Olympus OM-D E-M1

Key specs: 16.3mp 4/3' Live MOS sensor, TruePic VII, Dual Fast AF, 2360k-dot EVF, tilting touchscreen, weatherproof, Wi-Fi

Price: US$2,096 / £1,300 /AU$2,233 (body only)

Best compact camera system 2013
Olympus OM-D E-M1

Updated camera group testThe OM-D E-M5 has found great favour with photographers all around the world, but isn't above criticism. One particular bugbear is that autofocus is very slow when using regular Four Thirds, rather than Micro Four Thirds lenses. The new E-M1 joins the line-up as Olympus's flagship CSC, and a key enhancement is its 'Dual Fast AF', which delivers hybrid phase/contrast-detection, making it similarly speedy on both types of lens. Furthermore, both detection systems are available in continuous AF for stills shooting, helping the camera to track fast-moving targets. Action heroics in autofocus speeds are backed up with a fast maximum shutter speed of 1/18000th of a second, plus a rapid burst rate of up to 10fps.

As in both Fujifilm cameras and the Sony A7R that are also on test, the anti-alias filter is omitted to enable maximum sharpness. This is further reinforced by a new generation of image processor, which aims for greater fine detail in images, while also correcting for lateral chromatic aberrations in own-brand Olympus lenses.

The electronic viewfinder delivers 1.48x magnification along with an excellent resolution of 2,360k pixels, making shot composition very easy on the eye. The LCD is equally adept in the shooting stakes, thanks to its well implemented tilt and touchscreen facilities.

One thing from which there's no escape is that the Four Thirds format sensor is significantly smaller than the APS-C format sensors of the Fujifilm cameras, and quite tiny compared with the Sony A7R's full-frame sensor. On the plus side, it means that lenses also tend to be very compact, in keeping with the downsizing philosophy of CSCs.

Performance

Performance is enhanced by wonderfully natural handling, despite the touchscreen facility not extending to menu navigation. Instead, there are plenty of direct access buttons and customisable function buttons as a feast for the fingers. Image quality is sublime, with excellent colour rendition and superb retention of fine detail.

Pros:

  • Weather sealed body
  • Plenty of physical controls
  • Top-notch EVF
  • Superb image quality

Cons:

  • Screen not fully articulated
  • Expensive
  • Some operational niggles

Sony Alpha A7R

Key specs: 36.4mp full-frame sensor, built-in EVF, 3-inch 1,230,000 screen, Full HD movies, Wi-Fi and NFC

Price: US$2,298 / £1,700 /AU$ (body only)

Best compact camera system 2013
Sony Alpha A7R

Think of a high-res, full-frame camera and you're probably imagining a big and beefy SLR like the Nikon D800. Sony redressed the balance by launching the world's first full-frame compact cameras, in the diminutive shape of the RX1 and RX1R. The Sony A7 and A7R do the same for the CSC market, the latter boosting resolution to a whopping 36.4Mp while also omitting the low-pass filter. This enables optimum sharpness, the A7R aiming to make the very most of all the fine detail that a fitted lens can throw at it. The sensor is backed up by a new-generation image processor, which is claimed to be three times faster than its predecessor. It's a welcome bonus, with so many pixels to process.

Despite its class-leading image sensor size and resolution, the A7R body is even smaller and more lightweight than the Olympus EM-1. However, at any actual Vs effective focal length, the Sony's E-mount lenses are likely to be rather larger. We say 'likely' because the A7R's biggest current criticism is a relative lack of E-mount full-frame lenses, although more are promised. In the meantime, APS-C format E-mount lenses can be used in crop mode.

Autofocus in the A7R relies purely on contrast-detection, whereas the more standard 24Mp A7 (which includes a low-pass filter) has a hybrid contrast/phase-detection system. The high-res 2,400k OLED viewfinder is a treat for the eyes and the 921k LCD screen has a useful tilt function, but no touchscreen facility. The provision of direct access controls is fairly generous, including three customisable function buttons plus a quick shooting menu. Front and rear command dials are fitted, as well as a similar exposure compensation dial to that featured on the Fujifilm cameras.

Performance

Autofocus can be a bit sluggish, especially under dull lighting, and the maximum burst rate is only 4fps. However, image quality is punchy and retention of fine detail is every bit as good as you'd expect from a 36.4Mp full-frame camera.

Pros:

  • High resolution sensor
  • No AA
  • Filter
  • Full-frame
  • Built in Wi-Fi

Cons:

  • Poor battery life
  • No touchscreen
  • Currently few directly compatible lenses

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3

Key specs: 16.3mp 4/3' Live MOS sensor, TruePic VII, Dual Fast AF, 2360k-dot EVF, tilting touchscreen, weatherproof, Wi-Fi

Price: US$1,198 / £830 /AU$ (body only)

Best compact system camera

There's an argument that, while small cameras are easier to carry around and to stow away, handling qualities can be impaired. It's an accusation that certainly can't be levelled at the Panasonic GH3, which is the biggest and bulkiest camera in the group, by quite a margin. As we've mentioned, it's almost the same size and weight as the Canon 100D SLR but the trade-off is that it feels very natural when shooting, even in a big pair of hands.

The GH-3 is aimed at enthusiast photographers and, as such, puts its extra real estate to good use with a plethora of direct access controls. There are no less than five customisable function buttons, in addition to a dedicated drive mode wheel and buttons for white balance, ISO, exposure compensation, autofocus modes and more besides. It's also the only camera in the group to feature a fully articulated LCD, which comes complete with a touchscreen facility. Unlike with the Olympus E-M1, touch control is available for menu navigation instead of being limited to touch-and-point autofocus.

Like the Olympus, the GH3 uses the Micro Four Thirds format, along with a similar 16Mp image resolution. Image noise at high ISO settings is a danger but, in this camera, Panasonic has added crafty multi-stage noise suppression in the image processor, which aims to deliver smooth shadow tones.

Performance

While the GH3 lacks the hybrid phase/contrast detection AF system of the Olympus EM-1, autofocus is pretty quick nonetheless. AF speed holds up fairly well even in very dull lighting conditions but it's often not fast enough to track moving objects effectively. The 'Intelligent Auto' shooting mode does well to deliver very pleasing results in wide-ranging conditions, making the GH3 a useful camera for beginners, but its advanced controls are more suited to experienced photographers.

Pros:

  • Responsive touchscreen
  • Quick and easy controls
  • Wi-Fi built-in
  • Remote control app

Cons:

  • Social integration poor
  • No focus peaking
  • No image rating

Fujifilm X-Pro1

Key specs: 16.3mp APS-C X-Trans CMOS, dual AF mount, Hybrid viewfinder, Full HD movies

Price: US$1,078 / £830 /AU$999 (body only)

Best compact camera system 2013
Fujifilm X-Pro1

Fujifilm certainly hit the ground running with the launch of its first CSC, the X-Pro1. Highlights include an X-Trans image sensor, which uses a 6x6 filter array pattern. It's designed to avoid the risk of moiré interference and bypasses the need for an anti-alias filter, bringing the potential for sharper, more detailed images.

The retro chic design isn't a case of style over substance. The old-school shutter speed dial on top of the camera, coupled with an aperture ring at the rear of the lens, make for quick and easy exposure adjustments in shutter-priority, aperture-priority and metered manual shooting modes. There's no PASM dial as such, the camera using 'automatic' positions in both the shutter speed and aperture selectors instead. There are no scene modes either, which is a clear indication of the 'enthusiast' aspirations of the camera. Instead, there's another nod to bygone days in a variety of film emulation modes, including Provia, Velvia and Astia. If your photographic memory doesn't stretch that far back, think in terms of standard, vivid and soft.

The slightly odd hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder is much more useful in electronic mode, where it benefits from a fairly high 1,440k pixel resolution. Around the back, the 1,230k pixel LCD is also high-res, although it lacks a touchscreen facility, or any articulation. A good Quick menu system helps to offset the lack of touchscreen availability, speeding access to creative shooting settings. Handling is good overall, although the finger grip is much less sculpted than on most competing cameras.

Performance

Image quality looks very natural, especially in the standard, Provia colour mode, with rather more vibrancy being delivered in Velvia mode. Retention of fine detail is impressive, at least at low ISO settings. When using high sensitivities, image noise is kept well under control at the expense of fine detail and texture being smoothed out. Autofocus speed is a little pedestrian but not overly sluggish.

Pros:

  • High quality, film-like images
  • Buttery smooth bokeh
  • Excellent hybrid viewfinder
  • Plenty of advanced features

Cons:

  • Manual focus with EVF could be slicker

Sony NEX-7

Key specs: 24.3mp sensor, Full HD movies with AF Tracking, OLED Tru-Finder, 10fps burst mode, built-in flash

Price: US$1,369 / £849 /AU$1,458 (body only)

Best compact system camera

This svelte CSC packs plenty of functionality into its tiny frame, with lots of high-end specifications that are worth shouting about.

In addition to its excellent 24.3mp DSLR-sized sensor, the NEX-7 is equipped with the means to shoot Full HD movies with AF Tracking and full manual control over settings while filming.

Fast, continuous shooting at 10fps and an array of accessible manual controls and customisable function buttons make the NEX-7 a camera that's as quick to respond as it is simple to use.

The built-in OLED EVF is a further standout feature, plus there's a hotshoe and a jack for attaching an external mic: all welcome additions that bolster this camera's appeal to advanced enthusiasts.

Pros:

  • Decent built-in EVF
  • Large, high-resolution sensor
  • Lots of manual functionality
  • Advanced videography features

Cons:

  • Low-light AF performance is sluggish
  • Fewer optics on offer compared to competition