The popularity of compact system cameras (CSCs) has exploded over the last year, due to the quality images and flexibility of use they deliver.
If you like to keep up with the latest advances in camera technology, you will have had your hands full for the past year, since the popularity of compact system cameras has resulted in even more new models being released and more manufacturers jumping on the bandwagon, including Nikon and Fuji.
Although choice is generally a good thing, the vast array of CSCs on the market today can make choosing the right one a daunting prospect.
The popularity of these cameras can be put down to a number of factors. Being able to change lenses increases creative possibilities, plus the large image sensor (when compared to compact cameras) in many helps to improve noise levels at high sensitivities and boost dynamic range.
Recent advances in sensor technology have also helped to close the gap in image quality between these cameras and bulkier DSLRs.
Above all else, the compact size means that compact system cameras are not left at home due to their bulk, which, for many, can bring the fun back into picture taking. Models range from those best suited to snap-shooters, right through to cameras with professional-level controls and features.
We’ve taken a good look through the CSC ranges each manufacturer has to offer and taken each model’s strengths into account, to help you to find the camera best tailored to your particular requirements.
Prices listed are typical selling prices for standard packages with a basic zoom lens included, in the UK and US. We’ve grouped the best compact system cameras by brand and ranges, to help you to find your way around the best CSCs on offer now.
Panasonic & Olympus Micro Four Thirds Range
Developed jointly by Olympus and Panasonic, the Micro Four Thirds system was the first true mirrorless interchangeable lens camera system available.
The imaging sensor has an aspect ratio of 4:3, unlike many other cameras that stick to the same 3:2 aspect ratio of 35mm film. There’s also a crop factor of 2x, which means a 25mm lens is required to provide the same angle of view of a 50mm lens used on a 35mm camera.
Currently, Micro Four Thirds camera owners have the widest range of lenses to choose from, with lenses from both manufacturers being compatible with all Micro Four Thirds cameras. Due to the wide support this system enjoys, third-party lens and accessory manufacturers such as Sigma and Voigtlander also supply compatible products. Adaptors for a wide range of lenses are available to enable them to be mounted on Micro Four Thirds cameras.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3
- Price: £480/$650
- Spec: 16MP, 1080p video, 3-inch swivel LCD touchscreen, built-in EVF
The Panasonic Lumix G3 squeezes advanced controls, an electronic viewfinder (EVF) and a 3-inch swivel touchscreen interface into a svelte lightweight body with DSLR styling.
20fps continuous shooting is possible at a reduced resolution of 4MP, and a not too shabby rate of 4fps at full resolution, making this camera suitable for capturing fast-moving action.
Generally well received at its launch, the Panasonic Lumix G3 also produces high resolution 16MP images, suitable for reproduction at large sizes, and 1080p video recording in the popular AVCHD format.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3
- Price: £390/ $450
- Spec: 12.1MP, 1080p video, 3-inch touchscreen, built-in flash
Currently the smallest, lightest Micro Four Thirds camera with a built-in flash, the Panasonic Lumix GF3 packs a raft of user-friendly features into a slim, compact body with a 3-inch touchscreen interface. Those wishing to travel light will do well to look at pairing the camera with one of the Panasonic range of pancake lenses.
Although this camera is aimed at snap-shooters who like the creative flexibility a compact system camera can offer, manual controls are still available alongside the Intelligent Auto mode and a comprehensive range of pre-programmed scene modes.
12.1MP images provides ample resolution for high-quality prints sized up to around A3, and full 1080p HD video recording is also possible.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2
- Price: £700/$970
- Spec: 16.1MP, 1080p video, 3-inch swivel LCD touchscreen, EVF, 60fps continuous shooting
Although the Panasonic GH2 is an older model, largely superseded by the revamped Panasonic lineup, it is still available. The body is larger and chunkier than the G3, with a deep sculpted finger grip providing a firm hold over the camera. Continuous shooting speeds up to 60fps are possible at reduced resolutions, and 5fps is the maximum rate at the full 16.1MP resolution.
Video recording is the strong point of the GH2. It is possible to record Full HD 1080p video footage at an impressive 60fps. This provides smooth footage, and even opens possibilities for slow-motion replay.
An interesting 3D photo function is also included, enabling you to combine images taken from slightly different viewpoints for viewing back on a 3D-capable television.
Olympus PEN E-P3
- Price: £690/ $900
- Spec: 12.3MP, 1080p video, 3-inch OLED touchscreen, dual control dials, built-in flash
Don’t be fooled by the chunky retro styling, the Olympus PEN E-P3 is the most advanced CSC from Olympus to date. Housed in the robust metal frame is a 3-inch OLED capacitive touchscreen to aid quick menu navigation. Capacitive touchscreens tend to be more responsive than the resistive type found on most digital cameras, resulting in a slicker user experience, although it isn’t possible to use a non-conductive stylus for greater accuracy.
Aimed at experienced photographers and enthusiasts, two control dials give direct access to shutter and aperture functions when shooting in manual exposure mode. Interchangeable finger grips are available too, to customise handling.
This is the first flagship Olympus PEN model to include a built-in flash, which is handy for fill-in and for illuminating dark scenes. As with all Olympus PEN models, image stabilisation is built into the body rather than the lens, so all lenses benefit from this technology. The 12.3MP Live-MOS sensor provides ample resolution for prints up to A3 in size, and Full 1080p HD videos can be recorded with stereo sound.
Olympus PEN Lite E-PL3
- Price: £470/ $620
- Spec: 12.3MP, 1080p video, 3-inch tiltable LCD screen, choice of four colours
Taking up the mid-range place in the Olympus PEN range, the E-PL3 combines a compact metal body with a 3-inch tilting LCD screen and is available in a range of different coloured finishes. 12.3MP images can be recorded, as can 1080p videos.
Being so compact, there’s no room in the body for a pop-up flash, so a tiny separate flash unit comes included with the camera kit, which attaches to the accessory port on top. This can be left at home if not required, retaining the sleek, compact profile of the camera.
A comprehensive range of manual and automatic exposure programs are at your disposal, along with a range of ‘art filters’ that apply certain effects to images as they’re taken, such as a toy camera effect, or one for dramatic contrast. With these features, this camera suits enthusiasts and casual snap-shooters alike.
Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1
- Price: £370/ $460
- Spec: 12.3MP, 1080p video, 3-inch LCD screen, choice of six colours
Currently the most compact of the Olympus PEN range, the E-PM1 sports a slim body, available in one of six colours. The same 12.3MP Live-MOS sensor found in other current Olympus PEN CSCs takes care of image and HD video recording, which means there have been no compromises made in image quality.
A simplified control layout, designed with snap-shooters in mind, makes the camera very simple and straightforward to get to grips with. Easy access to common features such as automatic exposure programs and art filters is provided through the menu.
A Live Guide feature takes you through each setting and how it will affect your images. This can be especially useful for inexperienced snappers, and especially those who would rather not be delving into the instruction manual.
Sony NEX Range
Although Sony NEX cameras aren’t the most compact on offer here, they sport a large APS-C sensor with a crop factor of 1.5x. This means a 30mm lens is required to provide the same angle of view as a standard 45mm lens on a 35mm camera.
Larger sensors have a greater surface area available for reacting with light, which should improve performance at high sensitivities and dynamic range in high contrast situations. Having more surface area available also enables higher pixel counts to be achieved.
A decent number of additional lenses are available for the NEX system, with third-party lens manufacturers such as Tamron beginning to support the E-mount. Owners of Sony Alpha cameras can purchase an adaptor to enable A-mount lenses to be used with the cameras too.
- Price: £1,125/ $1,350
- Spec: 24.3MP, 1080p video, 3-inch tiltable LCD screen, EVF, direct manual control
A compact system camera with professional ambition. The Sony NEX-7 is the flagship model in the Sony CSC range, sporting a 24.3MP CMOS sensor, Full HD video recording and direct manual controls. The high pixel count should enable really large prints to be produced.
A 3-inch tiltable LCD screen provides extra flexibility when shooting, and the lightweight magnesium body feels reassuringly rugged.
A high-resolution OLED electronic viewfinder is included, enabling you to choose your preferred method for composing images. ISO sensitivities up to ISO 16000 are available, enabling images to be taken in very dark conditions.
- Price: £510/ $860
- Spec: 16.1MP, 1080p video, 3-inch tiltable LCD touchscreen, 10fps continuous shooting
With a more modest pixel count than its bigger brother, the NEX 5N sits in the middle of the Sony CSC range. Customisable controls on the rear enable the way the camera behaves to be set just how you prefer, and a tiltable 3-inch touchscreen makes navigating menus and shooting from awkward angles a breeze.
An improved Bionz processing engine has enabled Sony to raise the maximum ISO setting to an impressive ISO 25600, which will be ideal for taking images without flash in dimly-lit conditions. Full HD video at 30fps can be recorded at up to 50fps, which should produce smoother footage than standard 25fps footage.
The slim, compact body has a deep finger grip to provide a secure hold over the camera, which is dwarfed by the 18-55mm kit lens. Packages with a 16mm f/2.8 pancake lens are also available, making a more pocket-friendly kit for travel and nights out on the town.
- Price: £420/ $550
- Spec: 16.2MP, 720p video, 3-inch tiltable LCD screen, 5.5fps continuous shooting
Although this is the most compact and basic of these Sony NEX cameras, customisable buttons on the rear enable the control interface to be tailored as you prefer. Whether you’re a casual snapper or a more experienced photographer, your favourite controls can be made more accessible.
A 16.2MP CMOS sensor paired with the Sony Bionz image processing engine produces clear images, even at high ISO sensitivities. HD video can also be recorded, although 720p video is lower resolution than many cameras at this level offer today. Continuous shooting of still images is possible at an impressive rate of 5.5fps.
3D sweep panorama and automatic HDR features expand creative possibilities, and artistic picture effects can be applied to images as they are taken.
Nikon 1 Series
Nikon was late to the compact system camera party with the 1 Series, and the announcement was quite a surprise for many, due to the small sensor size and other new technologies included as standard.
The CX format sensor, at 13.2 x 8.8mm, is much smaller than the APS-C sensor in the Sony NEX series and the Micro Four Thirds sensor in Olympus and Panasonic CSCs. This results in a crop factor of 2.7x, which means an 18.5mm lens would provide an angle of view equivalent to a 50mm lens used on a 35mm camera.
Having such a small sensor may cause issues for Nikon producing wide-angle lenses for the system, due to the short focal lengths required. Currently only a few lenses are available for the system, but an adaptor is available to enable Nikon F Mount lenses to be used.
Nikon is the only manufacturer currently to employ a hybrid focusing system, which combines the benefits of phase and contrast detection autofocus. To reduce shutter lag, the 1 series also begins taking images before the shutter is fully pressed.
Nikon 1 J1
- Price: £430/ $650
- Spec: 10.1MP, 1080p video, 3-inch LCD screen, 60fps continuous shooting
Aimed at those ready for a step up from conventional compact digital cameras, the Nikon1 J1 is designed to be compact and, above all, easy to use. The modest 10.1MP resolution is among the lowest found on current CSCs, but since each pixel should have a larger area to react to light, this should help the camera’s performance at high ISO sensitivities. A built-in flash is available for extra illumination.
The sleek, compact body is available in a range of five colours, enabling you to choose the one that suits you best. In addition to the HD video feature, which can record 1080p resolution footage, full resolution still images can be taken during recording, which is quite a handy feature. Fast action can be captured at a blazingly fast 60fps at full resolution too.
The Smart Photo Selector feature shoots images before and after the shutter button is pressed, saving the ‘best’ five to the memory card for whittling down later. This feature is unique to the Nikon 1 series, and should increase your chances of getting the shot you’re after.
Nikon 1 V1
- Price: £660/ $900
- Spec: 10.1MP, 1080p video, 3-inch LCD screen, EVF, 60fps continuous shooting
The Nikon V1 is very similar to the J1, except that it has a higher resolution 3-inch LCD screen and an electronic viewfinder, but lacks a built-in flash. A hotshoe is provided for attaching the new Speedlight SB-N5, which is an optional extra.
The same Smart Photo Selector feature and still image taking during movie recording are present, as is the ability to take shots continuously at 60fps.
Slow motion video at 400fps complements the HD video feature, which records 1080p video at 60fps.
Samsung NX System
Samsung is often overlooked when considering cameras, but its NX Series of compact system cameras is well worth investigating.
Based around an APS-C sized sensor, similar to the Sony NEX series, this results in a crop factor of 1.5x. A reasonable selection of lenses is available to choose from, with most popular focal lengths covered.
The latest iFunction lenses enable common functions such as ISO, aperture and exposure compensation to be adjusted via the manual focus ring on the lens, providing an intuitive method for manual control.
- Price: £540/ $900
- Spec: 20.3MP, 1080p video, 3-inch AMOLED screen, 7fps continuous shooting
Samsung’s flagship compact system camera sports an APS-C sized sensor with a whopping 20.3MP squeezed onto it, enabling very high resolution images to be taken, which are suitable for producing large prints. If shooting fast action, these huge images can be captured at a rate of 7fps, so it may be worth investing in a very large memory card to accompany this camera.
Sensitivities from ISO 100 to ISO 12800 can be selected, making the Samsung NX200 suitable for shooting in a wide range of lighting conditions. Full HD video footage can also be recorded.
The sleek metal body is rugged, reasonably lightweight and contains a bright 3-inch AMOLED screen. There’s no built-in flash unit, but a hotshoe connection for an external flash is provided.
- Price: £430/ Not sold in the US
- Spec: 14.6MP, 720p video, 3-inch AMOLED screen, EVF
Samsung’s NX11 has more conventional DSLR styling and is the only current NX series camera to sport a electronic viewfinder. The same 3-inch AMOLED screen found on other NX cameras is also fitted to the NX11.
A 14.6MP CMOS sensor should provide ample resolution for most users, and HD videos can be recorded at 720p resolution.
A lens priority mode provides optimised exposure settings for the attached lens and scene. Pressing the iFunction button on the lens enables the correct parameters to be entered quickly and simply.
Pentax, Ricoh, Leica & Fuji
- Price: £679
- Spec: 16MP, 1080p Video, ISO 100-25600, Compatible with all Pentax K-mount lenses
Pentax is never one to follow the flock, especially if the design of its compact system cameras is anything to go by. Rather than develop a new lens mount with a shorter back focus distance, the K-01 uses the existing Pentax K-mount as a basis for a new system.
This design should appeal to those with existing Pentax K-mount lenses, as every lens right back to those made in the 1970s is compatible. On the negative side, the K-01 is more bulky than other compact system cameras to allow for the extra distance between the lens and the sensor.
Industrial designer, Marc Newson, was drafted in to add a touch of style to the design of the camera body, which sports a 16 million pixel APS-C CMOS format sensor capable of taking images at ISO 25600. Eighty-one AF points are selectable by the user and a sensor-shift image stabilisation system, as found in Pentax DSLRS, should help to tame camera shake. Full HD video can be recorded and output to a television or BluRay recorder via the built in HDMI interface.
The K-01 is Pentax’s second CSC. The first was the Q (see below), which is much more compact because it uses a considerably smaller sensor.
- Price: £360/ $700
- Spec: 12.4MP, 1080p video, 3-inch LCD screen, smallest CSC currently available
Unlike most other manufacturers, that opted for larger sensors in their compact system cameras, Pentax has chosen to use a sensor no bigger than can be found in many mid-to-high-end compact cameras for the Q. This has enabled Pentax to create the smallest camera with interchangeable lenses currently available.
The 1/2.3′-inch sized sensor produces 12.4MP images, and 1080p HD video can be recorded. Despite the small sensor size, sensitivities up to ISO 6400 are available.
The range of lenses available is currently very limited, bolstered by the addition of a couple of low-cost ‘toy’ lenses, so it’ll be interesting to see whether Pentax releases more optics in the near future. A built-in flash is provided, and a hotshoe will accept an external flashgun.
- Price: £419/ $350 (body only)
- Spec: Various sensors available, lens and sensor come as one complete unit
Ricoh’s GXR is truly unique. Instead of just changing the lens, each lens comes with its own sensor tailored to the job. Although this novel idea makes sense as far as future-proofing the camera is concerned, it means each lens costs almost as much as a camera itself. It also means each lens unit can be a different resolution, to suit your different needs.
Ricoh continues to release new lens units and accessories for the system, the most exciting being a Leica M-series unit, which can accept a wide range of M-series-compatible lenses. Within this unit is a 12MP APS-C sensor, with a crop factor of 1.5x.
This certainly isn’t a mainstream system, but if it ticks certain boxes for you, it may be worth a closer look.
- Price: £4,950/$7,000 (body only)
- Spec: Various sensors available, lens and sensor come as one complete unit
The Leica M system has existed longer before digital cameras and CSCs were conceived, but the M-series cameras are mirrorless rangefinders. Hence, the M9 deserves a place in this buying guide.
Leica has a reputation for quality that precedes each camera it releases, and these cameras come at a price. Those with a taste for the exotic may consider the Leica M9, the only camera in this list to use a sensor which is equal in size to 35mm film.
The M9′s die cast brass construction is incredibly rugged and controls are kept simple. The body also houses an 18MP Kodak CCD sensor specifically designed for the M9. A micro-lens arrangement on the sensor surface is designed to reduce darkening towards the corners, especially with wide-angle lenses. The highest ISO sensitivity available is ISO 2500.
Unlike other mirrorless cameras, there’s no video mode or autofocus – focusing is manual, using the rangefinder in the optical viewfinder for reference. Although not for everyone, the Leica M9 is still a compelling choice for photography enthusiasts, collectors and those who require a good digital rangefinder camera.
- Price: TBC
- Spec: 16.3MP, 1080p video, 3-inch RGBW LCD screen, hybrid viewfinder
Fujifilm created quite a stir with its announcement of the X-Pro1 mirrorless interchangeable lens camera at CES 2012. It uses the same hybrid viewfinder technology as the Fuji FinePix X100 compact camera. The viewfinder can be switched between an optical or a digital view instantly, with vital exposure information overlaid when using the optical viewfinder.
Fuji has developed a new lens mount for the system, which has a wide opening, enabling lenses to be mounted closer to the image sensor. This should help with lens quality, especially with wide-angles, because the short distance to the sensor can result in simpler optical design. The CSC’s Leica M mount adaptor will open up a range of high-quality optics from Leica and Voigtlander.
A newly developed 16.3MP APS-C sized X-Trans CMOS sensor lies at the heart of the Fuji X-Pro1. This sensor is unique, since the individual RGB photosites are arranged more randomly than conventional Bayer pattern sensors. This is claimed to reduce Moiré patterning, so the sensor doesn’t require an anti-aliasing filter, which should greatly improve sharpness of images.
Fuji claims the image quality from the sensor is at least equal to that produced by current full-frame DSLRs – we’ll let you know once we’ve tested a full-production model.
Here’s some more articles you might like:
- How to buy a new compact camera – what you need to know
- Best cameras for photographing gigs
- What is a bridge camera?
- What to Look For When Buying a Compact Digital Camera
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