Better than Point and Shoot, Cheaper than DSLR: The Mirrorless Digital Camera

By Theano Nikitas, dealnews contributor

A picture is worth a thousand words. But is a digital camera worth $1,000? For those on a budget, but who are serious about photography, we've found that the rather misunderstood mirrorless digital camera is picture-perfect.

A Camera by Any Other Name
The mirrorless digital camera goes by many different names: Compact Interchangeable Lens Camera (CILC), Compact System Camera (CSC), Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera (MILC), and — for Olympus and Panasonic only — Micro Four Thirds cameras.

No matter what you call it, this camera is a step up from a point-and-shoot machine. If you've been resistant to the bulk or expense of a traditional digital SLR, a new breed of Compact Interchangeable Lens Cameras (CILCs) may be just what you're looking for. These cameras are compact in size yet offer many of the same benefits of DSLRs such as interchangeable lenses, and a full feature set. Plus, CLICs feature both manual and automatic settings, making them ideal for shutterbugs who want to expand their photographic skills.

The CILC's Place in the Spectrum of Camera Options
CILCs are generally faster than point-and-shoot models, and you're likely to get better image quality, too, due to these camera's larger internal sensors.

On the other hand, these cameras don't offer the same viewing options and speedy performance of DSLRs. In order to make the cameras and lenses smaller, Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras (MILCs) do not have a mirror box, which traditionally sits behind the lens and reflects images up into the viewfinder. That means that you either have to view and compose your photograph using just an LCD screen or an EVF (electronic viewfinder), and if you want an EVF, you may have to purchase it separately. Without the mirror box, MILCs' autofocus and shooting speeds aren't as fast as DSLRs, either. You may also have to purchase a separate flash as an add-on to your MICL, as most of the earlier models do not have one built in.

Still, these MILCs, with their interchangeable lenses and advanced feature sets offer versatility you simply won't find with other compact cameras. On the next page, we've gathered a few models that we've seen discounted, so you can consider the cost of going mirrorless.

Front page photo credit:
Top page photo credit: Dallas Arts Review

Deal-Friendly Mirrorless Digital Cameras
Please note: All cameras listed include at least one lens.

Sony Alpha NEX-5 14MP Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Digital Camera
Current Low Price: $472 with free shipping via Amazon
Best We've Seen: $399.99 with free shipping from Beach Camera via eBay last week (since expired)

One of Sony's first two MILCs (released alongside the less expensive NEX-3), this 14.2MP camera is both compact and sturdy. In addition to the standard manual and automatic exposure controls, the Sony NEX-5 offers a host of special features including Smile Shutter, which automatically triggers the shutter when your subject smiles (and can be set for slight, normal or big smiles). Sony's Sweep Panorama feature is also intuitive — hold down the shutter button and pan across a landscape while the camera automatically stitches the images together into a panoramic scene. Videographers will appreciate the Sony NEX-5's full 1080p HD video captures, and the camera's ability to shoot in both JPEG and RAW. Featuring a 3" LCD that can be tilted (though not as far as the Panasonic's G2) makes for easier photo capturing, but you'll have to shell out some extra dollars for a viewfinder. And while this camera comes with a tiny, detachable flash, there's only one accessory port, so you'll have to choose between setting up the flash or the viewfinder.

Pros: Compact, advanced and special features, full 1080p HD video, bundled flash
Cons: Viewfinder costs extra (about $200), menus are complicated

Samsung NX10 15MP Interchangeable Lens Digital Camera
Current Low Price: $579.95 with free shipping via Amazon
Best We've Seen: $399 with free shipping from Adorama in April

Samsung announced its entry into the compact interchangeable lens camera market with the 14.6MP NX10. Styled like a digital SLR, the NX10 offers a full complement of automatic, manual, and semi-manual exposure controls, along with other features that are similar to those found on entry-level DSLRs and other compact system/ILC cameras. Unlike some of its competition, the NX10 is equipped with a built-in electronic viewfinder and an on-board flash. More importantly, perhaps, the NX10 (like the Sony NEX-3 and NEX-5) uses a larger sized sensor—like those used in DSLRs thereby offering better image quality and lower image noise. The NX10 also shoots in 720p HD video.

The NX10 is one of the larger cameras in this category and with the bulk of a long lens like the 50-200mm, you lose some of the benefits of a smaller camera body. The camera's 3" AMOLED (Active Matrix Organic Light Emitting Diode) LCD is quite nice and works very well under bright and low light conditions. Beware that under low light, the green AF illuminator is extremely bright (and may spook party guests when you're shooting) but is necessary for a good autofocus.

Pros: Most similar to a DSLR in look and feel, large APS-C sized sensor, good AF speed
Cons: larger than most cameras in its category, long lens, bright AF illuminator

Olympus PEN E-P2 12MP Digital Micro Four Thirds Camera
Current Low Price: $469 with free shipping from Cameta Camera via eBay
Best We've Seen: $469 with free shipping from Cameta Camera via eBay

A recent, but aggressive entry into the CLIC market, the Olympus 12.3MP E-P2 is Olympus' first foray into the category. Styled after one of the company's retro film "PEN" cameras, the E-P2's design is classic. While there's no built-in viewfinder or flash, the accessory port accepts an optional electronic viewfinder, flash, or stereo microphone. In addition to the standard manual, semi-manual, and automatic modes, the Olympus E-P2 offers 720p HD video (with manual exposure controls) and an assortment of built-in filters. The E-P2 doesn't have as fast an autofocus as newer models, but does boast continuous AF tracking system, which suffices.

Pros: Classic design, creative art filters, external stereo microphone jack, manual exposure controls in video
Cons: no built-in flash or EVF, autofocus slower than newer models

Olympus PEN E-PL1 12MP Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera
Current Low Price: $299.99 with in-store pickup only from MicroCenter
Best We've Seen: $299.99 with in-store pickup only from MicroCenter

Olympus' third, and most affordable, interchangeable lens camera, the 12.3MP E-PL1 is a slightly smaller, boxier, and more consumer-oriented version of its older sibling, the aforementioned E-P2. The Olympus E-PL1 retains almost all of the E-P2's attributes including automatic, manual, and semi-manual exposure settings, a versatile feature set, creative art filters, multiple exposure capabilities, and 720p HD video. In some ways, the E-PL1 improves upon Olympus' first two Micro Four Thirds models by including an on-board flash and wireless flash control. This model also has a dedicated movie button for easy, one-touch video recording, eliminating the need to change the mode dial when switching between video and still capture.

The E-PL1 doesn't have the same solid metal build as the E-P2 nor the convenience of as many external controls, and its LCD is smaller at 2.7-inches. However, this model is smaller, easier to use with its Live Guide help menu and shooting tip suggestions.

Pros: User-friendly interface, ample features, excellent on-board help and shooting tips
Cons: Less sturdy than the Olympus E-P2, small 2.7" LCD screen

Panasonic LUMIX DMC-G2 12MP Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera
Current Lowest Price: $629 with free shipping via Amazon
Best We've Seen: $419.99 with free shipping from newegg in April

The 12.-megapixel Panasonic DMC-G2K is one of the larger MILCs with its DSLR-like design, and that's good news for photographers with larger hands, since it may be easier to handle than some of the smaller models. In addition to a full range of manual and automatic settings, the Panasonic G2K offers a touchscreen LCD and standard button and dial controls. Better yet, the 3" screen can be angled for easier overhead or low-to-the-ground shooting, and can fold back into the body of the camera, providing extra protection from scratches when the camera is not in use. The Panasonic G2K also comes with a built-in electronic viewfinder, for more precise pictures when shooting in low light or capturing 720p HD video clips. This MILC delivers good still image and video quality, so if you're interested in digital filmmaking, this is a great option.

Pros: DSLR features, built-in EVF, articulated LCD touchscreen, built-in flash
Cons: Size; it's almost as large as some entry-level DSLRs

Ready to go mirrorless? Set up an email alert for these or any other models to receive notification as soon as we list them on the site.

DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).


Leave a comment!

or Register
Frank Slide
No, I am not missing the point. They are not much smaller than a DSLR. To trade the superior performance of a DSLR for the smaller mirrorless camera is a tradeoff that does not make sense since it is still a large camera that is not compact.

It makes sense to trade the rich features and quality of a DSLR for something that will fit in a pocket, but with mirrorless cameras you are sacrificing features and quality for nothing as they are not small cameras once you attach a lens. This is a segment of cameras with no future.
I think both comments are missing the point.  Performance and size are placed between the P&S and DSLR, but so is the COST.  Better quality and more control over P&S, not as expensive as DSLR.  They got me interested.
They are very cute. Isn't that their only appeal?
Frank Slide
I see no point in these cameras. They are only compact if they don't have a lens attached. By the time you attach a lens, you are not much smaller than a DSLR. You are better off wit a DSLR. The only reason for going non-DSLR is so you can fit it in a pocket or purse. Since these cameras require a camera bag similar to a DSLR, I see no reason to purchase one.
Lindsay Sakraida (DealNews)
We weren't aiming to include the newest models available, but rather ones that have seen a long history of discounts, or have more current incarnations which in turn allow for these models to be heavily discounted.
Al Winston
C'mon, aren't you guys a little embarrased to post this?  No mention of the GF1,2 or 3?  No mention of the Fuji? No mention of image quality (the Samsung is awful).  No mention of pancake lens vs regular lens and how this adds to the bulk?  It would be just better to list the cameras and then send people over to dpcameraview and the digital image comparometer.