It's looking increasingly certain that interchangeable lens cameras have got a mirrorless future. In 2013 we've seen new models which can rival all but the very best of their mirrored counterparts in terms of features, build, and image quality. In this comparison guide we'll look at how the new breed of high-end mirrorless models stack up against each other.
Meet the cameras
The mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras we have decided to compare are:
It's safe to say the cameras in our line up are not small by traditional mirrorless standards, especially if you think about something teeny-tiny like the Panasonic Lumix GM1. This is because most of them offer ergonomic features such as a hand grip along with physical access to manual controls and things like a built-in viewfinder.
The most notable in terms of physical dimensions is the Sony Alpha A7 which somehow manages to squeeze a full frame sensor into a body which is smaller than the Olympus OM-D E-M1. It's considerably smaller than DSLRs with equal sensor dimensions.
The biggest and heaviest of the cameras are the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and the Samsung Galaxy NX, which are proportioned – and look much like – slim DSLRs. The Fujifilm X-E2 and Panasonic GX7 are more what you might expect from an enthusiast-focused mirrorless camera.
The size of sensors in our selection of cameras range from the 4/3-inch type (17.3 x 13 mm) ones in the Olympus and Panasonic, right up to the full frame (36 x 24 mm) monster lurking in the Sony A7. Yes, bigger sensors are capable of producing better quality images, but they also require larger lenses and even 4/3-inch sensors are nowadays capable of producing some stunning images.
In terms of megapixels, there are no ridiculously high or low examples here and all of the cameras fall in the 16 to 24 megapixel range. This is more than enough for most people's use, without getting so large that files become unwieldy to manage. In fact this, along with price, is the reason we selected the Sony A7 over its A7R twin, which has a 36.4 megapixel count and no optical anti-aliasing filter, making it more of a niche tool.
It's also worth noting that the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and the Fujifilm X-E2 also lack anti-aliasing filters which means they should be capable of capturing more detailed images than cameras with similar resolutions.
While most of our cameras use both contrast and phase detection autofocus systems for a balance between speed and accuracy, the Panasonic GX7 just uses contrast AF. Notably, the Sony A7 boasts 117 phase-detection AF points and the Olympus OM-D E-M1 has an almost as impressive 81.
The manufacturers behind each of these cameras boast about the speed of their respective device and while they might not keep up with the fastest DSLRs, they are certainly a lot faster than previous generations of mirrorless camera. Features such as continuous AF, tracking and face detection are also becoming the norm.
FPS Burst Rate
If you want to capture fast-moving action you need a camera capable of knocking out a series of images quickly. The fastest in our selection is the Olympus OM-D E-M1, which can churn out 10 frames per second for up to 50 RAW frames. Not far behind are the Samsung Galaxy NX and the Fujifilm X-E2 with respective 8.6 and 7 fps top speeds.
While the Panasonic GX7 has the joint slowest burst rate with the Sony A7 at 5 fps, it is capable of firing at 40 fps if you just want raw speed and don't mind the drawbacks of shooting with the electronic rather than the mechanical shutter.
We've got similar numbers across the board with all of the cameras roughly covering the ISO 100 to 25,600 range, or equivalent. This means any of the cameras should be able to perform well even in lower light situations – though with its full frame sensor you can expect the Sony A7 to be the best in this regard.
Most of the cameras here rely on optical image stabilization, meaning it's the lenses that are responsible for removing the shakes as you shoot at slow shutter speeds or at long focal lengths.
However, the Olympus E-M1 and the Panasonic GX7 also feature sensor shift stabilization, meaning that you don't have to be using a stabilized lens to benefit from the reduced wobbles.
For those who are averse to composing shots on a rear monitor, we're glad to report electronic viewfinders appear have become a must-have feature on high-end mirrorless cameras. Of those here, it's the one on the Panasonic GX7 which stands out, not only does it have the highest resolution, but it also tilts allowing it to be used in a variety of positions.
We're also seeing more tilting and touchscreens on higher end models like those featured. But it's the ginormous 4.8-inch touchscreen on the rear of the Samsung Galaxy NX which can't fail to grab your attention.
Because the NX runs on Android Jellybean v4.2 and uses an interface similar to the Galaxy Camera rather than mostly physical controls, it can be used for things other than photography.
While all of the cameras take SD memory cards, and the Sony A7 can use any Memory Stick Duo cards you have around, it's again the Samsung Galaxy NX that is markedly different. In addition to taking SD cards, it has 16 GB of built-in memory.
As you would expect of high-end devices, all of the cameras can shoot JPEG and more post-production friendly RAW files.
The latest generation of high-end mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras are up there with the best constructed cameras of recent years. Most of the ones we picked feature a magnesium alloy body or plates, which makes them each feel solid and durable.
The most sturdy is probably the Olympus E-M1, which uses 60 gasket rings to be weatherproof, dust-proof and freeze-proof down to -10° C (14° F). But remember that although the camera is capable of surviving a downpour or being dropped in the snow, you'll want to make sure your lens is equally hardy.
All of the cameras we are comparing are capable of shooting Full HD 1080 video, though the Olympus E-M1 and the Samsung Galaxy NX can only do so at 30 fps rather than the 60 fps of the other devices. The Panasonic GX7 and the Sony A7 are both capable of 1080p 60/50 fps.
There are built-in wireless capabilities across the board with all of these cameras. This means being able to share images via Wi-Fi and, in many cases, even control the camera remotely with companion Android and iOS apps.
The Sony A7 and the Panasonic GX7 also boast NFC for easy pairing of devices. But the Samsung Galaxy NX comes out on top thanks to also having the option of 3G/4G connectivity. Pop a data-enabled SIM card in next to the battery and you can be sharing photos instantly from wherever you are.
You should get a minimum of 320 shots out of any of these cameras before having to worry about recharging the battery and the Samsung Galaxy NX is said to be good for around 440 shots … unless you've killed the battery playing Angry Birds.
Unlike top of the range DSLRs, most of the featured cameras are available with a relatively inexpensive kit lens which can offer good value, especially if you don't already have a bag of compatible glass waiting to be used. The exception here is the Olympus, which is primarily available body-only, though can be found with a 12-40-mm F2.8 lens.
The kit lenses on offer cover a 35-mm-format equivalent focal length from 24-mm or 28-mm to somewhere between 70-mm and 85-mm. This makes them versatile enough to do the job whether you're into shooting landscapes or portraits. With the exception of the $1,000 Olympus 12-40-mm F2.8, all have a variable maximum aperture, the best being the Fuji 18-55-mm F2.8-F4.
While most of these lenses are not optically going to be up there with the absolute best glass available, many can add as little as $100 to the price, so they're often well worth considering.
The Sony Alpha 7, Samsung Galaxy NX and Fujifilm X-E2 each take lenses from their respective manufacturers, while the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX7 share the Micro Four Thirds lens mount.
In addition to the dedicated lenses available, it's worth remembering that adapters are also available for older and other alternative lenses, though some features may not be available.
Be warned, there are some big numbers here! While the Panasonic GX7 and the Fujifilm X-E2 would have not long ago been two of the most expensive mirrorless cameras on the market, the likes of the $1,400 Olympus E-M1 and the $1,600 Samsung Galaxy NX now make them look cheap by comparison.
However, at $1,700 it's the Sony A7 that is the most expensive mirrorless camera in our line-up. However, that's still cheaper than most comparable DSLRs … and its more expensive "R" variant twin. Again, it's worth considering the kit lens bundles if you are looking at a new camera as they often offer better value.
After last year we knew mirrorless cameras were moving in the right direction. They were already a viable alternative to mid-range DSLRs, and not just for photographers who didn't want to be lugging around the extra weight. But we probably just didn't appreciate how quickly they would be rivaling DSLRs at the higher-end of the market.
When the Olympus OM-D E-M1 was announced in September, it looked like it was going to be the highlight mirrorless camera of the year. Then the Sony A7 came along with its full frame sensor … and an even smaller body. When you consider there's only a $300 price difference, the A7 is a very tempting package.
While these devices are our pick of the best and most interesting mirrorless cameras of the year, we'd find it slightly difficult to recommend the Samsung Galaxy NX to anyone but the most ardent early-adopter. Unless you absolutely must have an Android flavor to your interchangeable lens camera, there are better and (mostly) cheaper alternatives.
When selecting a new camera, comparing features and specs can only take you so far down the decision making path. We'd always advise prospective camera buyers get their hands on any potential purchases and see how they feel before handing over their hard-earned cash. Even things like image and video quality can be subjective, so it's worth comparing their output before making the decision.
Hopefully this guide has helped highlight which new mirrorless camera would be best for you. However, if the prices are a bit too much, keep an eye out for our upcoming mid-range mirrorless camera comparison, where we'll look at how you can get almost as much camera for far less money.