Mirrorless Cameras

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The word "downsizing" has good and bad connotations nowadays, depending on the context in which it's used. When used to describe camera gear, it's a good term, especially with the advent of  mirrorless camera systems.


They may not be everybody's cup of tea, but mirrorless cameras are quickly finding their way into the artillery bags of serious amateurs and working pros alike.


In a way, mirrorless cameras are a throwback to the early days of photography. Though cameras with reflex viewing systems go back to the late 1880s, 35mm single lens reflex cameras (SLRs) didn't come to market until the 1930s with the introduction of the "Sport" (from Russia no less) followed by a series of SLRs from Exacta (Germany), the Duflex (Hungary), the Alpa (Switzerland), the Contax (Germany, again) and finally the Asahiflex (Japan), soon to be known more popularly as Pentax. Nikon, Canon and Yashica were quick to follow. The rest is history. 

Fast-forward a half century to a countless succession of SLRs, DSLRs and HDSLRs, and manufacturers are going back to the future by stripping away the viewing system that helped attract many modern-day shooters to photography in the first place. In its stead is the LCD, which for better or worse, has returned us to the days of composing pictures from arm's length on a "ground glass," albeit with an image that's far brighter than a ground-glass image and not upside-down and backwards. For those who prefer photo gear that's light and small, mirrorless digital cameras can be viewed as a godsend of sorts. 

About half of the mirrorless digital cameras we reviewed for this post offer only an LCD for composing and reviewing stills and video. The others also feature electronic viewfinders (EVFs) which, depending on the resolving power of the finder (how many "dots" or pixels it contains), do a fair to pretty darn good job of replicating the optical viewing systems they've replaced, while maintaining compact form factors. And while lower-rez EVFs (especially older models) can be grainy-looking and streak when tracking moving subjects, newer  EVFs containing upwards of 1.5 million-plus dots are quite decent.  

Panasonic and Olympus both offer optional EVFs that slip onto the hotshoes of their respective LCD-only mirrorless cameras—and be forewarned—if you try one, you'll buy one.

One thing users of mirrorless digital cameras should always be sensitive to is dust and other forms of dust-size detritus that can easily find its way to the camera's sensor surface every time you swap lenses. Because these cameras lack mirror housings, the sensors are front and center, making them vulnerable to all sorts of "events." That said, on with the show...

Panasonic offers a choice of FourThirds Micro format mirrorless cameras with and without EVFs. Among the cameras with EVFs are the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G2 (available in black, blue and red), which comes with a 14-42mm Aspheric MEGA O.I.S. zoom lens and features a 12.1MP Live MOS sensor, a hi-res 1,400,000-dot EVF, JPEG and/or RAW stills, AVCHD Lite video capture and a 3.0" 460,000-dot touch screen LCD.

 Coming in December is the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 (black only), which features a 16.05MP Live MOS imaging sensor, an updated imaging processor and full 1080/60i HD video. It will be available with a choice of a 14-42mm Aspheric MEGA O.I.S. zoom lens (black or silver) or a longer 14-140mm Lumix G-Vario HD zoom lens (black only).

 

Panasonic's  Lumix  DMC-GF1 (available with or a 14-45mm zoom or 20m f/1.7), is Panasonic's smaller "flat-top" model and features the same 12.1MP Live MOS imaging sensor and AVCHD Lite video capture found in Panasonic's DMC-G2. Unlike the Lumix DMC-G2 and GH2, it  doesn't feature a built-in EVF. As such you compose and review your stills and videos point-and-shoot style via the camera's 3.0" Live View LCD.

As an alternative to LCD-only shooting, Panasonic offers the optional Panasonic's DMV-LVF-1 External Live View Finder (2,002,000-dots), which slips easily onto the camera's hot shoe, replicating all of the functionality of a built-in EVF along with 100% of the total image area.

Olympus's Digital Pen cameras, the E-PL1  and E-P2, have attracted a decent following since the introduction of the original Digital Pen two years ago. The Olympus E-PL1 (available in black, blue and champagne) features a 12.3MP Live MOS imaging sensor, a 2.7" LCD with Live View, JPEG and/or RAW capture, an in-camera Live Guide and one-touch 720p HD video capture.

The Olympus E-P2 (black only), available as a body only, with a 17mm f/2.8 or 14-42mm Zuiko zoom lens, features all of the same key attributes as the E-PL1 along with improved control dials, image stabilization, a larger LCD (3.0" vs. 2.7"), a faster top shutter speed (1/4000th vs. 1/2000th) a faster flash sync speed (1/180th vs. 1/160th), a virtual level display and stereo mics and speakers. 

Like Panasonic, Olympus also offers an option to LCD viewing in the form of the Olympus VF-2,  a tiltable 1.4-million dot electronic viewfinder that slips onto the camera's hot shoe, which enables sharp TTL live viewing complete with zoom-in playback and previsualization of any scene and white-balance settings.

The Sony NEX 3 and NEX 5 are proof positive that you can, at least figuratively speaking, squeeze 10 pounds of potatoes into a five-pound bag. In the case of these two cameras, the potatoes are APS-C format imaging sensors and the bags are the camera bodies, which are svelte by anybody's standards. The Sony NEX 3 is available as body only, with an 18-55mm zoom, with a 16mm f/2.8 pancake lens or with the 18-55mm and 16mm pancake lens. It's also available in a choice of black, silver and red.

Under the hood, the NEX 3 features a 14.2MP Exmor CMOS sensor that can capture JPEGs and/or RAW files at speeds up to 7 frames per second. It also features a tiltable 921,000-dot 3.0' LCD, ISO sensitivity up to 12,800, a Sweep Panorama mode for capturing in-camera stills up to 226° across, a Handheld Twilight mode for flash-free imaging under the lowest of light levels, Auto HDR capture, 720p HD video and compatibility with all Sony Alpha and Minolta AF optics.

The Sony NEX 5 is slightly smaller than the NEX 3, but rather than polycarbonate, its body is made of magnesium alloy, and rather than 720p video, it captures 1080/60i HD video with Dolby Digital (AC-3) sound. The NEX 5 is available with an 18-55mm zoom, a 16mm f/2.8 pancake lens or 18-55mm and 16mm pancake lens, in a choice of black or silver. In addition to LCD viewing, both of Sony's NEX cameras can make use of the Sony Optical Viewfinder for the 16mm pancake lens, which is matched to the angle of view of the 16mm pancake lens.

Samsung currently has two mirrorless cameras: the Samsung NX10 and Samsung NX100. The Samsung NX10 is one of the smaller EVF-equipped cameras in its class and features a 14.6MP APS-C format CMOS sensor, a 3.0" LCD, JPEG and/or RAW capture and MP4 (H.264) video capture, with sound. The NX10 is available with an 18-55mm OIS zoom lensan 18-55mm and 50-200mm zoom as well as an 18-55mm zoom and 30mm f/2 pancake lens.

The Samsung NX100 features the same 14.6MP APS-C CMOS sensor, but lacks the NX10's EVF, making it more compact. The good news is that the NX100's 3.0" AMOLED is larger, brighter and sharper (614,000-dots) than the NX10's LCD. Other improvements include 720p HD video, ISO sensitivity up to 6400—and a gig of built-in memory. The Samsung NX100 is available in black or brown and in a number of lens configurations.

From Leica we have two cameras, the Leica X-1 and Leica M9, the latter of which—price tag aside—stands out from the other in a number of ways. The Leica M9, the only full-frame digital camera in the mirrorless class, is interestingly enough, a direct descendant of the original 35mm camera. The original M-series camera dates back to 1954 and along with an unmistakable profile and form factor, the M9 is delightfully compatible with almost all of Leica's M-series optics, going back to 1954. (In case you're not familiar with Leica optics, let's just say you'll never shoot with anything better. And no, they're not autofocus... you have to focus the old-fashioned way—manually.)

Available in black or steel gray, the Leica M9 (body only) contains an 18MP full-frame (24 x 36mm) CCD sensor and captures stills as JPEGs and/or RAW. No, the M9 doesn't shoot video. The focusing system on the M9 is the same deadly-accurate rangefinder system used on all previous Leica Ms (if it ain't broken, why fix it?) and captured images can be reviewed post-capture on the M9's 2.5" LCD. As mentioned earlier, the Leica M9 can be used with all current and past Leica M-mount optics, and pricey as they are, they can't be beat.

Lastly, we have the Leica X-1, which is the only camera in our mirrorless roundup that features a fixed, 24mm f/2.8 Leica Elmarit ASPH lens. Strongly resembling its fabled sibling, the X-1 features the starkest and perhaps the most straightforward camera controls you're likely to find on a digital camera. And despite its small size, the X1 contains a 12.2MP APS-C format CMOS sensor, that when used with the camera's 24mm lens, replicates the ideal rangefinder field of view of a 36mm lens.

The Leica X1 captures JPEGS and/or RAW stills, and keeping in line with the M9, doesn't shoot video (after all, it is a Leica... and who shoots video with a Leica, right?). Stills can be captured at burst rates up to 3 frames per second and ISO sensitivity can be upped to 3200. For composing, reviewing and editing stills, the X1 features a 2.7" LCD.


  Format Sensor Resolution EVF Resolution

LCD Resolution

Stills Video Audio
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G2 Micro FourThirds  12.1MP 1.440,000-dots 3.0" Touchscreen 460,000-dots JPEG+/orRAW AVCHD Lite

Mono

 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 Micro FourThirds 18.31MP

1,533,600-dots

3.0" Tiltable LCD 460,000-dots  JPEG+/orRAW 1080/60i  Stereo
 Panasonic's  Lumix  DMC-GF1  Micro FourThirds 12.1MP  LVF1 Finder (optional) 3.0" LCD 460,000-dots  JPEG+/orRAW  AVCHD Lite  Mono
Olympus E-PL1  Micro FourThirds 12.3MP  VF-2 Finder (Optional) 2.7" LCD 230,000-dots  JPEG+/orRAW  1280/720p  Mono
 Olympus E-P2 Micro FourThirds  12.3MP  VF-2 Finder (Optional)  3.0" LCD 230,000-dots  JPEG+/orRAW  1280/720p  Stereo PCM/16bit
 Sony NEX 3  APS-C  14.2MP  None 3.0" Tiltable LCD 921,000-dots  JPEG+/orRAW  1280/720p  Stereo
 Sony NEX 5  APS-C  14.2MP  None  3.0" Tiltable LCD 921,000-dots   JPEG+/orRAW  1080/60i  Dolby Digita (AC-3)
 Samsung NX10  APS-C  14.6MP  921,000-dots  3.0" AMOLED  JPEG+/orRAW  1280/720p  Mono
 Samsung NX100   APS-C  14.6MP   None   3.0" AMOLED  JPEG+/orRAW  1280/720p  Mono
 Leica X-1  APS-C  12.2MP  None  2.7" LCD 230,000-dots   JPEG+/orRAW  None  None
 Leica M9  Full-Frame  18MP   None  2.5" LCD 230,000-dots  JPEG+/orRAW   None   None

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To this you could have added the Ricoh GXR and the Sigma DP cameras.

I think Ness is just fine. how about trying to do that yourself. I give her lotsa credit for doing this. It's experience.

Didn't see anything from Canon. Are they going to join the pack?

Do mirrorless camera suffer from shutter lag at all?

 get rid of ness, and dont get someone liky molly from cnettv.com either

About shutter lag....there are different components of shutter lag....first the length of time to autofocus.....then much more significant when picking a camera, the time to actually take the photo after focus has been achieved.  As a pro I prefocus a good % of the time...so the second time is the one I worry about. The best DSLRs on the market claim an after focus shutter lag of around 50 ms, the best PS digital cameras claim as short as 9 ms with 35 ms being typical, and an old Leica from the 1940s had one in the 13 ms range.....early PS Digital cameras from 5 years ago or so had abysmal after focus shutter lags as long as 350 ms.

I have a G1, and it feels as if the shutter lag after focus is way longer than it is on my Canon DSLRs.  But the test specifications from the reviews do not indicate this.  They claim an after focus shutter lag of about 70 ms, the same as is claimed for my 5D and 40D cameras and just a bit longer than the 65ms of my 7D bodies.  In use however, the images I make seem closer to 130 ms or so in regards to capturing the image you see in the viewfinder....when you finish pressing the shutter...and that is regretably TOO long for good action photography.

In all fairness to the camera, this may be a lag in the display rather than the shutter...in other words I may be viewing the scene too late on the EVF to capture what is going on at the time I am completing the shutter release.  If anyone has done tests on this please comment, but the effect is the same if you are using the EVF or the LCD it is possible the image being displayed there is NOT up to speed with the real action that is taking place, and so you are late to the party when you finish your press of the shutter release.   I am not sure if this takes place with all the EVIL cameras currently available, but this is my experience with the G1 and G1H bodies.

Very informative video and printable story.  Thank you for that, but this "Ness" sounds as if she belongs back in high school or on local TV functioning as just one more weather/traffic bimbo.    

Ness is fine, B&H is great, Allan knows his stuff, and Molly@CNNETTV is a hoot!

Anyone who won't post his name shouldn't be taken too seriously if he's critiquing others.

I just wish the videos wouldn't start automatically when I get to the page. I wasn't expecting it, and it startled me. (The video didn't load immediately when I got to the site. I'd already scrolled past it to read the article.) I found the article informative, but I didn't even notice the video until it started playing--and then I had to find out where the sound was coming from.

Thanks again, B&H for offering great prices and informative articles!

Steve

I liked the segment because it told me about other cameras in this category that I was not aware of. Information was complete enough to generate further investigation of cameras of interest. On-camera personal styles of the commentators need not be critiqued here. That's not the point.

Great article, thank you Alan!
Although I've been using SLRs since the 70's, I was always a fan of the compactness and portability of the mirrorless alternatives. After using some "better than they should be" point-and-shoot cameras (like Canon's SX-20is, and Nikon's P100), with large, articulated LCDs that, in some cases, actually were easier to frame the picture when compared to a mirrored viewfinder (specially under low light and/or odd angles), I started to ask myself if I really needed the complexity (and size) of an SLR - but for it's ability to change lens, and the fact that most non-SLRs lack more advanced resources. That actually made me try a swiveling LCD SLR (Nikon D5000), but unfortunately it autofocuses VERY badly while in Live View mode: It's almost useless.
For now, I think I'll stick with my SLRs due to the several lenses I have invested on during the years (some were more expensive than the bodies themselves); but I would seriously think about buying a mirrorless body if it offered a sensor with similar quality, and if it accepted my expensive lenses.
Are you listening Nikon?

That girl does not sound too classy. It's like an SNL skit. She is so obviously reading, and knows nothing about cameras.

I was wondering if sony has the Canon lens adapter available for the new NEX series? Anybody out there have any updates on this issue?

Thanks in advance and a Hap Thnx Gvng to all!

In addition to issues such as shutter lag others have raised, I was also interested in whether these camera have fast lenses and are generally able to shoot images better than high-end-point-and-shoots in low light without a flash.  These difficult shots often make lugging my DSLR worth it.

I like the use of video on your website but you should try to do a better job.  If you sell video equipment you should know not to put up an amateur video. 

I'm more wondering about battery life. Given the exact same specs, would a DSLR use more power (thus shorter battery life) or would the mirrorless version use more power? 

 Well, she's reading from a script, but she seems really stiff about it. The guy is not much better. Just bad acting on both their parts. It's like the computer voices from my Macintosh. they drone one and one. Yawn.

Very nice and informative article and video.

Ness is terrific! She is a real person and doing a very good job, and I would rather B&H not waste loads of money on an over-produced commercial with hollywood-style phonies, which will increase video production costs -- and therefore *prices*!! -- without adding useful content.