Despite much recent talk focusing on interchangeable lens compacts aiming to provide the quality of a larger DSLR, not everyone wants to swap the lens on the front of a camera; indeed there’s still a market for one ring-fenced device that does it all. And, that doesn’t just mean smartphone-inspired Wi-Fi and Internet enabled cameras like the Samsung Galaxy or Nikon S800c, that can do just about everything except make phone calls, but rather cameras that aim to cram in a full set of true photographic features. For, in the eyes of enthusiast photographers who are looking for a portable jack-of-all-trades, perhaps as a backup to an existing DSLR, there is still much to recommend the ‘premium’ or high-end compact.
These more portable cameras may not offer as large a sensor as a DSLR, but the lack of lens swapping capability aside, they still boast most of the handling opportunities DSLR users expect. We’ve surveyed six examples of comprehensively featured compacts here, to find out which offers the best range of features and of course performance for their respective price tags. These are cameras for each and every eventuality, with plenty of opportunity for those who do want to get creative to do just that.
Of course, let’s be clear: the smaller size of the sensor here, when compared with digital SLRs or compact system cameras, plus the inability to swap the lens to best befit a particular subject, will inevitably mean that image results are not quite as pin sharp as one might expect from either of those two rival camera systems. But, even for the fussiest of photo enthusiasts operating on a non-professional basis, shots are certainly good enough. Indeed the fact that most premium compacts now come equipped with super bright lenses – denoted by a small number given for the maximum aperture (e.g f/1.8 or f/1.4) – allows photographers to not only potentially shoot in lower light conditions without flash than were hitherto possible, but also affords the chance for arty shallow depth of field effects. The ability to blur the background and foreground of a portrait, say, so only the eyes and nose are pin sharp, thus drawing the viewer in, was previously solely the preserve of the DSLR user.
So for those photographers looking for a greater range of photographic possibilities without having to invest in a camera system that may tempt you to a greater spend over a period of time, the premium compact is a less fussy but still feature-packed option. Additionally, for that premium price tag we get a build quality and solidity that far surpasses cheaper point-and-shoot models. So read on to discover the currently available choices, and to find out what we thought of each.
Canon PowerShot G15
Like a Canon EOS DSLR without a lens mount is a good way to think of the manufacturer’s high-end PowerShot, the G15. It sports a similar rock solid build – here aluminium – and control layout to an EOS camera, but is of course more compact. In fact it’s a claimed 17% smaller than its G12 forebear but doesn’t have a tilting LCD. The non-removable lens offers a maximum aperture of f/1.8 (or f/2.8 at full telephoto), making it the brightest of Canon’s G-series, so allows for a wider range of low light work plus shallow depth of field effects reminiscent of a DSLR. The top resolution is 12.1 megapixels from a 1/1.7-inch CMOS sensor; the same physical dimensions as three of its rivals here. Additionally an image-stabilised 5x optical zoom provides a focal range equivalent to 28-140mm in 35mm terms, making it second only to Nikon’s 7.1x P7700.
With camera-incorporating smartphones eviscerating the market for simpler snapshots, Fuji is another manufacturer reacting by going high-end. The XF1 is the latest in its gorgeously retro styled ‘X’ series of premium-build compacts. Unlike the previously reviewed X-Pro1 and X-E1, the XF1 omits both a dash in its name plus the ability to swap its optically stabilised 25-100mm equivalent lens. But, as with rivals here, the 12 megapixel, 2/3-inch sensor camera boasts a bright/fast maximum f/1.8 aperture plus, more unusually, a manually controlled 4x optical zoom, so maintaining appeal for those who like to get hands on. The XF1 isn’t just about such semi pro features though, as its cool styling with leather-effect finish attempts to broaden the X-series appeal beyond high-end amateurs, being narrower if slightly more elongated than Canon’s G15. Locking on target in 0.16 seconds, it resembles something you might see in a spy thriller set in Cold War era Berlin.
Nikon Coolpix P7700
A direct rival to Canon’s G15 is presented in this 12-megapixel 1/1.7-inch CMOS sensor compact with an armour-like magnesium alloy build that has shoehorned in many features otherwise found on digital SLRs. Thus it suggests itself as an excellent backup for anyone already in possession of a Nikon DSLR. The model number in part references its 7.1x optical zoom, which offers the longest focal range on test, here equivalent to 28-200mm in 35mm terms. Thankfully there is the ability to adjust the zoom mid video recording, and, while the maximum aperture of f/2 (f/4 at the telephoto end) isn’t quite as fast as the others on this spread, performance is respectable enough.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7
If you’ve not yet been swayed by one of Panasonic’s interchangeable lens Lumix G compact system cameras, but would still like to achieve improved quality image, then the metal construction and comprehensively featured LX series is well worth checking out. The compact LX7 with 3.8x optical zoom offering a 24-90mm equivalent focal range is the latest iteration (replacing the LX5) to go up against its rivals’ best, and gets off to a good start with an extra bright f/1.4 maximum aperture lens delivering those pleasantly attractive shallow depth of field effects. On paper at least this puts it closely on a par with Samsung’s EX2F, as does a broad ISO range of 80-12800 for low light work. Otherwise a 1/1.7-inch CMOS sensor offering a ‘mere’ 10.1 million pixels feels unnecessarily modest in present company, especially with Sony’s RX100 offering double that resolution, albeit for a higher cost.
Until recently the words ‘high end camera’ and ‘Samsung’ didn’t share a sentence. But, thanks to its NX range of interchangeable lens compacts, the innovative Galaxy Camera, and this, the second generation ‘EX’ camera aimed at those considering themselves marginally more ‘expert’ than the average point-and-shooter, perceptions are changing. So the 12.4 effective megapixel, 3.3x optical zoom EX2F goes lens-to-lens with Panasonic’s LX7 Sony’s RX100 and Fuji’s XF1 in offering near pro-style pictures from a compact, metal build body, thanks in part to its joint brightest-on-test lens boasting a f/1.4 maximum aperture. The bonus here is a tilting 3-inch AMOLED back screen offering not only greater flexibility when it comes to framing otherwise awkward shots, but also a more life-like visibility thanks to a more contrast-y image with deeper blacks. For an asking price of £429 we additionally get wireless connectivity for photo sharing, a vacant hotshoe for accessory flash, though a pop-up variety does feature, as does a slip-on lens cap.
Sony Cyber-shot DMC-RX100
A compact with heavyweight features yet a lightweight body. That’s the proposition offered by Sony’s good-looking RX100, which encases a larger than average one-inch CMOS sensor, enabling a plentiful 20.2 megapixel effective resolution within an aluminium chassis. Its manufacturer has also found room to shoehorn in a periscope-like flash that pops up automatically on a half squeeze of the shutter release if your proposed pictures would otherwise be too dark. If you’re not fond of flash fortunately there’s its bright f/1.8 maximum aperture lens to fall back on, which directs plenty of light onto that larger sensor. In combination this has allowed Sony to claim pro-like results for the RX100, and indeed when viewed on screen certain images are nigh indistinguishable from those taken on a consumer DSLR. And thankfully so, as the price tag for this 3.6x optical zoom camera, despite its relatively modest 28-100mm focal range in 35mm terms, is a serious £549.
Macworld buying advice
With prices averaging around the £500 mark, Fuji’s XF1 excepted, none of our fixed lens compacts can be described as an absolute bargain if going by manufacturers’ prices alone. Especially when you take into account that a similar outlay could alternatively bag you an entry-level compact system camera (CSC) or digital SLR (DSLR) that both will allow for greater creativity and expandability in the long run. So you have to definitely be wanting a camera that will slip into a pocket, yet still a serious amount of creative options despite the lack of hot-swappable lens action to even be considering our line up.
Whilst this means that the options presented here aren’t referred to as ‘premium compacts’ for nothing, in return you’re arguably getting all that you might conceivably want in a pocket camera as a photo enthusiast. If creative features aren’t high on your priority list however but the scope to take in a broad range of subjects is, it might also be worth considering a ‘travel zoom’ compact. With up to 20x optical zooms and typically 1/2.3-inch sensors, these usually come in around the £300 mark. Such cameras typically now include GPS and even Wi-Fi features that only the Samsung EX2F contemplates among our current selection.
Better build quality is however what we’re paying for here, as well as slightly larger internal chips and brightest-in-class lenses for those who want natural results without flash across a wider variety of conditions. Typically, our favourite camera in terms of performance in Sony’s RX100 also comes with the joint highest price tag (with Canon’s G15) though street prices are currently £100 less, making purchase less painful. Set against this Fuji’s XF1 with street prices around the £320 mark comes across as the biggest bargain, though its odd lens-based activation mechanism made it a little quirky for our tastes.
Also very competent when it comes to delivering clear and bright pictures straight out of the camera are Panasonic’s LX7 and Samsung EX2F, which are very evenly pegged in terms of both price and key features, though the tilting AMOLED screen of the latter gave it the slight edge for us. The flexibility of the back screen is also where Nikon’s P7700 scores over the marginally more expensive Canon G15 but the latter’s smaller build overall means its the one we’d rather have in our pocket in a straight fight between the two. But as the camera that, for us, delivers the closest to DSLR-quality images from compact dimensions, Sony’s RX100 is test winner this time around.