The enthusiast/semi-pro mirrorless sector has taken a little longer than most to develop - with most manufacturers convinced that it was only DSLR-resistant compact camera users that would be interested in Mirrorless cameras. Olympus has been the only Mirrorless camera maker to consistently target the committed photographer - the type who's been shooting with high-end kit for years and may be using Mirrorless alongside their DSLR setup.
But, having discovered the market was there (mainly as a result of enthusiasts buying their simpler models and demanding more control), both Sony and Panasonic have recently weighed-in with cameras that offer DSLR-like levels of direct control in a much more portable package.
At this level the lens lineups become an important consideration: the enthusiast photographer is by far the most likely to spend money on specialist lenses. At present the unavoidable fact is that the Micro Four Thirds system is by far the most extensive system, with some interesting and comparatively affordable prime lenses available alongside the broad range of zooms.
Sony has made all the right noises about it lens ambitions - publishing the beginnings of a roadmap and an announcement that specifications of the E-mount will be made available to third-party lens makers (which has already prompted Sigma to show a mock-up).
Sony Alpha NEX-7
81% + Gold Award
The NEX-7 is an impressive camera, combining solid magnesium-alloy build quality with the latest sensor and highest-resolution electronic viewfinder we've ever seen. It's also impressively customizable. Sony might be a little late to the enthusiast end of the market but they've done a good job in working out how to give plenty of control and a tool photographers will enjoy.
It's not without its flaws - you're occasionally aware that its three-dial 'Tri-Navi' control system has been stuck on top of the already glued-together NEX interface without much integration. But this is only an occasional sensation; in most situations it's fast and pleasurable to shoot, aided by a high level of customizability. The NEX also begins to struggle to focus as light drops rather earlier than its Micro Four Thirds peers, but overall offers incredible image quality in a previously unimaginable format.
The lack of lenses is also currently a concern - other than the rather large and rather pricey Carl Zeiss-branded 24mm F1.8, the lenses that keen photographers are likely to want are simply not yet available. And, unless you've got a collection of A-mount lenses, we don't consider the idea of adding the LA-EA2 adapter (essentially the autofocus system from an SLT camera) to the NEX-7 to be a sensible work-around.
The final concern is price. Quite understandably, you have to pay a premium to get cutting-edge technology, such as the sensor and viewfinder used in the NEX-7, and this means that for the price of a NEX-7 you can get either a GX1 or E-P3 with their respective kit lenses, plus either the Panasonic 20mm F1.7 or Olympus 45mm F1.8 and still have money to spare (or, for another $150/100, buy both lenses). And, while the Sony is a better camera than either of the Micro Four Thirds models, many users may find those extra lenses allow them to get more out of the Panasonic or Olympus than they could get from a NEX-7 with only its kit lens.
|Sony NEX-7 Samples Gallery|
Also worth considering:
Olympus PEN E-P3
74% + Silver Award
It may look like the original digital PEN (and Olympus should be congratulated on this, since the E-P1 was a handsome little camera), but the E-P3 is essentially an all-new camera. The sensor is about the only thing carried-over from the original camera and represents the PEN's greatest weakness - it lags behind its competitors in terms of both resolution and high ISO image quality. This is a shame, since the focus on the P3 is incredibly fast, the OLED touch-screen is implemented well, and it offers wireless control of external flashguns with the internal flash. It also comes into a well-established system, which means a choice of electronic viewfinders , as well as a pretty broad range of lenses.
The PEN's endearingly mad level of customizability is forgivable at this level - indeed it's worth the commitment required to work out how to set the E-P3 up to behave exactly as you want it to. It's an enjoyable camera to shoot with and to be seen with, which may be a consideration - particularly for the 'second camera' crowd. It's also alone, amongst this company, in including in-body image stabilization, a feature that comes into its own as soon as you start accumulating lenses.
|Olympus PEN E-P3 Sample Gallery|
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1
77% + Silver Award
The GX1 is effectively Panasonic's second enthusiast camera after the GF1 (and possibly its first model intentionally aimed at this audience). It combines the company's latest 16MP sensor, which is much closer to APS-C quality than the older 12MP chip, with a small, well-built body that offers a good degree of external control. Better still, it offers an updated, customizable touch-screen interface that combines well with the physical controls to make the GX1 a pleasant and flexible camera to shoot with.
Our early impressions are that it can't match up to the NEX-7 in terms of absolute image quality, but has size, price and lens choice on its side to ensure it remains competitive. It's also available in a kit with Panasonic's tiny X 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 powerzoom, making it the only camera of the three here which you can slip into a jacket or coat pocket with zoom attached. It's certainly a very attractive camera, but potential buyers will have to carefully weigh-up how much this, the fractionally faster AF and improved image processing add to the package, given that the G3 offers the same sensor, an articulated LCD and an EVF for less money.