My 2 cents about the recent best compact cameras

You want a small camera but you know what you are doing and demand the best: great image quality, great controls, total management of ISO/aperture/speed. The cameras makers like you, no doubt we are a kind of cash cow for them. New cameras are released every quarter and you have the choice: Fuji X-10, Canon S100, Canon G1-X, Sony RX100, Samsung EX2F, Panasonic LX-7  and I am sure I may miss one or two more.

The Fuji and the Samsung are quite stable when it comes to the zoom aperture, from f/1.4 to f/2.8. But for the others, it is highly variable. From a f/1.8 or f/2.8 to f/4.9 if not f/5.9. I understand why, but it does not make sense to me: like many enthusiasts or Pro,I am not used shooting with lens over f/4 if not f/2.8 or even f/1.4 and between f/1.4 and f/5.9 there are over 3 EV (three stops), which is really a lot. That’s the price for a bigger sensor. it may be a marketing clue, but for a photographer, it is more than an issue, it is a non sense. The Fuji and the Samsung look to me far more consistent. I prefer to sacrifice a little bit of image quality which is nowadays outstanding by the way with so many sensors, than using aperture I am not used to in terms of EV and depth of field, and which ruins the advantage of a bigger sensor (disclaimer: I have a Canon S100, a great little jewel, but with a stupid zoom at f/5.9 to its maximum).

The Fuji X-10 is actually a compromise to the X-1 Pro: not really pocketable, a great camera not so small and with some true limitations (an OVF better than many, but not sufficient either). The G1-X is too big too. It seems to be a compromise to Canon new mirrorless cameras.

About Controls

Controls are usually OK but not terrific. they are rarely if never 3 dials for the 3 main controls (ISO, aperture, speed) and the body’s controls are hardly customizable, whereas there are no two skilled photographers having the same controls requirements. Cameras makers still think too much “product” whereas they should think “plateform” for any high end camera, compact or DSLR or mirrorless.

Surprisingly, most of the bloggers and journalists insist on the image quality rather than the consistency of the body to a given user’s profile and don’t focus well at how critical the controls can be in a shooting. Either because they are too much geeks, or because that’s their readers which are too much geeks. But I may say they could educate us better!

The Panasonic LX-7 seems to be an exception: a missed oppotunity. They really worked well at improving the controls, but the job look unfinished to me. No flip-out display, a somewhat chunky camera, tiny and not customizable buttons, only 2 dials, and one does not seem to be customizable. Panasonic LX has failed so far to bring outstanding controls on their great bodies, they seem to confirm, sadly, this tradition.

The bottom line

High end compact cameras are great as a second camera for skilled DSLR owners. They cannot compete for lenses’ focal above typically 75-80 mm (FX equivalent), which is the minimum for a portrait focal but should not opened above f/2.8 too. I have owned compacts starting at 28 mm or 24 mm and believe me the 4 mm are a real difference. Such cameras should always start at 24 mm (FX equivalent). Controls are paramount and should include 3 dials customizable + typically at least 2 Fn buttons also customizable. They should be truly pocketable (e.g. like the S100) and it is OK if they can shoot only at say 800 ISO JPG / 1600 RAW, I mean it is not their primary role to excel at very high iso, as long as they are still good within this range. A flip-out display is a must, that’s a clear requirement. There are much more requirements but they are usually fulfilled yet. The Samsung EX2F looks to me to be the best match so far. Let’s see what the tests will say… and whether or not the public will agree with me! If so, the (stupid) race for “the bigger sensor in the smaller body and too bad if the zoom is at f/5.9” will at last be over.

Updated in October 2012: unfortunately, the ring around the lens is just ergonomic, and not a control ring like in the Canon S100 and the Sony DSC RX100. The handling appears to be not so good too. So I can’t find any winner! Canon S100/110 is really great but suffers from a stupid f/5.9 telezoon. Same issue for the bigger and better Sony DSC RX100. Both don’t have the great flip-out display of the Samsung.

I am certainly not a Samsung fan boy, but again this company understands what a user case means and seems to focus more at that than either Sony who believe still in marketing gadgets, or Nikon and Canon, my preferred brands, who look so obsolete so often or at least not capable to sacrifice their cash cow for a long term vision.

An off-beat apology of small sensors

Every month, a new camera is released and their is a real inflation of bigger and bigger sensors: mirrorless sensors at APS-C’s size are now more or less the norm whereas it used to be the micro 4/3 a few years ago. The rumour says a new Nikon D600 low cost full frame will be released in 2012. Sony released a competitor of the Canon S100 (expert compact camera very small) with of course a bigger sensor. Canon refused to release like the others a mirrorless, just to release a bigger new G compact camera, the G1-X.

It is a well known fact, the bigger the sensor, the better the quality. A better quality for either portrait photography (Colour depth), landscapes or actions shots (read DxO Mark for more information). So it seems to be a no brainer: take the bigger sensor available and shoot. That’s cannot be more simple no? Actually, that’s not so black and white. Let me be more specific:

Don’t follow the herd

First, one should notice that when the sensors’ sizes are inflating, so are prices too (Canon G1-X and Sony new camera DSC-RX100 are much more expensive than Canon G12, the precedent G camera and Canon S100, the most obvious Sony competitor).

Even more important, small body does not go so well with bigger sensor even if some manufacturers did miracles (Sony and the NEX cameras, Sony again with the DSC-RX100, and Canon with the G1-X). Conversely, some mirrorless with small sensor (Nikon 1) can be chunky compare with other cameras with bigger sensors. But I mean, if you want to make it small and light, small sensors have more potential.

More important, the depth of field (DOF) is always much significant with small sensors, it is actually quite dramatic. For many photographers, that’s a pain because many, like me, like to play with the shallow DOF. But in many occasions, a great DOF can make some of your pictures really better. Some photographers can make excellent pictures with small sensors, taking advantage of their huge DOF.

I have already explained why small sensors can suffice in many occasions. Nowadays, small sensors are so good in normal light conditions, you many not need a bigger one. AF speed, controls ergonomics, view finder are still often a pain, but that’s not a sensor’s size issue.

The final word: controls and ergonomics suck, not sensors

Don’t be a pigeon, don’t pay too much for something you don’t need. More important, take advantage of small sensors specificities. Learn the limits of your camera, and you will know which one you really need. It may be one expensive with a bigger sensor, or not, but as usual, don’t believe the marketing guy.

I may recommend manufacturers to rather focus at controls ergonomics which most of the time really suck. We don’t need bigger sensors with more pixels, we need cameras easy to use with direct access to the main controls we need so that we may focus on taking picture rather that “where is the damned option” or “How do I change this”. The issue is not trivial, and manufacturers are very conservative when it comes to ergonomics. I am no Apple fan boy, but who will be the Steve Jobs of cameras?

A Mirrorless overview for dummies

You want to follow the herd, you need – with some excellent reasons – a mirrorless. Well, actually there are so many options, I felt it was important to over simplify the landscape just to explain it with simple words. I don’t claim having right, I am just giving my basic opinion about main mirrorless cameras. So let’s start the show:

Olympus OM-D E-M5: an ugly name for a great body and a very mature system. If you don’t understand anything to the mirrorless’s mess, just buy this one. It is great.

Sony NEX-7: the best body. Best quality image, best controls, great look. Too bad, the lens systems sucks. Forget it until Sony will propose lenses good enough for such a jewel.

Sony NEX-5N: a great body too, but the lens systems still sucks, like for the NEX-7, that’s the same system.

Nikon V1 or J1: like a point and shoot, but bigger and more expensive. Great Autofocus, great video. Perfect for your kids, what most photographers like to shoot at. Controls sucks if you want something else than a fully auto mode.

Canon G1-X: that’s a compact masquerading the quality image of a mirrorless. Canon sucks trying to avoid cannibalization of its DSLR sales.

Fuji X-Pro1: a great body, my preferred one actually with Sony NEX-7. Great lenses but my preferred focals are missing (35 mm equivalent FX and ultra-wide angle). Too soon unless you like a 50 mm (equivalent FX) and are pleased with a non ultra wide-angle. The 3rd lens (90 mm equivalent FX macro) is great however. If you don’t like fixed focal, this is not a body for you, not just right now.

Leica M9: the price sucks, And not only the price. The body is really outmoded in many ways by newcomers. Leica still believes that “with great strengths come great weaknesses”. They should buy a DVD of Spiderman, they misundertood the quote.

Samsung 3 bodies NX1000, 210, 20: they are OK. Like Raymond Poulidor, they are never the best but always close to the best. Which makes me believe they suck too because there is always a better choice. Only their publishing services really rock.

Panasonic with bodies DMC-GF5, GX1, G3, GH2: failed to have the best bodies, but all are good (GH2 outmoded and to be replaced by a likely to be great body GH3). The lenses system is the best, but expensive. Buy a Panasonic body if you need several great lenses. High end bodies and lenses threatened by Fuji X-Pro1 system.

Pentax Q: the smallest sensor. Like a point and shoot but much more expensive. Funny if you have an unlimited budget or if you work as a secret service agent with the need of a tiny versatile camera. Not convinced yet, the lens system must improve to justify the costs and to explain why not buy rather a Canon S100 or a bigger mirrorless.

Pentax K-01: too bad its main strength seems to be its look. Not a bad body though, but not the best. A good choice if you like nice cameras, not my choice however. I like to take picture, not to attract attention. Cameras are not sun glasses.

There are a few other bodies (Other Olympus bodies but OM-D E-M5 have outmoded sensors but are still good cameras, Sony NEX-C3 is a good entry level mirrorless, but too big for a beginner omho), not my best choices.

My advice: read more in details reviews of these cameras, and if like many people you don’t have so much time, focus at your preferred choice.