A highly valued former client and a highly valued friend recently got in touch with me, asking for camera recommendations. I told them what I know, and then Nikon has to go and change the rules of the game. Dammit!
I usually break these recommendations down into three categories:
DSLRs: great technical image quality, flexibility of interchangeable lenses, big, heavy, you have to carry stuff.
Mirrorless: pretty good technical image quality, flexibility of interchangeable lenses, smaller, lighter, you have to carry stuff.
Compacts: good technical image quality, you’re stuck with the lens, small, light, fits in a pocket.
The main reason that compact cameras (and your camera phone, too) suffer in terms of image quality is the size of their sensors. To make a long story short, the bigger your pixels are, the better they are going to perform. Small pixels get noisy and don’t do color well. They are bad in low-light, and that’s when people start popping up their pop-up flashes, and that’s when pictures start looking bad and people start wanting cameras that take good pictures. So if you have a full-frame sensor, an APS-C crop sensor, and a compact sensor that all offer 16 megapixels, the larger one if going to look the best every time. And this is why full-frame cameras are much more expensive (the D600, for example, is twice the price of its crop-sensor equivalent, the D7100…and don’t get me started about medium-format digital; I’ll get myself started in a coming post).
Up until today, you had to make a choice between camera size and sensor size. But the above camera, the Nikon Coolpix A, is a compact camera with a sensor the size of a consumer-grade DSLR. This is HUGE. And I believe that it will spark a trend toward providing cameras with ever-larger sensors, meaning cameras with ever-better technical image quality. Better tonal range, better dynamic range, better low-light performance, less digital noise, better color….
This advance comes with a price. The Coolpix A is listed at $1099, which is a really steep price for a compact camera. You can land a D3200 with an 18-55, 55-200, and 35 1.8 lenses for about the same price. But you’d have to carry stuff. And I’m not wild about a fixed 28mm-equivalent lens (that is pretty wide…too bad it couldn’t have been a 40mm equivalent). But sensor real estate is pricey, which is why compacts are under $500, APS-C cameras are over $500, full frame cameras are over $2,000, and medium format cameras are over $10,000. Price be damned! This is an important advance, and one that just might help people realize that their tiny-sensored phone camera is not the device to entrust your digital imaging to.
I am now officially waiting for a hypothetical Coolpix P7200, which will have manual controls and an APS-C sensor for under $1,000. THAT will be the camera that gets this serious photographer back into the compact market.
If you are looking for a camera that is small and “takes great pictures”, this one just might be it.