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The Best Big-Sensor Compact Digital Cameras for Holidays 2014

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Mason Resnick is the editor of the Adorama Learning Center and a lifetime photography enthusiast.

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The Best Big-Sensor Compact Digital Cameras for Holidays 2014

Photographic pocket rockets

This line of posh compacts sports bigger, better sensors with killer image quality.


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 November 24, 2014)


Canon Powershot G1 X
Adorama Price:  $549
 
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.
 
 

 
Fujifilm FinePix X100S
Adorama Price: Approximately $1,098.95
 
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 X30, 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, hi-res electronic viewfinder, external exposure controls including a new control ring, and what Fujifilm claims is an equally quick shutter lag time, making it a solid street camera.
 

Leica X2
Adorama Price: $1,795


Overview: Pick up this camera and you can feel its quality. The camera features a fast 24mm f/2.8 lens built to Leica’s high tolerances, has a 16MP APS-C CMOS sensor, and a built-in flash. I highly recommend using it with the Leica EVF 2 electronic viewfinder, which projects a faithful image at 1.4 million pixel resolution. This camera is a great option for unobtrusive photojournalism and in our brief time hands on we were impressed with the quick-reacting shutter release.

The Juicy Details: 24mm f/2.8 (35mm equivalent: 35mm) Leica lens, 16MP APS-C sensor, ISO range 100-12,500, 5fps burst rate, 2.7-inch, 920k pixel LCD.

The System: Leica EVF 3 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.
 
 


Nikon Coolpix A

Adorama Price: $599.96
 
Overview: 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  for $396.95, 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. Note for bargain hunters: Nikon has just slashed the Coolpix A's price to nearly half of what it originally cost.

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 Nikon DF-CP1 optical finder.
 

 

Fujifilm XQ1
Adorama Price: $369
 
Overview: The big news about the pocketable Fujifilm XQ1 is the lens. Made of 7 glass lenses in 6 groups, it includes a high refractive index element as well as three extra low dispersion lenses, resulting in minimal flaring, ghosting, and chromatic aberration. Built-in optical image stabilization is claimed to reach 3 stops. A new control ring built around the lens barrel can select modes, focus, zoom, shift program, set shutter speed and aperture values, change ISO and exposure compensation, and set film simulation modes. Using the same 2/3-inch X-trans sensor as the highly regarded X20, the XQ1 features a fast 25-100mm (35mm equivalent) f/1.8 zoom lens that collapses almost completely into the camera body. The XQ1 sacrifices the X20's handy zooming viewfinder, but this allows the XQ1 to be a significantly smaller camera. A sophisticated control ring lets users choose either all auto or manual control, or anything in between, while images can be viewed via a new 920k dot LCD monitor.

The Juicy Details:  12MP 2/3 inch CMOS sensor with randomized pixel array, claimed 0.06 AF via phase detection, 25-100mm (35mm equivalent) f/1.8-4.9 lens, 3-inch, 920k LCD monitor, tracking AF, control ring around lens, focus peaking, film mode simulates popular Fujifilm film looks.


The System: Fujifilm SEMA-1 Microphone adapter set, VF-2 live-view electronic viewfinder, Fujifilm wireless, shoe-mounted flash systemPT-050 underwater housing waterproof to 130 feet.
 
DxOMark Test Results: Coming soon.
 
 

Panasonic Lumix LX7
Adorama  Price: $397.99


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.

The System: Panasonic Live View Finder DMW-LVF2 electronic viewfinder, Panasonic DMW-VF1 External Optical View Finder, Panasonic DMWFL3600 Flash.



Ricoh GR

Adorama price: $696.95


Overview: The latest incarnation of the Ricoh GR—which I described in my review as the VW Beetle of the Photo Industry—is a major leap. While previous models had small sensors, the new GR has a full 16MP APS-C sensor, making it the world’s smallest camera with an APS-C sensor. It’s a no-nosense camera that’s clearly been made by and for photographers. Its shutter release is one of the quietest and most responsive on the market, and when you pair it with a 28mm optical finder (to match the coverage of its 28mm equivalent lens) this camera’s simply a beast for street photography and unobtrusive photojournalism. You can choose full manual control, auto everything, or any step in between. A favorite feature? Snap Focus, which keeps focus locked to a pre-determined distance as a default, saving valuable fractions of a second.

The Juicy Details: 16MP APS-C CMOS sensor, No anti-alias filter, 9-blade diaphragm 28mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.8 lens, AF and Aperture preview buttons, All external buttons can be reassigned, RAW + JPEG image capture,1080p video at 30fps, ISO range 100-25,6000.

The System: 21mm  converter available; hot shoe accommodates flash or optical viewfinder.

 

Sony RX1r
Adorama Price: $2,798

Overview: No, that price is no misprint, but look at what you get for all that money: The Sony DSC-RX1 is the world’s first 35mm compact digital camera, with a small camera body that houses 24.3MP, 35mm-sized sensor. The camera has a built-in 35mm f/2.0 Carl Zeiss Sonnar T lens;  Taking advantage of the high quality images that a full-frame sensor can deliver, the camera is said to shoot “clean” high-ISO images up to 25,600, and is claimed to have a fast 0.13 second autofocus acquisition speed. The Sony DSC-RX1 is clearly aimed at serious photographers who are already comfortable with manual exposure and focus control, and who may already own a DSLR and are looking for a sophisticated little camera to augment their big rigs. By putting a prime lens on the camera, Sony was able to use the best glass possible—a good thing, because a lesser lens’s optical issues would show up clearly on a full-frame 24MP sensor. And, as the first compact 35mm digital camera, it is likely to be embraced by high-end photographers.


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.

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