written in October, 2013
Compact System Cameras (CSCs)
While I primarily write about riflescopes, binoculars and other “classical” optical devices, every once in a while I get to answer a question or two about Electro-Optical devices, i.e. cameras.
The bulk of my professional career has been spent working with or around cameras, so I have some amount of experience with them. That having been said, a lot of what I know about the variety of cameras out there comes from looking at reviews and posted images on the web. I do not go out of my way trying to get my hands on many different cameras out there the same way I do with riflescopes.
Still, I have played with a considerable variety of cameras and lenses out there and formed some conclusions about them.
I was talking to a friend of mine, Scott, a few days ago about cameras and photography and was faced with an interesting twist on camera selection question. Before I go further with this, it is worth pointing out that he probably knows more about cameras than I do, and likely forgot more about photography than I will ever know. However, he is fairly new to the whole CSC business, which gives me an opportunity to save him some research time.
CSC cameras, in principle, are just like DSLR camera except without a bunch of mechanicals: mirrors, motors, etc. That allows camera manufacturers to make notably smaller camera that utilize the same basic image sensor and (same basic image quality). What happens when you remove a bunch of mechanical components from a DSLR body is pretty simple: you can shrink the distance between the lens mount and the image sensor by a factor of two, approximately.
Unless you plan to use an adaptor, that requires a whole suite of new lenses that have much shorter working distance, with an important side effect being that these new lenses can now be made more compact. The difference is especially significant with wide angle lenses.
Another reason why you generally want new lenses is the focusing method: CSC cameras predominantly use contrast based autofocus which requires the lenses to be constructed differently or the focusing times become painfully slow.
However, if you like to work with manual focus, just about any legacy lens can be used with a CSC camera body with an adaptor.
Last couple of things to note before I get to camera/lens recommendation are:
– many recent CSCs introduced on chip phase-based autofocus that makes them work better with legacy lenses and improves C-AF accuracy and speed
– CSCs do not easily support optical viewfinders, so if you like to use a viewfinder, you will be stuck with an electronic one (and they are getting quite good these days)
The first manufacturers to introduce CSC (aka mirrorless) cameras were Panasonic and Olympus. They use the same lens mount, called Micro Four thirds and both camera brands can use each other’s lenses.
m4/3 standard has been around the longest of all mirrorless standards so it has by far the best lens and accessory selection. All m4/3 cameras use the same image sensor size that first came about in 4/3 DSLRs and the crop factor compared to 35mm film is 2x, so this is a smaller sensor than APS-C.
There are quite a few other mirrorless cameras out there:
– Samsung has their own family of cameras based on an APS-C sensor
– Pentax dabbled with an APS-C sensor (although in an odd way) and also makes a tiny Q system based on a 1/1.7” sensor size that is used in P&S cameras
– Sony has a considerable variety of mirrorless cameras in their NEX family with two sensor sizes: APS-C and full frame.
– Nikon introduced the “1” system built around a 1” sensor that is smaller than Four Thirds and is the same size as in Sony’s high end RX P&S cameras
– Canon has made a rahter half-hearted attempt at entering the CSC market with their EOS camera. I played with that camera and “half-baked” is the best I can come up with.
– Fuji has the X-system which is done in a typical Fuji fashion: brilliant ins some ways and half-baked in others.
There are some other fringe competitors there, but these are the most prominent ones.
If someone comes to me with a question on what they should go to as an upgrade to their point-and-shoot camera I almost always recommend a CSC of some sort.
However, in this case the situation is different since Scott has a very nice full frame Nikon camera system already and all he is looking for is something that he can use when on the move. He went on a long multi-day hike a while back and humping 10+ pounds of camera gear uphill in addition to the rest of the stuff you are supposed to carry gets old fast.
Hence, the question here is what he can get that will give him reasonable flexibility for outdoor photography while weighing as little as possible and maintaining good image quality.
The situation is dear to my heart since I am fat and lazy, which makes simplicity and light weight one of the key parameters in my gear selection.
I have switched to micro-4/3 system myself and I have exactly zero regrets. Of the existing CSC mounts out there, three are viable: Micro-4/3, Sony NEX and Fuji X.
Micro-4/3 has by far the largest selection of lenses available and those lenses, by and large, are smaller than the Sony and Fuji lenses since the 4/3 image sensor is a little smaller than the APS-C sensor.
Image quality of NEX and Fuji cameras, all things considered, is a touch better than that of the micro-4/3 cameras, although you will mostly see it in low light and when using the higher end lenses which get pretty large for Sony and Fuji (especially for Sony).
Since Scott’s requirements for image quality are likely pretty high, there is little compelling reason for him to be looking at low-to-mid range lenses, whichever CSC he goes with. That discards just about every lens currently offered on the Sony NEX system except for a few Zeiss designs which are comparatively large, heavy and expensive.
Fuji’s XF lenses are pretty respectable, but for optimal performance they, just like Sony lenses have to be stopped down a fair bit which, in many situations effectively negates whatever advantage the larger APS-C sensors have over the micro-4/3.
Now, someone investing into a system to switch to completely might be willing to get something with a larger sensor and wait for better lenses to be introduced, which I do not doubt both Fuji and Sony will do. Sony recently introduced their A7 and A7R camera bodies that use “full frame” sensors that promise same image quality as pro DSLRs out there. However, with no lens choices to speak of it is not something that I would be ready to jump into right now.
If you want a complete system to be available now, micro-4/3 is easily the best mirrorless option.
For a high-end enthusiast or professional user, there are five micro-4.3 bodies to choose from (others are really aimed at less sophisticated customer base):
– Panasonic GH-3 is the largest and heaviest in this group weighing almost 20ozs. It also has the most sophisticated video capabilities by a solid margin. Still image quality is very good as well.
– Panasonic GX-7 is a fair bit smaller, weighs about 14.5ozs, and has slightly better still image quality than GH-3, but also has much less focus on video. It is the first Panasonic camera to have in-body image stabilization
– Olympus E-M1 is the largest of the Olympus bodies at 17.5ozs and has the most sophisticated still image capabilities of the bunch with on-chip phase-based autofocus available when needed
– Olympus E-M5 is another camera with fairly traditional OM-D styling, weighing in at 15ozs
– Olympus E-P5 is a PEN-style (rangefinder styled) camera with the same image sensor as used in the E-M5 put into a more compact body weighing a bit over 13ozs. This is the only body here without a built-in viewfinder. You can put an external one into the hotshoe, but then you can’t use external flash at the same time.
Another thing to note is that Olympus E-M1 and E-M5 bodies, as full featured as they are, do not have built-in flash. To be honest, I find that more than a little retarded. Built-in flash, while useless for any serious photography, is quite useful when you are trying to limit the amount of stuff you are dragging with you into the boonies. I use it quite a bit as fill-in flash, but I can also think of a number of situations when it was absolutely necessary to take a shot. I am sure I would have made a better photograph with a powerful external flash, but I did not have one with me.
If you are comfortably without a built-in flash, E-M1 and O-M5 are very compelling choices (and if you ahve legacy 4/3 lenses, go for the E-M1). Otherwise, E-P5 is my preferred Olympus option, since I can live without a viewfinder (or with an external one) comparatively easily. Composing using the rear LCD takes a little getting used to, but works fine ultimately.
If I were to start building a mirrorless kti right now, I would start with either Olympus E-P5 or Panasonic GX-7 body. They are very close to each other in terms of performance with the primary differentiators being:
– GX-7 has a built-in electronic viewfinder
– E-P5 has a more sophisticated in-body image stabilization and is slightly more compact owing to the lack of the viewfinder.
Panasonic and Olympus use different image processors and with still image quality, I slightly prefer the way Olympus goes about it. With video, I think Olympus still has a ways to go and Panasonic has an edge.
Ultimately, for still photography, there is comparatively little difference between better Panasonic and Olympus bodies.
Now, let’s move onto lenses.
While most people these days lean toward zooms, if this is not your primary system camera, there is a lot to be said about a kit based on prime lenses. Thankfully, micro-4/3 offers a lot of options when it comes to primes.
As far as zoom lenses go, for an advanced photographer there are very few good quality micro-4/3 zooms available. low-to-mid grade zooms made by Panasonic and Olympus are surprisingly good for the money, but they have fairly slow F/#s.
Panasonic offers two constant F/2.8 zooms: 12-35mm ($1200, 10.7 oz) and 35-100mm ($1500, 12.oz).
Olympus has just introduced a competing 12-40mm F/2.8 ($1000, 13.4oz) design and promised a 40-150 F/2.8 lens for next year.
For wide angle aficionados, Panasonic makes a 7-14mm F/4 lens.
All of these produce excellent image quality even wide open. Panasonic F/2.8 zooms have in-lens image stabilization. The rest of them need in-body image stabilization or a tripod for slow shutter speeds.
With primes, there a lot more options. Here is a list of the ones I like in order of increasing focal length (prices looked up on Adorama website):
– Panasonic 8mm F/3.5 fisheye ($640, 6oz). I am not a fisheye aficionado, but I have heard good things about this lens.
– Olympus 12mm F/2 ($800, 4.6oz). This is a spectacularly sharp lens that works well for landscape photography and low-light.
– Panasonic 14mm F/2.5 pancake ($320, <2oz). This is my walkaround lens that I use instead of a standard zoom. It is tiny with super fast focus and very good image quality.
– Olympus 17mm F/1.8 ($500, 4.2oz). Nice lens, but I do not think it is an equal to the similarly looking 12mm F/2. More importantly, the 14mm and 20mm Panasonic pancakes are very compelling compact options for less money.
– Panasonic 20mm F/1.7 ($420, 3.5oz). I have a lot of mileage with this lens and it is easily one of my favourite “normal” primes
– Panasonic 25mm F/1.4 ($620, 7oz). This is supposedly a Leica designed lens and it is right now on sale with about $100 off, so you can get it for $520. On paper this is probably the best “normal” prime here, but the simpler 20mm pancake is so close to it, that I always have a hard time recommending the larger Panaleica. It does offer better low light performance though.
– Olympus 45mm F/1.8 ($400, 4.1oz). This is the sharpest lens I have seen in this price range on any camera system.
– Olympus 75mm F/1.8 ($900, 10.7 oz). This is probably the sharpest lens I have seen to date or close to it. At any price.
There are a couple of macro lenses available. Panasonic has a 45mm F/2.8 for about $700 and Olympus has a 60mm/F/2.8 for about $500. Both are reputed to be very good, but I have not really gotten into macro photography yet, so I have no personal experience with them. I suppose it comes down to which focal length you prefer.
Now, for Scott’s purposes, he can probably get away with two or three primes from the line-up above and that will last him quite some time.
Which lens to start with depends on the application.
For street photography, the tiny 14mm pancake is hard to beat.
For landscapes Olympus 12mm is excellent (it is also a good option for street photography especially since you can do zone photography with it).
For portraits and medium telephoto, the comparatively inexpensive 45mm Olympus is a good option.
For ultimate sharpness in a telephoto lens, the Olympus 75mm is hard to pass up.
It all depends on what you want out of this system.
Lastly, I have to add a disclaimer on what I use myself.
I still have my old 4/3 DSLR: Olympus E-510 with its now pre-historic 10MP sensor. I sold all of my 4/3 lenses except for a Sigma 30mm F/1.4 which I still use for portraits and low light.
I own a Panasonic GX-1 body that I bought on closeout for about $300. To that I added a 14mm F/2.5 pancake prime and 45-150mm F/4-5.6 zoom. This whole kit costs about $800 and weighs about 1.5lbs. Yes, that is how lazy I am.
The only external flash I own is Olympus FL-36R, but it often stays at home since most of my photography interests are opportunistic.
I do expect to upgrade to either Panasonic GX-7 or Olympus E-P5 body some time next year. Even the outdated GX-1 I have is perfectly satisfactory to me in terms of image quality, but I miss in-body image stabilization.
I will likely augment by lens options with the soon to be introduced Olympus 40-150mm F/2.8 lens. The Panasonic lens I have is spectacular for a 7oz optic, but I want something with a larger aperture for low light and faster shutter speeds when taking pictures of my kids. I like the 35-100mm F/2.8 Panasonic lens, but prefer more reach in a telephoto design.
The reason I like telephoto zooms is that a 40-150mm range (80 to 300mm equivalent) gives me both portrait and telephoto options in one package. 300mm equivalent is quite a bit of reach and is about as far as I am willing to go for handheld use.
For really long telephoto, I digiscope using a beefy tripod and my 80mm spotter.
Back when I mostly used a DSLR, my primary lens was a 12-60mm Zuiko (24 to 120m equivalent). I analyzed the focal lengths I used with that lens and it turned out that I almost never used anything between 15mm and 45mm. 90% of my pictures were taken in 12 – 14mm and 45 – 60mm ranges. The only notable exception to that is digiscoping where 20 – 25mm seemed to work best. Unless, I significantly change how I take pictures, standard zooms like the 12-35mm and 12-40mm are not very appealing to me. However, a 40-150mm F/2.8 is a different ballgame entirely.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading my ramblings!