by Michael J. Shapiro | September 01, 2011

Most event organizers hire a professional to photograph their major meetings -- and there's no better way to capture and preserve an event's image. But even when a photographer isn't in the budget, planners can benefit from having documented their events with photos or video. For smaller or more impromptu gatherings, site inspections and other purposes, having a good camera at the ready could mean the difference between throwaway cell-phone snapshots and images crisp enough to be used in marketing collateral.

For that reason, M&C decided to take a closer look at a relatively new breed of travel-friendly cameras, known as compact system cameras (or the more descriptive "mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras," or the more provocative "EVIL" -- electronic viewfinder with interchangeable lens). Produced by a growing list of manufacturers, they are smaller and lighter than digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras but generally deliver image quality approaching that of their larger brethren. Read on for an explanation of the differences and how these cameras might be useful for meetings.

Format overview
Until a few years ago, buying a digital camera -- and not just snapping photos with your cell phone -- meant an investment in either a compact point-and-shoot or a DSLR. The former category, which makes up the vast majority of the market, essentially means a camera with a nonremovable lens. A digital single-lens reflex camera, on the other hand, is what those of a certain age call "real cameras." The mechanics of these mimic the 35mm film SLR cameras of days gone by, with an image captured by a sensor rather than a film negative. The photographer can look through an optical viewfinder to compose the image and select different lenses for different purposes.

The compact system cameras we're looking at here bridge the gap between those two types. By eliminating the mirror that sits behind the shutters of SLR cameras, manufacturers can make the camera bodies much smaller. Lenses can be smaller and lighter as well. The lack of a mirror means these cameras can't offer an optical viewfinder, so on most models you compose the picture using the LCD display -- but nearly all offer viewfinder accessories you can attach, should you prefer to put your eye up to the camera.

Four manufacturers have been selling the bulk of these cameras -- Olympus, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony -- and more are on the way. According to one industry insider, Nikon will release a version by year's end, and Canon likely will have a model out by January 2012. Leica will join that list too, per recent reports.

Sensor science What makes these compact system cameras compelling in terms of image quality is the size of the sensor inside -- and size matters. Even entry-level DSLRs use sensors that are typically 15 times the size of the average sensor in most compact point-and-shoots (and at least 50 times what you might find in a cell-phone camera). Cameras with bigger sensors can theoretically provide cleaner photos, with more gradations of light and color and less "noise," or graininess. The sensors in compact system cameras from Sony and Samsung are the same size as those found in many beginner DSLRs; those in competing cameras from Panasonic and Olympus cameras are slightly smaller, but still nine times larger than the sensors in point-and-shoots.

Many other factors determine image quality, but the size of the sensor is a more telling figure than the commonly referenced megapixel count, which merely refers to the number of light-capturing pixels on the sensor.

What it means to you: It all depends on how you'll use the photos. If they'll be viewed at a relatively small size on a website, the image quality attributable to a larger sensor matters less. But if the photos will be displayed more prominently online, used in print collateral or shared with the media for publicity, the finer quality is important.

Sense of style A number of these compact system cameras sport slim camera bodies with a retro style, evocative of rangefinder cameras favored by street photographers 50 to 60 years ago. The most obvious example is the Olympus PEN series, named and styled after Olympus' light, portable film cameras that became popular in the 1960s. That's one reason this camera type has cultivated a following among photographers -- when used with smaller lenses, these cameras present a handy alternative to DSLRs. Most offer the manual adjustability found in DSLRs, in the portable convenience of a camera body around the same size as the larger compact point-and-shoot models.

What it means to you:
These cameras are stylish, light, easy to carry and less likely to draw attention when you're trying to take candid photos. A DSLR will probably produce better-quality images. But if that extra bulk means you're more likely to leave the camera in your room when you're on-site, the better photo quality won't matter much.

Moving pictures While retro on the outside, the cameras still provide most perks of the present, notably high-definition video. Most digital cameras these days have added video to their feature lists; in the case of the compact system cameras, the relatively big sensors and the selection of different lenses can mean better quality output and more flexibility in different shooting situations than you'd get with a point-and-shoot. Several models can shoot full-size HD video (the newest Olympus PEN cameras, Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3), while others offer what's called 720p HD video (Sony NEX-C3, Samsung NX100, Olympus PEN E-PL2) -- still high-definition video, but with fewer lines of resolution. Some even have a separate shutter button for shooting video -- a nice convenience, because you can begin shooting immediately without first selecting a movie mode.

What it means to you:
In this age of YouTube, using video to promote an event can be a great way to build buzz. Whether you're responsible for the final product or you're handing off your video clips to someone else to edit, good-looking footage makes a bigger impact.