The top performers in our review are the FUJIFILM X100T, the Gold Award winner; the Sony RX100 III, the Silver Award winner; and the Panasonic LX100, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a camera to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 cameras.
Although they still have an important place in many forms of photography, a large DSLR is no longer a prerequisite for capturing vibrant and detailed images. Compact cameras with high-quality lenses and sensors now enable you to take beautiful snapshots of the interesting scenes you encounter in everyday life. As their imaging capabilities continue to develop, professionals and enthusiasts alike are turning to them as a viable means of pursuing their personal photography.
Thanks to improved image quality, compact cameras offer a balance of portability and quality that other camera categories can't match. The ability to carry a camera, lens and all, in a jacket pocket or purse means you're much more likely to have your camera with you when you stumble upon a fleeting photo opportunity. So why not just use a smartphone in such circumstances?
Sure, smartphone cameras are amazing – they capture good-looking photos and they're almost always in your pocket. But there are few reasons why smartphones aren't, and may never be, a replacement for a dedicated camera.
The most obvious reason is space. Devices like smartphones need room for screen components, gyroscopes, accelerometers, internal memory and a whole host of other nonphotography-related elements. And while their cameras are important, smartphones also have many other components vying for the attention of designers.
Cameras, on the other hand, especially the good ones, focus intensely on one thing: producing the best images possible. And while size is still a concern when designing a compact camera, the concern is still a photographically focused one – how to pair the best possible image quality and control with a product that is small enough to carry anywhere. As a result, the best compact cameras offer much larger sensors, better lenses, better image processing and vastly improved ergonomics when compared to your typical smartphone shooter. All of this translates to better images overall.
It may be less concrete, but there's also something to be said for using a specific tool for a specific task. Cameras are made with the sole purpose of capturing a moment, of creating a work of art. For this reason, shooting with a camera can help you focus on producing the best work that you can. In some ways, shooting with a dedicated camera can improve not only the photograph, but also the photographer. For more information, check out our other articles on compact digital cameras.
Testing Compact Digital Cameras
In order to achieve the most accurate and consistent results, we began by analyzing and comparing cameras based on their specifications, as well as sensor performance metrics from DxOMark.com.
Using a camera's specifications, we can make certain assumptions about the performance of each camera. For example, cameras with large sensors generally perform better in low light than cameras with small sensors. We compared these assumptions, especially when related to sensor performance, against the lab results found on DxOMark.com to ensure that our assertions were corroborated with laboratory data.
At this point, we performed a test using our own methods. First, we took a series of photos in a controlled environment using the same positioning and settings for all of our test cameras. We photographed each of these scenes in RAW format so that in-camera post-processing didn't color our perception of image quality.
Each of the scenes represented shooting scenarios with varying levels of light. The first had ample light and allowed us to see what each camera could do in ideal conditions. We then took a series of photographs in progressively worse lighting conditions to analyze relative image quality degradation among competing models.
This testing, in combination with specification and lab test comparisons, gave us a well-rounded understanding of each camera's image-quality capabilities. With this information in mind, we then headed out for some real-world testing.
We found that going out and shooting with the cameras provides context to reviews in a way that we simply can't achieve through lab-style testing alone. Although we found that our lab results and comparisons were typically very accurate, actually using the cameras brought that data to life and helped to balance cold, hard facts with practical experience.
Picking the Right Compact Camera for You
Compact cameras come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and price points. From inexpensive, simplistic models to high-performance cameras with premium features, you can find a compact camera for just about any application. As you search for a compact digital camera to meet your needs, you should consider several attributes. Whether you favor size, ergonomics or image quality, understanding the specifications behind these attributes is an integral part of finding the right camera for you.
Image quality is without a doubt the most important aspect of any camera. Whether or not it is worth sacrificing for reduced size and other features is up to you. We determined image quality through hands-on testing and carefully analyzed specifications like sensor size, image resolution and maximum aperture.
There is no standard sensor size for compact cameras. Generally, large sensor sizes, like the one found in the FUJIFILM X100T, produce photographs that are clear and detailed. Large sensors also perform well in low lighting, exhibiting less noise at high ISOs than their miniaturized counterparts.
Resolution isn't much of a problem with modern compact cameras. Although megapixel counts vary, the cameras in our lineup are all capable of producing images with more than enough resolution for the majority of applications. If you plan on cropping or enlarging often, however, it might be a good idea to go with a camera with more megapixels.
Your camera's lens, on the other hand, can have a profound impact on the way your photos turn out. The most important specs to consider are focal length and maximum aperture. Lenses with large zoom ranges allow you to shoot at a variety of focal lengths. For this reason, they can be a great choice for do-it-all photography. Cameras with large maximum apertures gather more light than other lenses and allow you to shoot at higher shutter speeds and lower ISOs for clear and crisp photographs. You can gauge a lens' aperture by looking for its f-stop, or f-number, which is typically represented with a lowercase "f" followed by a slash, followed by the corresponding number (e.g. f/2.0).
A large maximum aperture also makes for a narrower depth of field, which helps to produce professional-looking photographs with pleasantly blurred backgrounds. Keep in mind though that larger sensors and longer focal lengths also narrow your depth of field, so a low f-stop isn't always a guarantee for appealingly blurred backgrounds.
Compact Digital Cameras: Our Verdict and Recommendations
We ranked the cameras in our comparison based on a wide variety of attributes – from portability to image quality and zoom capability. The top cameras in our lineup are those that either do well in all areas, or are impressive enough in one or two areas to make up for their shortcomings in others. For example, the FUJIFILM X100T's outstanding image quality and design justifies its fixed lens and large size, and even elevates it to the number one slot in our lineup.
However, even when we rank cameras using well-thought-out logic and rigorous testing, it's important to carefully consider your own needs when comparing the cameras. For example, if portability and convenience are important to you, Sony's RX100 III, which occupies the number two slot in our lineup, is a solid choice.
For this reason, choosing the best compact camera is as much about evaluating yourself as a photographer as it is about analyzing the cameras you might end up owning. While some cameras perform better overall, many of the lower-ranked cameras on our lineup may well end up being the best option for you.
The best example of this is the Ricoh GR. This camera occupies the lowly number 10 position on our lineup, and for good reason – it's not particularly small, it's missing many features and it has a fixed lens. However, if you can put up with its quirks and you don't mind shooting at 24mm, you can take advantage of its sensor, which scores higher than most other cameras in our review.