The Workhorse

Canon 60D

In the world of cameras, only Sony are doing anything that really interests me right now. By putting big(er) sensors into small(er) cameras, they’re improving image quality without sacrificing portability. They’re improving low-light and noise performance without having to go to ridiculously high ISOs or invest precious R&D into new noise-reduction algorithms. They’re doing the right thing, or at very least, moving in the right direction.

It all started with the RX100, released just last year, a compact camera with a non-detachable zoom lens and a comparatively massive 1-inch sensor, the largest in its class. It was the first camera to put a big sensor in a body that was still extremely pocketable, and it was the first camera that offered anything close to the low-light performance of cameras with much larger sensors.

Not surprisingly, the RX100 received rave reviews despite the slightly higher price point — it was decidedly an “enthusiast compact” camera, and the price reflected its status, but it was still on the expensive side for people looking for an alternative to similar cameras such as the Canon S100 or S110, both of which retail around the $300 mark — by comparison, the RX100 is easily twice that price.

Regardless, the RX100 was a big hit with the wider photographic community. Someone at Sony must have decided this was a worthwhile path to pursue, because half a year later we saw the introduction of the RX1, the first camera to put a full-frame digital sensor in a compact camera. Not much bigger than the RX100, the RX1 is stil a hell of a lot more compact than any other camera with a large sensor, let alone a full-frame DSLR.

Like the RX100, the RX1 comes with a non-detachable lens, but unlike the RX100, the lens on the RX1 is a fixed-focal length lens (commonly referred to as a prime). The lens permanently attached to the RX1 is a 35mm f/2 Zeiss, and I for one am glad Sony chose to go with something decent for their choice of lens. Thanks to the combination of quality glass and a full-frame sensor, image quality, low-light image quality and noise performance all improved markedly.

The only real downside for consumers was the price: at close to what you might pay for a comparable full-frame DSLR, the RX1 is out of reach for anyone who actually wants a full-frame sensor in a compact body without the convenience of interchangeable lenses. You’d have to be a serious enthusiast (or flushed with cash) to fork out for a camera you bought for its size alone, especially when you can get a professional DSLR for around the same kind of money.

Nevertheless, like the RX100 before it, the RX1 was heralded as a breakthrough in digital camera technology simply because it was the first camera to include a full-frame sensor in a compact-like body. It, too, received rave reviews, despite its expensive price tag.

By this time, Sony had caught onto what consumers really wanted: DSLR-like image quality from compact cameras. The RX100 II followed with improvements to the general formula, including a new image processing chip for even better noise performance, coupled with the same big sensor in a compact body. Around the same time, Sony also released the RX1 R, a variant on the original that removed the anti-aliasing filter in favour of more effective resolution and slightly sharper images at the cost of possible moire when capturing certain lined patters.

Sony RX100 II

I actually own the RX 100 II. It’s a great point and shoot, and I’ve been pretty happy with it. I wish I could afford the RX1 to see how it compares, but $2,900 is quite a bitter, not to mention expensive, pill to swallow.

Now here’s where things get really interesting. Sony recently released the A7 and A7R, two new cameras that — you guessed it — pack full-frame sensors into compact bodies. But this time, Sony have kicked it up a notch by also making the A7 and A7R part of their mirror-less/compact system camera family, which means they’re the first interchangeable lens cameras with a full-frame sensor in a compact-ish form factor. They’re not pocketable, but they’re close. Really close. Think “slightly bulky”, rather than DSLR-sized.

At this point, I have a small confession to make: I’ve never really been interested in compact system cameras or the mirror-less camera system, whatever you want to call it, mostly because I’ve never really seen the appeal. I mean, if you want cameras with interchangeable lenses you might as well go for a DSLR — go big or go home, as they say. Mirror-less cameras — compact (somewhat unpocketable) cameras with interchangeable lenses — have always seemed like a compromise for no good reason. Small sensors for the convenience of being able to change lenses seem like the uneasy middle ground between capable point and shoots and your entry-level DSLR.

But all that’s changed now with the introduction of the A7 and A7R. Like the RX100 and RX1 before them, they’re pushing the envelope on what can be expected of a compact camera, and with the addition of interchancable lenses, they could actually encroach into DSLR territory.

Or could they? See, that’s the thing: every time a new camera system comes out, and I consider selling my DSLR to go towards the price of whatever new shiny thing, I always go back to thinking about the workhorse.

The workhorse, in this case, is my trusty Canon 60D DSLR. I already own a handful of lenses for it (and use one almost all of the time), but it doesn’t have a full-frame sensor. It’s big, bulky, and when paired with the right lens, downright intimidating. But the workhorse is loyal. Unbending. Unforgiving. It’ll take images regardless of whether they’re in focus or not. It’ll let me choose the aperture and shutter speed. Unlike “consumer-oriented” cameras like the RX100, A7, and to a lesser extent the RX1, the workhorse is designed to go day in, day out, happily handling whatever task you give it without any complaints. You don’t see professional photographers going around and shooting weddings with compact cameras for exactly the same reason you don’t see normal people taking happy snaps with a top-of-the-line DSLR, and for good reason; they’re different beasts, designed for entirely different tasks and workloads.

While I have no doubt that a skilled photographer would be able to produce very good images from an RX100/RX1/A7 in any situation, I can’t help but feel how limiting the camera would be. Maybe it would try to help them by offering “helpful” scene selection modes. Or maybe it would automatically adjust the exposure so that the resulting image was too noisy, or had motion blur. Or maybe, as in the case of the RX100 and A7, 5 FPS burst mode is only available in a certain mode of operation, where the rest of the exposure and autofocus settings are locked down. The lack of features and locked-down settings will be the downfall of these cameras for pros, regardless of how good their images are, regardless of how big of a sensor they pack into their tiny, diminutive (by comparison) bodies.

And that’s the question that gets me every time when I’m deciding whether I should sell off my DSLR system. “Will this new camera be able to fulfil the same duties as my current camera, while producing images that are of equal or better quality?” So far, for every mirror-less or compact system camera I’ve evaluated (by reading reviews and checking it out online, mind you, not through actual usage), the answer has been no.

I look forward to the day that the answer is yes, because that will herald a new age of photography, and I, for one, will welcome our new full-frame, mirror-less, compact system camera overlords and the noise-free images they will produce without being burdened by a DSLR around their neck.

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