July 19, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Where's the SLR-style compact camera?

Camera buyers today can choose from hundreds of compact models, with 24 available from Canon alone and the market flooded with competition from electronics companies such as Samsung and Casio.

But for the enthusiast who wants a smaller alternative to the bulky but high-performance SLR, or single-lens reflex, camera, it's slim pickings.

"There's a gap in the market for a certain class of camera for somebody who's got a digital SLR and wants those capabilities at the times they're not carrying an SLR," said Lyra Research analyst Steve Hoffenberg.

Digital SLRs bring a host of improvements over compact cameras: they start up faster, shoot more frames per second, produce "raw" images that retain all the data from the image sensor, offer manual control over numerous settings, and have large sensors that work better in dim light or when trying to freeze action. The SLR market is fast-growing and today dominated by Canon and Nikon, but also has contenders in Olympus, Pentax, Panasonic, Sony and others.

Photos: Compact digicams for the SLR set

But SLRs are too bulky for a purse or pocket. Even serious shutterbugs often leave them behind when scaling mountain peaks, traveling or just heading to work.

"I like photography, but it's a passion, not a job. I like first of all to take my camera with me always, even if I'm (on) my bicycle," said Stefano Di Cecio, who lives in Italy's Tuscany region. But he's used film SLRs, and he wants raw image support, manual controls and a good lens, so he settled on the Panasonic DMC-LX2.

A pie-in-the-sky compact camera would have a fast, high-quality lens that reaches as wide as 28mm. It would have a large sensor that emphasizes sensitivity over megapixels. Raw image support so the photographer gets more than just stripped-down JPEGs. An optical viewfinder for shooting in bright conditions or preserving battery life. A quick shutter response. Maybe a hot shoe to accommodate an external flash. And a price tag under $500.

That's probably too big an engineering challenge for a single model. But some camera makers have come close.

Some options
Possibly the compact camera closest in design to an SLR is Canon's PowerShot G7, the latest in a series of products aimed directly for the SLR enthusiast. A Tokyo resident whose Flickr username is Leopard Gecko uses his to shoot close-ups of insects and flowers--but like many camera reviewers, he wishes it came with the raw image support that predecessors like the G6 had.

Another option is the Nikon Coolpix P5000, which is considerably smaller than the PowerShot G7 but, like it, has a "hot shoe" to mount an external flash. However, it too lacks raw support.

Bulkier models such as Olympus' SP-550 UZ and Fujifilm's Finepix S6000fd have long zoom ranges and raw-image support, but they're not so easily to place in a pocket, and long zoom ranges typically take a toll on image quality. Ricoh's GX100, which supports raw files but is compact, has won some ardent supporters but isn't widely available in the United States. And Sigma's forthcoming DP1 uses the same higher-end Foveon image sensor as its big brother, the SD14 SLR, but the compact model has a fixed 28mm focal length lens.

Some experts have called for a better compact camera--Mike Johnston of the Online Photographer blog has called it the "decisive moment digicam," and Thom Hogan, author of the Nikon DSLR Report, has described in detail his ideal small camera with a large sensor.

Hogan estimates hundreds of thousands to millions of such a camera could be sold annually. That may sound small, but it's likely to be a nice niche, he said.

"Digital SLR growth is hitting the plateau already and will level off to normal or worse within the next year or two. Meanwhile, there are unserved niches where you could make your own growth, get almost the same unit volume and retain high product margins," he said. "High-quality compacts is one of them."

But there's a good reason manufacturers might pause before aiming a compact camera at SLR aficionados, Hoffenberg said: they probably already have one, even if it's not necessarily high-end.

"Lyra's research shows the vast majority of digital SLR owners already owned a point-and-shoot digital camera before they purchased an SLR," Hoffenberg said. "Just about half of digital SLR owners had multiple point-and-shoot cameras in the household--two or more."

Enough megapixels already
Some believe a step in the right direction would be to use larger image sensors--perhaps even as large as those in lower-end SLRs--or at least sensors with more sensitive pixels. The race to squeeze as many pixels as possible onto sensors has increased unwanted colored speckles called image "noise," several experts contend.

Stefano Mattia, who lives in Rome, is happy with his Panasonic DMC-LX2--except for the sensor.

"Take the LX2 and replace its sensor with one which could provide virtually noise-free pictures up to ISO 400 to 800, and that would be the perfect compact camera," Mattia said. "I'd rather have fewer megapixels than noisy photos."

Fewer megapixels also would reduce some burdens of processing and saving images, potentially improving responsiveness. But consumers would have to understand the argument that a particular camera makes up in quality what it lacks in quantity, and that could be tough, judging by the unceasing increase in sensor megapixel counts.

Enthusiasts frustrated with higher-end compact cameras have grounds for hope that camera makers will better meet their needs, though.

"What Nikon saw with the P5000 and Canon with the G7 is that particular niche does now appear to be growing big enough that it can support some models in the market," Hoffenberg said.

See more CNET content tagged:
SLR, sensor, camera, Nikon Corp., Olympus Corp.

42 comments

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Yes! Yes! Yes!
Quote:
"... a step in the right direction would be to use larger image sensors..."

This should be at the top of the story. Image sensor size ( and I might add
lens quality) are more important than megapixels.

When does a 6 megapixel camera give you better pictures than a 10 megapixel
camera? When that 6 has a image sensor twice a big as the 10.

Do a Google search on "camera image sensor size" one search result Photo.
net has some great information.
Posted by ibeetle (259 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Big sensors need big camera bodies
I completely agree-- image sensors are the limiting factor (though more cameras should have RAW support-- storage is inexpensive), but the issue probably has more to do with technological limitations of lenses and sensors than with marketing gaps. A larger sensor necessitates a larger camera (since the lens stack size is proportional to the sensor's), and it's tough to imagine a large(r) sensor camera being much smaller than a Canon Digital Rebel series DSLR. Manufacturers are certainly pursuing better sensor technology (esp. CMOS vs. CCD) at smaller sizes.
Posted by jmsaltzman (6 comments )
Link Flag
Bring us the SLR-style compact!
Thanks for the excellent article. I have been fruitlessly trolling
photography and tech sites for more than a year, hoping that
somebody will launch just such a camera. Manual controls, RAW
capture, fast lens, large sensor, at least 28mm at the wide end . . .
yes, yes, yes!
Posted by davesmith8989 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
slr-style compact cameras
I believe the camera companies would be hurting the dslr sales,plus the sale of lenses, if they delivered what we want in a compact camera.
I do carry a small sub compact everywhere I go, but it lacks a lot of features I desire.
There is a large market for a pro compact camera, are you listening,Canon,Nikon,Sony, Panasonic, Pentax etc?
Posted by lyntone (45 comments )
Reply Link Flag
reporter responds: the 'cannibalization' issue
This is a popular theory, and it may well hold some truth. I'm sure that SLR makers would love to lure discriminating customers to buy an entry-level SLR market over a high-end compact camera, because as soon as you buy one new lens for your SLR, you've been locked in to that particular manufacturer's lens-body ecosystem. Buying a compact camera has many fewer such long-term considerations. And certainly there's a big fight for SLR market share now.

But I think there are flaws with the argument. For one thing, the biggest SLR makers, Canon and Nikon, both sell advanced compact cameras with some SLR features, even if they're not going enough far enough for some buyers' liking. And some other camera makers don't have an SLR business to protect in the first place. Finally, a lot of entry-level SLR buyers--one part of the market for high-end compact cameras--will never use anything more than the low-end "kit" lens that comes with an SLR and therefore aren't good candidates for a lens-body ecosystem lock-in. And of course, physically, it's just a huge engineering challenge squeeze include large sensors and large (high-speed) lenses into compact bodies and still have a reasonable price tag.
Posted by Shankland (1858 comments )
Link Flag
Prosumer compacts
I have a Canon S80 as well as an XT SLR for precisely the reasons discussed but a deal breaker is that it does not support RAW, any serious photographer wants the extra control and lossless character of RAW
Posted by iansmccarthy (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
You can't turn a sow's ear into a purse
The purpose of RAW is to let advanced photographers extract the last ounce of dynamic range and artifact-free performance from the sensor. If the sensor has too many megapixels with too few square microns of photon-collecting surface, and thus low sensitivity, high noise and limited dynamic range, not to mention poor optics in front of them, RAW capability is pointless, as there is no extra detail to recover in the first place.
Posted by fazalmajid (162 comments )
Link Flag
Don't forget "ZLR"s!
The article discusses compact cameras with SLR features, but not so-called ZLR cameras, which are like small SLR cameras, with a large zoom lens, but no optical viewfinder and no ability to replace the lens. The best of these currently available is probably the <a href="http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/specs/Panasonic/panasonic_dmcfz50.asp">Panasonic Lumix FZ50</a>, with a 12x optical zoom, RAW mode, etc.
Posted by Harlan879 (130 comments )
Reply Link Flag
reporter responds: I didn't emphasize the super-zooms
I did mention two superzoom models, one from Olympus and one from Fujifilm, but didn't emphasize them, chiefly because they're pretty bulky. For those stepping up in camera quality, superzooms can be an improvement, but those who have SLRS often want something that's a lot less bulky. Also, the wide zoom range often causes problems such as image blurring or distortion.
Posted by Shankland (1858 comments )
Link Flag
Stop talking about features, start talking image quality
I am and sick and tired of reviewers citin cameras like the high
end Panasonics. Yes, they are feature laden, but because of the
poor quality image sensor and ultra high levels of noise, the
images produced are practically useless. Also RAW image files
are overrated. Any decent professional photogapher chooses
cameras, sensitivity and exposure for ideal image capture which,
in most cases eliminates the need to fix it with the RAW image
converter. Digital work flow is about streamlining the process,
not adding more steps.

Canon makes great hardware, bur the skin tone reproduction
through the entire line from compact to hind end D-SLR is awful.
Take a look at the lack of high ISO noise and fantastic skin tone
reproduction found in the Fuji S3 and S5 as well as F31 and
9500.

Photography is about creating images not pressing buttons and
playing with gadgets. Image quality is the ultimate goal. For
some reason CNET editors just don't get it. It's always a
discussion of features and specs. I'm guessing that there isn't a
single professional photographer on the staff.
Posted by aaydogan (123 comments )
Reply Link Flag
reporter responds: we don't disagree so much
It's true that many of us in the industry are guilty of overemphasizing long feature lists, but I don't think your opinion is as far removed from mine as you suppose. Your emphasis on "quality" rather than features cites as examples a good sensor and low image noise; my story includes "features" such as a "fast, high-quality lens" and "a large sensor that emphasizes sensitivity over megapixels." And while some issues such as good skin tone reproduction are hard to reflect in a mere feature list, some things like a hot shoe, image stabilization or a wide-angle lens are, let's face it, features that some people might want so they can accomplish a particular type of shooting. If I buy a car, I want intangibles such as good handling, but I also want features such as antilock brakes.

Fundamentally, the reason I wrote this story is because I've encountered many people want on their compact cameras what they have or can get with SLRs. Call the SLRs' advantages "features" or call them "quality," but that's what a lot of people are looking for.

And while streamlining workflow is important for a lot of folks, myself included, there certainly are a lot of people who actually enjoy messing around with their shots, much as some photographers enjoy messing around in the darkroom. Raw images are more amenable to the tinkerer. When I'm on a deadline, though, I shoot JPEG.

Also, CNET does have professional photographers on staff, including myself to a limited extent.
Posted by Shankland (1858 comments )
Link Flag
RAW unnecessary, I don't think so.
Most professional photographers will not use JPEG. Indeed National Geographic won't accept images not shot in RAW. You obviously must be that rare animal the perfect photographer who gets everything right on the first shot and never needs to adjust anything in his image.
Posted by iansmccarthy (9 comments )
Link Flag
I bought a 2004 model in 2006 to get such features
Last year, I was in the market for a pocketable camera that could shoot in RAW, included an optical viewfinder, offered manual controls that were ready-at-hand, and delivered credible performance at high ISOs. I found it in the Fuji FinePix F810, a 2004 model that had been discontinued. I've just checked out the Ricoh Caplio GX100; it sounds like a worthy successor; gotta love that f/2/5 24mm.
Posted by paul613 (163 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Another 2004 model:
Nikon Coolpix 8400 was/is another fine, low keyed, camera, but
shutter lag too long.
Posted by markgillen (1 comment )
Link Flag
What an oxymoron
If you want a small DSLR get either the Canon 400D or the new Nikon whatever it is. They're tiny, and take dozens of lenses each. Otherwise you'll have to buy two sets of lenses, with this new set taking up R&#38;D resources and raising the prices across the board.

If you want compact, get a compact and the little screw-on adapters.
Posted by ElMartino1 (31 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Far from it...
A 400D will not fit in a purse or a pocket. It may be "tiny" next to a EOS-1D Mark III but certainly not next to one of their compact Powershot SD model cameras. As the article pointed out, the current line of compacts do not offer the same image quality, manual options or RAW support. A screw-on adapter won't fix that.
Posted by PixelBrat (9 comments )
Link Flag
Thank you for writing this article!!
I am one of those photographers that has been begging and pleading for just such a compact camera. Hopefully the manufacturers will finally listen. I shoot stock photography as a side business and it's not always practical to carry my heavy 5D and lenses everywhere I go. A compact with these features would be the perfect companion camera giving me so many more opportunities to shoot without the bulk. Excellent article.
Posted by PixelBrat (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
how about a licea d lux 3
it does as well as any slr i have ever used
Posted by alie4251 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Leica DLux3 same as Panny LX2
They're the same EXACT cameras. Don't waste the extra $200 for a Leica trademark, go with the Panasonic LX2. P.S. Panasonic usually announces their new cameras in late July, so stay tuned for a possible LX3 announcement.
Posted by rush6017 (2 comments )
Link Flag
I bet on Fuji's F-series
Fuji has a great sensor! I think if they manage to upgrade their F-series to the level of Canon/Panasonic compacts (IS, wide lens, image processing, controls, etc) they will have a product which would be very close to the SLR-like compact.
Of course there could be another scenario if Canon comes up with a better sensor and won't try to sqeeze some 16M pixels into it. Very unlikely :)
Posted by mako0201 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Might be what I'm looking for...
My old old old Canon S30 will save to RAW, but none of Canon's new point-and-shoots support it.

Decent lens + decent sensor + sensible megapixel + RAW = I'm sold!

By sensible I mean no budget 10MP jobs where you end up with large average-quality photos that takes a lot of processing time by the camera and memory on your card. Drop the MP and up the quality! Will end up with better photos and I'd be able to shoot more than one photo every 8 seconds ;)
Posted by TheRealJizzler (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
This isn't possible
Sure, we can add RAW support to more compact cameras, but if you want the image quality of an SLR, don't hold your breath. As a rule of thumb, the bigger and heavier the lens, the better your pictures. Lenses have been around for over a hundred years, and the digital age can't improve glass.

Sorry, but physics (diffraction, in this case) is going to win the battle.
Posted by allstar919 (47 comments )
Reply Link Flag
reporter responds: it could be done with film compact cameras
Certainly there are optics and other physics limits to cameras, and raw support isn't a miracle cure. It's not going to be possible to reproduce *everything* from an SLR in a compact camera with no compromises. But in the film days, camera makers somehow managed to make respectable compact models such as the Olympus XA that were pocketable yet offered high quality.

There is a new challenge with digital cameras, though: film responded to light no matter what direction it came from, but digital image sensors respond best when the light arrives perpendicularly. That imposes new optical constraints on lensmakers. On the flip side, film cameras had to direct light onto a 36x24mm patch of film, which requires larger lenses than for the much smaller sensors in compact cameras.
Posted by Shankland (1858 comments )
Link Flag
It is possible, and it coming
I have been advocating this for quite a while:
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.majid.info/mylos/stories/2004/02/13/megapixel.html" target="_newWindow">http://www.majid.info/mylos/stories/2004/02/13/megapixel.html</a>

Compact film cameras like the inexpensive Olympus Stylus Epic or the posh Contax T3 are very compact, while having top-notch optics that are equal to any film SLR lens.

Sigma has realized the potential of this niche and announced the DP1 (www.sigmadp1.com), a relatively compact camera with a 28mm f/4 (35mm equivalent) lens and an APS-C size sensor using Foveon X3 technology that offers true colors instead of Bayer interpolation. I would have preferred a more compact ans faster 35mm f/2.8 (50mm equivalent) lens like the one on the fixed-focal film compacts, but at least they are trying.

Unfortunately, the pricing on the DP1 still hasn't been announced and it seems to be late.

Don't expect Canon or Nikon to lead here. Most of the innovation in digicams has been coming from smaller players, e.g. Olympus' ultrasonic dust-removal mechanism or Minolta's in-camera anti-shake.
Posted by fazalmajid (162 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Unfortunately Fuji is moving in the wrong direction
I had a F30, I bought my brother a F41fd, the extra 2 megapixels led to a serious increase in noise levels. The new F47fd is probably even worse since it packs 9MP.

When I lost my F30, I replaced it with a F31fd rather than a F40fd, even though I despise the proprietary xD card format, but so I can keep acceptable low-light performance.
Posted by fazalmajid (162 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I agree
I have both an F30 and an F40 and the latter is a distincly inferior
camera. The megapixel race is nothing more than a marketing
gimmick. It's too bad because Fuji had real winners in the F10,
F11, F30 and F31 cameras, especially in the area of high ISO and
low noise (that's a tough combination in a high resolution small
sensor) Referring to my comment above so many people forget
that the whole point of photography is making images and not just
pressing more buttons or wearing the latest gadget around your
neck.
Posted by aaydogan (123 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Why Panasonic doesn't use better sensors?
I've got a Lumix DMC-LX1 and the noise suck.
I can only take pics at ISO 80 or 100, still has some noise.
I have to clean it up with noise ninja.
Posted by Redlabel66 (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Indeed, today's compacts are (and will be looked back upon as) dismal
Thank you for illuminating the sad state of affairs. My wife (a
pro) and I completely agree that the high-end compact market is
being under-served by manufacturers who make excuses in the
vain hope that what they're offering is what we want. Maybe
what "most" of the market wants, but not what we'd buy.

The few who seem to be on the way to "getting it" still aren't
there yet: The vapor-ware Sigma DP1 has a slow lens, the Ricoh
GX100 has slow RAW and a small sensor, and the lovely+pricy
Leica M8 is still a rangefinder - one step away from digital
perfection.

Mike Johnston's DMD (decisive moment digital) concept is the
closest I've seen to the type of compact camera that we'd have
no qualms about buying. There is a pent-up market for such a
thing. We've definitely limited our digital camera purchases for
want of the right features. $500 for something half-baked is
too much, while $1000 for the ideal compact camera is a steal.

The one modification to the DMD I'd offer is that a good, built-in
digital viewfinder would be preferable to a purely optical one. It
still must be a viewfinder, not just an external LCD (a camera is
first and foremost an extension of the eye, not of the hand).
Rangefinder games are no longer needed in order to get the
benefits associated with the word "rangefinder".
Posted by ldhummel (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Does Epson Still make digital SLR's?
I owned an Epson 750 Digital camera that was a good fit for my picture taking and it appeared to have a lot of the features I liked in my SLR.
Posted by navigator99 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Pixels vs Sensitivity
The sales people at the big box stores push camera sales based on megapixels. Customers hear how more pixels will give them a better picture, yada yada yada, and believe it. The sales people probably even believe it.

The public needs to be aware that 300 dpi will produce photos that will satisfy most people (not for pro work, of course). That means for a 4"x6" image, you only need 3 megapixels to produce a good print. The public needs to be more aware that sensitivity and noise is more important than pixel count.

Take the 300 dpi rule and apply it to the largest physical prints you plan to make. That should tell you how many megapixels you NEED. If that need approaches 12 megapixels, you need a medium-format camera with a much larger sensor. Prepare to spend some serious dough, though...and you better start making some money with your prints!
Posted by One-Eared Gundark (610 comments )
Reply Link Flag
No environmental seals
Only the most expensive pro digital SLRs have full environmental sealing: environmental seals around all controls, compartment doors, and body seams.

We're not talking waterproofing, we're talking basic seals.

Of course, if crud, dust and dirt gets into your camera and fouls it up, the sooner you'll need a new one.
Posted by Xenu7-214951314497503184010868 (153 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Good Point, but look for ultra-zoom compact cameras are available
Cnet did a review on SLR-Style Cameras.
Search on,"ultra-zoom compact cameras". Or go to this Cnet Link: <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.cnet.com.au/digitalcameras/cameras/0,239036184,339274819,00.htm" target="_newWindow">http://www.cnet.com.au/digitalcameras/cameras/0,239036184,339274819,00.htm</a>
Posted by AirJim (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Totally agree! I am not buying till they make it
Digital camera manufacturers are missing the boat here. Who would NOT want a compact camera that can do it all? The Canon S80 came close, and I was about to buy it when I found out the whole S-series was discontinued. Bad move for Canon.

I am waiting for a camera with the following features:
1. Compact body (that fits in a pocket)
2. 10 x zoom or better
3. Wide end of zoom starting at 28 mm.
4. Viewfinder available.
5. LCD screen larger than 2 inches.
6. Powerful flash built-in, with range to at least 20 feet. (7 meters)
7. Manual controls available (Shutter speed, aperture, focus, etc.)
8. Fast response (with no noticeable lag).
9. Underwater housing available.
10. HD High definition TV compatible.

Somebody said this is not possible. Sure it is possible! All of these features already exist on some camera. But, each such camera falls short on something else. There is no reason why all these features couldn't be brought together in a single compact camera.

The key thing is portability. We want a camera we can carry with us at all times, not hanging around our neck or waist, but unobtrusively slipped into a shirt or pants pocket.

The first manufacturer who comes up with all the above features gets my money!

Is there anyone reading this who wouldn't want to buy such a camera? There must be millions of us. This is NOT a nitche market! EVERYONE will want one.
Posted by Emilio2000 (14 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Who doesn't want the perfect product X?
"Is there anyone reading this who wouldn't want to buy such a camera? There must be millions of us. This is NOT a nitche market! EVERYONE will want one."

Is there anyone in the world who wouldn't want the perfect camera, or the perfect computer, or the perfect car? This is not a matter of whether someone would want it or not, of course people would. It's a matter of making it and you can say it's possible but if it hasn't been made yet it's for some reason for sure.
Posted by Fil0403 (1303 comments )
Link Flag
Another opening for Apple
I guess all the fanboys are gonna want Apple to come to the rescue
on this thing as well. I will say that I think they are a better fit in
the photography/camera market then in the mobile phone
business.
Posted by MRMOAV (29 comments )
Reply Link Flag
amen to that
i hate everything apple makes but an apple camera with less megapixels, larger image sensor, and larger lenses would be worth taking a look at.

prosumer like camera with little features in a shiny white body.. hmmm
Posted by rdgadz (53 comments )
Link Flag
I think that a good rangefinder camera with a DSLR sensoe around 10 to 12 Mg pix will be the ultimate cpmpact camera like the Epson RD-1 but with a price tag that all of us can efford !!!! the price tag that Epson and Leica wants is behond any reson and its obscure and just for millionaires.
I would put in the canon G10 an APS-C CCD and improve the noise and there you have the best P&#38;S camera.
I hope Canon will do it some day.
Posted by yankl1 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
 

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