Best Bargain Mirrorless Cameras

Bill Livolsi, March 23, 2012

Good cameras can be expensive. However, you can get into photography without spending a ton of money. One of the best ways to find great value in the camera market is to buy a camera that is a generation or two old. Typically, these cameras are still extremely capable machines, and better than any new camera you could buy at the same price. While they sometimes lack the newest bells and whistles, this trade-off allows you to pick up a serious camera at a bargain price. 

Some of today's best bargains are mirrorless cameras. With larger sensors than point and shoots, they can take very high-quality photos without adding the bulk of a full-on digital SLR. Often, they don't cost much more than point and shoots, either. A good point-and-shoot will run you between $300 and $400. For about the same money, you can pick up an earlier generation mirrorless camera that will create higher-quality images than any point-and-shoot. 

This shootout will be less of a typical shootout since what constitutes a "budget" mirrorless camera depends on current prices. The cameras being evaluated have all been out for a few years, but what is available may change rapidly based on that manufacturer's own update schedule.

First Place: Olympus PEN E-PL1

$300 w/ lens, 12.3 MP (more specs)

The Olympus PEN E-PL1
The Olympus PEN E-PL1 is a workhorse of a mirrorless camera. As a stills camera, its 12-megapixel Micro Four Thirds sensor is able to out-resolve any point and shoot camera in its price range, and its interchangeable lenses make it flexible enough to use in all sorts of situations. Its low light capabilities don't measure up to newer cameras, and the non-articulating screen makes it hard to use in direct sunlight, but as far as bargains go it can't be beat. The E-PL1 can regularly be found for less than $300, new in box with the 14-42mm kit lens. That's a steal.

Second Place: Samsung NX10

$350 w/ lens, 14.6 MP (more specs)

Samsung NX10
As the only DSLR-style camera in the shootout and the only one with an APS-C sensor, the NX10 has a certain amount of "professional" cachet. The NX10 has plenty of direct-access button controls, meaning you'll spend less time in the menus than you will on other cameras. On the other hand, the abundance of controls can be daunting to neophytes. An electronic viewfinder is a nice perk, but finding this camera for sale can be tricky.

Third Place: Olympus E-PL2

$400 w/ lens, 12.3 MP (more specs)

The Olympus PEN E-PL2
The E-PL2 is a slightly upgraded E-PL1, where ergonomics have been upgraded but not much else. The camera feels a touch more responsive, but the image sensor and video performance are the same as those in the E-PL1. Essentially, for an extra $120, you get a camera that is easier to use, but takes the same quality pictures. For most people, the added cost won't be worth the upgrade.

In This Shootout:


Olympus PEN E-PL1

The Olympus PEN E-PL1 is a fantastic bargain in mirrorless cameras

Samsung NX10

The Samsung NX10's viewfinder and large sensor make it a steal at $350

Olympus PEN E-PL2

The Olympus PEN E-PL2 has some additional features over the E-PL1, but costs more

Buyer's Advice and Conclusion

What we've learned from looking at cheap mirrorless cameras