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UPDATED FOR SPRING 2013
Mirrorless Interchangeable-Lens Compact (MILC) cameras are the fastest-growing digital camera category. They rival compact cameras in size but in many cases have sensors the size of DSLRs and image quality to match. Others have smaller sensors, allowing them to go places, technically, no camera has ever gone before.
The idea behind MILCs is that if you remove the mirror housing from a DSLR, you can reduce the flangeback (the distance between the back of the lens and the sensor) and make the resulting interchangeable-lens cameras much smaller and lighter, without changing the sensor size. These small wonders have been embraced by the camera-buying public, eating into sales of both DSLRs and high-end compact cameras and causing camera makers to totally rethink their approaches to camera design.
MILCs, all of which can be purchased in the Adorama Mirrorless Interchangeable-Lens Compact Camera department, can be divided into three categories: Those that have the same sensors found in DSLRs (such as APS or Four Thirds), those that have much smaller sensors but take advantage of theat miniaturization to do engineer smaller lenses and other features that larger-sensor cameras can't handle, and the Ricoh GXR, which is in a sub-category by itself (go to the end of this article to find out what I mean).
Prices range from almost-within-reach for point-and-shooters looking to kick their image quality up a notch but are intimidated by technology, to enthusiast/pro-level pricing for high-performing cameras that are designed for experienced photographers who like to take total control over their images.
I have been closely following and covering the evolution of MILCs exclusively for Adorama since their inception just a few short years ago. Here's what I think are the best cameras each MILC maker has put forward this year. Many important new models have been introduced recently, and this category remains the fastest-growing and most interesting category of digital cameras. It's very possible that one of the cameras described and reviewed below will be your next. (Prices and availability are accurate as of March 1, 2013; please click on links for the most up-to-date pricing and availability information).
Canon EOS M
Overview: The Canon EOS M is an entirely new MILC system based on an 18MP APS-C CMOS sensor that can produce image quality that is comparable to that obtained by Canon's best DSLRs. The EOS M accepts both the new M-mount lenses and, via an adapter, Canon's entire line of EOS EF-S and EF lenses up to 600mm. The Canon EOS M features a hybrid CMOS AF system that employs both contrast detection and phase detection autofocus techniques. In competing systems this hybrid approach has allowed for minimal focus time, and indeed, Canon claims speedy snap to focus for the M system with reduced shutter lag. Face Detection, Tracking AF, Multi-Point AF with 31 autofocus points as well as single-point AF are all user-selected focus options. Touch-screen operation activates subject recognition and tracking; users can use touch-screen to navigate the menus for both still and video.
The Juicy Details: 18MP CMOS APS-C sensor, ISO 100-12800 (boostable to 12,800), hybrid AF mode, 31 autofocus points, touch-screen 3-inch 1,040 million dot LCD monitor, Intelligent Auto, Night Scene, HDR Backlight control, 7 creative filters, multi-shot noise reduction.
The System: Optimized EF-M lens system includes Canon EF-M 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens, Canon EF-M 22mm f/2 STM lens, Canon Speedlite 90EX Flash, Canon EF-EOS M adapter for non EOS M Canon DSLR lenses.
Fujifilm X Pro1
Overview: The Fujifilm X-Pro1 is Fujifilm's newest camera, which seems like the next step in a logical progression that began last year with the Leica-esque, high-resolution X100, followed by the smaller-sensor-based X10, a street-savvy little camera with a similarly retro feel. The X-Pro1 is a new interchangeable-lens compact camera that appears ready to take on that more expensive rangefinder camera.The camera is built around a new 16MP APS-C CMOS sensor that uses a random arrangement of pixels to eliminate moire and provide more realistic colors. The Hybrid Multi-Finder lets users switch between optical and electronic eye-level viewing, and changes magnification depending on the focal length of the lens being used. The X Pro1 has film simulation modes that mimic Velvia, Astia, Provia and many Fuji print films, and is built on a magnesium-alloy chassis and die-cast aluminum baseplate. How did it do in the street? We were impressed. Read the Adorama Learning Center review of the Fujifilm X-Pro 1.
The Juicy Details: 16MP APS-C CMOS sensor with random pixel array, Hybrid optical/1,440k dot LCD electronic viewfinder with 100% coverage, 1,230k dot, 3-inch LCD monitor, ISO range 100-25600, focal plane shutter, shutter speeds 1/4-1/4000 sec, 256-zone TTL metering, 10 film simulation modes, TTL hot shoe, motion panorama, color control, auto red-eye removal, histogram, depth of focus preview, electronic level.
The System: The X-Pro1 hits the market with a range of three X-Mount lenses: The Fujinon XF 18mm f/2 (27mm equivalent on a 35mmsensor camera), Fujinon XF 35mm f/1.4 (53mm equivalent), and a Fujinon XF 60mm f/2.4 macro lens (90mm equivalent). Lens diaphragm blades are curved for pleasing bokeh. The company says nine more lenses will be rolled out within the next three years, and that an M-mount adapter is in the works.
Budget Alternative: If you're balking at the X-Pro 1's price tag, Fuji's got you covered. They recently unveiled the Fujifilm X-E1, which is selling at Adorama for $999. You lose the optical viewfinder, but there is a high-resolution (2.36 million dot) EVF finder, and the build is solid but perhaps not quite as rugged as the X-Pro 1. Very importantly, the same outstanding sensor in the Fujifilm X-Pro 1 can be found in the X-E1! Most other features are identical, and it takes the same lenses. For $700 less, you're not compromising much. Read our First Look at the Fujifilm X-E1.
Nikon 1 V2
Overview: The Nikon 1 V2, the flagship of Nikon's growing lineup of interchangeable-lens compacts, is one of the fastest-focusing cameras I've seen and represents a major change in thinking. Thanks to a unique hybrid focal plane 23-point phase detect and 135 contrast detect areas, this is the most responsive-focusing camera I've ever held in my hands. The camera is a speed demon, with blazingly fast rapid-sequence burst rates and the ability to simultaneously capture full HD video and full resolution still images. A small but growing portfolio of super-compact interchangeable lenses are available as well as flash and EVF modules. Yeah, I know: it has a small sensor, to the disappointment of Nikon enthusiasts who were hoping for something compatible with existing Nikon lenses and cameras. That said, image quality at lower speeds was excellent but that's besides the point. The Nikon 1 series is about speed and compactness, and in both of those areas, it exceeds expectations.
The Juicy Details: New 14MP 13.2x8.8mm CMOS CX sensor has 2.7x 35mm equivalent factor; Electronic viewfinder with 1.44m dot resolution; 3-inch LCD monitor with 921k dot resolution. Mechanical shutter up to 1/4,000 sec, electronic shutter up to 1/16,000 sec. Flash synch 1/60 (electronic) or 1/250 (mechanical). Frame rate 5, 15, 30 or 60 fps at full resolution; Matrix metering, PASM, scene auto selector exposure modes; ISO range 100-3200, hi setting to 6400. HD video in MOV format up to 1080/60i, also 1080/30p, 720/60p.
Test Results (Courtesy DxOMark): While the Nikon V1, the V2's discontinued predecessor, surprised many by exceeding expectations, the Nikon V2 represents a step sideways. Despite its higher pixel density (which usually translates to worse image quality), the V2 showed an improvement in low-light performance (although it did a marginally worse when it came to dynamic range and color depth). The biggest surprise, though, is that it holds its own against cameras with larger Micro Four Thirds sensors.
Olympus OM-D EM-5
Overview: The Olympus OMD-EM5 is more than a homage to that company's best-selling OM line of SLRs. It is one of the most advanced Micro Four Thirds camera currently available and a leap above its diminutive EP line of ultracompact MILCs such as the EP-3, thanks to its higher-resolution 16MP sensor, high-resolution eye-level viewfinder,all-metal chassis, and flip-out touchscreen LCD monitor. It's also packed with high-tech features including art filter modes that apply various affects to the image. Can't decide? Use Art Bracket mode and it will apply all 11 filters and create a separate image for each, instantly and simultaneously! More advanced users can switch the camera to all manual, and custom functions let you pre-set your most-used setting combinations. Olympus started the MILC revolution in 2009, so by now, they've gotten pretty good at it.
The Juicy Details: 16 MP Four Thirds sensor, Micro Four Thirds lensmount, RAW and JPEG image capture, 3 image stabilization modes, live view, 1.44M dot eye-level viewfinder. 614k dot, 3-inch touch screen LCD monitor controls shutter release, enlargement, live guid, AF area selection/enlargement, frame advance/backward, playback, super control panel. Hot shoe for auxiliary flash, 1080i HD movie recording in AVI format with high-quality stereo audio, multiple exposure, 11 art filters (Pop Art, Soft Focus, Pale & Color, Light Tone, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama, Gentle Sepia, Cross Process, Dramatic Tone), digital leveler, dust reduction, face detection , shadow adjustment technology, 4 aspect ratios (4:3, 3:2, 16:9, 6:6), iAuto chooses most appropriate of 22 scene modes. Shutter speeds 60-1/4000 sec, 3-inch LCD, Manual focus, ISO range 100-12,000. White balance bracketing, 3fps burst rate, flash synch speed to 1/250 sec.
The System: 14-48mm zoom kit lens included; 17mm f/2.8 prime lens with matching optical finder available, plus 12mm f/2 and 45mm Zuiko high-end prime lenses; Optical Viewfinder VF-2, mount adapter lets you use any standard Olympus Four Thirds lens. Olympus FL-14 shoe mount flash; compatible with all Olympus wireless flash, such as FL-36R and FL-50R, MAL-1 accessory light, PENPal bluetooth accessory, Sema-1 external microphone adapter.
Test Results: (Courtesy DxOMark) In the lab, the Olympus OMD-EM5 outperformed all previous Micro Four Thirds cameras with an overall score of 71, which rivals some APS sensor cameras, and the ability to produce images with acceptably low noise levels at ISO 800. Dynamic range is over 12 stops, and color depth is excellent. In the lab, the OMD-EM5 is currently one of the best in its class.
Panasonic Lumix GX-1
Overview: The Panasonic Lumix GX1 takes its place as the flagship of its compact Micro Four Thirds line, boasting 0.09 second autofocus acquisition, which Panasonic claims is the world's fastest. The 16MP Live MOS sensor is said to offer good low-light performance, maxing out at ISO 12,800. Touch-screen operation lets you set exposure and focus and even take pictures by touching the LCD monitor, and the camera captures full 1080p HD video at 60i. Unlike the GF2, which is designed for snapshooters, the GX1 is a serious camera with lots of manual control options that will make serious hobbyists and prosumers happy. Another feature to make you happy? Panasonic says battery life as been increased by 11%.
The Juicy Details: 16MP Four Thirds sensor, Micro Four Thirds lens mount, ISO range 100-12,800, 460k dot resolution 3-inch LCD touch screen, 23 AF areas, 1080p HD video at 60i (30p sensor output) with stereo recording. Level Gauge, one-push AD, dust reduction, iA and iA plus modes for automatic operation in still and video.
The System: 14 lenses for Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds. DMW-FL220, FL360 and FL500 flash; DMW-MA1 adapter for Four Thirds lenses; DMW-MA2M adaptor for Leica M-mount lenses. The camera can also take Olympus and independent-brand lenses as well as a myriad other lenses via a variety of adapters. If you want eye-level operation, the DMW-LVF2 Live View Finder has 1,440,000 dot resolution.
Test Results (Courtesy DxOMark): The image quality produced by the Panasonic GX1 were typical of a Micro Four Thirds sensor and a little better than its predecessors. Its uppermost practical ISO is 800, not bad (although image quality drops off after that), while it offered very good color depth (20.8 bits) and a dynamic range of 10.6 stops, which is typical for this class of camera. ISO accuracy was excellent, with the actual ISO measured at within 1/3 of a stop of the indicated speed.
Pentax Q10 with 02 3x Zoom Lens
Overview: The Pentax Q10, barely larger than a deck of cards, is by far the smallest interchangeable-lens digital camera in the world, thanks to its compact-camera-sized sensor, which is approximately the same size as the sensors found in the Nikon P7700 and Canon G15. It's the second generation version of Pentax's surprising Q series. You can expect the improved 12MP CMOS sensor to deliver very good-quality 8x10 and 11x14 prints from ISO 100-200 images, but you need to turn on the noise reduction to get acceptable shots at higher speeds. Nevertheless, Pentax has placed manual controls at your fingertips and laid the camera out in such a way that experienced shooter may barely need to consult the manual to figure out how to access its full range of auto and manual controls. It is solidly built and is born complete with five lenses, an optical shoe-mounted finder, lenses and filters, as well as neat little built-in flash that lifts far enough away from the lens to reduce red-eye in people-pictures, thanks to an increased angle of incidence.
The Juicy Details: 1-2/3 inch back lit 12MP CMOS sensor with integrated shake dust reduction sensor shift; accepts Pentax Q-mount bayonet lenses. TTL contrast detection, 3-inch LCD monitor with 460k dot resolution, retractable popup flash with 23ft guide number at ISO 200, covers 28mm equivalent. Hot shoe P-TTL synch speed 1/250 sec, ISO range 125-6400, shutter speeds 30-1/2000 sec mechanical, 1/8000 sec electronic, bulb. Up to 3fps burst rate. Improved AF claimed. The camera is available in standard silver but is also available in 99 other color combinations from Adorama as a special-order item.
The System: 27.5-83mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.8-4.5 standard zoom lens; 35mm equivalent f/7.1 Toy lens; 17mm equivalent Fisheye lens, 100mm equivalent Toy Telephoto lens; External Viewfinder O-VF1; 100 PL polarizer Filter.
Pentax's Next Big Thing: If the Q's sensor is too small for your needs, the Pentax K-01 (recently reduced to $299 body only) is a deceptively playful-looking camera with some serious guts, the most impressive of which is its 16MP APS-sized CMOS sensor. With an ISO range that tops out at 25600, fast burst rate and top shutter speed, claimed fast and accurate focus and in-camera HDR, the K-01 borrows heavily from the most valuable features found on its DSLR siblings. Shake and dust reduction come standard, and very importantly for Pentaxians, the camera sports a K-mount, meaning its compatible with more than 25 million Pentax K-mount lenses already in existence and the only MILC that can make such a claim. Image quality? Spectacular. The only drawback: No electronic finder. Read our full review.
Overview: Samsung was one of the first companies to offer a mirrorless interchangeable-lens compact built around an APS sensor, and the NX1000 represents that company's leap into the world of wireless cameras. Featuring on-board WiFi connectivity, the camera is built for easy integration of photos into social network image sharing. A bonus: Download an app and you can control this camera from your smart phone! Photographic capabilities include top ISO sensitivity of 12,800, the ability to control shutter speed and aperture lens rings as well as via dials on the camera itself, and a high-resolution LCD monitor.
The Juicy Details: 20MP APS-C CMOS sensor, i-Function, 3-inch, 921k resolution LCD monitor, manual and autofocus, shutter speeds 30-1/4000 sec, ISO range 100-3200, boostable. RAW and JPEG image capture, up to 8fps burst rate, 1080p video with stereo sound. Smart filter (Vignetting, Miniature, Fish-Eye, Sketch, De-fog, Halftone Dots, Soft Focus, Old Film1, Old Film2, Negative, Selective Color (4 Color Modes)), Magic Frame ( Old Album, Old Film, Wave, Full Moon, Old Record, Magazine, Sunny Day, Classic TV, Wall Art, Holiday, Billboard 1, Billboard 2, Newspaper), 3D panorama.
Overview: Sony really pulled out all the stops to create a pro-level photojournalist/street shooter camera in the NEX-7. In fact, according to our full review and street photo stress tests, this is one of the best MILCs to date for image quality. Let's backtrack: Sony's NEX line is built around some of the most sophisticated APS-sized imaging sensors around, and can deliver image quality identical to some of the highest-rated DSLRs currently on the market. Now comes the NEX-7, which has made a very good first impression for our reviewers. It's a bit larger than its predecessors to accomodate the manual knobs and dials (each of which can be programmed to fit your needs) and the highest-resolution eye-level viewfinder on the market. Even better: you can attach any old Sony or Minolta-mount lens to it via an adaptor, and there is even an adaptor that lets you use Leica M lenses. Now we're talking.
The Juicy Details: New 24.3MP APS-C CMOS sensor (the same one that's on the A77), ISO 100-16,000, 2.4 MILLION dot OLED EVF with eye sensor, electronic first-curtain shutter, 1080p/60 HD movie with stereo mic, flip-out 3-inch 921k dot screen, tri-dial control, built-in flash, Alpha hot shoe, mic jack. Sweep panorama, 10fps maximum burst mode; 25-point AF, object tracking, intelligent AF, 11 picture effect modes Compatible with any E-Mount lens without adapter.
The System: From the initial two lenses, the Sony E-mount lens system has grown to: 16mm f/2.8 E lens, 30mm f/3.5 E lens, 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 E lens, 18-200mm f/3.5-6.4 OSS E lens, 50mm f/1.8 OSS E lens, Nex-Alpha Mount adapter, VCL-ECF1 Fisheye Conversion Lens; Novoflex adapter for Leica M to Sony NEX. Also compatible with all Sony Alpha flashes.
A Budget Alternative: Sony has just announced the NEX-6, a fast-focusing, more compact model. The sensor is 16MP instead of 24, and the Sony NEX-6 offers WiFi wireless connectivity built-in. It has a 2.4-million dot resolution eye-level viewfinder and while it lacks the NEX-7's three-way knob/dial control setup, it is, at an Adorama price of $748, a great alternative if you're on a tight budget but want the speed and image quality benefits.
Unique Modular Compact Camera: The Ricoh GXR
Overview: The Ricoh GXR is, truly, a camera unlike any other—even in this innovative category. Never before has there been a compact digital camera that lets you switch lenses and the sensor. The GXR’s system consists of a main camera body, which is a shell with the shutter release, exposure control dial and the usual control buttons and LCD monitor on back. Slide the interchangeable lens/sensor modules into the shell and behold, you have a complete camera. Each lens is perfectly matched to a sensor that is included in the lens unit. Because it is hermetically sealed, there is no chance for dust to gather on the sensor, an endemic problem for any other interchangeable-lens digital camera. The range of lens/sensor units is expanding. Read my comprehensive review of the entire system.
The Juicy Details: Body: Die-cast magnesium, auto exposure mode controls, 3-inch, 920,000 dot VA LCD monitor, built-in flash, JPG and RAW, SD/SDHC card slot, 10 shooting modes including PASM and customized settings. A12 50mm f/2.5-22 Macro unit: 112MP APS-sized sensor, 1/2x magnification, 720p HD video, ISO 200-3200, shutter speeds 180-1/3200 sec. S10 24-72mm f/2.5-4.4 unit: 10MP, 1/1.7-inch CCD sensor, focus to approx. 1 inch in Macro mode, sensor-shift shake reduction, ISO 200-3200, shutter speeds 180-1/2000 sec. 21mm and 135mm telephoto auxiliary lenses available. (Other specs vary depending on unit)
The A12 28mm f/2.5 (equivalent) wide-angle lens, which is matched to a 12MP APS sensor and which makes the GXR one of the fastest-reacting cameras on the market. Read my Street Photo Stress Test of the GXR and 28mm/APS sensor module;
The A12 50mm (equivalent) Macro lens that delivers stunning image quality thanks to the perfectly-matched 12MP APS-sized sensor but focuses slowly.
The S10 24-72mm f2.5-4.4 lens matched with a smaller 10MP sensor so the camera can work like a high-end point-and-shoot.
The P10 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 equivalent lens, matched with a small 10MP sensor
...and the A12 Mount for Leica M lenses. This has many Street photographers and others drooling because, when matched with the GXR body, gives you an M-mount camera for about $1,000, a fraction of the cost of, say a Leica M9 or M8.
Note: All DxOMark Sensor test results are courtesy DxOMark.com and are used here with their permission.
Mason Resnick is a veteran writer, photographer, and editor with a distinguished career in the photo industry spanning the 1980s through the present. He is the Senior Contributing Writer for the Adorama Learning Center, and was the Editor of the ALC from 2005-2013. Before coming to Adorama he worked from 2000-2005 as the Managing Editor for Popular Photography, and was the Associate Editor of Modern Photography in the 1980s. In between, he has worked for a variety of trade magazines and web sites, writing how-to articles, interviews with the world's top photographers, and product reviews. He is not afraid to use the Oxford comma.
In addition to covering the world of photography, Resnick is also a free-lance photographer, specializing in event photography, street photography, portraits, and commercial work. (Warning: shameless plug ahead...) You can learn more about his photography at www.masonresnick.com (I told you!) He is married, has survived his daughters' teenage years, so far, and lives in the quaint borough of Highland Park, New Jersey.