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Form Factor and Camera Appeal

In working with a large number of cameras over the years, I’ve developed a very strong sense of what works and doesn’t work for me.

Traditionally the game was about megapixels and image quality, and everything else went along for the ride.

What if the new game is really about how much we like using the camera, how attractive it is, how few hassles it presents, the success rate for images, how portable it is, which lens is preferred, and so on? And NOT about the image quality? Just about simple stuff, like does it fit in a pocket or can I use it successfully at dusk?

This year is already bringing impressive image quality in point and shoots, and that leaves the ergonomic and fun factors as the primary decision point for most users. Image quality is way beyond good enough for most people; it is so good to be irrelevant any more (not to me and perhaps not to many of my readers, but for most of the population).

The overarching trend is about the enjoyment of using a camera, which means different things to different people (the act itself, or the results, or both). Hence the iPhone might be the most-used camera out there. But the iPhone has proven itself useless for my purposes (very high failure rate under my favored conditions), so it’s out. And I just plain hate using it to make pictures; it feels terribly awkward to me.

But this makes me wonder: if I could have an Apple iPhone Retina display on the back of my point and shoot, would I go ape-crazy over it just because the images look so darn good? There is that appeal too—immediate visual gratification.

What follows are intentionally immediate reactions I have to each of these small cameras:

  • Nikon Coolpix A: love the image quality, love the form factor, no image stabilization makes it a loser in low light, no EVF guarantees blur at arm’s length in lower light, grip might as well not exist, hard to hold.
  • Fuji X-E1, X-Pro1, X100s: funky image artifacts bug me, hate the controls and weird behavioral glitches, just too bulky for what it offers. Never felt intuitive to operate.
  • Sigma DP Merrill: terrific sharpness, superb to godawful color, superb focus accuracy, fast-working ergonomics but slow as mud to save and review images, mediocre LCD, no EVF. But sharpness and price are right.
  • Nikon D7100: terrific sensor, porthole viewfinder, DSLR should be full-frame or why bother with a DSLR at all. Idiotic Live View behavior. No point if one has a D800E.
  • Leica M Typ 240: nice sensor, frustrating EVF, poor menu design, confounding button placement/size/shape, manual focus only, relatively large and heavy.
  • Sony NEX-7: great sensor, but I wish it felt like a camera and lens selection never satisfied.
  • Olympus E-M5: good image quality, great stabilized video, lenses very good but could be better, awkward button placement, absolutely insane menu system, generally fun once configured but I want more sensor. Oh, and it’s on the large side.
  • Sony RX100: super fun to shoot, but I want a smaller and much sharper fixed lens, add-on grip is fine, still almost a must have for its combination of size/weight/image quality/easy carry/perfect fill flash.
  • Sony RX1: did not gel for me: no EVF built in, needs a grip, generally excellent image quality but just a problem to shoot for me without an EVF (holding at arm’s length), and EVF makes the camera a bulky thing.

All these cameras are dancing around the target, but none of them hit the bullseye.

I suppose what I’d like is the image stabilization of the Olympus E-M5, the sensor of the Sony RX1 but 36MP, a built-in high-res EVF, precision spot autofocus, good grip, simple menus without JPEG or video, and fast camera operation.

Cecilia C writes:

I have been enjoying your articles in the past few days. I am still not able to see how some of these newer, more compact cameras beat a D800E with one small lens like the 50G f1.8. The overall usability and workflow with the D800E are great. I like the RX100 with the grip, BUT using it is like using an iPhone... no viewfinder.

What do you think about the Sony A99 and A77 cameras? Are they a better compromise?

DIGLLOYD: The small cameras certainly do not beat a D800E in image quality. But they pass the “really good” mark for many applications. And my pockets don’t hold a D800E very well.

The RX100 gets a pass on the lack of EVF because it is so pocketable, though I wish it had one. As for the Sony A99 and A77, I’ll pass, what I want is both an optical viewfinder AND an EVF on my Nikon and Canon DSLRs; they serve different purposes, see Why an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) is Not Really Optional.

Philip A writes:

It is difficult to find a camera which could satisfy any need, and therefore, i think that it is not irrelevant for an enthusiastic photographer to own three cameras:

- a small pocket camera to have always one with you. I currently use a Canon S100 for that purpose,

- a top DSLR for art or beautiful (photograph skills depending...) photographs. I have a D800E, and it is really a fantastic camera. When I bought it, I abandoned zoom objectives and bought three fixed lenses (24/1.4, 50/1.8 ( a no brainer at the price!), and a 85/1.8). À réal pleasure which reminds me of my Rolleiflex 6008.

- a top quality camera but lighter than DSLR when one want to take nice picture without carrying to much stuff, or when one want something less visible. This third category seem quickly improving with the cameras that you mention (Nikon A, Fuji, Sigma DP, ...). In this category, I had a Leica m6, and later on went to digital and bought a Sony Nex5 when it was launched three years ago, but I sold it as objectives do not do justice to the camera ( or are too bulky for some recent ones). I am looking for a replacement, and the offer is increasing very quickly at the moment. Did you had a chance to test the new Ricoh GR V?

DIGLLOYD: Yes, I agree. One camera is ill-suited to all tasks. At present, for me this means Sony RX100 + Sigma DP Merrills + Nikon D800E + Olympus E-M5 (for cycling videos).

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