Downsizing is an obsession in the field of technology, and cameras are not immune. No one wants to have to carry a heavy or large camera with even bigger lenses. This is why compact system cameras are becoming very popular. They offer the extremely important advantage of interchangeable lenses while maintaining their small size. In this light, Compact system cameras have the versatility of an SLR in a more contained package.
One of the most important factors in size reduction is that compact system cameras do not have a reflex mirror or an optical penta-mirror like those of an SLR. This means that the image sensor is directly behind the lens mount. A drawback to this is that great care must be exercised when changing lenses. An upside is that the user does not have to worry about blurry shots caused by mirror bouncing. This proves very useful when taking close-up shots with macro lenses.
Some of thecompact system cameras in the market today, especially the smallest ones, do not have a viewfinder at all. This means that the framing of compositions needs to be handled on the main LCD screen. In some cases, a viewfinder can be an extra option that would be plugged into the accessory port of the camera.
All the cameras in this test group have electronic viewfinders. They’re either installed on the left of the rear panel or they have a more central position such as in Olympus, Panasonic GH3 and Sony cameras. Some cameras have a variation on this as they have a tilting viewfinder, such as the Panasonic GX7, or a hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder such as the Fujifilm X-Prol.
All of these cameras rely on contrast-detection autofocus because they do not have a reflex mirror to reflect the light. The system adjusts focus to acquire the greatest contrast by using the image projected by the lens onto the sensor. The same technique is used in SLRs when using Live View mode which is extremely slow. Contrast detection in these systems is a lot faster, but might have some trouble keeping up with really fast action. The Fujifilm X-E2 and Olympus E-M1 take it a step further whereby phase-detection autofocus is handled by specially manufactured image sensors, which is similar to the system on the Canon 70D for Live View and movie modes.
All the cameras in this test are close in size, except for the Panasonic GH3 which is a little bigger and the closest to an SLR in terms of size. However, its Micro Four Thirds lenses are smaller. There are bigger differences when it comes to the image sensors made for each camera, though.
As Micro Four Thirds models, Olympus and Panasonic have small sensors of 17.3×13.0mm with a 2.0x crop. Fujifilm cameras have a 23.6×15.6mm APS-C format with a 1.5x crop factor. The Sony A7R is on top of the list with its large sensor measuring 35.9x24mm with no crop factor. In terms of image resolution, it also wins by far with a pixel count of 36.4 million which is double of what other Compact system cameras have to offer, as well as completely overshadowing SLRs.
Most of these Compact system cameras cost around the same as an enthusiast-level SLR such as the Canon 70D or Nikon D7100. The Olympus costs more, coming in at the same price of the full-frame Canon 6D SLR. The Sony A7R is even more expensive than the Nikon D610 SLR.
Fujifilm made a great impact by releasing its first compact system cameras, the X-Pro1. Its features include an X-trans image sensor using a 6×6 filter array. It was designed to dodge the need for an anti-aliasing filter, bringing forth the ability to shoot sharper, more detailed images.
The aperture ring at the rear of the lens makes for quick exposure adjustments when coupled with the shutter speed dial on top of the camera. Adjustments can be made to shutter priority, aperture priority and manual models. There is no PASM meaning the camera utilizes automatic positions for the shutter speed and aperture selectors. A clear indication of the camera’s enthusiast aspirations is that there are no scene modes. Instead, there are references to old film emulation modes, including Provia, Astia and Velvia.
The odd hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder is useful in electronic mode, where it is coupled with a high 1440k pixel resolution. At the back, the 1230k pixel LCD screen also has a high resolution but it lacks a touchscreen. However, there is a quick menu system which helps offset the lack of touchscreen, as well as speeding up the access to shooting settings. Handling is decent, although the finger grip is not as sculpted as other cameras.
Image quality is natural in the standard Provia mode. A lot more vibrancy is acquired when using the Velvia mode. This camera retains details impressively at low ISO settings. Noise is under control when using high sensitivities and autofocus runs at average speed.
On top of being an update to the X-E1, this camera also offers desirable enhancements such as a newer X-Trans image sensor that includes phase-detection AF to complement the regular contrast-detection autofocus. It also has a faster burst rate of 7fps and a higher resolution at 2360k pixel electronic viewfinder, as well as Wi-Fi.
The camera includes a pop-up flash and a hotshoe, but the whole package is still smaller and lighter than the X-Pro1. Moreover, a Lens Modulation Optimizer was added and It can be switched on in the menus as a refinement.
Similarities can be found between the two cameras. They both have 16.3MP image res and a similar control layout. The shutter speed dial and aperture ring are well implemented. The properly positioned exposure compensation dial offers up to +/- 3EV of bias, compared to the +/-2EV of the X-Pro1. The lack of an optical viewfinder proved to not be a drawback at all. The lack of a touchscreen can be a little annoying but it is made up for by the quick menu that allows easy adjustments to the settings.
Autofocus is not extremely fast, but it’s still faster than that of the X-Pro1, along with the off-centre AF in continuous AF mode. There are hardly any differences between the two cameras. However, the X-E2 has some enhancements and improvements and is cheaper.
Olympus OM-D E-M1
This camera has been praised by photographers, but it can still be criticized. For starters, autofocus is slow when using regular Four Thirds rather than Micro Four Thirds lenses.
This camera offers Dual Fast AF and delivers hybrid phase/contrast-detection, which makes it fast on both types of lenses. Both the systems can be used for continuous AF which helps the camera keep up with fast-moving targets. Moreover, the minimum shutter speed is fast, coming in at 1/8,000 seconds plus a burst rate of 10fps.
As in the other mentioned cameras, there is no anti-aliasing filter to enable maximum sharpness. To further reinforce this, a new generation image processor is installed. It aims for finer details while also correcting for lateral chromatic aberrations in Olympus’ own lenses.
The electronic viewfinder has 1.48x magnification on top of excellent resolution at 2360k pixels. The LCD is very professionally installed as well, due to its tilt and touchscreen facilities.
However, the fact remains that the Four Thirds sensor is smaller than the APS-C format sensors of the Fujifilm cameras, and tiny in comparison to the full-frame sensor of the Sony A7R, but the advantage here is the lenses are compact which stays in line with the COMPACT SYSTEM CAMERAS downsizing trend.
Despite the fact that the touchscreen does not extend to menu navigation, performance is still wonderful. There are a lot of direct access buttons to overcome the touchscreen problems. Image quality, color rendition and details are all excellent.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3
This camera is definitely the biggest out of the cameras on this list, having almost the same size and weight as the Canon 100D SLR. Some argue that smaller cameras are easier to handle, which may be true, but in the case of this camera, the trade-off is that it feels natural when shooting.
This camera is aimed at enthusiast photographers. It offers a lot of direct access controls, including five different customizable function buttons and a dedicated drive mode wheel. In addition, the camera also has buttons for white balance, exposure compensation, ISO and autofocus modes. Lastly, this is the only camera in the group to feature an LCD complete with a touchscreen facility. Touch control is also available for menu navigation.
The GH3 uses the Micro Four Thirds format on top of a 16MP image resolution. Noise at high ISO is a problem, but the image processor has multi-stage noise suppression.
The autofocus on the GH3 is pretty quick despite the lack of a hybrid phase/contrast detection autofocus like the one Olympus E-M1 has. However, it’s often not fast enough to track moving objects. Auto shooting yields good results in wide-ranging conditions, which makes the GH3 a suitable camera for beginners while also having advanced controls for the professionals.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX7
Unlike the previous camera, which is the biggest in the group, this one is the smallest and lightest. It shares the same Micro Four Thirds format as the GH3. One of the improvements this camera brings is a newer generation if image sensor. Also, Panasonic’s Light Speed AF was installed into the GX7, which aims to give faster performance when tracking moving objects. Moreover, there is a Low Light AF function, which improves the AF in dark scenes. The bulb exposure on the GX7 has a limit of two minutes which is the only real downside to shooting in dark situations.
The sculpting for the finger grip feels more natural than that of the Fujifilm cameras. However, the control buttons in the back are kind of cramped together, but they still offer quick access to shooting parameters. Also, it is easy to shoot from high or low angles because both the viewfinder and LCD screen have tilt facilities. Resolution is very impressive on the EVF and LCD, coming in at 2765k and 1040k respectively.
Faster AF and better high-ISO image quality are offered by the GX7, but AF struggles with moving objects in action photography. Still, this camera brought impressive improvements over the GH3.