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19th January 2010
Hybrid system cameras, the new alternative to the DSLR?
by Ian Burley
6639: Hybrid system cameras, the new alternative to the DSLR?

Smaller, lighter hybrid system cameras are challenging DSLRs as the camera to upgrade to from a compact

Poll: vote to let us know your views and intentions concerning hybrid cameras.

The traditional DSLR in the background (above) shows what a size difference there is between hybrids and DSLRs, despite sharing the same size sensor.

There is a relatively new school of thought in the camera industry that thinks there is a gap in the market between compact cameras and the professional-style interchangeable-lens DSLR, or Digital Single Lens Reflex camera. Put simply, around 93% of camera sales are of compact cameras. DSLR cameras may represent the more glamorous and desirable end of the consumer market, but research suggests that a market around three times as large as that of DSLRs is not served by a either compact or DSLR cameras. Could you be one of the frustrated 20+ percent of camera users who want something better than a compact camera but, frankly, aren't tempted by DSLRs?

The logic goes that compact cameras, with their tiny image sensors, are regarded as inferior to DSLRs when it comes to image quality, and lack the flexibility of interchangeable lenses afforded by DSLRs. But as many as 20% of buyers wishing to upgrade from a compact camera fail to be enchanted by DSLRs because they are too big and bulky, and complex to use compared to a compact. What's needed, then, is a hybrid camera that takes the best key features from compacts and DSLRs and packages them in a smaller, lighter, and easier to use form factor.

Manufacturer interest

Panasonic Lumix became the first camera manufacturer to legitimise the above theory when they launch the Micro Four Thirds camera platform, with Olympus, just over a year ago. Samsung announced almost a year ago that it would be following the Micro Four Thirds example with its own, proprietary, compact interchangeable lens system camera platform, and it was launched at the beginning of the year. We've heard rumours that Nikon is preparing to launch a new ultra-compact hybrid camera, and some rumour sites are even suggesting that Canon will join Panasonic and Olympus in the Micro Four Thirds club - though I find that highly unlikely; Canon has the ability to build its own system. Sony has made noises to the effect that they will also enter the hybrid market.

What makes a hybrid different?

So based on the evidence of the hybrid cameras that are already on the market, what makes a hybrid camera different to a compact or a DSLR, and has the hunch that there is a big untapped market for such cameras proved right? Let's try to address that last question first: data from Japan suggests that in just over one year Micro Four Thirds (Panasonic Lumix and Olympus models combined) has claimed 16.5 percent of the 'DSLR' market. Hybrids are classified as DSLRs because they feature interchangeable lenses. 16.5% is kind of impressive, but remember - the projected market size for hybrid cameras is around 300% of the current DSLR market, so there is a long way to go, nearly 20 times the current size, yet. In other words, hybrids have just over one percent of the Japanese camera market. The Japanese have warmed to hybrid cameras more quickly than other markets, too. Of course, it's entirely expected that the adoption of hybrid cameras will take time. Maybe in five years time we will have some solid proof of whether or not the hybrid camera will out-grow the DSLR market. Some enthusiasts even suggest that hybrids will eventually kill-off the DSLR. That may be the case, but I'm not personally convinced it will happen for, perhaps, decades.

Samsung is the third big camera brand to launch a hybrid camera, with Nikon, Sony, and Canon rumoured to be waiting in the wings.

A hybrid camera is smaller and lighter than a DSLR camera, but larger than most compact cameras. A much larger imaging sensor is used in a hybrid camera and the first hybrids from Panasonic, Olympus, and Samsung all use the same size sensors as their respective DSLR camera models. Interchangeable lenses are a must, as is the absence of a reflex mirror, that component of a DSLR that made so much difference when it was first implemented in a portable camera back in the 1920s. The mirror enabled the camera to use one lens, both for viewing the subject, thanks to the mirror diverting the view to the viewfinder, and for exposing the film by lifting the mirror out of the way so the light from the lens could shine onto the focal plane shutter in front of the film. In the old days the mirror would flick up but had to be manually flicked down again. Quick return mirrors soon arrived and the clunk of the shutter and mirror doing their work became a satisfying and reassuring experience characterised by using single lens reflex cameras.

No more reflex

The Pentax DSLR on the left (above) accommodates a large box-like cavity for its reflex mirror. The space behind the lens mount in the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 is much smaller.

 

Even though the G1 (above right) has a swing-out LCD screen, you can see how much slimmer it is compared to the Pentax DSLR (left). Consider that the G1 is one of the least compact of the hybrids so far, and that the Pentax istDL is one of the smaller DSLRs around, you can see just the potential for bulk-elimination hybrids offer.

But that reflex mirror arrangement meant there had to be a large space between the lens and the film. Not only did this make camera bodies bulkier, the lenses - especially wide angle lenses - required more powerful optical designs that made them bigger and bulkier. We have an article that explains this if you are interested. By eliminating the DSLR mirror, you can save space bringing the lens closer to the sensor, and a bonus is that the lenses get smaller too. This is precisely what hybrid cameras do.

Back-to-back

Below are some tables that compare the dimensions of selected small DSLRs and hybrid cameras.

Hybrids versus DSLRs
Body-only specifications sorted by weight
Weight (g) Width (mm) Height (mm) Depth (mm)
Hybrid Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 285 119 71 36
Hybrid Olympus Pen E-P1 335 121 70 35
Hybrid Samsung NX10 353 123 87 40
DSLR Olympus E-450 380 130 91 53
Hybrid Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 385 124 84 45
DSLR Canon EOS-1000D 450 126 98 62
DSLR Sony Alpha A230 450 128 97 68
DSLR Nikon D3000 485 126 97 65
DSLR Pentax K-m 525 123 92 68
 
Body-only specifications sorted by width
Weight (g) Width (mm) Height (mm) Depth (mm)
Hybrid Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 285 119 71 36
Hybrid Olympus Pen E-P1 335 121 70 35
Hybrid Samsung NX10 353 123 87 40
DSLR Pentax K-m 525 123 92 68
Hybrid Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 385 124 84 45
DSLR Nikon D3000 485 126 97 65
DSLR Canon EOS-1000D 450 126 98 62
DSLR Sony Alpha A230 450 128 97 68
DSLR Olympus E-450 380 130 91 53
 
Body-only specifications sorted by height
Weight (g) Width (mm) Height (mm) Depth (mm)
Hybrid Olympus Pen E-P1 335 121 70 35
Hybrid Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 285 119 71 36
Hybrid Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 385 124 84 45
Hybrid Samsung NX10 353 123 87 40
DSLR Olympus E-450 380 130 91 53
DSLR Pentax K-m 525 123 92 68
DSLR Nikon D3000 485 126 97 65
DSLR Sony Alpha A230 450 128 97 68
DSLR Canon EOS-1000D 450 126 98 62
 
Body-only specifications sorted by depth
Weight (g) Width (mm) Height (mm) Depth (mm)
Hybrid Olympus Pen E-P1 335 121 70 35
Hybrid Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 285 119 71 36
Hybrid Samsung NX10 353 123 87 40
Hybrid Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 385 124 84 45
DSLR Olympus E-450 380 130 91 53
DSLR Canon EOS-1000D 450 126 98 62
DSLR Nikon D3000 485 126 97 65
DSLR Pentax K-m 525 123 92 68
DSLR Sony Alpha A230 450 128 97 68

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1, which looks like a miniature DSLR, was the first hybrid camera and, unsurprisingly, it's the biggest, although no quite the heaviest. Samsung's new NX10 hybrid also looks like a DSLR can't compete in terms with the compact-style Lumix DMC-GF1 or Olympus Pen-E-P1 in terms of size and weight. In most cases the hybrids are comfortably smaller and lighter than the smallest DSLRs in the tables.

Even though the Panasonic Lumix Micro Four Thirds kit zoom (above right) offers a wider zoom range, it's dwarfed by the Pentax DSLR kit lens (left).

The portability advantage in favour of the hybrids is extended when you factor in the size and weight of their kit zoom lenses:

DSLR and Hybrid camera kit zoom lenses compared:
Zoom range Equivalent to Widest apertures Weight (g) Length (mm) Diameter (mm) Volume (mm3)
Hybrid Samsung 18-55mm 27-82.5mm 3.5-5.6 198 65.1 63 202927
Hybrid Panasonic Lumix 14-45mm 28-90mm 3.5-5.6 195 60 60 169641
Hybrid Olympus 14-42mm 28-84mm 3.5-5.6 150 43.5 62 131326
DSLR Canon 18-55mm 29-88mm 3.5-5.6 190 79.9 68.5 294446
DSLR Nikon 18-55mm 27-82.5mm 3.5-5.6 265 79.5 73 332728
DSLR Pentax 18-55mm 27-82.5mm 3.5-5.6 220 67.5 68 245131
DSLR Sony 18-55mm 27-82.5mm 3.5-5.6 210 69 69.5 261755
DSLR Olympus 14-42mm 28-84mm 3.5-5.6 190 61 65.5 205537

Nikon's 18-55mm kit zoom is over twice the volume the Olympus hybrid kit zoom lens, which can cleverly telescope into itself when not in use like a compact camera lens, and nearly twice as heavy. Even the smallest DSLR zoom lens from Olympus is significantly larger than the Panasonic Lumix hybrid kit lens. The Samsung kit zoom is the largest of the hybrids, almost certainly because it is designed around a larger APS-C sensor, but it's still smaller than all the DSLR kit zooms.

So there is no denying that hybrids do, on the whole, deliver on their ambitions to be much smaller and lighter than even the smallest and lightest DSLRs.

Usability and image quality

Small and light is good, but what about usability and image quality? Surely there have to be some compromises. The answer is yes.

Autofocus
Getting rid of the DSLR reflex mirror means you can't use fast DSLR autofocus technology any more. Instead, you have to use the same AF method used by compact cameras, called contrast detect. It's slower than the phase detect system used by DSLRs, although it should - in theory - be more accurate. This means hybrids, first generation ones at least, are not suited to action photography where fast AF responses are called for. Panasonic, especially, has made great strides in the development of its contrast detect AF system, and has even optimised it for video use.

Shutter lag
Because the shutter has to be open in order to enable the real time live view on the screen and/or electronic viewfinder, the delay caused by having to close the shutter before opening it again to make the exposure adds to the shutter lag you experience when pressing the shutter release. In practice it's not that critical and you tend to get used to it, anticipating the action.

Viewfinder
Without a reflex mirror you either have to use the LCD screen on the back of the camera or an electronic eye-level viewfinder. One thing we have to thank the development of hybrids for is a marked improvement in EVF display quality. Although the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 has an optional clip-on EVF that is hardly better than its FZ-series of superzoom compacts, the DMC-G1, GH1, Olympus Pen E-P2, and the new Samsung NX10 all offer very clear, high resolution, EVFs. They can be used for critical adjustment of focus, and offer the benefit of information overlays so you can compose and inspect status information in a way not possible with a DSLR, without removing your eye from the viewfinder. EVFs are not for everyone, it must be admitted, and the display quality drops in very low light. But to balance that last point up, at the light level where an EVF starts to deteriorate, you will be hard pushed to see anything at all through a DSLR viewfinder.

Image quality
Hybrids that have appeared to date use the same size sensors as their DSLR cousins, so image quality is very comparable. And this means hybrid camera image quality is a lot better than even the best compacts, which have much smaller image sensors. Noise and dynamic range performance is in a different league to compacts, especially at medium to high ISO settings. With larger sensors, hybrids enable you to limit depth of field creatively with much more ease and flexibility than a compact camera.

System capability
Hybrid cameras are system cameras; they are endowed with a range of interchangeable lenses and dedicated system accessories, like flash units. A lot of interest has been stirred up concerning the use of rangefinder lenses from the stables of Leica and Voigtlander, among others, through the use of adapters. You can't do this with DSLRs because the lens mount to film/sensor plane distance is too great. In fact adapters are appearing that let you attach almost any popular DSLR lens to hybrids, although most of these don't provide autofocus or auto exposure functionality. Micro Four Thirds camera bodies can operate with full data communications between lens and body when Four Thirds DSLR lenses are mounted, though.

So far, if you can't live without a power/portrait mode grip, wireless remote flash, exotic flash systems, like ring flash, and other more esoteric accessories you will find in DSLR systems, hybrids will not be for you. But I have a hunch some of these items will appear one day. If there is demand for a 'heavyweight' modular hybrid camera for pro or semi-pro users, someone will surely move to meet that demand.

Handling
This is perhaps the toughest category for some who may be interested in adopting a hybrid, especially if they are down-sizing from a DSLR. By definition a hybrid is small, and that means the controls will be more closely packed and buttons will be smaller. If you have large hands and fingers, you might find hybrids fall at this hurdle. Fortunately, for most this won't be an issue.

Conclusion

It has to be emphasised that we are in the early infancy of the hybrid camera concept. If the hybrid camera is to realise its full potential, it will have to reach a level of sales some 2-3 times greater than the entire current DSLR market. Hybrids are bringing a lot of new innovations with them, and there are many more innovations to come. I think we are witnessing the beginning of a fascinating evolution of the upper end of the digital camera market. I personally can't wait to see what Nikon, Sony, and others will come up with to meet the challenge of the likes of Samsung, Panasonic, and Olympus. Is a hybrid in your future? That depends on you. But there is a good chance that you are being targeted by the hybrid camera manufacturers, both current and future.

Reader feedback:

Discuss this story:

Hybrid system cameras, the new alternative to the DSLR?

DPNow Hybrid system cameras, the new alternative to the DSLR?
Here is a summary or excerpt from an article that has just been published on DPNow: Samsung has jus... (more)

Ian Re: Hybrid system cameras, the new alternative to the DSLR?
I can think of five regular posters on the DPNow forum who have embraced the hybrid camera concept; ... (more)

mike_j Re: Hybrid system cameras, the new alternative to the DSLR?
I have had a G1 for more than a year, it replaced an Olympus E510. It has it strong points but is no... (more)

Ian Re: Hybrid system cameras, the new alternative to the DSLR?
I'd be interested to know what the G1 strengths are in your view :) Of course the G1 was the ver... (more)

devilgas Re: Hybrid system cameras, the new alternative to the DSLR?
i could see me replacing the compact with a hybrid, but don't see it replacing my dslr simply based ... (more)

Ian Re: Hybrid system cameras, the new alternative to the DSLR?
You make some fair points there. The new EVFs from Panasonic, Olympus, and Samsung, even the new R... (more)

Autumn Re: Hybrid system cameras, the new alternative to the DSLR?
I am not really sure what a Hybrid is Ian and when people talk about a G1 I think of the Canon G1... (more)

Ian Re: Hybrid system cameras, the new alternative to the DSLR?
That's what my article tries to do! :D Ian... (more)

Pol Re: Hybrid system cameras, the new alternative to the DSLR?
Audrey, In a simplistic nutshell - a hybrid camera is something between a compact and a dSLR - bu... (more)

Ian Re: Hybrid system cameras, the new alternative to the DSLR?
Thanks Pol, I think it's true to say that hybrids have some advantages and disadvantages over DS... (more)

Autumn Re: Hybrid system cameras, the new alternative to the DSLR?
Thanks very much Pol and Ian for that very concise explanation. There are so many "Latest DP Ar... (more)

 
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