A compact death

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In the last few years, our ‘serious’ compact (larger than tiny sensor) options have dwindled to just a small handful: the Ricoh GR, Canon GX, Panasonic TZ and LX, and the Sony RX100. I don’t know if the RX0 qualifies, but I suppose since it has a 1″ sensor – and anything else is thin on the ground. But that’s really about it – what used to be an abundance has now turned into a paucity. Even at the low end, other than all-weather mild-submersible things – it’s been quiet. I don’t think it’s entirely the fault of smartphones, either – because there are some capabilities unique to larger sensor compacts that mean there’s probably an opportunity here to a camera brand willing to take a small risk*. Here’s my thinking…

*That unfortunately probably means nobody, in the current market.

Phones are convenient: there’s no question carrying and maintaining (charging, downloading, updating etc.) one device beats two. There is more computing power available, but computing power only takes you so far – you can’t for instance make a decent quality 10deg field of view from a 70deg one, or properly replicate depth of field rolloff. And at the very casual end of the market, for users who see photography at best as a record of events or places – yes, smartphones have killed compacts. Moreso when you consider the intangible kudos that might be awarded thanks to social media, giving such people an incentive to make even more disposable images. Not to be snobbish, but I don’t think this is a great loss to anybody – other than the sheer volume of forgettable fodder that’s now flooded all of our feeds.

The enthusiast compact/bridge camera of the early 2000s has given way to pretty much whatever takes your fancy – prices have dropped to the point that FF is now cheaper than those things were, both in absolute dollar terms as well as inflation-adjusted. There is clearly no market here for those who had the ability to use something better, but perhaps not the means to procure it. This chunk of users has simply migrated upwards, and subsequently continued upwards (or dropped out entirely, depending on personal interest). We also don’t have a loss here so much as an increase in market size.

But at the same time, as the market of ‘serious’ photographers grew – and the bag weight along with it – the demand for the compact grew. I think of this as analogous to the final days of the film era – the late 90s/early 2000s – in which we had a huge number of choices for interesting compacts, in a spread of capabilities and form factors. Image quality could be the same as a larger camera of the same format (think Contax T3 or Ricoh GR1v vs 35mm SLR) and the mechanics weren’t really that expensive to develop compared to new and large sensors and supporting electronics. Oddly, despite the stiffer hurdles – we had a lot more choice back in the earlier days of digital than we do now. Technology has passed through that phase to the point where we are seeing both very capable sensors and image processing chips available off the shelf or already in manufacturer inventory – how else would Nikon be able to produce D3500 bodies at $280 retail, with the requisite margins etc. and still be profitable? I’d argue it’s easier than ever to make that digital XA, but we haven’t seen it yet.

Instead what we have is a bunch of small, capable mirrorless cameras that can arguably do the same job when fitted with the right lens – think a GX85 with a pancake prime, or something similar. And ironically, I think the problem lies in versatility: these cameras were designed to do too much; to be complete systems within a certain price point; to convince buyers with limited budgets that this is all the camera they need, because it slices, dices and shreds, too. The upshot? They do nothing at all particularly well; everything is a poor compromise. There are too many controls to be simple; there are too few controls to be fluid and versatile; they’re too small to be ergonomic with a full range of lenses – or too large to be pocketable.

Even the remaining few compacts we listed at the very beginning of the article are compromised in this way: they all try to do too much. The RX100, for instance, has a pop up EVF that seems like a great idea on paper, but is fiddly as hell and very small – too small to adequately shade stray light – in practice. The latest GR tried to be simpler by reducing physical control points in favour of a touch screen, but landed up slightly short and too fiddly. The Canons are not bad, but lack EVFs and suffer the same over complex menu deficiencies as the others. The Hasselblad CFV/907X combination is just that, but for medium format (it should come as no surprise as this was one of my pet projects during my time as chief of strategy – alas, it isn’t pocketable and can never be due to the sensor size). Leica actually does the control scheme best with the Q: full auto and full manual (in varying degrees of automation) are just a turn of a dial away, and you don’t really need to dig into the menus – but even they seem to have abandoned the X series in favour of the ho-hum CL, instead of making it a mini-Q.

It’s such a simple control scheme that I have to wonder why nobody else uses it (it isn’t patented) – Auto and then aperture values on the lens, along with a focusing ring; Auto and various shutter speeds on a top plate ring, and another dial for exposure compensation or ISO. This way, you can be fully automatic – or be fully manual with exposure compensation and auto ISO, and switch between them quickly on the fly. We don’t need a pet eye detection mode, 300-point AF tracking or fighter-jet heads-up-display overlays. Too much customisation is bad: it means you’re going to forget how the damn thing was set, and it means more firmware to develop bugs. We do need a finder of some kind – be it an optical tunnel with a centre spot that lights up on AF lock, or a simple EVF where information doesn’t overlay the scene – for use in bright light or for stability. A tilting screen is nice to have, but not critical. Make it robust, tactile, and offer two versions: one with a fast prime, and one with a longer zoom for a choice of perspectives. Nikon could easily make a smaller, fixed-lens mirrorless version of the D3500 for less cost than the donor camera – for starters, throw out the entire mirror mechanism and optics, and replace the complex bladed shutter with a simple in-lens leaf. They started this with the A, and then for some reason – abandoned not just this but the trilogy of really interesting cameras that was supposed to follow on.

Sadly, I’d be very surprised if we saw hardware like this in the near future, if at all. For one, the processing electronics and sensors are not available to small/new outfits – I tried. For two, existing camera companies are far too shortsighted to try something different, or if they do, it has to have sell-through: bodies at a loss or break even, accessories at a profit. This is a fundamentally unsustainable way of doing business since the market is always going to expect the primary product to be positioned as a loss leader, leaving no margin for R&D or risks. I blame this on the usual retailer discounting and race to the bottom: wits no volume unit cost is high; with high costs there’s no demand volume. On top of that, marketing says they need bragging rights to sell: why does that have to automatically mean more? Look at other industries: good product design always has less superficial frippery, yet works the same or better thanks to focus. It doesn’t have to be cheaper, either – Porsche takes things away from its cars and people queue up to pay more. For tech, it’s technically easier to do and ergonomically results in a better product since there’s more space for controls over the same physical size. I just hope one of the brands realises all of this while there still are people to buy such a camera…MT

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Comments

  1. Fred Tuman says:

    I’m an old studio photographer going way back. My lights are 40 yrs old…My digital cameras average about 10.(Sony A900’s, Sony A 77 11’s for teather and Leica M8’s) Everyday my work can be seen in the retail sector both in print and e-commerce. When not on assignment, I photograph the world around me. It’s not the tools you use, but how you apply them and sell them to your potential market. A while ago I picked up a Olympus Om5 Mk2…Too many buttons. I remember your Leica M8 days when you first started. Have you ever wondered if you stuck with that for your personal photography where would you be in your visual history. Have we gone full circle.

    • I wish modern lights would work for 40 years! Reality is sometimes we have to buy new gear because the old stuff just dies; especially if used heavily/commercially. I’ve lost count of how many SB900s I’ve gone through over the years; I never use more than four or five at a time, but the total must be well into the 30-40 range by now.

      “I remember your Leica M8 days when you first started. Have you ever wondered if you stuck with that for your personal photography where would you be in your visual history. Have we gone full circle.”
      Assuming it hadn’t succumbed to sensor corrosion or any one of Leica’s electronic gremlins, the honest answer is – limited. Lack of low light ability and dynamic range limitations mean cinematic would never have happened. I couldn’t have shot watches professionally, personally, or otherwise. I’d probably be doing a lot more of the documentary, but…the limitations were being felt even in 2010, when I eventually sold it. The iPhone 11 Pro I just picked up seems to be more capable across the board, which is scary…

      • Fred Tuman says:

        I’am content…even overjoyed that Iso 800 and a couple of sharp F2 lenses are available to me. This sounds Prehistoric, but it suits my style just fine. Now if onIy I can get my subjects face out of their smart phones and give me that intense emotional stare that creates tension and drama…I’ll be happy.

    • Fred, you don’t have to use all the buttons. Like the Austrian king said to Mozart when he didn’t like his latest musical piece. ” Too many notes.”

  2. “We don’t need a pet eye detection mode, 300-point AF tracking or fighter-jet heads-up-display overlays.”

    I laughed at the last part of this sentence.

    A while ago I picked up the a6400 just to see what all the buzz was about – in particular, to see if the Real-Time-Tracking AF was as magical as claimed. Because my eyesight is not razor-sharp anymore, I’m big on AF systems that I can generally trust. Long story short – the Sony’s AF was incredibly sticky and generally accurate. But that interface. Constantly screaming at you exactly what it’s doing at that moment in gaudily colored boxes that flash and jerk as they move. If the eye/face AF is active, it’s really active. If you’re focusing on something inanimate in the foreground and a face appears in the background, it will let you know that there’s a face there with another colored box – at least it’s in a shade of grey so as to not distract too much. But if you’re actually focusing on an eye? BAM. a tiny box appears right around the pupil and completely obliterates the subject’s expressions. Great for focus, though.

    I realized how much I appreciate my Nikon DSLR’s dynamic-AF. It’s quiet. Just a subtle dark box of roughly the right size positioned where you want it in the frame, a targeting reticle that lets you pan with the subject quickly and effectively. In the background, there’s a bunch of AF points surrounding the target helping keep focus there – but they just do their business. No screaming for attention.

    Then I tried out a Z 50 to see if all this goodness had found its way to Nikon’s mirrorless cameras. Well, sorta. But the tracking…hoo boy. Even Nikon has drunk the “look-at-me-focus” Kool-Aid. I guess it sells.

    But really, I thought that a great camera was one that got out of the photographer’s way. We’re being offered powerful cameras these days, but not great tools.

    • I’m not questioning the effectiveness of the new tech – far from it; IBIS is a game changer, and I can’t deny finding eye AF useful – even as somebody who shoots very little portraiture. Implementation, on the other hand, definitely needs work. There is too much information thrown at you too loudly (is it necessary to have a full RGB histogram blocking a quarter of your composition if you could just have a highlight zebra? etc.) distracting you from the composition.

      “But really, I thought that a great camera was one that got out of the photographer’s way. We’re being offered powerful cameras these days, but not great tools.”
      I keep thinking of how modern cars make up for skill with electronic aids and more power…

    • “We’re being offered powerful cameras these days but not great tools.”

      Amen.

  3. Fabian Fabrega says:

    If you could make it in the horology business… I will surely be a loyal customer of the Ming Compact Camera.

  4. “There are too many controls to be simple; there are too few controls to be fluid and versatile; they’re too small to be ergonomic with a full range of lenses – or too large to be pocketable.”

    I think this speaks volumes – so many companies are intent on piling on additional features and configuration options, which are often create a conflicted user experience – see the LX100 and contrast the sober, leica-esque direct controls with the non-reassignable filter button and plethora of jpeg parameters which, ironically, were wasted on what was a shockingly terrible jpeg engine). What seemed like clean and solid camera turned out to be quite cluttered and complicated under the hood, and it wasn’t even given a single firmware update during it’s lifespan.

    To be honest, I traded my LX100 in for a Canon G7X II, and while I lost out in some ways (lens quality, AF performance), the Canon is, in most ways, much more enjoyable to use as a ‘secondary camera’. *Far* better color with less work, more ‘pocketable’, less fiddly to deploy, and the tilting screen makes up for the loss of EVF, IMO. While I think the shutter speed programming for P and AV mode are backwards, I actually enjoy * using * the G7X II more – It is sufficient for it’s niche.

    Honestly, I wish the Japanese would deviate from fitting their premium compacts with 28mm equiv lenses (see: Ricoh GR, Nikon A, Fuji X70, X10, etc). Bring back the ~40mm equivalents that were so popular in the fixed lens rangefinders of the past – or better yet, the 38mm f/2.8 units employed on the Contax T, or even the Fuji Klasse S. The longer focal length (regardless of format) would both offer the prospective buyer something a bit different than most phone cameras, and more potential for depth of field control. And in some ways, it may prove easier to compose with, even if not as suitable for selfies.

    • I’m a fan of 28mm personally, and would rather have wider than longer (up to a point) as you’ve got more flexibility. That said, yes, a longer fixed lens compact would also be a nice companion – but that’s what the DL should have been I guess: 18-50mm and whatever you want in between…

  5. Chuck Weatherall says:

    Still loving my little Fuji X30. No sign of a replacement anytime soon. I, too, was hopeful for the Nikon DL line. So it goes. The Sony RX10 series is very nice but not my cup of tea.

  6. Not being a phone person but needing one once in a while, I would love a compact camera like the Sony RX100 that I could use as a phone when needed! Putting the horse before the cart for us photographers.

  7. I gave such matters a bit of thought recently, after your previous article about all the pictures that are being produced (to be viewed once and then forgotten) and after Robin’s article about the decline of the camera business, and it got me thinking about the similarities and differences between the era of early (or earlier) digital mass-market cameras and today’s smartphone-dominant world.

    I moved to digital fairly late. In fact, I had (and still have) a film compact with a nice-enough f/2.8 lens that could take reasonable pictures. I imagine that for many people, things like “more zoom” were the most relevant improvements that they might have been willing to pay for in a film compact (that is, not an SLR). But it was in migrating to a digital compact, where optical zoom was a good selling point in the maturing but fairly competitive market of the day (2007), that I eventually got that improvement for myself.

    But one thing I considered recently was the visual quality of the images produced by each kind of device. My digital compact didn’t have such a bright lens, and the resulting images risked being what some might call “snapshot quality”: potentially “busy” images with too much in focus, not enough subject isolation, and all of the usual criticisms. It occurred to me that the film compact employed that bright lens to play to its strengths, and assuming the autofocus did its job (which it generally did), the output was likely to meet some kind of minimum standard and look “photographic” enough.

    That isn’t to say that my digital compact didn’t produce good images, and I will admit that “more zoom” was again a reason to upgrade to Micro Four Thirds, but it has only really been since I got the 45mm f/1.8 Olympus lens that Robin likes so much that I appreciate this rather different aspect of picture-taking that had been designed into my old film compact: that of embracing a single focal length (or maybe a limited range) with a lens that tries to make the best of those constraints. Prior to that, I didn’t really get what various people going on about “primes” were so enthusiastic about.

    Maybe this has changed the way I think about picture-taking. Like many people, I was more of a photograph-to-document kind of picture-taker before, recording a scene and then moving on. Generally, it is the practical limitations that guide the interests and buying preferences of this crowd: “more zoom” because you just want to get closer to the subject or the action quickly and because it makes it easier to see what the point of the picture is meant to be. Here, the camera business arguably fails to provide simple-enough answers.

    Practical limitations drive smartphone photography, too: things like portrait modes and distortion correction presumably remedy things that frustrate people about their photographic output from such devices. The challenge may end up being the ergonomics, however, with the device handed the responsibility of knowing what the user wants. But that brings me back again to that old film compact which was mostly a matter of a half-press then a full-press of the shutter button (and competent development of the result).

    Maybe good, minimalist, pragmatic design goes a long way towards giving people what they want.

  8. Baker 2 Niner says:

    I confess that I still mess up the choice and direction of dials on my contemporary cameras nearly every time I use them. I go through a drill each time I pick them up: bring camera to eye, spin front left & right then spin back dial left/right. Argh.

    Fuji nailed dial layout with the XT-3 — the locations and “A” on each dial (pioneered by Leica X1) are great.

    BTW, the 907X takes my breath away. I still have an unnatural attachment to the 500 and SWC.

    • A lot of the cameras let you swap dials and change rotation direction – I have actually done this on all of my Nikons because I find their defaults counterintuitive.

      907X: mine too, though I admit I feel bittersweet about the whole project given some of the background events…

      • Brett Patching says:

        I’m really sorry to hear that (I’m guessing politics) soured the development of the 907X 50C. I can only agree with Baker 2 Niner that the 907X is the most exciting camera I’ve seen in ages, for the whole experience of seeing it, holding it, using it.

  9. Amen! I had pre-ordered one member of that trilogy and was disappointed when Nikon pulled the plug. My Fuji X70 has been filling this gap for a while. Luckily, I found it used for a reasonable price. The leaf shutter allows for interesting use of flash and the camera is very pocketable. No idea why they never updated it to the new sensor. The autofocus is a little slow but when you turn it off, the camera remembers the manual focus point so you can essentially preset a zone focus area.

  10. Superb article. But then I agree with it… 😊
    I hope the following supports the article as I’m very much an amateur, and I love both my Lumix TZ100 (wide, telephoto, and macro, rolled into one pocketable device, ideal for holidays) and a GX85/80.

    You’re right they “do nothing at all particularly well” in real terms, and so for me, it hangs on the meaning of “well”.
    Weight and size are very important for me, and owing to the law of diminishing returns, that “well” is in terms of “acceptable” and “sufficient” (notably levels of noise and “bokeh”). But I hope you agree, “acceptable” and “sufficient” certainly doesn’t mean “bad” or “poor”: I have printed “display quality” poster-sized images from both cameras. But, then, I never shoot anything “specialist” requiring such a wide dynamic range, exact colour accuracy, etc., as I have no expert clients who will be inspecting it with a loupe.

    So, more related to the article, I think there is still definitely a place for the development of compact/compact system cameras in the trajectory you suggest, for us who don’t really *need* high-end devices. But maybe the reason we aren’t doing ourselves any favours is the prevalence of GAS for what “influencers” merely posit as the best, and for so many to be influenced by them? (i.e., ‘You’re not a “real photographer” unless you use/own…’)
    So, in a sense, are camera manufacturers, by tacitly supporting influencers – and so the knock-on effect of influencers influencing each other, by chasing after maximising their own revenue on social media – shooting themselves in the foot? That is, the best photographers I follow seem little interested in specs, but that it gets the job done.

    The reason I don’t join any photography society, for example, is that the environment seems to be more about showing off. There seem to be too many photographers (i.e., male ones) who seem to have inferiority complexes (gear envy/snobbery), and so more interested in self-promotion and being noticed. That is, the quality of their images (however excellent) rarely seems to warrant or require anything approaching the gear (and so expenditure) they own, which they couldn’t have been created with a Compact System Camera rather than needing a Sony 7R4 with G Master lenses. But the marketing environment just seems to gravitate towards the “best”/latest body and lens(es) of each manufacturer.

    I’m still looking up to Robin Wong, so I know there’s a lot of mileage in my gear before I need an E-M1 MkII even…

    • scott devitte says:

      You didn’t mention the Fuji xf10 here. How do you feel about it now?

    • ” But maybe the reason we aren’t doing ourselves any favours is the prevalence of GAS for what “influencers” merely posit as the best, and for so many to be influenced by them? (i.e., ‘You’re not a “real photographer” unless you use/own…’)”
      99% of ‘influencers’ are paid to say this. Some of us buy our own hardware with our own money either for creative or commercial reasons; some of us then go on to work with brands whose products we’d buy anyway. That said, it takes some balls to go perceptually “backwards” in terms of hardware…

      “So, in a sense, are camera manufacturers, by tacitly supporting influencers – and so the knock-on effect of influencers influencing each other, by chasing after maximising their own revenue on social media – shooting themselves in the foot? “
      Almost certainly. There’s no way everything is the greatest revolution since sliced bread…

      “The reason I don’t join any photography society, for example, is that the environment seems to be more about showing off. There seem to be too many photographers (i.e., male ones) who seem to have inferiority complexes (gear envy/snobbery), and so more interested in self-promotion and being noticed. “
      Yes! And so it goes with any hobby where there is a hardware component. Which is basically…every hobby. One doesn’t – shouldn’t – compose differently with a phone than medium format or have different shot discipline. A tool is just a tool.

      • I am not so sure here about what you wrote. “One doesn’t – shouldn’t – compose differently with a phone than medium format or have different shot discipline. “. I think there is a relationship betwin the way you shoot and the camera you use. I shoot differently with bigger dslrs (I used to when I was younger) compared to smaller compacts and smaller mirrorles (which I shoot for a couple of years). There is a different feel with every camera and that different feels leads to decisions like…will I make a photo right now (big cam – no, small – yes), etc.

        • Yes, but it doesn’t mean one should stop watching corners, isolating subjects, being aware of light etc – this is what I mean by composing/shooting differently…small inevitably tends to lead to sloppy, which it absolutely shouldn’t.

  11. Len Harrison says:

    Enjoyed reading your article. One thought passed through my mind, “How many phone shots get printed”

    • Maybe more in absolute value than from the rest of cameras – it’s peoples everyday camera and they print memories from holidays etc.

    • I’d venture to say almost none…

    • I have thought of that myself, especially for my own photos. I’ve thought of doing “contact prints” of my own digital photos, although I’d want to clear up the ones I have. Right now I have family photos I’d want to keep mixed in with pictures I took for Craigslist, or simple “reference” pictures (such as when I’m looking for repair parts or device settings, so I take a picture of the model/serial/information tags).

      And even as far as the “keeper” pictures are concerned, I’ll tend to take multiples to compensate for shaky hands. Need to parse out the good from the bad.

      • At very least, I recommend doing a monthly portfolio – just the very best of the best; keep that folder separate. If nothing it’s a good exercise in curation…

  12. You failed to mention the various Fuji offerings, not the least of which is the wonderful X100F. Also, the Leica Q, which seems to still engender demand. Fuji and Leica users have elevated the X & Q series to near-cult status among compacts, which to a large extent explains their ongoing success.

    The lesson there is that there is demand for distinctive cameras, designs that don’t simply follow a safe forumula.

    • Those aren’t really compact (think: pocketable), and the X100F’s lens was mediocre at launch and 12MP, and it’s not at all up to the 24MP it has now. The Q is not compact, period. But yes, both are examples of different working, and working well…

  13. I think of those Nikon DL’s. Seems to me the camera companies don’t have what it takes to make the camera you suggest, too nervous that by the time they do the smartphone cameras will have already improved that much more and make their new offering not profitable.

    I “window shop” online when having a bout of GAS for a compact, and it is as you say, the GRIII, XF10, LX10, RX100. None of them do it for me. LX100 and the Canons, they don’t either. I’d rather stick with my iPhone in my pocket and carry a DX Nikon on my shoulder. Seems a good balance. Although, I’m a hobbyist, I don’t make a living with photography.

    There’s a reason Samsung got out of the camera business and Apple/Google did not tackle it, and I think they could have. More money in the phone cameras. Just conjecture on my part though.

    I’m thinking eventually we’ll have an iPhone/Smartphone with 13mm/26mm/52mm/104mm lenses and that will be that for compact cameras. And who knows, they might start packing bigger sensors too.

    • I really wonder why they were never made – clearly there were/are functional prototypes; the feedback seemed positive across the board, yet…? It would be ironic if they felt the 1 line would be cannibalised given they eventually killed it anyway…

      Definitely more money in the phone cameras. The hardware is a lot cheaper, too – both due to the smaller sensors and the volumes they produce. Even if you have three or four or five camera modules per device. I doubt we’ll see larger sensors, though – physical limitations of size and optics. We will probably see much faster sensors and more computation – to the point that every image is a multi-stack HDR oversampled stack. If the sensor reads off fast enough, the slight motion between frames could even be used as a pseudo pixel-shift to increase resolution. We might still only have 12MP, but if they’re foveon-level pixel quality even to higher ISOs…how much more do we need?

      • Somewhere it was suggested that Nikon saw they couldn’t make the DL line profitable. I don’t remember if this info was from a Nikon interview or some untrustworthy “industry source”. Would explain what happened though.

        I also seem to remember there was an apparent flaw in the product which would have prevented me from getting one. The need of lens caps perhaps?

        • Given the intended price points, I find this hard to believe. Sony, Panasonic and Canon’s 1″ offerings are all around or below where the DL would have been, and not that different technically.

          “I also seem to remember there was an apparent flaw in the product which would have prevented me from getting one. The need of lens caps perhaps?”
          The 18-50 didn’t have an EVF built in, and yes, lens caps, but that can be solved by the self-opening petal type like what Panasonic used to offer as an optional accessory on the LX100 and the like…

      • Smartphones: Good points….don’t really need larger sensors, just have more small ones and let the processor do the rest. In any event, I’m happy with my iPhone 8 Plus, am resisting GAS for the iPhone 11 Pro, and will see what the next iteration looks like in 2020. I really like having the 50mm-e lens/camera on the iPhone.

        I think having gaps in sensor size is good idea, Fuji does a good job with APS-C and MF. A compact MFT and Full Frame would probably be a good combo, but also seems like maybe over-kill for someone like me. The iPhone in the pocket and D7500 with 16-80mm on the shoulder works well for me, and I can go even smaller with a D3500/18-55. The value/pricing of the APS-C DSLR’s seems hard to beat in my opinion, if that kind of camera strikes ones fancy.

        • I wish they’d gone 18/28/75 or something, but I understand why 50 is a reasonable limit for a phone – the optics just become unwieldy (relatively) to the amount of space you’ve got to work with.

          Right now I’m experimenting with the compact DX pancake on the Z7…which packs about the same volume as the D3500 body alone. So as a spacing we have phone, DX Z, FX Z. Not a lot left to want! 🙂

  14. I think Fuji has come very close with the XF10. The full auto or as-much-control-as-you-want approach. The APS C sensor. The iPhone-like on-screen controls. Continuous or selected download to the phone for instant uploading. Only two things dissuaded me from buying one. First, the lack of even a clip-on, slip-on viewfinder for bright sunlight shooting. Second, my experience of wandering around for couple of weeks with only my phone…no option on focal length. Frustrating. Maybe the XF10’s digital zoom would have made up for the last. The sensor may offer enough in pixel count for the modest zoom setting. I just couldn’t justify the cost to find out, but I do think the XF10 may prove to be the way forward. Give the full auto mode the computational processing capability of the iPhone and that, along with the size, shape, and on-screen functions could grab a significant bit market. I’d quickly buy one and revert to an $8/month TracFone for voice and text. The savings in carrier costs would pay for the camera.

    • The finder problem is a tough one to solve, but clearly possible given the packaging of the RX100 and G5X series in smaller form factors. Granted the sensors are smaller, but this is offset by more complex lens assemblies.

      The physical controls of the XF10 are great. But the menu system, when you need to use it, still remains the usual Fuji disaster.

  15. I am also a fan of the simple control scheme you describe. Unsurprinsingly, amongst my all-time favourite cameras are various compact 35mm film rangefinders, a Nikon FM, a Mamiya 6 and more recently digital Leica Ms.
    The only recent digital compact camera I can think of coming very close this model is the Panasonic LX100 (assuming Fuji’s X100 is too big). Too bad there is no fixed-focal length version which could be as pocketable as a Coolpix A (the LX100 is a tad thick).
    Much smaller than that and I think we’re going to face difficulties in implementing your prefered control scheme in an ergonomic manner. The Olympus XA, Minox 35, Minolta TC… were all very nice compacts but not particularly pleasant to control IMHO.

  16. Gerard Hilinski says:

    I appreciate your thoughtful perspective on this issue. I purchased a Canon G7X Mk II for travel last summer. The lack of an EVF is a negative to be sure. But the cameras overall performance has been surprisingly satisfying. The negative reviews of the MkUII make me glad I went with
    The earlier model.

  17. I am surperised regarding your criticism of mirror-less cameras: “They do nothing at all particularly well; everything is a poor compromise”. Still, when you compare, middle range DSLR and middle range Mirrorless, aren’t they just subsitues? Similar thing, mirrorles only a bit smaller and more clever than DSLRs of same level?

    • Compact mirrorless, not all mirrorless. Perhaps I should have been more specific. Midrange DSLR however tends to focus a lot better than midrange mirrorless, for one…

  18. Thanks for nice post. It summarizes reasons why I stay with aging Fujifilm X70 (somehow forgotten ancestor of X10). Recently I was not able find a replacement of it with some current specs. And yes, it looks like there is no vendor to be interested in this form factor & control set & features…

    • Give the XF10 a try…it doesn’t have the same controls, but they’re definitely better than average.

      • When I get back to Japan in Feb. I plan on getting either the GRIII (my GR broke, so now I am using the GRD4) or the Fuji XF10 (currently shooting with the X-A5 and the 41 pancake). I have had both Fujis and Ricohs for years and appreciate them both!

        • Rube> I have a brand new Ricoh GR III that I’ve took about 3 dozen photos with. I shouldn’t have bought it but I waited so long for Ricoh to make an updated digital … For me it is not a pleasure to use. No EVF or even a simple optical one! I’m going back to my Ricoh GR21 film camera. I have never liked 28mm (equivalent) focal length lenses and should have know better. The quality of the sensor is outstanding, etc. but I want to enjoy my photography. Guess I’m too old for a computer with an lens on the end.
          Make me a decent offer and it’s yours. David

      • Got one here in Spain for 350euros (Black Friday price). Set it and forget it. The 35-50 DTC and ‘snap focus’ work well and are easy to engage. The XF10 is a little fat, but all in all small and useable. No complaints, and the AF is just fine. I took all the advice I could find on the inet to make it work (firmware up date, S-AF, high performance option, single point focus, etc). Thanks for your expert, hands on advice. (Only the Angry Photographer seems to like the XF10 as well). GRIN
        Rube

  19. I could not agree more! Thanks for writing this. Brilliant. I have a number of cameras from most of the makers (all but Leica) and the one thing that they have in common is that they are small systems, both the body and the lenses. The simpler the better, which is why I still use the Nikon 1 series.

  20. The control scheme you describe for the Leica Q sounds just like how Fuji cameras work. Is the X100 series not compact enough for what you have in mind?

    • Not only is it not compact enough, the lens was a dog wide open on the 12MP sensor; it’s even more inadequate for 24MP. If you have effectively a 35/4 or at best 35/2.8 with no stabilization in something that has the same packing volume as the FF Z Nikon and compact lens you already have…what’s the point? In practical terms, the shooting envelope of Fuji’s own XF10 is much larger. The camera is also pocketable. But it isn’t popular because it isn’t retro enough…go figure.

  21. Kristian Wannebo says:

    > “The Canons are not bad, but lack EVFs..”
    ?
    The G5 X Mk II has a pop-up EVF.

    ( The G5 X Mk I & G1 X Mk III have a fixed one.)

  22. I find myself a bit of a contemporary anomaly: I like a real camera and I think the photos from my iPhone are terrible (too many blown highlights). I like my M10 but would like it better in that size and weight with simple auto focus (I think I can live without animal eye auto focus). I thought Leica shoulda coulda made the CL 35mm sensor size rather than APSC. The CL is L mount, which was designed to accommodate a 35mm size sensor (for example add an EVF to the new Sigma fp). I don’t think it would have impacted SL sales at all since the SL is billed as a “professional” camera.
    If my health holds out and I get another 10-12 years it will be interesting to see what products are out then and how many of the internet photo savants are still around, Change is certain.

    • I like a real camera too, but as the quality gap continues to shrink both due to phone improvements and compact lack of improvement…it becomes harder and harder to justify carrying one. Objectively, the current phones are a lot better than the small sensor compacts we used to carry, and not far off 1” after factoring in computing advantages.

  23. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    “It’s such a simple control scheme that I have to wonder why nobody else uses it”
    The American army during World War II fought on the basis of the principles “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” and the “KISS principle” – “keep it simple, stupid!”
    Humans are strange animals – instead of progressing, we seem to regress.
    The controls you mention have been common enough in one form or another on various cameras I’ve had in the past. The controls I’m inflicted with these days often make me shudder. Oh – and one camera I have has a manual which is (a) virtually illegible and (b) virtually incomprehensible.
    Then demand drops. Why? What line of business survives these days by ignoring what its customers want?
    If someone was to design a car that could outperform a Bugatti, park in a carbay for a Smart Car, carry 2 adults and 5 children, haul a 30 foot caravan and travel 600 miles between refuelling stops, would you seriously consider it as your first choice for your next car?

  24. Phones will keep getting better. By and large, I think cameras, especially compacts, are hitting the wall.
    Phones are extremely convenient, cameras aren’t.
    A number of us will stick to our cameras because we want the quality, but for the majority, pictures from their phones are ‘good enough’. I think very very few young people even consider buying a camera and the ever-ageing population is buying less of them.
    Digital made film into a specialty/serious medium, and the time is coming when phones will have, to some degree, turned any good camera system into the same thing.
    A lot of people like myself are perfectly happy with their micro 4/3, or their APS-C, and have no interest in the cost and weight of full frame.
    I’d say the camera companies are facing a lot of major challenges.

    • I believe this too. The phone camera has gone from curiosity to documentary to actually useful and not that compromised. They’ve used the strengths of the platform (computing power) and evolved to overcome limited size and implications on lenses. And we haven’t even talked about connectivity. Compacts have done…nothing. I honestly find myself using my phone more than my compacts, and justifying phone purchases as being not just communications devices but also cameras…the number of image shot on my phone every year only keeps increasing.

  25. I’ve recently graduated from my “going out to bars until the wee hours of the morning” days – but in 2017, when I was still in that stage of my life, I used to bring my GR II with me *everywhere*. At first, my friends thought it was weird to be photographing our nights out (despite the fact that they would be doing just that, and uploading to social media, but on their mobile), but eventually they got used to it. Eventually, someone new joined us one evening. When I pulled out the GR, she shrieked “oh my god, is that a real camera? I haven’t seen one of those in years”. I spent the whole night laughing in my head at the absurdity of that comment.

    And then I started noticing when friends would ask for suggestions for a “real camera” (which would inevitably be something like the RX100 MK1, both for budgetary requirements and size). I don’t have any data to back this up, but I suspect that the RX100 has a serious lock on this segment, sort of like Toyota does with the Tacoma in America’s small truck segment (where the chicken tax laws make it impossible for Isuzu, Mazda and other entries you’d have in Malaysia to sell their trucks here).

    Easily recognizable brand name + well positioned price point + just simple enough (if you’re shooting JPEG on Auto or Program and never delving into the menus) has made it a winner.

    Just my theory. I have an old LX100 myself, but I never seen them out and about. The black Sony/blue Zeiss badge compacts seem to be everywhere.

    • Actually, somebody take the UI and build quality of an iPhone and combine it with an APSC-sensor compact with stabilization of some sort and an EVF…

      • Sony QX1? Great idea but horrible implementation.

        I wonder what the industry might look like if someone combines the iPhone 11 software with a large sensor …

  26. The RX1 was a beautiful if not flawed camera with a great lens. I love the xpro form factor and am going to try v3 for my street camera. The Ricoh just didn’t do it for me.

    • None of these really have the tactile quality I’m talking about – go handle any one of the compact premium film cameras and you’ll see what I mean. (E.g. Minolta TC1, Contax T3, Nikon 28Ti, even the Hasselblad 903SWC etc.) The Fuji perhaps comes the closest, but the Sony still somehow lacks solidity…

  27. “ Porsche takes things away from its cars and people queue up to pay more.”
    And Leica – MD, Monochrom, etc. But it’s a high end niche play.

    I think most people are happy with their smartphone for photo and video. For those wanting something “serious” I guess the multi-lens kits have more appeal for most. The market for small but expensive must now be very small, surely?

    Interesting about the internal economics of camera companies creating an additional disincentive.

    • Actually, I suspect it’s a product that will sell slow to moderately well at first, then eventually pick up once people realize it’s something they actually want. However, like most products of this kind, you would need to see/feel/use it a few times to really appreciate the haptics – something no photograph can really convey.

  28. Sigma could create serious compact cameras. They are willing to take risk and had the right idea with the quattro series but the ergonomics, weight and X3F lack of compatibility doomed it. Perhaps they would listen to a proposal from you.

    • I have a huge amount of respect for Sigma and their CEO Kazuto-San, but part of the reason for this is they also have very defined ideas about what is ‘right’…

      • anicemorningdrive says:

        Sounds a lot like Honda…

      • Sigma is an intriguing, even somewhat enigmatic, company. I was interested to hear that they teamed up with Leica and Panasonic. My first thought was “will this make them more risk-averse”? Sigma’s strength was their idiosyncrasy in many ways – plugging away with the Foveon and so on.

        As for the main thrust of the article – this seems to mirror what you have said before about the photography industry itself : the middle has fallen out. You still have the elite pros shooting MF digital, and the teenagers with their first DSLR and kit lens who’ll shoot your wedding for fifty bucks, likes, and exposure (and give away the RAW files too)…but not much in between. Maybe the compact market represents the “in between”?

      • I feel certain the respect is mutual. It might be worthwhile to offer a design proposal to Kazuto-San.

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