'High-end / Enthusiast'

  • Larger sensors than typical compact cameras - better image quality especially in low light
  • Fairly limited zoom range but fast maximum aperture (often starting at F1.8-2.0 at wide-angle)
  • Tough, metal construction with high-quality finish
  • Full manual control, and RAW mode as standard
  • Full HD video with some manual control
  • 'System' expandability allows you to add external flashes, lens adapters, cases etc.
  • Some models feature built-in viewfinders and/or the option to add one
  • Many models offer Built-in Wi-Fi and/or GPS

We haven't really talked about sensor size so far in this article, because all of the classes of compact camera mentioned up to now typically feature the same size sensors - roughly 25mm² in area. The sensors in the so-called 'enthusiast' class compact cameras are significantly larger in terms of area - in the region of ~40mm² and above (and ~116mm² in the case of 1-inch sensors). In simple terms, bigger sensors capture more light, which means better image quality.

Large-sensor compacts typically offer significantly better image quality than lower-end models, especially in situations where light levels are very low. There are two reasons for this - generally, cameras in this class have brighter lenses, which let in more light, and their sensors are physically larger, too.

This shot was taken at ISO 2500 using a Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II, which features a 1-inch sensor - currently the largest in its class.

Another advantage of larger sensors and brighter lenses is that you'll get more control over depth of field, allowing you to separate subjects from their background more effectively than you might be able to on lower-end compacts. 

This portrait was shot at 80mm (equivalent) at F2.5 using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5. The background is pleasantly blurred, and in fact this is roughly the same kind of subject/background separation that you'd be able to achieve with a typical DSLR kit zoom 'wide open' at the long end of its range. 

The usual trade-off to bigger sensors is in lens zoom range. Because the sensor is larger, the lens optics become more complicated, making it hard to offer the sort of 10X+ zooms you'll find in lower-end compacts (this is also the reason why you can't get 20X zoom lenses for DSLRs). Most enthusiast photographers care less about lens zoom range than about sharpness and 'speed' though, so typically cameras in the enthusiast class offer lenses with relatively small zoom ranges but with great optics and fast maximum apertures. They also offer useful extras like hotshoes for attaching external flashes and viewfinders, high-capacity batteries (in most cases) and provision for things like lens adapters to extend the range of their built-in zooms.

Enthusiast compact cameras offer full control over exposure, typically with an abundance of manual control inputs.

As well as rear dials and 4-way controllers, some models also offer control rings around the lens - traditionally, this is how you'd adjust aperture on manual lenses, but cameras in this class generally feature extensive control customization.

If you're in the market for a high-end compact, the key differentiators are lens range/speed, pixel count (as always), and video specification. Some models offer more manual control in movie mode than others, and although all will provide full manual control for shooting stills, it's important to find the right ergonomics for you. And, while enthusiast compacts offer some degree of feature and control customization, some are more versatile than others. Speaking of versatility, articulated LCD screens are very helpful when shooting both movies and stills, and more and more high-end compacts offer touch-sensitive screens, which can be very useful for setting focus and changing key shooting parameters.

Built-in Wi-Fi is becoming more common, too and while manufacturers have some way to go before this feature approaches smartphone levels of convenience, it can be handy. 

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