Sansmirror Serious Camera of the Year 

Today I announce the final of this year's Camera of the Year awards. These awards go to cameras introduced during the 2012 calendar year. I've previously awarded the Entry Camera of the Year to the Panasonic GF5. Today I announce the results of the Serious Camera category. 

To remind everyone, earlier this month I nominated four cameras in this category as potential winners from the seven possible contenders:

  • Fujifilm X-E1
  • Olympus OM-D E-M5
  • Panasonic GH3
  • Sony NEX-6

Unlike the Entry Camera category, we have two hold-over cameras from 2011 that still command attention as potentially being the best mirrorless camera on the market: the Fujifilm X-Pro1 and the Sony NEX-7. That noted, I'll say that, in my opinion, this year's winner is a better all around choice than either of those older cameras.

My winner for 2012 is the Olympus OM-D E-M5. 

2012seriousaward.jpg

As my upcoming review will note, there's a Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde personality lurking in the E-M5. There's a ton of stuff to like, but there's also a lot of things that bother E-M5 owners, too. Thus, choosing the E-M5 is not without controversy. I'll repeat something I wrote earlier: it's the overall evaluation that nets you this sansmirror award, not specific things. All cameras have compromises or even flaws in design. It's the sum of the parts that we're looking at here, not a summation of points assigned to individual traits.

Before telling you why the E-M5 is my choice this year (and indeed the mirrorless camera I shoot with most as I write this), let's examine the runner ups. 

  • Fujifilm X-E1 — There's much to like about this camera. In some ways, it's a reincarnation of old rangefinder-style designs with a new digital interior. It's also a simplification from last year's X-Pro1, which actually provided an old-style optical viewfinder option as well as the EVF. Unfortunately, the X-E1 has drawbacks that keep it from being all it could be. First, the X-Trans sensor is great for some things (e.g. black and white), but to date does not have a raw converter that does it justice (the new Capture One version coming in early 2013 looks very promising in this respect, though). Fujifilm makes a big deal of how the X-Trans avoids Bayer moire, but unfortunately I find X-Trans color smear just as bad a trait, at least until someone further optimizes both the in-camera JPEG engine and raw converters. I really don't like low-level mush in my digital data, and the lower color collection ability of the X-Trans sensor is currently generating mush on certain levels of detail. Other drawbacks include a focus system that's not up to the competition and a decided lack of lenses. The latter will be eased over time, obviously, as Fujifilm releases more lenses, but here in 2012 we're stuck between 18mm and 60mm (28-90mm equivalent). That's as 1970's as the camera design is. Overall, the X-E1 is a very good camera (see my updated review), but doesn't quite have enough oomph to win the award this year. If the lens selection meets with your approval and you like the rangefinder-like design, it's definitely a camera you should check out, but you also have to consider the older X-Pro1, as well.
  • Sony NEX-6 — Like the Fujifilm, the NEX-6 has a bigger brother. It distinguishes itself from the NEX-7 in a few ways: 16mp instead of 24mp sensor; a real mode dial; only a single control dial up top instead of two; plus built-in WiFi and application support. Same EVF, LCD, and other basics. Funny thing is, the few changes make the NEX-6 a slightly more approachable "modern" camera than the NEX-7. You still need to do a lot of menu-diving early on to get the camera's limited external controls set up the way that makes most sense to you, but once done, I find the NEX-6 to be a very comfortable shooter, perhaps the best of the NEX so far. Coupled with the new 16-50mm power zoom, it makes a quite compact package that's very competent. But here's the thing: other than the prism hump of the E-M5, the NEX-6 is basically the same size as the E-M5. So the question for this year's Best contest is simple: does it out handle and outshoot the E-M5? And the answer to that is "not quite." Very close, but the E-M5's autofocus is faster to static subject focus (despite the Sony's phase detect), the E-M5 JPEG quality is better, there's more flexibility in control and handling with the E-M5, and then there's the lens selection of m4/3. Had Sony done more with the application capability, given us a touch screen, and stabilized all lenses, it might have taken the award. Again, a camera you definitely need to check out, but you also need to consider the NEX-7 when you do.
  • Panasonic GH3 — If this were the "Best Video in a Mirrorless Camera" awards, the GH3 would not only take that award, but it would slap the others silly as it did so. The bare specs don't tell the full story, but the GH3 is a powerhouse when it comes to video. Power. House. Indeed, short of recording uncompressed HDMI off the Nikon DSLRs, I believe it to be the only DSLR-like still camera that can output broadcast quality video streams (50Mbps+; the Panasonic can do 72Mbps). Those coming from the DSLR world will immediately gravitate to the GH3's controls. To a large degree the GH3 is a bit like a Nikon D4 downsized, at least in terms of build, and controls, and style. It's also splash proof, like the E-M5. But it is also bigger and heavier (nearly 2x the NEX-6). My GH3 came late in the year, so I'm still ferreting out it's image quality. My initial impression is E-M5 like raw, but Panasonic still hasn't quite gotten their JPEG rendering up to Olympus levels. That's actually one of the things that made me decide against the GH3 as the potential winner: it's a beast for video, but doesn't establish that same clear advantage in basic still shooting. If you are seriously thinking about getting the E-M5, I think you have to look at the GH3. I'll bet that size, video, and JPEG quality are the three things that tip you one direction or the other. 

Which brings us to this year's winner, the Olympus OM-D E-M5. 

The E-M5 is deceiving. It looks a bit like an old film SLR, the OM-4. It also looks like a scaled down DSLR. The splash proof build quality is very good, and you've got some choices for grips and handling that are nice. It also takes remarkably good images. Indeed, the 16mp Sony sensor inside the E-M5 is tuned to perform very much like the 16mp Sony APS sensors, which is to say, quite good. Where before the m4/3 cameras were giving up some overall quality due to their small size, the latest m4/3 cameras (and that includes the GH3) are ceding virtually nothing worth quibbling over. That's especially true when you consider how refined the Olympus JPEG rendering is. 

The E-M5's image quality is good enough that it basically replaced my Nikon D7000 (DX DSLR) as my hike-deep-into-the-backcountry camera. Why? Because I gave up nothing terribly significant in the sensor, but lost weight and size while gaining some exceptional small lenses (Note to Nikon: please get off your butt and make some more, and better, DX lenses). The tilting screen and EVF in low light are useful, too, plus the fast contrast autofocus hasn't let me down for static subjects yet.

On the bad side of the coin, the Olympus menus and setup are amongst the most frustrating on Planet Camera. I had to laugh in empathy when I read someone's else's review of the E-M5 and his conclusion was something along the lines of "it physically hurt my brain to try to figure out the menus and controls from the manual, but once I had endured the initial pain and suffering I was able to configure the camera so that I control what I need to the way I want to." Yeah, ditto. Only every now and then I run into something I still haven't figured out about the E-M5 and my brain starts hurting again.

The Mr. Hyde nature of a few things (I'm looking at you menus and naming conventions) certainly gave me great pause before awarding this year's award to the E-M5. There's a lot to be said for the Fujifilm's straightforward, no-nonsense controls, naming, and organization. But in the end I realized that the E-M5 was the camera I kept picking up. It's small. It's durable. It's convenient (after your initial setup pain). It focuses static subjects wicked fast. It has a usable EVF with little downside. But here's the thing: it takes great pictures, JPEG or raw. The reason I keep picking it up is that last bit coupled with the wide lens selection that also produces great pictures. That is, after all, the thing that you want to do with a "Serious Mirrorless Camera": create great images. I'm satisfied that the E-M5 does just that, and thus it is my choice for this year's award.

You won't go far wrong with any of this year's nominees, or the X-Pro1 and NEX-7 from last year, though. So if you're a photo enthusiast looking for the best mirrorless camera, I'd advise you to look closely at all six cameras I've mentioned here. Short of following fast moving subjects and holding focus while doing so, there isn't much that you can't do with these six cameras. Much more so than the Entry Camera of the Year side of this contest, the Serious Camera of the Year award is much tougher to call. I'll bet that your personal reaction to a single attribute or feature will be the decider when you compare them. For me, I use my E-M5 exactly like I used to use my Nikon D7000, and am not missing anything (other than weight and size ;~).

My congratulations to Olympus. But can I suggest a human interface class for a few of your engineers? 

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