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Best Compact System Camera for Beginners

25 Nov Posted by Matt in Guides, Reviews |
Best Compact System Camera for Beginners

The other week we looked at the Best Budget Digital SLR Camera for Beginners, but for those looking to take their compact photography up to the next level there is another option – a compact system camera.

So What is a Compact System Camera?

Compact system cameras are relatively new on the scene; they’re more powerful and creative than a typical compact camera whilst being considerably smaller than a digital SLR. Unlike traditional bridge cameras, compact system cameras have interchangeable lenses, making them true digital SLR competitors.

Digital SLR (single lens reflex) cameras rely on a flipping mirror to direct light coming into the lens to either the viewfinder or the image sensor. Whilst this is a tried and tested technology, the flipping mirror means that DSLR cameras are forced to be reasonably bulky. Compact system cameras do away with this flipping mirror mechanism, which enables them to be much smaller.

Panasonic LUMIX GF1 Relative Size

Panasonic LUMIX GF1 (centre) is smaller than a DSLR, but bigger than a compact

The Contenders

We’ve rounded up a selection of the most popular compact system cameras available at the moment, the Olympus PEN E-PL1, the Panasonic GF1, the Sony NEX-5 and the Samsung NX10. All of these can be found with a standard kit lens for around £500 or less, and all offer HD Movie Mode.

Whilst Canon and Nikon dominate the digital SLR market, neither manufacturer currently have a compact system offering (though we can safely assume that both will enter the market before too long), hence their absence from this test.

Here’s a quick look at the key specs of each:

Olympus-E-PL1 Panasonic-GF1 Samsung-NX10 Sony-NEX5
Sensor 12.3Mp / Live MOS 12.1Mp / Live MOS 14.6Mp / CMOS 14.2Mp / CMOS
Sensor Size Four Thirds Four Thirds APS-C APS-C
Lens 14-42mm 14-45mm 18-55mm 18-55mm
Lens Mount Micro Four Thirds Micro Four Thirds Samsung NX Sony E Mount
Stabilisation Yes, sensor-based Yes, lens-based Yes, lens-based Lens-based
(not included)
Live View
HD Movies
Screen 2.7″ 3.0″ 3.0″ 3.0″
Flash Yes, built in Yes, built in Yes, pop-up External, included
Media SD/SDHC SD/SDHC SD/SDHC Memory Stick Pro
& SD/SDHC
Dust Reduction
Price £375 

 

£400 

 

£400 

 

£500 

 

All of these cameras offer a significant performance upgrade over nearly all compact cameras, and with most being targeted at those making just that move they should be user-friendly enough to have beginners taking great shots in no time.

Olympus PEN E-PL1

Olympus E-PL1The Olympus PEN E-PL1 grabbed attention when it was first released earlier this year, partly because it was the smallest compact system camera at the time, but mostly because the cool retro styling continued the Olympus PEN trend of being so undeniably sexy. The E-PL1 is the most affordable entry-level model in the PEN range, coming in a shade under £400.

The E-PL1 is the first Olympus compact system camera to feature a built-in flash, a pop-up affair that is raised using a catch. There’s a hotshoe too if you want to add a more substantial flash gun, or for that matter an optional electronic viewfinder.

Pros
  • Micro Four Thirds lens mount is the most widely used
  • Built-in Flash
  • In camera Live Guide helps beginners get the most from the camera
  • Sensor-based image stabilisation
  • Solid build quality
Cons
  • Contrast based Autofocus (AF) is too slow to work well for moving subjects
  • Rear LCD screen is smaller and lower resolution than the competition
  • No Viewfinder (one can be optionally added using the hotshoe)
  • Lacks physical dials
System Availability and Cost

Being a new format, and with Nikon and Canon both being out of it, accessories for all compact system cameras are more limited than for digital SLRs. The Olympus E-PL1 uses the Micro Four Thirds mount for lenses, the only compact system mount used by more than one manufacturer, and so there are a good few lenses around now. Olympus also sell the MMF-2 Micro Four Thirds adapter, which allows you to use standard Four Thirds lenses with PEN cameras, most of which will work with Autofocus.

Lenses for the Micro Four Thirds system aren’t cheap, but they tend to be of a good quality. A small 20mm ‘pancake lens’ is a popular addition to the kit lens, giving better low-light performance and reducing the overall bulk of the camera considerably. The Panasonic LUMIX G 20mm/F1.7 Pancake Lens is a popular Micro Four Thirds choice, but costs a whopping £300.

Verdict

The Olympus E-PL1 is a chic little number, but it’s definitely not a case of style over substance. The Live Guide mode is a great touch aimed at getting beginners who have moved from using a traditional compact camera to make the most out of the extra capabilities this camera offers. The Four Thirds sensor may not be as large as the APS-C ones on the Samsung and Sony, but when it comes to the crunch the Olympus delivers on image quality.

Rating Star YellowRating Star YellowRating Star YellowRating Star YellowRating Star Yellow

 

Panasonic LUMIX GF1

Panasonic LUMIX GF1Having recently been awarded T3′s Camera of the Year, the very slimline Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GF1 promises to be a great little camera. The GF1 isn’t the most highly-spec’d model in the LUMIX G Micro System range, but it is the smallest. The GF1 is about the same size as the Olympus and uses a very similar 12Mp Four Thirds size sensor, though the styling is more conventional. At a touch over £400 it’s about the same price as the Olympus too.

Pros
  • Micro Four Thirds lens mount is the most widely used
  • Built-in Flash
  • Excellent quality in RAW mode
  • Very compact size
  • Fast Autofocus (AF)
Cons
  • No Viewfinder
  • No sensor-based Image Stabilisation
  • Built-in Flash is quite poor
  • High ISO performance not the best in class
System Availability and Cost

Panasonic shares the same Micro Four Thirds lens system as Olympus, so on this front the GF1 is on a par with the Olympus E-PL1. Like the Olympus, Panasonic manufacture an adapter (the DMW-MA1 Micro Four Thirds adapter) to allow Four Thirds lenses to be used, again mostly with autofocus (although some lenses won’t allow it).

Again lenses aren’t cheap, but they tend to be of a good quality. The small 20mm ‘pancake lens’ mentioned above is a popular addition here too, giving better low-light performance and making the GF1 just about pocketable. The Panasonic LUMIX G 20mm/F1.7 Pancake Lens is a popular Micro Four Thirds choice, but the price is steep at £300.

Verdict

The Panasonic GF1 is a great little camera that offers great image quality and a reasonable feature set, wrapped up in compact yet stylish package. The Four Thirds image sensor does show some noise issues at high ISOs, and the lack of built-in Image Stabilisation puts it on the back-foot when compared to its’ Olympus cousin when it comes to buying additional lenses.

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Samsung NX10

Samsung NX10Samsung aren’t an established high-end camera manufacturer (their previous digital SLRs have largely been re-branded Pentax models), though they are the biggest general electronics manufacturer in the world. The Samsung NX10 is the company’s first compact system camera, and adopts a more traditional DSLR-esque design than the other models on test here. One particularly nice touch among the NX10′s feature set is the use of a high resolution AMOLED screen – this is a type of screen that doesn’t need a backlight, meaning a longer battery life. Coupled with a built-in electronic viewfinder that pops into life when your eye gets close, the NX10 shows signs of being a well thought out serious contender.

Pros
  • Built-in Electronic Viewfinder
  • APS-C sensor is larger than Four Thirds sensors found in the Panasonic and Olympus
  • Built-in Flash
  • Innovative high resolution AMOLED screen
Cons
  • Restrictive Samsung NX lens mount offers very limited lens choice
  • RAW files are very large
  • Physically bulkier than the other models on test
  • Autofocus (AF) can be variable, but is usually too slow for fast moving subjects
  • Poor High ISO performance
System Availability and Cost

One of the main drawbacks to entering a new system is that the range of accessories and lenses can be very limited, and that’s exactly the case for the Samsung NX10. Currently (as well as the 18-55mm kit lens) there is a 30mm prime lens and 50-200mm telephoto lens available, though we’re promised more are in the pipeline. Not all offer Image Stabilisation, but on the plus side they tend to be significantly cheaper than equivalent Micro Four Thirds lenses.

The optional Samsung ED-MA9NXK K-Mount adapter allows you to use Samsung GX mount and Pentax K mount lenses with the NX10, but sadly in doing so you’ll be limited to manual focus.

Verdict

The Samsung NX10 offers something over the Olympus and Panasonic in having a larger APS-C sized image sensor, though in reality the quality of the images produced doesn’t seem to have benefited. The comparatively bulky body is a bit of a let-down here (although it’s on a par with some other compact system cameras, like the Panasonic G2), with the restrictive Samsung lens system and poor high ISO noise counting against it too.

The NX10 will be a welcome upgrade for many over a standard point and shoot compact, but at the moment Samsung can’t rival the more established manufacturers in terms of image quality and refinement.

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Sony NEX-5

Sony NEX-5The Sony NEX-5 is the most expensive camera on test here, but in return it offers a very strong feature-set in the smallest compact system camera body to date. Despite its mini size Sony have managed to squeeze a DSLR-sized 14Mp APS-C image sensor in, which should help low-light photography. This is good news, not least because the NEX-5 isn’t the most ‘flash friendly’ camera in the world – a flash is included, but it’s an external job that attaches to the NEX-5 using a proprietary connector which is far more faff to connect than is sensible.

Pros
  • Smallest compact system body available
  • APS-C sized Image Sensor
  • Full HD Movie recording
  • Great image quality
  • Clever Hand-Held Twilight Mode improves low-light noise levels
  • High resolution tilting LCD screen
Cons
  • Sony E Mount lens system has limited choice
  • No Viewfinder (one can be optionally added using the hotshoe)
  • High ISOs not used in iAuto mode
  • Flash is unnecessarily fiddly to attach
System Availability and Cost

The NEX-5 uses the new Sony E mount system, which is different to the a mount used by their Alpha series of digital SLRs. You can use an adaptor to make a mount lenses (and legacy Konica-Minolta lenses) fit, but you’ll be limited to manual focus if you do. Going the other way will be harder too, so if you invest in some lenses for your NEX-5 you probably won’t be able to use them on a digital SLR if you upgrade.

Like the Samsung system, the Sony E mount range is limited to a handful of lenses and not all offer image stabilisation, though we imagine more will be made available with time. On the plus side, the lenses that are available tend to be cheaper than their Micro Four Thirds equivalents, with the Sony SEL16F28 16mm NEX Series Lens costing a shade under £200.

Verdict

The Sony NEX-5 has a lot going for it; it’s the smallest camera on test here and the image quality it produces is excellent. It’s also the only camera here to have a tilting LCD screen, a feature that compliments the Full HD (well, 1080i) recordings to cement the Sony as the most capable camera here for video. Background Defocus Control makes creating a soft depth of field effect easy, but that’s as far as any in-camera guidance goes unfortunately.

There’s a lot to like about the Sony NEX-5, though the limited range of lenses, lack of sensor-based image stabilisation and disastrously fiddly flash count against it. You could just leave the flash attached, but it does add a reasonable amount of extra bulk to the otherwise sleek package. The included 18-55mm lens, whilst a decent performer, is a touch on the bulky side too.

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Portrait Breaker

Conclusion

All of the cameras here offer more than you could ever hope for from your typical point and shoot compact, and all have their own strengths and weaknesses. We love the size and image quality of the Sony, and for squeezing an APS-C sensor into the smallest body here they should be commended. The Panasonic is a great performer too, and certainly we would have no trouble recommending it, but in our quest to find the Best Compact System Camera for Beginners it’s pipped to the post by the Olympus PEN E-PL1.

The Olympus E-PL1 impressed us on a number of counts, but the sensor-based image stabilisation, established range of quality Micro Four Thirds lenses (along with greater adapter facilitated compatibility with Four Thirds lenses), and the helpful Live Guide were the key factors in determining our winner – the cool retro styling was just the icing on the cake.

Olympus EPL1 Winner

This was a very close group test, with all the cameras here offering a similar feature-set and sharing most of the same disadvantages. If you don’t think a compact system camera is right for you, then you might want to look at our Best Budget Digital SLR Camera for Beginners group test.

Compact system cameras are likely to continue to grow their market share though, so if the limited range of lenses and accessories, or the fear of adopting the Betamax of digital cameras, is hanging over you then this should offer some comfort. Only last week Photography Bay reported that Olympus have gone on record saying that “The entry level digital SLR class can be completely replaced by the PEN system in terms of performance”, so we can safely assume the Micro Four Thirds lens system isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

 

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