Low Noise Compact (EVIL) Cameras Compared

Mockup of an "fat iPhone 4" with 4/3 lens mount

I’ve seen a whole bunch of coined abbreviations for this category, including:

EVIL (electronic viewfinder, interchangeable lens)

ILEV (EVIL for the god-fearing)

SLD (single lens digital) — as opposed to digital cameras with multiple lenses?

CSC (compact system camera)

ILC (interchangeable lens compact)

MILC (mirrorless interchangeable lens camera) — Thom Hogan has a new website devoted to these cameras — sansmirror.com

There’s a poll here.

Semantics

Part of the problem is lack of precision.

Rangefinder cameras (including the innovative X100) actually have mirrors. Sorry. So do the not-quite-so-compact SLT (“T” for translucent) pellicle cameras from Sony. And if someone produced a small sensor DSLR with interchangeable lenses would we start searching for a new acronym? (Minolta and Pentax both sold 110-based SLRs.)

Similarly, if someone started selling $1000 Leica M clones do you think they would be considered part of the category? (Why hasn’t someone done this? Fuji? Hello?) I think that mirrorlessness is both inaccurate and beside the point. (Sorry Thom.)

Interchangeable lens is debatably part of the equation. There’s the Ricoh GXR system which is fairly compact and has interchangeable lens + sensor modules. I think this is a ridiculous concept since the viewfinder/storage component is the piece that will become obsolete the fastest (RAM gets cheaper, CPUs get faster, displays get better in every way, etc.) with the sensor close behind while the lens is the least likely to become obsolete. I think it’s safe to say that the GXR represents a conceptual dead-end (my first serious camera was a Ricoh rangefinder so I have a soft spot for Ricoh, but this is just silly).

In any event, the term “interchangeable lens” does not differentiate these cameras from DSLRs which don’t mention “interchangeable lenses” as a differentiator. Presumably a fixed-lens DSLR (which is a perfectly plausible idea — why not make a small, cheap, light D2000 with a fixed 18-135mm lens?) would still be a DSLR.

It’s also easy to imagine mirrors figuring in future designs which, say, fold optical paths to reduce camera thickness. It’s clear to me that compactness is a key part of the equation. There may be interchangeable lens cameras out there that aren’t compact, but they’re a different category. So I think we can all agree that some letter connoting compact deserves a place.

The word “system” is worse than useless. It excludes the Leica X1 and Fuji X100 (APS-C sensor cameras with super fixed lenses) both of which are far more deserving of a place in the pantheon than, say, the Pentax Q. And it would include the Canon S cameras and (worse) the Panasonic TZ cameras which are part of a system that includes waterproof housings and the like. Including the S95 et al isn’t horrible, and in fact maybe it’s a step in the right direction, but I don’t think the word system is useful.

Digital is accurate but redundant. Digital as opposed to? I think we can ditch D from SLR for that matter. It’s not like we call compacts or point-and-shoots “digital compacts” or whatever.

And finally there’s MILC (apparently leading in the polls). First it has the word “mirrorless” and then “interchangeable lens” and finally the redundant “camera” (so we’ll have “MILC cameras”). That’s four letters for three concepts two of which are debatable and the other redundant.

So, drum roll, here’s my suggestion:

Low Noise Compact

Why not Large Sensor Compact? It’s not a bad option for now, but the point is low noise not large sensors. The Pentax Q gets superior image quality to enthusiast cameras with larger sensors by using backside illumination. (My iPhone 4 gets great IQ relative to my old Panasonic TZ for the same reason.) If someone comes up with a miraculous technology that allows incredibly small sensors (e.g. using sensor arrays) while retaining the image quality associated with larger sensors, why exclude them or change terminology again? Given that the Nikon 1’s sensor is half the size of the Olympus Micro Four-Thirds cameras but produces better image quality we would be wise to not make assumptions about sensor size.

The point is good, clean images and compact size. Everything else (indeed digital-ness) is beside the point. High Image Quality Compact is a bigger mouthful and sounds more subjective. Besides, using the word “quality” sounds like advertising bullshit rather than a real product category. Enthusiast Compact is simpler but again seems subjective (the Lytro would qualify, as would cameras with entertainingly bad image quality).

As a bonus, LNC works as an adjective and a noun (because compact does). So we can say LNC or LNC Camera without making fools of ourselves. “The lesser of two EVILs is funny”, but doesn’t actually parse.

LNCs Compared

Anyway, because no-one else seems to have done this properly (believe me I’ve looked) here is a head-to-head comparison along all the axes that I think are important of what I consider to be the viable LNC contenders. I’ve tried to get the specs as accurate and objective as I possibly can. Please let me know if you (@podperson) find any inaccuracy or you think I’m missing a key axis of comparison.

One thing you may find controversial is that I’ve only represented each camera system with one “exemplar” which is the camera I consider the most tempting from that system. A lot of people might pick the Panasonic G3 over the GX-1 because it has a built-in viewfinder, the same sensor, isn’t much bigger, and is inexpensive (and available!). I’ve ignored the GH-2 and the NEX-7 despite the fact that both are clearly the “top-of-the-line” of their respective systems because they’re not compact. If I want a camera that big I’ll just use a DSLR. Including Leica is kind of ridiculous (it’s a whole different category of user) but in fact the Leica meets most of the requirements for an LNC better than the Sony E series, it’s just stupidly expensive.

I’ve included DxOmark sensor scores because I’m sick of reviewers who show side-by-side comparisons of images out of different cameras and declare this one better than that one based on eyeballing them. DxOmark isn’t perfect, but it seems more impartial.

System Leica M Samsung NX Sony E Panasonic M43 Olympus M43 Nikon 1
Exemplar Leica M9P NX-200 NEX-5N GX-1 E-P3 V1
Sensor 35mm full frame APS-C APS-C 4/3” 4/3” CX
Crop Factor 1.0 1.5 1.5 2.0 2.0 2.7
Sensor Size (mm2) 860 368 368 225 225 116
Price w/lens $9,400 $800 $700 $700 $800 $849
Sensels (MP) 18.0 20.3 16.0 16.0 12.0 10.0
Sensel Size (µm2) 47.78 18.13 23.00 14.06 18.75 11.60
Sensor Tech CCD CMOS CMOS Live MOS CMOS CMOS
DxOMark Overall 69 (based on M9) 62 (based on NX100)  77  56 (based on G3)  51  54
DxOMark Color Depth (bpp) 22.5 22.6 23.6 21 20.8 21.3
DxOMark Dynamic Range (DR) 11.7 10.7 12.7 10.6 10.1 11
DxOMark Sensitivity (ISO) 884 563 1079 667 536 346
Fast Primes Lots! No 16mm f2.8 20mm f1.7, 25mm f0.95, etc. 20mm f1.7, 25mm f0.95, etc. 10mm f2.8, F-mount adapter
Pocketable with Lens? No No Wide Pancake Wide Pancake or Folding Zoom Wide Pancake or Folding Zoom Wide Pancake
1080 30P or 60i Video No Yes Yes + 60P Yes Yes Yes
720 60P Video No Yes Yes? No Yes Yes
Manual Video Control Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Video Framing OK Good OK OK Good
Focus Speed Good Good Good Good Good-Great
Viewfinder Optical Not released? Accessory Accessory Accessory 1.4MP
Live View No 614k dots OLED 920k dots 460k dots 614k OLED 460k dots
Burst Shooting without interrupting view, focus, or exposure 3fps 4fps 3fps 3fps 10fps
Burst Focus “pray and spray” 7fps 10fps 4.2fps 60fps (for 0.5s)
Standard Hotshoe Yes Yes No No Yes No
GPS No Accessory
Flash Via Hotshoe Built-in Accessory (included) Built-in Built-in Accessory
Best Feature It’s a rangefinder with a full frame sensor IQ, Sweep Panoramas Looks In-body image stabilization Phase Detect autofocus on sensor
Worst Feature Price, no IS Lens and sensor quality Lens Size, Plastic Construction No manual control of video Aging sensor, poor body design Lens options, controls, no bracketing
Key Differentiator Simplicity Novel UI that you love or hate Hard Controls on Compact Body Hard Controls on a Retro Body Video capabilities

What I Excluded

Aside from only including one “exemplar” for each system, I’ve left out a lot of potential contenders. It would be nice to have at least one smallish DSLR (e.g. the Pentax K-5), an SLT, and an enthusiast compact like the S-100 or XZ-1 in the table for comparison. I think everyone understands the tradeoffs between these systems and the DSLRs and their ilk; besides we’re all probably invested in one such system or another and the point is pretty much moot.

I’ve omitted the Pentax-Q because its sensor is essentially the same quality as the premium 2/3″ sensors in premium compacts, it has a weak range of lenses, it’s actually too small to be easy to handle, and I think it’s ugly, poorly designed, and overpriced.

I’ve omitted the X100 simply because it makes the wrong tradeoffs for me — it has a fixed lens and — for my tastes — it’s the wrong focal length. Because it’s a one-off camera and not a “system” this isn’t something that can be “fixed”. If Fuji had instead made it an M-mount (or similar) I would have bought one on the spot and started hunting for second-hand lenses. (I happen to prefer 50mm lenses to 35mm lenses for example.)

Summing Up

Olympus, Leica, and Samsung are, at least in terms of sensor tech, a generation or two behind the leaders. (Leica at least makes up for it by having the best glass.) So I think they’re all non-contenders. And hey, you can buy all the other cameras and a bunch of lenses for the price of the Leica body alone. Sony in many ways produces the best camera, but the lenses are ridiculously big (they’re not even small compared to APS-C DSLR lenses) which negates the whole point — once you get as big as the Sony with a typical useful lens you might as well have a DSLR.

To my mind this leaves Nikon and Panasonic, with each having stuff the other desperately needs to be truly compelling. E.g. the Nikon V1’s focus system is clearly superior (it may not be super fast in low light, but look at the continuous shooting speed) and it offers manual control when shooting video. I don’t want to harp on the built-in viewfinder too much because if it’s that important, get a G3 (although by golly that’s an ugly camera).

So the winner is: something someone releases next year.

Parting Thoughts

The Canon S100’s image quality is barely lower than that of the Nikon 1 and it’s inexpensive and genuinely pocketable. It’s tempting to add a column for the S100 just to see how it compares (its sensor scores are pretty close to the Olympus). The Nikon leads on the video side (although its small sensor makes shallow depth of field difficult, and the NEX-5N has 1080P60). I think what I’d really like to see is Apple produce an iPhone or iPod Touch variant aimed at photographers. Stick a 2/3″ BSI sensor and a lens mount in a “fat iPhone”.

P.S. The other thing that might rescue these systems from their compromises is price reduction. I saw the Panasonic GF3 selling (briefly) for $399 at Target (with the old, huge 14-42mm kit lens). The Nikon J1 would be pretty tempting at $499. (I finally found a demo unit that was “working” and its autofocus was pretty spectacular. I say “working” because while the autofocus was wonderful and I could take photos, my attempts to use aperture priority were wholly unsuccessful, and if I need to read a manual to figure it out then it’s already failed.) Basically if I can get a credible LNC for a similar price to a premium compact that I might get a lot less picky. That said, premium compacts — especially older models — are dropping below $200.

Update

Pentax has announced a mirrorless body compatible with their K-mount lenses. This has the clear advantage that you can use Pentax’s excellent lens selection, and the enormous disadvantage that the body isn’t especially compact and is — to my eye — butt ugly. And why the “squashed DSLR” look? It’s possible they plan to create K-mount lenses for the mirrorless body with optics that can fold behind the mount. But the first body just looks like a joke.

Fuji, as expected, has announced an interchangeable lens version of the X100 — the X-Pro1 — along with a compelling selection of fast primes, which would be great if they weren’t asking about $2500 for a body with one lens. It seems like they’re trying to compete with Leica rather than rest of the pack, or they’re simply going to grab huge profits from early adopters and then drop prices or release a substantially cheaper body. Still, even the lenses are pretty expensive.

I’m not going to add new columns to the table just yet, although I guess Fuji deserves to displace Leica.

The 1966 Rollei 35
The 1966 Rollei 35 — a full-frame 35mm camera with a 40mm f2.8 lens made in 1966 (image from camera quest.com)

It seems to me that in the end enthusiast cameras will have full frame sensors. Smaller sensors won’t give you nice bokeh, and we know you can build a pocketable full frame camera because there were quite a few ridiculously small full frame 35mm cameras back in the day (witness the Rollei and Minox 35mm cameras — the Rollei is basically the smallest camera you could conceivably wrap around a 35mm cartridge, a flat spot at the focal plane to expose the film, and a winding spool). There’s simply no good reason why we can’t have a digital equivalent, and any camera manufacturer that wants to skate to where the puck will be should be working on such a camera today.

Panasonic Wins This Round

Panasonic GX-1 Top View

The new Panasonic GX-1 replaces the GF-1 in a way that the GF-2 and GF-3 assuredly did not. (A colleague just bought a GF-1 precisely because until the GX-1 ships in December, it’s pretty much the EVIL* camera body of choice. Naturally my colleague is now drooling over the GX-1.)

Note: * I refuse to use the term “ILC” (interchangeable lens camera) unless it becomes unavoidable, since it’s so vague as to be meaningless. EVIL (“electronic viewfinder, interchangeable lens”) is not only funnier, but more accurate, although the term “electronic viewfinder” is a little tenuous given that most of us understand a “viewfinder” to be a peephole rather than a rear-mounted live-view.

The competition for the EVIL segment has been fierce, but for the enthusiast market not so much. What has been fierce is the competition for the EVIL point-and-shoot camera (as exemplified by the Sony NEX cameras, and the Panasonic GF-3). The only camera companies which seem to care about enthusiast EVIL bodies are Panasonic and, to a lesser extent, Samsung (which has included the GF-1 in its list of “things to rip off” when designing NX-series bodies). There’s probably a good reason for this, at least in the US market, since Best Buy is happy to stock quite high-end DSLRs, and point-and-shoot EVIL cameras (like the Sony NEX-series) but conspicuously omits enthusiast compacts including both EVIL cameras like the GF-1 (or even the GF-3) but serious fixed-lens compacts like the Canon S95. So it’s possible that there’s simply not much demand for enthusiast-oriented cameras, especially when low-end DSLRs are so damn good. Or maybe if you spend an hour on dpreview every week then you’re buying your camera online.

What’s shocking to me is that Nikon’s 2.7x crop factor J1 and V1 manage to be nearly as expensive and no more compact than Panasonic’s GX-1 with the newish X-series folding zoom. The whole point of having a small sensor would appear to be to compete on price and lens size. Panasonic apparently understands this in a way that others do not (Olympus, to its credit, has designed a folding zoom for the Pen, but it’s not that small, and it relies on sensor-shift stabilization).

Assuming that the GX-1’s low-light performance is as good or better than last year’s GH-1 (which I believe shares the same sensor) it seems like the slam-dunk winner of this round. No doubt Sony will offer more gimmicky shooting modes, and of course the NEX-7 has 24 MP, while the Nikon 1-series offers its gimmicky video stills and faster continuous shooting (and probably faster autofocus, but the GX-1 seems plenty fast), but in the end, size, handling, and a good choice of lenses wins. (How did Nikon not manage to produce a pancake faster than f2.8? Providing a couple of f1.8, or better yet f1.4 or 1.2 primes for reasonable prices would demonstrate the advantages of a small sensor and allow enthusiasts to shoot fabulous photos of their cappuccinos with gorgeous bokeh.)

I hope we’ll see a nice leather case designed around the GX-1 and 14-42 X-series zoom, one of the huge losses since we all went digital has been the leather case that unsnaps to allow you to shoot without needing to be removed (the GF-1 has several cases along these lines). This let you sling a camera over your shoulder all day and shoot without risking leaving something behind or dropping your camera, and also let you toss a camera into a bag without worrying about it getting snagged on clothing or otherwise damaged. A thoughtfully designed video grip would also be welcome.