UPDATED FOR SPRING 2013
The high end of compact cameras with built-in lenses—also known as System, Advanced, or "Posh" compacts—has never been more diverse than it is today. Here's a look at today's top models.
Advanced compact cameras have been embraced by professionals as small carry-anywhere alternatives to their big rigs. Enthusiasts like the models that provide a DSLR-like shooting experience. While image quality may fall short of a DSLR's on most models (possible exceptions: the last two cameras on listed here), the convenience of a small, full-featured (in some cases, with prominent manual focus and exposure controls) all-in-one camera that you can slip into a jacket pocket or small bag and take anywhere more than makes up for the image quality issues.
From gussied-up snapshot cameras to advanced tools designed for photojournalists and street photographers, the best cameras in this category can deliver speed and quality (although rarely both in the same camera) in a small, self-contained package. Even better: These cameras can all be expanded via flash, lens adapters, and/or optical or digital eye-level viewfinders to further enhance the shooting experience.
Along with self-contained compact cameras, there are now other sub-categories within the umbrella of "Advanced Compact":
MILCs: A new breed of category has risen that is taking the photo world by storm, the MILC. These advanced compact cameras have interchangeable lens systems as well as a range of flash and optical and electronic finders. Some have DSLR-sized sensors and will produce images that rival DSLRs in quality, while others take advantage of smaller sensor technology to go even more compact. With the rise of MILCs (Mirrorless Interchangeable-Lens Compacts), enthusiasts and pros have a lot of choices—so many that they now get their own "Best Right Now" guide. I encourage you to check out the Adorama Learning Center buying guide The Best MILCs Right Now so you can see the full range of advanced compact cameras that you can choose from. Read more about why we're calling them MILCs.
EVILs (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lenses), a subset of MILCs, likewise lack a DSLR’s mirror reflex system of optical viewing but use interchangeable lenses—and in addition to having an LCD monitor, they offer a small eye-level electronic viewfinder monitor, showing the same information and scene as on the LCD screen; you can view it just as you would look through an optical viewfinder. These cameras are a bit larger than MILCs, but not by much, and certainly a lot smaller than the smallest DSLR on the market. Read about current EVILs in The Best EVF Cameras Right Now.
And now, on to the cameras! (Prices and availability accurate as of March 15, 2013)
Overview: The venerable Canon PowerShot G line got its biggest change to date with the G1 X, Canon's first large-sensor compact. While at 18.7x14mm the sensor is not quite as large as the APS sensors found on its low- and mid-range DSLRs, we tested it and found that it delivered DSLR-quality images. As with previous G's, the G1 X has a familiar array of both automatic and manual controls, as well as special effects filters and full 1080p HD stereo video capture. Everything about this camera is bigger—the sensor, the generous-sized LCD monitor, is wide ISO range, built-in HDR and more. It is physically bigger and heavier than previous G's to accomodate the larger sensor, but it's still smaller than a DSLR. A great travel camera. For more details, read the Adorama Learning Center's full review.
The Juicy Details: 1.5-inch 14.3MP CMOS sensor, DIGIC 5 image processor with 14-bit RAW processing, 28-112mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.8-5.8 optical zoom lens, optical viewfinder, 3-inch, 922K dot flip-out LCD monitor, ISO range 100-12800, ND filter, electronic level, creative filters, HDR mode, up to 32 scene detection technology.
The system: The TC-DC58C doubles the length of the telephoto end of the zoom to 420mm, while the WC-DC58B stretches the wide angle range to 26.3mm. The external lenses are attached via the lens adapter. Want a lot of flash power? Any Canon shoe-mount flash, such as the Speedlite 270EX TTL or Speedlite 430EX II will work on it, and you can even set it up for wireless off-camera flash operation via the Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2!
DxOMark Test Results: Lab test results of RAW images showed noise-free images up to ISO 644 (ISO 800 for practical purposes) and acceptable noise levels almost to the highest setting, an astounding result for a compact camera. By comparison, the G12 delivers noise-free images through ISO 200. In fact, according to DxOMark's tests, the G1 X's overall image quality is one of the best produced by any compact digital camera.
Honorable mention: Canon PowerShot G15. It's faster than the G1 X in the lag time department, and while it has a smaller sensor, it is also smaller and lighter and costs about half the price of a G1 X.
Overview: When the Fujifilm FinePix X100 first came out, it was greeted with great fanfare, but some disappointment about its pokey shutter lag time. This was improved via a firmware update, but now with the X100S, Fujifilm has boosted the resolution, increased the ISO range, and yes, put afterburners on the the camera's responsiveness. The company claims 0.01 second lag time, which is pretty much instantaneous. The fixed lens is a 35mm (35mm equivalent) f/2; Fujifilm offers an auxiliary lens that stretches it to a 28mm (35mm equivalent) lens. The unique hybrid viewfinder lets the user choose: optical, or a the highest-resolution EVF ever. The sensor's unique randomized pixel array eliminates the need for a low-pass filter, and if its predecessor is any indication, we expect outstanding image quality from this camera.
The Juicy Details: 16MP APS-C CMOS sensor, 23mm f/2 Fujinon lens with 9-blade rounded aperture, focuses to about 6 inches. Cast-magnesium alloy and metal construction, hybrid optical/electronic finder (2.36 million dot resolution), ISO range 100-25,000, built-in 3-stop ND filter, shutter speeds 30-1/4000 second, 720p HD Video, 256-zone metering. DxO Test results show outstanding image quality at ISO 1000.
The System: Accepts 49mm filters via Adapter Ring or Lens hood/thread adapter. Accepts Fujifilm EF-42 TTL flash via hot shoe. The Fujifilm WCL-X100 0.8x Wide Conversion Lens turns the 35mm (equivalent) lens into a 28mm (35mm equivalent).
Honorable Mention: If the X100S is too pricey for your pocketbook, consider the $600 Fujifilm X20, which has a smaller sensor (2/3 inch) but looks and feels like a classic rangefinder camera. It features an f/2-2.8 4x zoom lens, optical viewfinder, external exposure controls and what Fujifilm claims is an equally quick shutter lag time, making it a solid street camera.
Overview: That sticker price isn’t a misprint but based on our review field tests, the Leica X-2, like its predecessor the X-1, delivers quality that may justify its cost. Simply, the 24mm f/2.8 ASPH lens (36mm view on a 35mm camera), coupled with the outstanding 12.2MP APS-sized sensor, produces shots are among the sharpest we've seen at high resolution. Jason Schneider says of the original X1 that it is "a unique digital compact camera that combines the beloved traditional Leica form factor with a lens, sensor, and image processing capable of delivering astounding image quality." The X2 adds a new flash design and better responsiveness with much less lag time, which plagued its predecessor, making it a great street photography camera according to our field test.
The Juicy Details: The camera claims its APS CMOS sensor can capture an ISO range of 100-3200 and we were impressed with image quality all the way through this range, making this camera well suited for low-light shooting. The Leica Elmarit 24mm f/2.8 lens has 8 elements in 6 groups and 1 aspherical lens, and an aperture range up to f/16 in 1/3-stop increments. Shutter speeds range from 30-1/2000 second. A pop-up flash can capture first and second curtain flash, slow sync flash and other standard flash settings. The aluminum and magnesium body is more rugged than most compact cameras.
The System: Leica X-2 EVF2 viewfinder lets you shoot at eye level, and the X-1 Hand Grip improves the camera’s holdability. The SF-24D TTL flash boosts the camera’s guide number to 65 at ISO 100. A series of elegant cases are also available.
Overview: Coming very soon! Nikon has taken Posh up a notch, launching its first compact camera that is built around a 16MP, APS-sized ("DX" designation in Nikonese) sensor that measures 15.8 x 23.6mm. Its built-in 18.5mm f/2.8 lens covers the equivalent of a 28mm lens on a 35mm sensor camera, and focuses to 4 inches. Nikon says the autofocus is super-fast, but there is also manual focus and exposure for those who want to take greater control over the camera. The A has a 3-inch, 921k dot LCD monitor and while it lacks a built-in eye-level viewfinder, you can pick up the shoe-mounted Nikon DF-CP1 optical finder (available soon, we're told) for $450—or you can save a few bucks by buying the Voigtlander 28mm finder for the Adorama price of $209. As befits a posh compact, you can shoot RAW images—and process them in camera.
The Juicy Details: 16MP DX-Format CMOS sensor, 28mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.8 lens, contrast-detect TTL AF, focus to 1.8 feet in normal mode, down to 4 inches in macro. RAW and JPEG still images, 1080p videos at 30, 25fps. ISO range 100-25,600, matrix, center-weighted and spot metering, 18 scene modes, 18 in-camera image editing options, including RAW image processing. PASM exposure controls, manual focus possible. 4fps burst rate, built-in flash, hot shoe for external flash or optical viewfinder. Dimensions: 2.6x4.4x1.6 inches; 10.6 oz.
The System: Hot shoe holds any Nikon flash and the Nikon DF-CP1 matched 28mm optical viewfinder (coming soon).
Overview: Olympus is a quick study. The XZ-2 is the company's second generation system compact, and it already offers some notable improvements. It bears a striking resemblance to the Canon S95, but with the addition of an accessory port that could accommodate a microphone, flash or electronic viewfinder. A ring around the lens operates focus and other features, and a new 12MP sensor that’s about the same size as the Panasonic Lumix LX7’s lurks inside. The remarkably fast f/1.8 zoom lens offers the widest aperture in its class, while in-camera creative Art Filters are borrowed from Olympus’s MILCs and DSLRs.
The Juicy Details: 12MP 1/1.63-inch CCD, 4x optical zoom lens with f/1.8-2.5 maximum aperture range, RAW + JPEG image formats, live guide, 3-inch 614k resolution flip-out LCD monitor, Full 1080p HD video, Accessory port, 11 In-Camera Art Filters (Pop Art, Soft Focus, Grainy Film, Pin Hole, Diorama and Dramatic Tone), sensor-shift image stabilization, live guide control, in-camera panorama, Live View with AF tracking, Face Detection.
DxOMark Test Results: Coming soon.
Overview: Meet the new low-light boss: At f/1.4, the Panasonic LX7's 24mm 4x zoom lens is the fastest lens you'll find on a compact digital camera. Combine that with the camera's 10MP, 1/1.7-inch CMOS sensor (which will deliver a better-than-average image in a compact thanks to its larger pixels), this camera's a great choice for flashless low-light photography. Quick and quiet, the camera is unobtrusive and well suited for candid photography, including street photography. However, an optical or electronic viewfinder is also recommended.
The Juicy Details: 10MP 1.7-inch CMOS sensor, 3.8x 24-90mm (35mm equivalent) f/1.4-2.8 optical zoom lens consisting of 11 elements in 10 groups with 5 aspherical lenses and 9 aspherical surfaces; 920k dot LCD monitor, Intelligent NR Noise Reduction, 11fps full resolution burst rate, iA intelligent autoexposure, manual exposure available. Aperture ring, internal ND filter, focus lever, 1080p HD video at 60fps, Dolby Digital Stereo.
Overview: This posh compact camera is a serious image quality machine. Depending on how you calculate these things, the upcoming Sigma DP1M (28mm equivalent lens) and Sigma DP2M (45mm equivalent lens) may be the highest resolution compact cameras in the world. Sigma says the cameras are 46MP, but that really means three 15MP sensors stacked upon each other for Sigma's unique RBG film-like sensor array. Either way, the sensors are APS-sized so no matter how you measure it, the quality should be amazing. The tradeoff? Speed. Previous DP-series cameras have been a bit slower than average. We are currently field-testing a DP-2 Merrill and will report results soon. In addition to the DP-2 Merrill, Sigma has announced a DP-1 Merrill with a 28mm (equivalent) lens, which is coming soon; all other features are the same. The M, by the way, is a tribute to the late Richard Merrill, the inventor of the Foveon sensor that's in every Sigma camera.
The Juicy Details: 30mm (46mm 35mm equivalent) f/2.8 lens, 9-blade aperture. Native RAW support as well as JPEG, Evaluative, centerweighted and spot metering, 4fps burst rate for up to 7 consecutive frames in RAW. Auto, Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual exposure modes; no special "scene" modes here. Manual focus, 9-point select AF mode, Closest focus approx. 12 inches. ISO range 100-800, boostable to 6400. 3-inch, 920k pixel LCD monitor. Shutter speeds 1/2000-30 sec.
The System: Hood Adapter HA-11 or 21 blocks out extraneous light, accepts 46mm filters such as the AML-1 Close-Up Lens, which is dedicated for the DP series cameras. Viewfinder VF-21 optical view, mounts on hot shoe—as do the External shoe-mount Flash EF-14, , Sigma EF-610 DG Super, and Sigma EF-610 DG ST flash units.
Overview: The Sony RX1 is the world's first 35mm sensor compact digital camera, capable of producing images that meet or exceed the quality produced by almost all current DSLRs. Its small camera body houses 24.3MP full-frame sensor. The camera has a built-in 35mm f/2.0. (Why no zoom? It is not possible to put an optically superior zoom lens on a camera with such a large sensor and still be able to call it "compact." Sony says the RX1 can capture “clean” high-ISO images up to 25,600, and is claimed to have a fast 0.13 second autofocus acquisition speed. Yes, the price ought to induce sticker shock for the average photo enthusiast, but if your priority is ultimate image quality and performance, and you don't mind the lack of an eye-level viewfinder, this is a camera to consider.
The Juicy Details: Full frame, 35mm 24MP sensor, 35mm f/2 Carl Zeiss lens, Full HD 24p video capture, ISO up to 25,600, claimed AF speed of 0.13 sec, 3 dedicated rings for aperture, focus and macro, closest focus approx 7 inches; 9 iris blades. Multi segment, center weighted and spot metering, EV compensation to +/- 3EV in 1/3 steps, auto high dynamic range, creative styles (Standard, Vivid, Neutral, Clear, Deep, Light, Portrait, Landscape, Sunset, Night Scene, Autum Leaves, Black, White, Sepia). 3-inch, 1.229k dot LCD display. Sweep panorama, face detection to 8 faces, image stabilization, intelligent auto, 13 picture effects.