Entry-Level Mirrorless Cameras

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Ever since Olympus popped the cork on its first Digital Pen, the market has been bubbling over with an impressively large selection of high quality, mirror-free digital cameras. Fueled by consumer demands for small cameras with big-camera features and functionality, we can now pick and choose among mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras in a choice of four unique sensor formats. In an interesting twist on tradition, some of the largest sensors can be found in some of the smallest camera bodies.

The less expensive mirrorless cameras employ LCDs as their sole means of composing and reviewing stills and video, though some offer the option of adding an accessory electronic viewfinder (EVF), to ease those moments when composing photographs at arm’s length under bright sunny skies makes you grumpy. Most of the pricier mirrorless cameras offer the choice of using the camera’s LCD or built-in EVF, which is the main reason they’re pricier in the first place. An additional advantage of mirrorless cameras is that they contain fewer moving parts, which translates into far lower levels of camera vibration, resulting in sharper stills and video and quieter operation.


Nikon

Nikon 1 series cameras are not only the newest mirrorless cameras to come to market, but they introduced a new imaging format to the mix. Nikon’s new CX format CMOS sensor is, size-wise (13.2 x 8.8mm), somewhere between APS-C and Four Thirds format sensors and the much smaller imaging sensors found in traditional point-and-shoot digital cameras. (The crop factor for CX image files is 2.7x, compared to a full frame 24 x 36mm DSLR sensor.)

Nikon 1 J1 Mirrorless Digital Camera

The Nikon 1 J1 features a 10.1MP CX-format CMOS sensor, which is powered by Nikon’s latest EXPEED 3 dual image processor. It features sturdy, all-metal construction, a 73-point hybrid AF system, an expanded ISO range of 100 to 6400, and can capture JPEG or RAW stills at up to 10 full-res frames per second. It also captures full HD 1080p video with stereo sound, as well as offering the ability to capture full-res stills at any time using a handy one-touch button. There’s also a Slow Motion Movie mode that can capture action at a choice of 400 or 1,200 frames per second. For composing and reviewing your efforts, the camera has a 3.0-inch 460,000-dot LCD.

The Nikon 1 J1 is available with a 10-30mm VR zoom lens (27-81mm equivalent), a two-lens kit containing a 10-30mm and a longer 30-110mm zoom lens (81-297mm equivalent), or a two-lens kit containing a 10-30mm zoom and a fixed 10mm f/2.8 wide-angle “pancake” lens (27mm equivalent). Each of these kits is available in a choice of white, red, pink, silver and black.

Nikon 1 V1 Mirrorless Digital Camera

If you prefer the option of composing and reviewing stills and video through a viewfinder, the Nikon 1 V1 contains all of the performance attributes and features found on the Nikon 1 J1, but with the addition of a built-in 1,440,000-dot EVF for easier viewing and a higher-res 3.0-inch LCD, compared to the one on the less-pricey Nikon J1 (460,000 dots vs. the V1's 921,000 dots). The V1 also supports a variety of accessories via the accessory shoe, including optional GPS and TTL flash; has a longer-lasting battery; and features an electronically controlled focal-plane shutter for faster flash sync speeds.

The Nikon 1 V1 is available with a 10-30mm Nikon CX-format zoom, a 10-30mm and a 30-110mm zoom or a 10mm fixed wide-angle and a 10-30mm zoom.

Olympus

Olympus E-PM1 Mirrorless Digital Camera

Olympus was the first to come out with a mirrorless camera system and currently offers a full line of Micro Four Thirds format Digital Pens, the least expensive of which is the Olympus E-PM1. The Olympus E-PM1 features a 12.3MP Live MOS imaging sensor, which is driven by a TruePic VI image processor; a 3.0-inch 460,000-dot, rear-mounted LCD; it is coupled with an M.Zuiko 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens (28 to 84mm equivalent). An SD memory card slot expands the E-PM1’s capacity, and will accept an Eye-Fi card for wireless transfer of your images to email or computer.

Other features found on the E-PM1 include a choice of JPEG, RAW or JPEG+RAW still capture at up to 5.5 frames per second; 1080/60i video capture with stereo sound; ISO sensitivity levels from 200 up to an expanded 12800; in-camera image stabilization; a built-in Live Guide that “talks” you through any issues you might have using the camera; and 3D photo capture. The Olympus E-PM1 is available in a choice of black, pink, silver, brown, purple and white and is compatible with all Olympus Micro Four Thirds format optics and most Olympus Pen camera accessories.

Panasonic

Along with Olympus, Panasonic has been one of the prime movers and shakers in the world of Four Thirds imaging, and as such it has a total of four entry-level Lumix mirrorless cameras in this year’s mirrorless camera roundup.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 Mirrorless Digital Camera

Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-GF3 has a Micro Four Thirds 12.1MP Live MOS imaging sensor and a 3.0-inch 460,000-dot touch screen LCD that serves as its sole means of composing and reviewing stills (JPEG & RAW) and video capture (1080/60i HD). The GF3’s touch-screen LCD also serves as the camera’s primary control panel—it’s designed for easy use by beginners and advanced enthusiasts alike. There’s also a control wheel that allows you to select shooting modes with the flip of your thumb.

For the simplest, carefree shooting, the Lumix GF3 offers an Intelligent Auto and Intelligent Auto Plus (iA & iA+) feature that allows you to simply point and shoot. The AF system on the GF3 is quick and near silent. There’s a 4x magnifier that appears on the LCD when manual focus is employed. In addition to normal 2D pictures, the Lumix GF3 can also capture 3D imagery. For low-light shooting, the ISO can be expanded upwards, to 6400.

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 is available as body only, with a 14mm f/2.8 pancake lens (28mm equivalent), or with a 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens (28-84mm equivalent). It’s also available in a choice of black, white, black, brown, red and pink.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera

The Lumix DMC-GF3’s predecessor is the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2, which is still available in a choice of red or black and with a choice of a 14mm f/2.8 pancake lens (28mm equivalent) or with a 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens (28-84mm equivalent).

The Lumix GF2 features a 12.1MP Micro Four Thirds format Live MOS touch screen imaging sensor; a 3.0-inch 460,000-dot LCD; JPEG and RAW stills capture; 1080/60i video capture; a top ISO of 6400; an easy iA Function control menu; and 3D imaging capability. The Panasonic Lumix GF2 is compatible with all Panasonic Micro Four Thirds optics and accepts 3D interchangeable lenses.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera

More DSLR-like is Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-G3, which in addition to a 3.0-inch 460,000-dot, free angle, touch-screen LCD, features an integrated electronic viewfinder for more traditional image viewing. (The LCD and EVF both display 100% of the total image area.) The Lumix DMC-G3 features a Micro Four Thirds format 16MP Live MOS imaging sensor, which captures JPEG or RAW stills and up to 120 minutes of 1080/60i full-HD video with stereo sound. If sports are part of your repertoire, the Lumix G3 can capture up to 20 frames per second.

Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-G3 is available in a choice of black or white, both of which are available with a 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 kit zoom. The Lumix G3 is also available in black as a body only.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G2 Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera

Last up in the Panasonic entry-level mirrorless camera parade is the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G2, which is available as a body only, in black. The Lumix DMC-G2 features a 12.1MP Micro Four Thirds format Live MOS imaging sensor and a 3.0-inch 460,000-dot, free-angle touch screen LCD that features touch focus and exposure control. In addition to JPEG and RAW still capture, the Lumix G2 can also capture up to 100 minutes of 1080i HD video per clip. The top ISO sensitivity on the G2 is ISO 6400. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-G2 is compatible with all Panasonic Micro Four Thirds optics, and Four Thirds optics can be used with an optional adapter.

Sony

Sony Alpha NEX-C3 Digital Camera

The Sony Alpha NEX-C3 is Sony’s entry-level NEX series mirrorless camera offering. Available in black, silver and pink, with a choice of an 18-55mm kit zoom or a 16mm f/2.8 pancake-style wide-angle (24mm equivalent), the Sony NEX-C3 contains a 16.2MP Exmor backlit APS HD format imaging sensor (APS-C size), which is physically the largest imaging sensor of all of the cameras described above. And interestingly enough, the NEX-C3 is about the same size or smaller than the other cameras in this roundup.

The Sony Alpha NEX-C3 captures JPEG or RAW as well as RAW + JPEG stills at continuous burst rates of up to 5.5 frames per second. It can also capture 720p HD video with stereo sound, and it has a 3.0-inch 921,600-dot LCD, which can be tilted for optimal viewing. Along with a top ISO of 12800, the NEX-C3 features a night-penetrating handheld Twilight mode. The Sony NEX-C3 is compatible with the full line-up of Sony E-mount optics, and with the Sony A-mount Lens adapter also accepts Sony A-mount optics. A number of third-party adapters are also available to facilitate using any number of other optics with Sony NEX cameras.

We hope this roundup has helped you narrow your choices. If you have any questions about entry-level mirrorless cameras, please post them in the Comments section below.

  Sensor  Screen  Format Lens Mount ISO Colors
Nikon 1 J1 Mirrorless Digital Camera 10.1 MP - CMOS Sensor  3" - 460,000 dots JPEG, RAW, MPEG-4, AVC / H.264, MOV, AAC Nikon 1 Mount  100 - 6400  White, Red, Black, Silver, Pink 
Nikon 1 V1 Mirrorless Digital Camera  10.1 MP - CMOS Sensor  3" - 921,000 dots / EVF 100% JPEG, RAW, MPEG-4, AVC / H.264, MOV, AAC Nikon 1 Mount  100 - 6400  Black
Olympus E-PM1 Digital Camera 12.3 MP - CMOS Sensor 3" - 460,000 dots JPEG, RAW, MJPEG, AVi Micro Four Thirds  200 - 12800 Black, Pink, Silver, Brown, Purple, White
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 Digital Camera 12.1 MP - MOS Sensor 3" - 460,000 dots JPEG, RAW, MPEG-4, AVCHD Micro Four Thirds  160 - 6400 White, Black, Brown, Red
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 Digital Camera 12.1 MP - MOS Sensor 3" Touch-Screen - 460,000 dots JPEG, RAW, MPEG-4, AVCHD Micro Four Thirds  100 - 6400  Black, Red
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 Digital Camera 16 MP - Cmos Sensor 3" Touch-Screen - 460,000 dots / EVF - 100%  JPEG, RAW, MPEG-4, AVCHD Micro Four Thirds  160 - 6400 Black, White
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G2 Digital Camera  12.1 MP - MOS Sensor 3" Touch-Screen - 460,000 dots / EVF - 100%  JPEG, RAW, MPEG-4, AVCHD Micro Four Thirds  100 - 6400  Black
Sony Alpha NEX-C3 Digital Camera 16.2 MP - CMOS Sensor 3" Tilting LCD - 921,600 dots JPEG, RAW, MPEG-4, AVC / H.264, AAC Sony E Mount  200 - 12800 Black, Silver, Pink

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I am most disappointed at the presentation. You did not address the high ISO problems of the Nikon or the 4:3 cameras nor of the Pentax Q. The handout I have for my class at Emeritus College deals with those tradeoffs. Email me and I will send it to you.

 Jerry Schneir

Hi Jerry,

The noise issues you're referring to, which are at this point in time still an issue with smaller imaging sensors, is a valid one, but because this article is a year-end roundup rather than a true hands-on product review, we refrained from getting into these sort of details as important as they may be. Your point is well taken though and perhaps we will follow up with a true comparative review of similar cameras with different size imaging sensors to illustrate the technical differences between 'competitive' models to better illustrate the finer points you've brought to the table. And thanks for taking the time to send us your feedback to this article.

Well said.

Thanks

I would not say it is "disappointing", noise is what differentiates entry level cameras from high end in some cases. Still, in this roundup, the DMC-G3 is a good contender that does ok in the noise department for micro 4/3. An omission however is the Olympus E-PL1, which although from last year, as the DMC-G2, does surprisingly well in the low noise department working well in all its range all the way up to ISO 3200 and is heavily discounted due to it being last year's model.

This is a great video for those thinking about getting into this market. A well rounded presentation about what is available.

It's a leap from the point and shoot to better image quality with added features and ease of use.

It's a medium that is trying to mix the best of point and shoot with DSLR for the average consumer. And most will find it delightful and stunning and one up from the Jones. Individually both catergories have their issues. Having the best of both is a tough job but what is presented here is great and nicely done.

Your response may have merit but not suited for this review as this is an overview not a technical review of the subject matter.

Thank You B&H for this presentation.

Allan,

The camera's on this list have just been given the kiss of death. I mean, you consider the Nikon V1 at an entry level? Well, thanks for the heads up, I'll now have to wait for the V3.

Thanks,

Dan

I had high hopes for the Nikon compacts, but their dinky sensor turns me off.  I'd love to hear about the various lens adapters that allow the use of Nikkor (or other) SLR lenses on the compacts, including performance data.  Does the adapter allow all lens functions, slow the camera down,  etc.

I really woiuld like to cut down on the bulk of an SLR for overseas travel, but still want decent results.

Hello,

Let me begin by saying my current DSLR is a Nikon D5000 which I purchased because it has a very unique feature, that is it accepts all Nikon F mount lens including NON AI of which I have several. Like using a mirror less camera with an adapter, you lose all camera automation. The camera is used in manual mode employing a hand held meter or the Sunny f16 rule and manual focusing (the center focusing point will confirm focus in the D5000 VF). Unlike all mirror less cameras, the D5000 has an optical pentamirror prism which is dim compared to a pentaprisim and with the lack of a focusing screen geared towards manual focusing like a split image center, focusing especially at f2.0 or f1.4 is tricky to say the least.  

I recently had the chance to use my Leica M lens on a Sony NEX-5n with an adapter. I was not impressed to say the least. For starters, my 28mm Elmarit becomes a 42mm lens on an APS-C sensor and a 56mm on a 4/3rd’s.  I then tried some portraits with a Leica Summicron f2.0 50mm Dual Range Lens and at f2.0 getting the eyes in focus was difficult. A tripod may have improved my chances as the 5n has no viewfinder. While fun, I was not impressed and felt it more work than it’s worth personally.  

Referring back to my D5000, when it all comes together (focus, correct exposure and the right moment) the results can be excellent. Keep in mind; older lens not coated for digital work will flare under certain conditions. My experience has been so far a lot of trial and error with a lot images being deleted due mostly to soft focus YRMV. With the amount of legacy lenses out there and the endless supply of adapters, I am not aware of any formal testing and published results. I am sure if you search for a specific camera and lens model, you may find examples on photo sharing sites. Because of their f-stop rings, Nikkor lens have been adapted and used for video applications and again, while no formal tests are published, there is plenty of video footage out there. I shot video with a D90 and a vintage Nikkor 50mm f1.4 at 1.4 and the video looked like what you would see at a movie theater of course when I was able to get my then 6 yr old to stay where the camera was focused.

Your comments about not liking that Leica lens with the NEX 5N just points out a problem a lot of people forget about, the zoom factor. There is also another factor against using adaptors with ANY CAMERA that requires lens based image stabilization is that I have yet to see the adaptor that allows the lens to be used in the image stabilized manner on a different camera body. I am sure someone out there has it, but it is the main reason, at least for me,  to forget about using non NEX E mount lenses, even Sony Alpha  lenses.

One moe point i should share, and that is just as much as i love the performance of the NEX 5N there are things you should NOT try or do, and one particular thing is to try to take pictures in a dimmly lit place without a flash. I tried it using ISO 6400 and while there is relatively little noise and the detail is very good, the color balance is god awful. With so many low lights of different types providing what little illumination, the camera does not handle that well. i guess that proves the old adage, just because you can do something, like shoot in really low light, doesn't mean you should do it for an entire evening at a party.

 I had to confess to my class about the dumb ass that tried it, ME!

 Jerry

I am sorry but this roundup has *nothing* to do with the Nikon 5000, which is a DSLR, not a mirrorless. You should really submit your post in a DSLR specific location.

After checking the reviews, I remain skeptical as to why someone would spend upwards of $1000 dollars or more for a mirrorless camera.  The compact size makes them a great choice for travel but that's about it. I think a more detailed review of each model would be in order here. As for me, I'll stick with my current DSLR. 

As a former Pentax D10 user who loved that camera as well as a Nikon D90 I can speak with a lot of first hand experiance. The only, and I really mean only, advantage the big dSLRs have  over the mirrorless cameras is action photography and I really mean high speed action stuff. For most people,  that type of photography represents a tiny percentage of their camera's use. So to lug around a big camera  just for that rare use doesn't make sense for me. From what I see in the classes I teach, few people use more than one lens or even have two lenses. The tendency is to get one lens that covers their needs and avoid changing lenses as much as possible.

The mirrorless cameras are doing well because they tapped into a market that values smaller size. A market that doesn't value the "mine is bigger than yours" mentality, a market that values sharpness and low noise along with good color rendition in a smaller package. Before i sold my D90 I compared shots taken with it and my Sony NEX 5N. I sold the Nikon.  Along the way I had also acquired Panasonics G1, G2, and GF1 with several lenses and didn't sell the Nikon until I got the Sony.

If you are into taking lots of high speed action shots then the mirrorless cameras in this stage of their evolution are not for you, but for me, they really meet my needs.  And from what I see from my students buying habits, it appears to meet their needs as well.  Most of my students are well over 60 years of age, so that may not be representative of the average photographer, but it sure as hell covers a large group of them.

 Jerry

Having read all the valuable comments to this article and seeing the cost of these units one has to ask, why buy one other than for the novelty?

What I really love is the fact that while they are cheaper and easier to manufacture, the price is double the cost of a point-and-shoot which is the market these are geared to penetrate.

Leica and Canon perfected the mirrorless camera eons ago, so "new technology" doesn't play. Also it adds to cost of ownership that the lenses are interchangable...to what end?  "Look Ma, it's just like a "real" camera??

With my trusty G11 and Pshop 5.1 I can leave my big guns at home for all but real work.

I have to strongly disagree. These cameras are aimed at the "I want a bigger sensor  and the advantages that go with that larger sensor" in a smaller, lighter body. I have compared the G12 with the Sony NEX 5N as well as the NEX 3 which is more comparable in price to the G12, and it is no contest, both Sony cameras come out way ahead of the Canons. I loved my Canon S90 which has that same sensor as the G12 but it just can't do as well in low light as the NEX 3 . Most, but not all, of the mirrorless cameras produce lower noise, sharper images, and more accurate color than any small sensor camera such as the G11/G12, and I think they weigh a lot less.

Jerry