“And yet,” said the boy, “a smaller container means a smaller opening, and it won’t catch nearly as much rain.”
The master nodded again. “Excellent, my son,” he said. “Now you understand the trade-off between digital S.L.R. cameras and pocket cameras. The S.L.R. is big and heavy, but it has a huge sensor that collects much light; you can get sharp photos even at twilight. The pocket camera has a tiny sensor that’s blurry in low light, but at least you won’t slip a disk trying to carry it around.”
And for centuries, that’s how it stood. People could buy a big camera with a big sensor, or a tiny camera with a tiny sensor.
Then, in 2008, Panasonic and Olympus rethought the whole problem. They produced a new camera format called Micro Four Thirds. The size of these cameras, and their sensors, is between that of a compact and an S.L.R., and they electrified the photographic community. Already there have been eight models, with 11 available lenses.
Other camera companies were clearly, ahem, inspired by the idea. In March, Samsung released a new hybrid of its own, the NX10, with a sensor about 60 percent larger than Micro Four Thirds. It’s the same size — known as APS-C — that’s found in real S.L.R.’s like the Canon Rebel or the Nikon D90.
Last week, though, Sony introduced another jaw-dropping step forward in the big sensor/small camera race: a tiny machine called the Alpha NEX-5 . It won’t be available until July, but it may be worth waiting for.
Like the Samsung, the NEX-5 contains an APS-C-size sensor — awesome. Yet this camera is amazingly, crazily small. It’s half the weight and volume of a small S.L.R.; in fact, without the lens, it’s about the size of a regular pocket camera (4.4 by 2.4 by 1.6 inches — only an inch thick except at the grip bulge). The lens barrel is actually taller than the camera itself.
Anyway, it’s the smallest interchangeable-lens camera in the world. With lens attached, the tiny NEX-5 looks a little bizarre — even ridiculous, like a mere backplate for a lens. But keep an open mind; it still handles well.
Now, to get this small, Sony had to push the envelope — and pull it, fold it and spindle it. As with most other hybrids, this one has no built-in flash and no eyepiece viewfinder. (A tiny snap-on flash comes with the camera, and a glass viewfinder that works with the standard lens will cost about $200 and will become available in July.)
And there’s room for only six buttons, compared with about 25 on an S.L.R. Yet the camera offers most of the controls of a typical consumer S.L.R., plus some great features from amateur cams.
The price is right: $600. Or you can save $100 and get the NEX-3, which has a plastic body instead of a metal one. For that price you get a non-zooming 16-millimeter lens (24-millimeter film equivalent) . On the camera, this lens is flat enough to fit in a coat pocket, but beware some distortion at the edges of the frame. For $50 more, you can get either camera with a 18-55-millimeter (3X zoom) lens instead. An 18-200-millimeter (11X zoom) lens will be available this fall for about $800.
With an adapter, you can use any of dozens of existing Sony Alpha S.L.R. lenses — but they’re much bigger and, on these cameras, can’t autofocus.
The photos are fantastic: big, bright, sharp, with true color and the sort of gently blurred backgrounds that you can’t get with a pocket cam.