With the introduction of the Nikon Coolpix A and the Ricoh GR—the number of little fixed-lens cameras with APS-C-sized sensors comes to seven (leaving aside the one full-framer). And that’s a big deal for a category that’s just a few years old.
Many readers may remember tiny 35mm cameras with big performance such as the Minox 35, the Rollei 35 (described as being as big as a cigarette pack—remember that size reference?), the Olympus XA series, and a dark gray magnesium tanklet, the GR1, from an iconoclastic company named Ricoh. And that’s besides the raft of fixed-lens rangefinders, such as the beloved Canonet.
But enough with the nostalgia already. How is it that large-sensor fixed-lens digital compacts (no, we will not call them LSFLDCs) have suddenly reached critical mass?
The Long Gestation
The real question: Why did it take so long for camera manufacturers to put big sensors in digital compacts? If you can make a full-frame 35mm camera (with a film autowind mechanism, no less) in a pocket size, why not with digital? There are many answers, both technological and economic.
The key factor is that these cameras are aimed squarely at DSLR (and ILC) shooters. While we’re sure a certain percentage of buyers will do so solely because of the style—or the upscale cachet—of these compacts, the market for them will be mostly those who already own enthusiast-level cameras. (Some observers see them as “niche” products, but we predict it will be a pretty big niche.) To attract that audience, these cameras have to be very good indeed.
As recently as five years ago, the technology wasn’t advanced enough to make cameras like these, or at least make them at viable price levels. A large sensor (in physical size and pixel count) requires a lot of processing power, and processor circuitry can take up a lot of room.
Buffer memory is even more of a size issue. A decent burst rate, or even just a short time lag between single frames, is non-negotiable for serious shooters. But both of those things require a big and fast buffer, another component that would have taken up too much room to make a genuinely compact camera in the past. (Remember five years ago, when a 4GB SD memory card was considered humongous?)
Then there is the issue of heat buildup in cameras. Larger sensors throw off more heat, and heat is a known cause of digital noise. This is less of an issue in DSLRs, which have more internal volume and space for heat sinks. But it remains a real issue for compacts.
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