What's next? Upgrading from the best smartphone camera

For the past few months I've been concentrating on other cameras, both compact and system. Why?
Not because I'm fed up with smartphone cameras, but because I feel they have reached just about their peak - it's hard to buy a high-end smartphone camera with a mediocre camera these days. 

Also, I noticed my own shots improved significantly using better glass and larger sensors. I'm witing this post to share my experience with some important factors when upgrading from a smartphone camera. Hope it will help you make up your mind if you're planning to do so yourself.

First of all, my means are limited and I hardly have access to the newest devices. For me, this is an upgrade from the smartphone camera, but it still has to be affordable - you can spend some serious money in the real camera world. So most of what I learned is based on tons of reading and mostly second hand devices.

What do you miss in a smartphone
The improvements in smartphone photography have been extremely impressive. Now we're all used to very effective resolutions, OIS, bigger sensors, larger pixels, better flashes, more customizable settings. So I don't want to put the smartphone down all of a sudden, but nevertheless your photography will probably improve if you'll start using a real camera.
Sure, it will be (at least) the second device you'll have with you. It will definitely be less portable and heavier, and you'll need to get your head around all kinds of stuff you maybe never worried about when using your smartphone. 

Everybody expects a smartphone to be light and thin, so its optics are extremely small. However astonishing the software supporting them may be, it's all about tiny sensors, practically no "glass" and of course no "tiltable screen". And: fixed aperture. More about all of that later on.

Last but not least: there is no Electronic View Finder on a smartphone - which has become of such major importance for me personally that I decided I won't do without it anymore.

The Samsung NX-series - fantastic but discontinued
My journey began with the Samsung NX1000, a now very affordable system camera that to this day should not be underestimated thanks to its huge APS-C sensor with a 20.3MP resolution. You'll find it cheap on the second hand market, including lens and seperate flash. It doesn't have an EVF though  - I wasn't aware of its great value back then - and there's no tiltable screen either. But it's small and easy to bring and what I got from the huge APS-C sensor really surprised me.

It wetted my apetite for even better quality - I sold it to replace it with a second hand Samsung NX300 en fromd there, it was a small investment to upgrade to the Samsung NX500. Still no EVF, but tiltable display and pushing the resolution up to 28MP offering absolutely insane detail. Both the NX300 and NX500 offered WiFi, so it was easy to transfer my files to my (Android) smartphone.

Then something happened that made me (and many with me) very sad but provided me with some great opportunities. Samsung decided to leave the camera market, leaving everyone in astonishment.. Up to this day it's not known exactly why since the company never gave a clear statement explaining the decision either. So I was disappointed at first, but it enabled me to get my hands on the Samsung NX1, still among the best system cameras around.

And that's how I discovered the great value of the EVF.

What's so great about EVF?
In former days, photographers used to work with an Optical View Finder on their DSLR to compose their shots: they would exactly frame the scene with it. The Electronic View Finder is essentially different. The EVF shows exactly what the sensor is recording. It's like an exact and detailed preview of what the sensor will capture as soon as you hit the button. 

Quite a few brands offer compact and system cameras without EVF - and working with "just" a display isn't all that bad, especially when it's tiltable. But there are many advantages having an EVF, the most important for me being to see exactly what I'm doing, also when the light outside is so bright I wouldn't see a thing in any display (because of the reflection). Also, when you work in darker conditions, you'll get a much better view on your subject.

The EVF will show you whether your shot is well exposed or not - the possibiliy to see the histogram in your EVF is also a great help of course. You will see the result change when you change the settings before you capture your shot. And you can program your device so that after shooting, you will see the result projected in the EVF.

After working with nothing but smartphones for years, the EVF came as a revelation for me. I really believe that like Sony came with an attachable lens for smartphones, now someone should think of an attachable "click-on" EVF for them, reading what the sensor is actually about to capture. 

Looking for the best compact from here
So now that I'm able to work with one of the best system cameras made in the past years, my "quest" has limited itself to the best compact camera for me. Best as in: "very good and still affordable", "value for money", or the famous "bang for your buck" - and preferably not too bulky. I think the step from a smartphone to a large system camera might be way too much for many readers anyway. 

So I'll concentrate on compact cameras from here. But I can only write about my own experience so far - there are a lot of brands I couldn't test, so if you have anything to add, please feel free to do so in the comments below.

Bigger sensors
To begin with, this illustration from  AllAboutWindowsPhone is interesting to compare sensors used in smartphones.

The sensor in the Lumia 1020 (1/1.5") is only slightly smaller than in the 808 PureView (1/1.2", see below), but still, both are considerably larger than the 1/2.3" size found in the Xperia Z5 - and often found in compact cameras as well.

That's why I felt my "next" camera should at least have a 1 inch sensor. I know there are many good compact cameras with "only" a 1/2.3 inch sensor offering great lenses, but I wanted to make a serious leap forward. 

How big is 1 inch in comparison?  You can see that  in this picture I borrowed from The Online Photographer, showing a huge amount of sensor sizes. You'll see them sorted here from large (Full Frame, the largest size for compact and system cameras) to small (1/3.2 inch)

The sensors typically found in smartphones are among the smallest you see above. There are two famous exceptions: the Nokia 808 PureView uses a 1/1.2 inch sized sensor and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-CM1 even uses a 1 inch sensor, which is immense for a smartphone.

Why is a bigger sensor important? Generally speaking, larger sensors have larger pixel areas, enabling you to capture more light - which photography is all about. Also, bigger sensors have more room for higher resolutions, offering more detail in your shots. This is not to say that every device with a large sensor automatically will have a higher resolution - your mileage may vary.

Of course, bigger sensors usually lead to bigger devices. So coming from a smartphone, the challenge may be to find the most pocketable device. Including a large sensor and even an EVF, that's not very easy. 

Aperture value
Since the aperture value is usually fixed on a smartphone (two exceptions: the Panasonic Lumix DMC-CM1 and the Samsung Galaxy Zoom), not many people are aware of what aperture does or even means. Many companies are now bragging about their "aperture values" - like Samsung does about the impressive f/1.7 on the Galaxy S7. 

But what does that mean? If you really want to dig into what it's all about, read this page on Wikipedia. Basically, the aperture value represents the opening of the lens, allowing light to come in. The lower the value behind the f/ symbol, the larger the opening, so exposure time will be shorter. The higher the value, the smaller the opening, the more exposure time you'll need (depending on how you want to capture the scene). Here's a simple illustration I copied

So with a low value like f/1.7 (Galaxy S7), the small lens is wide open, allowing much light on the sensor, enabling you to capture good shots in darker circumstances, possibly even without using the flash.

But it's a combination of factors as well: Samsung left the MegaPixel race (coming from 16MP) and chose for 12 Megapixels for the Galaxy S7 - a larger pixel size also enables the sensor to capture more light. The sensor itself is 1/2.5 inch by the way. In Pro Mode, you can set shutter speed, ISO, white balance etc. - but you can't change the aperture value of the Galaxy S7. It's fixed.

But why would you need a smaller lens opening then, if it's all about capturing light anyway? That has to do with the Depth of Field (DOF). With a wide open lens, the subject close to your camera will be standing out from the background, which will appear blurry - the "bokeh effect".

If you need both foreground and background to be as sharp as possible, you choose a much higher aperture value, like f/8  or even f/16. The lens opening being way much smaller, you'll need more exposure time. 

Accordingly, if you need your background to be not so sharp but not a vague blur either, you choose a value somewhere in between - depending on your taste and of course the circumstances you are dealing with. Just use Google to find tons of examples of aperture and bokeh.

One more thing: you'll notice people writing about "faster" lenses. That means the lens needs less time to capture the shot - so its aperture number is low. My fastest lens has an aperture of f/1.4. My fastest compact has f/1,7. Again: the lower the number, the larger the lens opening, the more your camera will be able to capture in low-light conditions (and the more bokeh you may achieve). 

Manual settings - shutter speed, aperture, exposure correction, WIFI.
Now that you are reading all this, my guess is like me you are a "more aspiring photographer". When in a hurry you'll want to rely on the automatic settings, but you want to be able to work with at least a few manual settings to capture the scene to your taste. 

Now of course every camera offers manual settings for shutter speed, aperture value and exposure correction. In many cases, you'll have to go into the settings menu on the display, to change them according to your wishes. A few compact cameras though, offer buttons, dials and rings to reach these settings much faster.

I've used a few cameras that enabled me to quickly change settings with extra hardware on the body. An aperture ring around the lens is a joy to work with, just like a dial to choose shutter speed. You can combine their functionality as well of course: the difference between 1/500 and 1/1000 shutter speed may be too large, so not just the exposure correction but also the aperture ring enables you to quickly finetune the light you want - all depending on circumstances and how you want to capture the scene.

So now all of a sudden I'm not only looking for a more or less pocketable compact camera with a large sensor and EVF, but preferably also with aperture ring, speed dial and exposure correction directly on the body. Also, I'd welcome WiFi connectivity, enabling me to send a shot I captured to my smartphone, to share it from there (this is Smartcam Club, after all). 

And that's all narrowing it down quite a bit. Below you'll see the interesting compact camera's I found so far. You can absolutely forget about "pocketable" in some cases, and some don't offer everything I was looking for, but are still worth looking at. Two devices are way too expensive, but I didn't want to leave them out. Again, your suggestions are more than welcome.

A few suggestions 
Like I wrote, I started with a 1 inch sensor as a "minimum". Go big to get better, so to say, at least what the sensor is concerned. The list below is far from complete, but will give you an impression of brands and devices you could be looking into like I did - I've been working on this for months in fact.

Every link sends you to a review on DPReview.com or Imaging-Resource.com, two of the sites I've been spending a tremendous amount of time. I won't be linking to the latest and greatest versions in some cases, keeping "affordability" in mind. For a quick look at specs, pros and cons, you can also check the vast database over at  CameraDecision.com.

1 inch sensors

Famous examples of a 1 inch compact camera are the Canon Powershot G5 X and the Sony RX100 (I-IV, see above). Both offer EVF (although the RX100 from version III onwards), but you won't find an aperture ring around the lens. Pocketability of the RX100-series is unparalalled in this category. Both offer WiFi (except for the first version of the RX100).

1 inch DSLR like (meaning very big)
Also interesting looking at devices offering 1 inch sensor are the "DSLR like" devices - compacts with a fixed lens, but way bigger than what you normally consider to be a compact, offering great glass and impressive zoom capacity. There are three contenders in this area.

These are the Sony RX10 (I-III), C anon Powershot G3 X (no built-in EVF, you can buy one seperately) and Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ1000 (below). The first version of the Sony RX10 doesn't offer 4K video by the way, later versions do. The Canon G3 X only shoots in Full HD as well. The FZ1000 does 4K and is generally considered to the "bang for your buck". Again all offer WiFi.

The FZ1000 is extremely hard to buy new at this moment though, after the Japan earthquakes earlier this year. You may look at the Leica V-Lux (typ114) which is exactly the same device but for the famous red Leica dot making it much more expensive. Panasonic announced the FZ2000 during last Photokina in Germany

Micro Four Third (4/3")
The next step would be a Micro Four third 4/3" - bigger than 1 inch but smaller than APS-C. I'm currently working with just about the only compact camera offering this sensor (and EVF), the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100 and although its resolution is somewhat limited (13MP) I'm really impressed with its results so far. I borrowed this GIF image from DPReview.com. The lens cap you see open and close is an accessory by the way.

The LX100 offers a great 4/3" sensor, EVF, aperture ring, shutter dial and exposure correction. Does it actually have everything I'd like? No, it has no tiltable screen and I would have like the idea of a larger resolution - perfection is always hard to find.

The sensor is in fact 16MP but never uses more than 13MP, depending on the aspect ratio you choose (3:2, 1:1, 16:9 and 4:3). Again, there is a Leica device that's almost identical to the LX100 in the Leica D-Lux typ 109 - and more expensive. Wifi connectiviy is included on both.

APS-C
There are quite a few compact cameras offering the APS-C size sensor I learned to love in the Samsung system cameras I started with.
Among the smallest are the Ricoh GR (I - II) and Fujifilm X70 (link to my own short review for a change :-). Design of the Ricoh is basic, whereas the Fujifilm X70 offers aperture ring, speed dial and exposure correction on the body. Both lack an EVF - perfection is hard to find - but the picture quality is stellar.

You can add an EVF to the X70 by the way but it's expensive and bulky, although well-designed. The only difference in the second version of the Ricoh GR is WiFi connectivity. Do NOT confuse it with the Ricoh Digital II. 

There are quite few more, but with an EVF built-in, you'll be looking at the Fujifilm X100-series - X100, X100s or X100t (above). I worked with the last for months and I absolutely loved it. The only disadvantage I can think of about the X100t is that it's quite large and heavy for a compact camera, and it lacks a tiltable display. Other than that it's simply fantastic and an immense joy to work with. Only the X100t offers WiFi connectivity.

Full Frame compact
To conclude this selection - although far from affordable - I should mention the Sony RX1 and Sony RX1R II (again linking to my own post about it, I know there are way better reviews out there like Steve Huff's). They both offer a Full Frame sensor. I had the privilige to work with the latter for a few weeks and it offers just about everything you can wish for (no zoom capacity though, but with 42MP ful frame, there's more than enough room for cropping). Picture quality is absolutely amazing, just like the price tag: a whopping €4199 at the moment. There is one more compact camera offering Full Frame though - the Leica Q, and no wonder (again) it's even more expensive. 

Final words
Like I wrote, I'd be happy with your suggestions below - don't be a stranger. At this moment in time I feel very lucky to be able to use the Samsung NX1 as my more "professional" system camera with a few fantastic lenses. You can see quite a few of my results on my Visiting Amsterdam project on Facebook. But it's very hard to buy one new since Samsung left the camera business - an eternal shame if you ask me.

As far as my experience with compact camera is concerned, I did try out quite a bunch and changed gear a lot as well - luckily for me we have lively second hand market here in the Netherlands. The absolute winner for me is the Fujfilm X100t, although it's on the heavy and large side for a compact. You'll find a lot of my early results in a few albums I shared on my personal Flickr account. 

Still in "need" for a more portable compact camera I'm very happy to have found the Panasonic Lumix DMC LX100, although I have to admit I'm still looking for a Panasonic FZ1000 as well - once again more bulky and heavy and even using a slightly smaller sensor (1 inch), but with great glass - and with a zoom capacity up to 400mm I feel quite sure it will get me some fantastic shots for my Visiting Amsterdam project for instance.

I hope this article has been useful for you and I welcome any questions or remarks you may have. Like I wrote, useful tips for other great compact devices are more than welcome. If you feel this site if worth more than just your time, please make a donation, it's highly motivating to keep this club open - I'll add you to the list of sponsors. The button is at the right hand top side of this page. Thank you very much in advance!