You're ready for a camera upgrade. You've outgrown the best point-and-shoot cameras, but a DSLR is a little excessive. Luckily for you, there's a middle ground. Mirrorless, interchangeable lens cameras—even affordable ones—are getting really, really good.
For this Battlemodo we tested four entry-level mirrorless cameras under $650—lens included. We want a camera that jams the functionality and image quality of a DSLR into a compact package. That means killer images. And a quick snapshot should be no problem, but accessing the camera's manual settings should be as quick and intuitive as possible. (See our Flickr gallery for some sample images we took.)
These cameras all shoot video; a near seamless hybrid is what we've increasingly come to expect from even "still" cameras. So video's important. Non-essential features like on board image processing tools, special automatic scene settings, and high-burst modes all just icing on the cake. If it's not a great camera to begin with, no special features are going to change that.
We're going to call them pro compacts here, because they're super compact, but definitely a step up from anything you'd find in a point-and-shoot. (If you've got a better name for these things, we're happy to steal it.)
The Nikon J1 is the most beautiful and compact camera of the bunch. Awesome. But it also has the tiniest sensor, and the camera's smaller pixels resulted in images that didn't quite stack up to the photos produced by those with larger Micro Four Thirds or APS-C sensors. The J1 is only marginally smaller than the Sony NEX-C3 and the Panasonic Lumix GF3, and certainly not small enough to justify the loss in image quality.
For all its drawbacks, though, the J1 is refreshingly uncomplicated. There are only a few manual functions on the body: flash, continuous shooting mode, aperture and shutter speed. It's not customizable, and the rest of the settings are on a long camera settings list behind the menu button. The motion-snapshot setting, which captures a short burst of HD images at 60 fps and plays it back at 24 fps, is fun, as are the low-resolution, super slow motion video settings. In the end, this is an expensive camera for what it delivers, image-wise. Some people will appreciate its streamlined design, whizbang features, and that there's the possibility for more control if you want it. But overall, it doesn't represent a lot of value.
The Olympus E-PM1 is a great camera with unfortunate drawbacks. While it has a sturdy aluminum build and feels super comfortable in your hands, the camera's buttons are small and finicky. The huge line of Olympus PEN-System lenses will allow you to shoot everything from wide angles to telephoto from this relatively tiny package. Unfortunately, you'll be using all of these lenses to shoot in automatic because the camera's controls are just too frustrating to navigate. In daylight the camera takes beautiful photos, but the camera's low-light performance drops off and detail disappears fast above ISO 800. The autofocus on the lens also frequently fell flat or refused to work in low-light as well. While the EPM-1 takes sharp 1080i video, shooting it can be a little frustrating because of relatively slow auto-focus tracking and a slight lag in the LCD's live view.
This Panasonic Lumix GF3 is tiny. Real tiny. But unlike the rest of the cameras in this test, this one has a touchscreen display, which makes changing settings like ISO and image quality quicker on the GF3 than any of the other cameras, even if the screen isn't as fast or responsive as the one you're used to on a smartphone. The autofocus settings are very well designed on the GF3. The "Pinpoint" mode zooms you in and focuses on exactly what you want to be in focus, and in the "AF Area" mode you use the touchscreen to tell the camera where you want it to focus. Like the EPM-1, the Lumix GF3 takes great photos at lower ISOs and its low-light performance is noticeably less noisy than the J1 or EPM-1. The camera's excellent autofocus tracks well when shooting video, which also sets the camera apart from the the EPM-1. The one drawback is that everything is so quick and easy to change that you'll want to keep an eye on your settings to make sure you don't end up shooting a few hundred photos with the camera focusing on the corner of the frame.
Panasonic Lumix GF3
Price: $599 w/ 18-55mm zoom lens
Sensor: 12.1 megapixel, 17.3 x 13.0 mm Live MOS
Image: Up to 4000 x 3000
Video: Up to 1920 x 1080/60i
Screen: 460,000 dot, 3" TFT-LCD with touch panel,
The Sony NEX-C3 leans hard towards the DSLR side of the mirrorless camera spectrum. Simply stated, the NEX-C3 performs much better than the others in nearly every situation. It's better, and, yup, bigger and heavier. The 18-55mm kit lens isn't collapsable, so this camera is never going to fit in your pocket, and while taking a quick shot in auto is easy enough, you're going to want to spend some time learning the menus, and programming the camera's customizable buttons to get the most out of it. The camera's most glaring drawback is that it shoots lower-resolution video than all of the others. Is it worth it? Hell yeah. In terms of image quality, the 16.2 megapixel, 23. 4mm x 15.6mm sensor blows the rest of the cameras in its price range away. It's not even close.
In choosing between the Lumix GF3 and this camera, it really comes down to what you want from the camera. The Panny is cute and compact and takes better video, but we choose the NEX-C3 because its still image quality is far superior. If you want something as easy and portable as a smartphone camera or a point and shoot, well, why are you looking at an interchangeable lens camera? You want performance and power. The NEX-C3 is why you upgrade.