Are you looking for a digital camera that does a better job of taking pictures than your smartphone or point-and-shoot camera? When you’re a blogger looking to step up, it’s probably a good idea to get a digital SLR camera. But maybe there’s another way to approach this.

We selected a new midrange digital SLR, the nikon D5100, and compared it to the latest “Micro Four Thirds” camera, an Olympus PEN E-P3. Both represent the best of breed, with the nikon holding court in the lower end of DSLRs, and the Olympus the latest sensation in the Micro Four Thirds camp.


By the way, what is this Four Thirds system, anyway? These new cameras are part of a system developed by Olympus and Kodak, aimed at reduced size but higher quality.


The Olympus camera in our tests uses the Micro Four Thirds format, making it smaller and lighter than the nikon and nearly as small as a point-and-shoot camera. Its “Micro” designation means it does away with the mirror of a DSLR camera, using just a viewscreen (and no optical viewfinder) to frame your shots. It still has a Four Thirds sensor, larger than point-and shoot cameras, and closer in size to a digital SLR’s sensor (see graphic above). We’re not talking about how many megapixels can be crammed on an image sensor; we’re talking about the size of the image sensor itself, an important factor in low-light performance and overall quality of the resulting pictures.

Both the nikon D5100 and Olympus E-P3 cameras cost about the same, retailing for around $900. Which one was better for the purposes of an occasional photographer — perhaps a blogger who needs minimum size and maximum quality — who usually shoots in automatic mode? Let’s put these two cameras to the test.

The nikon D5100 crosses the bridge between point-and-shoot cameras and the behemoths used by the pros. One reason it appealed to us is because of its relatively diminutive size — it’s smaller than most DSLRs. Even so, it’s still bulky and big. It weighs 27.1 ounces, and is 5 inches wide and 6 inches deep with its included 18-to-55mm lens.

Compare that to the Olympus PEN E-P3 that is much lighter, weighing 17.4 ounces. It’s about as wide as the nikon at 5 inches, but when its 14-42mm lens is collapsed, it’s a mere 1 inch deep, small enough to fit in a medium-sized purse. Its 12.3-megapixel sensor doesn’t have as many pixels as the nikon’s 16.2 megapixel sensor, and because the Olympus camera’s sensor is about 40 percent smaller than that of the nikon, its pixels must be packed slightly closer together.

What are the other differences between these two cameras? In our testing, we really liked the adjustable viewscreen of the nikon. It lets you take self portraits, take low-angled pictures while looking at the viewfinder from above, and gives you a lot more flexibility. The downside of that is you must use nikon’s Live View technology to use that viewscreen, and it’s a relatively slow process, necessitating an operation it feels like you’re taking two pictures in a row.

On the other hand, while the Olympus camera lacks that adjustable viewscreen (you can get that in a lesser model of the Olympus), it makes up for that with its lightning-fast response while giving you a live view just like a point-and-shoot does. In fact, the viewscreen is the only way you’re going to be able to see the picture you’re about to take on the Olympus E-P3, because there’s no optical viewfinder unless you buy a separate attachment. However, we noticed that even in the brightest sunlight, the E-P3 viewscreen allowed us to see precisely what we were shooting.

Bloggers often need video, and both the cameras can shoot 1080p footage. Take a look at the comparison below, and you’ll notice that both are comparable, but I think the Olympus did a better job of automatically exposing and focusing, and there were fewer strange artifacts in the challenging video test I put the two cameras through. The good news is, both of these cameras are capable of shooting sharp and colorful 1080p video and passable audio. By the way, the odd sound you hear on the Olympus audio is its neckstrap holder clanking against the body of the camera:

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