Camera of the Year Nominees

We've had quite a few mirrorless camera announcements (and fortunately deliveries) in 2012:

  • Canon EOS M
  • Fujifilm X-E1
  • Leica M-Monochrom, M-E, M
  • Nikon J2, V2 
  • Olympus OM-D E-M5, E-PM2, E-PL5
  • Panasonic GF5, GH3
  • Pentax Q10
  • Samsung NX-20, NX-210, NX-1000
  • Sony NEX-F3, NEX-5R, NEX-6

I've had a chance to handle and use all of these cameras in the field except for the Leica M-Monochrom and M. I've reviewed two of the cameras on this list, with five more reviews hopefully to get finished by the end of the month. Two other cameras are on their way to me for long-term testing and should arrive this week.

At the end of the year I'll name one of these cameras "best entry mirrorless camera of the 2012," and another "best serious mirrorless camera of 2012." At this point, I'm ready to announce my nominees:


Best Entry Mirrorless Camera

This is a tricky category, as "entry" means different things to different people. For this category I put an emphasis on cameras that cater to people moving up to their first interchangeable lens camera, or who will be using the mirrorless camera more as an advanced point and shoot. I've narrowed the six or seven cameras that best fit this definition to four final nominees:

  1. Canon EOS M
  2. Olympus E-PM2
  3. Panasonic GF5
  4. Samsung NX-1000

Why these four? The Olympus and Panasonic m4/3 siblings represent quite a few iterations into those lineups, and have honed their designs very well. 

I dismissed the Nikon J2 for a simple reason: it really doesn't change anything significant to the older J1 model, which is cheaper and still available. If we had been doing this award last year, the J1 would have been a nominee. But the bar simply wasn't raised in any way by the J2. 

The other significant camera missing as a nominee this year is the Sony NEX-F3. Like the J2, it doesn't really move the bar much from the previous model. Sure, the new built-in flash is nice, but other than that, it might as well be an older NEX-3C. The bar again wasn't moved much.

The nominees for this year are all very competent cameras, with the m4/3 pair perhaps being slightly smaller and simpler in approach than the EOS M and NX-1000. 

But frankly, all the cameras that were introduced this year are pretty darned competent. It was tough to narrow down the list to four, let alone to eventually pick one over the others. I will say that the EOS M and NX-1000 are at the top of the list for image quality, while the E-PM2 and GF5 have faster autofocus systems (at least for static shots; none have great autofocus systems for continuous motion). So there is definitely an interesting potential bifurcation point for many users if they are seeking one of those things. 

If you're looking for compact lenses to go with how small these cameras are, the E-PM2, GF5, and NX-1000 all have an assortment of small prime lenses, and the m4/3 cameras both can be obtained with very nice collapsing zooms as a kit (the 20-50mm Samsung lens, while compact, isn't quite up to the same level of quality and lacks IS, while the Samsung compact primes are like the m4/3 primes and shine).


Best Serious Mirrorless Camera

In the high-specification cameras, there was plenty of action as well. In this group I'm looking at cameras that appeal to DSLR-type users who are looking to extract every last bit of performance, but from smaller cameras. After much consideration, this year's nominees are:

  1. Fujifilm X-E1
  2. Olympus OM-D E-M5
  3. Panasonic GH3
  4. Sony NEX-6

Let me just say this up front: these are all very good cameras. As with all mirrorless cameras, there are some weaknesses compared to DSLRs, but there are also some real strengths here, too. It's interesting that all four are 16mp cameras. I personally find 16mp to be plenty of pixels for most work. Plus 16mp on the APS sensors (Fujifilm, Sony) allows for some pretty serious low light capability, while 16mp on the m4/3 sensors (OM-D, GH3) shows off just how well all those m4/3 lenses really do resolve detail. 

The Leica M should probably be in this list, but it won't ship until 2013. The Nikon V2 is also a serious candidate for nomination, but my initial experience with it puts its image quality just a notch below, and image quality is an important consideration here. On the other hand, nothing else in mirrorless comes close to matching Nikon's autofocus ability, so if you shoot a lot of moving objects, you have to put the V2 on your list to check out just for that alone. 

Congratulations to all the camera companies for moving the bar so far so fast. Please don't stop.


And the Winners Are…

What? It's not the end of the year yet. Plus I still have some final testing and reviews to put together to complete the picture.

The reason for announcing the nominees is simple: it's buying season. A lot of you are asking for opinions about which camera to buy. I've just given you a list of four entry and four serious cameras that should be on your list to check out. There are clues in this nomination list. 

For example, the Canon EOS M isn't in the Best Serious Mirrorless Camera category. While it may have serious image quality chops, the rest of the camera and its limited accessories put it squarely in the Entry category. 

Meanwhile, the four Serious camera nominees are all exceedingly different in approach. The Sony NEX-6 is modern, complete with WiFi. The Fujifilm X-E1 is exactly the opposite and decidedly retro in almost everything except using an EVF. The Panasonic GH3 looks like an attempt to build a D4 or 1Dx type camera for m4/3, while the Olympus OM-D is like a miniature traditional (D)SLR. You couldn't have four more different approaches, so your work is cut out for you if you're looking for this category of camera (and Nikon's V2, if you need autofocus speed, adds a fifth approach that's neither particularly modern nor traditional). 

The real winner is you, the camera user. 

I was very early to the mirrorless realm, starting to use one regularly in my work in 2009. For me, I was looking for a "better compact camera" and found it in the early m4/3 models. Over time, things have moved considerably beyond "better compact camera." This year's four Serious camera nominees realistically have only two real drawbacks compared to a traditional DSLR: the use of an EVF and the inability to come close to a DSLR's continuous focus performance. That first drawback can also be a plus (you can see real-time changes to white balance, depth of field, etc.), so it's really only one serious drawback now: continuous focus performance.

We've come a long way in three years, and as I noted, the winner is the camera user. I'd be happy to shoot with any of this year's nominees. Just as with any tool, I'd have to make sure I understood each one's abilities and limitations, but I've taken some really good shots with every one of this year's nominees, and if you end up with one, you could too. 

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