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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Hi-Tech Studio: Fixed-Lens, Large-Sensor Compacts

The professional backup camera with extremely fast apertures and very high image quality

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Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1

The camera market has become increasingly confused and splintered. The once-clear lines between DSLRs, advanced compacts and consumer-level point-and-shoots have blurred, and the new class of interchangeable-lens mirrorless cameras has helped professionals reimagine what's possible with small cameras. Professionally oriented DSLRs, long prized for their large, high-quality, high-resolution image sensors, aren't always the most convenient cameras to use. New classes of cameras are giving professional photographers intriguing options.

At this year's CES and PMA shows, for instance, a slew of new compact cameras were on display with a variety of exciting new features. Several models incorporate the Android operating system and wireless abilities, for example, and CES also saw several new compacts that bridge the advantages of a smaller camera system with the more robust features of DSLRs, including much larger sensors that can far outdo the subpar imaging potential of smartphones, as well as expanded ISO ranges and newer sensor technologies like backside illumination that have been added to compete with the lackluster low-light abilities of smartphones.

These aren't just point-and-shoots, however. With manual controls, RAW image capture, large sensors and fast apertures thanks to dedicated lenses, these cameras are useful as fully featured companions to your professional interchangeable-lens system. The discrete bodies and compact lenses are small enough for getting close to the action without screaming "photographer" to subjects and surroundings, and much like the celebrated low-profile shooting abilities of 35mm Leica rangefinders, these cameras are also perfect for travel, street work and photojournalism. In other words, a little healthy competition is a good thing, and now we're starting to see compact camera manufacturers fighting back as Apple and other phone makers are making a play for the instant upload market. The clear winner? Those looking for a compact system.

Canon PowerShot G1 X
The Canon PowerShot G1 X compact camera's sensor is so large that it's 16% bigger than the Micro Four Thirds sensor size found in Olympus and Panasonic DSLRs. The 14.3-megapixel, 1.5-inch CMOS sensor offers 4352x3264 effective resolution alongside a fixed 15.1-60.4mm 4x zoom lens, with a 35mm equivalent range of 28-112mm in field of view. The variable ƒ/2.8-5.8 aperture isn't quite as bright as other cameras in this class. Although the camera was introduced in January 2012, it has a healthy set of standard manual and automatic features like 14-bit RAW capture, several image stabilization modes, an articulating 3.0-inch, Vari-angle LCD screen with 922K-dot resolution, an optical viewfinder, a 4.5 fps continuous burst rate at up to six full-resolution shots and an ISO range of 100-12,800. It's compatible with Canon Speedlite flashes, and video is available in 1080p at 24 fps and 720p at 30 fps. List Price: $699.

Fujifilm FinePix X100S
Addressing concerns in the popular, yet buggy X100, Fujifilm's retro-looking FinePix X100S updates the fixed-lens compact with a new X-Trans CMOS II APS-C-sized, 16.3-megapixel sensor alongside much faster Intelligent Hybrid AF that combines both phase and contrast autofocus detection. The X100S sports the EXR Processor II, which provides startup at only half a second and full-res bursting at 6 fps for up to 31 frames, as well as shutter lag of only 0.01 seconds (in a compact!), autofocus within 0.08 seconds and 14-bit RAW capture. The X100S gives a shout-out to the halcyon rangefinder days with a unique Digital Split Image feature that provides advanced focusing through the manual overlay and alignment of two images. With a minimum focusing distance of only 3.9 inches, the 23mm lens with nine-blade ƒ/2.0 diaphragm is equivalent to a 35mm perspective, and it includes a built-in neutral-density filter that can restrict light by three stops. Expandable ISO is available from 100-25,600, plus 1080p video capture with manual control of focus in 30/60 fps frame rates. List Price: $1,299.


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