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A quick glance through current consumer photo magazines can be a dizzying experience… new models seem to appear on the market as quickly as manufacturers can think up new names, and reviewers assure us that the old models are "oh-so-ten-minutes-ago," replaced by something better, faster, and often cheaper. Today’s entry-level mirrorless digital cameras approach many aspects of DSLR photographic performance, but they also offer welcome options such as cheerful colors, friendly touchscreen menus, and in-camera creative filters in compact packages for a more pleasant, intuitive user experience.
First in this group is the 12.3MP Micro Four Thirds Olympus ‘Pen Mini’ E-PM1, a sleek, compact package that appears to be an immense display with a lens mount. Within we find a sophisticated device with few external controls—or so it seems. Camera functions are easily controlled with multifunction buttons and the 3.0” LCD, and the helpful pop-up Live Guide system provides real time previews of in-camera features such as Scene Modes and Art Filters. In conjunction with an ISO range of up to 12800, the Olympus in-body stabilization system delivers sharp images regardless of camera shake with all Micro Four Thirds lenses in low-light conditions…opening up new possibilities which were truly out of reach not so long ago.
The Olympus E-PM2 continues the sleek Pen Mini form-factor with a larger 16MP Live MOS Sensor, a comfortable ergonomic grip, and a 3.0” touchscreen for touch-controlled navigation. The F.A.S.T. (Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology) system uses 35 focus sensing points for rapid, autofocusing, a larger battery has been implemented, and sensitivity has been increased to ISO 25600- three full f-stops faster than 3200, which used to be steaming hot when film was king- as long as you liked boulder-sized grain.
The Micro Four Thirds Panasonic GF-series cameras have evolved gracefully from the sensible-shoes boxy look of the GF-1 to the more organic curves of the 12.1 MP Lumix GF-5 which melt into your hands. Button and dial operated menus have been supplemented with a smartphone type touch-controlled interface with the 920K dot 3.0” touchscreen LCD, and video capture has grown from 720p at 30 fps to full HD 1080p at 60 fps in the MPEG-4 AVCHD format. Low-light shooting has been expanded with the 12,800 maximum ISO augmented with sensor-integrated noise reduction and fast single- and continuous-servo autofocusing using 24 focus points with any Micro Four Thirds lens. Keeping in mind that beginners sometimes need help on the fly but might be afraid to ask, Panasonic includes helpful built-in applications such as the New Scene Guide, which offers friendly advice on appropriate interchangeable lens selection, as well as in-camera creative effects.
At the beginning of the current Sony NEX-series dynasty is the compact 16.1MP APS-C Sony Alpha NEX-F3, which adds a built-in flash and a higher maximum ISO of 16000 in conjunction with the existing Optical SteadyShot Image Stabilization for sharp shots in low-light conditions using both E-series and A-series lenses (with an optional adapter). The tilting 3.0" LCD display can be reversed for self-portraits, and the Auto Portrait Framing system applies the ‘rule of thirds’ for assisted compositions. Regardless of its entry-level position in the product line, advanced features like Auto HDR and Dynamic Range Optimizer are supported thanks to the speedy BIONZ Image Processor, and even 3D Sweep Panoramas are possible (and viewable on 3DTVs).
Nikon’s 1 J1 and 1 J2 small-body-big-sensor cameras trump themselves with fast DSLR-esque 73-point phase-detection autofocusing and up to 10 frames per second burst mode for unobtrusive capture of fast-moving subjects using their CX-Format 10.1MP CMOS sensors at up to ISO 64000. Framing and composition are handled with a 3.0” 460000 dot anti-glare coated wide-angle LCD. Using the Nikon FT1 mount adapter, you can also use select F-mount Nikon lenses with a 2.7x crop factor- mainly useful with longer lenses for affordable super-telephoto applications and depth-of-field control. Full HD (1080p) video capture at up to 1200 fps completes the package, sweetened further with Vibration Reduction with 1 Nikkor-series and select F-series VR lenses. The J2 stands apart from the J1 with in-camera panoramas and twice as much LCD resolution for luxuriously rich framing.
The Pentax Q surprises intrepid shoppers with its exceptionally small chassis and big-camera awareness. Packed into a 3.9 x 2.3 x 1.2" (9.91 x 5.84 x 3.05 cm) pocketable form-factor is a little giant that sports a 12.4MP 1/2.3" backlit CMOS Sensor sensitive to ISO 6400, RAW file support, multi-mode autofocusing plus manual, 5.0 fps burst mode, a generous 3.0” 460,000 dot LCD, and full 1080p HD video. Aware of often-discussed perspective issues with exceptionally small sensors, the Bokeh Control Filter simulates the look of larger sensors with its depth-limiting illusion, and legacy K-mount lenses dating back to 1975 are usable with the Pentax Adapter Q for fast K-mount lenses for still greater depth-of-field control.
Following close on the heels of its predecessor, the Pentax Q10 features a moderately redesigned body, an updated 12.4MP 1/2.3" back-lit CMOS sensor, faster autofocusing, and generally faster operation. As with the Q, the Q10 can be used with the Pentax Adapter Q for K-mount lenses, which uses standard K-mount SLR lenses with a 5.5x multiplication factor. It's ideal for longer fast lenses such as the SMCP-FA 77mm f/1.8 which crops to a 424mm field-of-view, yet weighs only 9.5 oz (269 g). By entering the focal length of the mounted lens, in-camera Shake Reduction is possible.
With recent advancements in digital photographic technology, entry-level mirrorless cameras enthusiastically open the doors of perception and creativity to the masses. Features like astonishingly high ISOs make it possible to photograph subjects which were once out of reach for professional cameras. Gone are the days of steep learning curves and mysterious black boxes, replaced with pocket-sized intelligent devices teeming with opportunities for self-expression. If you have an interest in photography but are fearful of manuals and settings, now is a great time to jump into the photographic river – the water is warm, and the technological current will carry you along to a better place.