Thoughts on the Serious Compact camera category

Picture of the Canon G7

Because I view my "primary" cameras as being best carried as clusters of heavy but high-quality hardware, I've realized that I'm really a Serious Compact junkie without realizing it.

See, for the ultimate in image quality for people who don't want to buy an expensive medium format digital back, the least expensive route really is a medium or large format film camera. So my primary camera is really a medium format SLR. Before that, it was a 35mm SLR with a bunch of prime lenses. And the 35mm SLR is really like an alternate primary than a secondary.

So I've found there's no room in my heart for owning a digital SLR. They just don't fit the bill. See, I know that if I got a digital SLR, I'd need to buy lenses that covered the ranges I wanted. And so even though I could get a fairly inexpensive body and kit lens, that wouldn't be enough. I'd have to replace all of the pieces of my 35mm gear, otherwise, I'd have to cart around my medium format SLR, my 35mm SLR, and my digital SLR.

But I do need a camera that can fit two important roles. First, I need a good "preview" camera that works similarly enough to my bigger cameras that I can use it to meter and experiment. Second, I need a good camera that can live in my laptop bag. And both of these uses tend to require a small camera.

I did have an Olympus Stylus film P&S in my bag, but it can't do the "preview" task very well and I just got tired of having a roll that spanned several months of time. And it's a zoom camera, whereas were I to have purchased it myself instead of stealing my wife's, I'd have gotten one with a prime lens. Maybe an XA or a modern variant thereof. So I have a G7 as my compact camera. Eventually, when something much cooler than the G7 comes out, I'll give it to my wife and get whatever the better camera is. The G9 having RAW isn't enough of a reason to urgently upgrade, oddly. It turns out that the G7/G9 is popular among the film-using population because it replaces a Polaroid back, so I'm not the only one.

The one point that folks on the web don't always realize is that the best serious compact camera is really not not about a G-series that has a huge sensor. That's fairly naive. Remember, the Sony R1 had a decent zoom range, an APS-C sensor, and it was pretty huge. So if you want to see what a G7/G9 would look like with a APS-C sensor, try gluing one of the Nikon live view bodies and the 18-135mm zoom lens together... it'll be a smidgen smaller and a smidgen lighter and very much unable to be stuffed in a pocket.

In case you haven't realized, when the size of the sensor changes, the lenses also need to change to match. Which means that there's an optimization problem. See, if you go from the average archetypal non-photographer to medium-amateur-photographer, they go from owning a P&S to upgrading to a dSLR. This is one part of the market. Plus, there are people who buy the SLR, often times one of the higher-end non-built-like-a-tank SLR bodies like the 5D, as a status symbol.

But once a photographer goes beyond the medium-amateur-photographer level, they start to want a second camera because they don't want to cart a dSLR around. Plus the film folks. Plus people who want a status symbol that can fit in one's purse or laptop bag.

The goal is to figure out how to sell to this market but to not be a cheaper substitute for the dSLR market. And this, mind you, is mostly a new market, so we're going to have to let it shake out. It won't be as big as the SLR or P&S market, but it has to happen.

Clearly, the camera must be smaller than a digital SLR. You can cut some parts out if you accept that it won't be as cool as the digital SLR but merely serve as a partner. You can remove the mirror box and prism and use a viewfinder or the LCD. You can move the lens closer to the sensor this way, which makes some lens designs easier.

The electronics involved are going to take up the same amount of space. Moving ten megapixels around is the same effort regardless of how big or small the sensor. About all you can do is shrink the number of parallel processing channels, which will give you less electronics, lower cost, and degraded performance.

Plus, you need to be able to hold the camera. This is tricky. People complain about the G7/G9 design, but it is thinner than the equivalent A-series designs and thus easier to fit in pockets.

Now, back to what I said earlier... the sensor size causes the lens design to change. See, if you have a tiny little sensor, you can make a camera that has a tiny, fast zoom lens. It'll stick out when you have the camera on and need to move in and out while you zoom, but not by that much.

If you try that stunt with a APS-C or a 35mm full-frame sensor, you probably won't be able to make a lens that will work at all. So you'll have to give up something, probably the widest aperture setting and probably also size and zoom range.

One avenue, which the Sigma DP-1 is an example of, is to use a prime lens and a huge sensor. They did an f/4 wide angle. If you put a "normal" lens, maybe about 25mm-30mm, you can have a compact f/2.8 lens -- some of the APS film cameras had lenses like that.

If you want a camera that's smaller than the Sony R1, you can give up some zoom range and light gathering ability to get a smaller package. For APS film, the Ixus Z65 for APS had a 24-65mm f/4.5-8 zoom lens. You'd get something like that.

Now, can you have it both ways? Sorta! Olympus / Samsung / Leica are talking about the micro-4/3rds mount. It's fairly nice. See, you can offer a lens that's going to be about the same size as the DP-1's lens. You can offer several different focal lengths for these tiny lens -- some folks prefer a wide angle, others prefer a "normal" lens. You might make a compact collapsing micro-4/3 zoom lens, but you don't prevent buyers from getting one of the mainline 4/3rds lenses.

The thing is, if it works out for Olympus, it's trivial for Nikon, Canon, Pentax, or Sony to pull the exact same stunt. But there's a lot of designs that worked back in the film days that can be made to work digitally, too. Like you can make things collapse into each other. So you can make the lens mount retract 10-15mm more into the camera body when it's off.

The thing to remember is that the 4/3rds system really hasn't done as well as Olympus would have liked it to do in the marketplace. Because the system requires that you design near-telecentric lenses to work optimally with narrow-acceptance-angle 25 megapixel compact sensors and also was made to be similar enough to the Olympus OM system for an easy adapter to be made, the 4/3rds lenses are not necessarily as small as one might expect them to be. The micro version of the mount relaxes the telecentricity requirements because it turns out that it's better to just brighten the corners on the camera processor side and it turns out to be much easier to make a sensor with a much wider acceptance angle than people thought.

There's a second avenue to have it both ways, actually. See, there's a fairly wide gap in size between the biggest P&S sensor (2/3rds at the biggest, but usually more like 1/1.8") and the smallest SLR sensor (4/3rds). See, in the film days, the installed base of enlargers, minilabs, slide projectors, and negative sleeves meant that you really couldn't introduce different sizes just for the heck of it. But with digital sensors, most of that doesn't matter. And, as Serious Compacts points out, there's a gap in sensor sizes.

So if you take an intermediate sized sensor, you can either make a new lens mount, sell it with a prime lens built in, or sell it with a zoom lens built in that will have a correspondingly smaller sized lens for the same equivalent zoom range and light gathering ability as a 4/3rds or APS-C sized lens.

If I were to make a Serious Compact camera, I'd probably opt for calling it "System One" since it'll probably be the same size as a 3/3" vidicon tube's sensing area. If you look at how the higher end cameras are always coming with a small set of accessories, it's not even that implausible to ship two or three accessory items.


The Serious Compact category may get a hot infusion of burning camera love as soon as next month at Photokina. There's rumors... but you know how rumors are. At least 90% of all camera rumors are wishful thinking or sucker bets. Like, it's pretty sure that next year, every year, there's going to be more megapixels. And the G9 needs to be replaced in the lineup. And so does the 5D.

I've been busy. See, I'm working my way through the editing queue. And I had to take advantage of the full moon last night. And I booked a bunch of models for a bunch of shooting recently and all of them want their pictures in a fairly expedient fashion.

But the new tripod is awfully nice compared to the old one. So I'll write more about that in a bit. And I have some pictures and stories to post.

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