A lot of people send me emails where they've narrowed down their choices (typically because of some sensor or lens or brand or other preference), but they get stymied at the last step, choosing between a couple of very similar cameras.
Please note: this article is for people who narrow their choices down to two specific products and then get paralyzed in their final decision making. It's not about "a G3 is better than a V1" or in any way an attempt to lay out an entire decision tree. A few people were puzzled by why there was no mention of certain cameras, for example the K-01. That's because generally I don't get questions from people who've narrowed things down to a K-01 and something else. The K-01 pretty much stands alone in its category, and people get to that choice because somewhere higher up in the decision tree they decided "I want a mirrorless K-mount camera." Well, that would be a K-01; there is no second choice to confuse you. The cases I cite here are cases where there is a confusion point at the end of the decision process. At least that's what all the email I get seems to suggest. I've answered the following questions far more than a few times in responding to emails.
For what it's worth, here's my quick and dirty analysis:
- J1 or V1? No questions asked, the V1 is the better camera. But if you're completely satisifed with compact camera shooting style (rear LCD-based) and are price sensitive, buy the J1. That last thing is the one that makes people ask the question: Nikon's overall pricing for the Nikon 1 line is a bit out of whack to the competition (too expensive). Thus, the V1 price looks high compared to other mirrorless cameras and gives people pause when they see what a V1 is going for. So wait for one of Nikon's fairly predictable Instant Rebate programs kicks in for the V1 if price is putting you off.
- GX1 or E-P3? If you're a JPEG shooter and shoot handheld all the time (sensor IS), probably the E-P3. But the GX1 is a more polished camera in terms of ergonomics and control, plus it also has the 16mp sensor, which some will value highly (I don't). This is one of the questions that require careful due diligence on your part. You need to actually handle both and even do a bit of shooting with both to make an intelligent decision.
- E-PL3 or E-P3? I think you're going to be surprised by my answer: E-PL3. The tilting LCD is worth giving up the small refinements of the E-P3. Image quality and focus performance is the same between the two cameras, and the E-PL3 is less expensive. Hard not to choose it if you've narrowed down to these two choices.
- E-PM1 or GF3? A really tough choice. This is similar to the E-P3 versus GX1 choice, though slightly more tilted in the E-PM1's direction due to sensor IS. I'd tend to buy on "best price" here. But note my comments about a lens choice, below.
- E-P3 or E-M5 (also GX1 or G3)? This is a compact-style shooting (rear LCD-based) versus DSLR-style shooting (eye to viewfinder) decision. The answer should be obvious based upon your shooting style, but a lot of people get confused because the "newer" camera of the pairing always has a few bits and pieces that seem attractive. Skip those bits and pieces. You should almost always make this decision upon which shooting style you prefer.
- GH2 or G3? If you're heavy into video, you can skip steps 1 through 10 and just race to the finish: get the GH2. That's further emphasized by the firmware hacking that can push the GH2's video into very high, professional-level standards (requires you to put on your geek hat, though). If we're just talking still camera, DSLR style, the decision is tougher. At least it was until Panasonic started heavily discounting the GH2. At the same price, the GH2 is probably going to always be the choice. If the G3 has any advantage over the GH2, it's probably a tiny bit better autofocus performance. Other than that, all the "tiny bit betters" tend towards the GH2, with most of the rest being a tie. Right now, I consider this mostly a price choice for still work, though I also like the responsive sensor size when you switch aspect ratios on the GH2. Let me flip it all around. The reason I'd buy a G3 over a GH2 is price. As I write this, the GH2 kit is US$900 and the G3 kit US$625, but both those numbers tend have been in a lot of flux lately. Is the GH2 worth US$275 more than a G3? That's a stretch unless you're into video. But when that gap is much less than that, I'd tend towards the GH2.
- Sony or Samsung? This is equivalent to "which APS sensor mirrorless should I buy?" If you're a traditionalist, the Samsung UI will appeal over the Sony's. If you're into smallness and performance, the Sony wins over the Samsung. Sony is pushing the envelope on modern UI, which some resist, but I actually find the NEX models to be a pleasure to use once you give into their eccentric design.
- NEX-3C or NEX-5N? On paper there doesn't seem to be a lot of difference between them, but my vote has been and remains on the NEX-5 over the NEX-3. The ability to add an optional EVF pushes me over the edge here, especially given how good the EVF is.
- Fujifilm X-Pro1 or Olympus E-M5? Still a little early to call, but initial impressions say E-M5 hands down. The X-Pro1 is a big camera, as big as a Leica M9. It has a limited (and expensive) lens set. It has poor autofocus performance. It has a large, eccentric sensor (APS, non-Bayer). It has a retro design with a hybrid optical/EVF viewfinder. The E-M5 is a smaller camera than it looks in photos. It has an extensive lens set. It has faster focus performance. It has the best of the m4/3 sensors so far. It has a very usable EVF. The problem I have with the Fujifilm is that it is really only great for one (slow) style of shooting, and it's doesn't take advantage of the size benefit that removing the mirror gives you. The hybrid viewfinder is fine, but it's a bit of a gimmick. A good EVF is enough, which is exactly what the E-M5 has. Bottom line: for less money you get a smaller camera that has a huge lens arsenal and very good autofocus performance.
- Panasonic 14-42mm or 14-42mm X? Yuck. Large and cheap or small and expensive. Realistically, the X lens ought to be what you put on the GF3 and GX1, but the extra expense of acquiring it starts to push those cameras up in price and make the Olympus equivalents a better choice, as the lowest cost Olympus lens already is a collapsing lens. Let me put it another way: putting the original 14-42mm on the GF3 is basically kills the small, compact nature of the camera. But putting the X version on makes the GF3 expensive. It's an impossible choice, basically. On a G3 or GH2 the larger lens isn't really that much of an issue. The 14-42mm versus 14-42mm X is a perfect example of a company not thinking like a consumer, but instead thinking like engineers. The X doesn't actually solve a customer problem (small lens on small camera at right price), it solves an engineering problem (silent lens for video use, cost not a consideration). Coupled with Panasonic's choice to put stabilization in lenses instead of at the sensor, Panasonic keeps firing shots from the wrong cannon.
A couple of more generic decisions also seem to be problematic to people:
- Choose lens or choose camera? This is usually triggered by the huge range of lens options in m4/3 versus the bigger sensors of something like the Sony NEX cameras. Personally, I believe you have to choose based upon lenses. Why? Because in all likelihood you'll be keeping those lenses through several camera body iterations. Moreover, not having a lens you want restricts how you'll shoot with a camera until the lens you want shows up. That could be a year, two years, or more. Curiously, it's easier to guarantee that better camera bodies will happen for any mount than it is to guarantee that all the lens choices you'll want will happen. Buying body over lens is a bet on a camera company following through. Buying lens over body is a bet that the camera company will stay in business and keep producing better and better cameras. Which is more likely to pay out? The latter bet.
- Mirrorless or DSLR? For the most part this is convenience versus performance. Mirrorless is convenient with adequate performance. DSLRs are less convenient (bigger, heavier) with excellent (and better) performance. While there are those that say the smallest DSLRs are convenient, I'm not one of them. The smallest DSLR package I can put together of everything I want for a photographic trip is easily double the weight and size of my mirrorless system. Everything scales, including tripod and bag. On the flip side, there are some who say that mirrorless cameras equal DSLRs in performance. Again, I'm not one of them. Sensor size has advantages, and focus performance of the mirrorless cameras doesn't match the DSLRs (except for the Nikon 1, which has a very small sensor). This last bit may change over time (see previous point about buying lens over camera!). But right now, you're choosing convenience (mirrorless) versus performance (DSLR).
- Mirrorless or Compact? The flip of the previous point. Now mirrorless is the performance option (plus flexibility) while compact is the convenience option. Knowing which kind of photographer you are is important. Most of my professional for-hire work is performance-oriented. When I'm shooting sports, wildlife, or an assignment, I'm typically using my Nikon D4 or D800 (DSLRs). But for my own work, I'm more convenience oriented and tend to shoot with my Nikon 1, Sony NEX, or m4/3 systems. Which of those I pick to carry with me has to do with what I'm shooting (wildlife, scenics, or general, in order).
One final comment. What I think should never be the deciding factor. I point out what I see and what I think, hopefully in clear and abundant detail. The final decision is still yours. The key parameters for your decision should be yours, too. You may value something I don't, or not value something that I do.
The one thing that should be clear from what I've written above is that I'm not comparing numbers against numbers or pixel peeping against pixel peeping. I try to raise things up to a higher decision level. Even when I do see image quality measurements on one camera better than another, I immediately back up and consider how important I value image quality over some other aspect (price, convenience, lens choice, whatever). I don't try to finesse figuring out whether 16mp is better than 14mp or a noise figure of 1.8 is better than 1.6. Small differences in numbers just tell me that one camera has an advantage over the other in some higher level aspect (speed, cropping, amount of post processing I might have to do, etc.). But is that category of advantage more important than all others? Generally not.
If you miss the shot in the first place (poor user interface and controls, slow focus, multi-step parameter setting, poor viewfinder, etc.), it doesn't matter if you've got 12mp or 16mp, and it doesn't matter if the dynamic range is 1EV better. Low level numbers rarely count unless all else is equal or dismissed. Unfortunately, numbers are easy (16 is bigger than 12 and bigger is better), while more personal assessment (valuing convenience over quality) is something most people want to avoid, because it involves introspection and self-realism and that's scary.
My advice? Go into the haunted house and face your fears. You'll make a better choice.