What do we mean when we talk about Compact System Cameras – or CSC for short? We mean an alternative to bulkier, weightier DSLRs that still allow you to change the lens in use and enjoy the benefits of a larger sensor than a smartphone or point and shoot camera. The upshot is more life-like imagery with greater detail. Detail that, in some instances, is a match for what at one time required a much larger, much pricier camera – not to mention a steeper learning curve.
With their market still expanding, compact system cameras have come on a lot in the past year. Latest must haves include 4K-video capture with the ability to extract an 8 megapixel still. Increasingly, we also get flip up back screens to satiate the selfie shooter and Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity to share shots with smartphone or tablet. What hasn’t changed much is sensor size and resolution however. Offerings are still split between – in ascending order of physical size – one inch, Four Thirds (of an inch), APS-C and full frame (the later meaning the same dimensions as a frame of pre-digital 35mm film) chips. The rule of thumb is the physically larger the sensor the better the pictures. So, with the above in mind, the questions is: which cameras offer the biggest bang for your buck overall? By way of an answer, here are 11 current contenders worth further exploration…
This high-end ‘X’ series compact system camera has quickly become a classic, particularly in its titanium option. It’s the closest Fuji has got to a DSLR-like construction since its short-lived ‘S’ cameras of ten years ago. With eye level 2.36 million-dot viewfinder, 16.3 effective megapixel APS-C sensor and tilting 3-inch LCD, this is also something of a potential Olympus Micro Four Thirds system killer and might possibly tempt Canon and Nikon diehards to switch too.
While previous models let the side down slightly with a sluggish auto focus response, on the X-T1 Fuji addressed such issues and we now have a commendably swift 0.08-second wait for the camera to acquire its target. We originally tested the X-T1 with a XF 60mm f/2.4 prime lens and got back pin sharp subjects with creamily smooth defocused backgrounds. This ensured we were hard pressed to tell the difference between the Fuji’s output and that of a mid range DSLR. So if you want pro-like results from a smaller format and you’re prepared to invest in yet another system the X-T1 is highly recommended.
From £1,049.99 body only | FujiFilm
Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II
With this upgrade of its first-ever digital OM camera, Olympus refined an already good enthusiast’s compact to make an even better one with a wider appeal. Though outwardly a ringer for both the previous E-M5 and current range topping E-M1, the splashproof, dustproof and freezeproof Mark II is slightly heavier because of the introduction of a new shutter mechanism and a touch screen LCD, now swiveling as well as tilting. Having the choice of both eye or waist-level viewfinder is particularly useful for capturing Full HD video, with frame rates varying between 24fps and 60fps, as is the other plus of five-axis body-integral image stabilization. For photos, options run from the regulation 16 megapixels to a new 40-megapixel high resolution shot mode. This combines eight successive images to potentially better most DSLRs in terms of output. Though there’s no built-in flash, an accessory flash is bundled in the box, while there are various lens kit options to choose from for anyone buying into the system from scratch.
£899 body only or £1099 with 12-50mm or 14-42mm lens | Olympus
Olympus OM-D E-M10
The 16.1 megapixel resolution, Four Thirds sensor E-M10 is the entry model of Olympus’ retro styled OM-D trio, based on the 1970s OM film cameras. Compared with pricier OM-D E-M1 or E-M5 Mark II, the E-M10 borrows but doesn’t cut too many corners, whilst being the lightest and smallest. In our view this makes it a very practical travel camera as well as being easier to get to grips with. Key features include a high 1.4 million-dot resolution eye level viewfinder and tilting 3-inch touch screen LCD, a tap of which allows a subject to be biased or a picture to be taken. Colour-rich, contrast-y shots ensure the E-M10 punches above its weight when compared to the rest of its class. The 14-42mm kit lens, equivalent to a wide angle 28-84mm in 35mm film terms, comes into its own when shooting Full HD 1920x1080 pixels clips, as is it quiet in operation and, with a twist of its zoom ring, boasts smooth and steady transitions.
£699.99 with 14-42mm lens | Olympus
Canon EOS M3
Being the biggest camera manufacturer on the planet means the largest collection of lenses and accessories, a distinct advantage for the M3, despite being only Canon’s second ever CSC, following the three-year-old M1. While this means Canon has some way to go to catch up the sheer range of CSC models offered by Panasonic and Olympus which have been releasing such cameras since 2009, this miniature EOS has the larger APS-C sensor, here given a pixel boost at 24.2MP. Also very beneficial is a creatively flexible touch screen that tilts upwards by 180° and down by 45°. Keeping with the times, Canon has blessed this one with the must have features of Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity for sharing of shots with a smartphone or tablet. A 49-point AF system, which betters most consumer DSLRs on paper, plus a latest generation Digic 6 processor round off the package. The M3 is a sensible place for anyone looking to step up from a smartphone to a dedicated camera to begin investigating.
£599.99 with 18-55mm lens | Canon
Sony R7 Mark II
A full frame sensor is the biggest one currently squeezed into a compact camera body, and that’s exactly what Sony offers via the R7, appearing here in its second generation, still outwardly resembling a miniature DSLR. While that’s one key reason this ‘R’ series has proved so popular, the other is the addition of the 24.3 megapixel resolution. The A7 II ups the ante further via a redesigned body with the shutter release button placed forward on the grip and a different type of front control wheel added, for improved handling. If all else fails the camera comes with five-axis image stabilization to protect against blur when shooting hand held.
Pictures are precisely composed with the aid of an eye level 2.36 million-dot resolution OLED viewfinder. Also impressing is wide AF area coverage thanks to a 117-point phase detection AF sensor working in tandem with 25-point contrast detection AF; it’s no surprise therefore that auto focus is 30% quicker than the previous camera. With a more refined body, and 40% quicker start up time, it all adds up to the fact that the R7 Mark II is good point to jump aboard Sony’s system.
£1,500 body only | Sony
As a starter option this is an obvious competitor to Nikon’s ‘J’ camera series, the E-PL7 from Olympus and Sony’s NEX series. Like those alternatives, the X-A2 seeks to seduce the selfie shooter via its flip up compositional screen, whilst, especially in its brown leather-effect variant – a change from plain silver – a retro-styled eye catcher too. However, the bigger than average APS-C sensor, here providing a standard for its class 16.3-megapixel resolution, suggests this is a camera worthy of more serious application than just snaps, and that larger chip will doubtless win it converts. For those adopting the X system for the first time, as we imagine most potential purchasers of the X-A2 will be, there’s the advantage of a newly improved 16-50mm kit lens bundled with the camera in matching silver, suitable for both wide angle landscapes and close up portraits. Although personally we missed the lack of built-in eye-level viewfinder, the compositional LCD screen does tilt through 175° to offer a degree of creative flexibility. At sub £400 including zoom lens we feel it’s hard to go wrong.
£399.9 with 16-50mm lens | FujiFilm
The NX1 resembles a miniature DSLR and is splash and dust proof with it. Key features include a whopping 30.7 megapixel BSI APS-C CMOS sensor along with 4K video capture, pitching it directly against Panasonic’s GH4. While the fact that this is a relatively chunky ‘compact’ system camera may put some off, others will be reassured by exactly the larger form factor. There is however the £1299 body-only price to also navigate.
Aping a semi pro DSLR, here we get a top plate status display window in addition to the eyelevel viewfinder and tilting AMOLED touch screen on the back, delivering deeper blacks and better contrast. Images appear almost life-like as a result. Operation is swift too, with shooting speeds up to an impressive 15fps and an AF system with 205 phase detection points. Adaptive noise reduction enables crisper results at higher ISOs such as a maximum ISO51200 setting. Handling like a camera that means business and delivering sharp, colour rich results, Samsung has upped its game with the NX1.
£1,299 body only | Samsung
The world’s smallest interchangeable lens camera upon launch still impresses with the way it packs in a tilting touch screen and large APS-C sized sensor which – like the more grown up and pricier R7 Mark II – offers a best in class 24.3 megapixel resolution. Certain to please any selfie obsessed smartphone user seeking a ‘proper’ camera to upgrade to, we also get a tilting LCD that can be flipped upwards through 180°, as on Sony’s higher-end RX100 MK3 fixed lens compact. Said LCD is also a touch screen this time for a best of both worlds approach to camera operation. As we expect these days, Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity are included, along with 179 focal plane detection AF points to ensure the A5100 is both swift and accurate when selecting its targets. Choose the body only option if you’ve already invested in a previous generation NEX or Alpha camera. If you do need the lens thrown in, best value is the kit with 16-50mm lens for £550 or with a 55-210mm for £760.
£420 body only | Sony
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF7
Though not as identifiably a game changer as its bigger brother in the 4K video shooting Panasonic GH4, this more obviously consumer orientated system camera nevertheless borrows a hint of that camera’s DSLR styling, as well as the same Four Thirds sensor and Venus engine as the numerically similar GX7 premium model. However, unlike Nikon’s rival J5 and the GH4, we don’t get 4K video: resolution here sticks at 1920x1080 pixels.
Panasonic has also bowed to the ‘selfie’ craze here by including a 180° tilting monitor, along with two new self-portrait enabling features in Face Shutter and Buddy Shutter. The second fires off a shot when the camera detects two faces pressed together in the frame. It also has a new Wi-Fi button and there is no need to enter a password to share images. Of greater interest to photography geeks is the lightning quick auto focus response, in conjunction with supplied 12-32mm lens, which provided us with the equivalent of a 24-64mm in 35mm terms. The GF7 feels like Panasonic is making even its entry level CSC’s into serious contenders.
£429 with 12-32mm lens | Panasonic
Nikon 1 J5
The interchangeable lens Nikon ‘1’ family is notable for its one inch sensor size, which is physically larger than the1/2.3-inch chip found in most fixed lens cameras, yet still smaller than all DSLRs and most CSC rivals. The 20.8 megapixel J5 however, complete with a nod at the retro styling of competing Fujifilm and Olympus models, feels the most grown up ‘J’ series camera yet by featuring plentiful bells ‘n’ whistles to hook ‘proper’ photographers, as well as a flip-up 3-inch selfie-enabling screen to appeal to anyone stepping up from a smartphone. The J5’s other major selling point is 4K video capture; a first for the Nikon range, meaning it joins a select handful of premium quality video-shooting rivals in Panasonic’s GH4, Samsung’s NX1 and Sony’s R7s – all bulkier, pricier cameras. Here, a compact kit zoom lens keeps proportions manageable. After flirting coyly with CSC for a while now as DSLRs are more traditionally its bag, the J5 suggests a more meaningful chapter in Nikon’s relationship with smaller format system cameras.
£349 body only or £429.99 with 10-30mm PD Zoom lens | Nikon
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4
Now we can create content for that expensive 4K TV set ourselves with one of the few cameras on the market to shoot in the format. This fourth generation flagship model when announced late summer 2014 was the first in its class to offer any greater ‘movie’ resolution than the industry standard Full HD 1920x1080 pixels. Now joined in this respect by Sony’s A7S, not to mention Nikon’s more affordable if less fully featured J5, Panasonic’s DSLR-alike CSC option holds massive appeal for anyone considering a 4K shooting device for budget film-making. There is also the major plus of being able to grab 8 megapixel still photos from a frame of video, in camera.
Broadening its appeal the GH4 also offers both Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity, plus compatibility with latest generation ‘Gold Series’ UHS-I SD media cards, available up to 64GB capacity for storing all that video. An eye-level viewfinder, improved 16.05 megapixel Four Thirds format CMOS sensor, Venus Engine processor and fast and accurate AF system are aided and abetted by a splash proof and dust proof chassis, matching the competing likes of the Olympus OM-D E-M1/E-M5 Mark II and Fujifilm X-T1 for toughness and semi professional status. This is an adept all rounder.
£1,299.99 body only | Panasonic