The Unlikely Resurrection of Small Cameras

The Unlikely Resurrection of Small Cameras

Technology often follows a path where it begins life large, slow, and expensive, and then gets smaller, faster, and cheaper as time passes. Digital cameras have not followed this trend for a number of reasons, and every time I think I can predict where the industry will go, a curveball is thrown.

Cameras: Technology's Anomaly

My first camera was a little Canon 350D and a nifty-fifty on the front. From there, my cameras became larger and more powerful as I wanted to push my work further. Then, as mirrorless cameras rose to prominence, my cameras started getting smaller again. But, in a confusing twist, a trip to Tokyo in 2018 for Fujikina had me fall in love with the GFX range and its largest lenses, and for the uninitiated, they are near-double the size and weight of a Sony mirrorless. I enjoyed the added size and weight; it felt more like I was plying a skill. That's just me, however, and mirrorless still rules the roost for the majority, including me.

This love remains today, but my medium format Fuji isn't my workhorse. This isn't simply because it's cumbersome and tiring to lug around, but also in terms of shooting; medium format is a slower, considered workflow that doesn't work on all shoots. For my workhorse, I have always wanted a small mirrorless body that is capable, but versatile too. The last decade has produced an array of bodies that are both of those things, and in fact, the cameras have been getting smaller, more versatile, and more capable. However, the smaller they got, the more they had to be pitted against a rival that seemed unthinkable just a few decades ago: mobile phones.

Taken in 2018 with a Google phone.

Phone cameras 20 years ago were pointless. Around 2002, I bought a Sony Ericsson phone with an attachable camera, and while it fascinated teenage me, I knew even then it was a gimmick. Then, with every passing year, phones improved and iterated upon the cameras until they were built in and usable. This more or less detonated the point-and-shoot market; why carry that small brick around with you when you can use an item that's in your pocket, anyway? 20 years ago, damn near every family had a point-and-shoot camera that was pulled out of a drawer on high days and holidays, but now, even the elders of society use mobile phones (or sometimes — amusingly — iPads) for every photographic purpose the point-and-shoot was built for.

This sparked a lively and never-ending debate about whether the mobile phone cameras had a taste for blood and were headed for hobbyist camera bodies next. I have spoken on several occasions about the role my phone plays as a photographer, and I'd go as far as to say, it nears my most-used camera in some months. However, the dedicated, interchangeable lens cameras had a barrier between them and the humble phone camera: physics. On a phone, the restrictions of sensor size and the distance between the sensor and the lens were insurmountable without impeding heavily on the design and ergonomics of the phone. There was also the more solvable problem of interchangeable lenses, though carrying around extra lenses defeated much of the point of a phone's camera, which is accessibility.

So, proper cameras are safe from the greedy, encroaching hands of the smartphone, right? Well, physics didn't account for computing, in this case. AI camera algorithms were suddenly creating faux depth of field, and while it started life easily spotted, today it is nearing indistinguishable in many circumstances. With AI set to only improve, this ought to have been the death sentence for small cameras; why buy a pocketable camera when your pocket usually has a camera in it anyway? The answers of creativity with composition, attractively shallow depth of field, and image quality are all but redundant now. And yet, there is a rampant resurgence of small cameras. Why?

The Resurrection of Small and Pocketable Cameras

The answer to the question of why there has been a resurgence of small cameras is complex and multifaceted. I would suggest that one of the primary allures is just how enjoyable they are to use. If you're a photographer — beginner, hobbyist, or professional — you likely won't love using a phone to take pictures, even though we can now control more settings. It isn't even necessarily the issue of not being able to change lenses, but rather the process; it's disconnected, unsatisfactory, and overly automated.

Fujifilm X100V

Then there is the power of these newest small cameras. I will give three examples, so you know what I'm talking about. The first is the above-pictured Fujifilm X100V which has become an instant cult classic. It is sold out in every shop I know of, including — and this really is wild — Fujifilm's VIP store. I am fortunate enough to be a Fujifilm VIP and I was debating making the purchase, but alas, no dice. Every "influencer" who owns one waxes lyrical whenever they can about its superb 23mm f/2 Fujinon lens, the film simulation modes that have captured a lot of photographer hearts, and of course, the small form factor. This is all without mentioning the 4K video!

There is then the slightly lesser-known (but still sold out!) Ricoh GR IIIx which is now comfortably under $1,000. It has a longer, 40mm focal length, the well-received GR Engine 6, and it is tiny. Amusingly, I have seen several photographers complain about the GR IIIx in the exact same way: it's in essence a GR III with a longer lens on the front, which means you want to own both!

Finally, there is the more video-centric Sony ZV-1 which has become a firm favorite of vloggers, but is also highly proficient for stills. The flip-out and rotate LCD touchscreen and UHD 4K30p combination is what has many YouTubers enjoying this body, but the Zeiss 24-70mm f/1.8-2.8 makes it extremely capable and versatile.

There are at least another 5-10 compact cameras I haven't mentioned, including Leica and Panasonic, but they all share a common theme: they're brilliant and small enough to throw in a bag or even a pocket at times. You will see many photographers refer to them as "travel cameras" which is essentially pointing at the same thing.

Try as it might, the mobile phone camera cannot seem to dethrone these bodies for photographers and videographers. In fact, I believe phones may be the very product that is raising small cameras up. Modern phones have shown us how much we miss when we don't bring a camera with us, albeit in an unsatisfactory way. Nevertheless, I'm still reluctant to take my full kit bag everywhere I go — as many of us are. Thankfully, there are intermediate options that are small, powerful, and do not cost you the feeling of photography. Enter, small cameras.

Lead image an edit of a photo by Lisa Fotios via Pexels.

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11 Comments
Ken James's picture

I have a Canon G1X Mkiii. It is the nicest small camera I have owned in over 40 years of photography. Oh has its faults, as all cameras have but I love using it. I am over 80 and carrying my DSLR is getting to heavy when we are away for a week's holiday. Just my thoughts 😃

Mike Shwarts's picture

Using my RX100iii or LX100 is more satisfying than a phone.

Charles Mercier's picture

I've always liked small and light but ergonomically phones are awful for composing, zooming and taking photos. Great images need great glass (size). Small cameras like the above mentioned are a good compromise.

Paul Chambre's picture

I went with a Sony RX100VI for my small camera - mostly for places that don't allow ILCs, but also just as the camera I can have with me most of the time. That 1" stacked sensor and optical zoom are still quite a bit ahead of the latest phones, not to mention the advantages of an EVF. By the way, your Fuji GFX is a mirrorless, too.

Cliff Batson's picture

No discussion of small cameras with high quality is complete without a mention of the Sony RX100x series of cameras. Small with a Zeiss zoom lens! The size of the camera dictates a small-ish sensor, which means low-light performance isn't optimal, but these Sony cameras are impossibly good for their size.

I recently spent a month in Europe and had planned to take some high-end camera gear with me. But, when the realities of packing and carrying that gear began to register in my brain, I ultimately decided to leave it all at home and just take the pocket-sized Sony RX100VII. Were there times I wished I had brought my expensive gear? Yes. But, almost never.

Sorry to sound like a fan-boy. If you're thinking of getting a small camera, please look into the Sony RX100 series of cameras.

Scott McDonald's picture

I have Sonys and Canons and Leicas but when it comes to carrying a pocket camera when I don't want to bring one of these others along for the ride...my LX100ii has tricks up its sleeve that none of the other "big boys" have. It's a brilliant alternative!

Marco Venturi's picture

I have an LX 100, which works great and is always with me. I dream of an LX 200 with a new sensor, 20-100 2-2.8 zoom and a fully articulated screen.

Alexander Ramos's picture

My small camera of choice is a Panasonic Lumix ZS100. 1 inch sensor. Pocketable enough. LCD touchscreen. Leica designed zoom lens.

With a good mix of manual and auto controls on tap, I prefer to use it in Aperture mode most of the time. Great for when I don't want to carry my m4/3 or APS-C rigs outside.

The only thing it lacks for me is a retractable LCD screen, but I learned to take selfies back in the film era so that's nothing to me. None of the Android phones I've owned since 2016 have surpassed the overall quality of the ZS100, the thing does shoot in RAW as well. It can also produce (binned, but good quality) 4k video clips.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Of all the 35mm cameras I own, the Minolta XG7 is the smallest. I started out with Minolta then turned to Nikon and Leica, but the Minolta always holds a special llace for me. It is so light, smaller than my other ones and easy to get acquainted with and use.

Steven Woronick's picture

I have a Nikon D810 and don't really understand the mirrorless craze. Sure, the D810 is kind of heavy as cameras go, but it's not *that* heavy, it's not unmanageable, and I really don't mind hauling it around for what it offers me. I want to be able to compose my photos under all conditions, including bright light. I like looking at the scene through the lens. I like being able to compose the shot as i brace the camera against my face. I like the long battery charge i get by not having a big display screen draining my battery. The only negative is that the camera can be a little imposing if i am trying to capture candid street shots. For that, i can use a compact point-and-shoot or my phone.

Tom Reichner's picture

Small, light cameras are great for carrying around. But to me, they are terrible to use. The larger a camera body is, the more comfortable it is to use, and the better the button placement is for where my thumb and fingertips naturally lie.

How good a camera is to use - actually take photos with - is of great importance. How good a camera is to carry around from place to place is of very little importance at all. I want a camera that is great to use, and will gladly put up with excess bulk and weight to carry around when the camera is not in use. It is the actual use of the camera - the taking pf photos - that matters above everything else. The quality and worth of my life as a human is determined by the quality of the photos I take, not by how easy or comfortable it is to carry things around.