Dec 162016

In the modern market, most cameras introduced are pretty decent.  There is a major paradigm shift going on, where traditional fixed lens digital still cameras have been effectively displaced by new categories of photographic devices, most notably cell phones.  All the different compact digital cameras that use fairly small sensors are effectively obsolete, with a couple of exceptions.  The only non-interchangeable lens market segment that is doing all right is the so-called “enthusiast compact camera” that use a pretty large (1″ format) image sensor and as such offer significantly better image quality that any currently available cell phone.

I wrote about these camera fairly extensively earlier this year and while there are a few new entrants to this market, the situation has not changed much.

Here, I will offer some brief recommendations and a little bit of my decision making process for a variety of imaging devices:


Cell phones

For all practical purposes, if image quality is important, you need a flagship smartphone.  We are down to two operating systems: Apple and Android.  In terms of pure image quality, top end Android phones are a little better, but the iPhone is not far behind and is excellent in terms of usability.  I use Android and I have recently switched to Google Pixel.  Prior to that, I was using Google Nexus 6P.  However, I have had my hands on just about every flagship smartphone out there.  Google Pixel is pretty much the only option with a top notch smartphone camera in a not supersized body.  It also has the best autofocus I have seen on a phone to date.  Samsung phones do well in online reviews.  I have had a bunch of them and I swear Samsung must be buying those reviews.  In terms of pure image quality, Samsung Galaxy phones are good, but in terms of usability, Google Pixel runs circles around them.


Compact Point and Shoot Cameras

First, let’s get it out there: traditional inexpensive point and shoot cameras are simply not worth buying unless for some reason you can not use a smartphone.  The exceptions are:

  1. You need something waterproof/shockproof for swimming, skiing, etc.  In terms of image quality, you are better off putting a proper camera into a waterproof case, but that gets bulky.  If you need a small camera that does this consider Olympus Tough series.  Honestly, if it were me, I would be more likely to look at one of the action cams because for this type of use, video is important.  GoPro effectively created the action cam category, and the new Hero5 Black is pretty impressive.  That is the way I would go, since for this kind of a camera telephoto lens is not necessary (for my use).
  2. You are looking for significantly better image quality that you cell phone in a form factor that is still reasonably pocketable.  Then, you need one of the enthusiast compact cameras I mentioned earlier.  Sony is up to the fifth generation of their RX100 (Mark V), and if you can swing the price tag, it is not a bad way to go.  I think Sony has royally crewed up the interface though, so if super fast video modes do not tickle you, save some money and get the Panasonic LX10.  Its UI has its own gremlins, but it is much better that Sony’s.  Also, while Sony’s autofocus looks awesome  on paper and does great in reviews, every time I use it, I get fewer keepers than with Panasonic.  Basic image quality for still between the two is about the same.  Sony has slightly better 4K video, but both are good.  Now, if all you do is street photography and you never do video, I strongly recommend you take a look at Ricoh GR II with its much larger APS-C sensor and fixed 28mm equivalent lens.  In blows all the 1″ sensor cameras out of the water in terms of image quality in an almost as compact body.  It is a more limiting configuration though, but an excellent UI for photographers.


Bridge style non-interchangeable lens camera

The market is full of fancy looking cameras with what looks like incredibly long zoom lenses (83x, etc).  Ignore them.  I am talking about models like Nikon P900 and similar.  They look nice on paper.  When you first get it, you will have a lot of fun playing with that crazy zoom range.  Then, as you look at the pictures you will put the camera away and barely ever use it again.  In order to get that crazy zoom range, they use small image sensors, similar to what is in your cell phone,  but with complicated and not very bright lenses.  Stick with bridge cameras that are built around a much larger 1″ sensor.  Canon, Sony and Panasonic make such cameras.  Nikon announced a few, but can’t quite get them to market.  Canon, in my opinion, bungled this category up a bit in terms of video, so that leaves us with Sony and Panasonic.  For the money, Panasonic FZ1000 is the one to go.  If you are really interested in pro quality video, consider Panasonic FZ2500.  If the longest possible zoom is a big deal for you, spend the extra cash for Sony RX1o Mark III.


System Cameras

This includes both mirrorless and DSLR cameras.  Anything with interchangeable lenses qualifies.   Before I delve into it a bit more, you have to decide what is important for you.  If video is important, you should forget about DSLRs.  All DSLRs right now have video features and the way they are implemented is almost looks like they were trying to make sure noone uses them.

Honestly, in the modern camera market DSLRs have two things going for them: long battery life and target tracking (i.e. sports photography).  They will continue having a notable edge in battery life for a while, but target tracking gap is going to be negligible within a generation.

There is, however, a quirk in the market.  Before I get to it, let’s talk about sensor size.  There are three sensor sizes in use for cameras that most of us can sorta afford (I am staying from the medium frame discussion for now):

  • Full frame or 35mm or FX (in Nikon-speak) is the largest and the best for low light and high ISO performance
  • APS-C or DX is about half the area and low light performance is about a stop worse
  • Micro 4/3 is a bit smaller than APS-C and low light performance is about 3/4 of  stop worse than APS-C

High ISO image quality is important for very low light situations and for action photography where you often need to bump up the ISO in order to use very fast shutter speeds.  The only mirrorless system that uses a full frame sensor is Sony A7.  It has great technology and excellent image quality.  Unfortunately, it also has pretty terrible user experience.  Best I can tell, their UI is not designed for humans.  Performance is generally sluggish and battery life is about 60% of what Sony claims.  If you are a landscape photographer, Sony A7R II should be on your shortlist.  Outside of that, if you need a full frame sensor, a DSLR is probably still a better way to go for at least a couple more years.  For allround performance for the money, Nikon D750 is worth looking at.  It is not a new design, so you can find a good deal on it and the AF system is surprisingly competent.  If you do not have legacy lenses from a competing system, and you do not do action photography much, consider Pentax K-1.  This is the most image quality for the money you will get.  Personally, for the things I do, there is an advantage to Canon lenses (I will explain why later), so I would take a long hard look at the new Canon 5D Mark IV.  It is, however, a lot more money.  Also, since Canon seems hell bent on protecting their video camera business, 4K video implementation in the new 5D is fundamentally idiotic (I am being rather mild here; you should hear what real videographers have to say about it).

If you are not compelled to get a full frame sensor, for the most part I would suggest you stay away from DSLRs and stick with a mirrorless camera system.

The only reason to get a DSLR with a crop sensor is if you are looking for good tracking autofocus (i.e. sports) and the best one for the is Nikon D500.  It is not cheap, but it has an absolutely spectacular AF system.  It is also waterproof and, importantly for me, it shoots 4K video.  That is pretty much the only crop sensor DSLR out there that I might consider buying.  If you do not do sports, go mirrorless.

Honestly, with the introduction of Olympus E-M1 Mark II, even sports photography is not really out of reach, but I need to play with that camera a little more to see.  For indoor sports, D500 is still better owing to better high ISO performance.  There are some outstanding issues with D500, but they are mostly peripheral to taking pictures and videos and I hope Nikon will fix them with firmware updates.

Olympus E-M1 Mark II uses a Micro 4/3 size sensor which is a bit smaller than Canon’s APS-C or Nikon’s DX.  All of the Olympus and Panasonic interchangeable lens cameras use Micro-4/3 sensors.

Other mirrorless cameras use APS-C or DX sensors: Fuji X system, Sony A6300 and A6500, Canon EOS M5.

Weirdly, Nikon is not doing anything memorable in the mirrorless space.

All of these are competent cameras.  Sony is the most full featured of them and the one I like the least.  It looks awesome on paper, but it has all of the same Sony problems: sluggish operation, heat issues and battery life issues.  On top of that, Sony decided to not offer lossless raw on their crop sensor cameras, claiming we do not need it.  For those of us who do some postprocessing (and if you do not, system cameras are not for you) this can be an absolute show stopper, since it effects how well you can pull up shadows and generally fix exposure.  I get lossless raw images from my cellphone, but I can’t get them from a Sony A6500.  Basically, if you want to buy a very full featured camera for bragging rights, but do not plan to use any of the features, Sony A6500 is your best choice.  For the rest of us, there are other options.

If you already have a bunch of Canon lenses from your old DSLR, the mirrorless EOS M5 is a pretty good choice.  Canon finally upgraded their sensor fab, so basic image quality from their newest sensors is quite good.  EOS M5 is the only mirrorless camera from Canon with the new sensor.  It does not offer 4K video, but aside from that, I like what I see and it integrates well with all Canon lenses via an adapter.

Fuji X system is now pretty well fleshed out and if you want a mirrorless camera with APS-C sensor, this is a pretty good way to go.  X-T2 now offers competent 4K video and is the best general purpose camera in Fuji’s line-up, while X-Pro2 leans a bit more toward stills.  It sorta comes down to whether you need video and what form factor you like.  X-Pro2 is a rangefinder style camera, while X-T2 is more of a traditional SLR style.  Both are good cameras and they use more or less the same Sony sensor that is in the A6500.  Except, Fuji gets more out of it.

Lastly, we get to Micro-4/3.  This is easily the best fleshed out system in the mirrorless world.  Since it is based on a slightly smaller sensor, its lenses are also a bit smaller, so the overall system is smaller.  The converse is that there is a penalty in low light, although not a huge one.  Traditionally, Panasonic Micro-4/s cameras did better with video and Olympus did better with stills.  The lines are blurring though as far as flagships are concerned.  Newly introduced Olympus E-M1 Mark II is a superb stills camera and a competent video camera.  The upcoming Panasonic GH5 is still likely to be better with video, but stills will be no slouch either.

If you are on a budget, Panasonic generally offers what I believe to be the best price to performance ration in the camera world: G80 for those who like DSLR-style bodeis and GX80 for those who prefer rangefinder style bodies.  Both have excellent stills features and very respectable video options including 4K.  In this price range, I do not like the Olympus offerings, so stick with Panasonic.

As you go a bit higher in price, we have Panasonic GX8 and Olympus Pen-F.  GX8 looked so promising that I bought… and two weeks later returned it.  It is an extremely competent camera, but I could not grab it without inadvertently pressing a bunch of buttons.  Aside from that, I thought it was a very nice design.  I know a lot of people love it and it clearly works for them.  To me, it is a mess of a UI.  Panasonic was trying to make sure there is enough adjustability, so they put in 14 customizable controls instead of leaving some gripping space.

Olympus Pen-F uses the same sensor as GX8 and seems to be a touch better for still image quality, but it is close.  Video features, however, are rather limited.  If you do anything more than a casual video clip occasionally, this is not the camera for you.  Stills performance, however, is excellent as is build quality.  If Olympus made the Pen-F weather resistant, I would already own one warts and all, and I still might buy it.

The flagships of the Panasonic and Olympus lines are GH5 and E-M1 Mark II respectively.  GH5 is coming out next year.  E-M1 Mark II just came out.  I’ll talk about GH5 when it is here.  The E-M Mark II, however, is a superb camera with incredible speed and image stabilization.  If you are after a flagship, give it a look.


 Posted by at 4:33 pm
Jun 072016

So, I got a Leica Q.  It is a fixed lens camera with a a prime 28mm focal length lens, bright F/1.7 max aperture and a full frame 24 megapixel image sensor.

The camera is absolutely superb.  I posted a few pictures earlier and I will post a few more here and there, but it is a spectacular camera.  It is extremely responsive, with superb focus accuracy, intuitive controls and excellent image quality.  Most importantly, the lens quality is just stunning.

However, the Q, as good as it is, does not cover all bases.  It is a superb walkaround camera for street shooting, architecture, etc.  It does well with landscapes.  It does well indoors.  It does a lot of things well.  However, it is still a 28mm lens and for some things it  does not work all that great even if you are OK with a fair amount of cropping.

The Q covers about 65% of the photography I do very well, but there are a few things for which I need a different camera (or two since you can never have enough cameras):

-Portrait: you can do portraits with a 28mm when you want the background involved.  However, sometimes you want a lot of subject isolation and a 28mm lens is not ideal for that.

-Weather sealing: the Q is not weather sealed, for some odd reason.  It is not a huge deal for me, since I live in dry Southern California.  However, I felt a bit uncomfortable when taking pictures on the beach with both sand and water around.

-Telephoto: while I do not do telephoto a whole lot, I do need it occasionally.  For serious telephoto, I can use my spotting scopes, but that is best done from a stationary spot.  If I want to take a telephoto capable camera hiking with me, that does not work.  Another thing I found is that

-4K video: the Q has fairly decent video quality, but it is 1080p60 and it does not allow external mic input.  As my kids are growing I find myself using video more and more.  Naturally, I do not want to have a separate camcorder.

-I want a camera with a built in flash.  I find the built-in flash extremely useful for fill-in on sunny days.

-I want a camera that I can potentially take snorkeling, skiing, etc.

All jokes aside, I am trying to get all of this accomplished with as few cameras as possible.

Basically, a flexible outdoor walkaround lens with telephoto capability can not be the same lens that provides shallow depth of field for portraits.  Similarly, unless I want to get an underwater case, the snorkeling/skiing capable camera is a different piece as well.

Hence, what I am ending up with here is a potential assembly of four different cameras.

As I have mentioned earlier my primary interchangeable lens system has been Micro 4/3 and I am generally quite happy with it.  Now, that I have the Q, I put my previous primary camera up on Ebay: Olympus E-M1 with two F/2.8 Pro zooms that I have.  However, I have an older Micro 4/3 body (Pansonic GX-1) which takes rather good pictures.  I decided to hold onto the GX-1 and pair it with my 45mm F/1.8 Olympus lens to use for portraits.  With this combination, neither the lens nor the body are stabilized, but for portraits, I can’t get away with long exposure times anyway, so it should work fine.  Either way, I like the idea of keeping at least one interchangeable lens system camera around in case I need to add a new capability in a hurry.  Technically, I still have Nikon D90, so I can also use that, but there I would need to buy a new lens.

For telephoto and 4K video, I am leaning toward Sony RX 10 Mark II whenever it becomes available.  The sensor on it is a bit smaller at 1″, but it is large enough for general outdoor use and the F/2.4-F/4 lens with equivalent focal length range of 25-600mm is very appealing.  I know this camera has excellent video capabilities and it has some manner of weather sealing.  It is not as good as that on higher quality DSLRs, but it should be sufficient for me.  Most importantly, it gives me 600mm equivalent focal length with F/4 aperture.  That is better than any of the walkaround zoom lenses I am aware of.  Micro 4/3 lenses of this type go out to 280mm equivalent.  APS-C walkaround zoom lenses go out to 450mm equivalent at most (Sigma and Nikon make 18-300mm lenses, while Tamron has a 16-300mm model).

That leaves me with a big question mark on what to do for an underwater camera.  I quality underwater case is close to a thousand dollars and it adds bulk.

On the other hand, all the “tough” cameras like Olympus Tough series, etc have really mediocre image quality.

Leica X-U has good image quality, but is expensive.  I am not sure I can afford another Leica any time soon.

Perhaps, I will get a waterproof case for my cell phone in the meantime, and use that.

Generally, the whole camera selection I am ending up with is not cheap:

1) Leica Q is $4250 (if you can find one in stock)

2) ILC body with a prime lens for portraits (80-90mm equivalent) will run you a minimum of $1k (if you were buying one new)

3) Sony RX 10 Mark III will run around $1500 once it is available.

4) Leica X-U if you were to get one is close to $3k.

That adds up dangerously close to ten thousand dollars.  I think I will enjoy the Q for a while and concentrate on selling gear I do not need for the time being.  If I really find myself with an urge to get a walkaround lens, Nikkor 18-300mm to sit on my Nikon D90 should scratch the itch for a little bit.  My brother uses one and while the image quality is merely OK, it is a very flexible option.

In the meantime, I do enjoy the Q…


 Posted by at 7:45 pm
Jun 032016

I have written about enthusiast compact cameras a bit earlier on (here).

Since then, I got myself a Leica Q and took it on vacation to Israel.  I like it so far.  Here are a few images:

Montfort castle in Northern Israel

Rosh HaNiqra caves

Rosh HaNiqra caves

Sunset near Mikhmoret in central Israel


 Posted by at 6:08 pm
Apr 082016

In an earlier post I went over the available cameras with 1″ sensor (16mm diagonal) and opined that there is now enough variety of point and shoot cameras built around that sensor size to make it the best allround choice for just about anyone who wants high quality pictures, but is not really into cameras per se.  Naturally, enthusiast compact cameras are also a very interesting proposition for true camera geeks like your truly since they cover such a broad range of applications.  I suspect that originally this camera segment was created for us, once camera manufacturers figured out that we are willing to spend a fair amount of money on nice cameras.   With all that, most of the time I see such a camera in the hands of a serious hobbyist is as a backup piece when for whatever reason he could not have his system camera with him.

Aside from the cameras based around a 1″ sensor, there is a whole differen category of enthusiast point and shoot cameras that I briefly mentioned in my earlier article.

These cameras are llrgely based around larger image sensors (mostly APS-C and Full 35mm) and are equipped with prime lenses (although there are a couple of notable exceetions).

Naturally, there are a couple of designs that are in the no-man’s land with a 4/3″ type sensor which is half way between 1″ and APS-C.  The cameras are Panasonic LX100 and Canon G1X Mark II.  In terms of performance, they are closer to the 1″ crowd, so I am not going to pay too much attention to them here.  LX100 does deserve a special mention of sorts, but it has been out for a while now and is due for an update.  I am very curious to see if Panasonic will roll it in together with the 1″ models or keep it separate.

I messed a bit with the Adorama website to select only the cameras that are applicable to this category and here is the list:

Adorama Search Results

Size comparison courtesy of

Some of the entries are different flavors of the same model, but ultimately there thirteen distinct models in there.

At top of the of this whole large sensor/prime lens segment sit two cameras: Leica Q Typ 116 and Sony RX1R Mark II.  Leica comes with a 24MP full 35mm frame sensor and 28mm F/1.7 lens, while Sony incorporates a class leading 42.5MP image sensor with a Zeiss-designed 35mm F/2 lens.  Leica costs around $4,250, while the Sony is about a thousand cheaper. Both of these are expensive and very niche cameras.  I have tried the Leica Q and the feel of it is stunning.  It also seems to have the best lens I have seen to date.

Sony RX1R Mark II is a technology tour-de-force  with stunning images and an excellent Zeiss lens.  However, I think the Leica lens on the Q has it beat hands down especially in terms of micro contrast and color rendering.  Now, it is hard to compare with different sensors, so take it for what it is.  Basically, the Sony will ultimately give you more detail, but Leica makes those details interesting.  To me the images out of the Sony require a lot more post processing work to make them look as good as those from Leica Q.

Notably, I think the RX1R is a better video camera, although both are really aimed at stills.  1080p60 video that both cameras produce is pretty respectable for short video clips of my kids that I routinely make.

A step down in price, bracketing $2k, are the various Leica X cameras.  Leica has gone through several iterations of the X, all using a 16MP APS-C sized imager (a bit less than half the area of full 35mm sensors in Leica Q and Sony RX1 models) which deliver beatiful color and overall good ergonomics.  I am not fully up to speed on the earlier X cameras, but currently there are three in production in I understand things correctly:

X Typ 113 offers a 23mm F/1.7 lens (35mm equivalent)

X-U is the X Typ113 packaged into a ruggedized and waterproof body (which makes it a bit more expensive at around $3K)

X Vario swaps the prime 35mm equivalent lens of the X for a much smaller aperture zoom 24-70mm f/3.5 – 6.4 optic

Overall, I think Leica is finally converging on a coherent strategy for its non-interchangeable lens cameras, and I am curious to see how it will develop further.  The ruggedized Leica X-U is a brilliant move in my opinion.  To get this sort of imaging performance out of any other camera in a challenging environment you have to shove it into a waterproof/rugged case which immediately adds $1k to $1.5k to the camera price and makes it seriously bulky.  All of a sudden Leica X-U price does not look too bad.  For scuba divers it does not replace a proper waterproof enclosure, but for everyone else, X-U is an interesting option.  It definitely peaked my interest.  X Vario produces beautiful images, but I think Leica needs to give it a larger aperture lens.  As is, it really suffers in low light.  The X Typ113 is a nice camera, but it is really being undercut by Fuji X100T that I will mention next.  I think box X Typ 113 and X Vario are hurt by the lack of a built-in EVF.

Basically, I think Leica Q is spectacular (so much so that I plan to buy one).  Interestingly, the Q offers three preset crop modes to simulate three classic focal lengths: 6000×4000 at 28mm, 4800×3200 at 35mm and 3360×2240 at 50mm.  In its 35mm crop mode, the Q has similar resolution to the X, but outperforms it handily.

Next step down from the Leica X series in price is the Fuji X100T.  It is the third iteration of the Fuji X100 series and is a very nice one.  It has an excellent feel, same basic 16MP image sensor as the Leica except in Fuji’s X-Trans form which uses a different color filter arrangement.  The lens is a 23mm F/2 (35mm equivalent), which is similar to the Leica X.  What makes a big difference is the presence of Fuji’s hybrid eye level viewfinder which works beautifully and does not make the camera much bigger unlike the add-on EVF of the X series.  Image quality is excellent and Fuji ergonomics are very good for most people.  I suppose what I am saying here is that unless you are willing to pony up the cash for Leica Q or Sony RX1R Mark II (and if you not looking for a waterproof body),  Fuji X100T should be at the top of your list.  I think Leica X lens is still a touch better, but Fuji is not far behind and that view finder  makes all the difference in the world.  At $1300 or so the Fuji is also a fair bit cheaper.

This year, Fuji added another fixed lens camera to its line-up, the X70.  It is the same basic imaging pipeline (sensor and processor) than the much more expensive X100T, but the composition is via the rear screen LCD only and the lens is a 28mm equivalent 18.5mm F/2.8.  The X70 is pretty new and is proving to be a pretty decent camera for $700, but I am not nearly as excited about it.  Autofocus is a little slow in low light and I am not sure what it offers me that the $100 cheaper Ricoh GR II does not.

Also, some early indications suggest that the 28mm equivalent lens of the GR II is a bit sharper  wide open (at F/2.8) than that on the Fuji and the GR II is slimmer.  There is another reason why I am so fond of the GR II and it may seem minor, but makes a big difference for me.  While most of the cameras I mentioned earlier are too large to be pocketable, the Fuji X70 and Ricoh GR II are if you have large pockets (and I do).  The GR II has a built in lens cover, while the X70 lens cover is removable.  That means that the cover is going to fall off in my pocket at some point and the lens will get covered with whatever else may be populating my pocket or scratched by an errant coin I forgot to remove.  Even a slim protective filter makes a difference in this case.  Also, a removable lens cap means I need two hands to deploy the camera.  With the GR II, I can quickly yank the camera out of my pocket and get a shot off with one hand if need be.

Lastly, there is the Sigma Quattro series.  These cameras look is plain weird (Earlier Sigma Merrill series cameras had conventional look, but with Quattro they went… unique), but they are surprisingly comfortable to use despite (or because of) that odd look:

In some ways, Sigma’s fixed lens camera strategy is the most coherent one of all.  They have four models that are identical except for lenses:

DP0 14mm f/4 (24mm equivalent)

DP1 19mm F/2.8 (28mm equivalent)

DP2 30mm f/2.8 (45mm equivalent)

DP3 50mm f/2.8 (75mm equivalent)

None of these have an eye level viewfinder and all of these utilize Sigma’s unique Foveon image sensor.  I am not going to get into details of how this image sensor works, but the end result is that in good light these cameras deliver superb images and as soon as the light gets low, the image quality becomes absolutely horrid.  When I say horrid, I mean that at ISO 800, cameras with image sensors oh laf the size of these behave similar or better and beyond that, they are markedly better.  For low light, any of the compact cameras with 1″ sensors (like Sony RX-100 and Nikon DL24-85 are better).

However, if all you do is daylight photography (Sigma DP cameras do not have video modes), these cameras can deliver stunning images.

Anyhow, at the end of this whole meandering write-up, it should be fairly clear which ones I like enough to recommend.  Still, I’ll offer a brief summary:

-If you are on a budget and enjoy street photography, get Ricoh GR II with its 28mm equivalent, sharp F/2.8 lens

-If you prefer the 35mm equivalent focal length, Fuji X100T has a lot to recommend itself.

-If you can afford it, Sony RX1R Mark II ultimately offers the best absolute image quality here with also with a 35mm lens, but I am just not a huge fan if its ergonomics

-I like street photography, so Leica Q Typ 116 is the most appealing camera here for my purposes (and I have it on order)

-Lastly, if you spend a lot of time hiking, biking, skiing and snorkeling Leica X-U should be at the top of your list


 Posted by at 6:31 pm
Mar 222016

March 21, 2016

My dayjob involves spending a lot of time with cameras, since the company I work for makes image sensors and our customers are camera makers.  I am extremely fortunate to have a job that crosses over so strongly with one of my major hobbies.  Now, this website is largely dedicated to one of my other major hobbies (guns and sporting optics), but I figured some occasional thoughts on cameras won’t hurt.

As a matter of background, like most reasonably serious hobbyists, I use a system camera (a few of them actually).  My primary set-up is built around the Micro 4/3 system, with two cameras and a considerable array of lenses.  While I have largely traded in my DSLRs in favor of mirrorless cameras, I do have an old Nikon D90 that I pilfered from my brother who is mostly a Nikon shooter.  Aside from the Micro 4/3 (i.e. Olympus and Panasonic) gear, I also have a Samsung NX500 mirrorless camera with a couple of lenses.  It is a surprisingly capable camera system, although I decided to stick with Micro 4/3 on the strength of its wider array of lenses.  Hence, the NX500 is about to head toward Ebay.

As far as cameras go, I am anything but an early adopter, since I tend to buy them toward the end of their product lifecycle,  However, I get to see a lot of cameras as a part of my job, so I tend to be very much up to speed on what is out there. If photography is a serious hobby for you and you like messing with different lenses, camera bodies, filters, flashes, etc, then a system camera is absolutely the way to go for you as it is for me.

For that, my primary camera is Olympus E-M1 and I could not be happier with it.  For me, Micro 4/3 is the “Goldilocks” system, with the image sensor large enough for very good allround performance and a broad range of excellent and reasonably compact lenses.  When I tried the Samsung NX system, I realized that to get the same range as I have with Micro 4/3, my overall kit ended up nearly twice larger and heavier  Now, the larger image sensor of the NX cameras would likely give me better low light performance, but there wasn’t enough of a difference to carry a twice larger pack on my photography excursions.  Now, it I was heavily into low light photography or indoor sports, I would be more willing to compromise on weight and size, but I am not.

A while back, I had a discussion with a coleague of mine about cameras and while he likes taking nice pictures, I think his interest in cameras is somewhat limited.  Now, he is a very technical guy, but he is definitely not a camera geek, like your truly.  For him, a system camera is a singularly inappropriate option.  However, simply taking pictures with a cellphone or a cheap point-and-shoot will not cut it either.  He wants better image quality. Just a few years ago, he would be stuck with buying a DSLR and some sort of a general purpose zoom lens.  That would make for a reasonably capable, but bulky camera.  On top of that, kit zoom lenses are notoriously mediocre in terms of image quality, so he would also end up paying a fair bit if he wanted a better lens.  In principle, that could be a gateway for him to get into photography and acquire more lenses.  However, I have seen this play out before in a very different way.  Most likely, this array of gear would be collecting dust somewhere on the shelf since to drag this whole paraphernalia with you to every family outing takes a fair amount of dedication. Here is where enthusiast compact cameras come in.  They are not a new invention, but due to advances in image sensors and image processors, they have really flourished in recent years.

It first started out with several Japanese manufacturers using slightly larger than typical image sensors and comparatively bright zoom lenses.  Technically, low F/# lenses are difficult to build on a budget and in a compact form factor, especially if you also want them to zoom. I believe the breaking point was the availability of image processors that could be optimized to do real time lens correction.  If you allow some fairly significant distortion to remain, the lens can be smaller and cheaper while maintaining good image quality.  There is some image quality loss toward the outside of the image, due to distortion correction, but it is not all that easy to see and in a small camera is not too significant.

The rest, as they say, is history.  Japanese companies are masters of optimization and optimize they did.  Multiple combinations of image sensors and lenses were tried by literally every camera maker (Canon, Sony, Nikon, Fuji, Olympus, Panasonic) until two separate paradigms emerged:

1) 1″ image sensor (16mm diagonal; image sensor sizes are written in an archaic form where 1 inch is not really one inch, but 16mm) with a zoom lens

2) 4/3″ (22.5mm diagonal), APS-C (28mm diagonal) or 35mm (43mm diagonal) with a prime lens

The second category has really become a staple for serious hobbyists who view photography as an art and are willing to put up with a non-zooming lens and, frequently, larger size in exchange for better depth of field control and low light performance of a larger sensor.  Rather than get into it here, I think I’ll do a separate post on these.

For everyone else, the multitude of cameras from the first category offer a significant step up in both image quality and flexibility from what they can get out of their cellphone (notably, modern cell phone cameras are so good that only enthusiast compact cameras described here and long zoom bridge cameras have any future whatsoever).

Here is a list of cameras with 1″ sensor available now that I can think of off the top of my head.  I’ll add links for these to Adorama if you want to look at more detailed specs.  Generally, all of these use some version of a Sony made image sensor with their own lenses and ISPs.  Within this category there is a further split into two distinct camera types based on the lens choice and form factor:

-Pocketable and nearly pocketable cameras with standard zoom lenses (some are only bright at wide angle, and some are bright through the whole range)

  • Sony RX100 is not on its 4th iteration (Mark IV).  This is the camer that started it all and is likely the best alround choice if you do a fair bit video in addition to photos.  There is even a collapsible EVF which works reasonably well, although it is not my favourite configuration. 24-70mm equivalent lens is not very long, but it is reasonable for allround photography.
  • Canon G7X is on its second iteration and it has the best lens (of the ones I have seen) for photography.  It is a little longer than most others of this type at 24-100m equivalent range and a little brighter as you transition toward telephoto.  However, the video feature set is weaker than that of Sony and some others
  • Canon G9X is probably the most compact camera here, but at the expense of low light performance at telephoto.  It is pretty bright wide open.  Video features are similar to G7X: OK, but nothing to write home about.
  • Panasonic ZS100 is an interesting beast that marches to the beat of a different drum.  It is about the same size as RX100 and GX7 above, but it integrtes a viewfinder in the top left corner of the camera that does not need to be collapsed anywhere and a 10x zoom lens (25-250mm equivalent).  The aperture is pretty small by the time you get to 2500m at F/5.9, but it is F/2.8 at wide angle.  While I generally prefer larger apertures, 10x zoom in a camera this size is both impressive and very useful.  For general purpose photography, this is a veyr good option and it does very respectable video as well (4K at 30p).  Pansonic invented the whole travelzoom category years ago and this latest entrant is an excellent alround camera for someone who wants a small camera to do it all.
  • Canon G5X is sorta like the G7X I mentioned above but on steroids.  It has the same sensor and lens, but in a slightly larger body that offers additional control and an electronic eye level viewfinder.  If you are not looking for anything pocketable, this configuration offers very good user experience.  Just like with G7X, I wish they added 4K video, but for photography I like this camera a lot
  • Nikon DL 18-50 has a unique lens for this category.  As the name suggests, the lens spans from freakishly wide 18mm equivalent to a “normal” 50mm equivalent. 18mm equivalent is 90 degrees horizontal.  I bet that this camera will be popular with street shooters and landscape photographers.  This camera is pretty new, but I will make sure I get my hands on it.  It really stands out from the crowd.  Like the other DL lenses, it has excellent hybrid autofocus that promises to be exceptionally snappy and 4K video. The lens offers F/1.8 at wide angle and F/1.8 at normal, so low light performance should be quite respectable
  • Nikon DL 24-85 is Nikon’s take on a general purpose enthusiast camera.  It is new, so I have not had a chance to get my hands on one yet, but I have a suspicion that it has a lot of commonality with the latest Nikon 1 cameras which I am well familiar with.  That might make it the one to beat.  Nikon hybrid autofocus that combines phase and contrast detect methods is superb, especially in good light and video features are well rounded out.  The 24-85mm F/1.8 – F/2.8 lens splits the difference between RX100 and GX7 in terms of zoom coverage and offers good video options.  It does not have a built-in viewfinder, like the GX7, but it comes with a hotshoe, so you can add external components to it

-Bridge cameras with the same image sensors and long zoom lenses

  • Sony RX10 is on its second iteration and comes with a very well designed 24-200mm equivalent lens that keeps its F/2.8 aperture at all focal lengths.  It is not a small camera and it gives you DSLR style handling with both LCD and eye level view finders. However, both photo and video quality are very good.  If someone came to me and said: “pick one camera for everything you do!”, this would be somewhere around the top of the list.  This is the most expensive camera in this list, but it is also the best rounded both int erms of stills and video
  • Canon G3X has a very broad zoom range (24-600mm equivalent) but the aperture drops to F/5.6 at telephoto (starts at F/2.8 wide angle) and it does not have an integrated eye level viewfinder.  This would not be my top choice, but if you do a lot of telephoto, you could do worse.  The one I played with did not have too snappy of an autofocus performance though, so keep that in mind.  Also, like the rest of the Canons here, 4K video is not available
  • Panasonic FZ1000 is the one camera among these brdige-style designs that can give the RX100 Mark II a run for its money, partially because it costs a lot less money.  The 25-400 equivalent lens is F/2.8 at wide angle and F/4 at telephoto.  F/4 is still pretty bright and 400mm telphoto is nothing to sneeze at.  The build is not as rock solid as RX10, but still pretty good.  Autofocus performance is very snappy and 4K video is quite good.  RX10 is better at slow motion and in low light, but it is almost twice more expensive
  • Nikon DL24-500 is also new like the other two DL lenses and it offers a long lens together with DSLR-style handling (and size).  Like the G3X, the aperture gets a bit small at telephoto (F/5.6), but autofocus promises to be quick and video capabilities are quite good.  It is still not my favourite design here, but I like it more than G3X and I can definitely see how for some it is a top choice

Here is a DPReview chart that shows how the equivalent depth of field compares:

If push comes to shove, you can pick two cameras from this list with a cumulative cost of somewhere between $1500 and $2000 and have every equivalent focal length from 18mm to 600mm covered.

With my micro 4/3 lenses, it takes a few lenses to cover that and they cost more if you go with higher end designs.  My two workforce lenses are Olympus 12-40mm F/2.8 and 40-150mm F/2.8.  They are very nice designs, but they cost $2k together if you find a raging deal.  That is without a camera.  The E-M1 I use can be bought for around $1k now that it has been out for around three years.  That takes from equivalent 24mm to 300mm.  If I want to go beyond that, that will take more lenses and more hassle.  Ultimately, the whole system I have gives me a lot of capability and the lenses will work with many other camera bodies in the future, but had I been starting out now, I do not know if I would be able to resist the simplicity of getting a couple of cameras with integrated lenses.

Since, some of the cameras I mentioned here are very new, it is difficult to make concrete recommendations.  Still, based on what I know now, if I were looking for a general purpose compact camera, I would wait and see how the reviews on Nikon DL24-85 look.

For a larger camera, as good as the other offerings are, I think I would grudgingly pay extra for Sony RX10 Mark II with its remarkable video capabilities and constant F/2.8 lens.

Lastly, in the interest of full disclosure, I do not currently own any of these, but people I know well have purchased RX100, RX10 and G7X at my recommendation and have been extremely happy with them.

Why don’t I own one? Well, I have a fairly complete camera system already, and I am sufficiently dedicated to have a camera with me most of the time.  As far as what it would take to get me to buy one, that is fairly simple: if a company made one of these in a waterproof/rugged form factor (kinda like Olympus Tough on steroids), I would buy one in a heartbeat.  Leica X-U is sorta along those lines and I am considering picking one up, but it is expensive.


 Posted by at 7:14 pm