Compact System Cameras

Compact System Cameras are, in many ways, the best of both worlds; they and small and yet also very versatile. But by the same token, Compact System Cameras may be viewed as being awkwardly cramped and poorly suited to some kinds of photography…

Two pictures showing correct and incorrect focussing priorities (AF).

Many walks of life acknowledge the mantra: "If it ain't broke then don't fix it". But over the years we have seen a huge range of different camera designs including, most recently, the advent of Compact System Cameras. Typically costing around £500-£700, these interchangeable-lens bodies appeal to a part of the market that likes the idea dSLRs' power and flexibility but not their size, weight and complexity.
A friend suggested recently that Compact System Cameras are the dSLR alternative for female photographers, and there may well be something in that theory, but the vast majority of Compact System Cameras differ from dSLRs crucially in their lack of a viewfinder. This is not simply a cosmetic change: it is a fundamental difference that forces a totally different way of doing photography on at least three fronts.
Firstly, using a dSLR held to the eye provides a very stable support: the user's right hand grips the camera, the left hand supports under the lens and both arms are tucked in against the body to reduce the likelihood of camera shake. Compact System Cameras that lack an electronic viewfinder need to be held away from the eye and that means there is one fewer point of contact with which to create a stable platform.
Manufacturers might counter that their camera bodies or lenses feature image stabilisation so there is less onus on the photographer to provide a firm support. This may be true but even with image stabilisation activated it is still sensible to hold the camera as steadily as possible.
Secondly, viewfinder-equipped cameras often feature dioptre corrections to accommodate different types of eyesight whereas screen-based cameras force the user to don a pair of spectacles if any eyesight correction is required. This is, perhaps, a fairly trivial consideration for the majority of photographers but a few will doubtless lament the inability to use the camera without wearing glasses.
Thirdly, and most crucially, holding a camera to your eye establishes a direct connection between the equipment and the photographer. There is also a sense in which a viewfinder allows you to look right through the camera and lens to the scene beyond, whereas when using a screen-based camera you have to focus on the screen itself. In the first case the photographer is looking at the world first-hand but in the second case the world is reduced to a flat image.
In some situations these differences aren't very important but I was really struck about the relative awkwardness of Compact System Cameras when I recently tested Samsung's lovely 85mm f/1.4 lens (for publication in the April 2012 edition of What Digital Camera). Not only was the lens diameter bigger than the height of the NX200 camera body used for the test but also the majority of the mass was contained within the lens, tipping the balance forward. Composing on the camera screen wasn't very comfortable at all (nor very clear, under bright conditions) but most important of all was the lack of connection I felt with the lens and the various subjects I photographed.
When I picked-up the camera and lens I instinctively wanted to hold it to my eye because, ergonomically, that is where it felt most comfortable. I know some people will say that is my instinct only because I was brought-up with eye-held cameras but I strongly suggest that against the eye is where cameras SHOULD be held for the three reasons cited above.
So whilst it's nice to think that camera manufacturers are always looking for ways to improve their designs I sincerely hope we aren't about to turn our back on a massively successful and long-proven configuration. On which note, I will close by welcoming the arrival of the Olympus OM-D system, which unashamedly echoes the style of film-based OM cameras from the 1970s onwards. Bearing in mind that an Olympus lens has just become the first optic to achieve 0.5 cycles-per-pixel, I can hardly wait to test the new body and see if it really does combine the best of traditional handling with the highest resolving lenses reviewed so far. If so then this could be a formidable combination!

Compact System Camera Reviews