Compact cameras with interchangeable lenses are hot right now. Pairing a larger sensor than a regular pocket snapper with a dSLR-style lens was always going to appeal, so it's not surprising that it's currently the fastest-growing photography sector. Already comprising more than half of all sales in Japan and Taiwan, Europe and the US are now following suit.
Panasonic, Olympus, Sony and Samsung are putting in the most effort to feed our insatiable appetites. Even dSLR big gun Nikon shipped its first two cameras of this type last year -- the Nikon 1 V1 and 1 J1 -- while rumours abound that Canon is set to follow, although nothing has yet been confirmed.
In theory, a considerably smaller body than a dSLR and a sensor larger than compact offers the best of both worlds. Without a prism or mirror though, such cameras naturally can't facilitate an optical through-the-lens viewfinder. On some, a digital equivalent is a paid-for add-on.
Panasonic and Olympus teamed up to develop a dedicated sensor and lens technology called Micro Four Thirds. Despite the name, the sensor is actually the same size in these cameras as a Four Thirds system in a dSLR -- around half the width and height of a regular 35mm frame at 18x13.5mm. (This means all lens measurements must be doubled to take account of the crop factor.) The 'Micro' actually refers to the shrunken camera body, achieved by doing away with the prism and mirror that sit between the sensor, lens and viewfinder in a traditional dSLR.
The format is currently only used in cameras produced by Panasonic and Olympus because -- unlike Four Thirds -- it's not been released as an open standard for other manufacturers to use.
Sony and Samsung employ the broadly similar NEX and NX mounts respectively. The two camera lines look much like one another. Each boasts excellent image quality but additional features such as built-in Wi-Fi may be enough to swing a purchasing decision in Samsung's favour.
Perhaps the most adventurous of all the interchangeable lens compact manufacturers though is Pentax, which has taken its two offerings in wildly divergent directions. On the one hand, you have the Pentax Q, which at less than 10cm in length and around 5.5cm and 3cm in height and depth respectively, is more like a spy camera than a regular consumer unit. It's easy to carry around and has good colour reproduction. On the downside, fat-fingered users might find it fiddly and you'll pay a handsome price for so small a body.
At the other end of the scale is the Pentax K-01. As its name suggests, it features a K-mount to which you can attach one of over 30 lenses from the company's extensive back catalogue. This makes it among the most versatile cameras in its class. Unfortunately though, by using a traditional lens set-up rather than something designed specifically for the interchangeable compact market, the camera has a bulky design that takes some getting used to.
Best interchangeable lens compact
The best interchangeable lens compact right now is the Micro Four Thirds-based Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF5. It may not be as powerful as the GX1 (see below), but it provides the perfect balance of form and function, in which a comfortable and very compact body is paired with first-class performance.
This 12.1-megapixel (4,000x3,000 pixels) camera costs £500 and has the option of a compact 14-42mm (28-84mm equivalent) powered lens that adds just 26mm to the body width when sleeping. This is a refreshing contrast to many CSCs that couple a compact body with a lens that more or less matches the dimensions of a dSLR barrel.
The 3-inch screen is touch-sensitive and Panasonic makes great use of this with comprehensive, logical menus and some creative photography options along the lines of the effects seen in smart phone apps like Instagram.
It performed well throughout my tests, with vivid and muted colours reproduced truly. Fine detail was captured to a very fine degree. Low-light performance was impressive, with accurate hues at ISO 12,800, while at ISO 3,200, noise levels were low and controlled.
I could throw only two complaints at the GF5. The first was the powered kit lens' minimum focusing distance of 20cm. The second was the occasional sound of wind on movies, even with noise reduction activated.
Neither of these was sufficient to rob it of a five-star rating in the full review though, which is why I consider it the best CSC currently available.
Interchangeable lens powerhouse
If you need something with a little more power, consider the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1. Although larger than the GF5, it rewards you with a 16-megapixel resolution.
It consistently demonstrated excellent tonal recognition and images were packed with plenty of tightly-focused detail, right across the frame. As with the GF5, low-light performance was good, with only very slight dappling visible in my tests at ISO 1,600, rather than full-on grain.
Still-life shots taken under studio lighting ranked among the best achieved by any camera in my tests.
The traditionalist's choice
Interchangeable lens compacts are getting so good that they can compete directly with consumer dSLRs, so it's not unreasonable to expect many dSLR users to switch platforms at the point of their next upgrade. For them, something that looks more like a dSLR will appeal. Take a look at the Samsung NX20, which has all the curves and controls of a dSLR but less of the chunky bulk.
In common with the rest of Samsung's latest interchangeable lens compacts, it makes use of the innovative i-Function lens system. This is a dedicated i-Fn button mounted on the side of the lens barrel. When pressed, you can control modes by twisting the focus ring on the end of the barrel. So in aperture priority and shutter priority modes, it tweaks the aperture and shutter settings. Pressing it several times cycles through the various options relevant to each mode, including exposure compensation. This makes it one of the most versatile systems to shoot with and a very quick way to get just the shot you're after.
It is expensive though. At £900, it's almost twice the price of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF5.
Street photographer's dream
If street photography is your thing, check out the Fujifilm X-Pro1, which has a fantastic retro body and a pin-sharp set of lenses.
It's even more expensive than the Samsung NX20, tipping the scales at around £1,200 for the body only. Expect to pay around £500 on top of that for a lens. If you can afford it you won't be disappointed though. It's unique here in having an offset viewfinder that can either show a regular optical view of the scene in front of you or the same sensor output as is shown on the rear LCD.
The menus are extremely quick to navigate and there are plenty of hardware controls to save you the chore of trawling through on-screen lists of options. The shutter speed dial is a particular highlight, giving you direct access to all speeds between 1 second and 1/4,000 second.
Image quality can't be faulted. Results are packed full of detail and the prime lenses let you focus on some beautiful, narrow slices of each subject when set to their widest apertures.
Any of the cameras named above would make a great shooting companion -- it really depends what you can afford and what you need it for.
Before getting too carried away, consider the disadvantages. Few of them offer as versatile a zoom as a traditional compact, many of which boast magnifications as high as 20x. You won't achieve that here without investing in multiple lenses. That could get expensive.
Furthermore, the biggest compaint levelled at dSLRs -- that changing the lens risks introducing dust onto the sensor chamber -- is true of compact interchangeables too. Potentially more-so, when you consider they do away with the dSLR's integral mirror.
So long as you can live with either of these limitations, compact interchangeables really do offer the best of both worlds. For that reason, it looks like they're the mass market enthusiast's camera of the future.