Digital cameras have rendered the humble old box brownie all but obsolete. You probably own multiple digital cameras, especially once your mobile phone is taken into consideration. Beyond the race to cram more and more megapixels into compact cameras — a fairly useless activity once you get beyond around 8 megapixels unless you need to shoot outdoor advertising posters — there are limits to what a compact camera can do. The compact digital you most likely own is fine for taking happy snap style shots, and if you’re lucky, you may end up with some really nice photos. But what do you do if you want a little bit more control over your images?
The traditional answer would have been to step up from the box brownie style of a compact digital to a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera. These allow for discrete image processing steps, multiple lenses — both for zoom/macro/fixed focus work and for specific effects such as fisheye or tilt shift lens photography — but have always had a few particular problems for novices wanting a little more power. For a start, DSLRs are pretty expensive. This has changed in recent years; you can typically pick up a DSLR body from companies such as Nikon or Canon for under a thousand dollars, but lenses can often cost a great deal more. The learning curve on a DSLR is pretty sharp, and most DSLRs are solidly built and therefore heavy, which limits their portability. You’re much less likely to take a DSLR out for a quick shot of your nephews on a swing if it takes five minutes to set up and take the shot.
There is a middle way emerging that promises some of the fine control and lens swapping ability of DSLRs without all of the challenging complexity or higher price of a DSLR. These mini DSLRs — often referred to as micro 4/3rds cameras (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micro_Four_Thirds_system) are cheaper and smaller than a DSLR with a reasonable amount of the power that DSLRs offer. Not all of these compact DSLRs are actually Micro 4/3rds cameras, though. I recently had a chance to have a field test at Taronga Zoo with Samsung’s recently released $899 NX10 camera, which uses a full APS-C sensor, such as you’d find on a “full” DSLR, but with a mirror-less design that makes the camera body a lot smaller, and therefore a lot more portable. I do know my way around a DSLR to a fair extent, but even I came away impressed with the quick and easy shots I could take.
So they’re typically cheaper than DSLRs and more powerful than compact digital models. What’s the downside of opting for a Micro 4/3rds style camera? Well, you do get the flexibility of being able to change lenses that are typically going to be a lot cheaper than their DSLR equivalents, but in most cases you’re limited to the lenses produced for that camera series. Some Micro 4/3rds cameras do allow for additional lens types to be fitted via adaptors, but often with some specific features such as auto focusing removed. By contrast, if you buy a “Full” DSLR, you’ll be able to change out the main camera “body” but keep using the same lenses year in and year out, taking advantage of the new body features each time. As a stepping stone up in your photographic knowledge, or a gift for somebody wanting a little more than a compact can offer, they’re a good alternative.