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Should I Buy a Compact System Camera Now?

01 Aug Posted by Matt in Guides, News |
Should I Buy a Compact System Camera Now?

What is a Compact System Camera?

Sony NEXCompact system cameras are a relatively new type of camera that fill a gap between consumer point and shoot models and Digital SLRs.  They function much like DSLRs; they have interchangeable lenses, work well in low-light, and offer a much higher level of manual control than most traditional compact cameras.

When we reviewed a selection of different models at the end of 2010 in our Best Compact System Camera for Beginners shoot-out, we crowned the Olympus PEN E-PL1 the model of choice, but with new models from Sony and Nikon rumoured to be on the horizon is now the right time to buy?

Buy Now or Wait?

The compact system market may be relatively new, but it’s not one we can see going away anytime soon.  In fact these new cameras have been hurting the sales of traditional DSLRs for some time now, so there’s no need to worry that you’ll be buying into a system that won’t be around in six months time.

Sony NEX-C3Sony are developing the E-mount lens system hard with a promise of 10 OEM lenses being on sale by the end of 2012, with the expectation that since open-sourcing the technology earlier this year some third-party lenses will be available too.  Panasonic and Olympus are already reasonably well catered for with the shared Micro Four Thirds system, with more lenses and accessories arriving all the time.

That said, if you are looking for something a bit more fully-featured than the consumer cameras currently on offer, you may be best off waiting for one of these…

Sony NEX-7

We’re pretty sure that Sony will release a new range-topping NEX camera within the next few months. In fact the latest we’re hearing is that the camera will be announced later this month, and will targeted more towards the enthusiast or semi-professional market. The NEX-7 will feature a metal body (like the NEX-5), a 24 Megapixel APS-C image sensor, and Full HD (1080p) video.

More interestingly though, the NEX-7 is rumoured to address a number of complaints that are common among compact system camera users; it will have a viewfinder as well as the LCD screen, will feature a new ‘super-fast’ autofocus (AF) system, and sport many more physical buttons (making changing settings quickly much easier) than previous NEX models.

Sony Alpha Rumors have posted this picture of a pre-production model (believed to be genuine):

Sony NEX-7

New Nikon Compact System Camera

Nikon Mirrorless EVILThe rumour mill has been non-stop about a Nikon compact system camera for ages, but we’re finally starting to see evidence that something is brewing for release in the not-too-distant future.  Nikon sit relatively level with Canon as the biggest camera manufacturers in the world, and neither has entered the compact system market yet so this could be big news.

Past reports have cited Nikon sources as saying that when it arrives their compact system camera will be targeted at a higher end of the market than any of the cameras currently offered by other manufacturers.

The latest news is that this photo, originally found on a Chinese forum and then analysed by Nikon Rumors, shows the lens mount that Nikon will be using for the forthcoming cameras.  Credibility has been added by the fact that Nikon subsequently asked the forum that leaked the image to remove it, which they are unlikely to have done were it not genuine.


What can we learn from this?  Well, it means that Nikon have produced something, though we don’t quite know what yet.  It also isn’t a photo of Nikons standard F-mount, the lens mount they have been using in their DSLR cameras for many years, so we can take from that the likelihood of any future Nikon system using a different range of lenses to their DSLRs.

The Verdict

If you are in the market for a consumer-grade compact system camera, then now is as good a time as any to bite the bullet and jump aboard an established system such as the Panasonic LUMIX, Olympus PEN, or Sony NEX cameras.  These systems aren’t going anywhere so lenses and accessories should be around for many years to come yet. All these manufacturers currently offer a range of well spec’d cameras, including the Sony NEX-C3 that we reviewed recently.

If you’re after something more advanced then we’d hold off, at least until the Sony NEX-7 announcement is made later on this month or shortly after.  As for the Nikon system? We wouldn’t hold off buying a camera now to wait for it.

Of course, you should also ask if a compact system camera is really what you need…

Why a Compact System Camera over a Digital SLR?

The main selling point of a compact system camera over a traditional SLR model is size.  The technology is actually slightly different too, as true Digital SLR (single lens reflex) cameras have a mechanical mirror that flips ups when you press the shutter button to allow the photo to be taken.

Compact system cameras do away with this bulky mirror mechanism and use an electronic shutter, allowing them to be much more compact.

Panasonic LUMIX GF1 Relative Size

Panasonic LUMIX GF1 Relative Size

What are the Drawbacks over a DSLR?

Well, on the surface very few.  Compact system cameras from Olympus and Panasonic both use Micro Four Thirds size image sensors, whilst the Sony NEX series go one better and manage to fit an APS-C sized sensor into their bodies.  That means that compared to a similar level DSLRs, these cameras offer comparable image quality.

However, the more ambitious photographer may end up frustrated by some aspects of most this new form factor.  Firstly the choice of lenses is very limited for some systems; Sony currently have just four lenses available for their E-mount system (though more are promised), and even the best-catered Micro Four Thirds system has an extremely limited range when compared to what is available for Canon or Nikon DSLRs.

Sony NEX-C3 with Long LensBeing focused at the consumer market, some may find irritation in the prominence of ‘novelty’ features and the clumsiness of adjusting more advanced settings on some models.

At the risk of stating the obvious, if using a long zoom is your kind of thing then the advantages of a small form-factor body quickly diminish.  The lens on the Sony NEX-C3 shown here might be a bit extreme, but it illustrates that point that whilst lens technology stays as it is the body isn’t necessarily the most bulky part of an interchangeable lens camera.

Of course nearly every compact system camera is shown off sporting a very thin, fixed length, wide-angle ‘pancake’ lens.  If you can’t foresee ever wanting to use anything else then this won’t be a worry, but even a standard 18-55mm (or equivalent) zoom lens can dwarf these camera bodies.

Focusing is also slower on a compact system camera than a DSLR, as they use the same technology as point and shoot cameras (known as contrast detection).  For most applications this isn’t an issue, but for those interested in low-light or fast-action photography you may find the focusing too slow.


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