Just like energy efficient cars, the amount of innovation in the market for the so called mirrorless or ILC (interchangeable lense) cameras is amazing. These are small cameras that can at their best be super portable and have the image quality and most importantly the low light performance of a dSLR. Here’s the list of terrific choices. The ideal is a camera that can go from F/1.4 with low noise at ISO 1600 upto a 10x zoom with high quality. No one quite does it but folks are getting close.
Here are the contenders and you can see the imager sizes are really the key. The bigger the images typically, the better the low light performance. You can see the traditional compact cameras with their 1/2.7″ sizes imagers are the problem while APS-C sized now have ISO 1600 performance which is truly incredible. Here are the choices stack ranked roughly by someone who wants all the image quality of a dSLR in a compact body.
Fuji X1 Pro. This won Best of CES 2012 with a 16MP camera and super fast fix focus lenses. (As an aside Simple.TV seems like a better solution than the HD HomeRun Prime hack but simpler if you can get over-the-air HDTV).
Sony NEX-5 and NEX-7. These cameras have really improved ergonomicallly from the first NEX-3s. The NEX-7 is the prosumer version and has three dials. It has a very large sensor and noise at ISO 800 which is pretty amazing.
Canon G1 X. Actually this one isn’t interchangeable but is simply an all-in-one with a big imager in a compact camera. I say just but it is nearly as big as an APS-C sized sensor. It is 14 MP, so it has the same pixel sizes as the Canon Rebels! And it can even output 14-bit RAW (so lots of color depth). The main limitation of course is you can’t swap the lense, but at 28-112mm equvalent at F/2.8-5.8 you might not have to. it is also optically stabilized to four stops and has a built in 3-stop neutral density filter. Big disappointments are it can only shoot 0.7fps with autofocus, so don’t expect to take sport photography with it. It has decent 1080p HD video with autofocus, but it doesn’t have an external mic jack. It weighs a little over a pound at 534g with battery. And of course for us old fashioned folks, it has a optical viewfinder still!
Nikon V1 and J1. This is a much smaller sensor than micro 4/3 or the DX size, but the V1 which is more expensive is 24MP which is amazing. Noise is higher though so shoots through ISO 400 and the lense collection is small. It uses their advanced autofocus so does both contrast and phase detect and can shoot up to 60 fps! Wow. This is really intended for enthusiast but more for point-and-shooter graduating up a level.
Panasonic GX1. This is a micro 4/3 camera, so the sensor is about the same, but the lense can be swapped. It’s kit lense is 12-42mm. They have solved many of their noise and focus problems so you can shoot up to ISO 800 now at 16MP. It is expensive at $900 incuding the lense.