (w/ 14-45 lens)
340g (body+battery)
459g (w/ 20-50 lens)
287g (body+battery)
481g (w/ 18-55 lens)
Significant Other Features Sensor stabilization, 720P/30 video, pop-up flash, optional stereo mic 720P/30 video, pop-up flash 720P/30 video, optional flash, optional GPS 1080i/60 and 720P/30 video, comes with external flash, optional stereo mic
New models E-PL2 adds USB remote shutter release, rear control dial, new battery, 3" 460k dot LCD, ISO 6400, 1/4000 top shutter speed (and 1/180 sync), PENPal bluetooth and MAL-1 macro accessories. GF2 removes Mode dial and wired remote, adds stereo mic and sound, anti-reflective touchscreen, ISO 6400, 1080i/60; body overall smaller and lighter.    
Likely Future (as of 2/11/11) Next body is likely to be higher end. PL2 will be entry camera for awhile. Panasonic is likely to be working on G3 next. GF-2 will be entry camera for awhile. Additional NX "style" model coming in 2011, three new NX models overall A Nex-4 model is coming in May, basically Nex-3 body with Nex-5 video, other minor iterations to update Nex-3. Nex-7 will come much later in year.

I hesitate to put any prices on these cameras, as I've seen quite a wide variation that seems to come and go at any given time. As I write this, the range seems to be US$499 to US$699 with a kit lens. But as I note elsewhere, I found an E-PL1 for US$399 with lens recently, so every now and then a bargain pops up in this category. I suspect the GF-1 will continue to fall in price as the GF-2 nears the market in the US. The one that seems to be moving the least in price at the moment is the Sony.

All of these cameras have a wide range of other features, basically most of what you'd expect from a low-end DSLR. All use the imaging sensor for contrast autofocus, ala compact cameras, with varying degrees of success. All have mount adapters available to use their DSLR lenses, and third-party adapters are available to use just about any SLR or DSLR lens ever made on them. (About adapters: the only ones that make sense to me are the Leica S or Leica M mounts, and even then you need to think carefully, as you'll be manual focus only and the cropped sensors may make your choices more limited than you think. Still, it's a nice option, and I've happily used a couple of my Leica M-mount lenses on my m4/3 bodies.)

Much like the compact cameras I covered earlier, we really have two primary things to discuss:

  1. What's the difference in image quality? Are any good enough for a serious shooter to carry around all the time?
  2. What's the difference in handling? Do any of them get in the way of the serious shooter who wants to control the camera?

I'll give you the short answer to each:

  1. Differences in image quality do exist between the cameras, but all of them are quite competent and produce excellent images in good to modest light.
  2. In terms of handling they're more like compact cameras than DSLRs, with the exception of the interchangeable lenses.

Choosing between these cameras, therefore, is not going to be easy. However, there is one element that should be considered right up front: lenses. In this respect, Olympus and Panasonic have a wide lead over the others (please note: this chart now has a page of its own on the site that may be more up-to-date than this one):

  Available Coming
m4/3 Mount (Olympus/Panasonic)

Samyang 8mm MF fisheye
Olympus 9-18mm f/4-5.6
Samyang 14mm f/2.8 MF
Olympus 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6
Olympus 14-150mm f/4-5.6
Olympus 17mm f/1.7
Panasonic 7-14mm f/4
Panasonic 8mm f/3.5 fisheye
Panasonic 12.5mm 3D lens
Panasonic 14mm f/2.5
Panasonic 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 VR
Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 VR II
Panasonic 14-140mm f/4-5.6 VR
Panasonic 20mm f/1.7
Panasonic/Leica 45mm f/2.8 Macro
Panasonic 45-200mm f/4-5.6
Panasonic 100-300mm f/4-5.6 VR

Voigtlander 25mm f/0.95 MF

Samyang 85mm f/1.4 MF

Noktor 50mm f/0.95 MF (2011)
Olympus 8mm fisheye (2011)
Olympus 12mm f/2 (2011)
Olympus 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 (2011)
Olympus 45mm f/1.8 (2011)
Panasonic 45mm f/1.4 (2011)
SLR Magic 35mm f/1.7 MF (2011)
Samyang 7.5mm f/3.5 fisheye (2011)
Sigma 30mm f/2.8 (2011)

NX Mount (Samsung)

Samyang 8mm MF fisheye
Samyang 14mm f/2.8 MF
Samsung 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 VR
Samsung 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6
Samsung 20-50mm f/3.5-5.6
Samsung 20mm f/2.8
Samsung 30mm f/2
Samsung 50-200mm f/5-5.6 VR
Samyang 85mm f/1.4 MF

Samsung 12-24mm f/4 (2012)
Samsung 16mm f/2.4 (2011)
Samsung 16-50mm f/2.8 VR (2013)
Samsung 16-80mm f/3.5-4.5 VR (2011)
Samsung 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 VR (2011)
Samsung 35mm f/1.4 (2012)
Samsung 50mm f/1.4 (2012)
Samsung 50-135mm f/2.8 VR (2013)
Samsung 60mm f/2.8 Macro (2011)
Samsung 75-300mm f/4-5.6 VR (2012)
Samsung 85mm f/1.4 (2011)
Samsung 135mm f/2 (2012)

NEX Mount (Sony)*

Sony has also opened the mount specifications to thrid parties, which should produce many more lenses soon.
Sony 16mm f/2.8
Sony 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6
Sony 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 VR
Sony 30mm f/3.5 macro

Samyang 8mm MF f/3.5 fisheye (2011)
Sigma 30mm f/2.8 (2011)
Sony/Zeiss 24mm f/2 (2011)
Sony 40mm f/2 OS (2011)
Sony 55-210mm f/4-5.6 OS (2011)
Sony 50mm f/1.8 (2012)
Sony High Performance Zoom (2012)
Sony Wide Angle Zoom (2012)
Sony Middle Telephoto (2012)

* You can use 14 of the Sony Alpha mount lenses with the LA-EA1 adapter and still have working autofocus. But the adapter pushes the mount position out to the usual DSLR position, negating part of the advantage of the mirrorless format in the first place. The zooms that can be used this way tend to overwhelm the size of the camera, but some of the primes (30mm f/2.8, 35mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.8, and 85mm f/2.8) might be reasonable choices until dedicated NEX lenses appear. Personally, the mount-adapted lenses I tend to use on the NEX are the Voigtlander 12mm (Leica mount), 20mm (Nikon mount), and 40mm (Nikon mount). Why? Because they're small and I don't need AF.

The m4/3 mount has a pretty good head start over the other contenders, especially Sony. Overall, I'm frustrated with the lack of truly wide angle options on the Samsung (28mm equivalent in a kit lens doesn't hack it), and the lack of smaller lenses for the Sony (only the 16mm keeps the camera relatively pocketable, IMHO). Meanwhile, I've been shooting happily with a wide range of optics on my m4/3 cameras for at least a year now, and many of those "coming" lenses are coming soon (already out in some parts of the world). So one thing you need to think about: are you going to use one of these cameras truly as a mini-DSLR or are you just looking for an all-around compact camera? If the latter, all four cameras fill the bill nicely. If the former, look closely to make sure the existing and coming lens sets match your needs.

Just to give you some idea of size, here are three of the "kit" lenses shot next to each other (in other words, scale is accurate). The Sony lens isn't shown, as my copy is unavailable at the moment, but it's bigger than the biggest lens here, and by a considerable margin. From left to right: Panasonic, Samsung (collapsed), and Olympus (collapsed). Note that "features" intersects with "size." The Panasonic has the longest focal length range (by a smidgen over the Olympus) and lens-based VR, and is the biggest. The Samsung has the shortest focal length range (by quite a bit) and no lens stabilization, and is the smallest:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

Feature Sets

A few things stand out as key differentiations in the feature sets: lens stabilization versus sensor stabilization, the color LCD, and flash. Sure, the Sony has an auto pano mode, the Samsung has an external GPS option, and so on, but these are not things that'll make or break your buying decision. The three I'm going to mention might.

The Olympus is the only one with sensor-based stabilization, meaning every lens you put on the camera can be stabilized. In practice, that works quite well, and it works with lenses you mount via adapter, too. That's a real difference to the Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony, all of which use in-lens stabilization (and not all their lenses have it). So you need to think right up front about lenses. If you're really only going with the kit lens or a small subset of the available lenses and they all have stabilization, then the issue is moot. But if you're looking for the most lens flexibility with stabilization, the Olympus cameras (the E-P1 and E-P2 also use sensor stabilization) are your best bets. The Sony tries to compensate with multi-shot capabilities (Anti Motion Blur and Hand-held Twilight), but it's not the same thing; indeed, Nikon's old BSS would have been a better choice.

Likewise, there is some difference in the color LCD that comes into play. Only the Sony's LCD is positionable, and that is limited to tilting up and down (and not quite all the way up or down). That's useful for those that shoot at unusual angles, but not as useful as a full positionable LCD (like on the Canon G12) is. From there, the LCDs are all over the board. The Sony has the most resolution, the Samsung is AMOLED which is great for outdoor viewing, the Olympus' is smallish and low in resolution, and the Panasonic is somewhere in the middle of all that. In practice, outdoor shooting in bright light challenges all these displays a bit, with the Olympus being the most challenged. My solution is simple: bring a 3" Hoodman viewing loupe with me. I can even manage to use that as a poor man's optical finder with these cameras (more experimental souls will come up with a way of quickly "attaching" such a hood, I'm sure).

To me, however, the more important difference the color LCD makes is in manual focusing. If you're going to use a mount adapter, or if you just like to manual focus, there are clear winners and losers here. I find the Panasonic and Sony both give a very clear, easy to focus zoomed view as you rotate the focus ring. I've not had any troubles focusing either camera manually (other than the Sony buries MF in their consumer-oriented menu system). The Samsung and Olympus do far less well here--something about their manual focus live view seems a little "fuzzy" to me, and it's a little difficult to really fine tune focus on these cameras.

Flash is another area where differences abound: the Olympus and Panasonic pack small pop-up flashes. Neither are very powerful, but they do prove useful in close quarters or for modest fill. Sony includes an external flash with the NEX-5, but it's really funky: the Sony doesn't have a standard hot shoe, but instead has a strange proprietary connector under a lid on the top of the camera. I've found that quickly connecting and disconnecting the flash (or any of Sony's other accessories that use this connection) isn't something I can do while walking. The connection is a bit fiddly. Plus that gives you something extra to carry (though Sony does supply it in a tiny little plastic carrying case). So you don't get a lot of power, don't get the flash very far off the lens axis, and you still have all the issues of carrying a separate flash. Yuck. Samsung at least goes with a traditional hot shoe and a larger, more powerful accessory flash. But that gets you closer to a traditional DSLR in size and convenience than you might be looking for.

But to make a long story shorter, if neither the lens selection nor the three differentiations in feature set I just noted tell you which camera you should consider, your final take will come down to handling and image quality.

Some short additions to feature comments after reading email responses:

  • External flash. A few have chided me on not mentioning more about external flash, especially the Olympus wireless options. The context of this article is "compact cameraness." You can indeed use any of these cameras as "system cameras," much like you would a DSLR. But then you need to compare against small DSLRs, in my opinion. A D3100 versus a GF-1 fully outfitted as a "system" starts to be closer in size and weight but the capabilities are in different classes. But if you're into making a small system, by all means take my remarks as a starting place, not an end point.
  • Optional EVF viewfinders. The E-PL1 and GF-1 have optional EVF viewfinders, and I suspect that the Samsung and Sony teams will add them to their offerings at some point soon, too. The problem I have with them is that they're not very good. You get small, coarse, slightly lagging displays. None pass my bar for basic MF work. All seem to have taken the "just replicate the LCD" path, which means either no information (for composition) or cluttered information overlaying what you're trying (hard) to see. You need a 1m dot EVF to do it justice, IMHO. And attention to a lot of details, like adopting a more DSLR-like view instead of cluttering the screen with icons and info (hint: see the Samsung screen, below). The reason most people want an EVF seems to be "bright light outdoors" means I can't see the main LCD. Well, the Sony has an "outdoor mode" that's decent. But I've never really had all that much trouble with any of these, and just carrying around a Hoodman Hoodloupe as I suggest will get you through those tougher times when the sun really is making the LCD tough to see. That said, the Olympus EVF is better than the Panasonic EVF, by a fair margin. Thus, I'd say forget EVFs with the Panasonic, but take a close look at the Olympus EVF if you really want to go that way (a Hoodman is cheaper ;~).
  • Postitionable LCD. Only the Sony has one. Positionable is better than fixed. Let me make that clear. My negative comment about the Sony's positioning is that it isn't as good as a fully articulating LCD. There's absolutely no reason why such a design couldn't have been done, and I don't understand why we keep seeing strange variations on LCD positioning that don't fully articulate, including a full flip. If can do it on a camera like the G12, you can do it on any camera.

Handling

You couldn't find four cameras that differed more in basic handling issues while trying to catch the attention of the same customer.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

The Olympus E-PL1 is fairly close to the original E-P1 overall (see my review). Many of the things I complained about with handling on the E-P1 remain in the E-PL1. For a camera partially targeted at the compact consumer trading up, the Olympus menu system is a mess (though the elaborate custom settings are not visible by default). For a sophisticated DSLR user trading down, the menus are still pretty much a mess. On the flip side, once you've read the manual a couple of times and figured out some of Olympus's terminology, the camera is highly configurable, which is what most of you reading this will want. The big bugaboo still remains, though: it's too easy to accidentally hit the OK button in the center of the Direction pad and accidentally change a key setting without noticing. It happens to me about once a shooting session, and it's exceedingly annoying.

Other than that, the Olympus is a bit like using a compact camera that has a Mode dial. Exposure modes are set via the dial, everything else relies upon buttons. Nothing inherently wrong with this, but changing exposure compensation isn't direct (press button, set compensation via buttons, press button).

Bad news: the tripod socket is offset from the center of the lens, the only one of the four cameras to do so. No hood for the kit lens, and it needs one (hint: buy a B&W screw-in hood from B&H). Record movie button to prominent; I accidentally hit it too often. Good news: you can easily accomplish a bounce-like flash (in small spaces) by holding your index finger to hold the pop-up flash from folding forward.

Update: The E-PL2 does fix a few of the handling issues and provides a better LCD.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

I've written about the Panasonic GF-1 elsewhere, so I won't labor the point here. I have become more accustomed to its handling, though (probably because I've been using the LX-5, which is a close relative). I like Panasonic's menu system a better, but like Olympus, the terminology takes some getting used to and may cause you to read the manual. Fortunately, once you understand the Q.Menu system (Quick Menu via a button and dial), you can avoid the menu system most of the time. Again, there's a Mode dial for exposure modes, but unlike the Olympus, the Panasonic has a Command dial--what it controls at any given time is depending upon what's highlighted on the display (which can be a whole range of things, or just aperture and exposure compensation if Q.Menu isn't active). It's more difficult to describe than it is to use. In practice, I feel directly in control with the GF-1, much like I do with my DSLR. I'm just not looking through an optical viewfinder (though there's an optional EVF). Surprisingly, only the Panasonic has the ability to dial directly to preconfigured settings on the Mode dial (C1, C2). It's the only camera that can be quickly toggled between two very different master sets of settings. Overall, the Panasonic is a relatively straightforward camera that doesn't get in the way of getting the shot.

Bad news: big lenses (Panasonic needs to do a folding kit lens like the Olympus). No sensor stabilization. Ugly fonts on menus, and some strange abbreviations and words (in English). Very narrow camera strap attachments. Good news: drive select lever around front of Mode dial; on/off switch instead of button.

Update: The GF-2 changes handling quite a bit, since it loses the Mode dial and adds an anti-reflective touchscreen to the LCD. Overall, the touchscreen experience feels a bit underdone to me. Some things are welcome and convenient, but the full presentation on the LCD is not touch-sensitive. The first level of the menu system (six buttons) is touch sensitive, but the lower levels are not, for example. While the GF-1 feels like a mini-DSLR with a few compact camera touches, the GF-2 feels like some sort of new device that hasn't quite been finished.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

The Samsung NX100 was a bit of a surprise to me. I'd tried a few other recent Samsung's, including the NX10, and found them a little on the odd side. Not so the NX100. It has the requisite Mode dial (Sony missed that memo ;~) and two Command dials, one on top and one around the Direction pad, ala the Canon configuration. Removing the clutter icons off the display, the Samsung presents a very photographer friendly screen (settings at the bottom, image on top, much like looking through a traditional optical viewfinder). The menu system is nicely organized and easy enough to figure out. The iFn button on the lens seems like a marketing gimmick at first, but it's just an unusual place to put a rapid-access-to-major-settings button. It functions much like the Panasonic Q.Menu idea, and the implementation is clean and easy to read. Panasonic needs to fire the engineers doing their fonts and icons and hire the Samsung engineers doing it. Message to Japanese camera makers: the Koreans are slowly figuring it out. Watch out!

Bad news: no built-in flash. No sensor stabilization, and kit lens isn't stabilized. Odd 40.5mm filter size on kit lens (doesn't come with hood). Good news: retracting kit lens; well sheltered on/off switch instead of exposed button; iFn button is actually useful.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

The Sony NEX-5 is going to be a camera you love the handling on or for which you hate the handling. I'll give them full credit for throwing out the old notions of camera user interface and starting from a fresh slate. The question is whether or not what they came up with works for you or not. No Mode dial. Everything is pretty much controlled by three buttons and a Direction pad/dial. You can customize what those buttons do in some useful ways (some will say otherwise; bottom button was customized in the shot, above). Here's the rub: if you're a nervous shooter that bounces around amongst exposure modes and camera settings, you're probably not going to like the Sony interface. At least not initially. Exposure compensation, ISO, White Balance, and a host of other things are buried a couple of levels down in the menu system (though it does remember which area you were in, so you're really only one level away most of the time). Even the Version 3 software update, which allows you to customize the "soft" buttons doesn't fully solve the problem, as it moves Mode down into the menus to get other things to the main button. On the plus side, there's a clear hierarchy and the language used is clear. But this is a menu-driven camera, even with the recent firmware change. The Shooting Tips aspect of the camera shows that Sony was aiming this camera at the compact consumer moving up, not the DSLR user moving down, so I'm not going to ding them on it, especially since we can now program that button for something else. Personally, I'm not a shooter that's always tweaking anything other than exposure and sometimes ISO, so I'm not put off by the design (much). The compositional area is either reduced or compromised (your choice) by Sony's having to put button/dial reminders on the right side of the display, though, so this isn't really a 3" display in practice, it's a smaller one or a cluttered one, your choice. I get what Sony was trying to do with the interface, but it's not the interface most serious shooters would have chosen. One handling issue: quick release plates. The body is so small that the tripod socket (located centered on the lens, yippee!) is actually on an area raised from the bottom of the camera. It's going to take a special plate to work with this camera, and no one makes one*.

Bad news: no quick plates*; positionable LCD less than 180° and only up/down swing; odd, proprietary accessory connector instead of hot shoe; location of camera strap connections; lenses far bigger than body, changes holding position from "normal." Good news: best material used on grip areas of the bunch, it actually grips; on/off switch, positionable LCD (none of the others have one).

* It was pointed out to me that the RRS BPnS-S mini plate works on the NEX, and coincidentally, I received one shortly after complaining about this (I had ordered it for another camera). It does indeed work fine, and it's certainly inexpensive enough. It doesn't have a lot of surface contact area with the clamp, though, and it rotates the way you use the clamp by 90°, which can be a problem if you're trying to do stitch panos. It works fine in practice, though.

I received a lot of emails about my "pan" of the NEX-5, particularly on my handling comments. I'm not sure I'd label it that way. The Sony is different and that difference can be a liability in shooting to newcomers. One of my UI tests is to see how fast I can change exposure mode, shutter speed/aperture, white balance, and ISO before taking another shot. This is what I'd call the "nervous shooter." And, yes, there are times when that is exactly what you need to do before taking your next shot. It's in this "need to make a number of major settings" condition that the Sony's UI starts to be cumbersome. If you take out one of those things (exposure mode change), the version 3 firmware allows you to set the camera up as fast as the others. One other handling comment I didn't make in the first version of this review but influenced my comments on handling: power on delay. The Sony has a significant one. In fact, if the color LCD has gone black (into power save), there's still a tangible delay in taking a picture even with the camera turned on. The purpose of a camera is to take pictures. Picture opportunities can be so spontaneous that they require near instant response. That's one of the reasons why we pros talk about shutter lag, and debate about the differences between a few nanoseconds. Unfortunately, the Sony's power-on lag is more like a half second, which is enough to miss photos. In this, it is very consumer compact camera-ish.

Since these cameras are bigger than compact cameras (though the Sony body comes close to compact sized), there's the issue of "grip." All these cameras are right-handed, by the way. Left-handers aren't going to like any of them. The Olympus has a front finger grip, but the materials used on the camera are too slippery. They need some rubber on the front. Also, your hand position while shooting isn't conducive to control settings (and as I note, you accidentally set controls too often). The Panasonic has less of a finger grip and also too slippery a surface, but if you have small to medium-sized hands you can at least set things via the Rear Command dial without moving your hand all about. The Samsung body tries to achieve grippiness by a subtle curved body shape, but again the materials get in the way of a solid grip. The top Command dial is easily accessible, but you'll need to un-grip the camera to access the Command dial around the Direction pad. In this, the Samsung is actually the most DSLR like: it's a two-handed camera in actual use most of the time. Ironically, the small Sony has the most solid one-hand grip position. Too bad about the only control you can reach is the top button, which may not be useful to what you want to set. The Sony really needed a top dial, ala the Samsung.

Conclusion: I'm going to call some winners and losers here. The Panasonic is a clear winner. It's not perfect in handling, but it also is the most photographer-centric during shooting. You can make large changes to your settings quickly and easily, and it handles like a cross between an LX-5 and a small DSLR. Over the course of the last year, it's grown on me, and I like it more now than when I first reviewed it. The Samsung is also a winner for the same reasons, with a small reservation. That reservation is that it is more two-handed in use than the Panasonic. Since it is marginally the largest in this test, that's not exactly a bad thing. Using the Samsung I feel like I'm using a very small, modern DSLR in Live View mode. That's not a condemnation at all; if anything, that's praise. I've used the Olympus a lot, so obviously I've gotten used to its handling quirks. But I choose it a lot despite its handling. Why? because of the compact lenses (9-18mm, 14-42mm), and those lenses are compact partially because they don't have built-in stabilization. Yep, that sensor stabilization is one of the key traits, and it's sometimes enough to triumph over poor handling. The loser in handling is the Sony, at least for those of you who are trying to control the camera settings a lot during a shooting session. As an all-automatic one-hander, it succeeds. Even for my work, it works well once you adjust to the UI and assign the buttons the way you want. But the more you need to change things, the more frustrating you'll find the Sony.

Performance

Surprisingly, none of these cameras are going to win an award for super low noise, even the ones with the APS sensors (Samsung, Sony), though the Sony clearly is the leader here and gets well into DSLR territory. If you're thinking about using any other than the Sony constantly above ISO 800, think again. DSLRs continue to spoil us in this respect. I find it curious that most of these cameras don't perform quite as well as their current DSLR equivalents with the same or similar sensor. That says something about design goals, I guess. True, the m4/3 twins (Olympus and Panasonic) are using a smaller sensor than the S twins (Samsung and Sony), but truly low noise doesn't seem to be high on the goals of any of these designs except perhaps the Sony. Fortunately, the larger sensors mean these cameras come far closer to the DSLR-user's expectations than those of a compact camera. But I'll bet every one of these makers could have squeezed another half stop or more of low light performance out of these cameras had they really put that as a top priority. Even Sony.

I've got a lot of things to talk about regarding performance. A few things I won't talk about are battery life (not spectacular on any of these cameras; I've got enough experience with the Olympus and Panasonic to say that a few hundred shots with reasonable image review is about all you're going to get). But carrying extra batteries isn't really a pain.

Before we get to image evaluation I should point out that I didn't spend a lot of time evaluating JPEGs. Since I'm looking for the compact that can get me the best possible image quality, I did most of my evaluation using the latest version of Adobe ACR, and then trying to tweak out the last bit of detail I could from each raw file. I'll make a few comments about JPEGs, but ultimately my assessments rely upon what I could get out of the raw files.

Overall, these are all "tweener" cameras. In every aspect of performance, they're between the top end of a compact camera and the bottom end of DSLRs. Sometimes they're closer to compact (autofocus) and sometimes they're closer to DSLR (image noise). Again, that says something about design goals. No one wants to kill the DSLR money machine (even Panasonic--they want to sell some high margin GH2s). Everyone wants to give the compact user somewhere to go (e.g. better low light capabilities and more flexibility). To that end, they've succeeded. But they've also teased us serious camera users. None of these cameras is a perfect small substitute for the enthusiast or pro DSLR user. It's easy to find something they should have done differently.

On the flip side, I do find them good enough to mostly ween me off compact cameras, and you should, too.

Focus

The Panasonic is respectably fast and very consistent for a contrast-based system. It's not DSLR quality--no compact is going to tweak contrast focusing to the levels you get with DSLRs--but what I find about the GF-1 is that it is consistent, except when it is pointed at very low contrast scenes. It drives to the focus point and stops, and it does this relatively fast no matter whether we're talking about bright light or low light. Continuous autofocus (CAF) is usable, as it's less "jittery" than some of the other cameras (put a contrast AF camera on a static scene using continuous autofocus; you'll be surprised to find that the lens doesn't stay settled). On rare occasions the GF-1 will pause for a moment before driving to focus, which obviously slows it down a bit. It rarely overdrives past the focus point, except in CAF. That seemed happen more with low contrast subjects (bright or dark) than anything else. Low light doesn't seem to make much difference, at least if the subject has contrast. Overall the autofocus performance is something I can live with. Manual focus shines. Press the button and use the Direction pad to flip to MF, use the focus ring to move the focus. As you do, you get a very clear zoom of the central area. If you can see the LCD, you can manual focus.

Surprisingly, the Olympus was less good than the Panasonic. That's true in all focus modes. Single focus (SAF) has a tendency to drive past focus and back on the E-PL1, which slows it a bit. CAF isn't particularly usable for me, as it isn't jittery enough on near static subjects, meaning that you can sometimes miss focus point slightly. Yet on moving subjects, it tends to be a little too jittery. Manual focus is slightly less easy to reach (OK button, navigate to focus, navigate to MF setting with the camera at the defaults), but I find it a little more difficult to nail manual focus on the Olympus than the Panasonic, and I attribute that to the monitor. Don't get me wrong, the E-PL1 would be at the top of any pure compact camera list in terms of focus performance and behavior, but it doesn't really exceed the best of the true compacts, IMHO. I'm mostly a static subject shooter, so that hasn't really bothered me in practice, but when I do pull out the Oly to shoot wildlife (and I have, many times), I get jittery ;~). I don't trust CAF in those situations, so I do a lot of SAF.

The Samsung is somewhere between the Olympus and Panasonic. Sometimes it is fast at AF like the Panny, sometimes it'll do the overshoot and back like the Oly. It's also in mid pack in terms of jitter in continuous follow focus. If you slowly pan the camera from near to far subject in CAF, you get little gaps in focusing, so it's clear that the NX100 is trying to not jitter too much. But that come can at the expense of slightly out of focus images for subjects that don't move much. Like the Panasonic, the Samsung works well in manual focus. Hit the button, navigate to MF, and twist the focus ring on the lens. The LCD has very good visibility of "in focus" versus "out," though not perfect (I'm actually not aware of anything that would get to my "perfect" mark ;~). Overall, I give the Samsung competent marks in focus.

The Sony NEX-5 has it's pluses and minuses when it comes to focus. With the 16mm pancake lens it is remarkably fast (less so with the kit lens) unless it hits broad expanses of low contrast areas. Interesting, low contrast just slows the Sony down, it doesn't keep it from finding focus eventually as with some compact cameras. Continuous AF is interesting. It's so jittery that sometimes the LCD view is nauseating (things seem to pulse ever so slightly, especially at the edges of the frame for some reason). Yet the jitter is so small in size that the camera is actually doing a reasonable job of following focus. But here's the rub. Let's change to manual focus. Button, navigate to camera, navigate menu until you've found AF/MF Select, enter sub-menu, select MF. Moreover, moving between SAF, CAF, and MF isn't all in the same place (more menu items to navigate to). [It was pointed out to me that I didn't understand DMF. That's correct, and that's probably due to something else I didn't mention: the 82-page instruction manual is terrible. But DMF does indeed get the Sony up to same level for manual focus as the others, you just have to find it in the menus.] So you don't suddenly jump between autofocus and manual focus on this camera. Manual focus itself should have been a slam dunk with the highest resolution LCD in the bunch, but it really only gets to the same levels as the Panasonic and Samsung. Pity.

Conclusion: Think compact camera for autofocus and you'll be in the right ball park, only slightly low for the Panasonic and Sony. The Olympus is the laggard, but only slightly. None are going to be birds-in-flight or sideline NFL cameras in continuous focus. But for scenics, candids, and most general shooting, they're fine. Manual focus goes to the Panasonic and Samsung, with the Sony right behind (just as soon as you get through all the menu steps, that is).

But don't the EVFs solve the manual focus problem? I've gotten a number of messages from people that say that the Olympus EVF works for them. Well, not for me. It's better than the Panasonic EVF in this respect and it's better than not using the EVF on the Olympus, but ultimately I find both EVFs to not have quite enough resolution and clarity to absolutely get dead on manual focus results. The funny thing is, the solution is well known and has been in higher end video equipment for some time. I guess that the still camera makers don't think we need it.

Lens Quality

This section is a work in progress. Images and individual descriptions to come. But until I get that work complete, let me make a few overall comments.

The kit lenses are all, well, kit lenses. They're competent but not exceptional. I've shot enough with the Olympus kit lens to know I prefer it over the Panasonic, but the Panasonic is also a very good lens. The Samsung kit lens seems the weakest of the bunch, but it's not bad. The Sony kit lens disappoints because of its size. Basically, it overwhelms the camera so much that you hold the camera differently (and slightly awkwardly).

The primary pancakes for the cameras are a more mixed bunch. The Olympus 17mm (35mm equivalent) is probably the worst of the bunch. I think the kit lens equals or exceeds it at 17mm. The Panasonic 20mm (40mm equivalent) is pretty good. Ditto the Samsung 30mm (45mm equivalent). The Sony 16mm (24mm equivalent), though, is the pancake I've gravitated towards the most, though. While the biggest of the bunch, it's well made and very sharp in the center. Unfortunately, like a lot of these lenses, it is resolution challenged in the extreme corners. Otherwise, it would have made for the perfect pocket landscape camera. Pity.

If you're a lens snob, you have a few choices:

All mounts: get a Leica M adapter and use M-mount lenses. With m4/3 you need to adjust your focal length selection for the 2x crop (e.g. you need that Voigtlander 12mm to get to 24mm equivalent on a m4/3 body), for the APS bodies, 1.5x. You'll get corner to corner performance from this combo, though vignetting sometimes is still an issue (has to do with the short back focus distance of the Leica M lenses).

m4/3: Panasonic seems to be executing high-end lenses, sometimes even at low-end prices (45-200mm, for instance). The 7-14mm is mostly superb, giving me (mostly) the equivalent to a poor man's D700+14-24mm in far less size and weight. The Olympus 9-18mm isn't far behind. I've actually found it difficult to find a disappointing m4/3 lens so far. Ironically, the 17mm Olympus may be at the bottom of the pack.

NX: I've only tried two Samsung lenses so far. And since both are low cost kit type lenses, I haven't been overwhelmed by performance.

NEX: Go ahead. Mount that Sony 18-200mm (28-300mm equivalent) on your NEX-5, I dare you. So far, it's difficult to see where Sony is going with NEX. Really small camera but pretty large lenses? Really? That's the market as they see it? We need to see more from Sony to understand what they're up to with lenses. So far, only the 16mm is intriguing for the still camera (the 18-200mm is actually an exceptional mate for the NEX-VG10 video camera).

I'd be remiss to not say one thing about the Sony: it makes for a reasonable-but-not-perfect poor man's Leica. That would be a Leica M8, not an M9, due to the crop factor. You need a US$179 Leica M mount adapter (Voigtlander) and the right M-mount lenses to get there. But with the Sony 16mm, adapters, and the right other lenses, you can build an 18mm, 24mm, 30mm, 52mm, and 80mm equivalent kit that's reasonably small and performs well. But watch that power-on delay. If you're going for the Henri Cartier Bresson type of street shooting, you need to keep the camera on and active. This obviously has implications on battery life, so bring extras. You also will need to learn how to remove vignetting from images (ala Cornerfix or learning to use blend modes in Photoshop); fortunately the Sony's APS sensor is good enough that corner noise due to vignette correction is minimal.

Low ISO Image Quality

My basic philosophy with compacts is to shoot them at the base ISO whenever possible, shoot raw, and learn how to tweak every last ounce of image quality out of every pixel. In this section, I'm talking about what happened when I did just that.

Olympus and Panasonic: in a word: excellent. I'd put these cameras up against any of the 12mp Nikon DSLRs any day at base ISO, with the only caveat being to pay a bit more attention to dynamic range issues. In high contrast scenes you need to work to control that contrast, either by using more light (fill flash, reflectors, etc.) in the shadows or holding back light (polarizer, NDs, etc.) in the highlights. Either that or you have to accept that some shadow detail will "go to black." Still, you've seen a number of my images from these cameras over the past 16 months--I'll put them right up against the 12mp Nikon DSLR images I shot in that same period. For example (this is a stitch, but I stitch the same way with DX):

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

Samsung: I'm still in my initial use of this camera, but I mostly am finding it fine at base ISO. A hint more noise than I'd like to see off an APS sensor, but we are talking about a previous generation 14mp sensor here. So far I'd say the Samsung sensor is a bit behind the Sony sensor, but at base ISO I don't think it makes all that much difference.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

Sony: everything you'd expect from a DX camera. As well you should, since it's essentially the same sensor Sony uses in some of their APS DSLRs.

Conclusion: the Sony has the best sensor, but is hobbled by lenses. The Samsung has a slightly worse sensor but slightly better lenses, but that still makes it hobbled. The m4/3 twins have sensors with fewer pixels and less DR, but the lenses are there to support getting everything you can from an image. So: go m4/3 or consider using a mount adapter on the Samsung or Sony.

High ISO

Unlike the compact camera test (G12, P7000, LX5), here we expect some high ISO goodness. That's because we're working with bigger sensors, right? Okay, here we go down the rabbit hole...

What you'll see in this section come from sample images shot as the highest quality raw and JPEG at ISO 3200 and Auto white balance,all on a partially lit scene (I turned on the left light on my product table, but not the right, and I tried to hide one of the buildings in the shadow). Basically, I wanted to show what would happen if you shot in low light with the cameras about as aggressively as you'd ever consider.

Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan
Full scene

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan
Olympus base ISO (50% size): Auto WB was a pleasantly warm. Detail is exceptional for a 12mp camera. Some small hint of luminance noise. Overall a very good job except for missing the white balance.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan
Olympus ISO 3200 (50% size):
Not a terrible result, but notice the color noise that's present (this is a raw image without NR in Adobe Raw Converter. Colors are drifting pinkish. Let's put Luminance NR at 57 and Color NR at 20:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan
Things have cleaned up fairly well, though there's still a color drift and contrast change that need more work. Overall, a step above the true compact cameras, but not dramatically above.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan
Panasonic ISO 100 (50% size):
Very clean and detailed image, but slightly on the cool side from Auto WB. Closer to accurate than the Olympus in the same exact scene with the same sensor, though. Also, looking at the actual noise pattern, it seems a little tighter than the Oly's, though this could just be sample variation.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan
Panasonic ISO 3200 (50% size), no noise reduction:
A very similar result to the Olympus, though like at ISO 100, a slightly tighter noise pattern than the Oly. Still, very similar. With noise reduction in ACR (luminance 52, color 18):

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan
Slightly less color drift, same contrast blockage as the Oly.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan
Samsung base ISO (50% size):
Auto WB is fairly close to accurate, and there's little to complain about. There is a tiny bit of luminance noise in the results, but not enough to be worrisome.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan
Samsung ISO 3200 (50% size): It's difficult to tell from these images, but the noise is very fine grained and the color noise not blotchy. But there's a fairly big drop in DR and the contrast has blocked up a lot, bringing the colors down in tone

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan.
With NR (luminance 48, color 12), you can still see the drop in color tones (look at the yellows and oranges). Most ISO 3200 images are going to need some tender post processing care to fix that.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan
Sony base ISO 200 (50%):
The best of the bunch on all levels, though the camera produced a slightly brighter image than the others. A very nice result, and just what we'd all expect from the Sony APS sensors these days.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

Sony ISO 3200 (50%) with no noise reduction: Again, clearly the best of the bunch. There is limited color noise and a slight amount of visible contrast buildup, but overall almost usable as is. (I wrote "almost." Don't write me about that.) Cleaned up:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan
A very fine result (luminance 40, color 12). Compare this against the cleaned up Samsung image and you can see how the Samsung darkened the whole result considerably more than the Sony. Samsung's got a bit of catching up to do with Sony on the sensor and in the image processing department.

Conclusion: at base ISOs, all of these cameras produce nice, easy-to-work-with images, with Sony being clearly on top, but the m4/3 twins producing equally good detail in comparison considering that they're suffering from a 2mp disadvantage. It's really only dynamic range that trips up the m4/3 twins. I will say that, in shooting JPEGs, the Olympus produces the nicest looking images. There's something about their color and tonal contrast choices that pop compared to the bottom of the pack, which would be the Samsung. But I'd shoot with any of these cameras at base ISO any day.

At ISO 3200 we see clear differences. The m4/3 twins are being pushed to their limits (if not beyond), and color noise buildup is in the realm where you want to be very careful in applying noise reduction lest you clobber detail, acuity, and tonality. I generally don't push my m4/3 cameras beyond ISO 800 for that reason (plus the serious drop in DR).

The Samsung is a bit noisy for an APS sensor at ISO 3200, but you can sneak past that if you have to. Curiously, I'm finding that I don't like going above ISO 800 with it, either, but that's mostly because of the muddiness that the tonal ramps start to show.

Sony is the clear high ISO winner here, and by a clearly visible margin. The Sony's ISO 3200 images are the only ones that clean up with very little effort and keep their edge acuity while doing so. I've pushed the camera as far as ISO 6400 and been pleased with the results. I'd say the Sony has a stop advantage over the Samsung at high ISO values, and even more compared to the m4/3 twins. I'd be very happy to press the Sony to ISO 1600 in regular shooting, and not afraid of ISO 3200 or even ISO 6400 if I needed it.

But all of our contestants are a clear step ahead of the best compact cameras at the higher ISO values, which is probably all you need to know. The big point to remember is that these mirrorless cameras are all better at base ISO than the compact cameras, too.

Conclusion

So let's get some questions asked and answered:

  • Are these cameras better in image quality than the high-end compacts? Yes.
  • Are these cameras as good as a low-end DSLR in image quality? Yes, with some minor quibbles with the m4/3 models, which are lagging slightly in dynamic range.
  • Could you abandon your DSLR for one of these? Maybe. There are things you give up and things you gain. But if you're asking in terms of image quality and lens quality, then the answer is a little split, but probably yes. The m4/3 cameras are challenged above ISO 800, the NX and NEX systems are challenged by lack of lenses right now.
  • Is autofocus performance good DSLR-like? No. None of these cameras are great at continuous autofocus tracking, though they're at least as good as any compact camera, if not better. Some of it will depend upon lens. I found most of them are faster with the simpler primes, and some lenses to be faster at focusing than others. I think we're one generation away from getting really good (but still not phase detect level) focusing.
  • Can I use my current lenses on them? Yes, but on the m4/3 bodies you probably won't want to unless they're 4/3 lenses (due to the 2x crop factor), and on all of them you won't want to unless you like manual focusing.
  • Should you consider one instead of a compact? Yes, but note that you won't be shirt-pocketing any of these, even with their smallest pancake prime lens.
  • Are they worth the money? Probably. I picked up the E-PL1 during a big sale for US$399 (with lens!) from Best Buy (!), and at that price it's a bargain. I wouldn't pay more than a low-end DSLR for one, though, unless you absolutely can put a price on smaller size and weight.

Personally, I put my money where my mouth is long ago: I've been shooting with the m4/3 bodies and a wide assortment of m4/3 lenses for over a year now, and am quite pleased with the results. They substitute for a light DSLR on days when I don't want to carry a DSLR, they work as "big compacts" for when I want to do simple quick-and-dirty shooting.

So, the winners and losers, in my (current) order of preference:

  • I can wholeheartedly recommend the Panasonic GF-1. It's the top choice due to its handling and wide assortment of lens choices. Two minor drawbacks to consider: no sensor-based stabilization (many of the Panasonic lenses have stabilization, though), and limited high ISO capability. The m4/3 cameras aren't going to reach the stratosphere of ISO like some APS cameras are starting to. On the flip side, there are plenty of fast lenses for the m4/3 mount already, so it's not as big a limitation as you might think. The GF-2 is the same as the GF-1 in image quality, a little smaller, but some people will find the controls a little "funky" and slightly on the gimmicky side. Still, either camera works fine for me once set up, though I prefer the older to the newer in handling. The change in size between the two isn't significant in practice.
  • I can recommend the Olympus E-PL1 if (and it's a big if) you can live with the screen and the accidental settings problem. It's a shame, because without the accidental settings problem it might be my favorite. I don't mind the screen, but you might, especially if you're going to do any manual focus work. The E-PL2 does fix the screen and a few handling issues. Unlike the Panasonic change, I prefer the new Olympus to the old.
  • I can also recommend the Samsung NX100, but only if you can get by with the available lenses or can wait for those that have been promised. The camera itself is quite competent in handling and image quality, but current lens choice is highly limited, especially at the wide end.
  • I can recommend the Sony NEX-5 with some reservation about the UI. It's actually excellent in image quality, especially if you need higher ISO values, and the 16mm f/2.8 lens makes for a very compact wide angle walk around camera. Sony's problem is three-fold, and you need to consider all these things before committing, I think. First, like Samsung, the lenses just aren't there yet. Second, many of the lenses just absolutely dwarf the camera body, and that starts to make the camera less desirable as a "compact." Finally, the non-standard user interface and simplified control system is either going to get you swearing at the camera or you're going to learn to like it. I've learned to get along with it just fine, but I can't predict whether you will, so don't buy the Sony without actually trying it at a store first. And don't just give it a once over: actually try assigning the buttons and using the camera for a bit before giving up on it.

What about the E-P2? It was ever so slightly my favorite of the cameras, though mine was stolen in Africa. But I'm now favoring the GF1 over it when shooting m4/3.

Do I really hate the NEX-5? Not at all. I simply am trying to point out that it won't be everyone's cup of tea. More so than the other cameras in this test it will tend to alienate some simply from the design. On the other hand, it has a lot to offer if you can get past that. Even though I love the NEX-5's image quality, I have noticed that I'll pick up my GF-1 before it in some situations. Why? In photography, even a slight slowness in operation can make you miss pictures. If you're not dipping into the menus all the time, you won't miss pictures. If you do, you might. That's how a simple design decision (over-reliance on menus) can impact photography. That said, none of these cameras nail it. The Sony nails it less.

So, buy the Panasonic (GF-1 or GF-2) or Olympus (E-PL2) if this class of camera interests you. Consider the Olympus E-PL1 and Samsung, but look closely at their weaknesses before springing for them. The Sony will require more scrutiny on your part before you should choose it. Every camera in this test will give you at least good image quality. The Sony will give you an excellent image. Close to or equal to what you'd get from low-end DSLRs.

We're getting nearer to my final comments on all the various sub-DSLRs I tested. Note that so far Panasonic is two-and-a-half for three, and the controls are very similar on all cameras, so for instance it's easy enough to carry an LX-5 in your shirt pocket all the time and a GF-1 in a larger pocket or small bag on excursions when you know you want to do some photography. Up until the LX-5 came out I was using a Canon S90 as the shirt pocket camera and either the E-P2 or GF-1 as the serious excursion camera.

 
Quick Evaluation


Olympus E-PL1
Recommended
A bargain if you can find it at US$399 as I did, otherwise you have to consider the others. Competent camera with a few annoyances.

features
performance
build
value

Panasonic GF-1
Recommended
solid, almost exceptional, has an LX-5 type of interface.

features
performance
build
value

Samsung NX100
Recommended
the surprise in the bunch, it's simple, no frills, and easy to use.

features
performance
build
value

Sony NEX-5
Recommended
my recommendation is conditional: make sure you're comfortable with the UI and the paucity/size of the lenses.

features
performance
build
value

Any of these cameras can function as a "compact DSLR" that you carry most anywhere. None make it to the shirt pocket level (though the Sony NEX-5 with the 16mm pancake and the Olympus E-PL1 with the Panasonic 14mm or 20mm pancakes come close). The Panasonic and Samsung are the two serious photographer-friendly cameras in this bunch, while the Olympus has a little more compact gimmicky and the Sony is way over the top in changing the way you interact with a camera. If you're going to use off-mount manual focus lenses, I suggest the Panasonic (works great with M-mount lenses). If you want a mini-DSLR, the Samsung stands out as the primary choice, though lenses are currently somewhat restrictive.

So, do you wait for Nikon, Pentax, and Canon to get around to joining the mirrorless brigade or not? Given that mirrorless is topping one-fifth of the interchangeable lens camera sales in the home market of Japan and a tenth of the worldwide market, I'm betting that Nikon and Canon can't wait much longer to join in, and we know that Pentax is readying their entry. Still, once you put a lens mount on a camera, one of the key elements that drives its sales are the lenses that are available. Olympus and Panasonic have a big head start here. Samsung is promising a lot, but won't catch up until 2013. Sony is vague and isn't promising as many lenses. Of course, Nikon and Canon will be starting from zero lenses. Yes, that matters.

Don't think that you'll just use an adapter with your current F-mount lenses (or whatever mount you're into). This puts you into worse autofocus performance (if there is any autofocus enabled) or manual focus, and none of these cameras are going to get you excited about that. I doubt the next round of mirrorless cameras will make manual focus all that enticing, either. Worse still, using most of your current lenses on these small cameras partly defeats the purpose of a "small" camera. Yes, I know pancake lenses exist (most notably for the Pentax mount), but you're going to find the same thing that plagues DX/APS: a lack of good wide angle choices.

Source of review cameras: purchased.

Original article: 12/1/10
Corrections: 12/3/10
Updated: 12/3/10
Lens Updates: 12/5/10
Added comments: 12/6/10
Added E-PL2/GF-2: 2/11/11


Table of Contents

Special Note:

The E-PL1, E-P1, and E-P2 share the same sensor and basic image handling. The E-PL1 is a little more compact and has a pop-up flash. The E-P1 and E-P2 have a slightly less compact-camera like control system. I wouldn't rank any of them higher than the other overall.




bythom.com | Nikon | Gadgets | Writing | imho | Travel | Privacy statement | contact Thom at thom_hogan@msn.com


All material on www.bythom.com is Copyright 2011 Thom Hogan. All rights reserved.
Unauthorized use of writing or photos published on this site is illegal, not to mention a bit of an ethical lapse. Please respect my rights.