Best high-end compact camera: 6 compared
6th Jun 2013 | 11:00
The best back-ups or alternatives to your DSLR
High-end compact cameras explained
No matter how good a photographer you are, it comes to nothing if you don't have a camera to hand. The downside of even the latest and greatest DSLR bodies and weighty collections of top-quality glass is that, when a fantastic photo opportunity presents itself, your kit is fast asleep in its gadget bag back at home.
In contrast, compact cameras are small and slimline enough to fit into a spare pocket, the glove box of the car, or just about anywhere else. Weighing in at 200-400g (0.4-0.9lbs), these cameras are lighter than most DSLR lenses without a camera attached, but can they really deliver in terms of image quality and creativity?
Just like most DSLRs, these cameras feature foolproof, fully automatic point and shoot modes, typically with 'intelligent' scene analysis. This helps them to deliver very good results in anything from portraiture to landscape photography, with the minimum of fuss and bother. However, you didn't go to all the time and trouble of learning advanced photographic techniques just to let your camera make all the important decisions for you.
The most powerful thing about high-end or power compacts is that they're not limited to auto shooting modes and give you full creative control. Advanced PASM shooting modes are supplemented with choices for different metering and autofocus modes, manual focusing, white balance tweaks and more besides. Crafty scene modes are also on hand to make the most of the trickiest of subjects.
However, you can have all the shooting options in the world but if you can't get at them quickly and easily, they might as well not be there. Compared with DSLRs, the physically small size of compact cameras makes it more challenging to put important shooting parameters under photographers' fingers and thumbs. Clever designs and customisable function buttons can go a long way to delivering easy access to the settings you want to get at in a hurry.
Full-frame DSLRs are becoming increasingly popular, even in consumer class cameras, and use an image sensor that measures 36 x 24mm. Even APS-C format DSLRs have (approximately) 24 x 16mm sensors, but just how big are the sensors in current compact cameras?
The Sony RX1 actually boasts a full-frame sensor but, really, who wants to spend £2,500 / AU$3,000 / US$2,800 on a compact camera? We've not included this camera in the test group, instead going for more traditional fare with much lower price tags.
By far the most popular sensor size for this class of high-end compact camera is 1/1.7-inch, which equates to dimensions of 7.6 x 5.77mm. The Fujifilm X20 uses a slightly larger 2/3-inch sensor, which measures 8.8 x 6.6mm. In both cases that's a great deal smaller than the sensor of an APS-C format camera. The Sony RX100 goes even further to bridge the gap, with a 1-inch sensor that measures 13.2 x 8.8mm.
It's a sign of the times that, since we last ran a group test of high-end compacts about a year ago, image resolution has crept up from 10MP to 12MP in most cases. The Panasonic LX7 is the only camera in this group that sticks with the same 10MP resolution as its predecessor, the Panasonic LX5. The Sony leads the resolution race with a 20.2MP image sensor, made more achievable by its physically larger dimensions.
Noise and depth
What camera should I buy? Your options explained
A major drawback of the relatively small image sensors fitted to most compact cameras is that each photosite can only gather a relatively small amount of light. Go back a few years and image quality was notoriously poor in very low lighting conditions. This was true even when using low sensitivity settings, while images became horribly noisy when switching to high ISO ratings.
The problem has been tackled with advanced sensor designs, for example using micro lenses so that each photosite can gather more light, along with backlit or 'back-illuminated' sensors.
Here, the wiring and circuitry that does the job of powering the sensor and passing on information to the image processing engine is relocated around the back of the sensor. This means that the amount of light reaching the photosites isn't diminished at all.
Most cameras in this class now also feature 'faster' lenses. These have wider maximum apertures that allow more light to pass through to the sensor. As well as helping in low lighting conditions, there's another bonus when it comes to reducing the depth of field.
Due to the smallness of the image sensors, the actual (rather than effective) focal length of compact camera lenses is very short. This tends to give a large depth of field, ideal for landscape photography, but it's a bit of a pain when you want to blur the background for portraits and still life images.
Wider maximum aperture ranges of around f/1.8-2.8 really help to narrow the depth of field. And to make those wide apertures available even in very bright and sunny lighting conditions, many of the compact cameras in this group feature built-in ND (Neutral Density) filters which you can switch in as a menu option if you want to.
Nikon P7700 - £300/AU$540/US$450
Best compact system camera
Despite being relatively cheap, the Nikon boasts a feast of high-end features and specifications. It's the only high-end compact camera in this feature with a fully articulated LCD screen, which Canon dropped when updating the Canon G12 to the Canon G15. It also has a class-leading zoom range, equivalent to 28-200mm, with a reasonably brisk widest-aperture range of f/2-4. On top of that, it has a highly effective four-stop optical stabiliser, which is useful at the long end of the zoom range.
Image resolution is fairly typical, at 12.2MP. However, the maximum sensitivity of ISO 3200 in the standard range is very low. Like the Sony RX100, there's no optical viewfinder built in, nor the option of buying a viewfinder as an optional extra. The Olympus XZ-2 and Panasonic LX7 also lack viewfinders, but optional add-ons are available for these cameras.
There's a wealth of controls for the finer points of creative shooting, the top of the camera being packed with dials and buttons. The main shooting mode dial offers access to a range of scene modes and effects, along with three user-defined custom settings. There's also a healthy selection of customisable function buttons.
Autofocus speed is a bit sluggish, even under good lighting conditions. AF really struggles under low lighting, failing to lock onto targets that other cameras acquire with ease. Sharpness is reasonable throughout the generous zoom range and, even at high ISO settings, fine detail is retained quite well. Metering is usually accurate but white balance errs on the cool side. This often leads to slightly clinical-looking, sterile images that lack lifelike appeal. Picture quality lacks the vibrancy for which Nikon's DSLRs are renowned.
Slight overexposure and a cool colour balance drains some of the life out of this shot, giving it a slightly washed-out look.
Sharpness is merely average from the Nikon Coolpix P7700, and images often don't look quite as detailed at low ISO settings as from most competing cameras.
Even at its maximum standard sensitivity setting of ISO 3200, the Nikon does well to keep noise levels down while preserving fine detail.
Technically, the Nikon P7700 is one of the better performers in terms of colour accuracy, but you have to watch out for auto white balance inaccuracies.
Image test verdict
The Nikon P7700's lab scores aren't exactly bad in any area of image quality, but pictures simply don't look quite as appealing as those from most other cameras do.
Read our full Nikon P7700 review
Panasonic LX7 - £330/AU$600/US$450
While all the other cameras in this list boast at least 12MP image resolution, the Panasonic LX7 appears to be the poor relation. Indeed, it only has the same 10.1MP resolution of Panasonic's preceding LX5 camera. However, the new model boasts a redesigned, high-sensitivity CMOS image sensor that claims better dynamic range and increased low-light performance.
Despite being cheap, the Panasonic LX7 sports some nice design flourishes. Around the front, there's direct control for aperture thanks to a retro-style aperture ring on the lens. On-lens adjustments are also available for focusing modes and image aspect ratios. Up on top, there's a fully-featured shooting mode dial that includes 'intelligent' auto, access to scene modes, the usual PASM and two custom shooting settings.
There's no built-in optical viewfinder but both optical and electronic viewfinders are available as optional extras. Direct access to most shooting parameters is quite close at hand, and the quick menu that's served up on the LCD screen works well. Even so, the Panasonic LX7 isn't quite as intuitive when it comes to advanced shooting controls.
The f/1.4-2.3 zoom lens gives an effective 24mm focal length, making it the most wide-angle of any on test. The downside is that it's only a 3.8x zoom and is lacking at the telephoto end, equivalent to just 90mm.
Autofocus is quick and accurate. Metering is consistent but a little on the bright side, especially in sunny outdoor shots. The optical stabiliser built into the Leica lens is only good for a one or two-stop advantage, lagging behind the Canon G15, Nikon P7700 and Fuji X20's performance. Considering the modest image resolution, picture quality in low lighting conditions can be quite noisy, especially at high ISO settings.
A bit overly bright, this outdoor picture lacks a little definition in the highlights, but at least shadows are detailed and colourful.
The Panasonic LX7 isn't helped by having a low resolution image sensor, reflected by disappointing sharpness scores.
Considering its conservative image resolution, high-sensitivity images aren't very smooth. There's a lot of luminance noise in this ISO 3200 shot.
Marginally better than most cameras here, colour accuracy is very good but saturation can be reduced by a slight tendency towards overexposure.
Image test verdict
Resolution and image noise at high sensitivity settings are sore points for the Panasonic LX7, but it manages to deliver bright, punchy shots.
Read our full Panasonic LX7 review
Olympus XZ-2 - £350/AU$600/US$600
What camera should I buy? Your options explained
The Olympus XZ-2 represents a major revamp of the Olympus XZ-1, ditching the 10MP CCD image sensor in favour of a new backlit 12MP CMOS sensor. The image processor is also uprated to the same TruPic VI chip that's featured in the Olympus OM-D, which we're very fond of. Image quality should get a big boost in low lighting conditions, especially at high sensitivity settings.
There's no built-in viewfinder but an optional EVF (Electronic Viewfinder) is available as an extra accessory. The high-resolution LCD screen is very clear and bright, and the only one here that's a touchscreen. It's particularly handy for point-and-shoot focusing. The LCD also has a vertical tilt facility, lacking on all the other cameras on test apart from the Nikon P7700, which has superior full articulation.
A standout feature is the lens ring, which features both analogue and electronic operation. In analogue mode, it gives precise control over zooming and focusing. In electronic mode, you can select other parameters like aperture, shutter speed and exposure compensation. Couple this with the Olympus XZ-2's customisable function buttons, and it's easy to tailor the camera to your exact needs.
The f/1.8-2.5 lens delivers reasonable sharpness throughout its aperture and zoom ranges, the latter stretching from an equivalent 28-112mm. Sensor-shift image stabilisation works well but isn't quite a match for the optical stabilisers on the Canon G15, Fujifilm X20 and Nikon P7700 cameras. The 5fps maximum burst rate should suffice, but it's only about half the speed of most cameras here Image noise at high ISO settings isn't nearly as low as we were hoping for.
Contrast is a little too high, with a tendency to make lowlight areas look quite muddy, and colour rendition could be better.
There's little to choose between this and the Nikon P7700 in terms of sharpness. Both deliver very similar and slightly disappointing results.
High ISO images can look very grainy, almost to the point of being blotchy. We were hoping for better low-noise performance from the Olympus XZ-2.
The Olympus has the worst score for colour accuracy, the lab test results being borne out by real-world shooting in a variety of conditions.
Image test verdict
A bit of an under-achiever when it comes to image quality, we were hoping for better results all-round from the new and improved Olympus XZ-2.
Read our full Olympus XZ-2 review
Canon G15 - £400/AU$460/US$450
With styling cues apparently taken from a brick, the Canon G15 has a chunky, purposeful and solid feel. There's no lack of refinement beneath the skin, with the camera boasting a string of high-tech specs.
As one of Canon's HS System compacts, the G15 aims to deliver plenty of fine detail with minimal image noise, even under very low lighting. Sharpness should be helped along by an 'intelligent' four-stop optical stabiliser and a new, faster f/1.8-2.8 5x zoom lens with an effective range of 28-140mm.
Compared with the preceding Canon G12, the maximum burst rate leaps up from 2fps to 10fps, despite an increase in resolution from 10MP to 12.1MP. The LCD screen's resolution also takes a major step up from 461k to 922k, and it's physically larger at 3 inches. It's clearer and easier on the eye, but lacks the articulation of the Canon G15's design.
The 'Smart Auto' shooting mode has 58 different options to choose from in its automatic scene detection bank. In semi-automatic and manual modes, controls are intuitive and easy to get at, including a new dual-dial arrangement up on top for shooting modes and exposure compensation.
Handling benefits from richly textured, contoured surfaces. Access to shooting settings is intuitive, with dedicated buttons for metering and autofocus options, and the kind of quick menu that's found so much favour on Canon's recent DSLRs.
Autofocus is fast and accurate, while metering is reliable in wide-ranging lighting conditions. The latter does a good job when linked to Face Detection AF, producing well-exposed portraits even against bright or dark backgrounds. Auto white balance is a touch on the warm side, giving an appealing and natural look to images. The Canon G15 does well to produce detailed, low-noise images in very dull lighting conditions.
Colour rendition has a pleasant warmth, and the Canon G15 does well to boost shadow detail, giving well-balanced exposures.
There's bags of sharpness at low to medium sensitivity settings, and the Canon G15 does well to hang onto this even at very high ISO settings.
There's precious little image noise even at ISO 3200, and the signs of smoothing aren't overly obvious, with good retention of fine detail.
Scores are pretty average for colour accuracy, but images generally have very lifelike and natural colour rendition.
Image test verdict
The Canon G15 performs very well in all areas of image quality, making it one of the more desirable cameras.
Read our full Canon G15 review
Sony RX100 - £450/AU$680/US$650
Best compact system camera
The Sony RX100's claim to fame is that, at its heart, it has an oversized image sensor. Measuring 13.2 x 8.8mm, it's significantly larger than the sensors of all other cameras here, and enables a much higher resolution of 20.2MP, along with the promise of good low-light performance.
Crafted from sturdy aluminium, the Sony RX100 nevertheless lacks a sculpted finger grip around the front. This impairs handling somewhat but at least there's an optical image stabiliser, although it's not quite as effective as in the Canon G15, Nikon P7700 and Fuji X20. On the plus side, the Sony RX100 is certainly pocket-friendly, being small and light.
There's no viewfinder and, more bizarrely, the Sony RX100 lacks a hotshoe for mounting a flashgun, so you're stuck with the tiny pop-up flash. Direct access controls are few and far between, Sony favouring a simple and uncluttered layout. There's something to be said for this approach, although there's a little too much reliance on menus for our liking.
Plus points include a multi-function control ring around the lens and a customisable Fn button on the back of the camera, helping to make important shooting parameters more accessible.
The Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* lens boasts a fast f/1.8 aperture at the wide-angle end, although this drops to f/4.9 at the long end. That's poor, given that the zoom range is a mere 3.6x, equivalent to 28-100mm.
The Sony RX100 delivers sumptuous image quality even in demanding lighting conditions. Its autofocus and metering systems work flawlessly, there's good control over dynamic range, and pictures have a natural and lifelike appeal. Results are particularly impressive under very low lighting, with great retention of fine detail and little image noise.
Rich yet natural and lifelike colour, along with great definition throughout the tonal range, make this a winning shot from the Sony RX100.
The 20.2MP image sensor and Zeiss lens come up trumps for sharpness, beating all of the other cameras.
Fine detail is well preserved and image noise is kept very low, the Sony RX100 making the most of its oversized sensor.
The colour accuracy score is the closest to perfection of any camera in the group, so that's another win for the Sony.
Image test verdict
The Sony RX100 beats all competing cameras here when it comes to image quality. It delivers beautiful pictures even in the most demanding conditions.
Read our full Sony RX100 review
Fuji X20 - £470/AU$700/US$600
How to use your new digital camera
The Fuji X10 boasted an above-average image resolution of 12MP. That hasn't increased in the newer Fuji X20, but the design of the sensor is radically different. The much vaunted X-Trans 2/3-inch sensor is coupled with a new-generation image processor.
The net results, claims Fujifilm, is that the X20 gives sharper pictures with a 30 per cent reduction in image noise, and much of what made the Fuji FinePix X10 a great camera remains in the Fuji FinePix X20. The retro design looks fabulous, and the manual zoom ring on the lens enables the kind of precision control that's absent on motorised systems.
However, the lens doesn't retract into the camera, so the overall design isn't an easy fit for most pockets. It's basically the same 4x zoom lens as on the Fuji X10, giving an effective 28-112mm range at f/2-2.8. It's not the fastest lens, but it's not far behind.
As you'd expect from Fujifilm, the wide range of film-emulation modes such as Provia, Velvia and Astia are still present and correct. One marked improvement over the Fuji X10 is that the Fuji X20's optical viewfinder is genuinely worth having. Important shooting parameters such as aperture, shutter speed and sensitivity are now visible in the viewfinder, thanks to the addition of a real-time info display. Maximum burst rate is boosted from the Fuji X10's 7fps to a class-leading 12fps.
The hybrid phase and contrast detection autofocus system is rapid and locks onto targets with ease, even under very low lighting conditions. Metering is foolproof and, for ultimate control, a large exposure compensation dial is wonderfully easy to get at.
Given Fujifilm's claims, however, we were disappointed by the X20's image quality under low lighting. Compared with the older X10, any reduction of image noise at high ISO settings is marginal.
Metering is spot on in this outdoor shot, with beautiful colour rendition and plenty of saturation, although shadows are a bit on the dark side.
Sharpness is excellent at ISO 100, where the Fujifilm draws level with the higher-resolution Sony RX100, but it drops off at high sensitivity settings.
Despite its much-vaunted new image sensor and processor, noise is very noticeable at high ISO settings, along with a drop in fine detail.
The Fujifilm level-pegs with the Canon G15 in terms of colour accuracy in lab tests, although images generally lack the Canon's slight warmth.
Image test verdict
An impressive performer at low ISO settings, the Fuji X20 runs into trouble in low lighting conditions when you boost the sensitivity.
Read our full Fuji X20 review
Verdict: Best high-end compact camera
The Sony RX100 raises the bar when it comes to lab test results for compact cameras. Colour rendition is enormously accurate, while image noise is very well contained, even at very high ISO settings.
The Canon G15 and Fujifilm X20 are solid performers and come closest to matching the Sony's all-round image quality. The Nikon P7700, Olympus XZ-2 and Panasonic LX7 are less impressive in certain areas, as you can see from the benchmark results.
Super-slim yet power-packed and rich in features, the Sony RX100 makes the most of its oversized, 20.2MP image sensor to deliver sublime image quality, and is one jump ahead of the other compact cameras here.
It gives you almost everything you could want from a compact camera, although we're surprised by the lack of a hotshoe. The zoom range is the least powerful of all the cameras here but at least the Zeiss lens has sterling optical quality.
The Canon G15 is a notable improvement in Canon's venerable line of G-series cameras, combining a powerful set of features with a useful 5x zoom range. It gives very pleasing image quality in even the most demanding shooting conditions.
In contrast, the Fujifilm X20 in use seems a relatively minor improvement over the older Fuji X10 camera, despite its revamped image sensor and processor. High-sensitivity performance is disappointing. Surprisingly, the same applies to the Panasonic LX7, even though its image sensor resolution is a very conservative 10.1MP.
The Olympus XZ-2 has rather lacklustre image quality compared with most other cameras in the group, and this is borne out by both our lab tests and real-world shooting. It's a real shame, because handling is particularly good.
The Nikon P7700 is very good in some areas and has an impressive 7.1x zoom range but, ultimately, it's let down by slightly insipid image quality and poor autofocus performance. This is particularly evident in dull lighting conditions.