Advanced Mirrorless Digital Cameras

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Mirrorless cameras have become increasingly tempting as lighter-weight alternatives to bulkier traditional DSLR systems for many photographers, advanced and otherwise. Although DSLRs have gotten smaller over time, they don’t approach the diminutive sizes of their mirrorless counterparts.

While all of the cameras in this roundup share a common design philosophy, the realizations of these cameras vary subtly, and not so subtly, inside and out. Each of these cameras features a rear LCD that covers most of the camera’s back. Some of these LCDs tilt or swivel and some don’t. Most of these mirrorless cameras also accept optional electronic viewfinders (EVFs) that allow you to compose and review stills and video from a more DSLR-like, eye-level position.

Depending on the brand, there’s also a choice of sensor formats to choose from among these cameras. Olympus and Panasonic contain Four Thirds format imaging sensors, Sony’s NEX-5n, NEX-7 and Samsung’s NX200 contain APS-C format imaging sensors. Depending on which lens module you choose for your Ricoh GXR, you might be shooting to an APS-C format sensor or a much smaller 1/1.7" or 1/2.3" (point-and-shoot format) imaging sensor.

Regardless of sensor size, each of the cameras in this holiday roundup can capture stills in the form of JPEGs (and some in RAW), and can also capture Full-HD video with stereo sound. They can do this without the AF limitations common to many video-enabled DSLRs, including cameras costing thousands of dollars more than any of the following mirrorless models.

Olympus

The Olympus PEN E-P3 features all-metal construction and as with all Olympus PEN cameras, a compact, retro style, low profile form factor. Designed around a Four Thirds format 12.3MP Live MOS imaging sensor and a TruePic VI image processor, the PEN E-P3 features a 614,000-dot 3.0" OLED that allows for touch-screen control of a number of camera functions including AF points and shutter release. The E-P3 also sports  a fast, 35-point AF system, a 3-mode image stabilization system, 3D image capture, JPEG, RAW and JPEG+RAW still capture, and 1080/60i video recording with stereo sound. You can add to that an expanded ISO of up to 12800 for low-light shooting.

In addition to the E-P3’s high-resolution OLED monitor, you also have the option of sliding an Olympus VF-2 electronic viewfinder onto the camera’s accessory shoe for eye-level composing and editing of stills and video. The VF-2, which like the camera’s OLED displays 100% of the total image area, can be tilted as much as 90° for shooting from awkward angles or positions.

The Olympus PEN E-P3 is available in black, silver and white and with a choice of a 17mm f/2.8 pancake-style lens (34mm equivalent) or a 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 kit zoom (28 to 84mm equivalent). The PEN E-P3 is also available as an E-P3 Street Shooter Kit, which contains an Olympus E-P3 camera, a 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom, a 12mm f/2.0 (24mm equivalent), a VF-3 electronic viewfinder, a camera grip and a gadget bag. The Olympus PEN E-P3 is compatible with all Olympus Micro Four Thirds lenses.

Panasonic

Panasonic’s advanced mirrorless camera is the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2, which is available in black only with a choice of a 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens (28 to 84mm equivalent) or a longer 14-140mm f/4.0-5.8 zoom lens (28 to 280mm equivalent). The Panasonic GH2 features a 16.05MP Live MOS imaging sensor and a 3.0-inch 460,000-dot free angle LCD with touch-screen controls for shooting both stills and video. In addition to the GH2’s LCD, the camera also features a 1,533,600-dot Live View finder that allows for crystal clear, DSLR-like eye-level viewing of 100% of the total image area.

A top ISO of 12800 makes shooting under challenging lighting conditions a walk in the park, and there’s an iA (Intelligent Auto) mode for equally hassle-free still and video capture. The Lumix GH2 can capture stills in a choice of JPEG, RAW or JPEG+RAW at burst rates of up to 5 frames per second. Video can be captured in the form of 1080/60i, with Dolby stereo sound, straight out of the box. You have the option of capturing a full-resolution still in the midst of shooting video by simply pressing the shutter button, and you can capture 3D imagery. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 is compatible with the full line of Panasonic Micro Four Thirds optics, each of which is MEGA O.I.S enabled for capturing sharp imagery under low lighting conditions.

Ricoh

The Ricoh GXR is one of the more technically exotic cameras you’re likely to come across, in that it not only features interchangeable lenses, but each lens comes with its own imaging sensor. Depending on the lens you choose, the sensor might be a point-and-shoot sensor (1/1.7" or 1/2.3") or a far larger APS-C format imaging sensor.

The Ricoh GXR body module features magnesium-alloy construction, a 3.0-inch 920,000-dot LCD, a built-in flash, the camera’s SD/SDHC memory card slot and all of the camera’s exposure controls. As for imagery, the GXR captures JPEG or RAW stills and AVI video capture. Other features found on the Ricoh GXR body module include USB 2.0 and HDMI connectivity, a hot shoe and ISO ratings up to 3200.

Each of the Ricoh Camera Units, which is what Ricoh calls each of its lens/sensor modules, is self-contained and impervious to dust and moisture. Currently there are four camera units: two fixed focal length lenses with APS-C sensors and two zooms with smaller point-and-shoot sensors. The two fixed focal length camera units include a 28mm f/2.5 wide angle (technically an 18.3mm lens with a 1.5x crop factor) and a 50mm f/2.5 Macro lens (technically a 33mm lens with a 1.5x crop factor). The APS-C imaging sensors in both of these fixed focal length camera units is 12.3MP. Both of these camera units capture JPEG and RAW stills as well as 720p HD video.

The shorter of the two zoom camera units is a 24-72mm f/2.5-4.4 (actually a 5.1 to 15.3mm) wide angle to short telephoto lens that records JPEG and RAW stills and VGA video to a 10MP 1/1.7" CCD. Close focusing with this camera unit is 1cm from the front lens element. The longer of the two zooms is an image stabilized 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens (actually a 4.9 to 52.5mm lens) that records JPEG and RAW stills and 720p HD video to a 10MP 1/2.3" CMOS sensor.

In addition to the four camera units mentioned above, Ricoh also offers a GXR Mount A12 for Leica M lenses, which enables owners of Leica M series optics to use them with the Ricoh GXR body module.

Samsung

Visually, the Samsung NX200 just might be the “handsomest” camera in its category. Available in black only, the clean styling of the Samsung NX200 is totally devoid of unnecessary design flourishes. And under the hood, it’s equally noteworthy.

Samsung’s NX200 features an APS-C format 20.3MP CMOS sensor for capturing JPEG or RAW stills at capture rates of up to 7 frames per second at an ISO range of 100 to 12800. The NX200 also captures 1080/30p Full-HD video. For those who like going beyond the norm, the NX200 can also capture wide-field panoramas and 3D images, as well as 3D panoramas. For composing and reviewing your efforts, the Samsung NX200 features a bright 614,000-dot 3.0-inch AMOLED.

The NX200 has an updated i-Function feature that enables you to easy switch to manual control of the camera. i-Function also features i-Zoom and i-Effect modes that enable smoother and easier zoom and special effects. There are also 10 Smart Filters, 12 Magic Frames, and a Soft Focus and Half-Tone Dot mode for adding touches of post-capture fun to your pics and videos.

The Samsung NX200 is compatible with all Samsung NX-mount lenses, which currently include a choice of normal and wide-angle pancake lenses, zooms and a macro. Samsung also makes an adapter for using Pentax K-mount lenses on the NX200. There are also adapters available for using a number of lenses from alternate manufacturers with the Samsung NX200.

Sony

From Sony, we have a choice of two advanced mirrorless digital cameras: the Sony Alpha NEX-5N and Sony Alpha NEX-7. Sony’s NEX-series cameras pretty much rewrote the rules concerning how much resolving power you can stuff into a pocket camera-sized camera body. In that respect, both of these cameras are darned impressive.

In terms of firepower and imaging technology, the Sony Alpha NEX-7 is a tough act to follow. Designed around the same APS-C format 24.3MP CMOS sensor found in Sony’s flagship Alpha A77, the NEX-7 can capture a ridiculously high-res choice of JPEG, RAW or JPEG+RAW stills at up to 10 continuous frames per second as well as Full-HD 1080/60p/60i video capture with Dolby stereo sound and full manual control. The NEX-7 also captures wide-field panoramas up to 226° wide in 2D or 3D.

Unlike other NEX-series cameras, the Sony Alpha NEX-7 offers a choice of options for composing and reviewing stills and video. In addition to a 921,600-dot, tiltable 3.0-inch LCD, the NEX-7  features a built-in 2,359,000-dot OLED viewfinder that delivers pentaprism-like image viewing from eye level that eliminates the hassle of having to squint at an LCD when shooting outdoors.

Other features found on the Sony Alpha NEX-7 include ISO sensitivity up to 16000, a Tri-Navi 3-dial manual control function, a host of scene modes and special effect filters and extremely effective low-light shooting modes.

Though delivery dates for the much ballyhooed Sony Alpha NEX-7 were pushed back until sometime in January due to the devastating monsoon-related flooding of Thailand (Sony’s Alpha camera factories were under 12 feet of water), we do expect to have them in stock soon as body only or with an 18-55mm zoom lens, both in black only.

Alternatively from Sony we have the Sony Alpha NEX-5N, which contains almost all of the performance features as the NEX-7, albeit without a built-in OLED EVF and with a “lower-resolution” 16.1MP APS-C format CMOS sensor instead of the NEX-7’s 24.3MP CMOS sensor. The camera’s 3.0-inch LCD contains 921,600 dots and is tiltable for optimal viewing positioning. For those who prefer composing imagery in an eye level, DSLR-like manner, Sony offers an optional FDA-EV1S OLED electronic viewfinder that slips onto the camera’s hot shoe.

The Sony Alpha NEX-5N offers the options of capturing JPEG, RAW or JPEG+RAW stills at up to 10 continuous frames per second, a top ISO of 25600, Full-HD 1080/60p/24p video capture with Dolby stereo sound and full manual control. The NEX-5N also features a 25-point contrast AF system, and can capture wide-field panoramas up to 226° wide, in a choice of 2D or 3D.

Sony’s Alpha NEX-7 and NEX-5N are both compatible with the full line of Sony Alpha E-mount optics as well as third-party NEX-mount lenses, and adapters for using lenses from a host of alternative manufacturers with Sony NEX cameras. For improved sound quality, Sony also offers a higher-fidelity ECM-SST1 compact stereo mic which, like the optional EVF, mounts in the camera’s hot shoe.

  Sensor  LCD - Viewfinder Format Max Burst Rate Lens Mount ISO  Colors
Olympus E-P3 PEN Digital Camera 12.3 MP - Micro Four Thirds CMOS Sensor 3" Touch Screen JPEG, MPO, RAW, MPEG4, AVCHD 3 fps Micro Four Thirds  100 - 12800 Black, Silver, White
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 Digital Camera 15.9 MP - Micro Four Thirds CMOS Sensor 3" LCD - 460,000 dots / EVF 100%  JPEG, RAW, MPEG4, AVCHD 40 fps Micro Four Thirds  160 - 12800 Black
Ricoh GXR + S10 Kit 10 MP (1/1.7") 3" LCD - 920,000 dots  JPEG, RAW, MJPEG,  5 fps GXR module 100 - 3200 Black
Ricoh GR Lens A12 28mm F2.5 Camera Unit 4 12.3Mp (APS-C) N/A JPEG, RAW, AVI 4 fps GXR module 200-3200 Black
Ricoh GR Lens A12 50mm F2.5 Macro Camera Unit 1 12.3Mp (APS-C) N/A JPEG, RAW, 720p 4 fps GXR module 200-3200 Black
Ricoh Lens P10 28-300mm F3.5-5.6 VC Camera Unit 3 10Mp (1/2.3") N/A JPEG, RAW, 720p 5 fps GXR module 100-3200 Black
Samsung NX200 Mirrorless Digital Camera 20 MP - APS-C  3" LED - 614,000 dots JPEG, MPEG-4, AVC / H.264 7 fps Samsung NX  100 - 12800 Black
Sony Alpha NEX-5N Digital Camera 16 MP - APS-C 3" Tilting  LCD Touchscreen - 921,600 dots JPEG, RAW, MPEG-4, AVC / H.264 10 fps Sony E Mount  100 - 25600 Black, Silver
Sony Alpha NEX-7 Digital Camera 24.3MP - APS-C 3" Tilt LCD 921,000-dot / OLED EVF -2400k-dots JPEG, RAW, 1080/60i 10 fps Sony E Mount  100-16000 Black

If you have any questions about advanced mirrorless digital cameras, or would like to share your experiences using one, please post in the Comments section below. We look forward to hearing from you.

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Where is the Panasonic G3, the Fuji X-100 and X-10 and the Nikon J1 and V1?

Hi Roger,

The Panasonic and Nikon cameras were included in our earlier Entry-level Mirrorless camera Roundup and the Leica X-10 and X-100 - while technically mirror less cameras - are terrific cameras but aren't system cameras with interchangeable lenses. That said, we could have included the Leica M9, which is not only a mirrorless system camera with interchangeable lenses, but after 50-plus years of continuous evolution is perhaps the finest camera system ever devised.

And thanks for taking the time to write us.

Hello.  As Roger says, thank you for sending this.  I do have another candidate for inclusion here, the  Panasonic GX!.  While if you had to pick one Panasonic (but you picked two Sonys!) I would agree that the GH2 ought to be it, but the GX! combines small size, an outstanding EVF (much better than the GF1's), a good range of features,  and great build quality.

I  should add that I owned Leica RFs and SLRs for many years.  I think  the RFs are wonderful, but limited, so I would not choose even the Leica ones as the best camera system ever..  The best comment I ever heard about this was from a Leica employee, who said "The RF is like a sports car--does a few things very well.  The SLR is like a station wagon--can do a much broader range of tasks."

Anyway, thanks to B&H for being the good, reliable store it is, and for providing good info on photographic eequipment.

Charlie