Since the digital camera market matured a couple of years ago, sales in the integral-lens camera category have been declining. On the other hand, we're still in a growth trend for interchangeable-lens cameras, including digital SLRs and the newer mirrorless Compact System Cameras (CSC). It's tough to get stats as to sales in the latter category since the Canadian Imaging Trade Association (CITA) has not yet started tracking it separately. But according to Greg Poole, Vice President, Fujifilm, he has discussed this issue with retailers and found that CSCs made up about 15% of interchangeable-lens camera sales as of late fall 2011. In Japan however, the category captured 40.5% of the interchangeable lens camera market in July according to BCN Ranking, as reported by Bloomberg.
While the CSC's may never attain that penetration in North America, there should be scope for growth. This definitely makes it an opportunity area for retailers that stock the cameras, the full line of the new lenses and the add-ons. Nikon is obviously bullish, having joined Panasonic, Olympus, Sony, Samsung and Pentax in this category in September with two cameras plus accessories. Fujifilm is not far behind. Its global President and CEO Shigetaka Komori, speaking at a press conference in Japan, announced that high-end mirrorless system camera with interchangeable lenses will be launched in Spring 2012.
Camera & Lens Characteristics
Since each manufacturer determines its own design and feature set, there are some significant differences in size, weight and versatility among brands and even among models within a single line. One aspect is standard, however. All Compact System Cameras were downsized by eliminating the reflex mirror and the pentaprism, and hence the optical viewfinder. Omitting the mirror reduced the distance from the lens mount to the sensor, allowing for lenses of smaller diameter that are even smaller and lighter.
A compact camera system is great for travel due to its compact size, and ability to do virtually anything an entry-level DSLR can do. This vibrant, atmospheric shot was snapped in New York City using the Sony NEX-5N. [Photo by John Thomson]
Sensor and Pixel Size: The first four brands of CSCs employ the same size sensor as the companies' DSLRs. That ranges from a moderately large 18x13.5mm for the Micro Four Thirds Panasonic and Olympus cameras to a very large 23.4x 15.6mm (or APS-C format) for the Sony and Samsung models. Because they did not downsize the chips, the pixels remained as large as ever. That provides great sensitivity to light for high signal purity: a strong signal-to-noise ratio so less amplification is required at high ISO levels for relatively "clean" images.
The drawback is that the lenses need to be large enough to project an image circle that will fill the entire chip. Hence, some of the zooms are definitely not petite. In order to shrink both the camera and lenses dramatically, the designers at Pentax specified a tiny sensor for the Q system, 6x4.5mm. Nikon took a middle of the road approach for its J1 and V1 employing a 13.2x8.8mm chip. While the Nikon 1 kit zoom lens is not particularly petite, the 81-297mm equivalent zoom is unusually compact.
Granted, a smaller sensor means the pixels must be smaller in order to fit onto the chip. That's a factor especially in the 12.4 megapixel Pentax Q, requiring very sophisticated processing for acceptable quality at high ISO. Nikon was able to maintain decent pixel size by using a mid-size sensor and by keeping the number of active pixels to a moderate 10.1 million. Some of the other cameras with larger sensors cannot boast huge pixels either, of course. That's because their chips must accommodate a full 16 million, 20 million or even 24 million of the light sensitive dots.
Some of the recent CSC models are very fast, with high speed drive mode at full resolution, useful for situations where a user wants to capture a series of photos quickly. This series was made by the author using the Sony NEX-5N. [Photo by Peter Burian]
Viewfinder Issues: A camera without a reflex mirror cannot provide through-the-lens optical viewing, so many of the early CSC models provided only live view on the LCD monitor. Some current cameras are equipped with an electronic viewfinder (EVF), some with extremely high display resolution. But most of the smaller cameras omit this amenity in order to minimize size, weight and price. Consumers who insist on a viewfinder can get an accessory EVF for some of the Panasonic, Olympus, Samsung, Sony and Nikon cameras. As well, most of the CSC manufacturers make an add-on optical viewfinder that's suitable for use with only a specific single-focal-length lens.
Built-in or Add-On Flash: Standard at one time, built-in flash has been eliminated from the smallest of the current CSC's of most brands, but a clip-on flash has typically been provided at no extra charge. That may change as well in future. The Nikon V1 is the first to ship without any type of flash. Instead, it accepts an optional SB-5N Speedlight; it's more powerful and can swivel/tilt, a definite benefit for some users. Will flash be eliminated from more of the CSCs in future? Probably, if market research indicates that consumers are willing to give up flash in return for a lower kit price.
Lens Availability: Some reviews still complain about the lack of a full series of lenses, especially for the more recent brands of Compact System Cameras. But the availability is much better today than a year ago. A relative newcomer to the category, Sony offers 10 E-mount lenses. Even the latest Nikon 1 system launched with four lenses, with others in development. Aftermarket lenses should also become available for some CSCs. Sigma was the first (on February 9, 2011) to announce plans for such lenses, although the company would not provide specifics in time for our deadlines.
While testing the Panasonic Lumix G3, the author was impressed with this camera's autofocus system in terms of its speed and reliability for action photography. Of course, some other cameras are also effective in this respect, and useful for families whose children are involved in sports [Photo by Peter Burian]
Since the CSCs are not usually marketed as an alternative to DSLRs, there's no problem in satisfying buyers' needs regarding lenses, according to the retailers I interviewed. Owners of DSLRs who buy a CSC as a lightweight portable second camera do have more options. Adapters (from the camera manufacturers and Novoflex) allow for using DSLR lenses on the much smaller cameras of most brands. Autofocus is not available when an adapter is used, and that can be a drawback. Sony has maximized compatibility between Alpha mount lenses and its NEX cameras, however, with a new LA-EA2 adapter that retains phase-detection autofocus.
Who Buys CSC Cameras?
It's not difficult to define the consumers who buy the tiny point-and-shoot cameras or the large prosumer-grade DSLRs, making targeted marketing and merchandising straightforward. But who is buying the Compact System Cameras? I posed this question to several retailers. Harry Mac, Executive Vice President of Downtown Camera in Toronto, ON, says it's a bit like hitting a moving target.
"It has been evolving. At first it was mostly people who owned a DSLR system, but who also wanted something smaller for outings with their families," he recalls. "But starting last year, we began to see a younger crowd that has perhaps taken a photography course. They have never owned a DSLR. They want something that's not as large but is just as versatile. We're also seeing a skew toward females buying the mirrorless cameras, and that's very encouraging."
While some industry observers questioned Nikon's use of a sensor that's smaller than average (for a CSC), and with smaller pixels, the author found that the J1 and the V1 produce superb image quality at the most often used sensitivity levels, ISO 100 to 800. (ISO 100 was used for this photo.) [Photo by Peter K. Burian]
When the first Compact System Cameras were launched, some reviewers suggested that they would not appeal to serious shooters because of the limited number, and types, of lenses available. Since then, Sony, Panasonic, Samsung and Olympus have introduced many additional lenses, including long telephotos (like the Lumix 200-600mm equivalent used by the author for this shot at the Waterloo Region Airshow) and some that are particularly suitable for use with video capture. [Photo by Peter K. Burian]
At the Henry's Camera flagship store in Toronto, ON, it's still primarily DSLR owners who might otherwise have bought a high-end camera with built-in lens like the Powershot G12 or Lumix LX5. But some families, including soccer moms/dads, are buying CSCs as well, says Luigi Mallozzi, Assistant Manager.
"The 25 to 40 age group makes up the largest percentage of CSC buyers at our location. They no longer want to buy a new point-and-shoot every two years, so they gravitate toward buying into a system instead of an all-in-one camera, for greater flexibility."
Darek Tarnowski, a Senior Buyer with Vistek, is less inclined to categorize CSC buyers.
"We know that families are looking at the mirrorless cameras, but many are being sold online. It's tough to gauge who those buyers are, except by looking at their previous purchases."
In addition to being able to record 16.1 MP photos at a low lag time of 0.02 seconds using the Exmor HD CMOS sensor, Sony's NEX-5N camera can also record images at burst speeds of up to 10 frames-per-second (fps), and 1,080p video at 24 or 60 fps.