Mirrorless Roundup 2011
Several factors have combined to make the Beginners' class the most competitive of the Mirrorless camera market. The main one is the camera makers' belief that there is an un-tapped market of buyers who would like to get better pictures than their compact camera can offer but who are put off by the size, cost and perceived complexity of DSLRs.
This has led to manufacturers trying to produce cameras that are as easy to point-and-shoot as a compact, with few potentially intimidating external controls at prices that slightly undercut even the cheapest DSLR. The fact that Mirrorless cameras are compact cameras with larger sensors and interchangeable lenses, just as much as they're DSLRs without a mirror and viewfinder, means they offer a familiar shooting experience for the upgrader audience.
The result is that the Beginners' category has been the one in which it's hardest to select a stand-out product. The three cameras we discuss here are all very good, offering DSLR image quality and compact camera ease-of-use at a competitive price. Panasonic, Olympus and Sony all offer their most compact models for around the $500 mark. And, given they're all based around sensors that also appear in much more expensive Mirrorless and DSLR cameras, they offer similar image quality to the high-end models.
The models we won't cover here are Nikon's J1 and V1, which are covered last in this roundup. Nikon is adamant that its cameras target a market neglected by its rivals (though it's by no means clear precisely how it's distinct from the one these beginners cameras are aimed at), but more importantly, they're different in that they do not use DSLR-sized sensors. As such they offer a different balance of features and weaknesses, so are discussed elsewhere.
Olympus PEN E-PM1
71% + Silver Award
Although the difference couldn't be described as 'stand-out,' the PEN Mini is, by a whisker, our choice of the current Beginners' camera bunch. In the end, the PEN's small body size, coupled with the clever, collapsible kit lens and excellent out-of-camera JPEG image quality give it a tiny bit of an edge.
Like all the cameras here, the E-PM1 offers plenty of control if you want to take it (at its heart, very little separates this from the much more expensive E-P3). Getting the most out of the camera involves un-hiding a potentially overwhelming menu, but with the promise of greater customization than its peers.
As a point-and-shoot, however, the PEN offers a nice balance of size, price and capability - it can't compete with the Sony's sensor in terms of absolute image quality but its reliable exposure, excellent color and creative 'Art Filters' mean you can easily get the most out of the camera.
|Olympus PEN E-PM1 Sample Gallery|
Also worth considering:
74% + Silver Award
The C3 is Sony's least expensive NEX camera but still built around one of the best sensors on the market at the moment. The NEX's user interface has been greatly improved, with a simplified operational mode that allows you to adjust settings based on the result you want, rather than getting bogged-down in jargon.
The excellent sensor means that the C3 is capable of the best image quality in this group but the limitations of the beginner-friendly i-Auto mode (and specifically it not allowing you to exceed ISO 1600) mean that the novice user won't always be able to access its full potential. It's only this and the relatively bulky kit lens that prevents it being our recommendation.
|Sony Alpha NEX-C3 Sample Gallery|
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3
The Panasonic GF3 is the simplest and most compact-camera-like Micro Four Thirds camera yet. Like the other two cameras here, it offers the bare minimum of external controls but, unlike its rivals, it also offers a touch-screen interface. This makes it probably the easiest of the three cameras to take control of, should you decide you want to regularly influence what the camera is doing. Its beginner-friendly Intelligent Auto mode also offers a simple, results-orientated interface for changing shooting settings.
The GF3 is also unique in this company in that it features a built-in pop-up flash, meaning you don't have to remember to carry around a little accessory flash unit as you do with the Sony and Olympus models. As with the Olympus, the GF3 can be used with any of the increasingly wide range of lenses available for the Micro Four Thirds system. Sadly the GF3's standard kit zoom isn't collapsible like the PEN Mini's (It is available with the retractable Lumix X power zoom but this pushes the cost beyond those of these peers).
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 Sample Gallery|