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.