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Compact System Cameras vs DSLRs - can they co-exist?

Fifteen years ago, just before the rise of digital cameras, the amateur photography enthusiast looking for a decent camera had three choices. If they were looking for the best image quality, they would choose a medium-format SLR camera such as a Bronica SQ or Mamiya 645. Alternatively, if they were looking for versatility and portability, they'd choose a 35mm SLR such as a Nikon F5, Canon EOS 50 or Olympus OM-4. If they were looking for a combination of image quality and portability, but didn't mind sacrificing some versatility, and assuming they could afford it, they might opt for a 35mm rangefinder system, such as the beautiful but astonishingly expensive Leica M6. There were a few other choices, but essentially this three-tier hierarchy had been the accepted order of things since the 1960s.

Introduced in 2003, the Canon EOS 300D, also known as the Digital Rebel, was the first digital SLR to cost less that £1,000.

This long-established arrangement finally changed with the introduction of affordable digital SLRs, specifically the Canon EOS 300D (Digital Rebel) in 2003 and the Nikon D70 in 2004. Within a couple of years, digital SLRs with APS-C sensors had largely taken over from all types of film camera for enthusiast and hobby photography, and full-frame DSLR cameras such as the Canon EOS-1Ds and Nikon D3 rapidly took over the professional field as well. This left film photography to a dwindling handful of nostalgic rangefinder enthusiasts and an unfortunately growing gaggle of 'ironic' hipsters.

Another three-tier hierarchy quickly became established, with all the major camera brands fielding entry-level, mid-range and professional-grade digital SLRs in distinct price and performance bands, and again this situation persisted for a few years. However, the dominance of digital SLRs was about to be challenged.

The Nikon D70, launched in 2004, was one of the first affordable digital SLRs.

Digital SLRs are designed around the same optical system as film SLRs, with a pivoting reflex mirror that allows the camera's viewfinder to show the view through the lens. Many DSLRs also have the same lens mounts as their film-based precursors, and can use the same lenses. As a result, most digital SLRs are just as heavy and bulky as film SLRs, particularly the professional full-frame models. However, the universal trend of electronic gadgets is to become smaller over time, and many people came to feel that digital technology should be able to produce a smaller, lighter high-quality camera.

The complicated optics of a digital SLR, with its reflex mirror and optical viewfinder, make the camera bulky and heavy.

In 2008, Panasonic launched the Lumix G1, the first model of the G-Micro system and the herald of an entirely new type of digital camera. By replacing the DSLR's bulky optical viewfinder and reflex mirror with an electronic viewfinder, and by using the smaller Four-Thirds sensor and lens mount format, Panasonic was able to make a camera that offered the versatility, image quality and interchangeable lenses of a digital SLR, but in a much smaller and lighter package. It sold like hot cakes, and soon the G1 was joined by other models in the range, as well as a growing collection of lenses and other accessories. The new camera type needed a name, and the photographic press (myself included) quickly settled on the appellation "Compact System Camera", or CSC.

Panasonic's Lumix G1 kicked-off the 'Compact System Camera' format.

Other manufacturers were quick to see the potential of this new format, and competitors soon began to appear. Over the past four years Olympus, Samsung, Sony, Ricoh, Fujifilm, Pentax and Nikon have all launched compact system cameras of their own, varying the formula with different body layouts and sensor sizes. Canon, the first to bring us the affordable digital SLR, is surprisingly late to the party, but is developing its own CSC to be launched later this year. When they do, all of the brands making DSLRs will also be making compact system cameras.

So where does that leave digital SLR cameras? Have they now been supplanted by CSCs in the same way that they replaced film SLRs? Mirrorless compact system cameras have proved to be enormously popular and have started to form their own hierarchy within the type, with entry-level, mid-range and semi-pro models appearing in most brand ranges. They seem to be well poised to take over the enthusiast photography market completely, but will they?

The interior layout of a compact system camera is much simpler than that of a DSLR, resulting in lower weight and less bulk.

Personally, I don't think so, and I'll explain why. The current situation in the digital camera market closely mirrors that of the film camera market of fifteen years ago. There are once again three distinct types of camera, all based on the same basic technology, but offering three different levels of capability and performance. For those wanting the best image quality, in place of the old medium-format cameras we have full-frame digital SLRs such as the Canon EOS 5D MkIII and Nikon D800, and even the awesome Pentax 645D digital medium format camera, which is just about within reach of the more affluent amateur.

The Canon EOS-1 Ds full-frame digital SLR offers the ultimate in performance and picture quality, but it is big and very heavy.

For those wanting a more portable package but still requiring exceptional image quality and versatility there are the conventional APS-C digital SLRs, which I suspect will become more adapted to the needs of the high-end user. I think that compact system cameras will take on the role of rangefinder cameras, offering similar image quality with greater portability, but sacrificing some performance and versatility, although most CSCs are priced at roughly the same level as DSLRs. All three types of camera offer different things to different people, and I believe that there is room and need for all three in the camera market.

Sony's NEX system uses an APS-C sensor and can accept Alpha system and even old Minolta lenses via an adapter.

There's another very good reason why I don't believe CSCs will replace digital SLRs any time soon, and it's the same reason why DSLRs came to look like film SLRs in the first place - SLRs, both film and digital, are 'system cameras' too. Most SLR users don't just own a camera, they also own a collection of lenses, flashguns and other accessories that make up the rest of the system. One or two manufacturers have made an effort to provide cross-system compatibility; Pentax's K-01 uses the company's venerable K mount, and Sony's NEX system can accept older Alpha and even Minolta lenses via an adapter, but for the most part CSCs and DSLRs are not interchangeable. Established DSLR users are unlikely to abandon their expensive systems just for the marginal benefit of a slightly lighter camera, especially if there's no perceived benefit in versatility or picture quality.

The Pentax Q system is currently the smallest CSC on the market, and is not much bigger than a compact camera.

That's not to say that there won't be changes in the DSLR market. I think that we're likely to see more innovation and 'hybridisation' as features and benefits from mirrorless cameras filter into the DSLR field. Indeed, this is already happening to some extent; Sony's innovative SLT cameras save on weight and complexity by replacing the moving reflex mirror with a semi-transparent fixed mirror. The CSC market is showing signs of adaptation too, with entry-level models more closely resembling compact cameras with simplified controls and automatic features.

The digital camera market over the next few years will come to more closely resemble the film camera market of the late 1990s, and I believe this is a good thing; as any evolutionary biologist will tell you, diversity is good for the species as a whole. With a wider range of camera types and formats available there will be more choice for the discerning photographer, more innovation from the manufacturers, and the development of ever better cameras. I for one am certainly looking forward to it.