Photography / Hands-on Review

Holiday 2012: Intermediate Mirrorless Digital Cameras


Not so long ago, the single lens reflex was the undisputed king in and outside the studio, and anything short of this form factor was a compromise in both photographic performance and accessory options. Now, with the rapidly growing range of intermediate mirrorless digital cameras, we find more advanced feature sets that include RAW file capture, eye-level viewfinders, and fast lenses. These features attract the attention of photographers who may have owned an SLR, but yearn for a smaller package that retains physical buttons, uses better autofocus systems and offers manual controls. Here are some notable cameras that will make great gifts for you and for the budding photgraphers around you.

Olympus E-PL3 Digital Camera with 14-42mm II Lens

Packed inside the sleek 12.3 megapixel Olympus E-PL3 is a similar set of tantalizing features for both stills and HD video. This E-PL3 comes with an M.ZUIKO MSC Digital ED 14-42mm II f3.5/5.6 zoom lens and a 3.0” articulated LCD with anti-reflective coatings that permits both high- and low-angle shooting, harking back to the days of the twin lens reflex, but with the advantage of a maximum 12800 ISO. Combined with the CMOS sensor and TruePic VI image processor, it outputs JPEGs, RAW, 1080/60i AVCHD video and MPO 3-D files. Stabilization is in the body so all lenses attached—even manual lenses adapted to the Micro Four Thirds mount—are stabilized for low-light shooting. The FAST (Frequency Acceleration Sensor Technology) AF System is able to focus at an impressive speed, and the camera also features 23 Scene Select Modes, 3D Still Shooting and 5 FPS Sequential Shooting.

Olympus E-PL5

The Olympus E-PL5 adds a touch-screen interface, in-camera panorama stitching and 15.9 megapixels to the series with fewer buttons, yielding a smoother profile for this digital PEN. The TruePic VI image processor boosts the maximum ISO to 25600 while maintaining accurate colors, and autofocus is controlled through 35 focus points for still faster focusing and tracking. In-camera RAW processing allows both graphical and geometric adjustments directly, without a computer, for JPEG convenience with RAW file accuracy and latitude. Sequential shooting of 8 frames per second and the Olympus F.A.S.T. Auto Focus system mean high-speed performance—combined with Face and Eye Detection, portrait and group shots are automatically focused and the exposure is automatically set.

Sony Alpha NEX-5R

The Sony Alpha NEX-5R is perplexing at first glance, if you've never seen an NEX-series camera. A comfortable ergonomic grip and a substantial E-mount are joined with a surprisingly flat body which supports a generous 3.0" 180-degree tilting touch-screen LCD. Lacking a mirror box, the body has shrunk down to a platform which joins the components, encloses electronics and holds the battery. Sony E-mount lenses enjoy fast hybrid autofocusing onto the 16.1 megapixel APS-C format sensor, at up to ISO 25600, for recording to JPEG and RAW still files and MPEG-4 AVCHD video files. Bypassing the SDHC, SDXC and Memory Stick Pro storage, Wi-Fi transmissions are possible to smart phones and tablets directly, using the PlayMemories Mobile application included. PlayMemories comes installed on the rear screen for the NEX-5R and features downloadable software that can be installed on your Sony kit after purchase, offering new functionality for the device. The set of applications features Picture Effect+, Bracket Pro, Multi Frame NR, Smart Remote Control and Direct Upload.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF5X

The 12.1 megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF5X is the latest iteration of their lens-mount-on-a-box GF series, which encourages inconspicuous street shooting with its low-profile design and available fast lenses. The unexpected twist is in the user interface, which uses smart-phone-like menus for most controls on the 920K-dot 3” touch display with anti-glare coatings. The Four Thirds format MOS sensor captures 12.1MP stills at up to ISO 12800 with improved noise reduction, as well as full 1080p HD video in AVCHD (MPEG-4 / H.264) format with stereo sound.

Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GX1

The  continues the tradition of solid G-series cameras in a button-rich platform. It’s aimed at intermediate users with a taste for direct control instead of smart-phone menus. The 16.0 megapixel MOS sensor can capture up to 20 frames per second (with reduced resolution) at up to ISO 12800, and records video at 1080/60i for 150 minutes using 3 processors in the Venus Engine. An electronic Level Gauge lets you use a tripod-mounted device confidently, for landscapes or architecture, or even video with manual focusing.

Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GX1 Panasonic Lumix G5

Panasonic Lumix G5

The Panasonic Lumix G5 adds the flexibility of the Live View Finder, an eye-level electronic viewfinder with a sensor that detects an approaching eye and switches the 3.0” rear LCD off automatically. Using interchangeable Micro Four Thirds lenses, it captures 16.05MP stills and 1080p video, which is handled by the new Venus Engine image processor. Fourteen adjustable in-camera filters are available for direct manipulation of captured images, and HDR can be captured and processed on the fly, automatically.

Nikon 1 V1

The Nikon 1 V1 takes the basic features of the 1 J1 and 1 J2 and adds an electronic viewfinder, an external mic jack, and a substantially longer battery life. The lens mount also supports both Nikon 1 series lenses for fast hybrid autofocusing, as well as select F-mount lenses with an adapter. The 10.1MP CMOS sensor can capture still images at up to 10 fps in auto and up to 60 fps in manual mode, as well as Full HD 1080p video- or even both at the same time: if you start recording 1080p footage and then see a still image, the shutter can be pressed to capture a still frame on the fly.  A comfortable ISO range of 100-3200 (expandable to 6400) aids in low-light captures with existing light, and flash is available with the dedicated Nikon 1 SB-N5 Speedlight as a primary source, or for fill.

Samsung NX1000

The mirrorless Samsung NX1000 uses a 20.3MP APS-C sized CMOS sensor for 8 fps still captures at up to ISO 12800 and Full HD 1080p video with stereo sound. Samsung's i-Function technology, which puts a button on the lens that unlocks the manual adjustment of several settings, is featured with the lens. You can choose among shutter speed, aperture, exposure value, white balance and ISO, and then turn the ring on the lens to adjust your selected parameter. Fast fixed and zoom lenses are available for the wide NX mount from Samsung as well as select third-party brands, and 15 autofocusing points deliver single-servo and continuous-servo focusing, as well as assisted manual focusing. Viewfinding is provided by the bright 3.0” TFT LCD with VGA resolution. The LCD features four grid options and auto-gain adjustment for clear viewing in varying light levels. Instant media sharing is possible with computers, social media sites and cloud services, thanks to the built-in Wi-Fi connectivity. RAW captures, which will give you the best tonal gradation and color rendering, can be manipulated with the bundled Samsung RAW Converter 4 software.

Pentax K-01

Hidden deep within the sleek breakaway design ergonomic body of the Pentax K-01 is the old familiar Pentax K-mount, which is compatible with current Pentax autofocus lenses as well as older manual focus K-mount lenses, offering a galaxy of focal lengths. The 40mm lens (35mm equivalent of 61mm) with an f/2.8 maximum aperture and nine aperture blades, peaks when shooting in low light or when trying to achieve a shallow depth of field. The APS-sized CMOS sensor captures 16MP stills at up to 6 fps and full HD 1080p video, and effects such as in-camera HDR and infrared processing are possible. Although a prism-shaped cover on the top of the chassis hints at an eye-level viewfinder from the front, this is the housing for a hidden pop-up flash, and viewfinding is accomplished with a bright 3.0” 920,000 dot rear LCD monitor with velvety anti-glare coatings. The Super Protect coating on the lens helps repel moisture and aids in cleaning.

So there you have it—a great lineup of cameras for photographers who take their craft seriously. These intermediate mirrorless digital cameras help bridge the "gear" gap between the hobbyist and enthusiast.

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I am very interested in the Sony Nex line of cameras. I intend to use the camera for various video projects and would like to know which cameras allow the use of an external, 3rd party mic via a connector port. It appears that Sony sells an attachable mic for the Nex-3 and Nex-5 cameras, but I have read mixed reviews on it's performance. I appreciate any feedback you can provide. Thanks

Any feedback on the Samsung NX1000. It fits in my budget and I like the features as described but not sure how it fares in comparison to the competition.