Camera of the Year Nominees

We've had quite a few mirrorless camera announcements (and fortunately plentiful deliveries) in 2013:

  • Canon EOS M2
  • Fujifilm X-M1, X-A1, XE-2
  • Nikon J3, S1, AW1 
  • Olympus OM-D E-M1, E-P5
  • Panasonic GF6, GX7, GM1
  • Pentax Q7
  • Samsung Galaxy NX, NX2000, NX300M
  • Sony A3000, NEX-5T, A7, A7r

I've had a chance to handle and use all of these cameras in the field now and will be putting out reviews of many of them soon.

At the end of the year I'll name one of these cameras "best entry mirrorless camera of the 2013," and another "best serious mirrorless camera of 2013." At this point, I'm ready to announce my nominees:

Best Entry Mirrorless Camera

This is a tricky category, as "entry" means different things to different people. For this category I put an emphasis on cameras that cater to people moving up to their first interchangeable lens camera, or who will be using the mirrorless camera more as an advanced point and shoot. I've narrowed the cameras that best fit this definition to three final nominees (left to right):

  • Fujifilm X-A1
  • Nikon AW1
  • Panasonic GM1

Why these three? Each represents something new and interesting in the category, I think. 

The Fujifilm X-A1 brings a high degree of competence down to a very low price point, and comes with a really good kit lens. In terms of the compact-camera shooting style (two hands out using the rear LCD to frame) it probably is the most competent of the lower end cameras announced this year, though the Samsung NX300M and Sony NEX-5T give it a strong run for the money. The difference to me was the kit lens, so if you're buying body only, you might come to a different conclusion. Why not the Fujifilm X-M1? More money for a questionable change in sensor. The X-Trans sensor in the X-M1 is the only real difference (the X-A1 uses a Bayer sensor). Yes, the X-M1 gets a bit better results in low light, but the Bayer sensor in the X-A1 is simply "better behaved" in terms of low level pixel artifacts. I can't see paying the additional price for an X-M1 over the X-A1, basically. 

The Nikon AW1 is basically a J3 that's been made into an underwater camera. While it's not really a diver's camera (only rated to 49 feet), it is the "ignore virtually all perils" camera that a lot of casual shooters would like to have. There's nothing exceptional about the camera itself (again, it's just a J3 underneath the thick, fully gasketed and sealed skin), but there is absolutely something unique about not having to worry about water or ice. The extra body work needed to make it waterproof also brings a bit more sturdiness to an already sturdy camera, too. 

The Panasonic GM1 is just small and lovable. It really gives nothing up in image quality over any of Panasonic's higher offerings (indeed, the kit lens is actually better than the one supplied with some of the higher offerings), but does so in one of the smallest mirrorless camera packages yet. If you're looking for the pocket- or purse-friendliest high quality camera, there's no question in my mind that the GM1 is it. Sure, the lower end NEX models have a larger sensor. But the GM1 package, including kit lens, is just a better choice for most entry users. 

Best Serious Mirrorless Camera

In the high-specification cameras, there was plenty of action as well. In this group I'm looking at cameras that appeal to DSLR-type users who are looking to extract every last bit of performance, but from smaller cameras. After much consideration, this year's nominees are (left-to-right):

  • Fujifilm X-E2
  • Olympus OM-D E-M1
  • Sony A7 and A7r

What, no Panasonic GX7? No. I like it, and to a large degree it's very similar to what you get with the Fujifilm X-E2, so some of you definitely will want to consider the Panasonic, and those of you committed to m4/3 will certainly enjoy it. I'm not sure why I didn't quite embrace the GX7, though. Oh wait, I know why: if I'm going to consider an m4/3 model it's going to be the Olympus OM-D E-M1. As good as the GX7 is, I don't believe it's a better choice (other than price) than the Olympus. So I couldn't really bring myself to nominate it when I also knew it couldn't win. (I should point out that price is not a factor I really consider much in these year-end rankings. Prices don't tend to hold still for long, anyway, so that's like trying to put a moving target into the assessment.)

All of you probably know I shoot often with my Olympus OM-D E-M5. This year that switched to the E-M1 and the E-M5 became my backup camera in the mirrorless bag. Since the E-M5 was my choice for Best Serious Mirrorless Camera in 2012, the E-M1 is a very natural choice this year almost by default. Other than fixing the menus, Olympus really did a great job with this follow-up camera.  

Meanwhile, Sony made the big move this year in the serious mirrorless game with the full frame A7 twins. The good news is that these are state of the art sensors in seriously engineered new bodies, and that alone means they need to be considered for the award. The bad news is that we start all over with lenses. (Yes, I know you can use adapters with legacy lenses. That's not an optimal solution, in my opinion, and I rarely do that with any of my mirrorless cameras. I'll get more to the why of that statement with my upcoming Sony A7 reviews.) 

The interesting thing is that the early betting was all on the Olympus E-M1. No other new mirrorless camera generated quite as much buzz in the first nine months of the year, with the X-E2's phase detect autofocus getting a bit of buzz, too. Until the Sony A7's arrived, at which point the E-M1 buzz died considerably and the X-E2's buzz disappeared. So, to some degree, this year's award is going to determine whether the early or the late buzz was right. 

Note an interesting thing about the nominees though: m4/3, APS, and full frame. Plenty of choices to make now. Do you choose the small sensor in m4/3 and get the smaller cameras with the huge lens lineup? Or do you opt for the full frame sensor and wait for lenses? Or do you opt for the Goldilocks in the middle: APS sensor with a modestly broad range of excellent lenses? No one said buying (or award) decisions were easy! 

Still, congratulations to all the camera companies for moving the bar so far so fast. Please don't stop.

And the Winners Are…

What? It's not the end of the year yet. Plus I still have some final testing and reviews to put together to complete the picture.

The reason for announcing the nominees now is simple: it's peak buying season. A lot of you are asking for opinions about which camera to buy. I've just given you a list of three entry and three serious cameras that should be on your list to check out. There are clues in this nomination list. 

Ultimately, the real winner is you, the camera user. 

I was very early to the mirrorless realm, starting to use one regularly in my work in 2009. For me, I was looking for a "better compact camera" and found it in the early m4/3 models. Over time, things have moved considerably beyond "better compact camera." This year's four Serious camera nominees realistically have only two real drawbacks compared to a traditional DSLR: the use of an EVF and the inability to yet match a DSLR's continuous focus performance with moving objects (though that is narrowing). That first drawback can also be a plus (you can see real-time changes to white balance, depth of field, etc.), so it's really only one drawback now: continuous focus performance.

We've come a long way in four years, and as I noted, the winner is you, the camera user. I'd be happy to shoot with any of this year's nominees (and have on my many trips around the world this year). Just as with any tool, I'd have to make sure I understood each one's abilities and limitations, but I've taken some really good shots with every one of this year's nominees, and if you end up with one, you could too. 

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