Best Affordable Pro Compact Camera [Battlemodo]

You're ready for a camera upgrade. You've outgrown the best point-and-shoot cameras, but a DSLR is a little excessive. Luckily for you, there's a middle ground. Mirrorless, interchangeable lens cameras -- even affordable ones -- are getting really, really good. Australian prices listed.

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For this Battlemodo we tested four entry-level mirrorless cameras under $800 -- lens included. We want a camera one that jams the functionality and image quality of a DSLR into a compact package. That means killer images. And a quick snapshot should be no problem, but accessing the camera's manual settings should be as quick and intuitive as possible.

These cameras all shoot video -- a near seamless hybrid is what we've increasingly come to expect from even "still" cameras. So video's important. Non-essential features like on board image processing tools, special automatic scene settings, and high-burst modes all just icing on the cake. If it's not a great camera to begin with, no special features are going to change that.

We're going to call them pro compacts here, because they're super compact, but definitely a step up from anything you'd find in a point-and-shoot. (If you've got a better name for these things, we're happy to steal it.)

Fourth Place: Nikon J1

The Nikon J1 is the most beautiful and compact camera of the bunch. Awesome. But it also has the tiniest sensor, and the camera's tinier pixels resulted in images that didn't quite stack up to the photos produced by the cameras with larger Micro Four Thirds or APS-C sensors. The J1 is only marginally smaller than the Sony NEX-C3 and the Panasonic Lumix GF3, and certainly not small enough to justify the loss in image quality.

For all its drawbacks, you'll like how uncomplicated the camera is. There's only a few manual functions on the body: flash, continuous shooting mode, aperture and shutter speed. It's not customisable, and the rest of the settings are on a long camera settings list behind the menu button. The motion-snapshot setting, which captures a short burst of HD images at 60 fps and plays it back at 24 fps is fun, as are the low-resolution, super slow motion video settings. In the end, this is an expensive camera for what it delivers, image-wise. Some people will appreciate its streamlined design, and whizbang features and that there's the possibility for more control if you want it, though.

Nikon J1

Price:Around $750 with 10-30 mm / 30-110 mm Lens. Sensor: 10.1 megapixel, 13.2mm x 8.8mm CMOS Image: 3,872 x 2,592 Video: Up to 1920 X 1080/60i Screen: 461,000 dot 3" TFT-LCD

Third Place: Olympus E-PM1

The Olympus E-PM1 is a great camera with unfortunate drawbacks. While it has a sturdy aluminium build and feels super comfortable in your hands, the camera's buttons are small and finicky. The huge line of Olympus PEN-System lenses will allow you to shoot everything from wide angles to telephoto from this relatively tiny package. Unfortunately, you'll be using all of these lenses to shoot in automatic because the camera's controls are just too finicky. In daylight the camera takes beautiful photos, but the camera's low-light performance drops off and detail disappears fast above ISO 800. The autofocus on the lens also frequently fell flat or refused to work in low-light as well. While the EPM-1 takes sharp 1080i video, shooting it can be a little frustrating because of relatively slow auto-focus tracking and a slight lag in the LCD's live view.

Olympus EPM-1

Price: Around $500 with w/ 14-42mm zoom lens Sensor: 12.3 megapixel, 17.3mm x 13.0mm Live MOS Image: Up to 4032 x 3032 Video: Up to 1920 x 1080/60i Screen: 460,000 dot, 3" LCD

Panasonic Lumix GF3

This Panasonic Lumix GF3 is tiny. Real tiny. But unlike the rest of the cameras in this test, this one has a touchscreen display which makes changing settings like ISO and image quality quicker on the GF3 than any of the other cameras, even if the screen isn't as fast or responsive as the one you're used to on a smartphone. The autofocus settings are very well designed on the GF3. The "Pinpoint" mode zooms you in and focuses on exactly what you want to be in focus, and in the "AF Area" mode you use the touchscreen to tell the camera where you want it to focus. Like the EPM-1, the Lumix GF3 takes great photos at lower ISOs and its low-light performance is noticeably less noisy than the J1 or EPM-1. The camera's excellent autofocus tracks well when shooting video, which also sets the camera apart from the the EPM-1. The one drawback is that everything is so quick and easy to change that you'll want to keep an eye on your settings to make sure you don't end up shooting a few hundred photos with the camera focusing on the corner of the frame.

Panasonic Lumix GF3

Price:Around $799 w/ 14-42mm zoom lens Sensor: 12.1 megapixel, 17.3 x 13.0 mm Live MOS Image: Up to 4000 x 3000 Video: Up to 1920 x 1080/60i Screen: 460,000 dot, 3" TFT-LCD with touch panel,

BESTMODO!! Sony NEX-C3

The Sony NEX-C3 leans hard towards the DSLR side of the mirrorless camera spectrum. Simply stated, the NEX-C3 performs much better than the others in nearly every situation. It's better, and, yup, bigger and heavier. The 18-55mm kit lens isn't collapsable, so this camera is never going to fit in your pocket, and while taking a quick shot in auto is easy enough, you're going to want to spend some time learning the menus, and programming the camera's customisable buttons to get the most out of it. The camera's most glaring drawback is that it shoots lower-resolution video than all of the others. Is it worth it? Hell yeah. In terms of image quality, the 16.2 megapixel, 23. 4mm x 15.6mm sensor blows the rest of the cameras in its price range away. It's not even close.

In choosing between the Lumix GF3 and this camera, it really comes down to what you want from the camera. The Panasonic camera is cute and compact and takes better video, but we choose the NEX-C3 because its still image quality is far superior. If you want something as easy and portable as a smartphone camera or a point and shoot, well, why are you looking at an interchangeable lens camera? You want performance and power. The NEX-C3 is why you upgrade.

Sony NEX-C3 Price:From $749 with with SEL1855 lens Sensor: 16.2 megapixel, 23.4 x 15.6 mm APS HD Exmor CMOS Image: Up to 4912 x 2760 pixels Video: Up to 1280 x 720/30p Screen: 921,600 dot, 3" TFT-LCD

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Comments

    erm... how the hell does one class that Sony as a "compact" camera?
    And why aren't there any Canons involved? or Fujis?
    If I want something with a lens, I'll get out my DSLR.

      Last time I checked, Canon and Fuji don't have any mirrorless cameras yet. (I know Fuji is releasing one soon though).

    No Ricoh GX? Boo! :)

    I love my Ricoh GX200 which falls into this category of cameras. It's not a well known brand among consumers of course, which is why it may have been overlooked.

      ....so you just answered your own question.......

    I've seen smaller DSLRs than that Sony!

    You can buy decent Nikon and Canon DSLRs for less than the price of these cameras.

    Where is the Samsung? I have a NX11 and it's surprisingly not bad, NX200 sounds good too, plus the price point is better than sony with same sized sensor

    I agree that it's strange you haven't considered other brands. For instance, the Canon PowerShot G series. Considering their feature list, how are they not considered a pro compact camera?

      They're calling this a compact camera shootout, but in reality it's a EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder, Interchangeable Lens) shootout.

        Yeah true. Achieves that fairly well at least. I'm probably a bit biased. I've got a G9 :P

    I played with a couple of this style of camera at the shops a few weeks ago. (I needed a break from Xmas shopping).
    With anything other than a pancake lens on they all felt weird in my hands.
    The body was way too small for the lens and they felt very unbalanced. This was much more pronounced holding the camera portrait style.

    I'm sure there's a market for these hybrids, but I'm not it.
    For the money they're asking I'm much happier with my DSLR, with it's quick access dials, reassuring heft, and most importantly, optical viewfinder.

    "You want performance and power. The NEX-C3 is why you upgrade."

    Execpt if you want decent lenses where you have little choice with Sony.. No UWA, and even high end primes you really only have the Zeiss 24/1.8 which is worse than the Panasonic 25/1.4 and twice the size, weight and price.. Only reason I decided to stay clear of the NEX-7 for now, no point in having a great sensor and crappy lenses.. If you are not interested in great lenses (sticking with kit) I doubt you would notice the sensor IQ differences either, so null point all around..

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