Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Why are SLD/EVIL cameras not small?.. and what should Canon do about it?

When Panasonic's first EVIL camera, the G1 first appeared, I was one of the first to buy it. However, I was contemplating hard whether to get the LX3 or the G1 to complement my dSLR, the Canon 450D (at that time). The promise of an ultra compact system with capabilities of a dSLR was too hard to resist.

The reality is that the EVIL/SLD type system cameras are not actually very small. Sure, if you look at them in some comparison pictures, they do look like the designers have shaved off quite a bit of mass versus their dSLR counterparts. The reality is, however, they are not pocket-sized small.

My thinking is that for anything that is not pocket-sized small, you will need a pouch or a small bag to carry and if you need a small bag to carry them, it will not make too much difference if you carry a marginally larger pouch or a smaller one.

The latest Sony NEX5 has probably come closest to what is thought as a PnS sized system camera with dSLR capabilities. Yes, it is.... but only for the body. When you put on a zoom lens, like the 18-55mm kit, again, it is no longer that small.

Canon and Nikon are still dragging their feet when it comes to SLD/EVIL type camera. Why? Perhaps they want to strategize. Perhaps, their answer is already there...

It is easy to think why Canon should still focus on the Powershot G series type camera (and Nikon, the P6000). Here are the reasons why:

1) EVIL/SLD are system cameras, so consumers need to invest in the system. Flash, EVF, lenses, lenses, lenses.... Unfortunately, most EVIL/SLD lenses are NOT compatible with their professional brethens. If consumers were to invest in a system, they would want to consider potential upgrades into prosumers level equipments. If on the other hand, consumers invest in only one vacation lens, like the Sony 18-200 or Panny 14-140mm which I believe many would do, then it defeats the purpose of a system camera. Flexible cameras like the G11 comes with a compact fixed lens (28-140mm) which is more than enough for most vacationer. If more reach is required, there is always that tele-converter.

2) Size of the Sensor - While the APS-C and 4/3 sized sensors give the EVIL/SLD advantages in terms of Image Quality over PnS, it is also their curse. Larger sensors require larger lenses. While some manufacturers such as Panasonic does in-camera processing to fix lens issues, thus allowing smaller lenses to be made, there is a limit to how much sacrifice can be made in terms of quality. Smaller 1/1.7" sensors used in advanced PnS is probably the sweet spot in the compromise between sensor size vs lens size. Despite being almost the same size as the GF-1 body, the G11's lens is fully retractable, thus giving it a huge size advantages when compared to the GF-1 + Kit lens. Although some reviewers feel that the GF-1's sensor is still ahead of the Canon G11's, others feel that if shot in the RAW format, the performance gap is not as big as some might think.

3) Accessories - The main advantage of the SLD/EVIL cameras is the ability to mount external flashes and remote triggers. Advanced prosumers such as Panasonic LX3 and the Canon G11 can do the same (except for triggering which has been removed from the G11. Why Canon?!). These advanced prosumers can also accept adapters for filters, wide angle and tele converters, which expands the capabilities of such cameras.

4) Speed and Features - Advanced prosumers can shoot at shutter speed of about 1/4000 (G11) and 1/2000(LX3). This is similar to the likes of GF-1, NEX-5, EP-1 and EP-L1 (1/2000). Although the continuous shooting and shot to shot time of the G11, and to a certain extend the LX3, is still a bit lacking. I believe that is a technical challenge that can be overcome if given the right motivation and budget.

Ok, so some of you may say that the G11 is not actually pocket-sized as well. Hey, I managed to stuff it into my bermudas pants pocket and walk around for a day in the mall without being arrested for obscenity. That's something I probably cannot do with the NEX5+18-55mm.

So there I have said it, I think the G11/LX3 type camera is actually a better solution than the EVIL/SLD type systems when it comes to portability vs performance. I do admit that the image quality of such prosumer PnS cameras leave a lot of room for improvement, especially when compared to the APS-C or m4/3 models. Therefore, manufacturers such as Canon may very well design themselves a winner if they take the G11 and slap on some improvements such as:

A) A Slightly larger sensor - This would be a challenge but I think this market segment has just been pushed into the limelight. Manufacturers such as Canon with their own sensor technology cannot hide behind Sony's off-the-shelves sensors anymore. They need to create their own sensor for this category. I think a 2/3" or 1" type sensor would be quite interesting. It may be able to close the gap against the m4/3 while maintaining a reasonable overall size.

B) A Faster Performance - Features wise, the Canon G series and the Panasonic LX series are already very close to entry level dSLR. What they need is the speed to match. A 3 fps shooting speed, a shot to shot time of < 1 sec and and Af speed of about 0.4s to 0.5s would put them in a very good position versus the EVIL/SLD.

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