Small is beautiful, and sometimes it’s affordable too. Compact system cameras are threatening to take over from bulky DSLRs. Here’s everything you need to know
Camera formats used to be simple. You could buy a big DSLR from one of the big names like Canon or Nikon, or a compact snap camera from a wider range of manufacturers. When Olympus and Panasonic introduced the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) format in 2008, everything changed. Enthusiasts and professionals could get their hands on a small camera with near-pro performance at a very reasonable price, supported by a wide range of interchangeable lenses.
Since then, MFT has been supplemented by a large variety of compact system cameras (CSCs). The idea is the same – low cost, small size, high performance, interchangeable lenses – but the new designs are non-standard, and if you buy one from the manufacturer, you’ll be locked into its range of lenses and accessories. Basic specs like pixel count and sensor size can also vary widely.
Pixel count isn’t usually a showstopper, after all 8.7 megapixels will fill an A4 page at 300dpi. More is better, but doubling the megapixels only gives you a 25 per cent larger area. This is good for high-quality crops, but the actual quality depends more on the size of the camera’s sensor than the number of dots it produces.
All cameras suffer from noise – the ugly digital grain that’s more obvious in low light. And the larger the sensor, the less noise you get. Look for the letters ‘APS-C’. Cameras with bigger sensors, such as the Samsung NX200 (£540), Sony NEX-5 (£510) and Sony NEX-7 (£1,125), usually score better in noise tests than cameras with smaller sensors such as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1 (£480). The difference also depends on the quality of the electronics, so it’s always a very good idea to read detailed reviews on websites like TechRadar before buying. Also, bear in mind that APS-C performs worse than a DSLR with a true full-frame 35mm sensor, like the Canon EOS-1DS Mk III or the much anticipated Nikon D4.
Sensor size also affects the nominal focal length of a lens. Focal length is basically a measure of lens magnification. Small numbers make a scene look distant; big numbers make it look close-up and bigger. Very big numbers give you a telescopic effect called telephoto, which is essential if you’re chasing celebrities on a beach. Small numbers below around 18mm create dramatic wide-angle views. If you make the numbers even smaller, you get a special effect called fish-eye with spectacular curved distortion.
CSC cameras double or even triple the focal length. This is good news for telephoto close-ups, because a 100mm lens becomes a 200mm lens, bringing your scene much nearer. But it’s bad news for wide-angle effects. A dramatic 18mm wide-angle lens becomes a very ordinary 36mm and it’s very difficult to create a fish-eye effect at all. So although CSCs have interchangeable lenses, the range of effects you can get from them and the basic light capture are more creatively limited than with a full-sized DSLR.
On the plus side, you can slip the smallest CSCs into your jacket pocket. Nikon’s J1 (£450) and V1 (£600) are tiny, but light and thin enough to take anywhere. Fujifilm’s X10 (£425) is also tiny, but has a robust retro-looking metal body clad in 70s-style textured plastic. It’s difficult to take photos if you don’t have your camera with you, and CSCs score easily on portability over full-sized DSLRs.
They also score on cost. The Pentax Q (£350) is both the smallest and cheapest CSC you can buy. Sophisticated features include smart focusing that attempts to estimate an aperture for the most effective depth of field, and shake reduction, which wobbles the sensor to compensate for hand movements. The shake feature also helps to keep the sensor free of dust. These features are usually found on more expensive DSLRs. On the down side, image quality doesn’t match that of a DSLR, but it’s hard to argue with a camera that’s small enough to take with you almost anywhere.
Ease of use is a critical point to watch for. DSLRs are notorious for complicated menu trees, but they need them, because they offer so many options and features. Some CSCs try to offer a similar number of features, but skimp on the buttons, so you’ll be scrolling and poking for minutes to change a critical setting. It’s always a good idea to try out CSCs by hand before buying, just so you know how you’ll get on with menu navigation and changing the settings.
Accessories also matter. Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds score here, because lenses are standardised between different manufacturers, so you have many more options to choose from. Don’t forget that unlike a standalone compact, CSCs won’t do telephoto and macro (extreme close-up) effects out of the box. If you need these, don’t be surprised if the full package price is double the cost of the camera. And for studio use, you’ll certainly want a model with an accessory hot-shoe so that you can sync it to external flash hardware as well as studio lighting.
Overall, DSLRs still win over CSCs for some applications: basic photo quality, video recording, accessory support and lens choice are all better. But the cost of a full pro DSLR and lens package will run to four or even five figures.
CSCs give much better value for money and, of course, they’re a lot easier to carry around, so you’re much more likely to have yours with you all the time. If your main interests are product shots, basic studio model shots and fun outdoor photography, you won’t go wrong with a good CSC.
Best for image quality
Although it’s a very close race, Samsung’s 20MP monster uses a high quality APS-C image sensor to capture some of the best shots possible from a CSC. Ease of use could be better, but there’s no arguing with the output from the sensor.
Best for features
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1
With accessible manual and auto control, support for multiple aspect ratios and HD video recording, a dust filter and an all-important external flash trigger, the Panasonic DMC-GX1 is equally flexible outdoors and in the studio. The MFT format means a wide range of lenses are available.
Best for ease of use
With only a tiny selection of buttons but plenty of features, the Nikon J1 is ideal for photographers who want a step-up from a point-and-click compact but don’t want to bury themselves in a manual. Auto-focus is lightning fast and you can even stitch your photos together into a short movie.