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 adds a review-based discussion of the Ricoh GR II.
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.
A lot of the compromises you previously had to make are moot now. These models come with sensors the size of a high-end dSLR's and performance that can rival a midrange dSLR and offer the same level of manual control over shutter speed, aperture, support raw files and other creative features.
These dSLR complements (or replacements) come in two versions: ones with the traditional larger-than-average point-and-shoot design, and the interchangeable-lens models (ILC), 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 all-in-one models.
On the other hand, fixed-lens models can have better lenses than those which come in the inexpensive dSLR and ILC kits. Kit lenses generally come in 18-55mm, 16-50mm or 14-42mm flavors, depending upon the sensor size, but they almost universally have maximum aperture ranges of f3.5 to f5.6. Many of these models have relatively short zoom ranges, but maximum apertures of f2.8 or better.
However, despite some excellent electronic viewfinders (EVF), you still sacrifice the improved shooting experience delivered by a through-the-lens optical viewfinder. And battery life in the compacts (or in an ILC, for that matter) can't match that of a dSLR. The small batteries in a compact are no match for the power drain of those always-on back displays and viewfinders.
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 series and the Canon PowerShot G7 X, in a body smaller, yet as full-featured, than the larger-sensored Canons.
Many of these cameras have gone to BSI (backside illuminated) CMOS
sensors, a manufacturing change over standard CMOS imagers which moved
the light-sensitive areas (photodiodes) to the top layer of the chip.
That move expanded the sensitivity in low light, but initially the
quality in bright light wasn't great; they're much better now. The other
advantage BSI sensors confer is speed: you can thank it for the
onslaught of multishot special effects (like HDR) and high-speed
continuous shooting modes.
Sony recently upped the BSI stakes with its stacked CMOS (branded
Exmor RS), a variation which relocated the circuitry off the photodiode
layer. Its Exmor RS also has extra on-chip memory and faster circuits,
which allows its RX100 IV and RX10 II cameras to do extremely high frame-rate capture (like 960fps for slow motion), 16/14fps continuous-shooting and 4K video.
Supply of this camera looks like it's drying up; prices have risen from its low of $350 in the US to $450, though it's still available for about £270 in the UK and AU$750 in Australia. For the moment, though this first-generation, almost 3-year-old camera remains the least expensive no-compromise option in the US, though in the UK and Australia the price of the better RX100 II is so close that I recommend it instead. The RX100 isn't nearly as good as more recent cameras, and they both have has the old, slowish lens, but they're also not nearly as expensive as the better models and still a great step up from a typical point-and-shoot.
Panasonic upset 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 (£600, 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, £540, AU$950) 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 (£360, AU$800) it's still not cheap. The RX100 IV -- more expensive at $950 ( £800, AU$1,300) -- isn't quite as good for still photo quality, but offers a lot more video controls if that's your thing.
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 $650 (£400, 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.
The other similarly priced APS-C camera in this class, the Ricoh GR II ($700, £600, not yet available in Australia), produces photo with quality similar to the Coolpix A, but though it has Wi-Fi built-in, the rest of its drawbacks are the same as the Nikon's for qualifying as a general-purpose recommendation.
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/IV and Nikon Coolpix P7800 also incorporate an electronic viewfinder.
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 for around $420, at least in the US. 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 (£340, AU$750 for the Stylus 1s) price tag. The only potentially close competitors are the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 and new RX10 II with its shorter, 8.3x lens and the new Canon PowerShot G3 X; those cameras have a larger sensor that delivers better photos, but they really don't qualify as compacts. And while the 25x zoom lens on the G3 X is longest, its f2.8-5.6 aperture range is too slow to really compete with the other two constant-aperture models.
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 $650 (£400, AU$650) makes it a great bargain for a camera with an APS-C-size sensor. 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.
The Ricoh GR II ($700, £600, not yet available in Australia), which also has a relatively narrow feature set and somewhat better performance, is more current and produces images with almost as good quality.
For more, the $880 Fujifilm FinePix X100S (£730, 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 recent 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 $1,150 (£1,100, AU$1,500), which is relatively expensive; the company's latest X Vario is even more so at $2,100 (£1,420, AU$2,500), though it's the first APS-C compact with a zoom lens. The lens is pretty slow, however (it hits f6.4 at 70mm).
The lastest addition to the RX100 series incorporates a 1-inch sensor, but uses a new, faster-readout technology that allows it to shoot 4K and high frame-rate video for slow motion. It also has a lot of features that serious users need, like timecode and Picture Profiles for different color spaces and gamma settings. However, at $950 (£920, AU$1,400) it's on the expensive side for more casual users. The less expensive (and I think better designed) Panasonic LX100 ($800, £700, AU$1,000) comes in a close second for easy, high quality 4K movies.
If money is no object, spring for the $4,250 Leica Q (£2,900, AU$5,700). Great photo and video quality, stellar lens, and an unusually modern feature set for a Leica which includes decent autofocus. Don't want to spend quite that much? The Sony RX1 delivers great photos and comes in at a less gaspworthy $2,800 (£1,900, AU$3,500) but sacrifies amenities in the Leica, including a built-in viewfinder and decent autofocus. It has a sibling, the RX1R (around $2,800, £2,100, AU$3,500), which has the same full-frame sensor but like the Leica Q has no optical low-pass filter, intended to produce sharper photos for folks who photograph highly detailed still subjects.