Mirrorless cameras mid-2013 – a very personal round-up

NOTE: I originally posted this at August 25th, but we have a couple of recent updates regarding the new releases. So I edited some parts of this blog entry and also added the first “official” picture that we have of the upcoming Olympus E-M1.

So many new mirrorless cameras and lenses are going to emerge within the next few weeks. Some have already been presented to the public, such as the Panasonic GX7 or the ever-increasing number of Fuji X camera bodies. Some have leaked on the Internet such as the mightly Olympus E-M1 and its new 12-40/2.8 “PRO” zoom lens. And others are still an unknown quantity, such as Sony’s NEX-7 replacement and their upcoming 35mm NEX. So, it’s still too early to discuss all these camera news in depth, but of course I think we do know enough at this point to draw some conclusions as to what mirrorless camera manufacturers are going to offer within the next, say, half year. So I’ll give some of my personal and probably biased thoughts here, being a current happy There’s so much to choose, but still some big gaps are left to be covered only by the traditional Canon and Nikon DSLR systems.

Olympus 2013: The new E-P5, E-M1, 12-40/2.8 “PRO”

These three are probably the big Olympus news this year. Together with the trusty E-M5 that was launched in early 2012 and the 17/1.8 lens from late 2012, they form the base of an increasingly comprehensive high-end mirrorless system based around the Micro Four Thirds sensor. We now have the “professional” bodies E-M5 and E-M1 and the slightly downgraded, but still very capable E-P5. And we have a selection of higher-quality Olympus lenses as follows:

  • 12/2
  • 17/1.8
  • 45/1.8
  • 60/2.8 Macro
  • 75/1.8
  • 12-40/2.8 “PRO”

As for the lenses, a second “PRO” lens – the 40-150/2.8 – has now been confirmed as a 2014 release. And the new E-M1 offers sensor-based phase-detection auto focus as a first in an Olympus body. This means that all old Four Thirds lenses should now finally work with fast and reliable auto focus on the new E-M1, of course you still need the FT-MFT adapter to mount them. This is a very welcome feature for anyone owning old Four Thirds glass such as the mighty 150/2 or 35-100/2 zoom – but at this point of little interest to anyone else, as the auto focus systems of current Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras already is so good that it leaves very little – if anything at all – to be desired.

Olympus E-P5 with 17/1.8. (Photo: olympus.de)
Olympus E-P5 with 17/1.8. (Photo: olympus.de)

It seems that Olympus publishes only very few press photos showing their E-P5 with the external viewfinder mounted! Panasonic adds the viewfinder – even swiveling – inside their GX7 body. Hmm, Olympus, how long do you think you can get away with making new high-grade mirrorless cameras without built-in viewfinder….?

But anyway, here’s finally a picture of the new mighty Micro Four Thirds beauty from Olympus, the E-M1:

Olympus E-M1 with 12-40/2.8. (Photo via 43rumors.com)
Olympus E-M1 with 12-40/2.8. (Photo via 43rumors.com)

As promising as all this looks, we have one or two catches here. First will probably be the cost of the new cameras. The E-P5 comes in at a minimum of €900 (street price) without the dedicated external viewfinder, and according to Daily Camera News, the E-M1 body will be $1450 (normally that translates 1:1 into €1450). That’s a whole lot of money, especially when you think about how good and capable the “old” E-M5 already is – at this time only for €700 in some places! Apart from some firmware issues (such as the dreaded selection of small auto focus fields) and the slightly worse viewfinder, the new E-M1 does not really offer that much more over the E-M5. There are a lot of welcome detail changes, of course, but are these really worth so much money to a lot of potential buyers? Image quality is rumored to be only slightly above the E-M5, as basically all these cameras (the E-P5 included) share the same 16 MP Sony sensor, now upgraded with phase-detection auto focus, most likely an upgraded JPG engine, and (possibly) no anti aliasing filter on the E-M1.

Regarding the lenses, they are all a proven quality by now. Personally, however, I still prefer the Panasonic 20/1.7 over the Olympus 17/1.8. Let’s say these both are very good, but – in my opinion – still leave something to be desired when you think of building up a system around a €1000+ body. Really, there should be a 17/1.4 or something like this at some point, that deliveres even crisper and cleaner images than the current 17 and 20 lenses especially when stopped down a bit.

The beautiful new 12-40/2.8 also is $900. In my book, that’s quite a lot for such a lens, but it’s at least somewhat less than the initial cost of the Panasonic 12-35/2.8 lens was. As much as they want us to believe it, these lenses simply are not the same as a 24-70/2.8 for a 35mm camera. The Micro Four Thirds lenses are smaller and give very good image quality, that’s true, but still I think that prices should match capabilities more closely. There is a reason that most mirrorless manufacturers face a downward trend in sales!

Panasonic GX7 – hey, it’s the first sexy Panasonic body!

Okay, I admit, this is a very personal statement. But as a photographer, I never fancied the previous Panasonic bodies because (first) I found most of them rather ugly and (second) why buy a Panasonic body without image stabilisation when there are so many Olympus bodies available with it?

The new GX7, in my opinion, is a game changer for Panasonic. It not only adds in-body stabilisation, even though it might be a bit inferior to the amazing unit found in the Olympus E-M1, E-M5 and E-P5. But it also has that design sexiness of Panasonic’s old DMC L1 of 2006.

Panasonic DMC-GX7 with 20/1.7 II. (Photo: Panasonic.com)
Panasonic DMC-GX7 with 20/1.7 II. (Photo: panasonic.de)
Panasonic DMC-GX7. (Photo: Panasonic.com)
Panasonic DMC-GX7. (Photo: panasonic.de)

There are two exiting new lenses around the corner. The Leica-branded 43/1.2 (they call it a “42.5/1.2”, isn’t that a bit cheesy?) and a 150/2.8 telephoto prime. I assume at this point that the 150 will be a 2014 release, the 43 might probably arrive a bit earlier. When they will be available, the lineup of higher-grade Panasonic Micro Four Thirds lenses will look like this:

  • 20/1.7 II
  • 43/1.2 OIS
  • 150/2.8 OIS
  • 12-35/2.8 OIS
  • 35-100/2.8 OIS

And, of course, there are some higher quality first-generation Panasonic lenses with the old plastic barrel type but still worth a look for quality:

  • 25/1.4
  • 45/2.8 Macro OIS
  • 7-14/4

Note the somewhat weird situation that Panasonic has maneuvered themselves into, offering some lenses with OIS (image stabilisation) while others lack it. So, even though the new GX7 has in-body stabilisation, they also added it to the new 43/1.2 lens. It really does not make that much sense, as optical stabilisation tends to complicate lens design and manufacture. But anyway, the good news here is that you’ll have stabilisation at all for all lenses.

Panasonic 43/1.2. Note the OIS switch. (Photo: news.panasonic.net)
Panasonic 43/1.2. Note the OIS switch. (Photo: news.panasonic.net)
Panasonic 43/1.2. (Photo: news.panasonic.net)
Panasonic 43/1.2. (Photo: news.panasonic.net)

I really love the 20/1.7 (even considering its shortcomings) and welcome the arrival of the cosmetically much nicer, albeit technically identical 20/1.7 II. I am not that much a fan of the 25/1.4, though, realising that most people on the Internet would probably disagree with me here, but anyway, for low depth of field on Micro Four Thirds I much prefer a 45mm lens. Thus I am very interested in the upcoming 43/1.2. Pictures show that it will feature a dedicated f-stop ring, yummy! But, inevitably, there will be the next possible catch: How likely is it that this f-stop ring will work on Olympus cameras as well?

So, Panasonic’s good news are bad news for Olympus: You will get a really nice two-lens All-Panasonic high end kit for your general photography: The Panasonic GX7 with the 20/1.7 II and 43/1.2. The body is below €1000 so, when compared to the E-P5 with viewfinder or the E-M1, you can save your bucks for that upcoming 43/1.2. It’s an appealing alternative to all-Olympus equipment.

Fuji – somewhat calmer in 2013

Well, Fuji is a known quantity in mirrorless land. They have the X-Pro 1, the X-E1, and a new breed of down-specced bodies like the X-M1. Personally, I don’t care for any viewfinder-less cameras at all, so my choice here would be the X-E1. Their cheaper bodies are an interesting, bold move showing that Fuji wants to penetrate the market more deeply, but they’re not made for me (nor, probably, for most of you reading of this blog) so I won’t go into detail there. I’d much more like to see an X-E1 with sensor-based phase-detection auto focus. That sensor is already made in the X100s. I really love that digital split-image feature of the X100s! We’ll see how much time it will take them to release a system camera with that feature.

Fuji X-E1 with XF55-200mm. (Photo: fujifilm.de)
Fuji X-E1 with XF55-200mm. (Photo: fujifilm.de)

As to lenses, their 23/1.4 and 55/1.4 are still to hit the shelves. Of course, the new Zeiss “Touit” lenses are also available for Fuji, but in contrast to the Sony NEX system they are probably not needed at all here, as Fuji’s own lenses are very good and also almost cover the same specifications. Here’s a selection of what they offer (I include the two upcoming f/1.4 lenses here), leaving away their new entry level kit zoom lenses:

  • 14/2.8
  • 18/2.0
  • 23/1.4
  • 27/2.8 (“pancake”)
  • 35/1.4
  • 55/1.4
  • 60/2.4 Macro
  • 18-55/2.8-4
  • 55-200/3.5-4.8

It’s a comprehensive lineup. Only very few of these lenses do come with some real compromises in optical quality, such as the 18/2. The others are really very well! It always amazes me as to how many nice pictures are published everywhere that were taken with these Fuji cameras.

Note that Fuji, however, does have some shortcomings when you want minimum equipment size: A Fuji X-E1 with the 27/2.8 pancake will probably never be as versatile as a Panasonic GX7 or Olympus E-M5 with 20/1.7. Also, Fuji still lacks behind in speed and auto focus, even though they constantly pump out firmware updates to improve things. (Note to Olympus: Ever heard of firmware updates to improve your cameras? You really should!)

Fuji f/1.4 lenses do offer more than what Micro Four Thirds can offer, regarding low depth-of-field and overall lens quality. And as long as you don’t go cheaper than the X-E1, you’ll also get beautiful handling with dedicated f-stop and exposure time rings on lens and camera body.

So, my overall point is that Fuji has created a very nice, well thought-out system on it’s own, even though 2013 is probably a somewhat calmer year for them. (Yet still I personally stick with Micro Four Thirds! Isn’t it great that we have so many really nice camera systems to choose from?)

What about the Sony APS-C NEX system?

I am personally not involved into anything Sony-related at the moment but I do realise that they also have exiting new stuff to come. They just keep on pumping out new cameras and lenses and even realise ideas that really no one has ever seen before! In my book, the single most important event 2013 for the Sony NEX system was the market release of the Zeiss “Touit” lenses 12/2.8, 32/1.8 and 50/2.8 macro. Together with the existing Sony-Zeiss 24/1.8, these finally form the base of a high quality lens system for NEX! Now, Sony is going to release two new high-grade zoom lenses (both have already leaked on the Internet) as well, so that will give us the following choice of high quality lenses for NEX bodies:

  • Zeiss 12/2.8
  • Sony-Zeiss 24/1.8
  • Zeiss 32/1.8
  • Zeiss 50/2.8 Macro
  • Sony-Zeiss 16-70/4
  • Sony G 18-105/4

So, when you want a serious Sony NEX system, my strong advice at the moment is to go for these Zeiss lenses:

Zeiss Touit 32/1.8. (Photo: Carl Zeiss)
Zeiss Touit 32/1.8. (Photo: Carl Zeiss)

While I personally am more a fixed focal length guy, I find the two zoom lenses very interesting: Especially the 16-70/4 is going to offer a lot more over the “high quality” Micro Four Thirds zooms, the already existing Panasonic 12-35/2.8 and the brand-new Olympus 12-40/2.8. The Sony will go all the way to 105mm in 35mm terms where the Panny stops at 70mm and the Oly at 80mm. And f/4 on APS-C gives you the same creative possibilities than f/2.8 on the Micro Four Thirds.

The next high-grade NEX body should also be just around the corner, there are rumors of a beefed-up NEX-7 replacement  with in-body image stabilisation (taken from their partner Olympus’ E-M5 … yee-ha!). Now there’s even rumor of a sensor-based Autofocus unit such as in the mighty classic Contax AX from the 1990s.

And finally…. Sony NEX 35mm format!

Although no images or definite specifications have been published yet, it’s clear at this point that Sony will launch a 35mm NEX body probably as early as September 10th, 2013. Rumors are that it will come with a choice of three Zeiss-designed lenses and a fourth Sony G lens, the G being their designation for high-grade stuff. I won’t see this as competition to Micro Four Thirds or even Sony’s own current APS-C NEX system, as the 35mm stuff will be much more expensive and thus appeal to a different crowd. But it’s fascinating and it will finally fulfill that old dream of a state-of-the-art, extremely capable and compact 35mm camera system.

What to buy: Do I already have some suggestions at this moment?

Yes. It’s probably very early, but anyway: Already have an Olympus E-M5 and don’t own old Four Thirds glass? Keep it, skip the new bodies for now until they are bargained. If you are looking for a higher-grade standard zoom, watch the 12-40/2.8 closely. If you don’t own any Four Thirds glass, you could be interested in getting a (used) 50-200/2.8-3.5, but really, I’d rather wait if they are going to announce that rumored native new Micro Four Thirds 40-200/4 instead. My personal bet is that this one will come.

Don’t have any up-to-date Micro Four Thirds stuff but want to keep or enter this system? Have a close look at the GX7, 20/1.7 II, and regarding a portrait lens, either check out the cheap but good Olympus 45/1.8 or wait for that new Leica-branded 43/1.2. You can also go all-Olympus and buy a discounted E-M5, as image quality is on par with the GX7 – see this first comparison done by Spanish DSLR Magazine while the in-body stabilisation of the E-M5 is more sophisticated. Even then, I’d suggest the Panasonic 20/1.7 II (or even the first generation 20/1.7, if you can find a good deal) over the Olympus 17/1.8, even though they are very similar in quality.

Not sure if Micro Four Thirds is for you? Check not only out Fuji, but also Sony for what’s coming up next. They have a nice Zeiss lens lineup by now, the zooms are somewhat bigger but much more versatile than what Olympus and Panasonic offer so far, and the next high end NEX bodies probably will be very very nice.

Okay, that’s my current round-up for now. It’s very likely that we will know much more within the next 4 weeks. So you’ll have to watch 43rumors.com and mirrorlessrumors.com closely :)

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