Opinion: Enthusiast compacts have finally come of age
Last December I was looking to buy a camera for my mom to replace her aging Panasonic travel zoom. It didn't take very good photos but, to be fair, you can't expect miracles from a 30x zoom camera with a 1/2.3" sensor. She listed a couple of must-haves: it should fit in a purse, have a decent amount of zoom and have photo quality that was better than what she had now. She didn't want to deal with changing lenses and my dad wanted it to have a viewfinder, if possible.
Being somewhat knowledgeable in the digital camera field I knew that I needed to look at the 1"-type camera market first. Back in mid-December I had just a few options: the Canon PowerShot G3 X / G5 X / G7 X / G9 X, the Panasonic FZ1000 and the Sony RX100 and RX10 series. While quite a few of those cameras passed the 'purse test', none had focal lengths longer than 100mm equiv. For real zoom power there was only the Canon G3 X, Panasonic FZ1000 and Sony RX10, all of which were far, far too large.
|The RX100 III and IV meet the size and EVF requirements but are just too limited in terms of zoom.||The Panasonic FZ1000 is my favorite enthusiast superzoom but is way too large for a purse.|
Plan B was to find something in the middle: a slightly smaller sensor that had decent zoom, and my choice was Olympus' Stylus 1s. It has solid image quality, well-designed controls, and a 10X zoom, making me think that I found just what I'd been looking for. Shortly after it arrived I did a quick FaceTime chat with the future recipient who thought it was too large for a purse, and I agreed, so back it went.
At this point I felt as if I'd struck out. Anything with a decent zoom was just too darn big, and pocket cameras just wouldn't cut it.
|The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX90V ticked all of the boxes on my shopping list, except for one: image quality.|
Not knowing what was coming out next (really!), I bit my tongue and bought a Sony Cyber-shot HX90V. It's small, has a 30X zoom, a pop-up EVF (a la RX100 III/IV), flip-up LCD, and Wi-Fi. Sounds like the perfect gift, except for two rather important things. First, the sensor size is 1/2.3", which is exactly what I was trying to avoid. Second, the lens is quite slow, with a maximum aperture range of F3.5-6.4. Thus, in low light, the camera will need to crank up the ISO, resulting in a big drop in image quality.
The hole in the market
What was missing in the 1" sensor market was pretty obvious: something in-between the compact, short zooms and the giant superzooms. As anyone who has ever bought a piece of consumer electronics knows, your purchase is outdated as soon as it leaves the store. As luck would have it, the camera I'd been waiting for showed up on January 5th: the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS100.
|The Panasonic ZS100/TZ100 finds a middle ground between small/short zoom and huge/long zoom.|
The ZS100 (known as the TZ100 in most countries) ticked nearly every box on my list. It's compact, has a reasonable amount of zoom (10X, 25-250mm equiv.), and an EVF (though it's not a great one). Seeing how it uses the same sensor as the FZ1000, photo quality and 4K video should both be very good. The only downside I can find is that the lens, with a maximum aperture range of F2.8-5.9, is pretty slow. At least image quality should hold up when it has to increase the ISO sensitivity in low light.
Unfortunately, the ZS100 wasn't set to ship until mid-March, so my mom was out of luck.
Where's my wide-angle?
Still, there was one area of the 1" camera market in which there was a void, and that was at the wide end.
|The Nikon DL18-50 filled in the last gap in the 1" enthusiast compact market with its 18-50mm equivalent lens.|
Then, lo and behold, Nikon came running into the market with three new 1" cameras (known as the DLs), which finally filled in that last gap. The camera that did so is the DL18-50 which, as its name implies, has an 18-50mm equivalent lens - easily the widest in this class. And it's a fast one, with a maximum aperture range of F1.8-2.8. There are many other things going for it spec-wise; it has a 20.8MP sensor (likely from Nikon's 1 J5 mirrorless camera), Hybrid AF system (the DL cameras are the only cameras in the 1" category with this), tilting LCD, 4K video and a 'SnapBridge' Wi-Fi system that uses Bluetooth to maintain a constant connection with your phone. We haven't tested it yet, but we're really looking forward to it.
The two other DLs have the same guts, but have focal lengths that fit in with the competition. The DL24-85 slots in-between the Sony RX100 III/IV and Canon PowerShot G7 X I/II, while the DL24-500 is similar to the Canon G3 X and Panasonic FZ1000.
When I started my search for that Christmas gift, the enthusiast compact market was so limited that I ended up purchasing the very type of camera that I was trying to avoid in the first place. Had Christmas been postponed about four months, the ZS100 would've been in a box with "To Mom" on it.
In the end, this year's rapid growth in the enthusiast compact market didn't help me personally. But there are now cameras for every situation, from wide-angle to super-telephoto. The enthusiast compact market has finally come of age, to the benefit of everyone.
* The G7 X has since been replaced by a Mark II model which offers a faster processor, improved Raw shooting and battery life, and refined ergonomics.