Compact mirrorless digital cameras compared: Olympus E-PL1 vs Panasonic GF-2 vs Sony NEX5

Written by Gary on November 11th, 2010

Time to have a brief interlude from my European holiday posts, and look at some potential Christmas presents 🙂

Most of us want a compact digital camera which gives dSLR level of image quality, ability to blur backgrounds, and use different lenses as needed – this is where the compact styles of the new mirror-less digital cameras come in.

At present, I would consider the compacts of the Micro Four Thirds range as well as the Sony NEX 5 – let’s look at their relative sizes:

  • Sony NEX-5      117 x 59 x 38mm 287g w. battery plus 3x zoom 62x60mm at its most compact, and weighs 194g, uses 49mm filters
  • Panasonic GF-2 113 x 68 x 33mm 265g w/o battery plus Pan. 14-42mm 3x zoom 64x61mm, and weighs 165g, uses 52mm filters
  • Olympus E-PL1  115 x 72 x 42mm plus Olympus 3x zoom 62x43mm collapsed, and Mark II version weighs 112g, uses 40.5mm filters

Each of these cameras have had their user interfaces simplified to allow easier use by those used to point and shoot cameras, and thus will be a compromise for those wishing advanced photographic functionality as seen in the larger models such as the Panasonic GH-2, or dSLRs.

The Micro Four Thirds cameras have the big advantage that there are two big manufacturers producing a range of innovative cameras and lenses, and were the first on the scene so there is already a wide range of options, while their functionality, in particular, the AF speed of the Panasonic cameras is rapidly improving.

For instance, you have a choice of buying one of 6 dedicated zoom lens starting at the “28mm”  angle of view for the Micro Four Thirds:

  • Panasonic 14-45mm – older, heavier, slightly larger 3x zoom with optical IS
  • Panasonic 14-42mm – the current, budget 3x zoom with optical IS
  • Olympus 14-42mm – a budget, very compact and light, collapsible zoom but no IS as Olympus includes this in the camera
  • Olympus 14-42mm Mark II – coming in 2011; even lighter (112g) while having faster and quieter AF than the mark I lens.
  • Panasonic 14-140mm – a large, heavy lens but covers 10x zoom with HD video optimisation and optical IS – a unique lens! – this was my number one lens for daytime use on my recent Europe trip.
  • Olympus 14-150mm – a large, lens which covers just over 10x zoom with silent AF for video but no optical IS

As well as 3 pancake lenses when you wish to go super compact:

  • Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 – a must have lens for low light and is very sharp
  • Panasonic 14mm f/2.5 – their latest pancake offering 28mm angle of view unfortunately image quality has been sacrificed
  • Olympus 17mm f/2.8 – a budget pancake useful for general street photography offering the classic street photographers’ angle of view of 34mm
  • personally, I would prefer to have a 10mm or 12mm pancake rather than a 14mm or 17mm, so hopefully they will bring one out soon.

Then you have a range of other dedicated lenses for Micro Four Thirds – see here, including macro lens, fisheye lens, 7-14mm ultra wide angle zoom lens, a 9-18mm lens perfect for travel and landscapes, and a nice super telephoto zoom (100-300mm) which gives an incredible, hand holdable telephoto reach of a 600mm lens.

The main advantage of the Sony NEX-5 is that, even though it has a larger sensor with marginally better image quality from the sensor at present, it is relatively cheap and small (excluding the larger lenses) while including a tilting LCD, 5-7fps burst rate, HDR, and sweep panorama modes, but it has many problems of its own which may well outweigh these advantages.

So lets start with the problems that may be a show stopper for you with the Sony NEX-5:

  • very limited range of autofocus lenses which are designed for it – currently only 3 lenses – 16mm f/2.8 pancake, 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS and 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 IS, the later two dwarfing the camera and impacting the ergonomics of holding the kit.
  • at f/2.8, the pancake is going to have very limited ability to blur backgrounds, unlike the Micro Four Thirds 20mm f/1.7 which not only allows a LOT more light in, but allows a much better chance of blurring backgrounds, and if used on an Olympus camera, you also get image stabilisation.
  • very limited ability to use Sony A-mount lens is limited by very slow AF, if AF is possible at all.
  • no electronic flash hotshoe – you cannot use your existing flashes, but must buy a proprietary Sony flash designed only for this camera which is also difficult to screw on – now that is a crazy design
  • very limited video modes – my favorite video mode is 720p but the NEX-5 does not support any 720 mode – you get HD at 1080 or resort to tiny VGA 640×480 video. The cheaper NEX-3 does have 720p but no 1080i video.
  • very limited exposure compensation – only +/- 2EV compared to the usual +/- 3EV, but even worse, no exposure compensation available in the iAuto mode!
  • perhaps the worst menu design of the models listed here
  • no electronic viewfinder (EVF) option to allow placing camera at eye level to minimise camera shake, better viewing in sunlight, and more discrete use in situations where a bright LCD screen may be distracting to others.
  • high ISO is not available in iAuto mode – maximum is ISO 1600.
  • iAuto tends to over-expose and worse, you cannot correct this
  • poor battery life
  • poor shot-to-shot times if you preview shots
  • live histogram unavailable when you need it most

The advantages of the Panasonic GF-2:

  • Micro Four Thirds standard and compatibility
  • large range of dedicated AF lenses and many of the Four Thirds lenses work well in AF
  • EVF capable – the ability to attach one of the better EVFs although not as good as the optional Olympus EVF.
  • touch screen interface makes use much easier and allows one to easily select a subject to AF on
  • the fastest AF available in this genre of cameras
  • the best video capabilities in this genre of cameras (although not as good as the larger Panasonic GH-1 and GH-2)
  • built-in flash (albeit only GN 6m and there is unfortunately 2nd curtain sync, and worse, no flash exposure compensation – you will need an external flash for this – but at least a hotshoe is provided, unlike the Sony solution)
  • built-in stereo microphones for video
  • full support for Panasonic’s 3D video lens
  • slimmer with pancake lens attached than the Sony with pancake and thus more pocketable (in a jacket pocket)
  • Lumix 14-45mm 3x zoom lens sharper across the whole image wide open than the Sony equivalent.
  • Lumix 20mm f/1.7 is as sharp in the corners as the Sony 16mm f/2.8 wide open, even though it is f/1.7, and is considerably sharper at f/2.8 than the Sony.
  • Unfortunately you cannot buy the GF-2 bundled with either of these preferred lenses – you will have to purchase these separately at a higher price, or better still via the internet.

The advantages of the Olympus E-PL1:

  • Micro Four Thirds standard and compatibility
  • large range of dedicated AF lenses and many of the Four Thirds lenses work well in AF
  • built-in image stabiliser which works on all lenses including legacy lenses
  • built-in flash (GN 12m) which is pop up bounce-capable, and hot shoe for external flashes
  • the best flash control of these models
  • EVF option – one of the best EVF’s available – also works on the higher end model, the Olympus E-P2
  • Art filters for special effects

Conclusion:

  • if money was not an issue, the Panasonic GF-2 with 20mm f/1.7 lens, a 3x zoom lens (the Lumix 14-45mm lens is a lot sharper than the newer budget 14-42mm lens, but a little heavier and larger, and appears to be sharper across the whole image wide open than the Sony 18-55mm lens)  and an external flash such as the Olympus FL-36 (buy it 2nd hand from Ebay) would make a great compact kit and allow nice bounced flash at parties, etc for flattering portraits, as well as providing the fastest AF and best video in the slimmest kit.
  • if you would prefer more manual controls instead of using the LCD touch screen to change settings, then consider the Panasonic GF-1 or the Olympus E-P2.
  • cheapest price goes to the Sony, but I think there are too many issues with this camera and buying into it at this stage seems a false economy – I would rather go with the Olympus E-PL1 unless there was a specific Sony feature I had to have – and currently there is no such feature that would entice me.
  • if your prime aim is to use electronic flash or legacy lenses, then the Olympus E-PL1 is the way to go, and hand held in low light, the image stabilisation plus f/1.7 of the 20mm lens will easily beat the Sony with its f/2.8 pancake lens for stationary subjects.

Post-script:

 

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