Choosing the best CSC
By Ryan Shaw
Compact system cameras (CSCs) are the lightweight, affordable alternative to DSLRs. With so many cameras to choose from, how do you pick the first-class CSC for you?
Whether you’re looking for a step up from a compact camera or a more easily portable backup to your DSLR, there are plenty of great CSCs available. The best CSCs give you picture quality approaching that of a good DSLR and a higher level of control than you’d find in a bridge camera, but in a lighter and more compact form – and often at a lower price.
Some ape the style and controls of a more traditional DSLR while others go for a more compact camera feel, but either way they have larger sensors than most compact cameras – enhancing picture quality – and use interchangeable lenses, just like a DSLR.
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CSC or DSLR?
Some CSCs look like DSLRs, and the big-three DSLR manufacturers – Canon, Nikon and Pentax – all produce a CSC of some sort. What’s the difference? Well, while DSLRs capture images using a mirror, CSCs go without. According to our lab tests, this doesn’t impact the quality of photos, and some high-end, full-frame CSCs can match the picture quality of equivalent DSLRs. The only major effect is that those CSCs that have viewfinders – many rely on a built-in screen – will use an electronic viewfinder rather than an optical one. Even these are now very clear and easy to work with, so as long as a camera gets our Best Buy seal of approval, you shouldn’t notice any difference.
Find the perfect Compact system camera for you by checking out our CSC reviews.
Look for larger sensors
Thanks to their larger sensors, which are better at harvesting the available light and transforming it into a clear, crisp photo, CSCs produce better pictures than compact or bridge cameras, particularly in low-light conditions. Some use the same-sized 1-inch sensors used by a handful of advanced compact cameras, but most use a Micro Four-Thirds sensor or the same-sized APS-C sensor used in many DSLRs. What’s more, a few high-end CSCs are using full-frame sensors, the same size as a 35mm negative. These can produce incredibly rich and detailed shots.
Think about lenses
When you buy a CSC you’re buying into a system, so make sure that the system you buy into has the lenses to satisfy your photographic needs in years to come. Many entry-level models come with budget or kit lenses that might not show off the camera at its best, so ask yourself if it is a false economy or whether it would be better to get a mid-range camera with a better lens.
Focusing and shutter speed
Without the advanced multipoint and hybrid autofocus systems of DSLRs, some CSCs struggle to sharply focus in high-contrast and low-light situations. Our expert lab tests are designed to show up those models that fail in such difficult conditions. On the plus side, CSCs often have faster maximum shutter speeds than a DSLR of the equivalent price. That’s great news for sports and wildlife photographers, who need to capture fast-moving subjects.
The high-end CSC advantage
All CSCs will have the kind of automatic settings and features you’d find on a compact or bridge camera, and our expert reviews will tell you how well these work in practice. Move higher up the price range and towards the more DSLR-style cameras, however, and you’ll find more of the dials and manual controls you’d find in a ‘proper’ DSLR, with some models matching professional DSLR cameras. Smaller models may be more portable, but you may find relying on their touchscreens frustrating when you want to get creative.
While features such as GPS and wi-fi still aren’t quite standard in DSLRs, it’s rare to find a CSC without wi-fi connectivity. Wi-fi makes it easy to transfer photos to a phone or tablet, or even control the camera through an app. Some CSCs are also arriving with 4K video capabilities, theoretically capturing four times the detail of a standard Full-HD camcorder. You won’t, however, notice any difference unless you own a 4K TV set to watch it on.