In 2012, in Australia and all over the world, the bottom fell out of the compact camera business, with sales dropping in volume terms by up to 50 percent.

According to people who specialise in glib and simplistic answers to things they don’t really know much about (that would     be the general media), it’s solely because they have been replaced in people’s desires by the smartphone. ‘Look,’ they will say, ‘smartphones take pictures and they are like selling like coal mining shares to a NSW Labor politician. Compact cameras take pictures   and they are like not selling at all. Therefore, smartphones have like made compact cameras  obsolete.’  

Could be something in it, but maybe the       fact that compact cameras have in 10 years reached near saturation among potential buyers, while smartphones were definitely the ‘must-have’ tool/toy for 2012, is an alternative consumer dynamic. And if smaller tablets start to replace their older, smaller but more camera- like smartphone siblings, will compact cameras re-surface, Lazarus like?  

There’s another afliction ailing the compact camera market: this year’s models look and perform pretty much the same as last year’s – and the year before that, for that matter. You might call it the ‘Windows 8 Syndrome’; ‘Why should I upgrade?’  

Given the fairly dramatic and rapid downswing in compact camera sales – especially those without any particularly outstanding qualities, was it a fit of collective lunacy which prompted the camera makers of the world to unite at     CES Las Vegas in January this year to launch more than 60 new but predominantly lacklustre compact cameras in less than a week? (Sometimes it seems like the invisible hand of the free market is playing with itself!)  


The Fujiilm Finepix X100S – two viewinders!  

To put this mass launch in context, 179 compact cameras were released in the whole of 2012, according to the ever-reliable 1001noisycameras website.  

Ridiculous to the (near) sublime
Fujifilm, in what some might interpret     as  a  finely-calibrated  exercise  in  market segmentation and others, ridiculous, released its Finepix S82 family at CES, with 40x, 42x, 44x and 46x zoom models. Then it knocked out a 50x model, the Finepix SL1000. But if 50x isn’t sufficient, you can use that camera’s ‘Intelligent Digital Zoom’ feature to supersize the focal range to 100x – or 24mm to 2400mm.

Now it might be that Fujifilm is going to release the 42x model in, say the US and the 46x model in Europe and the 44x model in Australia and New Zealand, for some obscure global marketing reason. They haven’t said.   But I can’t imagine a potential buyer thinking, ‘Hmm, only 44x. Nothing less than a 46x model will enable me to fulfil my creative vision…’

 Why the world needs even one more 40x+ camera, let alone five of them, is the bigger question…  

The difficulty of designing and manufacturing high quality lenses with hyper-extended focal lengths is best evidenced by the fact that   Nikon and Canon and the specialist lens manufacturers such as Tamron and Sigma simply don’t go there. 28mm – 300mm (or a little more than 10x) is about as far as they’ll stake their reputations. They either can’t do it at a realistic price, or at an acceptable quality.  

So we can safely assume that a 46x lens in a sub-US$400 camera will deliver much lower image quality than a more modest zoom. And given all the cameras mentioned above ‘boast’ a tiny little 1/2.3-inch (6.17 x 4.55 mm) sensor, upon the surface of which 16 million pixels have been crammed, it looks like garbage in, noisy garbage out.  

But on the other hand, Fujifilm also announced one of the very few cameras at CES which might pique the interest of Photo Review readers: the Finepix X100S, a high-speed successor to the X100, which sports a ‘prime’ Fujinon 23mm f/2 lens. It also features a new megapixel APS-C X-Trans CMOS II sensor and EXR Processor II, which claim to increase resolution by around 25 percent and cut noise by even more.  

The X100S offers the world’s first ‘Digital Split Image’ feature according to Fujifilm. This displays dual images on the left and right to   be lined up for manual focusing, much like a rangefinder camera from Antediluvian times or a little later.  

And in a departure from the notion that viewfinders are simply a nice-to-have rather than an essential camera feature, the X100S has both an optical and electronic viewfinder. Like the proverbial elephant in the room, it must have escaped the notice of camera manufacturers that even the best OLED/LCD screens are pretty close to useless in bright sunlight.  

The optical viewfinder on the X100S comes in handy when time lag is an issue, while the EVF enables users to check focus, exposure, white balance and depth of field while composing shots.  

Also new to the X-series is the X20 premium compact, with a 12-megapixel, 2/3-inch (8.8  x 6.6 mm) X-Trans CMOS II sensor. The sensor has built-in Phase Detection pixels for high- speed AF in as little as 0.06 seconds.  

While every second compact announced at CES was WiFi enabled, it came as a surprise that more manufacturers didn’t follow Samsung with a direct-to-internet model such as the Samsung Galaxy camera, with the Android OS and a 5-inch tablet/smartphone-like screen.

Polaroid was the one and only – and unlikely – brand to show an Android camera, the Micro Four Thirds iM1836. This camera features the highly-rated Android 4.1 Jelly Bean operating system (used in Google Nexus 7 tablets, among other smart devices). It comes standard with       a 10-30mm zoom lens. Polaroid says it will hit US shelves in the first quarter of the year at US$399. But maybe not – some performance failures at CES and the fact that Polaroid’s US PR people told Photo Review to contact them again in (our) winter perhaps indicates some developmental  hold-ups.

The iM836 bears a striking resemblance to the Nikon J1, and Polaroid (or manufacturer Sakar) has run with the Ricoh GXR concept of lens/sensor modules, so the sensor is built into the standard lens. However, while Ricoh is appealing to professionals and quality- conscious enthusiasts, Polaroid is looking at the snapshooting fraternity. With an adaptor, Polaroid claims all existing Micro Four Thirds lenses can be used with the iM1836.  

Other cameras of some interest include the Pentax MX-1, with styling harking back to the old Pentax MX film SLR – but no viewfinder! It has a textured rubber grip and brass top and bottom panels, plus a metal lens ring, tiltable 920,000-dot LCD monitor and dedicated mode and exposure compensation dials. Internally,     it runs a larger-than-standard 7.6 x 5.7mm (1/1.7 inch), back-illuminated CMOS sensor with 12-megapixel resolution. Raw file capture is supported, along with in-camera raw file development. The camera’s 4x optical zoom lens (28-112mm in 35mm format) has a fast maximum aperture of f/1.8 to f/2.5.  

This will be a competitor to upmarket fixed lens compacts like the Canon G series, and Sony RX100, and given the unique ability of the Australian distributor, CR Kennedy, to deliver cameras at world parity pricing, should be good value for money locally.  

The only other camera of remote interest announced at CES ““ more because it’s weird looking and from Canon than for any particular performance merits ““ was the Canon PowerShot N.  

Among other innovations, the shutter operation is positioned on one of the camera’s two lens rings. The PowerShot N is square     and very small and WiFi enabled to talk to smartphones/tablets and direct via a WiFi hotspot. It seems to be saying – ‘I’m only little,  and I’m awfully cute, and you can take me along as well as your smartphone and I won’t be a bother, really. And I take better pictures, too.’

Keith Shipton

This is an article from Photo Review magazine Issue 55.
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