It was not so long ago when DSLRs were considered the first choice when it came to excellent image quality – perhaps the most important area of performance when it comes to more advanced cameras.
However, the recent raft of higher-end compact system cameras (CSCs) have upped the stakes in this regard and are now providing a very real alternative to their bulky counterparts.
So what’s changed, and why are premium CSCs all of a sudden becoming such a tempting and viable alternative?
The quality of the images a camera produces is dependent on many factors, but ultimately it’s the type of sensor and size of sensor used within that’s key.
One of the most significant developments we’ve seen of late is the introduction of full frame sensors in CSCs, namely the Sony Alpha 7-series.
To fit such a large sensor inside such a small body is a remarkable technological achievement and the only compromise you’ll have to make for opting for a full frame CSC is to use slightly larger and heavier lenses than those produced for CSCs with smaller Micro Four Thirds or APS-C sized sensors.
As an example Sony’s FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* lens for the Sony Alpha 7 is more than twice the weight of the Olympus 25mm f/1.8 M.ZUIKO lens that’s equivalent to 50mm once the 2x crop factor has been taken into consideration.
With Sony being the only manufacturer to release a premium full frame compact system camera, it asks the question of how long it’ll be until another manufacturer decides to release their own model to take on the competition?
MFT and APS-C
As things stand, the best premium CSCs come with full frame, APS-C or Micro Four Thirds sensors, and it’s due to the fact that they’re so much smaller, less bulky and considerably lighter that they’re proving to be so popular as an alternative to a DSLR.
The main attraction isn’t just the body size either, it comes down to CSC lenses being a fraction of the size of DSLR lenses and as a result it can lead to a lighter kitbag that’s more comfortable to carry, but also gives you the option of pack more in a smaller space.
Three of the best CSCs we’ve individually tested in the last six months are the Sony Alpha A7, Olympus OM-D EM-1 and Fujifilm X-T1. Each camera features a different sized sensor, so it’s time to put the trio to the test to find out how the image quality compares and determine which system offers the best value for money.
Best Premium CSC of 2014 – How They Compare
The X-T1 is supported by a superb Fujifilm Camera Remote app for wireless Wi-fi control from a smartphone or tablet
There are currently 10 XF lenses available for the X-T1, seven of which are fixed focal length primes.
The X-T1’s battery is fractionally smaller than E-M1’s and has a claimed battery life of 350 shots.
Sensor: 16.3-million-effective-pixel X-Trans CMOS II
Output Size: 4896×3264
Focal Length magnification: 1.5x
Lens Mount: X Mount
Shutter Speeds: 30-1/4000sec, plus bulb
ISO: 200-6400, extendable to ISO 100-51,200
Metering System: 256-zone TTL metering system
Exposure Compensation: +/-3EV in 1/3 steps
Drive mode: 8fps
LCD: 3in, 1.04 million dots
Viewfinder: 2.36-million-dot OLED colour EVF
AF Points: 49
Video: 1920 x 1080 pixels (at 60p or 30p), 1280 x 720 pixels (at 60p or 30p)
External mic: Built-in 2.5mm input
Memory Card: SD, SDHC, SDXC (UHS-II)
Power: Rechargeable Li-ion NP-W126 battery
Dimensions 129 x 89.8 x 46.7mm
Weight 440g (including battery and memory card)
The E-M1 can be comprehensively controlled via Wi-fi using the Olympus Image Share app
Olympus produces 15 Micro Four Thirds optics, but many Panasonic and third party options are available too
Olympus claims a battery life of 350 shots from its rechargeable Li-ion battery, but we achieved more in use.
Sensor: 16.3-million-effective-pixel, micro four thirds Live MOS
Output Size: 4608 x 3456 pixels
Focal Length magnification: 2x
Lens Mount: Micro Four Thirds
Shutter Speeds: 60-1/8000sec + bulb up to 30 minutes
Metering System: 324-zone multi-pattern TTL
Exposure Compensation: +/-3EV in 1/3 steps
Drive mode: 10fps
LCD: 3in, 1.037-million-dot tilting LED
AF Points: 81-point system, 37-point phase detection, touch focus
Video: 1080 HD at 30p, 720P at 30p, AVCHD, AVI Motion JPEG
External mic: Yes
Memory Card: SD, SDHC, SDXC, UHS-I
Power: Rechargeable Li-Ion BLN-1 battery
Weight 497g (including battery and card)
Wi-fi compatible, Sony’s play memories app allows key apps like Smart Remote Control to be used
So far there are five Sony FE lenses available with focal lengths ranging from 24-200mm
Expect to shoot up to 340 shots on a single charge when using the LCD monitor and 270 shots using the EVF
Sensor: 24.3-million-pixel, full-frame CMOS sensor
Output Size: 6000 x 4000 pixels
Focal Length magnification: 1x
Lens Mount: Sony E Mount
Shutter Speeds: 30-1/8000sec plus bulb
ISO: 100-25,600 (extended to ISO 50)
Metering System: 1,200-zone evaluative, centreweighted, spot
Exposure Compensation: ±5EV in 1/3EV and 1/2EV steps
Drive mode: 5fps (2.5fps with AF and AEL)
LCD: 3in TFT with 921,600 dots
Viewfinder: 2.4-million-dot OLED display
AF Points: 117 points for phase-detection, 25 points for contrast-detection
Video: 1920 x 1080 pixels at 60p or 25p
External mic: Yes
Memory Card: SD, SDHC, SDXC, MS Pro Duo
Power: Rechargeable lithium-ion battery
Dimensions: 127 x 94 x 48mm
Best Premium CSC of 2014 – Image Quality
At its base sensitivity of ISO 100, 30 lines per millimetre (lpmm) were recorded on our resolution chart – an impressive readout for an APS-C size sensor. Detail dropped to 28lpmm at ISO 6400, while pushing to ISO 25,600 (JPEG) presented a readout of 22 lines per millimetre.
Our dynamic range results for the X-T1 weren’t quite as impressive as the Alpha 7, but were ahead of the OM-D E-M1. At ISO 100 a readout of 12.9EV challenged the Alpha 7’s 13.14EV result.
At ISO 6400, the figure reduced to 6.9EV – an identical readout to that produced by the Nikon D7100 at the same sensitivity. Provided users shoot in Raw (available between ISO 200-6400) detail can be returned to highlights and shadows fairly easily.
Barely a trace of luminance or colour noise is visible between ISO 100-800. As you push to ISO 3200 and 6400 a fine grain structure starts to appear under close inspection, however these settings are by no means unusable and just require a tweak of noise reduction in post-processing.
The H1 (ISO 12800) and H2 (ISO 25,600) settings should be avoided – noise is more aggressive and it results in a waxier image appearance.
The E-M1 resolves fractionally less detail than the Fujifilm X-T1. At ISO 100, 28 lines per millimetre were recorded – a figure that reduced to 24lpmm when inspecting the detail of Raw files at ISO 6400. At its maximum ISO 25,600 setting, 22lpmm were resolved, much like the X-T1.
The OM-D E-M1’s dynamic range is measured at 12.29EV at ISO 100, which though may not be as high as its rivals, remains on par with DSLR’s we’ve tested before such as the Nikon D610.
A dynamic range above 12EV at a cameras base sensitivity setting is a very respectable readout and users can expect to recover plenty of detail easily using the highlights/shadows slider in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom.
Examing the E-M1’s image quality through the ISO range reveals luminance noise kicks in about 1EV earlier than the Fujifilm X-T1.
Luminance noise starts to appear as early as ISO 400, however this can be dealt with in postproduction without a huge loss of detail and it’s important to stress images from the E-M1 are useable right up to ISO 6400 with some careful noise reduction applied. At ISO 25,600, colour neutrality is affect by a purple cast.
Our test chart reveals the Alpha 7’s full frame sensor is capable of resolving the highest level of detail of the three, with 32lpmm being recorded at ISO 100. Pushing up to ISO 6400 reduced the level of detail that’s resolved to 28lpmm, while at its ISO ceiling (ISO 25,600), 26 lines per millimetre were traced.
At ISO 100, the dynamic range of the Alpha 7 was measured at 13.14EV – a value higher than both the X-T1 and OM-D E-M1. The impressive readouts continued through the ISO range, with 8.93EV and 7.8EV being recorded at ISO 3200 and 6400 respectively.
Working on the A7’s Raw files revealed there’s plenty of latitude for recovering highlight and shadow detail in Adobe Lightroom.
The Alpha 7 is the outright winner when it comes to noise performance. There’s no trace of noise whatsoever between ISO 50-800, with luminance noise only starting to creep in to images at ISO 1600.
The structure of noise is very fine indeed and has a pleasing organic look to it. Even when the sensitivity is increased to ISO 6400 noise can be dealt with comfortably in post without compromising on the excellent level of detail that’s resolved from the sensor.
Saturation drops off ever so slightly at ISO 12,800 and ISO 25,600.
Best Premium CSC of 2014 – Verdict
Neither of these three CSCs stand out as the obvious winner or loser as such, and in truth, the ideal model would combine elements of all three.
Take the sensor from the Alpha 7, the lens mount and the number of available lenses for the OM-D E-M1 and the aesthetics, autofocus system and electronic viewfinder from the X-T1 and you’d have one of the best compact system cameras ever made.
As it is, they’re all different so you’re left making a decision based on what’s going to be best for your style of photography.
If you regularly shoot action or high-speed subjects where you’d benefit from a fast 10fps burst speed and maximum shutter speed of 1/8000sec, the Olympus OM-D E-M1 makes the best choice.
It handles well and is supported by the largest selection of lenses – one of the perks of it being fully compatible with the same Micro Four Thirds lenses that Panasonic produce, as well as some third-party offerings from the likes of Sigma and Samyang.
On paper, the most obvious difference between the three is the size of the sensor. The Sony Alpha 7 trumps its rivals in this respect with a full frame sensor that delivers the best image quality, resolving more detail and offering in an excellent performance at high ISO.
If you regularly find yourself shooting in low light or are fixated about capturing the finest levels of detail – a must for landscape photographers – then the Alpha 7 gets the nod.
The off-putting factor is that it’s only currently supported by five lenses and these aren’t as small, light or as fast as the primes offered by Fujifilm for the X-T1.
On the subject of the X-T1, it’s a truly superb CSC that manages to strike a perfect balance in terms of its size and performance.
Detail is resolved exceptionally by its APS-C sensor, it’s a sheer delight to use and the attention to detail that’s been made to the build quality, right down to the beautifully milled dials on the top plate, is exquisite.
Having used all three extensively, the X-T1 would be my first choice based on it’s supported by some excellent lenses that are both fast and small, while also finding it the most intuitive to use of the trio.