Not so long ago, the choice was straightforward and simple: if you wanted a camera that was small and light enough to carry around with you all day, you bought a compact with a decent zoom lens that would cover most eventualities, albeit with a few compromises, and tuck into a bag or a pocket.
If you wanted to be more serious about your photography, you needed to invest in a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR), which would be big and chunky but would come with all the trimmings, most notably a bigger sensor, the facility to change lenses and, via a flip-up mirror, to show you exactly the viewpoint the camera itself was seeing.
For the past couple of years, however, there has been a third option, one that takes some of the best points from both the compact and DSLR camera categories and combines them in one hybrid. This can, in theory at least, offer photographers a perfect compromise: a fully featured camera with a full-sized sensor and interchangeable lens facility that is much smaller and less challenging to the hobbyist than the DSLR equivalent.
Models in this sector are now branded 'compact system cameras' (CSCs), and two-and-a-half years since the idea first hit the market, there can be little doubt that the opening up of this new category has been a success.
The principle of CSC is now firmly established. Most major manufacturers, with the exception of Canon, are fully committed to this sector and are battling it out in the marketplace to provide ever more advanced models at prices that are getting keener all the time. It's the perfect opportunity for photographers who haven't already taken a look at this sector to head for their local camera shop to see exactly what's on offer.
The history of the CSC
Compact system cameras have their origins in the 2008 announcement by Olympus and Panasonic that they had jointly developed the Micro Four Thirds system, an evolution of Olympus's highly rated original Four Thirds sensor, which had been powering all their DSLRs since they first entered the digital age.
Although the Micro Four Thirds sensor was the same physical size as the original Four Thirds, which is more than nine times the size of a conventional compact camera sensor, and with the same resolving power, this new technology opened the door to the production of much smaller cameras.
There was a price to pay, however, and that was the fact that the largest component on the DSLR, the pentaprism and mirror assembly that allowed the view through the lens to be directed up into the camera's viewfinder, would have to go. In its place was live view technology, which allowed the direct view through the lens to be seen on the LCD viewing screen on the back of the camera.
The first CSC to hit the market was the Panasonic G1 at the tail end of 2008, followed by the GH1 in April the following year. Then Olympus launched the first camera in its revolutionary Pen series, the E-P1, in July 2009. True to the spirit of a new sector it looked completely different from both existing DSLRs and any compact camera on the market at the time, having a retro feel that echoed the look of the original Olympus Pen film camera of the 1960s.
A quirky and stylish camera that was compact in size and yet fully featured, it was an instant success, not just with photo enthusiasts but with a new audience that wanted something to shoot with that could double as a fashion accessory.
Once Panasonic and Olympus had blazed the trail, other manufacturers started to look up and take notice, and soon a second sensor was developed, the APS-Compact (APS-C), which was 50 per cent bigger again than the Micro Four Thirds chip. Once again this was a version of an existing sensor used in a DSLR, with all of the advantages of the original but with the capacity to be used in a smaller camera format, and the CSC market really started to take off with the likes of Samsung and Sony, and latterly Pentax and Nikon, moving in.
Now the CSC sector is the fastest-growing area of the camera market, with new models and accessories appearing at a rate of knots. It's a viable alternative to the traditional sectors, and one that takes advantage of the opportunities offered by rapidly advancing digital technology.
What the CSC can offer
So, why should you choose a CSC over a compact or a DSLR? We've already mentioned its compact size and weight and, as the market becomes more mature, it is sub-dividing and the choice is becoming even greater. This is manifesting itself in the fact that the market now has a wide choice of cameras from a range of manufacturers that go from basic entry level CSCs up to fully featured models, such as the new Sony NEX 7, which are essentially CSC versions of a DSLR – in this case the a77 - complete with exactly the same sensor and a £1,000-plus price tag.
For anyone looking at the CSC market who wants the smallest model they can lay their hands on while still getting more flexibility than even the best specified compacts could provide, the choice is expanding all the time. Olympus, for example, has recently come out with the Pen Mini, which is currently one of the world's smallest and lightest system cameras. While it still offers the interchangeable lens facility and the full-size Micro Four Thirds sensor, it is substantially smaller than previous Pens and easier to carry around.
Meanwhile other manufacturers have developed their own smaller sensors in order to keep the size of their CSC product down: for example, the Pentax Q System, introduced this summer, features a sensor that is similar in size to those found in high-end compacts, while still offering a full interchangeable lens facility.
The new Nikon 1 system likewise uses a sensor smaller than that found on full-size DSLRs that is around halfway between a compact camera size and the Micro Four Thirds sensor, in the name of keeping the size to a minimum.
Also in an effort to keep size down, most CSC manufacturers offer a 'pancake' lens – essentially a fast prime lens, which doesn't offer a zoom facility – that can be made to be ultra-compact to keep the camera/lens combination as small as possible. For photographers who like to travel light and to borrow from the style of some of the great photographers of the past, this is a great way to work and it is possible just to tuck everything in a pocket, ready to use at a moment's notice.
Other benefits of the CSC system are more universal. For example, some photographers who had graduated from cameras with viewfinders were having an issue with the fact that many CFCs required them to compose their pictures through the LCD screen on the back. There are now two solutions that address this issue: first, the likes of Olympus have developed a separate optional viewfinder that can plug into the flash bracket on the top of the camera, and the more advanced of these will relay an electronic image that allows the photographer to compose and see what's going on in the conventional way. The downside to this solution used to be the fact that the accessory was expensive, but Olympus has just announced a significant price cut for its VF-3 eyepiece, so advancing technology is making these products much more affordable.
The second way solution is the built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF), which is now becoming much more sophisticated. EVFs on early digital cameras were poor quality and had a distracting flicker, but those on the new Sony cameras, for example, are now almost indistinguishable from the direct view a photographer would have had through a mirror. This technology is coming through and helping this sector to move on and to increase its appeal.
Easy to use
One of the main benefits of a CSC camera is that, while it is designed to offer quality as good as a DSLR if the sensor is the same size, it should be no more intimidating to use than a standard-issue compact. For this reason most of them will offer a 'point-and-shoot' mode, where the camera will assess all the prevailing conditions and choose the best compromise for you.
Much as with compacts, there will also be a number of scene modes normally provided, which will automatically choose the optimum settings for a series of shooting situations that might range from sports through to night photography, pictures in the snow, the beach and group shots.
CSC cameras are designed to be self sufficient, with on-board manuals and help guides to steer the user through the controls and to give them information about the features that are available while they are on the move. There is also a development towards more in-camera editing, with the idea being that the user can sort out most of the issues they might face without having to sit down in front of a computer.
One of the most fun things a modern CSC will often provide is a set of art filters that will allow the user to shoot pictures with a particular feel to them straight to camera. The Olympus E-PL3, for example, offers six options that range from the look of a grainy black and white film through to 'Pop Art', 'Soft Focus', 'Pin Hole', 'Diorama' (a very shallow depth of field) and 'Dramatic Tone'. Other camera models will likewise offer a selection to choose from with more arriving all the time.
Constant live view is another innovation that has been developed to make life easier for the CSC user. This allows the user to make adjustments to the shutter speed or the aperture they are setting and they will be able to see in real time the effect that each of the changes will have on the final picture. It can take some of the pain out of learning and help you to achieve exactly the final image you're after.
The CSC sector has found its feet and has now come of age. It has rapidly established a middle ground between compacts and DSLRs, constituting a compromise that offers the best of both worlds for many photographers who cannot decide which way to go in terms of an investment in equipment.