The point-and-shoot market may have hit a smartphone camera iceberg, but the ship hasn’t sunk yet. In fact, bitter competition has sped up the photography arms race, producing a wide field of top-tier compact cameras with big sensors — at a better price. Boasting image quality more than good enough to be deemed professional, these cameras can be a useful tool for the prosumer and feverish enthusiast alike, providing an infinitely more portable, all-in-one option rather than bulky DSLRs while sharing many of the same features and image quality.
That said, it’s up to you sharpen the focus on what you really need. We don’t mind walking a few steps to get the right shot — so our choices hone in on the best compact cameras that sport big sensors, fixed lenses and fast focusing. There’s a big field of small shooters; we’re here to slim it all down to the cream of the crop.
Best Compact Camera for the Street Photographer: The Fujifilm X100 made waves. For the first time, we had a digital camera with a sexy retro styling, a large sensor, and a fixed lens. Though firmware updates kept the X100 popular, the recently launched X100s has left its predecessor in the dust. A vastly improved autofocus makes snapping a shot nearly instantaneous. The X100s also has a new processor and a 16MP X-Trans II sensor, which resolves mother lodes of detail while keeping ISO noise down. A 23mm f2 lens renders images at a 35mm field of view. There’s also both an optical and electronic viewfinder. And did we mention its classic good looks? This shooter’s still in a class of its own.
Best Compact Camera for the Camera Snob: Leica products have always carried a certain gravitas (red dot, anyone?), and the X2 earns its chops. Designed to look like the old M3 rangefinder, the X2 features dials and a small body with a fixed 24mm f2.8. Simply put, its images are incredibly sharp — as you’d expect from a Leica lens. A 16.1MP APS-C CMOS sensor means any ISO noise will look like old-school film, a look highly sought after in the Leica-verse. A great pop-up flash design tops it all off. As with anything Leica, expect to sell a kidney or eviscerate your wallet to get your hands on one.
One of the original premium compact cameras (introduced in 1993), the Konica Hexar AF was a 35mm film camera with full manual control, autofocus, and a fixed 35mm f2 lens that was inspired by Leica’s equivalent. The quiet film advance made it an excellent compact for photojournalists and documentary shooters. Today, the camera is still noted to be quite legendary, and can still fetch quite a bit of cash, so keep an eye out at garage sales.
Best Compact Camera for the Seasoned Veteran: Don’t call it a point and shoot, under any circumstances. Sony’s RX1 represents one of the biggest technological innovations of recent times in the photo industry. Combining a 24MP CMOS full frame (35mm sized) sensor, a fixed 35mm f2 Zeiss lens and a small body, this camera is the opposite of a cheap date, but it also produces DSLR-quality shots. They’re exceptional. Even though the lens is quite big (Sony needed to make the lens that large to cover the full frame 35mm film sized sensor while also including the fast aperture), the overall package feels great in the hand. That heart-stopping price tag buys you top-of-the-line performance across the board.
Best Compact Camera for the Detail-Oriented: Sigma’s latest lineup of DSLR and mirrorless camera lenses have been creating lots of buzz, but one of their lesser known gems is a compact. With a colossal 46MP APS-C Foveon CMOS sensor and a 35mm equivalent field of view, the DP1 produces incredibly detailed images, rivaling those of a medium format camera. There are a few problems: the high ISO images are rather grainy and the autofocus can be finicky. Don’t worry though — those are the same problems that most medium format cameras have, and those can’t fit in your pocket.
Best Compact Camera for Versatility: Retro looks, a 28-112mm f2-2.8 aperture zoom lens, and the first truly compact camera with a viewfinder that has a digital overlay: what’s not to love? The Fujifilm X20’s 12MP 2/3″ X-Trans CMOS II Sensor resolves loads of detail and has even better high ISO results than its predecessor the X10. Of any camera on this list, besides our budget alternatives, this is the only one with a zoom lens; it’s also the only one that can easily fit into your pocket. Besides the small size, the X20 is also a sprinter, boasting the fastest autofocus performance of any camera on this list. If you prefer a zoom lens, this is the only camera that has managed to balanced size, image quality, and a zoom lens while having no major compromises. To be fair, does have the smallest sensor on this list.
How We Tested: A total of 13 compact camera contenders were considered for this buying guide. Five were selected based on our slightly opinionated standards and a formula of: lens (we love primes), sensor, design and usability. Price was the lowest determining factor. We combined this with research and 3 months of individual testing, hundreds of photos, and just a dash of self-admitted snobbery.
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