Buyer's Guide: Enthusiast raw-shooting compact cameras
The compact camera market is in something of a state of flux at present. At the lower end, smartphones (subsidized of course through contracts) are starting to encroach on the cheaper point-and-shoots, and as mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras get smaller and cheaper, there's pressure at the top, too. That being said, as you can see from the six cameras covered in this roundup (and others like the Canon PowerShot S100 and the spiritually-similar Nikon Coolpix P300) the high-end compact market is as vibrant now as it has ever been.
The six cameras featured in this roundup are very capable, and none will disappoint. All six offer effective, enthusiast-friendly handling with plenty of manual control, most offer some degree of customization over their functionality, and all provide image quality at the top end of what we'd currently expect from compact cameras. Three of these six models are available for under $400, which makes them particularly attractive if your budget is tight. The most expensive camera in this roundup is also the newest - we'd expect the $599 Fujifilm X10's street price to drop once it has been on the market for a little while. Price aside, here's how the six cameras stack up:
As far as image quality is concerned, all the cameras in this roundup deliver excellent results in day to day use, but taking all things into consideration, we'd put the Canon PowerShot G12 at the top of the group. Only just though, and with one important caveat. That caveat, which I've already mentioned earlier in this article, is that because the G12's lens is relatively slow compared to some of its peers, you are more likely to have to reach for its higher ISO sensitivity settings to maintain useable shutter speeds. The same applies to the Nikon Coolpix P7100, and should be taken into account when making side-by-side comparisons between cameras. The Samsung TL500, for example, might give slightly worse pixel-level image quality than the G12 at ISO 3200, but its faster lens probably means that in the same environment, you will be able to get away with shooting at a lower ISO value.
Towards the lower end of their ISO scales the Nikon P7100 and Samsung TL500 deliver near-identical image quality to the G12, and it is only the slightly more refined noise-reduction of the Canon at ISO settings of 800 and above that gives it the edge. The Samsung TL500 and Olympus XZ-1 take lovely pictures, but the Samsung is let down by rather aggressive noise reduction and you have to watch out for the Olympus XZ-1's lens, which is prone to flare. To be fair though, all of the 'fast lens' compacts in this selection are rather flare-prone and care should be taken to avoid positioning powerful light sources towards the edges of the frame.
I'd like to give a special mention to the Fujifilm X10 here. It's a quirky camera, certainly, and although image quality is similar (albeit slightly more detailed) in its 12MP maximum resolution mode than to its 10MP peers it has a unique trick up its sleeve in the form of its 6MP DR EXR mode. If you're happy with 6MP capture, you get the option of 2EV extra highlight dynamic range, excellent detail and sharpness, plus the ability to capture all of this data in raw files.
- My Picks: Canon PowerShot G12, Fujifilm X10
Handling/Ease of Use
This is tough - all of these cameras offer effective, enthusiast-friendly handling, but after extended use I'm much happier with some than others. At the bottom of the group is the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 - a lovely camera with generous customization options but let down by a dated, button-driven user interface and sub-par LCD screen that is very hard to see in bright light. The Fujifilm X10 is a lovely camera to use as long as you stick to a single exposure mode, but its habit of resetting exposure and DR settings when you change the shooting mode is infuriating. Likewise, it's occasionally 'sticky' lens controlled on/off switch and confusing implementation of DR/EXR modes. The overall impression (remembering that we still have a lot of testing to do) is of a camera one firmware update away from being completely likeable.
The Samsung TL500 and Olympus XZ-1 offer simple, hassle-free handling, and we really like their OLED display screens, but the Canon PowerShot G12 and Nikon Coolpix P7100 sit at the top of this group, thanks to their useful electronic level gauges, well-positioned control dials, articulated LCD screens (semi-articulated, in the P7100's case) and generous number of well-sized external controls. Of the two models, the Nikon P7100 offers slightly better handling, arguably, thanks to its multi-purpose quick dial. This enables fast access to key shooting parameters from the same control point, independently of the camera's menu system.
- My Picks: Canon PowerShot G12, Nikon Coolpix P7100
One thing that compact cameras can do that interchangeable lens cameras can't, is provide generous zoom lenses in a small form-factor. Of the cameras in this roundup, the Samsung TL500 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 languish at the bottom in terms of zoom range, although both offer very fast, sharp lenses that deliver excellent image quality and - importantly - start at 24mm (equivalent).
The Fujifilm X10 and Olympus XZ-1 boast the same effective zoom range of 28-112mm, which is a very useful 'standard' range, but neither can compete with the Canon G12's 28-140mm or the Nikon P7100's 28-200mm. After using all of these cameras for this roundup (some for the first time, and some again, following their own full reviews), I have found myself reaching for the Nikon's 200mm setting more than I expected, partly because it is so sharp. Distortion can be an issue in raw files, but distortion correction is very effective in JPEG capture mode. With longer focal lengths also comes more depth of field control, which is especially useful for portraiture. The main downsides to the G12 and P7100 are their relative bulk compared to their peers, and their slower lenses.
Overall, which of these cameras you think is the most versatile comes down to the sort of photography that you do. The built-in optical viewfinders of the Canon G12, Fujifilm X10 and Nikon P7100 immediately make them more useful in bright conditions or if battery life is a concern. If you want a fast lens though, neither the G12 nor P7100 would be a great choice. If you're a fan of wideangles, you should look at the Panasonic LX5 and Samsung TL500, but if you need more reach (and don't mind losing a little maximum aperture) you can't beat the larger, chunkier Canon G12 and Nikon Coolpix P7100. If dynamic range is your priority, and you can live with 6MP resolution, you should definitely take a look at the Fujifilm X10. I'm choosing the Nikon Coolpix P7100 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 as the standout cameras in terms of versatility - the former for its long-reaching zoom lens, and the latter for its sharp, fast 24mm (equivalent) wideangle.
My Picks: Nikon Coolpix P7100, Panasonic LX5
Value for Money
It is very difficult to quantify value for money (which is why we generally place little importance on price in our reviews) but in researching the street prices of the cameras in this roundup it became very clear to me that some of them - those that have been on the market for a while - can be picked up for bargain prices. The Samsung TL500/EX1 is great value at less than $350, and the same goes for the excellent Panasonic LX5, which continues to be a popular (and very well-regarded) camera even 18 months after its launch. The Nikon Coolpix P7100 is very good value too at around $400, but given its combination of generous external controls, versatile lens and excellent image quality, the Canon PowerShot G12 is a steal for less than $400.
My Picks: Canon PowerShot G12, Panasonic LX5