Mirrorless shootout: Sony NEX-5N vs. Panasonic Lumix GX1 field test

Mirrorless shootout: Sony NEX-5N vs. Panasonic Lumix GX1 field test

Compact, mirrorless alternatives to DSLRs are without a doubt the hottest innovation around in the serious photography market. In their early iterations they were a convenient "crutch" for those who wanted reasonable images without the hassle of a larger DSLR, but recent improvements have made them serious candidates for many photographers who never thought they'd be without their DSLR. I've spent the last month shooting with two of the latest and greatest, the 16MP and 16MP and have plenty to report…


Despite often getting lumped together, there is wide variety in the mirrorless camera field, starting with sensor size. The Nikon 1, while being one of the most compact of the models, also features one of the smallest sensors. Most are closer to the micro-4/3 size sensor found in the (2x crop factor), while Sony stands out by fitting a larger APS-C (think DX for Nikon shooters, or 1.5x crop factor) size sensor -- suitable for a DSLR -- into the Sony NEX-5N and just announced Son NEX-7. While image processing -- either in camera or post-processing of raw images -- can help make up for smaller sensors, there is still no question that the larger light gathering capabilities of the larger sensors improves image quality -- particularly at high ISOs (needed for low-light shooting without flash).

This makes Sony the undisputed sensor size, and raw image quality king, among the most popular mirrorless cameras. Its images are gorgeous, not surprisingly closely paralleling the image quality of a similarly priced DSLR like the Nikon D5100 or Canon T3i. In direct test shooting the Sony was sharper and lower noise than the , and truly amazing with the expensive . The tradeoff is size, weight, and lack of a built-in flash. The itself is tiny, but the larger sensor requires larger lenses, which negates the benefit of the smaller body. For comparison, the Sony's APS-C sensor requires essentially identically sized lenses to most DSLRs, while the other brands can use substantially smaller lenses.

The Sony also fails to include a built-in flash. This isn't necessarily awful, as Sony offers a small electronic flash that fits into the custom hotshoe. Unfortunately, that is also where the optional Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) is placed, so it is not possible to use the with both a viewfinder and a flash. The built-in flash is a small pop-up model, brighter than what you'd find on a point and shoot, but of course not nearly as powerful as would be found on a dedicated Speedlite. It worked quite well, and was very convenient. Personally I like the Lumix pop-up design, where the photographer pushes a small lever to pop-up the flash rather than having it be automatically turned on, as that way I know it won't fire accidentally and I don't have to fiddle with menu buttons to turn it on and off.

The Lumix GX1 is no slouch when it comes to competing with DSLR image quality.
This dusk photo would have been a challenge for any camera with less than a full frame sensor,
but the GX1 handled it quite well at ISO 1600 ()

The electronic viewfinders on both cameras are much improved from earlier versions. They are very responsive (making it possible to photograph action) and high-resolution. I didn't find using either of them a problem. They do operate differently from each other, though. The Sony features a proximity sensor that can automatically activate the EVF when you move close to the camera, and turn the LCD back on as you pull away. At first I found this very handy, but the transition is a little slow for fast action, so you can easily find yourself staring into a black EVF for a fraction of a second. The Lumix features a more traditional switching system triggered with a small button. The button is in a bit of an odd place (directly in front of the photographer) instead of on the side of the EVF, so switching back and forth isn't ultra-convenient.

More important to me than the EVF or even flash are the controls for the camera. In this area the Lumix is the head and shoulders winner. The GX1 can be driven quickly and fairly easily (given that it is smaller than a DSLR it doesn't have enough room for every possible button) by anyone who understands the features of a digital camera. By comparison the Sony relies on a non-intuitive (to me at least) menu system that can be driven either from the control buttons or the touchscreen. As an example, changing the ISO on the Sony requires bringing up the main menu, touching or selecting Brightness/Contrast, and then the ISO menu item. For such a common setting, this is an awful location. Sony does allow menu customization which can lessen the problem, but on a camera at this price, the UI should really be more intuitive right out of the box.

Surprisingly, given that it has a smaller sensor, the body is actually slightly larger than the Sony's. For this additional size, you get not just a pop-up flash, but built-in image stabilization. That also allows the Panasonic to work with smaller and less expensive lenses. Some, but not all, Sony lenses feature image stabilization. Perhaps also surprisingly, only the smaller Sony features a tiltable LCD. At first I wasn't that impressed since it only has tilt, and is not fully articulating, but I found it useful for "arm's length" shots I needed to get of subjects located to the side or above or below me.

Even though the body of the is slightly larger, roles are reversed as soon as you add a lens. The Lumix with kit lens can fit into a cargo pocket or jacket pocket fairly easily, while it is a tussle to wrestle the Sony into similar spaces – especially with the lovely, large EVF mounted.

One of the few control issues I have with the GX1 is the electronic zoom on the kit lens. While expected on a point and shoot, the more DSLR-like manual zoom ring on the Sony's lenses is easier and quicker for me. Of course there is quite a variety of micro-4/3 lenses to choose from, so finding one with a manual zoom ring shouldn't be hard -- for example the highly-rated might be a good option.

The is also loaded with more bells and whistles than the Lumix. If you enjoy endless tinkering with shooting modes, smile detection, and the like, you'll have hours of fun fiddling with it. If you shoot in a more traditional style where you enjoy controlling the camera and image composition yourself, these won't matter much.

Image Quality

As you might expect from the larger sensor in the Sony, it definitely wins in the image quality department. In addition to great color rendition and remarkably good low light performance, the Sony also does an excellent job of dealing with high-contrast scenes like this one of a softball game partially in sun and partially in shade – a traditional nemesis for all but the most expensive cameras.

Backlit scenes with the subject in shade are tough for any camera,
but the -5N did a great job with this one.


The and both chug along at about 4fps, with the Sony featuring a 10fps mode if you're willing to forgo AF & AE during the burst. Unfortunately, that mode, like so many others on the Sony, isn't easy to activate, making it less useful than it could have been for the fast action events it is clearly designed to be able to record.

Viewfinders Optional

If you order either of these models, remember that like with almost all mirrorless cameras, the Electronic Viewfinder is an added -- and not cheap -- option. The external will set you back $239 and the amazing is a whopping $349.

Removable means Upgradeable

One unsung feature of interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras is that you can upgrade your lenses after you purchase the camera. In the case of the Sony there is a really amazing (36mm equivalent) which is tack sharp and has almost no distortion. You can see the difference by looking at the barrel distortion in the first one of these two sample images, shot with the Sony kit lens, and the second, shot with the Zeiss. The Zeiss achieves sharpness similar to my D7000 DSLR with a sharp lens. The downsides are the lens’s $999 price tag and 2.5” length.

Left image is with kit lens, showing distortion. Right is with Zeiss lens.


I loved the handling of the Panasonic . Despite, or perhaps because of, its larger size, it fits well in my hand and the controls are pretty easy to use, even without looking (I really believe that to be a serious camera, a camera needs to be one you can use most of the time without looking down at it -- you're supposed to be looking at your subject and surroundings, after all). [NOTE: Sony has specifically made the A57 larger than the A55 for similar reasons]. By contrast, I preferred the image quality -- especially when I needed to use ISOs over 800 -- of the . The Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 lens was unbelievably sharp on the Sony, but it is a pricey $999 and quite large for a prime lens.

If I had to purchase today, in this price range, I'd opt for the . Otherwise, if I really needed DSLR image quality and could stomach the much higher price, I'd consider waiting until the new (and admittedly much more expensive) is widely available and see how many of the issues are addressed.


Both cameras are in limited stock at B&H. The , and . The is slightly less expensive at , and when you can find them in stock.