PLEASE NOTE: the cameras discussed in this article have now been succeeded by newer models. The same three brands I mention are still leaders in the mirrorless camera upswing. I leave this article because it still has useful info for those looking to purchase
Who are you? Are you a phone camera user thats got excited about photography and want to upgrade to a dedicated camera? Are you someone who wants a flexible camera with interchangible lens capacity? A point and shoot user ready to get something better? Do you expect to print your own photos at larger sizes or just share on the web? A professional: you can leave this article immediately because you already know what you need!
Who am I? I'm an enthusiastic landscape photographer/artist/fine art printer, with many years experience including such things as a darkroom for developing film. I have a Canon 5D MarkII with professional "L" lenses. I'm very happy with my current system and the quality of the output.
My issue: I need something lighter and easier to carry everywhere but provides high quality photos. I'm not willing to give up quality 17X22 prints which my current files allow. I'm in my 60s now and hiking with my current excellent equipment (plus tripod) is getting harder every year and I can't expect this to change.
Older cameras captured light on a film emulsion. Today's digital cameras use special sensors to capture and record light and colour values. Yes, sensor size matters, but not for everyone. Those wanting to make large quality prints or large raw files size (read quality), need a decent sized sensor. Large sensor cameras need bigger bodies and lenses and typically cost more too. Here is an illustration of the relative sizes of camera sensors used today:
Anything smaller than a four thirds sensor is too small for my needs although it is important to remember that this technology is young and rapidly developing. This year's 4/3s sensors are much better than last year and the same goes for the other sizes. Medium format cameras have the largest sensors but typically cost $20K and up and are large and heavy. A full frame sensor (same size as 35mm film frame) is found in my Canon 5D camera and other, mostly professional DSLRs. These cameras typically are priced around $3-4K and up. Compact mirrorless cameras that suite my needs will have a four thirds or the larger APS-C sensor. On pure technical grounds APS-C cameras should produce better quality images than the four thirds cameras, but in practice the gap is not large. The microprocessor in the camera that processes the image data, and the quality of the lens on the camera, both also influence the final image quality. Typically, the kit lens found on these cameras is not top quality and are less bright (use smaller maximum apertures) that other lens that are available at higher costs.
So what is a mirrorless camera? Its a camera design that eliminates the complex mirror assembly for viewing through the lens. This makes it possible to design smaller camera with less expensive lenses. This 8 minute video explains the situation very well. Its a bit long but excellent and worth the viewing effort (from http://www.youtube.com/user/bartzoni):
So, I've done a lot of research and have come up with the 3 top compact mirrorless cameras as of late 2012. I don't own any of these yet (but will soon) but share my list with you with references to good reviews. Other than playing with the cameras for a short time I have not done any testing or provided detailed specifications or features. My links provide more than enough of this.
I'm not going to say at this time which one I'm getting because they are all very good cameras and you need to decide for yourself what camera suites you. So here are the top 3 compact mirrorless camera systems as rated according to my needs as explained (in alphabetic order):
$1399X-E1 Digital Camera Kit with XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 OIS Lens (Black)B&H Photo, no affiliation
• Top rated APS-C sensor that some say equals full frame camera quality because of a new design not requiring a moire filter
• Very bright, well built and sharp lenses (kit zoom lens better than most)
• Highly rated electronic viewfinder (ELV)
• Traditional manual controls for shutter, aperture and exposure compensation
• Beautiful jpeg rendering with different "looks" available
• Body weight of 300 grams (compared to 811 grams for my 5D)
• Pop-up flash although not strong light
• external mic output for video work
• Top quality build, fit and finish
• Some issues with the processing of RAW files
• Not weather sealed
• Rear LCD viewfinder is fixed and cannot be rotated
• No in-body image stabilization although coming in some lenses
• No dedicated video button
• Auto focus adequate but not good enough for fast moving objects (sports, kids running around)
• Only 4 lens available now but more coming soon (Adapters availble for Leica and other lenses.)
(Digital Photography Review)
This site is also a favorite and does a more thorough, feature by feature review and exposure testing etc. It is the "go to" site for detailed camera reviews. In this case, they are doing a preview which is still very informative and will be followed by a full review soon. Also highly recommended and will be used as one link for all three cameras.
A general site that collects articles from all over the web related to both the Fuji X-Pro1 and the new X-E1 as mentioned here.
Olympus OM-D EM-5 (shown with flash on hotshoe)
$1299OM-D E-M5 Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera with 12-50mm 3.5-6.3 Lens (Black Body, Black Lens)B&H Photo, no affiliation
• Hi quality four thirds sensor
• Top quality in-body image stabilization system
• Lots of manual controls
• Weather sealed and well built body
• Tilting OLED monitor
• Many good lenses available
• Body weight of 430 grams (compared to 811 grams for my 5D)
• No intergrated flash (but small hot shoe unit included in the price)
• Battery life shorter than average
$1249Alpha NEX-7 Digital Camera with 18-55mm 3.5-5.6 Lens (Black)B&H Photo, no affiliation
• Hi resolution 24.3 Mp APS-C sensor with excellent image quality
• Very small, lightweight APS-C camera, body weight 292 grams (compared to 811 grams for my 5D)
• Highly rated electronic viewfinder (ELV)
• Tilting and swivling rear LCD viewing monitor
• Well regarded control and button layout
• Fast 10fps shooting rate possible
• Noisier than cameras in same price range at higher ISOs (most likely due to hi resolution sensor)
• Menu system difficult for some
• No in-body image stabilization although available in some lenses
• Lens quality varies and needs improvement (adapter for Leica lenses and others available)
• Shorter battery life than the average
• Not weather sealed
Some enthusiasts will of course have different ideas about my three choices. For example, why not choose the new Panasonic GH3? Of course, I've never seen one of these and they are brand new. By all accounts this will be a fantastic camera especially for video people. But this version has grown to 609 gram (body) which is much larger than the three recommended here, and is approaching the size of smaller DSLR APS-C cameras, not to mention the new Canon full-frame 6D body coming in at 770 grams! Also the GH3 price is likely over $2000, at least for awhile. Doesn't meet my needs but many people will love it. Also, the current GH2 is no slouch and good deals are probably already appearing if you don't need the latest and greatest. The new NEX-6 is also a very worthy camera and certainly meets my weight/quality concerns. For those that just post images to the web and rarely make prints, these compact system cameras still produce better quality than your cell phone or point and shoot, plus you can find much less expensive versions than the top models showcased here. As well, they take interchangeable lenses. In the end, my top 3 are mine, you may have other ideas. Hope this was informative and useful for you.