Compact new hybrid cameras leave me cold

Nikon's new high-end J1 and V1 cameras have dashed the last hopes of CNET's Stephen Shankland that interchangeable-lens compacts can balance image quality and affordability.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read
Nikon 1 V1 Nikon USA

I really wanted to like the new generation of compact, high-end cameras. Honest.

The hybrid designs promised the best of both worlds: the high image quality and interchangeable lenses of SLRs but the portability of a compact point-and-shoot. Their interchangeable lenses mean versatility, their larger sensors mean higher image quality, and their lack of an SLR's reflex mirror means they're much smaller.

My enthusiasm waned, though, as I saw models from Olympus, Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, and Pentax arrive. And I'm sorry to report that Nikon's new J1 and V1 compact, mirrorless, interchangeable-lens camera (ILC) models left me even more discouraged.

I fear that this new category of cameras might instead provide the worst of both worlds: all of the price and much of the bulk of SLRs, but often not their image quality or performance.

I'm not totally down on the ICLs. The lavishly large sensors in the Sony and Samsung models promise high image quality, some models have a sturdy build with nice styling, and Panasonic's new collapsing 14-42mm lens is relatively compact, for example.

But these bright spots aren't enough to get me to budge. If I were buying a sub-SLR-size camera tomorrow geared for photo enthusiasts, it would be a traditional high-end compact like Canon's $430 S100.

Why? Strike one against the new mirrorless ICLs is the price.

Over the weekend, I spent a couple hours sifting through product reviews trying to find a good camera recommendation for a friend looking to upgrade. She's married with two kids, eager to preserve the family memories, relatively well off, but wants something better than her current point-and-shoot.

But when I mentioned that Canon's old-school one-piece high-end compact cameras cost more than $400, she went pale. Paying $650 for Nikon's J1 or $900 for Nikon's V1 is unthinkable.

And alternatives aren't much better: Including lenses, Olympus' E-P3 is $900, Panasonic's GF3 is about $600, Sony's NEX-5n is about $700, Samsung's NX200 is $900, and the Pentax Q is $800. Really fancy models go up from there--Sony's NEX-7 is about $1,400, for example. Last year's ICLs are cheaper--but they're also last year's models.

There are plenty of folks who can afford these prices, of course--the "doctor camera" market long predates digital cameras, but I think camera makers are trying for more than that niche. The camera makers probably guess that prospective customers will compare them to an SLR. IDC analyst Christopher Chute tells me $650 is about the average selling price of an entry-level SLR, so by that measure the prices aren't bad. But I'm afraid spending that much will spook many buyers who are comparing prices instead to high-end compact cameras.

Strike 2 is the bulk. When these cameras come with the eensy "pancake" lenses, they look pretty reasonably sized. But those lenses will get you just one focal length, and most buyers these days are used to a bare minimum of a 3X zoom range. Putting on a zoom lens makes these mirrorless micros much bulkier, though, puffing out your jacket pockets.

And when you put on a telephoto lens, they get even worse. An enthusiast who wants a collection of lenses for, say, an extended vacation will do better than an SLR, but not a lot better. And the weekend snapshooter will need a camera bag, modestly large purse, or good-sized backpack pocket. Of course, plenty of people won't bother with a telephoto (the lenses add another few hundred dollars to the price, after all). But if you're sticking with a modest midrange zoom, why mess with interchangeable lenses?

Strike 3 is the sensors.

The sensors of these mirrorless compact ILCs are all over the map. Pentax's is tiniest, just the size of a mainstream point-and-shoot. Nikon comes in next, with a 13.2x8.8mm sensor that means a 2.7x crop factor (in other words, a 10mm lens on it will give the same field of view as a 27mm lens on a full-frame or traditional film SLR). Olympus and Panasonic each employ the Micro Four Thirds sensor, whose 17.3x13mm size provides a 2.0x crop factor. At the top of the heap are Samsung and Sony, with very respectable "APS-C" sizes of those in lower-end SLRs. For Sony, that means 23.5x15.6mm, for Samsung, it's 23.5mm x 15.7mm; in both cases, the crop factor is 1.5x.

In general, the larger a sensor is, the better each pixel can gather light, which translates into better dynamic range and color. Larger sensors, though, mean larger lenses, so compact cameras necessarily come with compact sensors. More to the point, though, larger sensors cost a lot more to manufacture.

So when I see ILCs with small sensors--I'm talking to you, Pentax and Nikon--I can't help but feel camera makers are trying to extract a bit too much profit from customer's wallets. Perhaps they're counting on buyers assuming that $600 to $800 is par for the course for this category of camera and that they won't expect camera makers to pass on their lower component costs.

I know times are tough for Japanese camera makers--the earthquake and tsunami messed up production, and the exchange rate has been a persistent problem for selling into the U.S. market--but I think lower prices are the best way to get ahead in the ILC market right now.

These cameras often have a number of other problems I'll mention in brief: electronic viewfinders, if available at all, cost extra and aren't always as nice as SLRs' optical viewfinders. Flashes are often optional accessories. And a lot of models and lenses I've toyed with feel too plasticky for the price tag.

One last factor really makes me hesitate. The great thing about interchangeable lenses is the flexibility. But the bad thing is the lock-in. When you buy one of these cameras and more than one of its lenses, you're buying into a system. And except with Panasonic and Olympus' Four Thirds partnership, one company's lenses aren't compatible with another's cameras.

So, three years down the line, suppose one company has solved the problems I have with compact ICLs. What are the odds it'll be the company in whose lenses I've invested? At this stage, I'm reluctant to commit.

I know I sound like a big curmudgeon here, and that saddens me. I'd hoped Nikon's SLR skill would mean they'd have the breakthrough for this class of cameras.

I truly want ICLs to succeed. They're advancing the state of the art with autofocus, shaking up traditional product categories, and advancing the cause of enthusiast photography. And if nothing else, I'm not anxious to carry 10 pounds worth of SLR gear on a backpacking trip if I can avoid it.

I'm not saying these cameras are forever doomed. The first digital SLRs were too expensive--it was big news when Canon's 6-megapixel Digital Rebel cracked the $1,000 barrier. But for now, I remain unconvinced.