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I am not an expert in photography, so please don't be too harsh on me if I am making absurd statements. My question is:

Is it really possible to combine compact camera portability with professional SLR quality? If so, what are these "species" called? A couple of keywords would suffice for me to continue my journey of finding high quality models of this kind.

Thanks in advance.

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possible duplicate of How small can current SLRs get and still give comparable photo quality? – Itai May 30 '13 at 17:22
    
my professional DSLR is quite portable, only weighing about 10 kilos with some lenses and other gear. The one compact I had weighed about half that with its gear, if I were to reduce my DSLR kit to the same functionality it'd weigh in at about the same... – jwenting May 31 '13 at 10:38
    
For me, mirrorless (specifically micro 4/3) meets this requirement better than large sensor compact. With mirrorless you're buying a system, of interchangeable lenses etc so it has an ecosystem just like a DSLR where you can change lenses. – thomasrutter Jul 12 at 6:14
    
BTW the smaller size and weight of mirrorless aren't only due to it being mirrorless (even though that does allow much less thickness in the camera body) but also because small size and weight are more of a guiding factor in the design of the system. You could create a DSLR with a comparably small size and weight and indeed many are relatively small and light - an all APS-C entry-level DSLR kit is pretty small and light now. – thomasrutter Jul 12 at 6:17
up vote 8 down vote accepted

The main differences between compact cameras and DSLRs are mainly 3:

  1. Sensor size: compact cameras have small sensors, that give you little space to play with shallow depth of field, and give you a smaller dynamic (the ability to catch in the same shot bright and dark objects keeping details in both).
  2. Ability to use multiple, different, lenses: above a critical threshold, good lenses are more important than sensors. On compact cameras you can't change lens.
  3. Manual controls, ergonomics and speed: DSLRs let you control everything in a shot if you want, and are designed to let you do these changes fast, so you can take a shot in less time.

Usually high end "compact" cameras are called "bridge cameras", and while still having small sensors and fixed optics, they may have also manual controls, but they aren't as comfortable as those in DSLR.

Recently the place between these cameras and dslrs has been taken by a new category, of so called mirrorless cameras. Usually they have replaceable lenses and bigger sensors (some of them, like the Canon EOS-M, have exactly the same sensor of a dslr), so they may give you images similar to the ones taken with DSLRs, but still being a lot smaller than usual DSLRs. Still, their ergonomics will be more like a compact camera than a DSLR, that could be a good or bad thing, it depends on your tastes.

Anyway, if you can afford them, mirrorless are a lot smaller and more portable cameras than dslr, still giving you control and some of the advantages of DSLRs.

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Welcome to Photography on Stack Exchange. You look to be off to a great start here. Welcome to the community. Hope you stick around. – AJ Henderson May 30 '13 at 16:49
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In addition to @gerlos's thorough answer I'd like to add that there are a few cameras out there, like Sony's RX100, that use a sensor that is much bigger that a typical compact cameras, but is still much smaller that a DLSR or even micro 4/3rds sensor. These cameras typically fall under the mirrorless category, but don't have removable lenses. Because of those trade offs you get a camera that has a nicer sensor, but will still fit in your pocket. – CyberKnoy08 May 30 '13 at 18:44
    
thanks @AJHenderson! It's a great community, I've learnt a lot from it, and I love giving back a little to thanks everyone. – gerlos May 31 '13 at 13:01
    
I bought a Sony RX100 at last. Thank you for your input. – Anar Jul 30 '13 at 8:11

Yes it is. They key is that you said Quality and nothing else. There are several compact cameras which use the same sensors as DSLRs and they therefore output virtually the same quality.

These are known as large-sensor compacts which only a few exist at this time. This search gives you the complete list of current models. Recent models include the Fuji X100S, Nikon Coolpix A which I reviewed recently plus Pentax Ricoh GR and the full-frame Sony RX1.

The catch is that you lose versatility and performance. All these cameras have a fixed lens with a single focal-length, meaning they cannot zoom in or out. The angle you see from the camera is always fixed. With a DSLR you have more versatile lenses and a large number of them which you can interchange as you please.

In terms of speed, DSLRs are considerably faster at this time. There is good hope that the Fuji X100S is capable of focusing very fast but other models use Contrast-Detect autofocus which is currently slower than Phase-Detect autofocus used in DSLRs and a handfull of other cameras.

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It's sort of possible, with a large enough sensor and good enough optics.

There are at least two compacts on the market that fit the bill:

  • Fuji X100S with an APS-C sensor. That's the same sensor size as low- to mid-end DSLRs.
  • Sony RX1 with a full frame sensor, same as high-end/pro DSLRs. (The price tag is also in the high-end DSLR region.)

Both of these have fixed lenses, no zoom. The problem with adding a fast, high-quality zoom to a large-sensor compact is that the lens will be so large that it's hardly "compact" anymore.

With a fixed lens, these compacts produce pictures with quality comparable to a DSRL, but only in a relatively narrow range of scenarios: They can compete with DSLRs for street photography, for instance, but can't compete for ultra-wide-angle shots or sports/birds/wildlife, where the DSLR user can switch lenses to adapt.

If you want zoom, I think a mirrorless is your best bet. The large-sensor mirrorless (APS-C, and micro-four-thirds isn't too far off) aren't as compact as the compacts, mostly because of the lenses. But they are still more compact than DSLRs, and offer interchangeable lenses.

For keywords, I would try "large sensor compact", just be aware that some of the hits will be for sensors that are large for a compact, but still small compared to a DSLR.

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Large APS-C sensor mirrorless cameras very nearly offer compact camera portability and can produce the same image quality as APS-C DSLRs when using comparable quality lenses, of which there usually some available.

Look at the SONY NEX, Fuji XE interchangeable lens cameras, and fixed lens models from Fuji, Sigma and Nikon.

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The main impacts on quality for an SLR are the sensor size and quality, the quality of the optics and the easy ability to adjust manual settings. Many of these features can be achieved in a compact camera. The Fuji X100s for example puts an APS-C sensor in a compact camera body and offers many of the typical manual controls.

Mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras allow for changing lenses and generally have higher quality lenses than most similar size cameras but may or may not have the ease of adjusting manual settings or the image sensor size of their DSLR big brothers.

Ultimately, lens quality is the hardest thing to get small. When you combine a large sensor and a small lens, the quality you can achieve is greatly challenged. You can get really good small optics for a small sensor, but then sensor size is the limiting factor. You can also get a big sensor size and a small lens, but then the optics quality is the limiting factor. Then you also have the cost factor. It is fairly routine to have a lens that costs more than any compact camera in existence when looking at the DSLR world.

There is simply no way to fit all the lens elements and lens size needed to resolve a high quality image on a high quality large sensor without large optics. That's the main limiting factor. Otherwise the camera only has to have a shutter, a processor and a sensor and that takes up very little space overall.

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As answered before me, one of the differences between SLR cameras and compact cameras is the sensor size. Assuming we'll have a compact camera with a big sensor we'll encounter a problem.

Small sensor "creates" big crop factor: about 4-6, so a compact lens can give a nice range and acceptable focal length, but when you are up scaling the sensor size you also are down scaling the crop factor to ~1.5. In order to get a focal length of 200mm you'll need a ~130mm lens and this kind of lenses are hard to miniaturize. Try a bit longer focal length and it will be impossible to make the lens compact.

Moreover, a small camera body with big lens is not ergonomic and you'll find it hard to use the camera when the center of mass is in front of the camera body.

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The two terms you probably want to google are mirrorless and large-sensor compact. These cameras will typically cost roughly the same as a dSLR entry-level kit, and will offer some serious tools for photography you won't find in a low-end compact camera, such as full manual mode, a flash hotshoe, and RAW capability. And a larger sensor.

Mirrorless

Mirrorless cameras offer an interchangeable lens mount and (often, but not always) a comparable sensor size to most dSLRs, but use the data on the sensor for preview and autofocus, simplifying the lightpath and mechanisms to make simpler, more compact camera bodies.

Whether the system overall is more portable depends on the size of the sensor, since there is a tradeoff between sensor size and lens size. For systems like the Sony e-mount, or Fuji X, which use APS-C sized (1.5x crop) sensors, their lenses are equivalently sized to the ASP-C lenses for dSLRs; the same holds true for full-frame mirrorless and dSLR (i.e., Sony E-mount full frame and equivalent Canon/Nikon dSLR full frame lenses are roughly the same size). The main savings is in the body size. For micro four-thirds cameras (4/3"-format, 2x crop) or Nikon 1 (1"-format, 3x crop) can have smaller-than-dSLR lenses, and are more portable, but the smaller sensors inherently have less dynamic range and high iso noise performance.

Large-Sensored Compacts

Large-sensored compacts are similar to mirrorless but have fixed lenses instead of interchangeable lens mounts. Here, the lens and camera body can be optimized for the specific sensor-and-lens combination. So the combination can actually be smaller than an equivalent mirrorless setup (e.g., the LX-100 vs. the GX85 + 12-35/2.8).

Here, too, there is a tradeoff game between the lens size and the sensor. The larger the sensor in the camera, typically the more limited the focal length range of the lens will be to keep the lens small. Full frame and APS-C sized sensors tend to have prime (fixed focal length) lenses (e.g., Sony's RX1 and Fuji'x X100/X70 cameras). And you generally don't get a zoom lens until you're down to 4/3"- (Canon G1X, Panasonic LX-100) or 1"-format (Sony RX100, Canon G3/5/7/9X) sensors.

A Note About Image Quality

You ask:

Is it really possible to combine compact camera portability with professional SLR quality?

This all depends on your definition of "professional SLR quality". If you mean "SLR quality" in technical terms of the sensors and processors in dSLRs, absolutely--sensors and processors are shared among dSLRs, mirrorless, and compacts. In fact, there's one mirrorless camera (Hasselblad X1D) that has a medium-format sensor larger than the ones you can get in any Canon or Nikon dSLR.

But if you mean "professional quality" as in the type of image a professional photographer can make, then you're looking at the wrong thing. The camera is just a tool. It's up to the photographer, not the camera, to make a gorgeous/arresting image that says something meaningful.

A person with enough talent and drive to put them in the profession, and all the post-processing and shooting skill, experience, and practice that being a professional requires can probably shoot rings around anything that you as a newb could produce, no matter the cameras used. (See DigitalRev's Youtube series: "Pro Photographer, Cheap Camera".) Professional work has been done with iPhones.

Owning a "dSLR-quality" camera won't guarantee you beautiful professional-quality images. You still have to learn how to use it, and to develop your own artistic vision and creativity. And beautiful, gorgeous photos typically take a lot of vision, creativity, time, and effort. Possibly also money.

How willing are you to spend the money, time, and effort? How creative is the vision in your mind's eye? Spending money on a book, class, seminar, or airline ticket to something cool to shoot might improve your image quality far more than a new camera.

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Actually these goals are what mirrorless cameras aim to achieve.

  1. They have the large sensor and full manual control of dSLRs.
  2. But they also have the compact size of point & shoots, since they don't have the mirror and optical viewfinder of the dSLRs.
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Some mirrorless cameras have optical viewfinders (e.g., XPro-2). Not all mirrorless cameras have as-large-as-dSLR sensors (Pentax Q, Nikon 1). – inkista Jul 10 at 21:36
    
@inkista m 4/3 is still bigger than p&s sensors – Jana s Jul 11 at 9:27
    
But 4/3"-format (2x crop) is smaller than APS-C or full frame that's in dSLRs. And the fixed-lens compact Sony RX-1 is full frame. – inkista Jul 11 at 9:41

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