Mirrorless Roundup 2011
The intermediate camera audience are, in a sense, the luckiest and most interesting sector of the market. As a result of being the part of the market with the largest sales potential, they benefit from fierce competition between manufacturers, so that they arguably get the most camera for their money.
These are the users who are buying a camera because they're interested in getting more involved in photography. Much more than at the Beginner or Enthusiast level, these buyers are also likely to be choosing between a Mirrorless and DSLR camera. And, because their purchase will help some of them get hooked on photography, it's also the one that gets them hooked on a system.
This potential for large sales volumes, combined with a willingness to buy additional lenses and accessories also makes it interesting for third-party manufacturers. Essentially it's the part of the market most likely to define which systems are successes and which end up as historical footnotes. The result for the customer is that manufacturers pack their cameras with as many of their best features as possible while still building to an attractive price. And it results in some extremely competent cameras that you can get some great results out of.
There are four cameras that sit fairly clearly in this class: the distinctly DSLR-like Panasonic G3 and the more compact-like Samsung NX200, Sony NEX-5N and Olympus E-PL3. They have varying specifications, with sensor resolutions from the Olympus' 12MP up to the Samsung's 20MP, and rear screens that range from fixed on the NX200 through to fully-articulating on the G3. But each offers a reasonable amount of direct control and almost universally excellent image quality.
Sony Alpha NEX-5N
79% + Gold Award
The NEX-5N is our pick as the standout camera in this class, mainly as a result of its excellent image sensor and small size. The 16MP sensor is sensational and, for those users not yet ready to try their hands at Raw processing, there are a range of automated modes (HDR, Sweep Panorama and the multi-shot Hand-held Twilight mode), and processing options (the excellent DRO, and filter effects) to get the image you're after.
It's nothing if not feature-packed, with 1080p video at up to 60fps, continuous shooting at up to 10fps, a customizable interface and tilting, touch-sensitive screen all wrapped up in a stylish, solidly-built magnesium alloy body. Experienced photographers will find they can easily access all their most-used settings while newcomers willing to step away from the automated modes will find there's a lot to enjoy about this camera. It's only really users intending to just point-and-shoot who won't get the most out of the 5N (for the same reasons we highlighted about the 3C).
The lack of lenses available for the system is something of a concern but, in addition to Sony's own list of planned lenses, Sigma has shown a prototype and Tamron has released a lens, so there should be a system to grow into. The 5N is reasonably fast to focus (at least to the standard of the DSLRs its competing with at this level, when using kit lenses) but, like almost all its peers, struggles with continuous AF when it tries to track focus on a moving subject.
It's key to distinguish between the latest NEX-5N and the visually near-identical NEX-5 it replaces - the 5N is a significantly improved camera and well worth the premium over any bargain-priced remainder NEX-5s you might encounter.
|Sony Alpha NEX-5N Sample Gallery|
Also worth considering:
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3
75% + Silver Award
The Panasonic G3 is also a camera well-worth considering. It stands alone in this company by including a 1.4M dot equivalent electronic viewfinder, fully-articulated rear screen, and DSLR-like styling. Its image quality is very good, thanks to the latest-generation 16MP Four Thirds sensor - a considerable step forward from the older 12MP unit when the light falls. Buyers also considering a DSLR could, quite reasonably, decide that any slight disadvantage in low-light because of the camera's smaller-than-APS-C sensor is made up for by its significantly smaller size.
The G3 is built around the second generation of Panasonic's touch-screen interface, which includes the ability to customize the settings assigned to the on-screen Q.Menu. Better still, it's implemented in such a way that you can use it or choose not to, depending on your preference, meaning it adds to, rather than detracts from, the shooting experience.
If eye-level shooting is your thing (and it does tend to be more stable), the G3 is one of the cheapest ways to combine a Mirrorless camera with a viewfinder, and it doesn't add too much bulk when doing so.
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 Sample Gallery|
77% + Silver Award
The Samsung is, in many respects, the most photography-focused camera here: there are very few special modes to play with and no 'simplified' interface that you have to learn, but the NX200 offers some useful custumization options (including Samsung's unique iFn-button on most NX system lenses) and is a nicely worked-out camera with the buttons you'd expect in the places you'd expect them. The interface is both conventional and attractive (both things we appreciate), meaning you can just get on with taking pictures.
The 20MP sensor produces extremely high resolution images at low ISOs and, while noise reduction is fairly aggressive at higher sensitivities it's not too efficient. That said much better results can be achieved by processing high ISO imaged in a raw converter and apply custom noise reduction.
Although there's no commitment from third-party lens makers yet, Samsung has already done a good job of preparing a decent range of lenses for the NX system, including compact 'pancake' primes, a video-optimized 18-200mm superzoom, and excellent 60mm Macro F2.8 and 85mm F1.4 prime lenses, making the NX200 an interesting proposition.
|Samsung NX200 Sample Gallery|
Olympus PEN E-PL3
71% + Silver Award
The E-PL3's biggest problem isn't really any flaw of its own - it is just rather outshone by its siblings. The E-PL3 is good looking, well-priced and includes in-body image stabilization and a tilting LCD. However, it isn't as inexpensive as the E-PM1 and isn't a classy and pleasant to use as the E-P3, leaving it in something of a no-man's land. And, of itself, it's a nice little camera and all the nice things we said about the E-PM1's JPEGs and retractable kit lens are true here.
Many users will welcome the mode dial, tilting screen and additional buttons compared to the E-PM1. Against this competition, though, it's merely good, rather than compelling. However, the broad range of interesting and comparatively affordable lenses (under $400/£350) make it well-worth considering, especially if size is one of your primary considerations.
|Olympus PEN E-PL3 Sample Gallery|