The use of a large sensor in compact digicams is the long awaited next step in the evolution of digital cameras and we are starting to see this happening. Interestingly — but not surprisingly — this push is being championed by companies who are relatively new players in the camera business.
Of the Big 5 manufacturers of 35mm film cameras (Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Pentax and Minolta), two have changed owners (Minolta merged with Konica, resulting in a new brand, Konica Minolta, which is itself now under the Sony brand; Pentax was sold to HOYA).
As digital cameras started becoming more electronic products than optical products, it was therefore not surprising that the major electronics companies jumped into the fray and started their own digital camera divisions.
The Big 5 digital camera players (as far as DSLRs are concerned) are now: Nikon, Canon, Panasonic, Olympus and Sony. Other players include: Fujifilm (a major player in compact digicams but not so far in the DSLR / DIL arena), Pentax (though there is some real concern about HOYA’s commitment to its long term survival), Leica (too restricted and too expensive models that only appeal to a few), Ricoh (going the wrong way with Interchangeable Units concept), Kodak (not a player in the DSLR / DIL arena) and Casio (not a player in the DSLR / DIL arena).
The use of a large sensor in compact digicams was made popular by Panasonic and Olympus with their FourThirds image sensor and DIL (which stands for Digital Interchangeable Lens) cameras: Panasonic G1, GH1, GF1, G10, G2 and Olympus E-P1, E-P2, E-PL1. A DIL camera is a DSLR that has had its mirror, prism and optical viewfinder replaced by a high resolution screen display and electronic viewfinder. Just like a DSLR, it accepts interchangeable lenses.
Before that, only DSLRs could be said to use a large image sensor. While other camera manufacturers have used a large image sensor in their compact digicams before Panasonic and Olympus did, their cameras have not met with wide acceptance for various image quality and performance reasons. It is not enough to put a large sensor in your camera and claim to be the first to do so. You have to put it all together in a camera offering that consumers find appealing, affordable and easy to use. So far, only Panasonic and Olympus have achieved this feat and that with their very first generation DIL cameras.
Not far behind are Samsung (which just introduced its large sensor DIL, the NX10) and Sony (which has shown off its Compact Alpha models). Notice that Nikon, Canon and Pentax have not irrevocably indicated that they will compete in this category, though we have no doubt that Nikon and Canon R&D in this new category must be progressing feverishly behind closed doors. Whether these cameras will see the light as actual products remain to be seen. Nikon and Canon execs probably have a concern that this new DIL category will cannibalize sales in their entry-level DSLRs. Remind anyone of the days when film companies resisted the digital revolution?
The DIL cameras are a natural evolution for DSLRs. The technological advancement in electronic components used in digital cameras (high resolution display screens and fast Contrast-Detect Autofocus) now warrant getting rid of the bulky and loud mirror mechanism, heavy prism and viewfinder. If they have not done so already, the high resolution display screen and EVF will soon be superior in clarity and brightness than their optical counterparts. More interestingly, we can now overlay all kind of useful information on the digital display screens that we could not easily and cost-effectively do before using an optical viewing system.
Getting rid of the mirror mechanism also results in a very fortunate development: smaller and lighter mirrorless DSLRs. The Panasonic, Olympus, Samsung and soon Sony DIL cameras will provide strong competition to traditional entry-level mirrored DSLRs. We can expect that improvements will occur year after year until they can take on the advanced and then pro level DSLRs. Currently Contrast-Detect AF when tracking a subject does not quite totally match the lighting-fast Phase-detect AF used in DSLRs. [Not all Phase-detect AF are created equal. The more advanced DSLR models usually feature lighting-fast Phase-detect AF.] Anyone who has experienced the inexorable and rapid progress of electronics in computers will harbor no doubt that the DIL cameras are the future of DSLRs.
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