When beginners ask me “Which mirrorless camera should I buy?”, I usually recommend the Sony NEX cameras. They have great sensors, take good photographs and have convenient video. Why not Olympus? After all, that is the camera I use the most. I like the Olympus Pens because of their prime (non-zooming) lenses. These lenses require more expertise, something which a beginner, of course, does not have. I’m also picky about my color and prefer the Olympus color but for most people, the Sony will do just fine.
These are the cameras I recommend right now. It is a straight forward guide to mirrorless cameras you should consider.
The Sony NEX-5 was my first mirrorless system camera. I bought it at Precision Camera in Austin back in the Autumn of 2010. I wanted a small camera that makes great photographs and captures good video so that it would be convenient for family vacations — I got it just before my trip to Disneyland.
When the first Sony NEX-3 and NEX-5 were released in mid-2010, Olympus and Panasonic were already on their second generation mirrorless cameras. As I explain in In Search of an EVIL Camera, I considered several models including the Olympus. I ended up getting the Sony and as I report in my first user report, I got great results.
What I didn’t expect was how much fun these smaller cameras were. Sure my Canon 7D is fast and powerful but it’s also big and heavy. I carried the 7D around with several lenses without complaint not knowing any better.
The NEX-5 gave me a new sense of freedom — a burden lifted. My photography became more freeform and creative. I blogged extensively about my experience right after I got the NEX-5. I started out carrying both the 7D and the NEX-5. Interestingly, as I browse through my archives, I’ve noticed that I used the DSLR less and less. Shifting my usage to the Sony mirrorless more and more.
I brought the Sony NEX-5 and the Canon 7D with me to Southern California. I shot with the NEX-5 all day at Disneyland. At night, when the kids were asleep, I used my 7D to take HDRs on tripod. This worked well. The camera did not drag me down and I got nice shots. The NEX worked particularly well at Disney’s Aladdin show.
But things weren’t perfect. First, as I feared, the video tended to focus on a contrasty background and not the foreground subject. This made shooting home movies a disappointment. This was an issue with the NEX-5, which has luckily been corrected in later NEX models. Then I noticed the color. It looked great for the Aladdin show and the street photographs I took in downtown Austin. However, I hated the color of my family snapshots. The skin tone of my kids looked yellowish-green. Keep in mind though, that I’m probably picker than the average photographer. I shoot in RAW so I can easily fix the color, right? Well yes, to a point. Perhaps my post-processing skills need more work, but it took a lot of effort to get decent colors. And even working the image for a while, I never ended up getting the colors that I truly liked. Plus, doing extensive color correction on hundred of photos wasn’t exactly exciting.
The NEX also has a cumbersome user interface. It is attractive and beginner focused but tends to be frustrating for experienced users. While the later models have improved it somewhat by adding more physical controls, anomalies remain. I figured out a nice work around between using RAW and the Auto HDR function which only works in JPEG. Over time, I hope Sony makes the interface even better.
I continued to use the NEX-5 for my downtown photowalks. Taking pictures of downtown lights are more artistic. Unlike skin tones, the color just has to look good but not accurate — it’s all up to artistic interpretation.
In the summer of 2011, I took the NEX-5 and 7D to New York and Philadelphia. Most of my casual snapshots and street photography was done on the NEX. I brought the 7D just for doing tripod based HDR photography. While color may be an issue, I especially liked the black and white NEX conversions, especially when I used the Topaz B&W Effects plugin. After my East Coast trip and after an extensive 10 months of use, I wrote up a detailed review on the NEX-5. I also tested out the greatly improved NEX-5n, it addresses many of the issues I had with the original NEX.
I strongly considered buying the NEX-5n but on a whim, I bought an inexpensive Olympus E-PL1. My experience with the Olympus shifted by equipment direction, which you can read about on my Olympus Resource Page. But I still continued to use the NEX-5 and just added the Olympus E-PL1 to the mix. What really dropped off in usage was my Canon 7D. I only used my DSLR in situations where I was shooting action, such as sports or when I needed to use my external flash.
On my once in a lifetime trip to India and Singapore, I made the momentous decision not to bring my Canon 7D at all. I wanted to stay light but maximize my photo taking options. I ended up bringing 2 Olympus E-PL1s and the Sony NEX-5. On the Olympus, I attached a 20mm f1.7 and a 45mm f1.8. I used the Sony to cover my wide-angle with the 16mm f2.8 and the Sony wide-angle adapter. Accounting for the crop factor this gave me lenses with a 18mm, 24mm, 40mm and 90mm focal length spread over 3 camera bodies. I also didn’t have to remove any lenses, which is wonderful in a dusty environment.
All of these lenses plus the bodies weighed less than a single Canon 7D with the Sigma 10-20mm lens. Now you know why I’m so excited about these mirrorless cameras. They have wonderful image quality, flexibility and fun. They are ideal for travel but great to have when you want to take a snap of the family at the restaurant. While I use the Sony NEX less than before,I sill use it for video. It is a wonderful camera system, especially the newer generations. Keep in mind that the NEX-5 that I bought was the original model. Sony has released several generations of cameras that have further improved the line.
As I said earlier, the NEX is what I recommend for novices that just want to take great pictures and record videos. Sony’s Intelligent Auto is remarkably good. I would say that unless you are an accomplished photographer, the computer inside the NEX will do a better job. I let my wife use the NEX-5 on a trip to Taiwan and she made fantastic photographs just on Intelligent Auto and you can shoot in RAW in Intelligent Auto, too.
The biggest weakness with the NEX, the small selection lenses especially high-quality ones. But this is changing as Sony releases more and better lenses. Other lens companies such as Sigma and Zeiss also have NEX compatible lenses. The NEX platform is strong and I even heard Sony does better on NEX lines than their Alpha DSLR line.
In 2011, Sony expanded the NEX line with more advanced and higher-speced NEX 7. While I have not used the NEX-7, for beginners I would suggest the more entry-level models. The 24MP sensor can create high-resolution photographs but is not as good in lower light situations. As of 2012, The NEX-F3, NEX-5R and NEX-6 all share the same 16MP sensor and are the more versatile choice including low-light indoor and night photography.
For advanced photographers, especially for landscapes, the NEX-7 and its higher resolution sensor could be a benefit. Any type of photography where you can shoot either in good light or on a tripod will particularly benefit from this high-resolution sensor.
Just because I recommend the NEX for beginners, it doesn’t mean that serious amateurs and professional can’t benefit from this camera. While the selection of native Sony E-mount NEX lenses are limited, you can use adapters to attach almost any other brand. There are adapters for old lens, Canon and Nikon SLR lens and even the high-quality Leica M lenses.
For people who own Sony Alpha DSLRs, there is a Sony adapter that can even auto-focus Alpha lens on the NEX. The Alpha lenses plus the adapter will add bulk to the small NEX cameras but it can be done.