Compact cameras for advanced photographers (pictures)
Are you ready to step up to a more sophisticated model, or are you thinking about stepping down to something smaller than a dSLR? These are for you.
Editors' note: This story was originally published on November 21, 2011, but is updated frequently to reflect more recent reviews and announcements. The latest update swaps out the now-unavailable Olympus XZ-2 from the best-value slot.
It's a common complaint: You want the photo quality of a dSLR but find you're leaving the camera at home because it's so large.
The compromise is a compact camera with a sensor larger than a typical point-and-shoot's -- sometimes even the same size as a consumer or midrange dSLR, with raw file support and sufficient manual control over aperture and shutter speed to allow for a measure of the creativity to which you're accustomed. What you sacrifice is the speed of a dSLR's faster phase-detection autofocus, and, more often than not, the improved shooting experience delivered by a through-the-lens optical viewfinder.
These dSLR complements come in two versions: ones with the traditional larger-than-average point-and-shoot design, and the interchangeable-lens models, which attain a more-svelte-than-dSLR profile by jettisoning the mirror-and-prism optical path, which is one factor that keeps dSLRs so large. Of course, once you start adding on to the latter models, like tacking on an EVF and even a modest zoom lens, they start to get pretty big. Still, equipped with a kit pancake prime lens like the 17mm (Olympus) or 14mm (Panasonic), they remain quite pocketable. But they also tend to be quite expensive compared with the all-in-one models.
There are always new wrinkles in the enthusiast compact segment. With the debut of the Cyber-shot DSC-RX1, the first full-frame compact-ish camera, and its even more expensive OLPF-free successor, the RX1R, Sony redefined best photo quality for now for $2,800 (£2,600, AU$3,500). Surprisingly, Leica's high-priced APS-C-based X Vario can be found at a somewhat reasonable $2,100 (still high priced at around AU$3,000 and about £1,475) with a slow but unique for an APS-C model zoom lens. Then there's the Cyber-shot DSC-RX10; though it has the body of a megazoom, with the RX100 II's 1-inch sensor and an 8.3x f2.8 lens it has the spirit of a compact, though it's initial too-high price now hovers around a more reasonable $1,000 (£800, about AU$1,200).
And then there are the oddballs, like the Sigma dp series. With the new version of the Foveon sensor, Quattro, and a big, almost noncompact design, I suspect this won't be the model to break the dp out of its niche.
Beyond the advanced controls you get with these cameras, their most
defining aspect is sensor size. Once upon a time, a 1/1.7-inch sensor
was considered the must-have in this category. Now, you can get them as
large as full-frame.
Why does it matter? The bigger the sensor, the better the ability to
control how much the background blurs, and generally the better the
photo quality. The trade-off is that as sensor size grows so does camera
size, and in fact a lot of the APS-C and full-frame sensor versions of
the cameras can only loosely be termed "compact."
That's partly why Panasonic's entry into this segment with its LX100 is so interesting. A veteran competitor here, the company jumped straight from its 1/1.7-inch LX7 to Four Thirds. While the Canon PowerShot G1 X and G1 X Mark II
have a larger 1.5-inch sensor, it's only marginally larger; in
comparison, the Four Thirds-size sensor is significantly larger than the
increasingly popular 1-inch sensors in models like the Sony RX100 models and the Canon PowerShot G7 X, in a body smaller, yet as full-featured, than the larger-sensored Canons.
It's not particularly cheap at $450 (though it can be found as low as $350, £280 and AU$750), but this almost 3-year-old camera is the least expensive no-compromise option.
Another model worth mentioning is the Fujifilm XF1. Though it has the looks of an advanced compact, it's a lot more automatic than most of these. However, you can find it for less than $200 (roughly £140, but doesn't seem to be an option in Australia) if you just want the larger sensor and no fiddling.
Panasonic upsets Sony's RX100 III with a camera that outclasses its predecessors for best overall model. The LX100 is speedy and compact with a fast lens and excellent and video photo quality. However, it's expensive at $800 (£590, AU$1,100), so it's not necessarily the right pick for everyone. If you want second best, the slightly less expensive -- at least in the UK and Australia -- RX100 III ($800, £550, AU$1,000) is still a great choice. The RX100 II is still a better value, especially if you don't care about the tilting LCD; though at about $600 (£400, AU$800) it's still not cheap.
The $650 Canon G7 X (approximately £400, AU$750) has the best photo quality in the 1-inch sensor class for less money, but it's slow and its connectivity isn't particularly well implemented.
The street price of the Nikon Coolpix A, with its APS-C-sized sensor, has dropped significantly since its launch to roughly $600 (£500, AU$650) and now competes against these models. Though the image quality is very good, the fixed focal-length lens, 2013-era feature set and quirky autofocus performance keep it from being as well-rounded as one expects in this class. However, Amazon lists it as discontinued so I'm looking forward to an update.
Furthermore, with its built-in EVF, the LX100 also reigns as the best model with a viewfinder. I think EVFs work better in this class of camera than the small, hard-to-use optical viewfinders of yore. Canon dropped the optical viewfinder for the Mark II, replacing it with an expensive optional EVF. The RX100 III and Nikon Coolpix P7800 also incorporate an electronic viewfinder, as does the non-compact Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10.
For optical viewfinders, the Fujifilm FinePix X20 is the fastest performer of the group -- The company went to an EVF for the X30 -- and is capable of producing nice, though not best-in-class images. Canon has two models in this class, the older Canon PowerShot G1 X and the PowerShot G16, though the older G15 is still widely available, at least in the US. However its street price is starting its inevitable creep upward; the last time I updated it was available from a lot of places for around $400, but now it's closer to $500. While the original G1 X has arguably the best photo quality of this subgroup, it's also slow and expensive, and the lens aperture narrows so fast as you zoom out that it can be frustrating to use.
The G16, on the other hand, has a great, fast lens and improved (but still not great) performance, but it lacks the articulated display of the other Canon models, and its photo quality isn't significantly better than its last couple of predecessors.
Olympus conquers this class with the longest zoom range -- a 10.7x
28-300mm (35mm equivalent) model. And it doesn't sacrifice the aperture
to get there; it delivers a constant f2.8. It also performs pretty well
for this crowd. But its relatively small 1/1.7-inch, low-resolution
sensor produces images that might please snapshooters but don't really
stand up for demanding pixel peepers given its effective $600 (£400,
AU$600) price tag. The only potentially close competitor is the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 with its shorter, 8.3x lens (as yet unreviewed), but that camera has a larger sensor that delivers better photos.
If you want the best photo quality under $1,000, an effective price
drop on the 1.5-year-old Coolpix A down to about $600 (£400, AU$650) makes it a great bargain. It doesn't have a huge feature set, and its
performance isn't great, though.
However, Amazon lists it as discontinued so I'm looking forward to an update.
For more, the $900 Fujifilm FinePix X100S
(£800, AU$950) also has great photo quality. Plus, it has a very nice
hybrid viewfinder that switches between optical and electronic.
However, it's kind of big to think of as a compact, and while it's great
for manual focusing, the autofocus can be quirky. The most recently
announced update to it, the X100T
seems to cost just a little more. It keeps the sensor and lens, but incorporates
an improved viewfinder and LCD, plus a more streamlined design.
Leica also offers its X2
for about $2,000 (£1,300, AU$1,500), which is relatively expensive; the
company's latest X Vario is even more so at $2,100 (£1,500, AU$3,000),
though it's the first APS-C compact with a zoom lens. The lens is pretty
slow, however (it hits f6.4 at 70mm).
If money is no object and you simply want the best photo quality, the
RX1 delivers that, hands down. It lacks some amenities offered by the
cheaper X100S, including a built-in viewfinder, but the amazing Zeiss
35mm lens and excellent full-frame sensor slightly soften the sticker
shock of this expensive but ground-breaking camera, which rings up
somewhere in the vicinity of $2,800 (£2,100, AU$2,300). It has a
sibling, the RX1R, which has the same full-frame sensor but no optical low-pass filter, intended to produce sharper photos for folks who photograph highly detailed still subjects.