As you wander about your local electronics store searching for that just-right gadget for the gear head on your list, you find yourself in the digital camera department.
Yes, your loved one may have a digital camera (I assume your intended gift recipient is a loved one – your randomly-picked secret Santa sure isn't worth a gift more than $100). But if your gift recipient is more serious about his or her photo taking than mere snaps, just gifting a better point-and-shoot may not suffice.
I suggest two options.
Option 1: Wait.
The annual Consumer Electronics Show is next month, at which dozens of new and advanced point-and-shoot cameras will be unveiled by Canon, Sony, Nikon, Fuji and others.
These new digital camera models, likely to hit the market in early spring if not sooner, are more likely to include Wi-Fi connectivity or run on the Android smartphone operating system, such as the Samsung Galaxy Camera, available from both AT&T ($500) and Verizon ($550) with a 3G/4G data plan for transmitting snaps you snap from anywhere you can get a cell signal, or the Nikon Coolpix S800c ($350), which transmits your photos only over Wi-Fi.
Android imbues a digital camera with all manner of simpler-to-apply picture-taking features such as scene modes, as well as smartphone-like app functions such as game-playing, email, GPS mapping and Web browsing – except on a camera.
But you have to give a gift now? Well, you can box up an "I.O.U. 1 new digital camera" or consider –
Consider as a gift a new type of digital camera that's not a simple point-and-shoot model, but not as complicated as a D-SLR (Digital-Single Lens Reflex), the big cameras with the interchangeable lenses used by professionals.
About the size of point-and-shoot cameras, these new in-between cameras allow you to swap lenses, just like D-SLRs. Photos from these new tweener digital cameras are superior in detail in a wider-variety of lighting environments to point-and-shoot, but are not as detailed as photos taken by D-SLRs, which use far larger imaging sensor chips.
But their small size and versatility make them the top compact digital camera value.
And these new not-point-and-shoot/not-D-SLR digital cameras are called…uh, well, they're so new, no one has quite figured out what to call them. Industry types refer to them variously as Compact System Cameras (CSC), Mirrorless System Cameras (MSC; D-SLRs contain a mirror), Compact Interchangeable Lens Camera (CILC), DILC (and Digital Interchangeable Lens Camera) – even EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens).
I like that. EVIL cameras.
Whatever you call them, what I'll call CSCs are not evil. In fact, CSCs are the perfect camera for someone who wants to take great photos but isn't technically proficient enough to warrant buying a full-blown D-SLR for and/or doesn't want to have to schlep around a heavy camera and heavier lenses.
For instance, the body – no lens – of Nikon's entry-level D-SLR, the D3100, weighs in at 16 ounces, while a 24-85mm zoom lens adds another 16.4 ounces. The middle of Nikon's three CSC models, the Nikon 1 J1 ($650) tips the scales at just 8.3 ounces sans lens and an even longer 30-100mm zoom lens another 6.2 ounces.
In other words, a small CSC with a zoom lens weighs far less than just the lens for a full-sized DSL-R. That'll put a lot less pressure on your muscles when an CSC is draped around your neck.
While smaller and lighter, however, CSCs aren't cheaper, usually between $500-$900, around the same price as low-end D-SLRs.
The littlest D-SLR
Since nothing in technology is easy, there are different types of CSCs.
First came a format called Four Thirds, which standardized interchangeable lens cameras around a third smaller than those of traditional full-size D-SLR lenses – but still contained mirrors.
Then, in late 2008, Four Thirds was succeeded by Micro Four Thirds, developed by Olympus and Panasonic, which eliminated the mirror. Micro Four Thirds digital cameras such as the Panasonic Lumix G-series cameras and the Olympus PEN models enable more manual control than point-and-shoot models, but not as much control as full-size D-SLRs.
Micro Four Thirds lens also are standardized and so are interchangeable between manufacturers, in this case Panasonic and Olympus. Other CSC lenses are brand-specific – Sony's CSC cameras use only Sony's CSC lenses, Samsung's CSC cameras use only Samsung's CSC lenses, etc.
Some popularly-priced (i.e. less than $800) CSC models include:
- Panasonic's Micro Four-Thirds format Lumix DMC-GF5X ($750, which includes a 14-42mm premium power zoom lens)
- Olympus' E-PM2 (on sale for $500, body only – no included lens) and the E-PL5 (on sale for $600, body only – no included lens), both Micro Four Thirds models.
- the Sony's Alpha NEX series, including the NEX-5N (now on sale for $700, which includes an 18-55mm zoom lens), which my compatriot Barb Gonzalez raved about a month ago
- Canon's first CSC model, the EOS M EF-M ($800, including a 22mm lens)
- Nikon's 1 series, including the V1 ($900), J1 ($650) and J2 ($550), each bundled with at least once lens
- Samsung's NX compact system series, which I discuss here, include the especially compact NX1000 ($800, bundled with a 20-50mm lens)
While they snap awesome photos and are stacked with impressive technical specifications (as well as full HD video recording), we know these CSCs are not professional cameras. For one thing, CSCs often are available in multiple colors such as white and red. No self-respecting professional paparazzi would be caught dead with a pastel-colored camera.
If this brief CSC overview has piqued your interest, the folks at DPReview.com have posted a detailed – if overly-technical (it is a photo review site) primer on digital compact system cameras.