Plugged In: Big punch in little packages — Large-sensor compacts worth a look

By Joseph Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Until a few months ago, Panasonic and Olympus essentially owned the large-sensor compact camera market, with both vendors selling a variety of excellent cameras that use Panasonic’s 12-megapixel, Four-Thirds sensor.

Since then, two behemoths of consumer electronics, Sony and Samsung, have jumped into this new but rapidly growing market, introducing entirely new interchangeable-lens camera systems, with confusingly similar names, the Sony NEX and the Samsung NX. Sony’s E-mount NEX camera system seems both more radical and more polished.

Sony vs. Samsung

Sony’s NEX models are particularly interesting because they’re even more compact than the Olympus and Panasonic models that use a smaller 4/3 sensor, even though Sony includes useful new features not seen in any other large-sensor cameras.

Sony’s NEX cameras are also very aggressively priced for such well-built cameras. Despite its $700 selling price, Sony’s top compact model, the NEX-5, is already one of the best-selling cameras in the world, despite being on the market less than five months.

A fifth vendor, Leica, sells a similarly compact large-sensor camera, the Leica X1, that uses the same 12-megapixel, Sony APS-C sensor found in Pentax’s excellent K-x entry-level digital SLR camera. However, while the relatively compact Pentax K-x sells for about $500 and can use many excellent interchangeable lenses, the fixed-lens Leica sells for $2,000. The X1 is limited to its fixed, moderate, wide-angle lens, another good reason to look elsewhere at more versatile and less expensive systems.

Both Sony and Samsung use a standard “APS-C” sensor that’s about twice as big as the Four-Thirds sensor used by Olympus and Panasonic. As a result, these cameras, Sony’s in particular, do better in dim light. In brighter light, though, there’s little or no obvious difference in the images taken by any of the large-sensor compacts sold by Sony, Samsung, Panasonic or Olympus. They’re all very good.

Sony’s NEX-3 and NEX-5 are basically identical optically, and use the same, high-end, 14-megapixel Sony image sensor. The basic differences are that the $700 NEX-5 is built of good-quality metal and shoots higher-resolution, 1,080-line video, while the $550 NEX-3 is built mostly of plastic and has video whose maximum resolution is reduced to 720 vertical lines.

There’s one other difference. On Oct. 12, Sony held a press conference to announce that you can buy a pink NEX-3, in case that might affect your purchasing decision. Do they really need a major press conference to announce something that trivial?

Despite their larger sensors, the NEX-3 and the NEX-5 are actually slightly smaller than the Olympus and Panasonic M4/3 cameras and are excellent buys, offering better-than-average lenses that are actually made with metal lens bodies, just like in the good old days.

The NEX sensors are among the best under low-light conditions and have some very nifty electronic features that allow easy panoramas, a nice feature for almost anyone, and greatly enhanced low-light photography. The NEX-5 has a gorgeous, high-resolution LCD panel on the back that tilts up or down, allowing you to shoot at high and low camera angles, another nice feature.

What’s the catch? None with the NEX cameras themselves. Their 14-megapixel Sony sensors are as good or better than those used in the great majority of dSLR cameras, and the NEX cameras are built to a very high standard and are fairly priced. The problem with Sony’s NEX series is there’s only one decent lens available for them, the kit 18- to 55-mm lens. Sony’s small, 16-mm lens is notoriously unsharp, while Sony’s 18- to 200-mm zoom is very expensive and just as large as any other similar lens, negating NEX’s compact size. More lenses are scheduled to be available by 2012, but we can merely speculate about price and quality.

Samsung’s large-sensor NX10 series is shaped like a somewhat smaller dSLR, and similar to Panasonic’s G2 cameras. However, the NX10 series has a number of disadvantages relative to the G2. As with Sony, some of the available lenses are quite sharp, but few lenses are available for this totally proprietary lens mount. Panasonic’s video features are better than Samsung’s, while Sony’s sensor and image processing is better than the competition.

The NX100, Samsung’s compact entry, is a large-sensor compact somewhat similar to the Sony NEX-3, but again with few available lenses and image quality that’s somewhat lower than the Sony NEX series. It does have a very bright, high-resolution LCD panel on the back, which makes it easy to use in bright sunshine. While the Samsung NX100 does not excel in taking pictures under low-light conditions, the Sony NEX series does very well. This may be a deciding factor for you.

Focus on needs when choosing cameras

Several of the large-sensor compact cameras that we’ve discussed last week and this week, including the Sony NEX series, the Samsung NX models and the Olympus E-PL1, are primarily aimed at somewhat casual users who want to upgrade from lower-quality, point-and-shoot cameras to a highly capable but compact system.

The Olympus E-PL1 sells for just over $520 with Olympus’ compact 14- to 42-mm zoom lens, while the NEX-3 goes for about $550 or so. I’ve seen Samsung NX100 cameras with their very nice 20- to 50-mm zoom lens retail for as low as $440. The very polished Panasonic GF1, with its acclaimed 20-mm f 1.7 lens, now sells for about $625, while a top-end, large-sensor camera like the Olympus E-P2 can be purchased for as little as $779 on occasion, complete with lens and its accessory electronic viewfinder.

As competition continues to reduce the initial overpricing of large-sensor compact cameras like the E-P2 or NEX-5, premium small-sensor cameras such as Canon’s G12 and Panasonic’s LX5 are being squeezed from both directions. Although intended for serious users for whom image quality is critical, small-sensor cameras like the G12 and LX5 don’t have the image quality of top large-sensor cameras like the Olympus E-P2, yet are significantly more expensive than standard point-and-shoot models. In fact, they’re nearly as expensive as lower-end, large-sensor, interchangeable-lens cameras despite the limitations of their smaller sensors and fixed lenses.

My sense is that cameras like the Canon G12 and Panasonic LX5, excellent and polished though they may be, will be discontinued within a few years in favor of cameras like the Olympus E-PL1 and Sony NEX-5. When physically smaller lenses are attached, large-sensor cameras like Samsung’s NX100 or Sony NEX series are nearly as compact as the G12.

The Sony NEX series, the Olympus E-PL1, and the Samsung NX100 are intended for the upper-consumer market. That’s evident from their relatively simple user interface that hides most picture-taking controls behind a layer of menu choices.

These models lack the sort of dedicated control buttons and wheels that are sought by experienced photographers but that baffle less-experienced users. I recently worked a bit with an Olympus E-PL1. It has a reputation for excellent image quality and was only slightly larger than the Canon G11 next to it. I really wanted to like the Olympus E-PL1 but its consumer-oriented user interface and lack of dSLR-style controls was just too slow and awkward for me. The Samsung NX cameras and the Sony NEX series have similarly slow consumer-style interfaces. They are probably perfect for the casual user who wants really high image and video quality, but too frustrating for highly experienced photographers.

Overall, Sony’s NEX-5 is extremely tempting, particularly for video work. Sony’s optional high-quality audio microphone would improve sound quality and the limited number of NEX-mount lenses would not be a problem.

Despite the Sony’s great sensor and useful features, though, I felt that Olympus E-P2, with its wide range of quality lenses and in-body image stabilization, was the best fit for my own requirements. Your own needs may be quite different, so I urge you to try each of these cameras before making what would be a major purchasing decision.

  • Photo workshops. On the first three Saturday afternoons in November, I’ll be presenting a series of free digital photography workshops at the Kenai Fine Arts Center, 816 Cook St., in Old Town Kenai, near Oilers’ bingo hall. Each two-hour workshop starts at 1:30 p.m., and coffee will be provided. The first workshop, Nov. 6, will discuss fundamental photography techniques that apply to both film and digital photography. Call me at 398-0480 if you have any questions.
  • Bond issues. Although I always prefer to be nonpolitical and nonpartisan, I’d like to urge everyone to vote in favor of the education bonds before the voters next Tuesday. The bonds include critically needed local petroleum technology training facilities that would prepare our students for employment. The bond issue will provide thousands of construction jobs across Alaska and will not result in any direct cost to Alaskans.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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1 Comment

Filed under photography, Plugged in

One response to “Plugged In: Big punch in little packages — Large-sensor compacts worth a look

  1. ralph gonzalez

    Hi Joseph,
    Thanks a lot for the rundown of compact large-sensor cameras.

    I have to disagree with you about the size difference between the micro 4/3 interchangeable lens cameras and the Canon G12, though. If you put a lens with anywhere near the G12′s range on a Sony NEX or a E-PL1, you will not be able to put the camera in your coat pocket — it is huge.

    Moreover the G12 has nice dedicated dials for EV and ISO which are actually much simpler to use than having to dig through menus.

    I’d love to see a camera the size of a G12 with a micro 4/3 sensor and a fixed lens (ideally f/2.0!), but nothing comes close to this wish right now! (Well, maybe the X1…)

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