Focusing Beyond the Smartphone

Next-Generation Digital Cameras

Internet-Access Cameras • Compact-System Cameras • Point-and-Shoots • Digital SLRs • Action Camcorders

To hold off competition from increasingly sophisticated smartphones, manufacturers launched point-and-shoot digital cameras that are better than ever before and wearable camcorders that are designed to put you in the middle of the action.

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When President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, stepped on stage for their first dance to Jennifer Hudson’s sultry strains of “Let’s Stay Together” at the inaugural ball in January 2013, TV cameras showed attendees holding devices in upraised hands to capture the historic moment.

Considering the large size of the screens that were on those devices, their backlit outlines and the vertical orientation in which the devices were held, it was clear that most of these memory-capturers weren’t digital cameras or camcorders.

They were smartphones.

This anecdote perfectly illustrates the modern conundrum when it comes to digital cameras and camcorders. Smartphones now draw critical praise for their image-capturing and video-recording capabilities. Plus, thanks to speedy wireless networks, you immediately can share your smartphone images and video on social-networking sites, upload them to image-sharing sites, or text or email them. (Of course, a smartphone also has other mobile-application-powered uses that cameras or camcorders typically don’t have.)

So, why should you buy and carry around two devices when one—one that you likely already own—will do?

Simply, situations still exist in which a smartphone isn’t up to the task, such as when any type of zoom is necessary. At press time, no smartphone has optical-zoom capability. Instead, all have only lower resolution digital zoom.

Most smartphones also are unable to cope with low-light shooting conditions, even when you use a flash, and their automatic-focus mechanisms can get confused when too many subjects are in the frame.

Finally, no matter how technically sophisticated that a smartphone camera’s often-plastic pinhole lens gets—and today’s miniature multielement lenses are getting darned sophisticated—it still can’t match the results that are produced by the glass optics that are found on even the lowest priced point-and-shoot camera.

Folks, it’s still true, even for inaugural-ball attendees: You shouldn’t risk the memories of a once-in-a-lifetime experience, such as a wedding or an exotic vacation, to the vagaries of a multipurpose device.

GOING SEMIPRO. To recapture the attention of consumers, eight camera-makers now produce so-called compact-system cameras (CSCs). These cameras also are known as compact interchangeable-lens cameras, digital interchangeable-lens cameras, mirrorless-system cameras or even electronic viewfinder interchangeable-lens cameras. Essentially, these cameras are near-professional-strength digital single-lens reflex (D-SLR) cameras that are shrunk to point-and-shoot size but include interchangeable lenses. At press time, we found at least 40 CSCs on the market, which is about five times as many as existed at this time in 2012.

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The first CSCs, which were introduced by Olympus and Panasonic, were cameras that conformed to the Micro Four Thirds standard, which is a format that allows lenses from different manufacturers to be used on the camera’s body. However, since 2011, other manufacturers have introduced CSCs that are proprietary systems. That means that you have to buy lenses from the same manufacturer, just like you do with a D-SLR.

When it comes to cameras, Olympus and Panasonic continue to be the primary proponents of the Micro Four Thirds standard. Adding to the Micro Four Thirds selection in 2013, at press time, are two models by Polaroid and a Kodak-branded model that’s coming in fall 2013 from JK Imaging, which is the Chinese company that licenses the famous brand name for its cameras.

A CSC’s appeal lies in its size and weight, or lack thereof. Proprietary CSCs that are from Fuji, Nikon, Polaroid, Samsung and Sony tend to be just a bit larger than are point-and-shoot models. Also, for example, the body of the Nikon 1 J1 CSC tips the scales at 8.3 ounces, and its included 10–30- mm zoom lens adds another 4.1 ounces. That’s less than the weight of Nikon’s entry-level D-SLR, the D3100, which weighs 16 ounces. This is a typical CSC-to-D-SLR weight differential, according to our research. (Micro Four Thirds models tend to be slightly larger and heavier than are proprietary CSCs.)

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