In addition to the many other gadgets and innovations introduced this year, the Consumer Electronics Show was a venue for introducing a number of new cameras.
While DSLRs have grown in size and weight — some now as heavy as two or three pounds — customers have become more resistant to carrying these behemoths, which pile on more and more features that few use and make the cameras larger and more complex.
Last year, I reviewed several pocket cameras that took excellent pictures, most notably the Canon S95 (replaced now by the S100) and the Lumix LX5 and its near twin, the Leica D-Lux 5. While they couldn’t match the DSLRs for image quality, they came pretty close in many situations.
This past year, we saw the emergence of what I call the viewfinder pro category. These mirrorless cameras perform similarly to the large DSLRs, but are lighter and have a more compact package. They shed the mirror behind the lens and the bulky pentaprism on top. That enables the lens to be pushed closer to the sensor and to be more compact.
Most importantly, they use large sensors, similar in size to those found in DSLRs. They replace the through-the-lens viewfinder with an optical or an electronic viewfinder. While these viewfinders are not as accurate for framing, they are good enough, and the framing can often be corrected on the computer.
The cameras have a form factor similar to the classic Leicas: a thin, rectangular form with a compact lens protruding from the middle of the front and the viewfinder built into the body above the lens. The cameras are about half the volume and weight of a DSLR. Some have non-removable lenses while others are interchangeable. These cameras typically have a premium look, use more metal in their construction and seem to be durable.
Here’s a first look at the best of these cameras.
This is the camera that set the standard when it was introduced last March. It’s a beautifully engineered camera, solidly constructed of magnesium and machined metal, with a leather-like covering that reminds many of the best classic film cameras. It uses a 12.3MP CMOS sensor (23.6 millimeters by 15.8mm) and a non-removable lens with a wide f/2 aperture and an equivalent 35mm focal length.
Images are superb, particularly in low-light conditions. It has a new kind of hybrid viewfinder that provides both optical and electronic viewing. You can view your scene much like a conventional rangefinder camera or use the projected LCD display, similar to what’s found in movie cameras but with a higher resolution.
The one area where the X100 has disappointed is its firmware. The menu system is overly complex, and there are some odd behaviors, such as the film speed setting shifting when you change shooting modes. Some of these issues have been corrected with a recent software upgrade, but it still remains a little quirky. Nevertheless, most owners have tolerated the flaws because of the camera’s appearance, fit and finish, and the results it produces. Only recently did the long waiting times for buying an X100 diminish ($1,200, fujifilm.com).
At CES, Fujifilm introduced the X-Pro1. It has a similar form factor to the X100 but with interchangeable lenses. It uses a slightly larger 16MP sensor, a similar viewfinder and an even sharper LCD on the back that’s easier to view in the sunlight. There currently are three lenses, an 18mm F2, a 35mm F1.4 and a 60mm F2.4 Macro. It’s another beautifully designed camera, solidly constructed, but slightly larger in size than the X100.
In addition, it has a specially designed color filter on the sensor that effectively increases the sharpness by eliminating the need for an anti-moiré filter. Its sensor is about the same size as the X100. While I was able to handle it at CES, it’s too early to judge whether the menu has been improved. No price was announced, but I would expect it to be at least $300 more than the X100 with one lens, making it about $1,500.
Canon PowerShot G1 X
Canon’s most recent pro-like compact camera has been the G12, a ruggedly built camera that has evolved over the years, beginning with the G1 introduced in 2000. But it uses a small sensor, the same as in the tiny S95, making it hard to justify carrying a larger package to get similar performance.
The PowerShot G1 X is a major improvement with a sensor six times larger (18.7mm by 14mm) than the G12, an optical viewfinder and a non-removable, 28-112mm-equivalent 4x zoom lens. Its body is made of magnesium, and it’s impeccably finished in a matte black finish, much like the G12. To accommodate the large sensor, it’s about 30 percent larger than the G12. It’s aggressively priced at $799, making it a particularly good buy. If there’s one limitation, it’s that the maximum aperture is only f/5.8 at the telephoto setting, reducing its effectiveness for low-light shooting.
I’m quite excited about these new cameras because they show new thinking and innovation. They’re capable of producing superb results, as good as a DSLR, and their portability makes them more likely you’ll carry them, ready for those special photo opportunities.
Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer" published by Financial Times Press and available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other booksellers. He has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others; holds 30 patents; and is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Baker can be heard on KOGO AM the first Sunday of each month. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor. Baker's blog is blog.philipgbaker.com, and his website is philipgbaker.com.