Compact Cameras: Portable Workhorse

compact cameras
Today’s compact cameras allow photographers to capture professional-level images in places where it would be impractical or impossible to bring a DSLR or even an interchangeable-lens mirrorless. Photo by David Schloss

Editor’s Note: This piece first appeared in our Spring issue and reflects the products available at the time of publication. To see our coverage of new mirrorless cameras, visit our Camera and News sections.

For a brief, shining moment, compact digital cameras were the superstars of the photo industry. Long before mobile phones—even before the iPhone arrived, when phones didn’t have any cameras, the compact camera was the go-to device to capture those moments when you didn’t have an SLR with you either because you didn’t own one or didn’t want to lug one around.

The astronomical price of the first digital SLR cameras made them only suited for pros and they were particularly prohibitive to the enthusiast. In 2000, when Canon launched their first designed-in-house digital camera, the D30, for example, the body cost around $3,500—for a camera with a 3MP sensor, three focus points, ISO of 100-1600 and a 3 fps max shooting speed.

At the same time Nikon, Olympus, Fujifilm—even Apple—and others had compact digital cameras that weren’t really called compact; they were just digital cameras. Somewhere between the binocular-shaped Apple QuickTake 100 (which I used at my college newspaper) and the QuickTake 200 just a few years later, the cameras started to morph from a binocular-shaped device into digital versions of compact film cameras, complete with LCD screens, handgrips and other features still found today.

The popularity of these cameras was undeniable—suddenly anyone and everyone could eliminate their shoeboxes of photos and those trips to one-hour photo labs and replace them with an image that magically appeared on their computer. From around 1998 until the early 2000s, there was a constant barrage of small cameras released from around a dozen manufacturers. There was an arm’s race to create cameras that were small, cheap and ever more powerful.

All seemed to be going well for the camera companies as revenue projections and sales numbers both climbed. Then, in 2007, the digital camera world was turned on its head with the introduction of the iPhone. Sure, cell phones had sported cameras before the iPhone, but they were truly dreadful. Many people mocked Apple’s early digital camera efforts with the failed QuickTake line, but failed to appreciate just how much the attention to a quality camera in the iPhone stemmed from the company’s earlier forays in the camera market.

While the iPhone and subsequent mobile devices attacked the camera market from below (who needs to spend $600 on a camera when you’ve got a $500 phone that takes good photos), the camera manufacturers attacked their own compact market from above (who needs a good $600 compact camera when you’ve got a terrific SLR for $800). The result was a collapse of the compact camera market that was nearly as significant as the collapse of the film market.

Out of the ashes of this once-vibrant market, though, the compact camera was reborn. Where the compact digital camera was once the only camera many consumers would own, it’s now positioned as either a gateway for those who fall in love with photography or as a secondary camera for those looking to supplement their DSLR or mirrorless cameras but with the similar image quality and features.

compact cameras
Compact cameras are now more powerful than even the best pro camera of just a few years ago, able to focus in low light and turn out low-noise images at high ISO. Photo by David Schloss

Point And Succeed

In an era where cameras are built into our phones, what’s the point of having another camera to lug around?

Despite billboard campaigns that promise pro-level images from smartphones, they’re still based around teeny sensors, and there are inescapable physical limitations on those sensors. The larger a sensor, the more light it can gather (all else being equal), and that results in better low-light/high-ISO performance and lower overall noise. Larger sensors also generally higher dynamic range (the amount of shades between the lightest and darkest that can be captured) than smaller sensors. So while the phone in your pocket or bag is a technological miracle, it’s a miracle of (literally and figuratively) smaller proportions than that in a compact camera.

A good-quality compact camera can capture images just not possible from a smartphone, and some of them—largely those with an APS-C or full-frame sensor—can produce images on par with top-end systems. Built-in zoom lenses, the ability to use accessories for lighting and audio, and the fact that the batteries can be swapped out (unlike those in most cell phones) make these cameras especially useful.

Many people say that “a good photographer can take a good photograph with any camera” and this is very true. But that photographer still can’t defy the physical limitations of the tool. Someone shooting with a disposable camera, for instance, might be able to snap one great shot of a skier on a jump, but not be able to shoot 12 fps of that same skier. That could be the difference between catching and missing a gold medal run.

A few years ago, I did a commercial job for a TV network where I documented the behind-the-scenes moments of a reality TV contest show. I wasn’t allowed to bring my DSLR gear—the bizarre union rules of the theater dictated that only the main house photographer could use “professional-level gear”—so I shot the job with a mix of mirrorless and compact cameras.

That’s when I noticed a funny thing. These amateur contestants, who would have been stilted and uncomfortable in front of a large pro-grade DSLR, were casual and accessible. By not bringing a large DSLR, I was able to shoot a range of images that would otherwise have been difficult or impossible to shoot with a pro DSLR.

Professional shooters run into this all the time when they bring their work gear to a family event or a kid’s party. There’s an awkward set of looks that accompanies taking out a pro DSLR to photograph your child at a gathering of parents.

The advantages to photographing people with a compact camera don’t just end with the awkwardness factor; there are also strategic advantages to using a compact camera. One thing these cameras do very well now is focus on faces. While that naturally means you’ll get properly focused shots when composing a photo, it also means you can use the camera when it’s not being held to compose it. Hold a compact camera down at ground level and capture a baby crawling from their viewpoint without having to lay down on the grass yourself. Hold the camera casually in one hand down at waist level and snap away at your subjects without them knowing you’re taking a picture.

Now, I’m not suggesting you photograph people when they don’t want to be photographed—I’m really against street photography where photos of locals are captured without them knowing you’re photographing them. I’m suggesting, though, that you can use this technique when your subjects know you’ll be taking their photos, but to do so without having to stop and raise the camera to your eye.

Thanks to the small size and light weight of compact cameras, they’re also great for shooting things like sports where you can use them to get really low down or really high up without having to strain to hold a larger camera.

Many of today’s compact digital cameras have wireless triggers that can be used either with an external device or with the WiFi on a mobile phone to capture images. I’ve successfully used this numerous times to capture photos from unexpected angles, putting my compact camera in harm’s way, while my pro gear stays safely in a bag.

Finally, it’s also possible to get compact digital cameras that are waterproof, or have small waterproof housings, which allows them to be used in places most DSLR and mirrorless cameras just won’t survive. I’ve taken some great photos of my family in the surf using small waterproof cameras.

There’s an additional non-creative benefit to shooting with compact cameras. There’s a certain amount of risk when traveling both home and abroad with what’s obviously expensive camera gear. Stealing a camera or camera bag isn’t difficult to do, and there’s a direct correlation to the size of camera gear and its value in the DSLR world, so a compact camera—even a pro-level one—often goes unnoticed.

There are numerous low-end compact digital cameras—you can see them anytime you go into a big-box electronics store—but they’re all very similar in features, and designed mostly to appeal to the customer who’s uncomfortable using their phone as their camera. These are the types of cameras that many un-tech-savvy people end up buying, and if you’re looking for a camera in that space, you should go to said electronics store and buy whichever is on sale at your price point. There aren’t enough feature differences at the budget end of the compact market to really differentiate them.

Then there are cameras that have more features and create compelling images. You’ll find a selection of our favorites in our Gear section.

Professional Grade

The most exciting compact cameras, by far, are the ones that are actually professional-grade cameras in disguise. When digital compact cameras started to arrive, this was the dream category. Every pro I knew wanted something that could fit in a bag or a pocket and could take images that rivaled their top-end DSLRs. But the poor quality of the original sensors in compact cameras relegated them to snapping harsh and grainy images.

Today, this has changed, and the semipro cameras available produce a better-looking image, by far, than the highest-end camera at the dawn of the digital era. These professional compacts, though, somehow squeeze top-end features into a teeny body.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1R II. The Sony RX1R II is one of the most underappreciated cameras on the market today, with—quite literally—most of the same features found in Sony’s flagship mirrorless, the a7R II. Perhaps this camera is overlooked because the price tag is also as high as a pro-level camera. Still, it could easily be someone’s only camera. The RX1R II features the same full-frame, 42.4-megapixel sensor in the a7R II, with 399 phase-detect AF points, a Zeiss 35mm ƒ/2 lens, a pop-up viewfinder and a tiltable LCD screen. The sensitivity range on this camera is from ISO 50 up to 102,400—I’ve often used this camera to shoot in incredibly low light. The RX1R II can capture up to 5 fps and not only has face detection but eye-detection AF. The camera is the first in this class to use a variable “low-pass filter,” which allows for more sharpness when turned off and more moiré reduction when turned on. There’s also WiFi connectivity, additional apps available on the Sony app store and much more. Price: $3,900. Website: sony.com

compact cameras

Fujifilm X100F. Fujifilm’s original X100 was a pocket-sized marvel that set off the pro-level compact camera revolution and, in fact, launched the pro-level mirrorless revolution as well—the company used many of the design elements of the X100 in their later X-series mirrorless cameras. The fourth-generation X100F uses a fixed lens that’s the equivalent of 35mm on a full-frame camera—and is still one of the most compelling choices in the APS-C mirrorless market. The compactness of the body allows it to go just about anywhere, while full manual controls give it the ability to work in a pro environment. The camera has a 24.3-megapixel sensor using the company’s X-Trans design for high-quality images, and the new X100F has an updated EVF, touch-screen LCD and faster processing times than the previous generations. Price: $1,300. Website: fujifilmusa.com

compact cameras

Enthusiast

Not quite a replacement for your main camera, these compact cameras are powerful nonetheless. They slide into a pocket or bag with ease, and they can be counted on to produce a great-looking image.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 III. Sony’s third generation of the RX10 lineup adds new features to Sony’s 1-inch-sensor (smaller than APS-C), super-versatile camera. Eschewing the pocketable design of some compact digital cameras, the RX10 III feels like a very squat DSLR. The lens has an amazing 24-600mm range (in 35mm equivalent) and somehow is only ƒ/4 at the longest end (and ƒ/2.4 at the widest). The camera has three rings on the lens barrel—one for zoom, one for focus and one for aperture—giving it a nearly-pro-level amount of control. The OLED viewfinder has 2.35 million dots (that’s a lot for an electronic viewfinder) and it has a tilting LCD display. Perhaps the most impressive features, though, are in the video realm. The RX10 III can capture 4K video with full pixel readout and no pixel binning (i.e., very high-quality 4K), and the camera has a mic in and headphone jack, making this one of the most capable portable video cameras around. There’s an HFR (High Frame Rate) mode that captures up to 960 fps. Price: $1,600. Website: sony.com

compact cameras

Nikon Coolpix A900. The A900 is another choice for tiny cameras with a really wide-ranging zoom, and at 24-840mm (at 35mm equivalent), is longer than the DSC-RX10 III. The lens has a variable ƒ-stop of ƒ/3.4-6.9, so it’s well suited to bright conditions and trying to reach faraway sports. The camera has a 20-megapixel 1-inch sensor and can capture 4K video at 30p. There’s a built-in tilting LCD display, and the camera uses Nikon’s SnapBridge technology to keep a constant line of communications open between the camera and a smartphone. Price: $360. Website: nikonusa.com

compact cameras

Canon PowerShot G9 X Mark II. The G9 X Mark II updates one of Canon’s most popular compact cameras, yet keeps an affordable price. It features a 1-inch sensor with a resolution of 20 megapixels. The camera has a 28-84mm lens (in 35mm equivalent) with a variable aperture of ƒ/2-4.9. It’s capable of capturing images at just over 8 fps and has a range of connectivity options, including NFC, WiFi and Bluetooth, and it connects easily to the company’s mobile app. Price: $530. Website: usa.canon.com

compact cameras

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 V. The DSC-RX100 V packs a ton into a camera that’s not much bigger than a pack of playing cards. The 1-inch camera has a 35mm equivalent zoom range of 24-70mm and a variable aperture that’s a super-wide ƒ/1.4 at the 24mm length and only stops down to ƒ/2.8 at 70mm. The 20-megapixel 1-inch sensor works with a 315-point AF system and can capture 4K video with no pixel binning. To keep the body compact, the RX100 V has a pop-up flash and a pop-up EVF. Price: $1,000. Website: sony.com

compact cameras

Connected

Connected cameras are a new phenomena—they attach to a device like an iPhone and include their own 1-inch sensor, yet use the processing and touch screen of the phone to help photographers capture images. They’re an interesting choice for someone who wants to have more power than an iPhone can provide, but wants to leverage the phone’s built-in sharing and OS features.

Panasonic LUMIX DMC-LX10. Built around a 20-megapixel 1-inch sensor, the LX10 features a variable 24-72mm (35mm equivalent) lens with a nice wide-open aperture of ƒ/1.4-2.8. The camera features a touch screen, which makes it easy to select menu items without a lot of button-pressing and dial-turning. The screen tilts for easy low-level shooting and the small shape makes this a good go-anywhere camera. Price: $700. Website: panasonic.com

compact cameras

DxO ONE. The DxO ONE is the most popular of the connected cameras. It connects to the Lightning port on the iPhone and has a 20MP 1-inch sensor that can capture up to 1/8000 of a second and up to ISO 51200. The DxO ONE works with a companion app on the phone for focus and configuration, though it can be used to capture photos independent of the camera, and can use built-in WiFi to capture images when not connected, yet still use the iPhone for the interface. The DxO ONE has a built-in 32mm ƒ/1.8 lens (in 35mm equivalent). A coming update (by the time you read this) will allow the camera to be used for Facebook Live streaming. Full disclosure: I was a product tester on this product before launch. Price: $470. Website: dxo.com

compact cameras

Weather-Resistant Cameras

These cameras can go (almost) anywhere and capture (almost) anything thanks to weather-sealed designs and toughened housings.

Olympus Tough TG-870. This newest camera in the long-running Olympus Tough line can dive to 50 feet, can be frozen to 14º, can drop 7 feet and is crushproof under the weight of a very heavy human. The camera has a 16-megapixel sensor with a wide-angle 21mm (equivalent) lens, making it great for use underwater and in nature. There’s also a Super Macro mode, and a button on the front of the camera can be programmed for things ranging from shutter release to video recording—making it great for easy-to-start SCUBA selfies. Price: $279. Website: getolympus.com

compact cameras

Ricoh WG-5 GPS. While it’s been out since 2015 (we’re hoping for a refresh), the Ricoh WG-5 GPS features something that other cameras don’t: a built-in GPS unit to geotag all of your photos, and that module even captures pressure, altitude and depth—as well as featuring a digital compass. The 16-megapixel sensor captures images from a 25-100mm (equivalent) zoom with a variable aperture of ƒ/2.0-4.9. The camera can be taken to a depth of 45 feet, can be chilled to 10ºF and survives crushes up to 200 pounds. Price: $360. Website: us.ricoh-imaging.com

compact cameras

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