Meet the Contenders…
When I set out to find the ultimate small camera setup, I knew I would be looking at a camera with many names – mirrorless (a camera that combines the large sensor of a DSLR without a mirror box and an optical viewfinder), interchangable lens camera (ILC, or MILC if you combine the last two), compact system camera (CSC), or my personal favorite – the electronic viewfinder interchangeable lens (EVIL) camera. You will see all these terms associated with the same class of camera. Its a simple formula – big sensor, smaller lenses and bodies, and great IQ. I want something that’s comfortable to shoot with everyday (if you don’t enjoy shooting with it, you’ll never actually use it), has great lenses (or works well with adapted manual focus lenses), shoots great stills and shoots video that will look good on the web and on TV’s in the 42-60” range since that’s what most seem to have these days (I have a 42). That’s not too much to ask, is it?
When the mirror is axed from a DSLR, the size can be drastically reduced, but that introduces a problem – the mirror creates the viewfinder image in a DSLR by reflecting light into a pentaprism (the hump with the viewfinder that you look through when shooting). So a mirrorless camera needs an electronic viewfinder (EVF) in order to shoot like a traditional camera. I’ve used DSLR’s for years and I’ve grown accustomed to shooting while looking through the viewfinder – not holding it at arms length like a poop filled diaper… or a camera phone… pick your favorite analogy. So for me a viewfinder is a must. The EVF also needs to have a fast refresh rate, I had a Fuji X100 and the EVF went dark for a couple seconds after shooting while I waited for the hamster inside to get the wheel moving. So. Lame. EVF lag = return the camera before your 30-day return window closes.
Top view of the Sony Nex7 and its Tri-Navi controls.
Right now there are four cameras – at least in my opinion – that are at the top of the EVIL heap, the Sony Nex-7 and the new Olympus with the ridiculous name … the O-M-D-E-M-5 … I added extra dashes because I can’t remember where Olympus puts them, but I think its called the OM-D E-M5 … brilliant … not really. There’s also the Fuji Xpro1 and the Sony Nex5n which has an optional EVF that attaches to the top, or you can go super small and shoot in poop diaper mode.
The Sony Nex-7 is the most refined Nex camera to date, combining compact size, a ridiculous 24 megapixel APS-c sensor, the highest resolution EVF on the market, 1080p video, lots of buttons and dials in a slick black metal body that screams incredible engineering – especially when you put it next to Sony’s big A77 DSLR – because its essentially the same camera. Sony has clearly established itself as the leader in sensor technology with the Nex-7 and the 36mp sensor that’s in the Nikon d800, the big S may be swimming in red ink, but it still knows how to build a sensor.
The Olympus EM5 is a micro-four-thirds (m43) system camera that’s supposed to be some sort of retro design mimicking the shape of the classic Olympus OM camera from decades ago – just what every camera buyer wants in 2013, a camera that looks like something in the back of grandpa’s closet or worse … some retro-craze piece of junk like the Chrysler PT Cruiser. Fortunately, despite its silly name and heritage nobody really cares about, the EM5 has drool-worthy specs for my inner gear geek – 16 megapixels, the first ever 5-axis image stabilization, weather sealed, a huge OLED rear screen, fast auto focus (so says Olympus), 1080p video (though limited) and what appears to be huge gains in dynamic range and image quality – improvements that rival and in many cases surpass many current entry level DSLR’s.
Olympus EM5 with the optional grip
Fuji jumped into the EVIL game with the Xpro1 and its innovative hybrid viewfinder – it combines an optical viewfinder with an EVF, giving you the best of both worlds. Sort of… but I’ll get to that. It also sports a 16 megapixel sensor, a rangefinder styled body that places all major controls at your fingertips, high quality lenses with manual aperture rings and some of the cleanest files at high ISO’s I’ve ever seen. It rivals my Canon 5d3 up to 6400, which is about the highest I shoot unless its something like a concert – where the noise is acceptable because of the dark environment. Oh yeah, it also has the best JPEG files around with those gorgeous Fuji colors. If nothing else, Fuji knows color and the Xpro1 has it in spades.
Last but not least – in terms of IQ, not size – there’s the little camera that could, the Sony Nex 5n. The little Nex has a big 16 megapixel sensor, a really handy touch screen LCD, 1080p video capability and some eye-popping IQ for such a small camera. You could *almost* shoot professionally with a few of these, but people writing checks like to see big cameras, not a camera smaller than my phone. Why two Nex cameras? Well there a significant price difference between the recently discontinued Nex5n (dirt cheap) and the flagship Nex7 (not cheap at all) and they both do 1080/60p video. I edit everything at 24 frames per second (24p) and video shot at 60 frames per second (60p) can be slowed down to create some fantastic looking slow-motion video. And I loves me some slow-mo. The differences between the 5n/7 are big to some and not so big to others. I’ll highlight some of these in the next update.
All of these cameras offer big IQ in a small package, but how do they perform head to head? I’ll update over the next few weeks to show the results of my testing. Thanks for stopping by.