The Incredible Shrinking Interchangeable-Lens Camera

Since the dawn of the Micro Four-Thirds system in 2008, compact interchangeable-lens cameras have quickly been getting smaller and stronger. Join us on a journey through camera-miniaturization history.

The Prehistoric Era

Way back in 2008, only two DSLR cameras shot video: the Nikon D90 and the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. The main obstacle to capturing video with a DSLR was precisely what makes a DSLR a DSLR: the internal mirror box, which acts as a reverse periscope to let you peer through the camera's lens. Unfortunately, that mirror box is positioned right between the lens and the sensor, preventing a continuous stream of video-ready photons from hitting the sensor. Nikon and Canon's first video-capable DSLRs left the mirror box flipped up in video mode, rendering the optical viewfinder disabled while the cameras shot video. Problem solved, right?

Sort of. Meanwhile, in Japan...

Dawn of the Micro Four-Thirds System

... Panasonic and Olympus joined forces to develop the Micro Four-Thirds mirrorless system, which they announced in August 2008. One of the promises of the new format was that it would create a slew of new video-capable, interchangeable-lens cameras. And one of the byproducts of dropping the internal mirror box was the ability to create smaller and smaller DSLR-like cameras. Three years later, mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras are shrinking in size and growing in power. And it all started with...

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1

... this beast, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1.

Dimensions (W x H x D): 4.88 x 3.29 x 1.78 inches

Weight (body only): 13.6 oz.

Sensor size: 17.3 mm x 13.0 mm

Resolution: 12.1 megapixels

Release date: December 2008

Panasonic's Lumix DMC-G1 was the first mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera to come to market. In hindsight, the G1 missed the mirrorless point entirely. For one thing, it wasn't much smaller than a DSLR. More important, it didn't shoot video. Despite those head-scratching specs, the Lumix G1 will go down in history as a trailblazer in the world of mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras. A humble beginning, but it got the ball rolling.

Olympus PEN E-P1

Dimensions (W x H x D): 4.74 by 2.75 by 1.43 inches

Weight (body only): 11.8 oz.

Sensor size: 17.3 mm × 13.0 mm

Resolution: 12.3 megapixels

Release date: July 2009

The Olympus PEN E-P1 was arguably more significant than the Lumix G1, as it was the first interchangeable-lens camera to break free from the mold of the DSLR-like body. It had a great throwback look, and while it wasn't quite pocketable, it was significantly more portable than your average DSLR at 1.43 inches deep. It also shot 720p video. Still, the E-P1's feature set had some notable shortcomings, such as the lack of a built-in flash and its laggy autofocus.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1

Dimensions (W x H x D): 4.69 by 2.8 by 1.43 inches

Weight (body only): 10.05 oz

Sensor size: 17.3 mm × 13.0 mm

Resolution: 12.1 megapixels

Release date: October 2009

The Lumix GF1 is where the Micro Four-Thirds system really started turning heads. It delivered on the big promises of the compact interchangeable-lens category, but still left some room for improvement as well as excitement about the next generation of mirrorless cameras. It had the smallest interchangeable-lens body yet, a pop-up flash, high-definition 720p video, and a great blend of manual and automated controls.

So the category wasn't just a fad, and companies beyond Panasonic and Olympus started to take notice...

Samsung NX100

Dimensions (W x H x D): 4.72 x 2.79 x 1.37 inches

Weight: 9.9 oz

Sensor size: APS-C (23.4mm by 15.6mm)

Resolution: 14.6 megapixels

Release date: September 2010

Samsung was the first big-name company to announce a competing mirrorless format to the Micro Four-Thirds system, and it upped the ante by including an APS-C sensor that matched the size of those found in many DSLRs. The NX100 was the second mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera developed by Samsung; the first, the Samsung NX10 (which debuted in spring 2010) was, in its first generation, about the same size as a DSLR, and its video capabilities were disappointing. The NX100, however, despite having a sensor that was significantly bigger than the one in the Panasonic and Olympus Micro Four-Thirds cameras, had a body that measured just 1.37 inches deep.

Sony Alpha NEX-5

Dimensions (W x H x D): 4.36 x 2.31 x 1.5 inches

Weight (body only): 8.1 oz

Sensor size: APS-C (23.4 x 15.6 mm)

Resolution: 14.2 megapixels

Release date: May 2010

And then along came Sony. Though the Sony Alpha NEX-5 was available before the Samsung NX100 was, it was Sony's first foray into compact interchangeable-lens cameras. At 1.5 inches deep, it was thicker than the NX100, but smaller in every other dimension, and lighter. Like the NX100, it packed a big APS-C-size sensor. The NEX-5 absolutely blew us away with its combination of image and video quality; tiltable LCD screen; innovative in-camera modes for panoramic shots, low-light photos, and 3D shooting; and futuristic good looks. We were so impressed by the NEX-5 that it earned a top 10 slot in our list of 2010's Top 100 Products.

If the Panasonic Lumix GF1 was the first camera to show the potential of the compact interchangeable-lens category, the Sony Alpha NEX-5 was the first to arguably outclass some true DSLRs in terms of image and video quality.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2

Dimensions (W x H x D): 4.44 by 2.67 by 1.29 inches

Weight (body only): 7.83 oz

Sensor size: 17.3 x 13.0 mm

Resolution: 12.1 megapixels

Release date: January 2011

One way to shrink a camera's size is to do away with some of its physical buttons and add a touchscreen. At just 1.29 inches deep, the fast-focusing Panasonic Lumix GF2 does just that--for better and for worse. We love the GF2's touchscreen interface for touch-focus controls and complex focusing effects while shooting video. We aren't so wild about Panasonic ditching the mode dial entirely in favor of touchscreen menus. The Lumix GF2 has a lot to like, but for the ultimate combination of touch-focus and traditional controls, we'd suggest the phenomenal, DSLR-sized Lumix GH2.


Everything you've read thus far is about cameras that we've already reviewed. We're about to shift gears and focus on the near-term future. The cameras in the following slides have all been announced, but none of them are available just yet. One thing's for sure, though: They're all very small for interchangeable-lens cameras while sacrificing little in terms of features.

Head out to the lobby, grab yourself a snack, and then click ahead at your leisure.

Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3

Dimensions (W x H x D): 4.3 by 2.5 by 1.46 inches

Weight (body only): 9.3 oz.

Sensor size: 17.3 mm × 13.0 mm

Resolution: 12.3 megapixels

Olympus is on the brink of overhauling its PEN line of mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras in the coming months, and the 1.46-inch-deep PEN Lite E-PL3 will have the same lightning-fast focusing system, 1080i video capture, and 3D-shooting capabilities as its higher-end sibling, the Pen E-P3. What's more, it adds a tilting LCD and a fast burst mode to the mix, capping out at 5.5 frames per second with the camera's in-body stabilization turned off. What's missing? A built-in flash--although an attachable hot-shoe-mounted flash comes with the camera.

Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1

Dimensions (W x H x D): 4.3 by 2.5 by 1.33 inches

Weight (body only): 7.6 oz.

Sensor size: 17.3 mm × 13.0 mm

Resolution: 12.3 megapixels

If the PEN Lite's 9.3-ounce weight sounds too beefy for you, you can shave off some fat by opting for the even-smaller PEN Mini E-PM1 instead. The PEN Mini ditches the mode dial in favor of a stripped-down physical control scheme operated by a back-mounted scroll wheel, but it offers most of the same in-camera features as the PEN Lite and the PEN E-P3. The big tradeoffs: no built-in flash, and no mode dial.

Sony Alpha NEX-C3

Dimensions (W x H x D): 4.3 x 2.36 x 1.29 inches

Weight (body only): 7.9 oz.

Sensor size: APS-C (23.4 x 15.6 mm)

Resolution: 16.2 megapixels

At just 1.29 inches deep, the Sony Alpha NEX-C3 is even more mini than the Olympus PEN Mini--and it has a larger APS-C size sensor. It is a bit heavier, though, at 7.9 ounces to the Mini's 7.6 ounces. This second-generation NEX camera replaces the lower-end Alpha NEX-3 while adding new filter effects, photo-retouching options, higher-resolution images, and improved battery life. But again: no built-in flash!

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3

Dimensions (W x H x D): 4.24 x 2.64 x 1.28 inches

Weight (body only): 7.83 oz

Sensor size: 17.3 x 13.0 mm

Resolution: 12.1 megapixels

Finally, a new, tiny interchangeable-lens camera with a pop-up flash. The Panasonic Lumix GF3 clocks in at just 1.28 inches deep and 7.83 ounces, and like the GF2, it trades in a mode dial for touchscreen- and thumbwheel-navigated menus. It shares the same touch-to-focus controls and quick autofocus as its Lumix G-series predecessors, but it lacks a hot shoe for external accessories.

Pentax Q

Dimensions (W x H x D): 3.8 x 2.2 x 1.2 inches

Weight (body only): 6.3 oz

Sensor size: 6.16 x 4.62 mm (1/2.3-inch type sensor)

Resolution: 12.4 megapixels

And finally, here is the smallest mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera we've ever seen. Not only is the Pentax Q small (1.2 inches deep) and light (6.3 ounces), but it also offers a pop-up flash that can be used popped up or down. It has physical controls for just about everything, too. What's the catch? A much smaller sensor than anything else in the interchangeable-lens class: Its 6.16-by-4.62mm backside-illuminated CMOS sensor is the size of the ones you'll find in many point-and-shoots. But we've been pleasantly surprised by the performance of small-sensor cameras before. Time (and testing) will tell.

At this rate, by this time next year, we'll probably see the first camera that has a body smaller than its sensor. You heard it here first.

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