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Buyer's Guide: Enthusiast raw-shooting compact cameras

Barney Britton | Product Reviews & Previews | Published Dec 15, 2011

Christmas is just around the corner and if you're anything like me you'll be worrying about what gifts you need to buy. If you're thinking of buying a high-end compact camera there are a lot of different factors to consider. Do you want the most versatile zoom you can get, or would you be happy to compromise on zoom range for the sake of a faster maximum aperture? Will you be shooting in the camera's raw mode, and if so, how important is operational speed? Are you shopping for someone who loves lots of manual controls, or are you simply looking for the highest quality possible from a point-and-shoot?

We've tested all but two of the cameras in this market segment in detail (the studio and real-world samples you'll see from the Fujifilm X10 and Nikon Coolpix P7100 were shot especially for this roundup, ahead of their own full reviews). This article is not intended to duplicate or replace our normal testing, but to point you towards key differences between the cameras that currently vie for attention at the top end of the enthusiasts compact camera market.

In this article you'll find some of our familiar studio tests, as well as real world comparisons, an overview of the enthusiast compact market as a whole and finally, a concise conclusion, summing up what you need to know, to help you decide which camera is for you. Movie specification and performance is covered briefly, but detailed analysis is beyond the scope of this article. For more in-depth coverage of these camera's movie modes, turn to (or wait for) their full reviews

The Cameras

For the purposes of this roundup, I'm restricting my coverage to those compact cameras which offer full manual control over exposure, are capable of shooting raw files, and have flash/accessory hotshoes. There are six cameras on the market which meet these criteria, and all six are covered, but the fullest treatment is reserved for those cameras which offer optical viewfinders (and arguably the ultimate in enthusiast-friendly ergonomics) in addition to their rear LCD screens:

If you head to page five of this article, you'll see a brief overview, including sample images and useful links, of the other three cameras in this class (all of which we've previously tested in full):

Key Specifications Compared

A resolution of 10MP has been more or less standard for the high end of the compact camera market for a couple of years now, and two of the three cameras in the main part of this roundup (the Canon PowerShot G12 and Nikon Coolpix P7100) share the same 10MP CCD sensor. There are plenty of differences between them though, particularly in terms of their lenses and movie modes. 

 Sensor ISO Range*Lens (35mm equiv)Image StabilizationScreen MoviesStreet Price
Canon PowerShot G12  10MP
7.4x5.6mm
CCD
80-3200 28-140mm f/2.8-4.5 Optical 2.8" 461k-dot 720p @ 24fps $379
Fujifilm X10 12MP
8.8x6.6mm
CMOS
100-3200 28-112mm f/2-2.8 Optical 2.8" 461k-dot 1080p @ 30fps $599
Nikon Coolpix P7100 10MP
7.4x5.6mm
CCD
100-6400 28-200mm f/2.8-5.6 Optical 3" 921k-dot 720p @ 30fps $404
Olympus XZ-1 10MP 8.1x5.6mm CCD 100-6400

28-112mm f/1.8-2.5

Sensor-shift 3" 614k-dot
OLED
720p @ 30fps $419 
Panasonic LX5 10MP 8.1x5.6mm CCD 80-3200 24-90mm f/2-3.3 Optical 3" 461k-dot 720p/i @ 30/60ifps $348
Samsung TL500/EX1 10MP
7.4x5.6mm
CCD
80-3200  24-72mm f/1.8-2.4 Optical 3"614k dot OLED VGA @ 30fps  $328
* At full resolution

Why Shoot Raw?

The addition of raw mode is one of the most obvious things that distinguishes cameras in the high-end, enthusiast, 'luxury' class of compact cameras from more mainstream consumer-oriented models. There are other features, too, which are traditionally the preserve of these higher-end products (like full manual control, a hotshoe, and fast, wide lenses) but raw mode is perhaps the most important. Some consumer-level compact cameras offer raw capture, but slow operational speed in this mode, and sometimes dubious image quality gains often make it much less useful than you might think (or hope).

The benefits of shooting in raw mode, compared to JPEG, are many and various. Raw files contain more data, so you can make more extreme tonal adjustments to them before you start to see a penalty in image quality. You can adjust the white balance of images shot in raw mode easily, and save as many JPEG copies as you like without fear of degrading the original file. 

A classic example of a JPEG gone wrong - shot accidentally using the wrong white balance preset. As you can see from the 100% crop on the right, this image (shot with the Canon PowerShot G12) also exhibits noticeable CA towards the edges of the frame.  100% Crop
As well as sharpening and exposure tweaks, shooting in raw mode has enabled me to correct the white balance, and save a new JPEG with natural colors. I was also able to fix the CA using the chromatic aberration correction sliders in Adobe Camera Raw.  100% Crop

If you're prepared to put the time in, you can get much more detail out of a raw file compared to an in-camera JPEG too, using the sharpening and noise-reduction options in third-party or bundled raw conversion software. 

Taken at ISO 400 in poor light, the Nikon Coolpix P7100 has delivered a neutral, but distinctly uninteresting image of this lakeside scene. Noise reduction has taken the edge off fine detail, too as you can see from the 100% crop on the right. 100% Crop
A few minutes work with the simultaneously-captured raw file in Adobe Camera Raw, and my image has a much more natural white balance, and greatly enhanced pixel-level sharpness. 100% Crop 

The penalties of shooting raw in compact cameras, traditionally, are slower operational speed due to lengthier write times, and the requirement to spend some time manually adjusting the files post-capture. Very often, manufacturers apply distortion correction to JPEG files, too, which makes them much more suitable for use 'straight out of the camera' than raw files, where you'll often need to manually correct for distortion. If convenience rather than critical image quality is key, there is no doubt that JPEGs win over raw files every time, but if you're reading this the chances are that sometimes you find yourself wanting a little more out of your camera than its JPEG engine can provide. 

Click here to turn to page 2 of our enthusiast raw-shooting compact cameras buyers' guide...

Canon PowerShot G12

10MP | 28-140mm (4x) Zoom | $379 (US) £359 (UK) €409 (EU)

Canon's PowerShot G-series is a stalwart of the high-end compact camera market. Originally designed to offer film SLR users a (relatively) affordable ladder into enthusiast digital imaging, over the past ten years G-series cameras have evolved to become what they are now - aspirational, high-quality compacts that are attractive second cameras for existing DSLR users, fitting into the niche between 'mainstream' compact offerings and small DSLRS.

Canon's current version, the 10MP G12, is little changed from its predecessor the G11. It offers the same pixel count, the same 28-140mm (equivalent) zoom range and similar operational ergonomics, but it certainly isn't out-of-date compared to its peers. The G12 boasts an ISO sensitivity span of 100-3200 at full resolution selectable in 1/3EV steps, and 720p video with stereo sound. It offers full manual exposure control via two dials, including one that is positioned on top of the hand grip (in a position that will be familiar to Canon EOS DSLR users). The most obvious direct competitor to the G12 in terms of specification and ergonomics is Nikon's P7100 (which is covered on page 4). 

A feature of recent G-series models that we really like is the chunky stacked ISO and exposure mode dials (which rotate independently of  each another).  Likewise a manual exposure compensation dial, in 1/3EV steps up to +/-2EV to the left of the G12's hotshoe. Just behind this dial, on the rear of the camera you can see the 'S' shortcut button which can be assigned to a range of shooting parameters.
A front control dial is exactly where a Canon EOS user would expect to find it - above the hand grip, just in front of the shutter button.  The G12's rear control dial doubles as a 4-way controller, with key shooting settings activated by pressing down on its four cardinal points. 

The G12 might be extremely close to its predecessor the G11 in terms of operation and feature set, but there are some key differences. The G12 has a higher resolution movie mode (and thereby becomes the first G-series camera to offer HD video), a built-in electronic spirit level, and also offers both in-camera HDR and ISO expansion up to ISO 12,800 (equivalent) at 2.5MP.

Key Features

Performance and Image Quality

The G12 has a long heritage, and as we'd expect from the 10th camera in its model line (there was no G4 for cultural reasons nor a G8), it offers a refined, impressively hassle-free user experience. We reviewed the G12 in early 2011, and then, as now, we really liked the electronic level gauge, chunky manual ISO and exposure compensation dials, and the fully-articulated LCD screen. The resolution of this display isn't quite up there with the best in class, but it is significantly more versatile than the simple fold-out design of the P7100's display (and more useful again than the Fujifilm X10's fixed screen). The G12 is the camera from which Nikon took 'inspiration' when it produced the Coolpix P7000, and there is a reason for that. The G12 is a very nice camera indeed.

The Canon PowerShot G12 has a small flash that, unlike those inside the Fujfilm X10 and Nikon P7100, does not pop up, but is built into the front of the camera. As you can see from this shot, flash metering is well-balanced, and although no match for a dedicated external flashgun, perfectly adequate for casual portraits and 'fill in'. 

As a stills camera, the G12 is an almost exact match for its predecessor the G11, and very similar to the Nikon Coolpix P7000/P7100 and Samsung TL500/EX1 (all four models use the same sensor). In raw mode in fact, files from the G12 and P7100 are virtually impossible to tell apart. What this means in practice is that the G12 gives excellent image quality up to ISO 400 and, in everyday photography, noise and noise-reduction are only noticeable at ISO 800 and higher. Even then, they only become problematic on close inspection. At ISO 3200, the G12's JPEG output is poor by comparison, but no worse than its competitors and actually slightly better than the P7100, the default noise-reduction of which is rather more heavy-handed.

Naturally though, because the G12's lens is (like the P7100's) relatively slow compared to some of its peers, you'll be forced to use its high ISO settings more frequently than you might with a camera like the Fujifilm X10 or Olympus XZ-1, which offer larger maximum apertures.

Pattern metering and automatic white balance have combined to give a fairly dull, cool-looking shot here, but despite the relatively low contrast there is still plenty of detail.  100% Crop
Shooting in raw mode and adjusting the file in Adobe Camera Raw has allowed me to sharpen that detail up a little, and increase brightness a little for a more 'punchy' result. I have also tweaked white balance slightly, to make the scene a little warmer.  100%

As usual, with a little care and attention the G12's true potential can be unlocked from its raw files, but even high-ISO JPEGs are fine for small prints and web use (and can look very nice in black and white). Assuming that white balance and exposure are accurate, you will probably find that there is little real need to shoot in raw mode with the G12 in everyday shooting. For ultimate control though (and of course a little more dynamic range 'headroom' in highlight areas) there is no substitute for a carefully-processed raw file.

The PowerShot G12's JPEG files are very good, and unless you need to make drastic post-capture adjustments to white balance or exposure, you're likely to be perfectly happy with the G12's JPEG image quality. 100% Crop
As always though, slightly more detail can be drawn out of the G12's raw files, which is particularly important in highlight areas, like the bright areas of sky in this ISO 400 shot. Here, I have also slightly brightened the foreground in Adobe Camera Raw and tweaked the colors in the sky for a more natural result.  100% Crop

As far as video image quality is concerned, the G12 is satisfactory but is doesn't stand out in its class. Video footage from the G12 looks fine, and we'd expect stereo sound recording in a camera at this level but it can't match the 'true' HD resolution of the Fujifilm X10 and it does not allow optical zoom control or AF during movie shooting, which is rather limiting. Since the more recently-released PowerShot S100 overcomes these limitations it seems likely that the G12's successor (whenever it might be unveiled) will improve on the G12 in this respect. 

Summary

Arguably, there was very little wrong with the PowerShot G11, and with the G12, Canon has smoothed out a few more rough edges. The result is a very pleasant, if rather bulky camera. Despite its somewhat lumbering appearance the G12 is quick, responsive (in both JPEG and raw capture modes) and its operational ergonomics are well thought-out. Although it can be used as an 'auto everything' compact, the G12's real strengths come to the fore when it is used in its A,S and M modes. The G12's twin control dials plus big, chunky, ISO, exposure compensation and mode dials offer a level of truly manual control which is very welcome in a compact camera. 

Assuming that you don't mind the G12's relative bulk (despite not being much larger in any single dimension than many of its peers, but like the Nikon P7100 it feels like a substantial 'lump') the G12 is by and large a very pleasant camera to use. We would expect it to be replaced in early 2012, but even if it is, the G12 is unlikely to look out of date any time soon, if only because it still stands up so well against (and in some respects outperforms) its nearest competitors. 

No camera is perfect though, of course, and we do have some criticisms of the G12, albeit relatively minor ones. A 28-140mm lens isn't quite as long at the long end as we'd like (the Nikon P7100 wins that battle hands-down) and we're disappointed that with all of the various buttons and dials which pepper its surface, Canon couldn't find room on the G12 for a direct movie shooting button. Both the Fujifilm X10 and Nikon P7100 provide one and its omission in the G12 wouldn't be such an irritation if the shortcut button could be reassigned accordingly, but unfortunately this isn't possible. Finally, having done a lot of shooting with the Canon PowerShot S100 I'd personally love to see its 12MP CMOS sensor nestling inside the G12, but that will have to wait...

Studio and Real-World Samples (links open in new tab)

Studio Comparison Tool Canon PowerShot G12 Samples (25 images)

Score when originally tested: 73% (+Gold Award)

Click here to turn to page 3 of our enthusiast raw-shooting compact cameras buyers' guide...

Fujifilm X10

12MP | 28-112mm (4x) Zoom | $599 (US) £437 (UK) €559 (EU)



Fujifilm's first foray into what is sometimes called the 'luxury' compact camera market, the X10 takes its styling cues from the APS-C format, fixed-lens X100 but offers a fast 28-112mm (equivalent) f/2-2.8 zoom lens, and the company's unique EXR sensor technology. As I'd expect from a camera in this class, the 12MP X10 also boasts raw file capture, all from a sensor that is between 20-40% larger than than its high-end compact peers (and about twice as large as those in typical compact cameras).

Like its larger-format stablemate the X100, the X10 is designed to appeal to connoisseurs of form as well as function. Its black metal body is generously wrapped in a mock-leather grain finish and the manual zoom ring and (coupled) optical viewfinder are highly distinctive.

Unusually for a compact camera, the X10's 28-112mm (equivalent) zoom lens is controlled manually using a 'traditional' mechanical zoom ring. Focal lengths are marked (very approximately) on the ring itself.  Like the Canon G12 and Nikon P7100, the X10 features an optical viewfinder that is coupled with its zoom lens. Coverage is approximate but close enough to be useful in a pinch, if ambient lighting conditions are too bright to see the LCD screen (which can be turned off if desired). 
In keeping with its classic styling, the X10 features a manual focus mode switch, on the front of the camera next to the lens barrel.  On the rear of the thumbnail, adjacent to the thumb grip, is a dual-purpose mode dial. Turning the dial sets exposure parameters while in review mode, pressing it inwards activates a useful one-touch magnification view for checking critical focus. 

Its specification is very far from old-fashioned though. The X10's ISO sensitivity settings run from ISO 100-6400 at full resolution, HD video capture is possible, with stereo sound, and then of course there's Fujifilm's unique EXR technology.

The X10's sensor is built on conventional CMOS architecture (rather than being back-illuminated) but the way it works is far from conventional. Whereas in the Bayer pattern, there's always an entire photosite gap between any two photosites of the same color whereas the EXR arrangement puts pairs of similarly colored photosites together. In fact, you can think of the EXR filter array as being two Bayer patterns slotted together, with one of them offset relative to the other, by 1/2 a pixel. We have published a more complete explanation of the technology here.

There are three EXR modes - 'HR', high-resolution, in which the X10's full complement of 12MP is used to create images, 'DR', dynamic range, where you can capture images with a much greater dynamic range than would normality be possible, and 'SN' - signal to noise, designed to give cleaner, less noisy images at high ISO settings in poor light. Because of the way that they work (in effect by combining the signals from neighbouring photodiodes) Both DR and SN modes output 6MP images. The X10 also has a more conventional dynamic range expansion mode, which delivers expanded highlight dynamic range at the expense of a reduced ISO sensitivity span. Confusingly, despite being completely different technologies, both EXR and conventional dynamic range expansion is described in the same way in the X10's menu system, as 'DR XXX%'.

Key Features

Performance/Image Quality

The X10 might look rather like the X100, but fortunately, it is free from most of the operational quirks that marred our experience of using that camera. Most importantly, the X10 is pleasantly responsive in normal use (although the older Canon PowerShot G12 still boasts faster shot-to-shot times), both when shooting and reviewing images. Despite lacking the innovative focal-plane phase-detection AF system of some of its lower-end compact stablemates, the X10 achieves focus quickly and (usually) reliably. I'm not not too enamoured of its face-detection system though, which has an irritating tendency to recognise faces until the moment you try to take a photograph, at which point - all too frequently - the camera has a crisis of confidence and AF defaults to conventional multi-point or area mode.

The Fujifilm X10 has given a nicely-balanced flash shot here, and has provided even illumination without completely overpowering the warm ambient light. The only real frustration with flash photography comes in social situations, where the X10's face detection AF system isn't as reliable as we'd like it to be. 

Also frustrating is the way in which Fujifilm has implemented the X10's EXR functionality. You could be forgiven for thinking that EXR is an exclusively JPEG-only, automatic exposure mode, but in fact, it is possible to combine 'DR' EXR capture (in our experience the most useful of the two 6MP modes) with full exposure control and even in combination with raw file capture. You just have to manually select medium resolution (6MP) capture first (and raw+JPEG mode if you want to shoot raw files), at which point you can extend dynamic range by up to 2EV (from 100% to 400%). You can see the effect of this extra dynamic range in the scene below, which for the purposes of easy comparison, was shot at 6MP with DR at 100% (EXR off) and 400% (EXR on) at ISO 100.
In conventional 100% DR mode, dynamic range in JPEG files is good, but as always, in scenes like this which contain a wide tonal range, highlights can be clipped. 100% Crop
With DR at 400% in 6MP capture mode, Fujifilm's EXR technology kicks in, and gives an extra 2EV of dynamic range without restricting the ISO span.  100% Crop
Despite its complicated implementation, the X10'S 'DR' EXR mode is one of my favourite things about the camera. Image quality at its full pixel count of 12MP is very good, but in my opinion the benefits of the additional highlight detail in the 6MP DR mode are worth the penalty in resolution. 
The X10 gives very good image quality in 12MP JPEG mode, but pixel-level detail isn't quite as convincing as we'd expect from a camera with a more conventional sensor arrangement (like the Canon Powershot S100). That said, by the time it comes to making prints or viewing images at medium magnification on-screen the difference is subtle.  100% Crop
I converted this simultaneously-captured raw file 'to taste' in the bundled Raw File Converter EX software, and as you can see, even after careful sharpening and noise reduction tweaks the difference at 100% is pretty minimal. I was able to adjust white balance and saturation though, for an image that more closely matches the original scene.  100% Crop

The raw-conversion software bundled with the X10 - Fujifilm Raw Converter EX - is rather disappointing. Built around Silkpix, it is painfully slow and not particularly user-friendly. More frustratingly, despite an abundance of interestingly-named sharpening and noise-reduction options, it is difficult to create a raw file conversion that looks significantly better than the excellent in-camera JPEGs. Fortunately the X10 features a fast, effective in-camera raw conversion function, which is much more convenient for quick fixes like basic white balance and brightness tweaks. Because raw support for the X10's files is currently so limited, we haven't included raw conversions from the X10 in our studio scene comparison tool (see the bottom of this page). 

As regards still image quality perhaps the only serious fly in the X10 ointment at present is an issue which has been discussed fairly widely among X10 owners, and relates to specular highlights. Simply put, the X10 renders clipped point highlights as disproportionally large, hard-edges 'orbs', which once you've started to notice them, are impossible to ignore.

Caused by sensor blooming (excess charge from individual photosites spilling over into neighbouring ones) the 'white spot' issue is only visible in a handful of our samples but is very distracting once you start noticing it.  100% Crop

We'll be looking into this issue, (you can read a statement from Fujifilm, and see more examples here) and of course we'll be running the X10 through our normal gamut of image quality tests as part of a full review of the camera in early 2012.

I doubt whether movies will be much of a priority for X10 users, but it offers good performance in this mode, including (of course) zoom control during shooting and the option for continuous AF. 1080p footage is sharp and detailed, but rolling shutter from the X10's CMOS sensor is very obvious in scenes with moderate subject (or camera) movement. 

Summary

It's too early to give a definitive 'dpreview take' on the X10, but for now, I'm cautiously impressed. I'm very pleased to see that whereas its big brother the X100 can on occasion be a somewhat slow, frustrating camera to use, the X10 is fast, responsive, and (on the whole) sensibly designed. I really like the mechanical zoom ring, and although the relatively restricted coverage of the optical finder reduces its usefulness in everyday photography, it's there if you need it. 

My experience so far hasn't been 100% positive though. The X10 has inherited one truly unwelcome trait from the X100 - it resets exposure information, including ISO and DR preferences when exposure mode is changed (so if you're shooting in aperture priority at ISO 100 and DR 100%, and switch to manual exposure mode, the camera will switch to whatever ISO sensitivity and DR setting you last used in that exposure mode). I really hope that Fujifilm squashes this bug as soon as possible, and issues a firmware update in the same way as it did for the X100.

I remain utterly baffled too as to why Fujifilm has made one of the X10's standout features - its excellent 6MP 'DR' EXR mode - so hard to get to grips with, and I'd like to see a more user-friendly menu system (I have given up hope of a more useable bundled raw converter). Also disappointing is its flaky face detection AF and relatively poor battery life, and an occasional tendency to forget to power up when you rotate the zoom from off into its 'on' position (an issue that can be mitigated, in my experience, by rotating the lens firmly, smoothly and fairly slowly from its 'off' position).

The X10 is certainly an acquired taste, but on the whole, provided that you're prepared to put a bit of work into setting it up, the X10's quick operation and excellent image quality (especially in 6MP 'DR' EXR modes) make it worthy of serious consideration alongside its more conventional peers. My advice would be to shoot in RAW+JPEG mode at 6MP, with DR set to 400%. Convert your raw files in-camera and that way you have the choice of up to 2EV of extra dynamic range as and when you need it. And make sure you keep the lens clean - the X10's convex front element is very prone to smears from clothing and fingertips... 

Studio and Real-World Samples (links open in new tab)

Studio Comparison Tool (JPEG only) Fujfilm X10 Samples (32 images)

Click here to turn to page 4 of our enthusiast raw-shooting compact cameras buyers' guide...

Nikon Coolpix P7100

10MP | 28-200mm (7x) Zoom | $404 (US) £309 (UK) €344 (EU)



The Nikon Coolpix P7100 is the successor to the capable, but flawed P7000, released in 2010. The P7100 isn't hugely different to the P7000 in terms of specification - it utilizes the same 10MP CCD as its predecessor (and is limited to the same 720p video specification) and the same lens. The LCD screen might be articulated, but it is the same excellent 3in, 921k-dot display as before. In most other respects the P7100's form factor is almost exactly the same as the P7000.
The P7100 is peppered with manual control points, but we really like the manual exposure compensation dial, especially.  A 'Quick Dial' on the top left of the camera provides easy access to core shooting settings including white balance, ISO and exposure bracketing. 
New on the P7100 compared to the P7000 is a control dial on the front of the camera, in an ideal position for manipulation using the index finger of your right hand.  Also new is a fold-out LCD screen (although the display itself is the same 921k-dot unit). A fully-articulated display would be preferable but even this limited articulation is useful for high and low-angle still/video shooting.
When we reviewed the P7000, we remarked on its resemblance to the Canon Powershot G12, and the P7100 cements this even further with the addition of an extra control dial on the front of the camera. The similarities between the P7100 and Canon G12 are more than just skin-deep. Both use the same 1/1.7" 10MP CCD sensor, and offer very similar feature sets (and image quality) in both still and video modes. The most significant difference between the two models is their lenses - the P7100 offers a significantly longer telephoto reach, and spans an optical zoom range of 28-200mm (equivalent) rather than 28-140mm in the G12.

Key Features

Performance/Image Quality

The Coolpix P7000's main flaw was its poor operational speed, both in terms of the time it took to write .NRW raw files, and more basic operations like accessing and dismissing menus, and changing key shooting settings. Its image quality was excellent, but the process of actually capturing an image in the first place could sometimes be unspeakably frustrating. Fortunately, Nikon appears to have listened to the criticism of the P7000, and although it is too early to offer any definitive conclusions it is immediately obvious on picking up the camera that the P7100 certainly offers a significantly snappier, more fluid handling experience.

The Nikon P7100's built-in flash is powerful enough for close-range portraits like this, but does have a tendency to slightly 'overcook' portaits. Flash exposure compensation is available though, up to +/-2EV in 1/3EV steps.

I still like the generous external control, versatile lens and high-resolution screen, but this time round it is complemented by a much more, responsive interface. Also apparently gone are the occasional AF glitches which afflicted the P7000. The additions that Nikon has made to the P7100's ergonomics are worthwhile, too. The front control dial is now in exactly the right position for operation with the right index finger, and the fold-out tilting screen - while not as versatile as a fully articulated model - is very handy for shooting stills and video from awkward high or low angles. 

At ISO 6400, the P7100 does a pretty good job of delivering high-contrast detail, but noise reduction takes a significant bite out of resolution. Image quality is fine for a small print though, or web use. 100% Crop
Working on a simultaneously-captured .NRW raw file in Adobe Camera Raw has allowed me to get much more detail out of this low-light scene, without too much of a penalty in noise.  100% Crop

Less appealing is the P7100's over-reliance on its lens's optical stabilization system to avoid camera shake. In auto ISO mode, in poor light, the camera will consistently select a low ISO value and low shutter speed (presumably to avoid noise) - a gamble that doesn't always pay off. To be completely confident of getting a high enough shutter speed to be safe, I have found myself setting ISO sensitivity manually, far more than I expected to. The P7100's image stabilization system is very good, but it isn't perfect. It can't cancel out shivering on a cold windy day, and of course it is of no help at all if your subject is moving. 

Default sharpness from the Nikon P7100's JPEGs is good but not great. As you can see though, there is a lot of detail in low ISO images, and its 28-200mm lens is impressively sharp, even at close focusing distances. 100% Crop
Compared to the default JPEG, this image, made from a processed .NRW raw file contains much more fine detail.  100% Crop

As far as image quality is concerned, the P7100 is a very close match for its predecessor, which is good news. As such, the P7100 is up there with the best of its 10MP peers in JPEG mode. Like the Canon PowerShot G12 however, the P7100's relatively slow lens means that you will have to use its higher ISO settings more often than you might with a camera that boasts a wider maximum aperture. Despite its relatively wide zoom range (for its class) the P7100's 28-200mm lens is nice and sharp across its focal span. Automatic distortion correction is available in JPEG mode, so if you're a habitual JPEG shooter you're unlikely to notice any bendy horizons. Distortion is apparent in raw files, but it's not complex and fairly easy to correct in Nikon's bundled View NX2 software and/or common third-party options like Adobe Camera Raw/Photoshop. 

Summary

We haven't worked through the necessary in-depth testing of the P7100 that is required for a full review yet, and as such, for now we're reserving final judgement on the camera. That said, I've done a lot of shooting with the P7100 and despite some reservations, I've come to really enjoy using it. Compared to the Canon G12 and Fujifilm X10 the P7100 is certainly more of an all-rounder, thanks to its sharp 28-200mm lens - definitely the camera's trump card.  

The biggest problems with the original P7000 were operational. Every camera has quirks, but the P7000's glacial raw write times and laggy menu system could be genuine show-stoppers. Its image quality, however, was excellent, and as far as its functional ergonomics were concerned, we had few concerns. With the P7100, Nikon has retained the P7000's good points, and appears to have largely ironed out the wrinkles. The P7100 is quicker in operation than its predecessor (although still not as fast when it comes to writing images to a memory card as the Canon G12 and Fujifilm X10), and thanks to the extra control dial and fold-out rear LCD it is more pleasant to use, too. That said, the fully-articulated screen on the back of the Canon G12 is superior in terms of versatility. 

The P7100's image quality is very good though, video image quality has been improved slightly and although noise does take the edge off fine detail in low-contrast scenes at ISO 400 and above, the P7100's raw files provide a very good starting point for fine-tuning. My overall impression, pending a full review is that the P7100 is the camera that the P7000 should have been, and a much more convincing competitor to the Canon PowerShot G12. 

Studio and Real-World Preview Samples (links open in new tab)

Studio Comparison Tool  Nikon Coolpix P7100 Samples (30 images)

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The Competition:

We've looked in depth at three of the cameras in this class, which offer coupled optical viewfinders in addition to their other enthusiast-oriented feature sets, but they don't represent the total market. The three cameras on this page all boast full manual control, raw capture, and fast, high-quality optics. Here's a summary of their key features, performance and image quality (some of the content on this page is drawn from our previously-published reviews).

Olympus XZ-1

10MP | 28-112mm (4x) Zoom | $419 (US) £309 (UK) €344 (EU)

Key Features

Late arrivals to the high-end raw-enabled compact camera party, with the launch of the XZ-1 in late 2010 it became apparent that Olympus hadn't been sitting idly by as Canon, Panasonic and Samsung were fighting for dominance in this market segment. Standout features of the XZ-1 include a bright lens, with the XZ-1 becoming the first of the company's compacts to ever wear its respected 'Zuiko' designation. The X-Z1's lens is the brightest zoom lens of any current compact while still offering a truly useful range. The i.Zuiko lens is F1.8 at the 28mm equivalent end and a still very impressive F2.5 at the 112mm setting. 

As far as image quality is concerned we're big fans of the bright and punchy 'Natural' mode and are pleased to see it become the default Picture Mode for iAuto mode. Exposure and White Balance are both pretty dependable, meaning you can point and shoot with a high degree of confidence. In general, we were impressed with the XZ-1's image output - a sharp, bright lens and flattering image processing makes for consistently good results. The lens is consistently sharp in the center with slightly soft corners, especially at short focal lengths and wide apertures. Stopping down quickly sharpens the corners and, particularly at longer focal lengths, the results are very impressive.

Ultimately, the XZ-1 is a joy to use, quick and easy to control and small enough to make sure you have it when a photographic opportunity arises. Image quality is very good, and aside from the strange omission of an AEL/AFL button, there's little to criticize. Not everyone will be affected by the lack of such a button but as a function available on some point-and-shoots, it's a frustrating omission from a camera people will use creatively. However, this is just about the only major cloud in a sky that's otherwise the bright, cheery blue that this camera so loves to produce.

Studio and Real-World Samples (links open in new tab)

Studio Comparison Tool Olympus XZ-1 Samples (32 images)
Score When Originally Tested: 74% (+Gold Award)

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5

10MP | 24-90mm (3.8) Zoom | $348 (US) £343 (UK) €391 (EU)

Key Features

The LX5 is the fourth camera to carry the LX name, and Panasonic has not seen the need to meddle too much with the essential ingredients. A fast-aperture Leica Vario-Summicron lens, compact metal body, flash hotshoe and plenty of external controls make the LX5 a very appealing camera for the photo enthusiast.

The LX5's 3.8x 24-90mm (equivalent) optical zoom is the joint-widest of its peers, and has a greater reach than its predecessor the LX3, which was limited to a 60mm equivalent telephoto setting. This is a welcome change, extending the zoom usefully into the 'portrait' range. The other key feature of the Leica-branded lens is its speed: a maximum aperture of f/2 - 3.3 makes the LX5's lens one of the fastest available, only very slightly slower than that of the Olympus XZ-1 and Samsung TL500, and significantly faster than the longer-reaching zooms belonging to the Canon G12 and Nikon P7100. 

The LX5's sensor is multi-aspect, which means that its 3:2, 16:9 and square format shooting modes do not take a serious bite out of the effective resolution, making them arguably more useful than they might otherwise be. This is especially true of the 16:9 mode, which at 9.5Mp offers roughly 25% greater pixel coverage than either the S95 or P7000 in the same aspect ratio. They also all offer the same (diagonal) angle of view at any given lens position (see example below). Successor to the popular LX3, the LX5 brings a host of improvements and new features, including an excellent multi-aspect sensor, a slightly more versatile optical zoom range, and better ergonomics.

It's not the fastest compact around, but it is a great camera for the enthusiast photographer or DSLR user who wants something a little smaller. We love the LX5's multi-aspect sensor, and have also come to appreciate the generous amount of customization that is possible over its operation. The LX5 stands out amongst its competition for bad reasons though, as well as good. It is a comparatively slow camera, especially when shooting raw files, and although sharp and fast, its 24-90mm (equivalent) lens cannot compete with the longer zooms on cameras like the Nikon P7100 and Canon Powershot G12. At 460k dots the rear LCD isn't up with the best of its peers and is comparatively prone to reflections, making it hard to use in bright daylight.

Studio and Real-World Samples (links open in new tab)

Studio Comparison Tool Panasonic DMC-LX5 Samples (36 images)
Score When Originally Tested: 73% (+Silver Award)

Samsung TL500 / EX1

10MP | 24-70mm (3x) Zoom | $328 (US) £299 (UK) €328 (EU)

Key Features

The Samsung TL500 follows the Panasonic LX-series recipe of a fast, wide (though reach-limited) zoom lens in a fairly compact metal body. It's impressive f/1.8-2.4 zoom lens covers a range from the very wideangle 24mm equivalent out to 72mm (equivalent).

The other standout feature of the TL500 is undoubtedly its rear display - not only is it fully articulated, it also has the excellent VGA-equivalent OLED screen we first saw on the Samsung NX10. In principle OLED screens can be more efficient and offer greater contrast than LCD panels because they can selectively light just the pixels that need to be illuminated. They also promise greater viewing angles. Despite its high specification, the Samsung's interface is very simple and straightforward. There's a function menu that allows direct access to most key shooting functions and well-chosen buttons to give even more direct access to key functions such as ISO. There's also a menu system that duplicates these functions and adds a few setup options in an attractive and easy-to-navigate menu. 

Sadly there's very little in the way of customisation: none of the buttons are configurable and you can't even turn off the digital zoom option. This simplicity does have the advantage of making the camera very straightforward to use, though. 

At low ISO settings the TL500 is capable of producing excellent image quality and, thanks to its bright lens, there are plenty of situations in which you can get away with keeping the ISO down. Its relatively small compact camera sensor means, though, that what the bright lens gains you is mainly the ability to shoot in low light, rather than any particularly great control over depth-of-field. At higher ISOs the camera's JPEG engine begins to struggle, with its over-eager noise reduction blurring away all fine detail above ISO 800. However, if used in RAW mode, it's possible to apply more subtle noise reduction and reveal greatly improved images.

The Samsung TL500 is a very good camera - it takes good images, has a great lens, flexible feature set and, unlike most mirrorless cameras, it maintains its go-anywhere, shoot anytime capability when slipped into a jacket or coat pocket. The TL500's few quirks are not important enough that we'd consider it significantly less desirable than slightly more polished competitors like the Panasonic LX5 and Olympus XZ-1 but its advantages are similarly marginal. Only its superb articulated OLED screen really stands out in such an increasingly strong field of competition. 

Studio and Real-World Samples (links open in new tab)

Studio Comparison Tool Samsung TL500/EX1 Samples (35 images)
Score When Originally Tested: 73% (+ Silver Award)

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Recommendations

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:

Image Quality

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.

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. 

Versatility

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. 

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.