I love my 5D MkII with it fabulous full frame sensor and great range of lenses. For my sport lifestyle shoots I wouldn’t be with anything else, I absolutely need the flexibility, handling and exceptional image quality that come with professional DSLRs. In these situations I really appreciate the large camera body with easy to access buttons and dials – I need good ergonomics and I don’t want to have to fiddle.
However, I’ll fully admit that my DSLR isn’t always appropriate; I find that I hardly ever get my ‘big’ camera out for casual just-for-the-fun-of-it shooting. I miss that. I’ve just come back from a week’s break to Florence and the size and weight of the 5D MkII with two 2.8 lenses was just too much – it was a bane around my neck, literally….
But I could use a small compact for the fun stuff, right? Well, no. The problem is that I get absolutely no pleasure from shooting with today’s compact cameras for several reasons:
- Their minuscule sensors give near infinite depth-of-field, and if I can’t play with selective focus then much of the pleasure of taking photos is gone.
- Their ergonomics and slow reaction times are frustrating.
- The resulting images are poor – for years the camera manufacturers have been playing the marketing game with the megapixel count, and as they’ve struggled to cram far too many pixels1 onto those tiny sensors the results have been tragically poor quality images and appalling low light performance.
I thought that my hopes had been answered in 2006 when Sigma revealed the DP1 – the first compact with a big sensor, but the camera wasn’t really up to the job. Two years later, with the DP2, they hadn’t learnt much from their mistakes2.
So, I’ve been waiting a long time for a compact digital camera with a wide aperture and corresponding large sensor (for reducing the depth of field) that offers high image quality, good low light performance and decent reactivity.
I’d nearly lost all hope, but now it seems that that day is finally dawning. By the end of the year they’ll be quite a few “serious” compacts that make a concerted effort to meet these needs. Here’s a quick run down.
It seemed impossible – a rangefinder style compact with full-frame 35mm sensor and interchangeable lenses! The M9 looks like a dream camera (and so it should be at $7000!). Leica seems to be making a concerted effort to come back from the M8 disaster with their heads held high, and for this they should be commended.
For me personally the M9 is well out of my budget for a ‘fun’ camera, and the full-frame renders it just a little too big. I can certainly understand the appeal for many other photographers however – a traveller’s panacea.
Leica seem to have read my mind concerning the price and size or the M9. The X1 offers a smaller APS-C sized sensor (still bigger than all the other competitors) and a much reduced price tag (albeit still with the Leica tax). Unfortunately it has a fixed mount 35mm prime lens, rendering it less flexible than it could have been.
Olympus tried to steal our hearts this year with their E-P1 and it’s gorgeous retro styling. I’m a sucker for good design and if my heart ruled my head I’d buy this camera for the looks alone.
Based on the Micro four-thirds format the sensor has just a quarter of the surface area of the Leica’s 35mm sensor. Nevertheless, this is still much bigger than those found in other compacts and offers very respectable selective focus possibilities. The smaller sensor size also helps to keep the body more compact and the price down, which is a fair trade off.
The lenses are interchangeable, so lots of creative possibilities are opened up.3
Is there a catch? Yes – the unusably slow auto-focus. If I can’t use it to take photos of my fast moving two-year-old daughter then there’s no point. Even for that beautiful styling – sniff…
Pansonic Lumix DMC-GF1
And so I save my personal choice for last. Panasonic’s DMC-GF1 has sports a compact body, a four-thirds sensor, a good selection of lens choices, fast auto-focus (nearly as fast as a consumer DSLR) and unremarkable-but-still-nice-styling.
It’ll be available very soon, and I’ll be trying before I buy, but this does seem the winner to me.
More to come?
Will there be any others by the end of the year? Who knows… It’s an exciting time.
- Do consumers need typically need upwards of 12MPixels to print family snapshots? I made beautiful A3 prints with my 6MPixel 300D. It’s utter madness [↩]
- I have to wonder what they were thinking. They clearly saw that there was a market for a big sensor compact, but it didn’t occur to them that the market consisted of serious photographers who would want a fast camera. Sluggish performance is one of the major issues I have with consumer compacts. [↩]
- Which is to say, my wife’ll be happy with a zoom (she won’t care about the aperture), and I’ll be happy with a wide aperture prime…. [↩]