Buying Guide: Compact System Cameras

The last few years have played host to arguably the most significant development in the digital camera market yet - that is, the introduction of the Compact System Camera (CSC). What began as an interesting idea aimed at miniaturising the DSLR has flourished into an entirely new camera sector, one that's slowly welcomed more manufacturers - and with it, a variety of new systems.

As each manufacturer has sought to make its own impression in this new category, the concept has been stretched in every way possible. Models in some lines have continued to ape the form of the DSLR, while others have gone so far as to break the traditional lens/sensor division, bundling the two into their one swappable unit.

All of this makes deciding on one particular system confusing. The following guide examines all important areas of consideration to help you make the right decision for your specific needs. But first...

What is a CSC?

A Compact System Camera is an interchangeable lens camera with a difference. By eschewing the mirror box and optical viewfinder construction common to DSLRs, manufacturers have been able to make CSC bodies comparably smaller and lighter, and with it the lenses which accompany them. These still promise the manual control DSLR users are accustomed to with regards to focus and exposure, but they manage to deliver this in an overall smaller package.

Sensors

The sensors inside CSCs vary in size from the 1/2.3in sensors found in the most basic compact cameras to APS-C sensors found in the majority of DSLRs. Here there is no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, as each has both its advantages and drawbacks. Large sensors allow each individual photosite to be larger than on a smaller sensor with the same pixel count, and this has traditionally allowed them to control noise to a greater degree and preserve a wide dynamic range. Today, however, the situation is not so straightforward thanks to variations in sensor design.

The sensors inside Pentax’s Q-series models, for example, are constructed around a backlit architecture which allows them to gather light more effectively than traditional front-illuminated sensors, and thus improve noise control. Fuifilm’s X-Trans CMOS sensor technology, meanwhile, does away with the standard repetitive colour filter array and opts for a more random arrangement to minimise the effects of aliasing (where very fine details can be recorded erroneously) and preserve sharpness. Nevertheless, even despite all these differences, the size of sensor and the extent to which it is saturated with pixels has a significant effect on a camera’s image quality.

One further consequence of these differences in sensor size is the crop factor – i.e the effective focal length of any mounted lens. The rule here is that the smaller the sensor the higher the crop factor. So, while the APS-C sensor inside Canon’s EOS M has a 1.6x crop factor, the smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor inside the Panasonic Lumix G6 has a 2x crop factor, and the 1in sensor inside the Nikon 1 S1 has a higher crop factor still at approximately 2.7x. The Pentax Q10, meanwhile, with its considerably smaller sensor, sees a crop factor of 5.5x applied to any mounted lens.

Because of this variation, you should think about the kind of photography you practice before settling on any one system. Someone who only ever captures wildlife images in fine lighting conditions may find themselves better served by a model with a smaller sensor, as they’ll be able to achieve a longer focal length in a smaller package. Someone who requires a camera to capture gigs and for nighttime photography, meanwhile, would be better off with a model with a larger sensor with a moderate pixel count, which stands a better chance of controlling noise.

Lens ranges

As each manufacturer started developing their CSC lines at different times, it follows that the choice of lenses and accessories available for each system varies. The Micro Four Thirds system, on which all Panasonic and Olympus CSCs are designed, was first to market, and so it’s little surprise that its lens range is the most developed. Naturally, having involvement from two major manufacturers - including one with a long heritage in optics - has also benefitted its development, as has the interest shown by a number of third-party lens and accessory manufacturers. Canon’s EOS M system, meanwhile, being one of the most recent, has only welcomed one CSC so far, and with it only a handful of optics.

Does this mean you should disregard newer systems and instead opt for the most developed? Not necessarily. You may simply prefer the handling and operation of one system over another, or alternatively you may find one particular system already contains all the lenses you imagine you’ll end up using already (and if it doesn’t there’s a good chance manufacturers will look to plug any obvious gaps within the next few years).

You may also, of course, already be invested in a DSLR system and simply want a CSC as a backup body - in which case you may wish to base your decision on a camera that can accept your DSLR lenses via an adaptor. While Canon, Nikon, Pentax and others have already provided such adaptors for use between their own systems, the availability of third-party adaptors allows you to use lenses designed for a particular system on bodies from a different manufacturer entirely. As the above images demonstrates, using lenses designed for one system on a camera from another can create some interesting, if impractical, combinations.

Controls and handling

CSCs are designed for a range of different users, so it follows that different models will offer various levels of physical control. Typically, entry-level models will sport a more streamlined design, with options accessed through their menu system rather than through buttons and switches. Models at the other end of the line may feature one or more command dials, in addition to mode and exposure compensation dials, and various buttons around the back, top and front plates. Some are also designed more like DSLRs, with a substantial grip on one side, while others may sports just a small panel on the front plate, if one at all.

Displays

As the majority of CSCs don’t offer a viewfinder of any description, the quality of their displays increases in importance. And here, there is plenty to think about. Most CSCs offer a display with a stated measurement of 3 inches, although as this is taken across the diagonal of the screen the actual dimensions vary between models. The reason for this is because some manufacturers prefer to equip a camera with a display in the 16:9 format (above) while others opt for a display which matches the aspect ratio of its sensor, which in the case of cameras with APS-C sized sensors is an aspect ratio of 3:2 (below).

If you tend to capture plenty of movies you may prefer the former, as it is designed to accommodate the HD video resolutions - 1920x1080 (full HD) and 1280x720 (Standard HD). The one point to consider here, however, is that unless you’re also capturing images in the same aspect ratio (16:9) part of the screen will be taken up by a border to keep your image at its aspect ratio. This also means that if you opt for a screen with an aspect ratio matched to the dimensions of your sensor, full-resolution images will be displayed on the whole screen but any HD videos will have a black border on the top and bottom to fit the video. The principle is exactly the same as when you switch from a program matched to the aspect ratio of your television to a movie with a different aspect ratio, although you won’t have the option of stretching the feed to fill a display with a different dimensions as you can with most televisions.

Two further issues to think about with displays is the technology on which they are based and their resolution. The dominant format is still the Liquid Crystal Display (LCD), although some manufacturers are beginning to use Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) panels. OLED panels promise higher contrast, better visibility in bright light and a wider viewing angle than conventional LCDs, and certain cameras equipped with these displays have shown this to indeed be the case. If you often capture images outdoors in brighter conditions, a camera fitted with an OLED display can make a significant difference. Nevertheless, the technology is still in its infancy compared with LCDs, and manufacturers continue to improve LCD technology.

With resolution, generally the higher the number of dots on a display the better it can resolve details. Most CSCs offer between 460,000 and 921,000 dots, with some even going over the million-dot mark. With these, not only can you scrutinise details far easier but you can also check whether a subject is in focus with greater accuracy. This is particularly important when manually focusing, so those using particularly old manual focus-only lenses should have this as a priority.

Touchscreens

Touchscreen displays are only starting to emerge on DSLRs, although they have been integrated more enthusiastically across CSCs. Particularly on smaller bodies, where there may be less space for physical controls, such displays have the significant benefit of making better use of the space available by allowing many controls to be keyed through the screen.

With touch-focusing, a subject can be bought to focus simply by pressing it on the screen, and you can usually program the camera to capture the shot as soon as it has focused the scene. Touchscreens are particularly useful when the subject is located more towards the peripheries of the frame, where an automatic focusing pattern may have trouble picking it out.

Articulated displays

A number of CSCs incorporate articulated displays, which make light work of shooting from awkward angles, above crowds or at ground level. These are particularly useful when paired with touch-functionality, as you don’t need to worry about accessing the shutter release button when the camera is positioned or held unconventionally. Some articulated displays simply pull away from the camera body and tilt up and down, while others, which are attached to the camera via a hinge on its side, can be pulled out completely and rotated over a wider angle.

These latter types have a further benefit: the face of the display can be folded against the camera body to protect it when not in use. This is ideal for heavy users who may be constantly taking their cameras out of their bags, or those who tend to carry their camera around in rucksack or shoulder bag without padded inserts to separate it from other items.

Viewfinders

Although some CSCs closely resemble DSLRs, their construction doesn’t allow for a through-the-lens (TTL) optical viewfinder to be incorporated in the same way. Fortunately, the quality of electronic viewfinders has improved considerably over the last few years.

Not all CSCs incorporate electronic viewfinders, but they can be incredibly useful. Those who tend to shoot in darker conditions benefit greatly from these, as they can hold the camera up to their eye and still see a relatively bright display (which isn’t the case with standard DSLRs, given how their viewfinders are purely optical rather than electronic). You also benefit from plenty of exposure information displayed as you shoot, and most cameras allow you to tailor this display to the scene you’re shooting, with features such as grid lines and electronic level displays.

To date, the only CSC which has integrated some kind of optical viewfinder is Fujfilm’s X-Pro1, whose hybrid viewfinder blends both optical and electronic types. Some systems offer an optional optical viewfinder which can be slipped inside the hotshoe of the host camera, although as these don’t move in any way they are only effective for a single focal length. It’s also possible to buy electronic viewfinders for many models, which move in tandem with the lens as its zoomed and present shooting information alongside.

Burst shooting

One of the major advantages CSCs have over DSLRs is the lack of an internal mirror – and more specifically, the impact this has on burst shooting. While professional DSLRs currently top out at around 12fps, some CSCs offer up to 60fps at full resolution. Additionally, some CSCs offer super high capture rates for video recording which can be used to create slow-motion footage. This usually comes at the expense of resolution, which means that the resulting video will be smaller in its dimensions than the standard HD modes, so it’s better suited to Facebook than displaying on your home plasma set.

Connectivity

CSCs are being developed by many more manufacturers than those still producing DSLRs, which means that it’s here where a lot of functionality is first surfacing. Many of these developments are centered around connectivity, with Wi-fi being the most common option. Not only does this allow images to be emailed and uploaded to social networking sites, but in many cases the manufacturer will have released an app that allows remote shooting from a tablet or phone. So, the potential is there to control key functionality such as focus and exposure from a much larger display.

Near Field Communication (NFC), which allows a camera to connect with other NFC devices such as tablets or smartphones in the vicinity, is also starting to make its way into CSCs, but perhaps the most useful is the 3G and 4G functionality which is also rearing its head. With this the user has the potential to connect to the internet and upload images wherever they can get a signal.

GPS systems, which have long featured in compact cameras, are also slowly making their way into both DSLRs and CSCs. These systems record location information which is subsequently embedded into images, allowing to check exactly where they were captured. If you're travelling somewhere new this can be incredibly useful.

 

What kind of user are you?

Still confused? Maybe thinking about your main priority, or the type of user you think you are may help. Here are a few examples:

Novice users

Those who imagine they’ll be sticking to scene modes and more automated functions - at least to begin with - may want to look at the most junior models in a manufacturer’s CSC range. These will typically be styled in a much more simple manner, with physical controls kept to a minimum and plenty of fun options thrown in such as creative filters.

Those used to DSLR control

If you’re used to having all the controls you need to hand, look for models with plenty of physical controls around their back and top plate, and customisable function buttons which will allow you quick access to settings of your choosing. If you like the look of a model but you’d prefer it to offer a grip, check to see whether the models’ manufacturer has made one available as an accessory. Likewise, models which come equipped with hotshoes are often compatible with electronic or optical viewfinders available separately.

Those after video control

CSC manufacturers have made considerable effort to appeal to videographers as well as stills photographers, in a number of ways. Some CSCs include microphone ports so that you can use them with high-quality stereo microphone, should you want to improve on the built in microphones, while others add a headphone port alongside so you can monitor sound levels and audio quality. High-end models may even give you a wider choice of frame rates and the option to output your footage without any compression, which is excellent for preserving quality.

Those wanting a DSLR backup

If you already own a DSLR and a few lenses, you may wish to investigate whether the manufacturer of your DSLR offers an adaptor that allows its lenses to be used with its CSCs too. Most of the major manufacturers have already released such as adaptor, and in many cases accessories such as flashguns can also be used between its CSC and DSLR lines.

Those with older lenses

If you’ve a range of older lenses from different systems that you’d like to continue using, look for models that have a wide range of compatible adaptors. Typically these models will be those in the more established lines such as the Micro Four Thirds system and Sony NEX line, although a greater range of adaptors is slowly being made available for other systems too.

Those wanting to share images on the fly

A number of CSCs now incorporate some kind of wireless sharing options. Many offer straightforward Wi-fi, while others add Near Field Communication (NFC) or even 3G/4G connection. This is great if you want to quickly publish your images onto social networking sites, or email them to others, without the hassle of going through a computer.

Those wanting to edit their images in camera

Some cameras offer in-camera Raw processing, but now that the Android OS has also appeared on a CSC the possibility for image-editing in camera looks set to explode through third-party apps.

Travelling photographers

A smaller CSC usually means smaller lenses, which makes these excellent for portability when it comes to travelling with a range of gear. The difference in size between a telephoto zoom lens for one system and another can be surprising, so you should factor this in when deciding on a system if you plan on adding some glass further down the line.