4/3″: Panasonic GM1 and Olympus OM-D series
APSC: Fujifilm X-T1
Full Frame: Sony A series
What Is Never in the Running
The chart below assumes the sensor size of 35mm or “full frame” is 100%. Using a percentage is a much more revealing way of comparing sensor size. If you look at the iPhone sensor it is 2% of the size of a “full frame” sensor, and the majority of point and shoot cameras are 4% of a “full frame” sensor. If you have a smart phone it would be pointless to have a point and shoot, so on that basis I would exclude most point and shoots. Next you would have to look at the return on investment. Point and shoots with larger sensors cost as much or more than a 4/3″ or APSC sensor cameras that are significantly larger (see chart below). So I would automatically exclude anything with a sensor smaller than 4/3″ as being a bad return on your money, as you can take the same amount of cash and buy a much larger sensor camera. Remember it is the sensor size that is most important not megapixels (lenses of course are also an extremely important issue).
So “what is out” is anything smaller than cameras with a 4/3″ sensor (33% the size of a “full sensor”). This leaves three classes of sensors: the “full frame” at 100%, the APSC sensor at 54% and the 4/3″ sensor at 33%.
Eliminating the DSLR
In the last few years a number of mirrorless cameras have emerged. They have the same size sensors as the DSLR cameras and have the same processors. In other words they produce as good and sometimes better quality photographs than DSLR cameras (DSLR cameras have a mirror that flaps up and down every time you take a shot). In most of the world the DSLR market is collapsing in favour of mirrorless cameras. In North American this shift is stalled, likely due to the confusion around the difference between these two types of cameras. The new class of mirrorless cameras are every bit as sophisticated as the DSLR. Mirrorless cameras have the same quality as DSLR and are capable of the same sophistication, but they have large advantages over DSLR cameras; they are significantly smaller, lighter and therefore more portable. Therefore I would eliminate DSLR from the mix as just not worth it, unless you want a very large studio camera.
Both Nikon and Canon have failed to significantly innovate in the mirrorless market, and given this not only would I eliminate their DSLRs from the discussion, I would simply eliminate both brands. Hopefully at Photokina this year they may do something to change this.
Mirrorless Cameras: Three Classes
The Internet Class
The 4/3″ mirrorless cameras are manufactured by two companies, Panasonic and Olympus. One great advantage of these cameras that lenses produced for either camera can be used on the other’s camera. So there is a very large set of lenses available. The draw back to these cameras is image resolution. I like to think of them as internet cameras, because image quality on this internet does not require higher resolution image quality. Don’t get me wrong they can produce stunningly crisp photographs up to 8 by 10, that would rival any larger camera. So if you are shooting for the internet or smaller prints like 8 by 10, it is hard to justify spending more on a larger camera.
The Prosumer Class
The mirrorless APSC size cameras have become very sophisticated recently and manufactures like Sony with their NEX series and Fujifilm with their X series have produced some stunning cameras. Unlike the 4/3″ cameras they seemed to have produced a camera that can produce high quality prints well beyond the 8 by 10 print size. So if you are going at some point to enlarge a print for over the fireplace you should be shooting with at least an APSC size camera.
Entry Level Professional Class
I am not going to get into the other professional class cameras such as medium format cameras and larger. The current line of full frame sensor cameras in fact are now producing resolutions that were once considered only within the capacity of a medium format camera. So in the full frame category of cameras there are only really two players Sony with their A series and Leica with their Range Finder. However Leica cameras (unlike their lenses) have not really kept pace with technological advances, they are also at, seven to eight thousand dollars, three to four times more expensive than Sony. Given that Sony make proprietary lens adaptors for Leica lenses, it is very hard to argue that Leica is worth the investment. So in this class I would suggest there is only one player Sony.
Why would you want a full frame if an APSC camera could print large as well? I think a simple answer to this is low light superiority. In other words once you start moving your ISO from 100 upward past 600 the APSC cameras start to produce poorer quality images than a full frame camera. So if you are not living in California where it is sunny all the time this is an important consideration.
So What is Best in Class
So the assumptions here are we are dealing with mirror less cameras and ones that have quality lens options. Although we have not talk about this yet, it is the lens that is the most important part of the camera. So if your camera does not have access to good lenses then it does not matter how good the camera is you will have a problem getting good quality crisp prints.
I would say there are really two cameras in this category that emerge as best in class and for different reasons. The Panasonic GM1 which is the smallest mirrorless, non point and shoot camera on the market. In fact it is smaller than a lot of point and shoot cameras. At $750 including the lens this camera is a real bargain and pocketable. The only draw back is it does not have a view finder.
The second camera to emerge which is larger and has a view finder, is the Olympus OM-D series of cameras. They are as large and as expensive as APSC camera and their lenses are smaller. So once equipped with a lens they can be smaller than the APSC cameras but not by much. If you are trying to read between the lines here, personally I would consider the GM1 for pocket ability but with the money you need to by an OM-D it does not make sense to me, I would spend the same money and get an APSC camera.
Here I would suggest there are only really two companies innovating in this size of camera Sony and Fujifilm. Sony’s NEX series, which is currently being rebranded into the “A” series, is smaller than the Fujifilm cameras but its lenses are larger. So in the end they are very similar in size. Price wise they are similar once you make a view finder a requirement. So what is the difference between the two.
The Sony advantage is that their lens mount is the same for the APSC sensor and the full frame sensor. So if you are one of those people who invests in lenses first, you could buy a cheap NEX and some expensive full frame lenses. However there are a number of disadvantages; the NEX series is driven using its complex menu system, rather than lots of dials on top of the camera. This slows you down when shooting, as some critical camera adjustments have to be made by accessing the electronic menu. In addition to this it uses a sensor that may at times be more prone to moire. Finally there is the issue of Lenses. Sony lenses for this series are limited in quality, so if you want quality lenses you may have to invest in some very expensive Leica lenses, or alternately very large full frame third party lenses.
Fujifilm really owns the APSC space for some very fundamental reasons. First their sensor is not a Bayer sensor like every other sensor on the market, it is an XTran sensor. This sensor increases the resolution of the camera by at least 10 percent while making moire a non issue. Second this camera is specifically designed for APSC sensors unlike Sony that uses a full frame mount. The advantage here is the lenses are smaller and much higher quality. In fact many of the lenses made for Fujifilm cameras can out resolve (are sharper) many of the high end full frame camera lenses. Third Fujifilm lenses are world class and rival Nikon glass and often out perform their lenses as well.
Finally, the newest Fujifilm camera the X-T1, can be operated almost completely without every having to go into the menu system all from the dials on top of the camera, including an ISO dial. It boosts the largest electronic view finder on the market and the fastest lenses. In these ways Sony’s APSC cameras are out classed.
Full Frame Sensor Cameras
In this category Sony owns the podium with three mirrorless cameras that address three different markets. The A7R is their 36 megapixel camera and a favourite of people who need to create very large prints with highly detail resolution. The A7 at 24 megapixels the most reasonable camera in the triad, with a price almost as cheap as the APSC high end mirrorless cameras. It is a good compromise between the high resolution of the A7R and the lower resolution of the A7s. There is one draw back to the A7 and A7R, that is not present in the A7s, the shutter is noisy as hell on the first two cameras. So if you need a quite camera the A7 and A7R are going to be a problem. Finally there is the A7s, which makes almost no noise at all when you click the shutter. The A7s is a 12.2 megapixel camera that can almost shoot in the dark. Reviewers have been raving about its ability to shoot in low light and not suffer from noise distortion. One such review said he simply put his camera on auto ISO 100-3200 and saw not real noise distortion over this range. Something only a $6000 DSLR Nikon could rival.
The Full Frame A7s and A7 camera can outperform the APSC cameras in low light. So think about churches and galleries that do not allow flash photography or those gloomy days in winter, this is where these cameras will shine.