Next-gen camera trends just came into focus

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The past few months have seen some huge developments in the camera industry. A number of just-announced cameras will offer innovative features, surprisingly low prices, and wireless capabilities that rival those of your smartphone. From Wi-Fi-enabled DSLRs to Android-powered pocket zooms, here are the highlights.

Full-frame cameras in all shapes and sizes

Sony's Cyber-shot RX1 is the smallest full-frame camera of all time.

Sensor size may have finally supplanted megapixel count as the top-line marketing spec for cameras, and that's a very good thing. A larger sensor almost always produces better image quality, especially in low-light environments, while a higher megapixel count can have negative effects on photo quality if the sensor itself isn't sufficiently big.

A few announcements in the past week show where the big-sensor trend is headed: We'll have more-capable cameras in a wider range of body styles (and in a few cases, carrying lower prices) than we've ever seen. Leading the trend are a number of new cameras that feature full-frame sensors as opposed to the APS-C-size sensors found in most consumer DSLRs. A full-frame sensor is more than twice the size of an APS-C sensor; that translates to better performance in low light, less visual noise at high ISO settings, a shallower depth of field in macro mode, and the ability to capture a wider field of view when you use a full-frame lens.

At the Photokina show in Cologne, Germany, both Canon and Nikon unveiled DSLRs containing full-frame sensors and sporting smaller bodies and significantly lower price tags than the companies' past full-frame offerings had. The Canon EOS 6D and Nikon D600 will each sell for around $2100 for the body only; that's about $1000 less than the full-frame Nikon D800 and $1400 less than the full-frame Canon EOS 5D Mark III.

Sony also unveiled the smallest full-frame camera we've ever seen in the Cyber-shot RX1, a point-and-shoot-size camera with a fixed-focal-length 35mm/F2.0 lens. It will cost a pretty penny, though: At $2800, it's certainly priced more like a professional-level DSLR than a tote-everywhere compact camera. Another Sony offering, the $2800 Alpha SLT-A99, brings a full-frame sensor to the company's fast-shooting, fast-focusing SLT line, while the Handycam NEX-VG900 ($3300) is a full-frame-sensor camcorder that uses the same E-Mount interchangeable lenses as Sony's NEX cameras do.

Granted, these new full-frame cameras are far from cheap. But the prices are headed in the right direction for mainstream photographers, and the heated competition on the full-frame front should benefit consumers looking for an APS-C-sensor camera or a premium point-and-shoot in the coming years.

New premium compacts prepare for battle

Fujifilm's XF1 combines an old-school aesthetic with high-end features.

If you're looking for a pocket-size alternative to a DSLR (or a cheaper alternative to the high-priced Sony Cyber-shot RX1), you'll also have plenty of new options in the coming months. The premium compact category of point-and-shoot cameras—namely, pocket cameras with wide maximum apertures, manual exposure controls, and bigger sensors than your average model—is one of the fastest-growing categories in the digital camera universe.

Touchscreen interfaces are among the most significant additions to this year's class. The Olympus Stylus XZ-2 ($600) backs up its F1.8 lens and fast autofocus system with an adjustable 3-inch LCD touchscreen, which will allow shooters to simply touch subjects on the screen and have the camera focus and shoot within a second. The F2.0-aperture Canon PowerShot S110 ($450) isn't much different from its predecessor, the PowerShot S100, but it adds touchscreen controls and built-in Wi-Fi features to the mix.

Another Canon camera, the PowerShot G15 ($500), addresses a few weak spots in former G-series cameras. Namely, it has a maximum aperture of F1.8 (in contrast to the PowerShot G12's F2.8 aperture), as well as a much faster burst mode of 10 frames per second.

The just-announced Fujifilm XF1 ($500) is the most-stylish new option, with a faux-leather-covered aluminum body. Its beauty should be more than skin-deep, too, as its specs look just as droolworthy: It has an F1.8 lens, a 7-fps burst mode, a tight minimum focus distance of an inch, and a zoom lens that you operate by twisting the lens barrel.

And those are just the new cameras. You may have difficulty settling on a single premium compact camera this holiday shopping season, as these new models will join a solid field that already includes two F1.4-aperture cameras (the Panasonic Lumix LX7 and Samsung EX2F), the larger-sensored Sony Cyber-shot RX100, and the extremely fine-tunable Nikon Coolpix P7700.

The maturation of connected cameras

The Canon EOS 6D is a full-frame DSLR with Wi-Fi.

A couple of those premium compact cameras—the Canon PowerShot S110 and Samsung EX2F—also have built-in Wi-Fi for sharing images directly from the camera. We've seen Wi-Fi features in cameras for quite some time now, but usually such functionality has appeared in low-end cameras that don't offer compelling in-camera features, optics, or controls.

This year, wireless sharing features are showing up in some especially high-end cameras, and many companies are offering free iOS and Android apps that let you pair cameras with a mobile device. Samsung has offered such camera-to-mobile features for a few years now, and they're now finding their way into higher-end cameras across the board.

The full-frame Canon EOS 6D DSLR, for example, not only lets you upload photos to Web services directly from the camera, but also allows you to use a mobile device as a remote viewfinder and shutter release, as well as to view just-taken photos on a big-screen tablet.

Two of Sony's latest interchangeable-lens NEX cameras, the Alpha NEX-5R and NEX-6, also boast built-in Wi-Fi and remote viewfinder/shutter-release mobile apps, as well as the ability to download additional features to the camera (more on that in the next section).

But it's Samsung that is pushing the connected-camera idea even further forward. The Samsung Galaxy Camera, a 21X-optical-zoom compact model, offers the ability to connect to 3G and 4G cellular services, runs Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, and has a 4.8-inch-diagonal touchscreen, making it the most smartphone-like standalone camera yet.

The dawn of app cameras

Samsung's Galaxy Camera runs Android 4.1 and has a 4.8-inch touchscreen.

The Galaxy Camera already has some competition, however, as the past few months have also seen the introduction of an entirely new breed of cameras that run smartphone-like apps. Already, divergent app-platform strategies are taking shape.

For instance, Samsung's Galaxy Camera and Nikon's Coolpix S800C (a 10X-zoom pocket camera that runs Android 2.3) both tap into the Android app ecosystem to bring more than just photocentric apps to cameras. In addition to supporting the Android versions of apps such as Instagram, FX Camera, and Camera360, any of these Android-running cameras will allow you to play games, browse maps, or surf the Web—as long as you're connected to the Web, and the camera's components and internal storage can handle it.

Conversely, Sony's app platform, which the new Sony Alpha NEX-6 and NEX-5R support, is a purely proprietary and purely photocentric approach. The two interchangeable-lens cameras will be able to download and run only the apps that Sony builds itself, and the first wave of apps suggest that they will simply add new functions to the camera; among them are new creative filters, an app that extends the camera's bracketing modes to support shutter speeds and aperture settings, and in-camera editing tools.

Plenty to choose from

If you thought the camera industry was running out of steam and had no more room for innovation, this year's crop of new cameras has proven you wrong. By the end of this year, finding a camera that does everything you want—at a price you can afford—should be easy. The trickier task will be to decide exactly which model to buy.

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