Thursday, 1 May 2014

Product news: Small is the new black

Looking back in time, it is now around ten years ago that digital system cameras became fairly common. Cameras like the Canon EOS 300D (Digital Rebel, 2003), and the Nikon D70 (2004) made this possible, by offering affordable and well performing system cameras to a wider audience. Further, the cameras could use existing lenses from earlier film based cameras, that many already had lying around.

What followed was a period when having a large size camera was trendy. A large camera looked professional, and that was a look often favoured by the consumers. Around the same time, we got the "thin DoF craze", where it became trendy to use large aperture lenses, e.g., relatively inexpensive 50mm f/1.4 normals lenses, for a very selective focus effect.

Times are changing now, and we are seeing more and more that camera news is all about size: Small sized quality cameras has become trendy.


Samsung were early entrants into the mirrorless market, with their NX line of cameras back in 2010. However, the design has one flaw: The flange focal distance (register distance) is too long, at 25.5mm, just barely shorter than the classic Leica M system.

The long register distance means that the cameras need to be larger, but that is not all. It also means that the lenses, especially the wide angle lenses, have to be larger. A short register distance makes wide angle lens design easier, they don't need a large retrofocal design. With a long register distance, you don't get this advantage.

Samsung were quite good at launching a lot of lenses quickly. However, many of them were based on older DSLR optical designs, and were fairly large. Samsung is now trying to fix all these problems by launching yet another mirrorless camera system, the Mini NX. Also, the new camera system has a 1" sensor, like the ones in the Nikon 1 cameras and the Sony RX10. This sensor has a size which is about 1/3 of the APS-C sensor sitting in their first NX system.

The first camera out is the Samsung NX mini, and two lenses: 9mm f/3.5 pancake (corresponding to a 24mm wide angle lens), and the 9-27mm f/3.5-5.6 collapsible standard zoom lens.

The camera is styled in the now trendy smooth style, without any grip on the front. Even with the flip up LCD screen, it is still the thinnest and lightest interchangeable lens mirrorless system available.

These cameras look like they will be popular with fashion conscious South Korean people. But they don't appear very ergonomic in daily use. I do like the compact and wide pancake prime, though. Such a compact 24mm equivalent prime would be good to have also in Micro Four Thirds. The closest we come now is the Lumix G 12-32mm f/3.5-5.6 (my review).


Just when everybody thought Sony had quit their SLT line of translucent mirror cameras, they remake their top line Sony SLT A77 with a SLT A77 II:

The camera looks and feels like the predecessor, but is updated in many ways: It gets the newest generation sensor, new image processor, and a better autofocus system.

And autofocus is just the key to understanding why this type of cameras exist: Even if the mirror is not used for the viewfinder, like other SLR cameras, it is still used for the traditional PDAF autofocus sensors. This allows the camera to use high precision PDAF autofocus during video recording, and for tracking moving objects. In this way, it is much better than mirrorless cameras, which are not good at tracking moving objects, or focusing during video recording.

However, this is still a transitional technology: Eventually mirrorless cameras will do this just as well, and the line of SLT cameras will disappear. Due to better image processing, a camera like the Lumix GH4 has taken a big leap in this area, and we can still expect further improvements.


After a long wait, Nikon has launched their most recent mirrorless cameras. The Nikon 1 V3 (left) is their "professional" camera, with and optional grip, and optional EVF. The Nikon 1 J4 (right) is their simpler model:

Both cameras come with the new 18MP sensor. They also come in a kit with the new 10-30mm collapsible power zoom lens. It is even more compact than their previous kit zoom lens, and does away with the focus ring. It also loses the front filter threads. It is a bit difficult taking it seriously without a filter thread.

The really interesting new lens is the Nikon 1 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6. With the smaller 1" sensor, it has an equivalent focal length of 189-810mm, a very impressive range for a compact lens like this.

Combining the Nikon 1 V3 with the Nikon 1 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 is going to be a very popular rig for bird shooters. All other large sensor systems with a similar reach are much larger and heavier. Given that the lens performs well at 300mm f/5.6, which I expect, I think it will be very popular.

The Nikon 1 cameras don't do very well in terms of high ISO, only going up to 12800. However, where they excel is high speed photography and focus technology. The cameras feature on-sensor PDAF, which is implemented rather successfully, to give you a well working focus tracking of moving objects.

And 60 frames per second at full image resolution, 20 with full autofocus, is nothing short of impressive. This combination of focus tracking and high speed still images, makes the camera well suited for sports and wildlife photography.

1 comment:

  1. I read your comments on Samsung NX and I see you mistaken in several points (if not all).
    1. There is no single lens from samsung that is based on older DSLR design. I challenge you to support your claim with 1 example. If you don't have it you should not claim it.
    2.Samsung has a collection of very small and optically very good lenses. I don't see how flange distance is affecting it. Not in theory but in praxis. Samsung 10mm is the only pancake fisheye done every by anyone. 16mm is a pancake, smaller than oly 12mm and comparable in performance. 20mm is a pancake. 30mm is a pancake. Check their results in reviews e.g. DXO. You will be surprised.
    3. Samsung wide zoom 12-24mm is easily comparable in size to NEX 10-24mm. what are you saying about lens being bigger, again?
    4. there are big lenses of course, like 85mm 1.4. Now compare this APS-C lens with 4/3 75mm 1.8 (which means worse light and smaler sensor). Surprised?

    I think you should not write your comments based on some impressions but on facts. And that you should check these fact before posting "observations". I am very suprised by this misinformation from you, as I used your vebsite many times to check on u4/3 (I am both NX and u4/3 user, where NX is my small pancake setup).