Hunting for the Best Mirrorless Camera

A few months ago something bizarre happened. I got dissatisfied with my iPhone as my only camera. This never should have happened. But it did. And it’s totally the iPhone’s fault.

Nearly 8 years ago, before leaving on our honeymoon, Anna and I bought a Kodak point and shoot to take on the trip. And for a couple of years it was the camera we used here and there. But it wasn’t a sensational camera and we weren’t all that into photography anyway and so it was usually low on battery or we wouldn’t feel like grabbing it when heading out of the house.

Therefore, when I got an iPhone in 2007, it became the new default camera. Even though the camera in the original iPhone was pretty poor, it was always in my pocket ready to snap a shot and so it took over.

And because I’ve had an (iPhone) camera on my person every day for the past 5 years I’ve slowly developed an affinity for photography. Instagram sure helped. Also, in January of this year I bought an olloclip for my iPhone 4S and that helped a lot as well.

It turns out, photography has become something I’m enjoying as a creative outlet and as a hobby and not just as my way of capturing every potentially-cute moment of my son’s life.

A few months ago I reached that point where I felt that the iPhone wasn’t enough for me. I want to do more with my pictures than post them to Instagram or iMessage them to my parents.

Marco Arment also articulated this exact same frustration about six months ago:

Most of my favorite photos from the last two years only look good on small screens.

Not only would I like to become a better photographer, I’d also like to have better images to show for it. A few months ago I decided I wanted a dedicated, high quality camera that could exist alongside my iPhone. And so I began researching cameras. Uh oh…

Maybe you feel the same way. Well, the good news is, if you’re in the market for a mid-range camera there are a lot of fantastic options. The bad news is, if you’re in the market for a mid-range camera there are a lot of options.

I am of the sort of unreasonable and particular consumer who, when he buys something, tries to get the best possible version of that product. Defining the best is subjective, because it rarely is as simple as “highest quality materials” or “the most expensive”. Each person has a slightly different version of what is the best for them.

In my hunt for the best camera, I’ve defined “the best” as a rig which will be fun to use while providing results I’m proud of at a price I’m not embarrassed by.

At first I spent a few hours reading reviews, browsing Flickr galleries, and talking to friends who knew more about this stuff than I did and. After this initial stage of research it seemed the best choice for me would be a Mirrorless camera. And the obvious choice seemed to be the Panasonic GX1.

But, as I am wont to do with bigger choices like this one, I sat on it for a while. Apple is not the only company who introduces new products right before the holiday season. I decided to wait and see if Panasonic would announce a GX2 as had been rumored.

In the meantime I began reading more about Micro Four Thirds (M4/3) cameras. The more I learned about the GX1 and M4/3 cameras the more I realized how much I did not know. I discovered quite a few cameras that might meet my criteria of being small, high quality, and within my budget. Perhaps the GX1 was not the best camera for me after all.

After what has been over 50 hours of learning, researching, studying, and asking my photography friends questions, I “narrowed” my search for a camera down to these 4 rigs:

These cameras are all relatively small and attractive (some more than others), use interchangeable lenses, and are said to be easy to use and yet powerful enough to be grown in to.

Below is a brief overview of the research I’ve done so far and what I’ve discovered to be the pros and cons of each rig. There is, of course, a huge amount of detailed information that I’m leaving out simply because there is no way I could go into all the bits and details and connect all the dots without writing volumes. This post is for those who also feel that their iPhone is no longer cutting it — hopefully I can give you a head start in your hunt.

(Note, links to Amazon are affiliate links. Buy something and I get a small kickback which in turn helps me keep on keepin’ on. Thanks!)

Panasonic GX1

Panasonic GX1

The GX1 came out towards the end of 2011 and over the past year it has built up an outstanding reputation. I have a few internet friends who own one and they love it. And every review I’ve read of it is quite positive. The build quality, image quality, and pocketability all are said to be superb.

It was due to the popularity of the GX1 that I became familiar with Mirrorless cameras in the first place. In fact, I knew so little about mirrorless cameras, I thought Mirrorless and Micro Four Thirds were synonymous. This, of course, is not exactly true. Yes all M4/3 cameras are mirrorless, but not all mirrorless cameras are M4/3.

Of all 4 different rigs I’ve boiled it down to, the GX1 is the least expensive. You can get it brand new with the kit lens for under $450 on Amazon. At this price, the GX1 seems like the obvious entry point into M4/3 cameras. But part of the reason I didn’t buy it a few months ago was because it’s rumored that Panasonic would announce the GX2 sometime in early November. I figured if I had gone this long without a good camera, I could wait a little longer.

In the process of waiting for either a significant update or a significant price drop, I began to research other cameras. I discovered there are a lot of options for someone in the market for a high-quality, portable, powerful camera.

As of this writing, the GX1 has become the last option on my list. In terms of size and image quality, it certainly seems to rival the other cameras I’ve researched, but for a few hundred more dollars you open up options to camera bodies that have some significant upgrades in their sensors, processors, feature set, and/or all of the above. The GX1 is certainly a steal of a deal, but my budget can afford me something a bit nicer and so that’s the direction I’m looking.

Sony Alpha NEX-6

Sony Alpha NEX-6

The Sony Alpha NEX series of cameras are renown for taking amazing images. I didn’t read a single review of the NEX-5, -5N, -5R, -6, or -7 that couldn’t be summed up in one word: “Wow!”

One of my favorite internet photography enthusiasts is Garrett Murray — I’m a huge fan of the style and look of the photos he takes. His website and Flickr stream have some outstanding real-life shots. This is the same sort of photography I’m hoping to grow in — not artsy fartsy shots, but just beautiful everyday shots from living life. Garrett uses an NEX-7. And so he was the original reason I’m even considering an NEX series camera.

Twitter pal, Dan Hawk bought the NEX-5N a while ago and is getting some incredible shots out of it. Like me, Dan was an iPhone photographer ready to move things up a notch. Dan’s review of the NEX-5N is very positive and seeing the results these cameras are producing really make the NEX line enticing to me.

If I were to get an NEX, I’d go with the NEX-6. It’s brand new and, just as the name so subtly hints at, it sits right in-between the NEX-5R and the NEX-7. The few reviews I’ve read say the NEX-6 is like the best of both worlds.

However, results aside, I’ve read that the NEX line is not as “fun” to use as cameras from Olympus (specifically, the OM-D EM-5). The NEX-6’s auto-focus, though fast, is not as fast as the Olympus (see below). And, perhaps the biggest issue of all for me, the NEX line has a relatively shallow selection of lenses. Also the Sony lenses are bulkier (because the NEX uses a bigger sensor), and they are not as affordable as many of the M4/3 lenses are.

Unfortunately, since I don’t have any experience using a camera I don’t know what differences between different cameras are going to be less or more important to me. Would the NEX-6’s “downsides” prove to be diminishing factors in my enjoyment and use of the camera? I don’t know.

One thing I do know, when you look at the images the NEX-5, -6, and -7 can produce, you too will say wow. But I just don’t see myself owning the NEX-6 and using it regularly. As much as I would love the quality of the images my gut tells me I wouldn’t be satisfied with the rig itself. The bigger and more expensive lenses, the dSLR-like size, and the semi-clunkiness of the software all are things that don’t fit into my definition of “the best camera for me”. As bitter of a pill as it is to swallow, I’m willing to get a camera with a slightly smaller sensor in a compromise for a camera that is smaller, more fun, and has a more robust ecosystem of lenses.

Olympus OM-D E-M5

Olympus OM-D E-M5

Speaking of wow, I have yet to read a bad word towards the Olympus OM-D E-M5. Based on all the reviews I’ve read, this is the top-of-the-line Micro Four Thirds camera; the best of the best; the cream of the crop (no pun intended).

It seems the E-M5 can do no wrong:

  • It has a classic vintage design that harkens back to the beloved and original OM line of SLR cameras.
  • It has a fantastic M4/3 sensor that produces very high-quality images.
  • There are a lot of excellent, affordable M4/3 lenses (not just lenses made by Olympus, but also many that are made by Panasonic).
  • It has nearly instantaneous auto focus and a clever touch screen that allows you to tap on a target and the camera will focus and then snap a shot.
  • Built-in electronic view finder.
  • A 5-axis image stabilization system that is unlike any other mirrorless rig.

I kept wanting to put the E-M5 toe-to-toe with the NEX-6 and try to justify one over the other. This one has more lenses, that one has a bigger sensor, and so on. I could do that all day and never come to a conclusion. Both are clearly amazing cameras.

However, I will say this: of all the reviews I read of the E-M5, none of them had a big “but, if only…” at the end. In contrast, the NEX camera reviews always ended with: “But, if only there were a better lens selection.” Whereas the E-M5 reviews ended with: “man, this is a lot of fun to shoot with.”

Despite being such a killer camera, I have two problems with the E-M5: its price and its size. The E-M5 is a few hundred dollars more than I have to spend on a camera body, and it’s a body that seems to be just a little bit bigger than I would like (though, I say that with a grain of salt because I haven’t actually held it in my hand).

Olympus E-PL5

Olympus E-PL5

The E-PL5 is the brand-new model of the beloved PEN line from Olympus.

Everyone paying attention to the M4/3 world is raising an eyebrow when they hear about E-PL5. Because this new camera is not just the next iteration in the PEN line. It is more like a junior version of the E-M5. And that is saying a lot.

The E-PL5 has the same sensor and processor that has set the E-M5 apart as arguably the best M4/3 camera out there. The E-PL5 is sleek and packs a whole lot of punch. The fact that reviewers are all comparing the E-PL5 to the E-M5 is just nuts.

It’s not all apples-to-apples, though. When stacked up against the E-M5, the downsides to the E-PL5 are: (a) it doesn’t have a built-in viewfinder; and (b) it comes with a traditional image stabilizer, instead of the mind-boggling 5-axis image stabilization found in the E-M5.

Both of these downsides strike me as being fine compromises which, in exchange, allow the price of the E-PL5 to come down by several hundred dollars. And, what is most important in the E-M5 (speed and quality) has apparently not been compromised in the E-PL5. See for yourself: here’s an excellent Flickr gallery of images taken with the E-PL5 and Panasonic 20mm f/1.8 lens. And here’s a guy who shot an entire wedding with the E-PL5.

It’s a great looking camera and is very aggressively priced for the features it packs and the quality it’s obviously capable of producing.

As of this writing, the camera is still so new that the in-depth reviews of the E-PL5 from some of the more well known sites (such as Steve Huff and DP Review) are scarce. Nevertheless, this is the rig I’m leaning towards if only because it’s in such good company. Meaning, the predecessors to the E-PL5 (primarily the E-P3) are already so highly esteemed as being great and fun cameras, and the E-M5 is arguably the best Micro Four Thirds camera out there.

The E-PL5 seems to continue the quality, fun, and affordability that the PEN line is known for while combining that with the incredible speed and image quality that the E-M5 is known for.

Aside: The Canon EOS M

Canon EOS M

This camera isn’t in the runnings for me. But it almost was. In the mirrorless world, the EOS M seems like the odd one out right now. It has the larger APS-C sensor that makes the NEX lineup so great and its kit lens is a 22mm f/1.8 pancake. It’s simple and sleek, and some of the sample photos I’ve seen look great. On the surface the EOS M seems like the perfect mirrorless camera for me.

But virtually nobody is talking about the EOS M. I didn’t even know that it existed except I stumbled across it on Amazon by accident. And those who are talking about it seem to be underwhelmed by it.

The more I found to read about it here and there, the more I learned that it has a few disadvantages that make it not all that great compared to the competition. For one, there are only 2 lenses specifically built for the EOS M. Of course, with an adapter you can fit just about any Canon glass on there, but you lose some of the auto focus functionality and the lens will then protrude even further from the camera. Really, the adapter is for those who already own Canon lenses (which is not me).

Another disadvantage of the Canon EOS M is its lack of image stabilization — neither the lenses nor the body have it. Moreover, some of the reports I read state that the auto-focus can take as long as 1-2 seconds. My iPhone is faster than that.

In short, Steve Huff’s impression of the Canon EOS M seem to mimic the general sentiment that I’ve read elsewhere in other previews and forums, that it’s “too little and too late.”

The Verdict

There is so much information to wade through I could compare sample images and opinions while charting side-by-side stats all day long. Actually, that’s pretty much exactly what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks.

If you follow me on Twitter or App.net, you know I’ve been talking about this all week long. And I’ve received many replies from people who own one of the Sonys, or a GX1, or the E-M5, or a previous-model PEN, and everyone says they love their camera. In a way that’s been exceedingly helpful because it means I can’t really go wrong. But on the other hand, it’s been unhelpful because it means there is no clear winner.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a universal consensus that such-and-such camera is the best one and that’s it? But the truth is, all of the aforementioned cameras are excellent in their own ways and that is precisely why there is no universally renown best camera. There is no one-size-fits-all rig.

I decided to go with the Olympus E-PL5 (in black, of course) and the world-famous Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. Everything I’ve read about the E-PL5 seems to confirm it fits the definition of the best camera for me. And the Panasonic pancake is universally heralded as one of the few no-brainer lenses for anyone with a Micro Four Thirds camera.

Ultimately what’s most important to me is a camera that I will want to use and which while produce images I’m proud of. Friction (or rather, a lack thereof) is just as important as image quality because a $2,000 camera that takes jaw-dropping photos won’t do me any good if I leave it in the bag. This is why it’s the iPhone’s fault that I’m even in this mess: it’s the device that got me wanting to take photos in the first place.

Update: You can read my first impressions of the Olympus E-PL5 here.

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