COMPACT SYSTEM CAMERAS

The fastest-growing sector of the camera industry is one that many people have still never heard of. and many people still don’t understand. Here we explain what Compact System Cameras are, why you might want one, and what’s available…

Once upon a time, if you wanted to buy a digital camera you’d have the choice of а compact, a bridge (a compact with a high-magnification zoom) or a DSLR. The step up to a DSLR was a big one, literally. DSLRs are much bigger than compacts not only because they have much larger sensors, but because the viewing system that defines them as DSLRs -a 45′ mirror reflecting up to a prism assembly and viewfinder eyepiece -takes up a lot of space.

Panasonic and Olympus were the first to realise that if you did away with the DSLR’s optical viewing assembly you could still have a large sensor, and interchangeable lenses, but the camera could be much smaller, and the lenses could be smaller too. in 2008 Panasonic’s Lurnix G1 was the first camera with a DSLR sized sensor and interchangeable lenses to dispense with the mirror and prism, and swap the optical finder for an electronic one.

There is no agreed term for cameras of this type, but Compact System Camera (CSC) remains the most popular MILC (Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera) or simply ILC. or just «Mirrorless» are also used, while some prefer the acronym EVIL — for Electronic View-finder, Interchangeable Lens. Whatever they’re called, every manufacturer now has at least one such camera of its own.

an accompanying range of lenses, but the original aims of the first CSCs — to provide the image quality and interchangeable lenses of a DSLR. but in a smaller package — no longer necessarily apply as manufacturers have plumped for a wide range of different sensors, some of which are also used in compact cameras.

It’s probably fair to say that today’s definition of a CSC is a camera with interchangeable lenses but no mirror Some have DSLR sensors, some have smaller ones, some have electronic view-finders, others have no viewfinder — just the LCD screen.

Over the page we present a round-up of the different systems currently available, and what they have to offer.

WHY BUY A CSC?

Compact System Cameras are designed for buyers seeking a camera that offers lots of creative control, high image quality and the option to attach different lenses, but who don’t want the bulk of a DSLR. Some are almost as big as a DSLR but offer a different user experience, due to the camera’s shape and design, white others use a smaller sensor and put size and convenience above image quality in the list of priorities. (See facing page.)

Other factors need to be taken into consideration too. Combined with issues such as EVF refresh rates this makes most CSCs generally less suited to action photography, though there are some exceptions — the Nikon 1 system is blisteringly quick, and a few CSCs have phase detect pixels built into the sensor.

A few have the option of a clip-on EVF at additional cost. Of those with a viewfinder it will be electronic, and these vary widely in resolution. Some cameras with EVFs are styled like mini DSLRs, while others follow more of a range-finder style. Neither is better, it’s down to personal taste. Finally, consider what other features are important to you What about video? All offer HD video but bit rates and compression options vary, and only a few offer an external mic input. Do you want Wi-fi? This is becoming increasingly common on the newer models, and not only lets you publish online straight from the camera but often also enables you to control the camera remotely with a smartphone.

SENSOR SIZES AND IMAGE QUALITY

As a very general rule, bigger cameras have bigger sensors, which produce better quality images, so choosing a system entails first deciding how important image quality is compared with portability and convenience. It should be pointed out that even the smallest cameras are capable of producing high quality images to at least A4 at the lower ISO settings, and it’s only when you go bigger than that, crop heavily or use high ISOs that the more experienced, critical eye can discern the differences between the systems. So how do the sensor sizes vary between the camera systems? This diagram (below) illustrates the relative sizes of the sensors used by the different CSC manufacturers. The largest, APS-C. is the one used in most consumer DSLRs, while the Pentax

Q7 uses a small sensor commonly used in some higher-end compacts.

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