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Buyers’ Guides: Compact System Cameras

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After finishing our buyers’ guides to compact cameras last week, we now move on to interchangeable lens cameras. In today’s article we look at the new breed of Compact System Cameras (CSCs).

To skip ahead to the recommendations click here.

CSCs are, as the name suggests, a smaller and lighter alternative to DSLRs

These are a new type of camera. As the name suggests, they are system cameras, requiring the user to change lenses depending on the subject. They are larger than compact cameras, but smaller than DSLRs.

Compact System Cameras (CSCs) are also known as Mirrorless Cameras. This is because the mirror (used in DSLR cameras to give an image in the viewfinder) is removed from the design. Instead of the optical viewfinder found in DSLRs, users frame their shots with either the LCD, or an electronic viewfinder.

CSCs have sensors which are substantially larger than those in Compact Cameras (apart from the Pentax Q system). Indeed some systems have sensors equal in size to consumer DSLRs. These larger sensors allow for much better image quality than is possible from compact cameras.

There are two main body types of CSC. The first type is modeled after Compact Cameras, with the attempt to keep the size small. The second type is designed to resemble DSLRs in order to replicate their ergonomics.

As, when you buy a CSC, you are buying into a system it seems natural to give you an overview of the different systems available with their pros and cons before providing recommendations. Going in order of sensor size, from smallest to largest, starting with the Pentax Q. (Price ranges are from cheapest new model with kit zoom, to most expensive, and are street prices)

Pentax Q (£600)

Pros:

  • Small size (smaller than some compact cameras)

Cons:

  • Compact camera sensor
  • Image quality not improved over compact cameras
  • Few lenses available
  • Autofocus not good for sports (screen blackouts)

Nikon 1 Series (£450-£730)

Pros:

  • Best autofocus system

Cons:

  • 2nd smallest sensor
  • No size advantage over rivals with larger sensor cameras
  • Recent launch means overpriced
  • Few lenses available

Olympus PEN Series (£400-£700)

Pros:

  • Micro 4/3 sensor is substantially larger than compacts or Nikon 1
  • Fast autofocus
  • Micro 4/3 has widest range of lenses (together with Panasonic)

Cons:

  • Autofocus not good for sports (screen blackouts)
  • Uses Panasonic sensors & hasn’t been able to get, or won’t pay for, the latest generation

Panasonic G Series (£380-£650)

Pros:

  • Micro 4/3 sensor is substantially larger than compacts or Nikon 1
  • Fast Autofocus
  • Micro 4/3 has widest range of lenses (together with Olympus)
  • Widest range of camera body types (Compact, Viewfinder, DSLR Style)
  • Best video capability (in GH series)

Cons:

  • Autofocus not good for sport (screen blackouts)

Samsung NX Series (£350-£600)

Pros:

  • DSLR sized sensor
  • Wide variety of compact lenses (good for total compactness)
  • i-function lenses offer additional manual control
  • Compact & DSLR style bodies

Cons:

  • Poor distribution can make them hard to find
  • Slower autofocus than Nikon 1 & m4/3
  • Autofocus not good for sport (screen blackouts)

Sony NEX Series (£400-£1130)

Pros:

  • DSLR sized sensor
  • Best image quality in low light
  • Small bodies

Cons:

  • Big lenses make whole package large
  • Limited lens selection
  • Lenses not as well regarded as m4/3 or Samsung
  • Autofocus not good for sport (screen blackouts)
  • Slower autofocus than m4/3 and Nikon
  • Most Expensive


Which System Should I Choose?

  • For shooting sports, Nikon 1
  • For best lenses, Olympus PEN or Panasonic G Series
  • For best value, PEN or G Series
  • For best video, G Series (GH2)
  • For DSLR style handling, G Series (GH2) or Samsung NX (NX11)
  • For total compactness (camera + lenses),  NX (NX200)*
  • For best low-light image quality, Sony NEX

* The Pentax Q is by far the most compact system, however its image quality is no better than advanced compacts. If size is that important to you, I recommend you look at my article on Advanced Compact Cameras and choose the best one for you from there.

Now you’ve chosen a system, it’s time to decide on the model…

Which Camera Should I Choose?

If you want a Pentax Q

If you want a Nikon 1

  • Get a V1 for a viewfinder
  • Get a J1 for compactness

If you want an Olympus PEN

  • Get the E-P3 for external controls
  • Get the E-PL3 for a tilt LCD
  • Get the E-PM1 for compactness

If you want a Panasonic G Series

  • Get the G3 or GH2 for a viewfinder
  • Get the GH2 for video
  • Get the GH2 for DSLR style handling
  • Get the GX1 for external controls on a compact body
  • Get the GF3 for compactness

If you want a Samsung NX

  • Get the NX11 for DSLR style handling
  • Get the NX200 for external controls on a compact body

If you want a Sony NEX

  • Get the 5N unless…
  • Get the NEX-7 for external controls on a compact body
  • Get the C3 to save money

So now you’re all set, but remember to consider reviews, try the camera out in-store, and check sample images before making your final decision.

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