Are consumers spoilt for choice or terminally confused?
Order out of chaos
The Compact Systems Camera market isn’t an easy one to keep up with. The last couple of years have seen every major camera maker get into this market, often with quite different interpretations of the new format. The makers can’t even agree on a category name for these cameras so we’re left with a whole bunch of acronyms to digest:
ILC – Interchangeable Lens Cameras
MILC – Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras
EVIL – Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens
MSC – Mirrorless System Camera
CSC – Compact Systems Cameras
Where these cameras are remarkably similar is in their prices, which range from $500 to $800. Logically, CSC cameras should fill the gap between the better digicams ($350?) and entry-level DSLRs at $700, which will buy you a competent Nikon D3200 kit with an advanced 24mp sensor. With a couple of exceptions, that’s not what’s happening.
Trying to keep up with the Jones’s here is near impossible, with Olympus, Panasonic, Sony and Samsung changing their models more often than most of change our clothes, but let’s try to wrest some order from this chaos. This post is an attempt to provide a map through this jungle, at least for a snapshot in time.
Compacts without the ‘I’
These are compact cameras with bigger sensors than digicams, but without interchangeable lenses, and they are:
These three have little in common other than roughly fitting into the typical entry-level serious camera price range of $500 - $800. They also have similar zoom capacities in the range of 3.5-4x, but their sensors couldn’t be more different: The Fuji’s is a 2/3” sensor about twice the size as a standard digicam sensor, the Sony RX100 has a 1” sensor about twice the X10’s size (and the same size as the CX sensor Nikon uses in the J1/V1 system).
The Canon G1X has an odd sensor size (18.7 x 14mm) that is just a little bigger than the M43 standard. Why Canon didn’t leave its options open by using an M43 sized sensor is an interesting question. Here’s a diagram that might help peg these sensors in their relative slots (the G1X sensor isn’t there yet, and the Sony RX100 is the same size as Nikon CX.
It’s no surprise that the Canon G1X provides the best image quality here but the reviewers have picked on some serious handling and functional issues. In addition, the G1X is by far the most expensive option at around $800, and the biggest. One gets the distinct impression that Canon threw something into this ring because it was expected to, but it doesn't really want to be here.
Fujifilm on the other hand is pushing the envelope, and Sony is constantly innovating. The Fuji X10 sits in between the other two in size, while the Sony RX100 is the only truly pocketable camera here, not just in this group but right across the CSC spectrum. That’s a first, and that’s the Sony’s real advantage: a decent size sensor in a pocket camera. The only downside is a launch price on the wrong side of $600, but that will come down.
Nikon 1 system – out on its own
The other makers of CSC cameras have either opted for M43 sensors or the bigger APS-C type. Nikon has used a 1” sensor small enough to fit into really compact cameras with small lenses, as shown by Sony’s RX100. However, Nikon has failed to make good use of the small sensor. It's a more serious effort than Canon's, but it's not as convincing as it should be.
As a result, the 1 system cameras and lenses are no smaller than those of the M43 competitors, so it begs the question: why did Nikon not join Panasonic and Olympus in the M43 coalition? Nikon makes great lenses, and that would’ve expanded its market for them. Beats me.
- Image quality that compares well with basic M43 cameras
- Good, print-ready JPEGs with in-camera correction of fringing, CA and vignetting
- Adaptive 'Hybrid' AF system offering fast & accurate phase-detection tracking AF
- Superfast continuous shooting rates up to 60 fps (RAW + JPEG)
DPReview found that the 1 System performs well in good light conditions, but does less well in poor indoor light where the contrast-detection AF and Auto ISO systems struggle to cope. The biggest thing the 1 system has going for it is the adaptive hybrid AF systems. ‘If you want to shoot moving subjects in good light with a small(ish) camera,’ DPReview says, ‘then the J1 and V1 really are the only game in town, at least as far as mirrorless models are concerned.’
Another advantage for the 1 system is an adaptor that lets Nikon DSLR users bolt on their existing lenses. If neither of these features are important to you, then you’ll probably look at other CSC cameras and see better value, better handling and more lens choices.
M43/Micro Four Thirds cameras - Panasonic
Panasonic and Olympus are the driving (and I mean DRIVING) forces behind this group, which uses a common sensor size and common lens mount. That’s right: all M43 lenses will work on all M43 cameras, with full functionality. The M43 standard is the only ‘open’ standard for camera sensors/ lens mounts, a step in the right direction that offers a limited version of the plug-and-play freedom we’ve long enjoyed with our PCs.
The M43 sensor sits between Nikon’s CX/Sony’s 1” (RX100) sensors and Canon’s/Nikon’s APS-C (DSLR) sensors in size. To illustrate the sizes more clearly, this diagram might help:
Now the fun starts: Keeping up with Panasonic and Olympus has been a fulltime job. Panasonic currently lists no fewer than 7 models on its US website (plus variants).
We can leave the GH2 out of our calculations here since it’s a $1,000 camera. The G2 and G3 share the mini-DSLR body style, and are in our price range. They offer an articulated screen and built-in EVF, unlike the rest of the range that Panasonic has been continuously updating. If you want a simple to use camera with good IQ and good handling at a good price, and you like the mini-DSLR body style, check out the G3.
The GF5 is the current follow-up on the GF1, a rangefinder-styled camera loved by serious shooters who compared it to the M9 Leica two years ago. They were dismayed by the GF2 that followed since it was clearly aimed at the consumer market, and so are the GF3 and the new GF5.
These small bodies, now often bundled with Panasonic’s retractable X Vario PZ 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 ASPH OIS power zoom lens, are clearly designed to please those who want to upgrade from digicams to something better but not much bigger. Because it has been replace by the GF5, the GF3 is being offered at crazy prices out there. DWI in Hong Kong has a GF3/14-42mm combo on offer for less than A$400 at the moment: http://www.dwidigitalcameras.com.au/store/product.asp?idProduct=3823
A few months ago, the new GX1 finally gave the long-lost GF1 fans something to upgrade to (see image above comparing the GX1 with Nikon’s V1). The GX1's 16mp sensor is the same as the G3’s, and the image processing firmware produces ‘the most impressive high ISO JPEG performance we have seen in any Micro Four Thirds offering from Panasonic or Olympus,’ according to DPReview. The reviewers add that the gap between M43 IQ and APS-C IQ has narrowed, but a gap remains.
M43 - Olympus
Olympus has continued making new cameras in the shadow of a huge corporate scandal, and has put all its eggs into the M43 basket. The US website lists
E-P3 – top of this line
E-PL3 – also known as the PEN Light
E-PL1 – over 2 years old now
E-PM1 – also known the PEN Mini
E-PL2 (showing ‘out of stock’, probably forever since it’s an older model)
There’s also the new and widely praised E-M5 OMD, which is over $1,000 so we can ignore it here. The EP-3 is the serious enthusiast model, with the E-PL3 offering a smaller package with touch screen controls, and the E-PM1 Mini being the obvious carrot for digicam users looking for an easy way to a better camera.
The smaller two of this trio are very stylish cameras, make no mistake, and come in flashy colours that would make them work well as fashion accessories. The feature list of all three cameras is exhaustive and includes full HD AVCHD video, lots of art filters and creative effects. More important to serious shooters will be the in-body stabilisation, which works with any lens you choose for these cameras.
Operation is now very responsive, autofocus is fast and accurate (in good light), but the sensor and imaging firmware have been neglected badly as the E-M5 OMD shows – its IQ is in another class, even with the same size M43 sensor. The other longstanding Olympus issue is tedious navigation through too many menu layers. And flash and EVF are not included, and the hot shoe will only take one or other. On the positive side, pricing for the E-PM1 PEN Mini starts at $500.
That’s it for today - we look at the APS-C based CSC cameras in part 2 of this survey http://briard.typepad.com/get_the_picture/2012/07/csc-milc-and-evil-cameras-part-2-aps-c-based.html