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...