Compact system cameras (CSCs) are a relatively new type of digital camera that are perhaps best described as falling somewhere between advanced-level compacts and fully fledged DSLRs. There’s no universal standard in terms of sensor size or specification for CSCs, rather it’s used as an umbrella term for similar cameras from different manufacturers.
The main benefit of Micro System cameras over DSLRs is that they are smaller and lighter. And because they house a significantly larger sensor than most compacts, image quality is far above that of a point-and-shoot. In many ways they really do offer the best of both worlds.
INTRODUCING THE FIVE CSC STANDARDS
At present there are five individual CSC standards to choose from. While the sensor sizes between these standards differ wildly, all of the CSC systems listed below benefit from their own universe of interchangeable lenses and accessories:
• The Pentax Q uses a regular 1/2.3inch sensor – the same size as found in the vast majority of compacts. There is only the one model at present and while it is very well featured, £600 for what is essentially a compact camera with interchangeable lenses isn’t particularly cheap.
• The Nikon 1 system, meanwhile, uses a unique one-inch sensor that’s about four times the size of the Pentax Q’s. Having only been launched in the Summer of 2011 it’s presently the newest CSC standard on the market and, as such offers two models: the consumer orientated Nikon V1 and the more enthusiast targeted J1.
• The Micro Four Thirds standard jointly offered by Olympus and Panasonic (through its Lumix brand) is the original CSC standard and, as such, began with the launch of the original Lumix G1 in 2009. With both the Lumix G-series and Olympus PEN ranges currently on the third generation of models, there’s a wide range of models offered. Look out for some excellent bargains on older, discontinued models too. The Micro Four Thirds sensor used by all Olympus and Lumix CSCs is about 1.5x the size of the Nikon 1 chip, but smaller than APS-C.
• At present Sony NEX and Samsung NX are the only CSC ranges to use APS-C sized sensors – the same size of sensor used in most DSLRs. There does seem to be an emerging trend for both of these ranges to offer much higher resolutions than other CSC systems – the Sony NEX-7 for example, offers 24.7MP, while the Samsung NX200 is packing 20.3MP. The jury is still out on whether this is a good thing, however it’s certainly worth bearing in mind that images shot at full-resolution will result in very large files.
• Coming at things from a slightly different angle is the Ricoh GXR system, in which it’s not just the lenses that are swapped, but rather entire lens/sensor ‘cartridges’.
CSCs are different from DSLRs because they lack the internal pentaprism mirror system that gives DSLR users a through-the-lens (TTL) view of what the camera is looking at. Instead, Micro System cameras use either the rear LCD screen as on a regular compact, or an electronic viewfinder (EVF) system that relays information directly from the sensor and projects it onto a miniaturised screen that’s viewed. For this reason it’s worth paying close attention to the quality of the rear LCD screen when looking at rival CSC models. Nearly all offer at least 460k-dots, which is a significant step up from the 230k-dot screens found on many compacts. Another big differentiating factor is that some CSC models offer vari-angle screens that can be twisted and rotated to make lighter work of shooting at extreme angles, whereas other models screens are fixed in place
When setting out to choose a CSC it’s worth bearing in mind that they tend to come in three types of design: DSLR and compact. Those CSCs that are styled on a DSLR will tend to be the biggest of all and will usually come with a more pronounced hand-grip and a built-in EVF that allows for eye-level composition. You’ll need a dedicated bag or pouch for these. Compact CSCs on the other hand are a bit smaller, although with a kit zoom attached are still generally too big for all but the biggest coat pockets, so again you will probably need to invest in a bag.
Since one of the major benefits of a CSC is the ability to change lenses, it’s worth doing a bit of research into what’s available for your chosen standard before handing over any cash. Some of the more established systems offer a wider choice of lenses than some of the newer ones (although, of course, given time this will even out). Be sure to check whether your chosen model offers a hotshoe on the top-plate and whether this can accommodate other accessories in addition to a flashgun. Some systems even call this dock an ‘accessory port’ rather than a hotshoe and offer all kinds of accessories – from EVFs to GPS systems – that can be connected to the camera using it.
Lame Flash Gordon pun aside, be sure to check whether or not the CSCs on your shortlist have a built-in pop-up flash. In the drive to make CSCs ever smaller some manufacturers have been forced to remove pop-up flashguns from certain models while others offer a pop-up flash but no hot-shoe. Think about how important this is to you.