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Compact High Quality Camera Trends

This is a challenge to answer. I’ll give it a go, stipulating that I am still figuring this out in my own mind.

Martin D writes:

We've seen a number of recent notable, premium cameras that effectively slave a sensor to an ambitious prime lens as an immutable package, such as:

- the Sigma DP Merrills
- the Ricoh GXR
- the Fuji X100
- the Sony RX1

These tend to be niche cameras.

What value advantage(s) relative to interchangeable lens cameras does this approach seem to be aiming for, and what are they actually, defensibly achieving?

DIGLLOYD: the 80% solution?

Just about every camera I’d be interested in using is a niche camera— even my favored Nikon D800/D800E is a tiny fraction of the market, call it a niche+. The primary market today is point and shoots and consumer cropped-frame DSLRs, and camera/tablet phones. To see that, one need only take a walk in a public space/place and observe what people shoot.

After a basic price point, the choice of a camera gets more particular, less mass market, and so I see all the above cameras catering to various preferences of a more serious user, akin to nature’s way of populating every corner and crevice of a habitat with some wetware design that fits in. It seems that the various camera models are not much different than the market for jackets or pants.

A camera not carried makes no images. A camera with disappointing image quality or other issues doesn’t either. But does anyone really like to carry a DSLR in general? I don’t and cannot under some circumstances. All of these cameras appeal by reducing that form factor un-appeal while raising the quality and fun bars, and also succeed in part by limiting choice. Anyone have a favorite coffee mug? Isn’t that silly? Not at all.

Interchangeable lenses open up choices: which lenses to purchase, which lenses to carry, which lenses are good enough. Moreover, which brand to choose. And in the end I would wager that most images get made with at most two lenses, hence fixed lens cameras follow the classic 80% / 20% rule. They match reality, and they keep it simple, and on the vendor side, they serve as trial balloons that reduce the long term platform commitment risk in a boiling market.

One might fairly argue that interchangeable lenses could be had on any of these cameras without compromise: I see no technical reason that the Sony RX1 or Sigma DP Merrill or Fuji X100 could not have had interchangeable lenses in exactly the same form factor (the Ricoh GXR has interchangeable lens+sensor modules, adding cost). Instead, we see cameras like the Fuji X-E1, Olympus E-M5, and Sony NEX. None of which have quite the same appeal as the fixed lens cameras above: larger camera, smaller sensor, irritating ergonomics, incomplete lens selection.

Somehow, no vendor has yet nailed the size + quality + ergonomics + je ne sais quoi combination yet. As for myself, I want a Sony RX1 with built-in EVF utilizing a full-frame Sigma Foveon 40MP sensor sporting a 28mm f/1.4 ultra high performance lens, highly accurate spot autofocus, JPEG support ripped out, no crapware but full wireless and GPS support, built-in grip, built-in tripod dovetail, long battery life, 4MP rear LCD. Seriously. I’m sure the reader can roll his own too. Would I care if I could shoot only one lens? Not if the feature set were right.

Expounding—

  • These compact cameras represent a general trend based on one simple and historical truism: many photographic needs are served by a compact camera with a fixed lens. This was true with film, and has not changed with digital, it’s just that we now have low-grade zoom lenses by default on just about every consumer camera because consumers have been trained to think an f/3.5 - 5.6 superzoom is a must-have. When in fact it is worse than a fixed 28/1.8 or 35/1.8 or 50/1.8 or similar for so many shooting situations (optical quality, drop in shutter speed from a slow lens, laziness in moving ones’s feet for perspective (“foot zoom”), no subject separation, etcetera). What is lost in “flexibility” is gained in thoughtfulness.
  • Interchangeable lenses demand a long term R&D commitment far beyond design of a fixed lens camera (a “platform”), yet the market is changing rapidly— a big risk in introducing a platform. Ricoh has moderated this issue by selling lens+sensor modules, but the market has made a clear “don’t care” statement.
  • It is a natural progression to see speciality areas filled in: higher quality, bigger sensor, more compact, etcetera. These multivariate “camera design axes” are the new trend; for years it was simply megapixels (which might resume soon enough).
  • None of these compact cameras puts all the features together in a fully satisfactory way; all have significant drawbacks in general. Or put more aptly, all target a particular niche while compromising various things. So it’s a question of personal priorities dovetailing with the particular mix of features and price.

In the field, I’ve found that the best results come from shooting no more than three prime (fixed focal length) lenses and better yet only one; at least for me this focuses my attention. Often I find myself leaving one lens on the camera and feeling more satisfied not less. Understanding one lens really well is advice I would give to myself or anyone in making better images.

When heading out, I breathe a sigh of relief in taking along one camera with one lens. So when the choice arises of taking (for example) the Olympus OM-EM5 with 2/3/4/5 lenses (which ones?!) I find myself thinking instead of taking just 1 lens, or perhaps two. This brings a certain relaxation.

Alternately, a pair of Sigma DP1/DP2/DP3 Merrill bodies is even more attractive for some outings (but not all), since I can carry and shoot both just about as easily, and no lens swapping or dust involved. The same could be said for carrying the Sony RX1. But in the end: one camera with one lens generally feels pretty darn good.


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