Is the “hybrid compact” for you?

Techville


Published: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 3:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 3:45 p.m.

It’s no coincidence that during a time when more photographs are being snapped than ever, the options for purchasing cameras are more confusing than ever.

With the virtual death of brick-and-mortar camera retailers, it’s more difficult to get your hands on competing devices and pick the brain of a qualified salesperson. It was much easier a few years ago when the option was as simple as dummy-proof point-and-shoots vs. photo-geek DSLR cameras. Now there are lots of gray areas to consider.

As a lifelong professional, I am actually eager to pay thousands of dollars for even small technological advantages. Yet when asked for advice on what the average shutterbug should buy, I generally suggest simply becoming adept with your smartphone’s camera, because the camera you have in your pocket always beats the one you don’t have. Plus, the cameras on today’s smartphones are pretty solid compared to the entry-level point-and-shoot models.

Still, there’s a group of more serious shooters who value the power of the photograph over the more generic “pics” that come from an iDevice. Manufacturers also recognize this valuable market and have created what I would call “hybrid compacts”— small enough to be point-and- shoots, yet armed with professional-grade glass and sensors to ensure images that resemble those from their much bigger DSLR brothers. They also come with price tags that reflect those features.

Sony RX100 ($649) — The New York Times tech guru David Pogue calls the Sony RX100 “the best pocket camera ever made,” which adds real gravitas to this ultra-thin 20MP device. On paper it has everything you could ask for: Carl Zeiss lens with a low-light dominating 1.8 aperture. A large one-inch sensor that will render dreamy colors, textures and backgrounds. On the con side, it has that familiar shutter delay when you press the button, though the majority of cameras do. Still, it has a crystalclear screen and a focus system designed to lock onto your subject and not the telephone pole behind his or her head. When activated, a flash rises peculiarly from the top of the camera in order to prevent that devilish red eye. This is, indeed, a powerfully packed device whose all-star features are so well concealed that it might be dismissed as just another small camera.

Canon GX1 ($699) — While it might seem more draconian in style and much larger than the aforementioned Sony, Canon used that space to pack the one thing that would make it more DSLR-like: a sensor that is nearly 50 percent larger than the Sony’s. It also sports a hot-shoe mount on the top capable of holding a larger external flash. It’s 14.3 megapixels are rather paltry by today’s standards, although I would not consider pixels to be the most important factor. Canon is a tried-and-true camera maker whose experience trumps other, more rounded tech companies, like Sony. Accolades aside, this is not a pocket device, and that is a bad thing in the world of powerful smartphones. If you don’t carry it with you, it will render pretty boring photos just sitting on your desk. It’s difficult to compare to a device like Sony’s RX100, which is less expensive, has far more modern features and is about a third the size.

Panasonic Lumix LX7 ($449) — This top-shelf shooter is a beautiful camera in the mold of the Sony RX100, but comes with something many professionals eagerly covet: a 1.4-aperture Leica lens. You had me at hello. It also has something that, for many enthusiasts, would cause early dismissal: a 10-megapixel sensor. For me, it’s a non-factor, because I rarely make a print large enough to see the resolution limits. The smaller size also allows the processing power to deliver 11 frames per second, which means a great deal to me. The camera has a variable sensor whose size allows it to fit any aspect ratio, or dimension, such as widescreen. The sensor on the Lumix is smaller than the Sony or Canon, although the quality of its premium lens does compensate for some of that. In size, the camera falls between the other two. Its market may be best geared toward professionals who may better appreciate its quirks and qualities, and who are looking for a more portable camera.

These are three great cameras aimed at different members of the same high-scale market. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention something coming down the pike that might cause you to wait: built-in WI-FI and the ability to send images from the camera straight to social media sites. Similar technology is now available in lesser models of the same point-and-shoots, some even using the Android operating system that allows in-camera editing apps. If such technology interests you, do your homework and then decide how long you would be willing to wait for it to come to this class of camera.

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