Cameras are getting smaller, and image quality is getting better

A quick review of the current crop of small wonders

If you’ve been following product reviews and guided tours we’ve been posting on the Learning Center over the past two weeks, you may have noticed a pattern: Cameras with DSLR-sized sensors are shrinking, but image quality keeps getting better. Let’s review:

Big sensors in ever-shrinking cameras

Olympus E-30: Small, light, still an SLR. Olympus seems to have gotten to the physical limits of small for DSLRs. Or have they? Art filters make things interesting.

Pentax K-7: About the same size range as the E-30, the K-7 is the first DSLR with on-board High Dynamic Range, which proves you can’t always measure image quality refinements in megapixels (although at 14.6 MP, the K-7 is not too shabby in this department, either).

 Sigma DP-1 and DP-2: Both cameras use Sigma’s APS-sized Foveon X3 sensor—the same one found in the SD14 DSLR. Both cameras produce gorgeous results using a different technological approach. Yes, you really can make big, sharp prints with nice color depth with the images.

Panasonic Lumix G1: The world’s first interchangeable lens EVF camera, the G1 uses a shorter distance (flangeback) between the back of the lens and the Four Thirds sensor. That’s the same size as the sensors you’ll find on all Olympus DSLRs and a few Panasonics. By removing the mirror-prism system of an SLR and replacing it with a very high-resolution (1.4 million dots) electronic viewfinder, and not compromising on features or image quality, Panasonic has produced a revolutionary new kind of camera—followed up by the GH1, which adds HD video to the mix.

And that’s our launching point, because more is coming.

Olympus leaks

The worst-kept secret in photography right now is the Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera. I don't think we'll have to wait for long; Olympus is going to be announcing something very soon. But for now, rumors are all over the place and if they’re true, street photographers will soon be rejoicing. The new interchangeable-lens camera is said to be the size of a pocket camera, and at least one pancake-type prime lens will give you the 35mm equivalent of a 34mm lens. It will be based on the same short-flangeback and larger-camera design that the Panasonic Lumix G1 uses, but Olympus has been hinting that it will look very much like a modern, digital version of the classic half-frame Olympus Pen series (That's the Pen-F above). The official launch is slated for sometime this summer, and the buzz is building.

Samsung in the wings

Probably in response to the original Micro Four Thirds announcement, earlier this year Samsung showed, under glass, a mock-up of the NX, an EVF camera that will use a short flangeback design—but will be built around an APS-sized sensor rather than a Four Thirds type. Expect some form of video capability, as well as a full lineup of standard DSLR features in a body similar in design to the G1. At PMA in March, Samsung was saying the camera might be launched over the summer.

Since APS sensors are the most widely-used sensors (Canon, Sony, Nikon, Pentax and Samsung all incorporate some variation into their starter and enthusiast DSLRs), I wouldn’t be surprised if within a year or two we see a whole crop of interchangeable-lens, short flangeback EVF cameras built around APS sensors.

And since the new cameras use an EVF instead of the mirror-prism design, there’s no reason to stick to the SLR-like form factor, as the G1 does.

Yes, a pocketable, interchangeable lens camera seems very close to reality. Watch closely, the coming months should offer dramatic, and welcome, news.


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