What is a compact system camera? £199

4th Oct 2011 | 11:47

What is a compact system camera?

Compact system cameras (CSC) explored

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What is a Compact System Camera?

Looking for a small camera with DSLR-like controls, high quality pictures and interchangeable lenses? A compact system camera (CSC) ought to tick most of your boxes.

Available in a smaller form than their DSLR cousins, this new wave of camera format is built differently: no mirror box means a less bulky construction, although it also means either an electronic viewfinder (EVF) or no viewfinder at all.

Top image quality can be expected from the Micro Four Thirds or APS-C sensor sizes that far outdo compact cameras' capabilities, and in some cases are on par with many DSLR systems.

There are three main choices:

1. DSLR replacement options with built-in viewfinders and all the quick-access buttons and layout of a DSLR in a small package, such as the Panasonic G3 below.

Panasonic g3 front

2. Style options such as the Olympus PEN E-P3 (shown below) where an optional viewfinder can be added via a hotshoe and which are as much about look as the resulting image quality

Olympus pen e-p3

3. Pocketable or mini options that look no larger than a compact camera and, without a viewfinder, often function very much like one, for example the Panasonic GF3 below.

Panasonic gf3

Olympus PEN and Panasonic Lumix GF-series CSC models can freely swap lenses through the common Micro Four Thirds standard. Meanwhile, the larger-sensor models from Samsung and Sony the Samsung NX11, Sony NEX-5 – are independent of one another and use separate lens mounts.

Pentax and Nikon have opted for small cameras with tiny, compact camera-sized sensors for the Pentax Q, Nikon V1 and Nikon J1, with new separate lens mounts.

As the compact system camera market share continues to grow, there are yet more manufacturers involved in producing their own new ranges. On the one hand it's getting many photographers interested in their potential. But on the other hand, for many this new creation is an unclear area that's got more confusing as different manufacturers, sensor formats and subcategories have been thrown into the mix.

Here we'll try to dispel any confusion about compact system cameras (CSCs), explain the different technologies and systems available and help you to choose the right CSC for you.

Evolution of compact system cameras

Pentax q

In 2008, Olympus and Panasonic announced the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera system, used in the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 and Olympus PEN E-P1. This system maintained the same Four Thirds DSLR sensor size as used before, but the shorter lens-mount-to-sensor-distance paved the way for smaller camera bodies and lenses.

Then in 2010 Samsung released the NX10, moving away from the Pentax-partnered GX-series of DSLR cameras. This solo venture shunned the MFT standard, using a larger APS-C-sized sensor similar to those found in many DSLRs.

Different acronyms began to be flung around for the NX-series' new system, from Hybrid, through Micro System Camera (MSC) and EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder with Interchangeable Lens) to MILC (Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera).

As sales grew, other manufacturers got involved too. In the middle for 2010, Sony announced its own solo venture, the NEX-series, including the Sony NEX-5. This has been followed by the Pentax Q, and Nikon V1 and J1.

How do compact system cameras work?

Panasonic gf3

A compact system camera (CSC) works using a similar principle to DSLR technology: light enters the camera body and creates an image on the sensor. However, unlike a SLR there's no mirror system to reflect light into an optical viewfinder. Instead compact system cameras use a full time live view system on the LCD.

The mirrorbox sacrifice means a less bulky construction, but it doesn't always mean a viewfinder is an impossibility: as light feeds to the sensor, the camera can replicate that feed to a secondary LCD screen, known as an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Some models come with an EVF, some without, and some have a port to allow an optional external EVF to be connected.

Olympus evf

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome for compact system camera manufacturers was to produce a camera with contrast-detect autofocus able to match up to a DSLR's faster phase-detection system. Because the very makeup of a CSC depends on using live view and contrast-detect autofocus, the first few CSCs released just didn't compare.

However, the latest models have greatly improved sensors and focusing algorithms. By increasing the sensor's output speed, in models such as the Panasonic Lumix G3, the larger volume of information – at up to 120 cycles per second – means a rapid contrast detection process for an improved focus response.

Panasonic g3 af controls

CSC technology is now of the standard to significantly surpass DSLRs for live view work and the latest releases aren't far behind DSLRs as a whole – Olympus even claims its PEN E-P3 has the world's fastest autofocus

Pros and cons of compact system cameras

Panasonic gh2

Initial teething problems put to one side, the current range of compact system cameras (CSCs) are very capable machines indeed. Because there's no mirror, the removal of this mechanical movement means faster burst speeds are often possible. The Sony NEX-7 and NEX-5N's 10fps continuous shooting modes make this abundantly clear.

The smaller size of compact system cameras is another potential benefit, plus lenses are smaller than their DSLR equivalents. The Micro Four Thirds system has the smaller sensor and therefore the smaller lenses, while other manufacturer's APS-C-sized sensors mean larger lenses but image quality that's more closely matched to a DSLR standard.

The main downside to compact system cameras is that electronic viewfinders (EVFs) aren't all that great, yet. Low light introduces image lag and higher image noise in preview that doesn't make framing as preferable, plus the size of the EVF is often far smaller than an optical equivalent.

Olympus evf

On the upside, an EVF will offer a 'what you see is what you get' 100% field of view, and many models can add virtual spirit levels or feed back a variety of information on the image area of the viewfinder. Further improvements are certainly being made – the Sony Alpha A77 includes a 3million dot OLED EVF, for example – but it will take time before this technology migrates to the more affordable, entry-level photography market.

The other thing to consider is that new ranges mean new lens fittings and, therefore, your existing lenses won't prove of much worth on a CSC camera. It also means the independent ventures of Sony, Samsung and Pentax don't offer a particularly fruitful selection of lenses when compared to the DSLR market – although research and development is hard at work in all camps to output a variety of lenses over the coming years.

Lens adaptors are available to use DSLR and other lenses, such as Leica glass, but there are often restrictions to autofocus and lens operability.

As manufacturers spend a lot of time creating models to entice new users into the market, there's a lack of high-end or professional kit currently available. It's plausible that this will appear later but, for now at least, the pro photography DSLR market will be hard to break.

Which compact system camera to buy?

Sony nex-7

A variety of compact system camera (CSC) models target the different market sectors. Don't forget that the smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor from Panasonic and Olympus models may not quite match their competitors for low light image quality performance, but the smaller MFT sensor means smaller lenses – and that's important if you intend to keep your kit as miniature as possible.

Of the current models available, there are three main sectors that divide: DSLR replacement, style and mini options.

The larger-bodied CSC models, including the Samsung NX11 and Panasonic GH2, offer lots of button-based controls and built-in electronic viewfinders. These are often known as DSLR replacement models.

Samsung nx11

Medium-sized models are often design or style-focused, such as the Olympus PEN E-P3. This doesn't have a viewfinder but the inclusion of a hotshoe means an optional one can always be added at a later date. This is also the case for other similar models.

Olympus pen e-p3

Mini models do away with viewfinders altogether and, in some cases, no hotshoe means these cameras are more akin to step-up compacts with changeable lenses. The Panasonic GF3, Olympus PEN E-PM1, Sony NEX-C3 and Samsung NX200 are great examples that tend to come bundled with prime pancake lenses to keep the overall size down (add a big lens and you may defeat the object of buying into a small system). Provided you are happy with a smaller sensor the Nikon V1, Nikon J1, and Pentax Qare also making there way into the shops.

Olympus pen e-pm1

Despite the wide range of choice, there's no Canon model in the compact system camera market. Rumours are rife that a model is forthcoming – but with another lens mounts, that'll only spread things out yet further.

For the time being, manufacturers are trying hard to get the public on board to buy into their systems. Once that happens, and when lens ranges expand, there will be natural growth and more pro-spec models are likely to become a reality. Ultimately, the CSC market could see a huge chunk of the DSLR sector eaten up in the not too distant future... Watch this space.

Top compact system cameras

Now for our mini guide to our favourite compact system cameras (CSCs) and the CSC models available at the moment, to help you choose the right one for you.

Most pocketable: Panasonic GF3

Panasonic gf3

This teeny tiny compact-like model is just about as small as they come - without using a very small sensor, and has a built-in flash

Read our Panasonic GF3 review

'Mini DSLR':Panasonic Lumix G3

Panasonic g3

Super-fast autofocus and touchscreen controls in a small and capable package

Read full Panasonic Lumix G3 review

Best image quality:Samsung NX11/Sony NEX-5N

Samsung nx11

Sony nex-5n

It's a toss-up between these two APS-C models, because both compact system cameras produce cracking images

Read our Samsung NX11 review

Read our Sony NEX-5N review

For the fashionistas:Olympus PEN E-P3

Olympus pen e-p3

The Sony NEX-7 is set to be available in November 2011, it's a beautifully crafted camera with Sony's game-changing EVF built-in

Sony nex-7

Buy this in white and wear it like a handbag; its touchscreen enhances use too

Read our Olympus PEN EP-3 review

Current compact system camera models

Panasonic Lumix: the range with the Micro Four Thirds standard

Panasonic Lumix G3: super-fast autofocus in a small, DSLR-like body with touchscreen controls

Panasonic g3

Read full our Panasonic Lumix G3 review

Panasonic Lumix GF2: the GF3's older brother

Panasonic gf2

Read our Panasonic Lumix GF2 review

Panasonic Lumix GF3: as small as they come with built in flash, also has touchscreen controls

Panasonic gf3

Read our Panasonic Lumix GF3 review

Panasonic Lumix GH2: top-spec model with 1080p HD video

Panasonic gh2

Read our Panasonic Lumix GH2 review

Olympus PEN: the series using the Micro Four Thirds standard

Olympus PEN E-P3: one for the style-conscious, a unique looking Micro Four Thirds model with touchscreen

olympus pen e-p3

Read our Olympus PEN EP-3 review

Olympus PEN E-PL3: similar spec to E-P3 in a slimmed-down plastic body

Olympus pen e-pl3

Read our Olympus PEN EP-L3 review

Olympus PEN E-PM1: the 'mini' version

Olympus pen e-pm1

Read our Olympus PEN E-PM1 review

Samsung: APS-C sensor, using an NX lens system

Samsung NX11: the most DSLR-like model produces (arguably) the best image quality of any CSC

Samsung nx11

Read our Samsung NX11 review

Samsung NX200: super-high 20.3MP sensor in this mini model

Samsung nx200

Read our Samsung NX200 review

Sony: APS-C sensor, using an E-mount lens system

Sony NEX-7: 10fps and a 24.3MP sensor

Sony nex-7

Read our Sony NEX-7 review

Sony NEX-5N: 10fps and a 16.1MP sensor

Sony nex-5n

Sony NEX-C3: boasting a 16.2MP sensor for great image quality

Sony nex-c3

Read our Sony NEX-C3 review

Pentax Q: APS-C sensor, using a Q-mount lens system

Pentax q

Pentax Q: the first model in Pentax's range

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Liked this? Then check out Best compact system camera 2011: 10 reviewed and rated

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