Closing the gap to DSLRs?
As I said in part 1 of this series, CSC cameras should logically fill the gap between the better digicams (up to $350) and entry-level DSLRs at $700. That kind of money will buy you a very competent Nikon D3200 kit with an advanced 24mp sensor, and that serves as a useful benchmark in this survey. In part 2, we’ll look at CSC cameras that use similar size sensors to the Nikon D3200.
A very late entry into the EVIL section of this market is the just announced EOS M system. It looks like Canon crammed the T4i's technology into a compact system camera. 'From the new Hybrid AF system to the stepper-motor-driven STM lenses,' Imaging Resource reports, 'the menus to the touchscreen and most of the special capture modes, Canon T4i owners will feel right at home with the new EOS M.'
The EOS M uses the standard 18-megapixel APS-C size sensor that graces most of Canon's consumer SLRs, and a 3" touchscreen that reduces the need for physical controls on the Olympus-PEN size body. There is a mode dial on the back, and a hotshoe on top for the new Speedlite 90EX and older Canon Speedlites. The initial offering includes the 22mm prime and an 18-55mm zoom lens.As you'd expect, there's also an adaptor for Canon's existing lenses.
What's missing is any kind of provision for a viewfinder. Another issue for many will be the EOS M's Hybrid Autofocus system, again borrowed from the T4i. Imaging Resource calls the T4i's Live View mode autofocus 'terribly slow. Both the T4i and EOS M have a new sensor with phase-detect sites embedded near the center, as well as contrast-detection autofocus. But the Live View autofocus speed is very slow on the T4i with the 40mm STM lens, averaging more than 1.2 seconds to autofocus in single-point mode, and more than 1.7 seconds in multi-point AF mode. That's just unworkable in a modern mirrorless camera.'
The final problem is that the EOS M comes out of the blocks carrying a hefty $800 price tag with a new 22mm prime lens. To me, the whole effort looks a bit like Canon got into the CSC market reluctantly and very late, took some pretty obvious shortcuts and said: 'Let see how many people really want to buy this kind of thing.'
More details here:
Sony set a cracking pace once it got serious about the CSC market, shooting out new models like a biscuit factory. An interesting aside: once the Japanese copied American and European technology; these days the Japanese have become the innovators. Not just in the camera market - think of hybrid cars and bullet trains. In the last decade, Japan had more new technology patents approved than any other country.
Sony brought back the pellicle mirror in its DSLRs, and perfected it. In the CSC space, Sony has developed the smallest camera bodies with the highest computing power. They’ve rightly been called micro-computers with lens mounts, and herein lie two problems: navigation becomes complex with all the options on offer, and handling is a real issue.
The latter is true of all CSC cameras, but it’s worse with the bigger sensor brigade because the lenses are so big, relatively speaking. Even an 18-55mm lens is a front-heavy lump on a Sony NEX, and the 18-200 is a ridiculous misfit. The bigger body and shape of the Nikon D3200 DSLR makes for much better handling and easier shooting. However small these CSC bodies are, by the time you add anything but a pancake lens, you have anything but a compact system. As always, a picture beats 1,000 words:
Today, Sony lists 3 models on its website, but the top dog Nex-7 is well over $1000 so we can ignore it here. The NEX-F3 is the new entry level camera, while the NEX-5N is one peg up but just $100 more. The NEX-F3 looks good on paper with the same 16mp sensor, an added a flip screen and a built-in flash. What’s more, the F3 has a bigger, more ergonomic body – perhaps Sony has recognised that Twiggy and Big Bertha are not a perfect match.
Once the Japanese were the best copiers, often improving on the originals in the process; now it’s the Koreans. Samsung is dogged in its determination to compete with Sony and Apple, the two big guns in consumer tech. Samsung appears to make its own sensors – 20mp for this range – and lenses. Right now, Samsung’s US website lists 3 models in the NX mirrorless range:
In addition, Samsung has released an NX 210 and NX 1000. The numbers are inverse, i.e. the bigger numbers are for smaller cameras – the NX11 and NX20 are DSLR-shaped compacts, the rest have small bodies like the Sonys above. The NX1000 is the entry level model at $700 with a 20-50mm kit lens, the rest are closer to $1,000 and of less interest to us in this survey.
Samsung calls the NX1000 ‘approachable’ and says it ‘combines the imaging power of a professional camera with the portability of a point-and-shoot. Then there’s an ‘eye-catching design and compact form-factor suitable for a small bag and a night out on the town.’ The kit weighs just 360g. Features include a bright 3.0-inch AMOLED screen, 1080p HD video, Smart Auto 2.0 technology and Smart Link Hot Key for sharing photos via Wi-Fi. Samsung knows the consumer market well.
Now part of Ricoh, Pentax was a late entry into the CSC market. It’s a curious entry with a big body and in-your face styling, very different from the rest of the CSCs. The reason for the thick body is the reliance on its existing lenses, which meant Pentax had to maintain the same back-focus distance for compatibility. The other CSC makers created new lens mounts and new lenses to allow for a shorter back-focus distance, and slimmer bodies. The K-01 looks like Pentax simply removed the mirror mechanism.
The K-01 is not just thick, it also weighs in at a hefty 560g (more than our benchmark Nikon 3200 DSLR). Reviewers say the camera sacrifices function to form, complaining about the awkward-to-hold body and the controls and the poor handling. There’s no viewfinder either, not even as an option. The sensor is the same 16mp affair that graces the Pentax K-5, so the body/lens combo should deliver in spades. As always with Pentax, body-based image stabilization is part of the design.
What is curious is that Pentax has designed the world’s flattest pancake lens for this camera, perhaps to make up for the body’s bulk. Obviously, the existing lenses are quite bulky but existing Pentax accessories also work here, flashes for example. Maybe this is a CSC for Pentax users? But if there’s no ‘compact’ advantage here, what’s the point ?
‘In retaining support for existing K-mount lenses,’ Imaging Resource sums up, ‘Pentax has presented a camera that still has most of the size of an SLR, but loses its most important advantages over mirrorless cameras: the fast phase-detect autofocus, and the optical viewfinder. In their place, the Pentax K-01 has slow and too-often unreliable contrast detection autofocus, and offers no viewfinder at all--not even an external accessory.’ http://www.imaging-resource.com/PRODS/pentax-k01/pentax-k01A.HTM
This is a different system where the body is merely a base for lens units and supplies the function buttons and LCD. The lens units include the sensors: APS-C size sensors for lenses in the normal range, and digicam sized sensors for tele lenses. The lens units are expensive propositions at around $500-600 each, but you can get a basic kit for about $600 (with a 28-300mm equivalent lens), and the 28mm f/2.5 kit for $900.
A few months ago, Ricoh at last released a 24-85mm lens unit which matches the focal and aperture range of standard kit lenses for DSLRs. Image quality is said to be excellent with the APS-C sensor and nine rounded aperture blades in the lens. The problem once again is price – the lens unit and GXR body together add up to nearly a grand.
The recent release of an M-Mount adaptor has opened the GXR system to a range of highly regarded old lenses from Leica, Minolta, Voigtlander and Zeiss. They’re all manual-focus lenses, of course, for which Ricoh provides some electronic trickery to make the task of focusing easier. The new M-mount effectively turns the GXR into a cheap Leica.
The GXR is a bold concept, and Ricoh is to be congratulated for putting it into production. However, I suspect it will mostly appeal to those who love fresh and different technology, and to pro shooters as a small back-up system.
I’ll list the X-Pro1 system here because it is APS-C based but, like the fixed lens X100, it is priced on the wrong side of $1,000. It's designed for Pr shooters as the name suggests.
I’m convinced that our benchmark Nikon D3200 is the equal of any sub $1,000 CSC camera when it comes to image quality, and it makes for better balance and handling with lenses attached. A real viewfinder is included, and so is a flash, which saves money and delivers convenience. Another alternative is the Nikon D5100, which is currently cheaper than the newer D3200 and offers an articulated screen and more shooting options such as HDR and interval timer. Image quality is as good or better. Here’s a good comparison:
While some of the CSC systems are more compact than even a small DSLR, none is so small that it’ll fit comfortably into a shirt or trouser pocket. The smallest Oly or Panny with a pancake lens attached might in a pinch, but more likely you’ll have 2 or three lenses which means you’ll be taking a small bag to carry the camera gear in. The Nikon D3200 fits into a pretty small bag as well, so in the end there’s not that much in it.
Some comparison tests that shed more light on the CSC subject
This link will take you to Part 1 of this series