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 lens, an 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||
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-G2||Micro FourThirds||12.1MP||1.440,000-dots||3.0" Touchscreen 460,000-dots||JPEG+/orRAW||AVCHD Lite||
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2||Micro FourThirds||18.31MP||
|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|