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Compact Camera Fever

Cameras seem to be bloated these days. When mirrorless cameras first came out, they were noted for their small size--consider the Panasonic G1 with its micro four-thirds sensor. And they just kept getting smaller. The Nikon 1, the Panasonic GM1, the Pentax Q and others emphasized small form factors. The market has largely rejected cameras that are as small as those cameras. Partly, this rejection follows from the better image quality to be gotten from larger sensors (which require larger lenses and larger bodies). Partly, I wonder, this rejection may come from the joy of using a camera that is substantial. In a time when many expensive goods last no more than 3 years before going kaputt or become obsolete, many consumers want to use something that feels robust. Pure speculation.

But the original mirrorless cameras (and some of their minuscule successors) also come from the quirky tradition of small, specialized cameras. Think of first cameras such as the Kodak Brownie or the Fujifilm disposable camera. Think of the spy cameras of the Cold War. Think of the little travel cameras of the 1970s like the Olympus Trip and the Canonets. And of course, think of all the performance point-and-shoot cameras of the 1980s and 90s--the Olympus XA, the Ricoh GR1, the Contax T2, the Minolta TC-1.

What makes these cameras so fun is the idea that they fulfill one purpose, and the photographer commits to this one purpose as an exercise in finding himself or herself. Don't we all want to be Daido Moriyama with a Ricoh GR1? Or perhaps you think of yourself as a jetsetter with a Canonet? We shouldn't underestimate the idea that photographers could identify with one way of shooting and therefore with one mythical compact camera.

I've recently become more and more interested in these compact cameras. My primary cameras--a Fuji X-T3 and a Leica M4-P--are hardly large. But I've paired both of them with my Sony RX100 mark VII, and it's a blast. The autofocus, which I've written about on another occasion, is excellent. But what's best about this camera is the sharpness of the lens and the fact that it fits comfortably in my front pocket. The Sony's zoom lens, which reaches from 24mm to 200mm in terms of 35mm equivalents, makes the camera a great companion to the Fuji or the Leica. But rather than satisfy my interest in compact cameras, the Sony just heightens it.

And I'm not the only one. The prices on compact cameras, whether we're talking about the Sony RX100 series, the Fuji X100F or premium compact film cameras like the Contax T2 and the Ricoh GR1, have gone up and up. These price increases reflect the fact that each of these cameras are fun and enjoyable. For me, I'd think about adding a film compact camera. It would make an interesting complement to my Fuji set up--much as the Sony makes an interesting complement to the Leica. That way, I'd always be going out with the option to shoot video and high quality stills (in either digital or film). Having a mixed digital/analog bag is fun--and that's my main goal when I step out the door.

Now all I need is a new bag to house a system in each bag. As my friend told me, I've got a big Xmas list.

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Nov 14, 2020

Great observations. In the digital world, as small sensor cameras have improved, so have larger sensor cameras. Unfortunately, digital cameras quickly become obsolete. (Or at least that's what the manufacturers tell us.) We have a lot of options. Film cameras have a timelessness ... it's film, right?

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