Large Sensor Compact Cameras…compared

One fast growing segment in the camera market is large sensor, compact, camera systems. (aka micro 4/3rds or mirrorless interchangeable lens systems) Their small size, low weight, and top-notch image quality has attracted a large number of photographers over the past several years. They also offer the ability to auto-focus during video, which is lacking in most HDSLRs. Now we are well into the second generation of these cameras. In this short article, we will compare the latest models from each brand.

Fujifilm X100

Of all the cameras in this list, perhaps this one caused the biggest splash upon announcement. We’ve reported on it before, as we had the good fortune to play with one at Photokina last year. Now that the camera is out, reviews are pouring in, and the results are…mixed. On one hand, image quality is top notch, but there are some reported niggles. The 35mm f/2 lens sounds nice, but only if you’re comfortable exclusively at that focal length. The hybrid optical viewfinder is quite nice, and gives you an option of how you’d like to compose your shots. It’s also one darn handsome camera, with a price tag to match. Finally, it’s high ISO performance is astounding, and possibly the peak performer in the world of APS-C cameras.

Panasonic Lumix GF2

This popular model is the smallest on the on the market from Panasonic. It boats a 12mp sensor and the tough Panny build quality, but in some respects it is a step down from the previous GF1, losing a significant number of external controls. I had a chance to play with one at Photokina 2010, and it felt like a tank, much more so than the Olympus models. JPGs are not the best of the bunch, and the sensor is a touch noisy, but overall it is a very capable camera, especially in the video department.

Panasonic Lumix GH2

If you’re looking for the most capable video camera in this category, the GH2 is probably it. It offers more video controls and settings than any other model, as well as the highest resolution of the bunch. Like the GF2, its JPGs suffer a bit, but performs better at high ISOs. Dpreview.com has even stated that this is the best micro 4/3rds camera on the market. Finally, the twist and swivel screen will surely be a boon to those who appreciate it.

Olympus PEN E-P2

Olympus got the ball rolling with the Micro 4/3rds system, and made a big splash with their first PEN model. It harked back to the days of the original PEN film camera, and did so with an attractive feature set. Though the first model was plagued with slowish AF, this one remedies that to an extent. It has good, punchy JPGs, but a low resolution screen that makes them difficult to judge. Finally, a strong and sturdy body, plenty of external controls, and optional viewfinder addition make this one a hit.

Olympus PEN E-PL2

Although this is a lower positioned model than the E-P2, it has plenty going for it: a better LCD screen, faster AF, and a built-in flash. It’s also smaller than the E-P2. Good build quality (though not as good as the E-P2), and classic Olympus JPG image quality, make this one a sure shot. Although its high-ISO performance cannot match that of the E-P2, it still outperforms the Panasonic models.

Sony NEX-5

Although not as popular as the other models listed here, Sony has nevertheless made a big splash by introducing perhaps the largest sensor of all in a compact body: a full APS-C 14MP sensor. And the body is impressively smaller than the competition. With the larger sensor comes, of course, better high ISO performance. And with a host of new lenses, including an stabilized 18-200mm. Despite the high quality body, features, and IQ, the NEX-5 is hampered by overexposure, slow operation, and a hungry battery. But among the cameras listed here, if ultimate IQ is your goal then you’d be hard pressed to find anything better.

Samsung NX-100

We are sensing a naming pattern here, shared alike with Sony and Fujifilm. But Samsung is a welcome player in this game, with seemingly nothing to lose. Like Sony, they’ve stuffed an APS-C sensor into a compact body, with great high ISO performance to boot. The standard zoom that comes with the camera (a 30-75mm equivalent) seems a bit restrictive, but keeps the overall package small. Size is also kept down by the lack of an electronic viewfinder or pop-up flash. Hmmm. Pricing is also competitive, and if you don’t mind going with a “3rd party”, then this camera might be a good choice.

Just as we were going to press with this comparison, the new Panasonic Lumix G3popped up, looking rather impressive. Let’s save an analysis of that for a later date…

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