Best Mirrorless Camera:
Shootout of Six Top Models

Dick De Jong, Updated August 15, 2012

The Mirrorless Camera Shootout

Call them what you will - mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses (MILC) or Compact System Cameras - because of their small size, flexibility and image quality, they have established a niche in the digital camera world.

And the 2012 models are beginning to fulfill the promise of delivering the sort of performance only previously available from bigger, bulkier DSLRs. Therefore, whether you are looking to move up from a point and shoot camera or slim down from a DSLR, mirrorless cameras should be on your radar.

Out of the eight top models featured in this shootout, one stylish camera rises above the rest. Here's our 2CameraGuys rankings in order of preference. (You can see a side-by-side comparison of the specs and features of the top five cameras here.)

Sony NEX-5N

16.1 MP APS-C Sensor - (More Specs)
$599 (Body Only), $699 with 18-55mm zoom lens
Sony NEX-5N

The sleek and sexy Sony NEX-5N is the best camera in this mirrorless selection. Even though it didn't rank at the top of every category on my checklist, on the whole, the NEX-5N proved to be the clear choice.

Not only did it produce excellent picture quality, even in low light situations, but the Sony NEX-5N also was just plain fun to shoot with.

The camera is easy to use - at least as straightforward as mirrorless cameras can be - and it feels good in your hand and looks good hanging around your neck.

Sony has packed a lot of performance in the NEX-5N's small body and they are beginning to fill out its lineup of high quality lenses.

As a deal closer, this 2 Camera Guys Best Camera recipient is one of the lowest priced models in the shootout, unless you desire a camera with a viewfinder. The NEX-5N does not have one built in and the attachable electronic viewfinder costs an extra $350.

More about the Sony NEX-5N.

2nd Place
Pentax K-01

16.3 MP APS-C Sensor - (More Specs)
$689 with DA 40mm lens
Best Mirrorless Cameras 2012 Pentax K-01

Take one look at the boxy K-01 and you realize that Pentax broke the mold when it created this camera. Indeed, the K-01 is mirrorless, but it definitely is not as compact as most of the other contestants in this shootout.

But after one admiring glimpse of the lush, colorful images that the K-01 consistently produces, any misgivings that you may foster about the unconventional design should quickly dissipate.

For those SLR veterans, the added depth of the K-01 should be reassuringly comfortable. More importantly, the design allows you to attach all the legacy Pentax K-mount lenses to this new mirrorless model without an adapter.

If you already possess K-mount lenses, then the K-01 is the no-brainer selection in the mirrorless camera category.

Even if you are starting from scratch, consider the Pentax K-01, which offers an off-the-beaten-path alternative to the Sony NEX-5N, but one that will reward you with satisfyingly rich photographs.

More about the Pentax K-01.

3rd Place Tie
Samsung NX200

20.3 MP APS-C Sensor - (More Specs)
$899 with 18-55mm zoom lens

Samsung NX200 Angle

The Samsung NX200's APS-C sensor with 20.3 megapixels is the biggest in this shootout and the resulting image quality compares well to the Sony NEX-5N.

In fact, this Samsung is similar to the Sony in many ways including a body without an integrated viewfinder, a screw-on flash attachment, and a happily habit-forming panorama feature.

The three-inch OLED screen is lovely, but it does not tilt like the Sony's, which makes viewing it in bright sunlight nearly impossible. It is also not touch sensitive.

The on-screen descriptions make navigating through the myriad of functions easier, but like every other camera in this shootout, becoming proficient will require some time and study.

Deciding where to rank the Samsung NX200 is not easy. If it weren't for its big sensor and good image quality, it would drop down the list because it is one of the most expensive cameras in the shootout.

Also if you demand an integrated viewfinder on your camera, look elsewhere. Samsung does not make one, electronic or optical.

More about the Samsung NX200.

3rd Place Tie
Panasonic G3

16 MP Four Thirds Sensor - (More Specs)
$599 (Body Only), $645 with 14-42mm zoom lens

Panasonic G3 Top

Panasonic G3 Top View

In their effort to make mirrorless cameras ideal travel companions, manufacturers run the risk of reducing their size too much, especially for bigger hands.

For those of you that require oversized mittens, the Panasonic G3, with its substantial handgrip, should feel quite comfortable. And the layout of its controls are very similar to a DSLR's.

In fact, with its built-in electronic viewfinder, it's easy to believe that the G3 is a DSLR.

Image quality is quite good in normal lighting situations. The G3 begins to display more noise when you have to push its ISO above 800 to compensate for shooting in low light.

Being part of the Micro Four Thirds family, the G3 offers a wide range of quality lenses. Of course, some of them are more expensive than the G3 body, which isn't difficult since this Panasonic is the least costly camera in this shootout.

Considering that it comes with an integrated viewfinder, its price is even more attractive. The Panasonic is definitely the best value in this group. But all things considered, the Sony NEX-5N is still the best in this mirrorless class.

More about the Panasonic G3.

3rd Place Tie
Panasonic GX1

16 MP Four Thirds Sensor - (More Specs)
$503 (Body Only), $529 with 14-42mm zoom lens

Panasonic GX1 Top

Best Mirrorless Cameras 2012 Panasonic GX1

The GX is the newest series in Panasonic's Lumix Compact System camera lineup. And the GX1 is a more recent model than the G3, though they share the same 16MP Live MOS Sensor.

Their differences can be found in their design. The G3 with its integrated viewfinder and larger body looks like a DSLR. The smaller GX1 with its lack of a viewfinder seems more like a more fully featured point and shoot camera.

You can mount the full range of Micro Four Thirds lenses on both cameras. Of course, as soon as you attach a zoom lens on the GX1, its pocketability advantage over the G3 vanishes.

Panasonic has tweaked the Venus processing engine to increase the GX1's ISO range over the G3's. That said, the image quality from the cameras is similar, both being very good.

I prefer the handling and integrated viewfinder of the G3. If you are looking for a more compact Panasonic, then the newer GX1 may be your cup of tea.

More about the Panasonic GX1.

Olympus E-P3

12.3 MP Four Thirds Sensor - (More Specs)
$849 with 14-42mm zoom lens

Olympus EP3

Don't be fooled by the retro look of the Olympus E-P3. Yes, it does have the dedicated buttons and mode wheel with the PASM (Program, Aperture, Shutter and Manual) options that will give comfort to traditionalists.

But if your first camera was a smartphone, the E-P3 furnishes a touchscreen LCD where all of the camera's functions are at your fingertips.

The image quality is silky and the range of compatible Micro Four Thirds lenses is extensive.

Like the Sony NEX-5N, this Olympus does not include an integrated viewfinder, which is compounded by the fact that the E-P3, (topped only by the Samsung NX200), is one of the most expensive cameras in the shootout.

More about the Olympus E-P3.

Nikon V1

10.1 MP CX Sensor - (More Specs)
$849 with 10-30mm zoom lens

Nikon V1

The Nikon V1, with its tiny sensor, (when compared with the three cameras above), surprisingly does not suffer when comparing its image quality to it more well endowed competitors.

And for those of you who become frustrated when you miss capturing a precious moment because your camera is still trying to focus, the V1 provides the fastest and most accurate auto focusing in the shootout.

The V1's industrial design is appealing, as is the inclusion of a built-in viewfinder. It's odd that Nikon opted not to include a pop-up flash.

Also, since this is Nikon's first foray into the mirrorless category, the selection of lenses made specifically for it is limited.

Considering its hefty price tag, unless you are a diehard Nikon fanatic, I would suggest that you wait for a second generation model.

More about the Nikon V1.

Pentax Q

12.4 MP 1/2.3" Sensor - (More Specs)
$649 with 8.5mm prime lens

Pentax Q

The Pentax Q is a toy. Its sensor is toy-sized. Pentax even labels two of its lenses as "toy."

With that said, the Q can produce quite acceptable images. And the camera, with its pancake kit lens, is definitely the most pocketable of the group.

It was annoyingly presumptuous when Pentax introduced this camera at $850.

Even now, with it price reduced $200 or more, the Q is too expensive, especially when you consider the Panasonic G3 sells for about as much and includes a viewfinder.

More about the Pentax Q.

Yes, Sensor Size Does Matter

On the 2 Camera Guys site, we try very hard not to be too technical, but if you are shopping for a mirrorless camera, you will no doubt see the term "image sensor" being bandied about.

The image sensor is the heart of a digital camera. It captures the image - in the form of light - coming through the lens, like film does in analog cameras. As a general rule, the bigger the sensor, the better.

Sensor Sizes

The Sony NEX-5N, the Pentax K-01 and the Samsung NX200 have the biggest size sensors of the seven, which often translates into slightly better image quality and better performance when shooting in low light situations.

You can judge for yourself with our PhotoScope image comparison tool. For example, here is the link to a side by side, magnified comparison of the Sony NEX-5N and the Panasonic G3.

Sony NEX-5N 5th Ave Window

Bergdorf Goodman Window shot with a Sony NEX-5N

Now if you are just posting low resolution pictures to Facebook, you may never see the difference among the cameras in image quality. But if that is your primary picture venue, you probably don't need a mirrorless camera.

As for video quality, all of these cameras can shoot in HD (1920 x 1080). Once again, if you are posting videos on YouTube, that high of resolution is overkill.

From this list, for video, the Sony NEX-5N once again reigns as top dog. But if you are really serious about shooting video with a mirrorless camera, take a hard look at the Panasonic GH2, which was released in 2010 and is still available.

You can read more detailed individual reviews of these cameras on the following pages.

With the addition of the Pentax K-01, this Mirrorless Camera shootout has its second update. It will continue to refresh as new cameras come on the market and supplant these.

Reader Comments(11 comments)

Posted Feb 24, 2013 4:41:24 PM
Post a Comment Alert Moderator
Posted Jan 18, 2013 6:58:23 AM
By stephen rudolph
Post a Comment Alert Moderator
leaving out the x-pro1 and omd-em5 is like leaving out Angelina Jolie or Charlize Theron out of the 'list of the top 10 sexiest hollywood actresses '. Top 6 according to who's ranking ? and if its in sales, it doesnt make it a 'top' camera. a lot of people buy according to price and not quality.
Posted Dec 28, 2012 10:45:52 AM
By Francis Josey
Post a Comment Alert Moderator
I think you did a fine job with the article and agree with your conclusions, I DO wish you had included the NEX 7 and the X-pro 1. I own 4 MILCs, Sony 5n and 7, Fuji X-pro 1, and the Samsung NX-200. All great performers, but the 5n is amazing for engineering reasons I will never understand. It beats all the others although they all have strong points. I'll end with a question, Did you consider including the Ricoh GXR A16 at all ????
Posted Nov 14, 2012 8:12:41 AM
By Bill F.
Post a Comment Alert Moderator
Why didn't you include the Fujifilm X-pro 1 or the XE-1? These have excellent image quality, easily rivaling top-end DSLRs. Excellent lenses and easy to use. The ONLY mirrorless cameras to date that do not have a low-pass filter, and so give very sharp images. Just wondering why these were avoided (or just overlooked?)
Posted Nov 12, 2012 4:03:10 PM
By Docrwm
Post a Comment Alert Moderator
The K-01 has dropped in price, with the 40XS pancake lens, to $349 at many sellers. The Q has dropped to as low as $299 with 01 Prime lens and frequently goes for $346 with it or the 02 Zoom. At those prices they are killer cameras and real bargains.
Posted Nov 12, 2012 4:00:54 PM
By Docrwm
Post a Comment Alert Moderator
Well, the Q is now selling for around $350 for camera plus either the 01 Prime or the 02 Zoom Standard Lens. I got my Q with the 01 8.5mm f1.9 lens for $299 BNIB last week. So, at that price (and with an adapter for my K mount lenses) it's an incredible Macro and fantastic Telephoto performer. Plus - it's the most fun camera I have ever used.
Posted Oct 2, 2012 9:19:44 AM
By varun
Post a Comment Alert Moderator
what about the Sony NEX C3? with the f3 out recently, C3 should be available at a discount. other than full HD video, what are the major differences? is it worth paying extra for the F3?
Posted Aug 28, 2012 11:27:28 AM
By Dick De Jong
Post a Comment Alert Moderator
We have the D-5 in for review. It's a great, stylish camera. I find it a bit pricey at almost $1000 for the body only. Ultimately, you need to decide if the premium is worth it.
Posted Aug 18, 2012 10:15:18 AM
By Peggy
Post a Comment Alert Moderator
Ready to purchase the Olympus OMD 5...any feedback?
Posted Aug 16, 2012 11:09:42 AM
By Chris
Post a Comment Alert Moderator
I was wondering the same thing! Been looking very hard at the Olympus OM-D E-M5 and would like to hear your opinions on it.
Posted Aug 14, 2012 4:42:30 PM
By Bill Steen
Post a Comment Alert Moderator
Thoughts about the Olympus OMD 5?