6 High-Quality Compact Cameras
APRIL 03, 2013
By Dan Havlik
There’s more to life than big, full-frame DSLRs and bulky, medium-format camera systems. What about those times when you might not have a camera on you at all? Don’t reach for your iPhone with its measly sensor and annoying apps. Instead, put one of the following six high-quality cameras in your pocket, and you’ll always be ready to capture a professional-level photo on the go. Yes, there are fancier compacts out there—such as the Sony Cyber-shot RX1 with its 35mm-size chip or all the mirrorless compact system cameras with their cute interchangeable lenses—but those models are way too big to fit in a pocket. These small wonders can always be with you in a pinch.
Sony Cyber-shot RX100
One of our favorite little cameras of the past year is the 20.2-megapixel Sony Cyber-shot RX100. Yes, 20.2 megapixels is a lot of resolution to pack into a camera this small but that’s not why we like it. It’s because all those pixels find room on a surprisingly spacious 1-inch Exmor CMOS sensor, giving this camera a relatively large individual pixel size for a compact. What that translates to is cleaner images at high ISOs (range is ISO 125 to 6400) in low light and higher quality, more DSLR-like photos overall. The RX100 also has a sweet, 3.6x (28-100mm) Carl Zeiss optical lens with a fast maximum aperture of f/1.4 as well as built-in image stabilization. This camera is also speedy as heck, with the ability to fire off up to 10 frames per second (fps) at full resolution, making this a great camera for candids and basic action. Other luxe features include a tilting pop-up flash so you can bounce the light rather than nuke your subject directly; focus peaking to electronically check if your images are sharp on the rear 3-inch screen; and full 1080p HD video with stereo sound.
Canon PowerShot S110
Canon used to rule the roost when it came to high-quality compacts—just about every photographer we knew had an S90 or an S95 as a fun, back-up travel camera—and the PowerShot S110 is an extension of that reign. If it’s not as groundbreaking as those feature-rich earlier models, that’s just a reflection of how far this category of camera has come. Though this 12.1-megapixel camera doesn’t boast a large sensor—it has a consumer-sized 1/1.7-inch CMOS sensor—the chip has been redesigned for better low-light shooting: The S110’s ISO range now extends from 80 to 12800. The S110 can also shoot RAW images (along with JPEGs), which has been one of the signature features of Canon’s PowerShot series compacts, giving you lots of latitude to tweak your shots later. We also like the camera’s proven 5x Optical Zoom lens (24-120mm equivalent) with a maximum aperture of f/2 and image stabilization; and full 1080p HD video at 24 fps. In terms of major updates, the S110 has two: The 3-inch screen on back is now touch-capacitive, letting you change settings and sweep through photos with the stroke of a finger; and built-in Wi-Fi.
Sigma DP3 Merrill
The Sigma DP3 Merrill is a little different from the other compact cameras in this roundup but that’s OK—Sigma’s been doing things differently with its cameras for years. First of all, there’s the DP3’s layered Foveon X3 sensor, which Sigma says captures 46 megapixels of resolution, though most industry observers agree it’s more like 15 megapixels. Then there’s the actual size of that chip, which is a tad smaller than those APS-C sensors found in entry-level DSLRs but a whole lot bigger than what’s in most compact cameras. We’ve gotten great results from Foveon sensors in Sigma cameras in the past and while we hadn’t had a chance to shoot with the DP3 Merrill at press time—it was unveiled at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January—we’re expecting good things. (Incidentally, the camera is named after Dick Merrill, the founder of Foveon and inventor of the vertical color filter in X3 sensors.) The DP3 Merrill is also slightly bigger than the other compacts here but can still fit in a pocket. (OK, maybe a coat pocket.) The one major difference between the DP3 and its predecessor is that it has a 50mm (75mm equivalent) f/2.8, fixed focal length lens compared to a 30mm, f/2.8 lens in the DP2.
The 12-megapixel Fujifilm X20 is another camera that’s just a bit too large to call a true “pocket” model but it’s certainly small enough to fit into a coat or bag and take with you anywhere. Like the DP3 Merrill, the Fuji X20 was announced at CES and we hadn’t had a chance to test it out at press time. We liked its predecessor, the X10, though, and the X20 adds some key improvements. For one, this retro-style camera is reportedly faster to use overall, thanks to the new EXR Processor II. According to Fuji, the X20 offers “the world’s fastest autofocus speed in its class,” clocking in at 0.06 seconds. That’s a plus for any photographer interested in using the X20 as a candid, street shooter. The X20 is built around a 2/3-inch X-Trans CMOS II sensor, that’s slightly larger than what is in most compacts, which should give it better performance in low light. For optics, the X20 uses a manual-zooming, 4x (28-112mm) Fujinon lens, with a maximum aperture of f/2, which should also help when shooting with little available light. What’s most distinctive about the X20, however, is its throwback look, reminding us of classic film cameras despite this Fuji’s modern features, including full 1080p HD shooting.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7
Panasonic is a brand that’s likely more known by photographers for consumer electronics gear, such as HDTVs, than for cameras. That’s too bad because the company has been making stellar compact shooters for years. The 10.1-megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 is the company’s latest flagship pocket camera and it’s solid through and through. For starters, the LX7 has an impressively sharp, 3.8x (24-90mm equivalent) lens with a fast maximum aperture of f/1.4. The LX7, like its Lumix predecessors, is a low-light killer, producing images that are sharper and a lot less noisy when shooting in dim conditions than you’d expect from a camera with a 1/1.7-inch CMOS sensor, the same size as what’s in most consumer compacts. Part of that sharpness is from Panasonic’s tried-and-true optical image stabilization technology, which is among the best in the business. And like Panasonic’s previous top-of-the line compacts, it has fast autofocus and very little shutter lag, making this the perfect little camera for capturing candid images on the fly. And if you’re looking for a pocket camera to capture video for your blog, the LX7 is more than up to the task, offering full HD at 60p with optical zoom and image stabilization.
Olympus Stylus XZ-2
The Olympus Stylus XZ-2 might not be as flashy as some of the other pocket rockets in this roundup, but it’s a quality compact camera that definitely deserves consideration if you’re looking for something small and nimble. The 12-megapixel XZ-2 uses a 1/1.7-inch backlit CMOS sensor, designed to produce less noisy images in low light. Like its predecessor, the XZ-2 employs a 4x (28-112mm equivalent) zoom lens with a bright maximum aperture of f/1.8. Unlike the previous model, the XZ-2 is a little bigger overall with a removable handgrip, which, we think, pros will appreciate since it gives the camera a more comfortable, premium feel. Also, ergonomically speaking, the XZ-2 features a two-way ring around the lens, which you can set to move smoothly or in incremental clicks, to adjust aperture, focus, zoom and other features. We also like the small pop-up flash and articulating, 3-inch LCD screen—with some touch control—on back for composing shots from a variety of angles. If you want to fire off a quick 1080p HD movie, just press the red Record button on top and you’re off and shooting. Overall, the XZ-2 is a well-thought-out premium pocket camera.