Plugged In: Compact-system cameras a big share of market

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Over the past several weeks we’ve discussed the most important compact-system cameras, those from Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, Fujifilm and Samsung. But there are still others on the market.

At this time, only three major vendors continue to market moving-mirror digital SLR cameras, Pentax and the dominant Nikon-Canon duo. Traditional dSLR makers like Sony, Fujifilm and Olympus have stopped producing moving-mirror cameras, instead concentrated on improving their compact systems. They shifted because CSC sales continue to rise even as dSLR sales drop in all markets, even in Europe and the U.S. Every manufacturer prefers a slice of a bountiful pie rather than a diminishing one.

This week, we’ll finish our review of high-quality compact cameras by considering those from Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Leica, along with some high-quality, fixed-lens alternatives.

Canon’s original and sole CSC remains the EOS M “system,” which uses the same 18-megapixel, APS-C sensor found in Canon’s moving-mirror dSLR cameras. Although not exactly state of the art, it’s a decent sensor capable of good results when used carefully. Unfortunately, there’s only a single camera EOS M camera body, a single 18- to 55-mm kit zoom lens, and a single prime lens, Canon’s 22-mm f/2, available in the U.S.

That’s not much of a system, but it’s currently an excellent bargain at reputable vendor http://www.bhphotovideo.com. At BH, the camera body, bright prime lens, kit zoom lens and powerful external flash currently sells for $499. Although it’s likely to be replaced soon and there’s no eye-level viewfinder available, that’s still a nice system for a casual photographer.

Nikon’s 1 System uses a smaller, “One-inch” sensor that’s about half the size of the Micro Four-Thirds sensors used in Olympus and Panasonic CSCs. “One-inch” sensors are increasingly popular but their image quality and low-light performance are lower than both M 4/3 and APS-C cameras. Unlike Canon’s EOS M camera, Nikon currently offers several 1 System camera bodies in a range of colors. Nikon offers only a limited variety of lenses that mount natively on the 1 System camera bodies.

The two most recent CSC cameras from Nikon, the consumer-oriented J4 and the more serious V3, are both rather more expensive than comparable M 4/3 cameras that perform better and have a wider range of good lenses. In the case of the V3, it’s seriously overpriced, costing more than Olympus’ prograde OM-D E-M5. The less-expensive 1 Series cameras seem a better match for tight quarters like a purse, large pocket or vehicle dashboard box.

Nikon’s 1 AW1 is quite a bit more interesting — it’s a direct descendant of Nikon’s famous Nikonos underwater camera. Nikon claims that this camera is waterproof to 49 feet, freeze-proof and able to resist a drop of over 6 feet. The AW1 sells for about $750, including lens. With its rugged specifications, the AW1 seems a very good match for the Alaska outdoors, and a good buy as a ruggedized camera. Nikon even claims that the built-in popup flash is waterproof to the same depth as the camera.

Pentax’s tiny Q system cameras are finally priced fairly rationally, in the $400 to $500 range, including a lens or two. However, the Q system is aimed mostly at Japanese markets that prize tiny size and “cute” design. As a result, Q system cameras use the same small 1/1.7-inch sensors found in comparably priced premium compact cameras, such as Canon’s Powershot S and G series. Pentax dSLR and medium-format professional cameras are among the best in their respective classes, offering better-than-average image quality at a lower price point. Pentax’s Q system basically offers “cute.” I can’t see the point.

Leica, too, uses distinctive design as a major sales point. You might think of Leica’s newest T series CSC cameras as the Rolex of compact digital cameras. Both are expensive examples of conspicuous consumerism. Both are machined out of a solid block of metal and beautifully finished. They’re both for the person who can afford the best, or at least the most expensive. Yet a much less expensive Seiko electronic watch is at least as accurate as a Rolex, while a Fujifilm or Olympus CSC camera will produce comparably good images while enjoying a far wider range of sharp optics.

Among premium quality fixed-lens cameras, those using larger, “One-inch” sensors stand out for good image quality. Sony’s RX100 III is the most compact, yet includes a popup eye-level electronic viewfinder. I’ve tried one and was not really all that impressed with its image quality, although I might easily be wrong. Many highly respected digital camera review sites rave over the newest RX100 III. However, before buying an expensive fixed-lens camera, be sure that the limited zoom range is adequate to your needs. After all, that fixed lens can’t be changed.

Sony’s RX10 is a significantly larger camera that also uses a “One-inch” sensor but a far more capable, sharper lens with a wider zoom range. The RX10 is supposedly a direct descendant of Sony’s famous R-1, and that’s high praise. I have had an R-1 for nearly nine years, still use it regularly and find that it’s an excellent lens that continues to produce gallery-grade images.

Panasonic has a similarly specified “One-inch” fixed lens camera, the FZ1000, introduced at a price about $300 less than the very similar Sony RX10. With competition, both cameras now sell for a bit under $1,000. Although expensive, both are high quality, capable cameras despite the fixed zoom lens. I’d favor the Panasonic if I did mostly video and the Sony RX10 for mostly still photographs. Either should be satisfactory to most people.

A few higher-end large-sensor cameras mount a fixed, single-magnification prime lens. These tend to be less flexible. As a result, they tend to appeal to purists and professionals that want a very small backup camera capable of big-camera quality.

Ricoh-Pentax, Leica, Fujifilm and Nikon all market top-tier single-magnification cameras that carefully match a large APS-C sensor to a slightly wide-angle lens. Because that fixed lens is designed to work with a specific sensor, image sharpness tends to be very high, at least partially compensating for the lack of optical versatility. Sigma uses a similar design with their unique, ultrasharp, richly-colored Foveon sensors.

All of these cameras produce wonderful image quality in the right hands, but are relatively expensive and limited. If you go down that path, look and choose carefully.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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