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How to Take Better Photos, Pt. 8

February 28, 2010

EVIL Cameras

For the better part of the past decade, digital photography has been dominated by two distinct camera types – point-and-shoots and DSLRs. Over the past year or two, though, a new player has started to emerge – the EVIL (electronic viewfinder, interchangeable lens) camera. Yes, coolest acronym ever.

At this point, I’m not really sure where EVIL cameras will go. They seem to be striving for a middle ground between point-and-shoots and DSLRs, a strategy that could either work out really well or leave them stranded and irrelevant, sort of the way Mercury is between Ford and Lincoln.

Whichever way they end up breaking, I wanted to devote a post to these new EVIL cameras, to explain a bit about what they are, and where they may or may not end up going.

What the #*$! is an EVIL camera?

Before diving into these new EVIL cameras, a quick refresher on point-and-shoots and DSLRs is probably in order.

Point-and-shoot cameras – Point-and-shoot is sort of a catch-all term for consumer-grade cameras that feature built-in, non-removable lenses. They are for the most part highly portable, and the mid-to-high-end ones are usually bristling with features that make it easy for a novice photographer to pick one up and start clicking away: Face Detection, Image Stabilization, Auto everything, etc. Most of them lack a viewfinder, and instead rely on large LCD displays to frame shots.

Point-and-shoots typically have two things going for them. One, they are small, and two, they are easy to use.

On the minus side of the equation, point-and-shoots tend to use tiny image sensors, which translate to flatter images, less vibrant colors, poor performance in low light, and a greater susceptibility to chroma noise.

Point-and-shoots are also limited by their lenses, which often keep things to a conservative zoom and aperture range.

The other cons vary model-by-model, but can include things like shutter lag (where you press the shutter button and the camera takes a bit of time to “think” before taking the picture), a lack of manual control, crappy on-board flash…you get the idea.

DSLR cameras – At the opposite end, you have DLSRs. Strictly speaking, a DSLR is a camera with an internal mirror mechanism that directs light through a pentaprism (or, in cheaper models, a pentamirror) and into an optical viewfinder. When you press the shutter, the mirror lifts and exposes the sensor to light. If you’ve ever shot with a DSLR, you may have noticed that the viewfinder goes black at the moment you take a picture. This is because the mirror moves out of position and stops directing the light into the viewfinder.

Apart from this mirror/prism/optical viewfinder setup, DSLRs also feature large image sensors (which capture deeper images, more vibrant color, and perform better in low light), interchangeable lenses, and (depending on the model) lots of manual control. Typically, sensor size and close-at-hand manual controls both increase as you work your way up the food chain.

When it comes to picture quality and shutter response, DSLRs dominate, to the extent that even the cheapest entry-level models blow pretty much every point-and-shoot out of the water.

But that picture quality and shoot-it-now performance come with their own price. DSLRs are far larger and more unwieldy than point-and-shoots, and can be intimidating for novice or casual photographers.

EVIL cameras – EVIL cameras split the difference, offering near-DSLR quality and the creative control of interchangeable lenses without the bulk.

They accomplish this in two ways.

First, they do away with the whole mirror/prism/optical viewfinder setup, and instead take the electronic viewfinder approach favored by point-and-shoots. This saves a ton of space, and lets manufacturers build smaller camera bodies. Not as small as a point-and-shoot, mind you, but significantly smaller than most DSLRs.

Second, EVIL cameras retain large image sensors. The two breakout leaders of this new camera type, Panasonic and Olympus, have developed what they call the Micro Four-Thirds standard, which uses an image sensor about 20% smaller than those found in DSLRs, but several orders of magnitude larger than the fingernail-sized sensors used by point-and-shoots. But there’s no reason the sensors couldn’t grow. In fact, they already are – Samsung’s NX10 uses the same APS-C size sensor that’s found in most entry- and mid-range DSLRs. Sony seems to be thinking the same way, and I suppose it’s just a matter of time before someone stuffs a full-frame 35mm monster of a sensor into an EVIL body.

So…what’s the point?

Honestly, at this point, I don’t know. I appreciate the EVIL concept. In a way it’s a throwback to the old rangefinder cameras, but in another way it’s really one of the first attempts to rethink camera design in a post-film world.

At their current price points, it’s hard to recommend EVIL cameras on their merits alone. They aren’t small enough to stuff into a pocket, especially not with a zoom lens attached, but at the same time they aren’t cheap enough to undercut the entry-level DSLRs. So unless you really want something slightly more portable, I don’t see the value.

BUT…

As EVIL cameras develop, I think there’s a good chance that they’ll really disrupt the high-end point-and-shoot and entry-level DSLR categories, and I could see them emerging as the perfect choice for people who want something more than a point-and-shoot, but don’t want the hassle of a DSLR. And I see the electronic viewfinder as a huge point in their favor. A lot of people tend to dismiss that aspect, since electronic viewfinders suck compared to optical viewfinders at ensuring critical focus, but the fact is, most people are used to holding their cameras a foot or so in front of their face and staring into an LCD to compose their shots. It’s become so ingrained that pretty much every DSLR manufacturer has found some way to implement some form of “live view” into their cameras. But EVIL cameras do the same thing natively, without crazy workarounds.

So…bottom line…EVIL cameras offer a nice middle ground between point-and-shoots and DSLRs…but I think it’s worth giving them a little while longer to find their footing (and drop in price).

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