April 17, 2024

State of the Art: Small Cameras, Big Sensors

If you want something more challenging, balance the national budget.

But if you really want a head-pounder, try making a tiny camera with a big sensor.

The problem is physics. A big sensor records superior light, color and detail. But to flood its surface with light, the lens has to be big and be a certain distance away.

That’s why, for years, there were two kinds of cameras: pocket models, with tiny sensors that produce blurry or grainy photos in low light and S.L.R. cameras, those big-sensor, big-body, heavy black beasts used by professionals.

In the last couple of years, though, things have changed. There’s a new class of camera whose size (both body and sensor) falls in between those two time-honored extremes. They represent a rethinking of every single design element, a jettisoning of every nonessential component, in pursuit of a tiny, big-sensor camera. Because that, after all, is what the world really wants.

Two of the smallest cameras yet have just arrived: the Panasonic Lumix GF2 ($600 with 3X zoom lens) and Olympus E-PL2 ($520 with 3X lens). They’re both 12-megapixel Micro Four-Thirds cameras, a format dreamed up by Panasonic and Olympus about three years ago. All of these cameras have the same-size sensor — not as big as an S.L.R.’s, but much bigger than a compact camera’s — and accommodate the same family of lenses, now numbering about 20.

How small are they? Well, the Panasonic’s body is 4.4 by 2.7 by 1.3 inches. That’s darned small. You’ve eaten brownies bigger than this camera.

Panasonic says it’s the smallest interchangeable-lens camera in the world — with a flash. (Clearly, that’s a veiled reference to the even more ridiculously small Sony NEX5, which lacks a built-in flash.) The Olympus is only a fraction porkier.

Now, these cameras aren’t so small that you can carry them dangling from your wrist or a neck strap; you’d break bones that way. But the body certainly fits in a coat pocket or, with some discomfort, a pants pocket. It will fit even with the lens on, provided that the lens is a “pancake” (nonzooming) starter lens like the 14 millimeter one that comes with one of the Panasonic kits (it’s equivalent of a 28 millimeter traditional camera lens).

In the end, you can’t really cheat physics. Getting cameras this small means sacrifices. For example, both of these cameras have a pop-up flash — and it pops way up high, a trick that minimizes red eye in your subjects — but it’s weak, with only about a six-foot range.

You have full manual controls, of course, since these cameras are meant to be mini-S.L.R.’s. But there’s not nearly as much room on these cameras as on an S.L.R., so the buttons are small, cramped and have multiple functions.

Panasonic’s solution: a touch screen. That might seem like a great idea, because it gives the designers acres more real estate for displaying controls. It also means that you can touch the spot in the scene where you want the camera to focus — a neat trick — and pan around a zoomed-in photo by dragging your finger.

The software is designed with fingertip-size, translucent buttons on the screen — but unfortunately, they clutter the image and sometimes sit right where you want to tap to focus. You can customize the icons, specifying which ones appear and in what order. But many tasks still take too many steps. And, bizarrely, the touch-screen world ends when you enter the main menu; suddenly you have to use the up/down arrow buttons to navigate.

The Olympus camera uses a more traditional four-way controller, surrounded by a turning ring. It’s all tiny, though, and it’s easy to click buttons accidentally when you’re turning the ring.

Another sacrifice: there’s not much room in that tiny body for a big battery. You’ll get about 300 shots on a charge from these cameras, which is at the low, low end.

The bigger loss is the optical viewfinder. Both cameras have bright, beautiful three-inch screens that do O.K. in sunlight. But they’re nowhere near as good as the eyepiece of a regular S.L.R., especially in low light. The difference in clarity and feeling is especially evident when you compare one of these Micro Four-Thirds cameras with an S.L.R. side-by-side.

E-mail: pogue@nytimes.com

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=db493d8a5f389b798d1c4cdfa0236c41

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