Beginners and casual picture takers use cheap point-and-shoot cameras. Professional photographers use DSLRs that run in the thousands with lenses that cost more than used BMWs. So what about the people in-between?
You know, the people who want DSLR-quality pics, in a body that's only a little larger and slightly heavier than a point-and-shoot — the people who also want to have the freedom to attach different lenses to take artistic photos without having to drop $3,000 for a full-frame Canon 5D Mark II.
There are cameras for the intermediate-level photographer or even the pro-photographer who wants to travel lightly, but still get great pics: a mirrorless camera. Cameras that won't drain your savings. Here's the newest and best of what's out there.
1. Samsung NX200
Old Sammy's not a bigshot in the camera world, but the NX200 comes out with its dukes up, ready to rumble. Taking aim at Olympus's high-end E-P3 PEN, the NX200 delivers with specs that wow. Inside is a 20.3-megapixel sensor, 1080p HD video recording, a whopping 12,800 ISO, a bright 3-inch AMOLED screen and seven frames per second rapid shooting. Another thing to love: its all-magnesium alloy body makes it feel like some seriously premium gear.
Selling points: 20.3-megapixels photos, crazy 12,800 ISO for low-light shooting and beautiful 3-inch AMOLED screen.
2. Olympus E-PM1 (PEN Mini)
The great thing about the PEN Mini is that there are lots of lenses to choose from. At the time (since dethroned by Nikon's J1/V1), the Mini was part of the 2011 PEN family with the fastest autofocus speed on the planet. This 12.3-megapixel camera can rumble with the pro shooters at the U.S. Open, capturing high-speed games of tennis without breaking a sweat. Pictures are clear and vivid, and the one-button 1080i HD video recording is a godsend. For the shooter who wants DSLR-quality photos, but doesn't want the weight of a DSLR, it's hard to get better than the PEN Mini.
Selling points: One-button HD video capture, 35-point fast autofocus and lots of nice art filter effects for a low price
3. Panasonic Lumix GF3
Stripping physical buttons and replacing them with finger-friendly ones on a touchscreen is what this year's GF3 amounted to. Owners of the GF2 might not feel obligated to upgrade so soon, but the GF3 does sport a 12.1 megapixel sensor, 1080i HD video recording and pop-up flash. Just like the PEN Mini, the GF3 is a Micro Four-Thirds camera, so it takes all of Olympus's PEN lenses (and vice versa). Features to die for include touch to focus and activate shutter with its touchscreen and the option of slapping on a Panasonic 3D lens.
Selling points: Touchscreen with touch-to-focus and compatibility with a huge array of Micro Four-Thirds lenses
4. Fujifilm X10
Pining for the old camera days, Fujifilm's X10 is all about looking retro, while still packing a punch. The 12-megapixel X10 is the baby brother to the X100, which means it feels as strong as a tank in the hands, and will probably cost a pretty penny. No interchangeable lenses on the X10, as was on the X100, but there is a sweet F/2.0 aperture for super shallow depth-of-field pictures (blurry backgrounds), an LCD viewfinder, 4X 28-112mm zoom lens, 1080p HD video recording and enough buttons and switches to satisfy grandpa. Small and compact, the X10 does it all.
Selling points: Lots of dials and switches for the old-school camera lover
5. Nikon J1 and V1
Minimal doesn't even begin to describe the J1 and V1. Nikon took a look at what Panasonic and Olympus have done in the Micro Four-Thirds camera space and decided these mirrorless cameras needed to be much faster. The 10.1-megapixel J1 and V1 speedsters can fire off shots with 73-points of autofocus and record 1080p HD video. Both are weighty cameras, but the key difference is that J1 has a pop-up flash and no electronic viewfinder (EVF) and the V1 has a nice bright EVF, hotshoe accessory port, but no flash.
Selling points: Fastest autofocus, speedy continuous burst shooting and minimalist design
Price: $650 for the J1 and $900 for the V1
6. Sony NEX-5N
The NEX-5N is ridiculous. If you've ever used the old NEX-5 or NEX-3, then you'll know how sleek Sony's cameras look and feel — it's like strapping a huge zoom lens onto an iPhone. Sony's upped the game this time, with an all-magnesium alloy body with an articulating touchscreen, 16-megapixels and 1080p HD video recording. It supports an optional OLED electronic viewfinder and a wide array of Sony lenses. While photos are reported to be beautiful and crisp, there's just one small problem: a "clicking" noise caused by the auto-focusing motor seems to plague HD video recording. Sony's first solution seems to be a firmware update that decreases the clicking noise.
Selling points: Ultra slim body and articulating touchscreen
7. Pentax Q
Read: world's smallest interchangeable lens camera — that's the Pentax Q. Who says you have to buy a chunky DSLR to get a lens system? The Pentax Q weighs only 8.3 ounces, but still manages to serve up some great snapshots with its 12.4-megapixel sensor, 6400 ISO, max F/1.9 aperture, built-in flash and 3-inch screen — all while keeping things classy with its grippy body. How's that for being a lightweight?
Selling points: Uber small and light, fits on a keychain ring, and still has a 3-inch screen
8. Canon S100
The S100 is the only camera on this list that's a point-and-shoot, but is still technically mirrorless. It deserves a mention because it's quite a powerhouse, despite its diminutive size. The successor to the fantastic S95, the S100 offers upgrades across the board: larger 12.1-megapixel CMOS sensor, DIGIC 5 processor for high-speed continuous shooting, 1080p HD video recording, and even a GPS receiver for recording coordinate info.
Selling points: Fits in a shirt pocket, fast aperture lens and GPS receiver
If I had $1000 to buy a camera at this very moment, I'd go with the Nikon J1. I understand it has a smaller sensor than the Micro Four-Thirds cameras and is a teensy bit heavier than the rest, but I crave usability. The J1's crazy fast autofocus and 10 frames per second shooting would ensure I don't miss a critical shot. The 100 percent electronic viewfinder would also mean I have the versatility to capture exactly what I see instead of having to rely on the screen. In my opinion, the weight is a non-issue because it just means you'll have less shaky pics.
Sure, Samsung's NX200 packs in 20.3-megapixels and the PEN Mini is only $500, but in terms of what you need and what you want, that's a personal matter. When buying a camera, remember to pick one that fits you, otherwise it'll only end up as wasted money because you couldn't get the most out of it.
I might consider an EVF a killer feature, but you might not. Advanced shooters can consider cameras that they can fit into, but then, why not go the full nine-yards and buy a DSLR or if you already own a one, buy better lenses?