Lets see if I can stir up some good discussion in this forum for a change. Have any of you out there been keeping up with the recent trends in Cameras? For probably a decade, the digital camera higher end representation was almost exclusively defined by the prism based optical viewfinder "DSLR", mostly with Nikon and Canon gradually squeezing out other competitors. Three sensor sizes dominated the vast majority of products with the ultra-expensive full frame 1.0x crop, the DSLR mainstay APS-C 1.5x crop (or 1.6x for canon) and then a cavernous gap in choice to the budget and compact focused 5.62x crop 1/2.3" sensor covering a mere 3% of a full frame sensor. Although some middle ground cameras were attempted based on small sensors (G and S series Canon for example), the compact sensor never provided enough low light or fast shooting capability to compare to the DSLR APS-C powered behemoths or to justify an entire lens system. In recent months however, there has been an explosion of other options and other brands with intriguing approaches and compelling products. New lens systems have followed but so have super cheap adapters creating new uses for old lenses.
Panasonic and Olympus Micro 4/3rds was the first revolution. Ditching the prism but also ditching the APS-C sensor size in favor of a 2.0x crop (~40% smaller than APS-C 1.5x crop). Amazingly small compact-like cameras could be made, still with interchangeable glass. Electronic viewfinders, usually relegated only to compact (read: low end) cameras now were listed as improvements over the optical DSLR viewfinders. The early G1 looked very DSLR-like but Olympus's PEN line quickly showed how small these cameras can get ditching the viewfinder entirely. Now already a year or two evolved, the product lines include near-compact priced products (GF3 and PM) through professional quality pocketables (OM-D, GX1) along with more DSLR-like looking video focused products (GH2). The smaller 2.0x crop and size limitations combined for some very affordable and very fast (low aperture) prime lenses for the new format. These deliver competitive low light (low aperture high ISO) performance.
Sony, having some recent success selling DSLR's of it's own after it's acquisition of Minolta also pulled a rabbit out of it's hat and ditched the prism in favor of a semi-transparent mirror and digital viewfinder. Keeping the APS-C 1.5x crop sensor, the change only minimally reduced body size compared to a DSLR but instead enabled phase detection based auto focus in both stills (as only DSLR's could do prior) but also with video and burst shooting. These cameras, called SLT's, also ditch the optical viewfinder only supporting EVFs (Electronic View Finder). Still using the existing Sony/Minolta lenses, these cameras feature insane burst shooting WITH AF, though there is definitely a price to be paid in the addition of high-ISO noise. Another notable compact camera-esque feature in the SLT not found in DSLR's of in-camera image stabilization. This, combined with a lens adapter, give a lot of life to a lot of wonderful old lenses.
Sony wasn't done yet, releasing it's APS-C sensors without the prism OR the SLT mirror (and mostly no EVF at all) in the pocketable NEX series. Similar approach to the Panasonic and Olympus micro 4/3rds but with the larger APS-C sensor. Unlike the SLT's, this spawned a new lens system and nor do the NEX cameras include the in-camera image stabilization featured in the SLT's.
Perhaps more interesting from a business perspective is the addition of Samsung and the return of Fujifilm to the competitive market. Samsung's NX is very similar to Sony's NEX line with a similar APS-C (and a new lens system) and Fuji's new "X" line (also with a new lens system). Fuji designs are obviously leaning back to the SLR's predecessor, the rangefinder. Featuring an Optical viewfinder independent from the lens with a wider-than-lens field of view, rangefinders keep you "in the action". With no prism or mirror, these rangefinder style hybrids can also mount the lens very close to the sensor keeping designs compact. The viewfinders are particularly notable with their ability to switch between an optical and electronic LCD display through the same eyepiece in real-time. The X-PRO1 has a long list of advantages over your average DSLR fueling comparisons with much more "professional" products. Indeed, it's closest relative seems to be the beyond expensive Leica M9.
Nikon and Canon recently entered the emerging mid-tier, prism free market with two very different approaches. The Nikon J1 and V1 feature a competitively small sensor with a 2.8x crop introducing a correspondingly new and uniquely small interchangeable lens system. Smaller sensor though means the potential for smaller, cheaper, faster lenses. Nikon also leveraged the sensor shrink to drive some new innovation blurring the line between stills and video with 60fps burst shooting along with slow motion video. Canon meanwhile has stayed extremely traditional in terms of layout with it's new G1X. It looks like a small-sensor G12 on the outside, keeping it's notoriously "adequate at best" unlinked to the camera's focal length optical viewfinder and relative compact pocketable size. On the inside though, it features a nearly APS-C sized 1.85x crop sensor. Combined with it's f2.8 maximum aperture (only at 28mm eqiv), this grabs more light than APS-C DSLR's with kit zooms which should lead to some truly excellent low light capability. Not bad for a camera with a fully retractable power zoom lens.
The compact camera market too has put forward some more interesting mid-tier products lately. The Canon S90/S95/S100 feature a sensor still tiny, but 50% bigger than your average compact along with a super-bright f2.0 max aperture in a completely standard compact size. Only slightly larger physically is the Olympus XZ-1 with the slightly larger sensor paired to a f1.8-2.5 max aperture over 28-112mm equiv. Comparing those numbers in terms of light gathering, that's equivalent to a Canon APS-C DSLR lens of 17-69mm f4.7-6.5. That's probably not a lens people would buy for their Canon DSLR, but it's not bad for a camera+lens that's only 42mm thick.
Personally, I'm always finding myself wishing for a smaller camera and one that's better in low light. Although I still argue you can get great results out of low ISO settings on just about any compact "tiny sensor" in adequate light, this means you'll be carting around a flash. That said, flash's are both bulky and impractical. Sensor size and aperture size are both ways of combating this problem but both lead to a larger camera and lens. Ditching the prism enables a lot of smaller and lighter designs that push the limits of what can be achieved with fast apertures and larger sensors in compact sizes. I also am interested in seeing phase-detection AF in a camera package smaller than a DSLR by ditching the prism. And who could help from drooling at the hybrid rangefinder on the X-PRO1?!? Exciting stuff.
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