Is there a compact camera out there that can bridge the quality gap?
October 23, 2015 8:15 PM   Subscribe

Once upon a time I was something of a photographic purist, lugging around a couple of pounds, not to mention, several thousands of dollars worth, of camera body/lens wherever I went. Now, with three young kids in tow, however, the need for convenience has trumped image quality, so, I now shoot most everything with my Moto-X phone. That said, I really miss the image quality so was wondering if there's a high quality, compact camera out there that can bridge the gap between a $3K SLR & iPhone yet still be pocketable?
posted by tangyraspberry to Technology (27 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Look at the Canon Powershot S-series. I have the S95 from maybe five years back, and I think that the S120 is the most recent model in that line. They get mentioned a lot in this sort of question, and rightfully so. Full manual controls, big sensor for a small camera, and mine's small enough that it fits into the front pocket of women's jeans.
posted by MeghanC at 8:42 PM on October 23, 2015 [5 favorites]

If you need zoom, it's hard to go wrong with something like the Sony RX100 cameras. If you are looking for a fixed focal length, both Ricoh and Nikon have recently discontinued fixed lens 28mm equivalent cameras.
posted by builderofscience at 8:43 PM on October 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

The Canon S120 or the Sony RX100. Canon owned that domain for a while, but Sony has poked its nose ahead.
posted by holgate at 8:44 PM on October 23, 2015

From what I can see (in others' photos) if you want to beat the newest iPhone soundly enough for it to be worth carrying another device (that's my metric) it's all about the Fuji X series, especially if you're ok with a prime pancake lens.
posted by supercres at 8:47 PM on October 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Some people think that SLRs are going extinct and that the new mirrorless cameras are the future.

I would look into the mirrorless cameras. They are less bulky because they don't have the mirror box and prism. They've still got great lenses. And they're quieter than DSLRs. Sony has some excellent mirrorless cameras these days.

I also have a little waterproof Fuji camera that I bought at Costco for around $150. It's been wonderful, because I can hand it off to my kids and they can take fun underwater pictures. It's also really tough and it's survived being dropped and abused.
posted by Ostara at 9:07 PM on October 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I love my Fuji X20. Old school style, optical viewfinder, short zoom (non changeable) lens. Pocketable if you mean coat pocket, but it's small and light enough that carrying it on its strap is not burdensome. Not the same image quality as the larger-sensored non-zoom X100 series, but plenty good quality for almost anyone's needs.

Other than shooting with my DSLR, it's the camera that gives me the closest feeling of shooting film.
posted by The Deej at 9:10 PM on October 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Great news! The current generation of mirrorless cameras are exactly what you want!

They have all the great features of a DSLR - they're fast, all the controls, you can shoot manual or aperture priority, etc. The Sony ones even have the same sized sensor as their consumer level DSLRs. Many have viewfinders (just with a tiny screen inside). But, they're much smaller - about as small as can be easily usable. (I have pretty big hands, and this was my worry). They're on the edge of pocket sized; there's a pancake lens cap for Olympus models that functions as a 15 mm lens if you want to make the system even smaller.

I have a Sony alpha 6000 and recommend it, but also check out the Olympus models too. Both are strong.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:49 PM on October 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

"Just my own opinion here" (but that's what everyone's feedback is, I guess) and I'm going to be somewhat of a wet blanket...

I don't think many of the popular mirrorless cameras are "pocketable" in any sense of the word, unless you have a wardrobe of clothes with gigantic pockets. The Sony RX100 (up to generation 4 now) is an amazing camera, about half the size and weight of the smallest lightest DSLR (say the Canon 100D) while achieving maybe 75% of the image quality of a DSLR but it's not really pocketable. You'd probably still have it in a bag or slung around your shoulders. And also costs nearly twice as much.

(Which is why I went with the 100D over the RX100 in the end. I didn't want to pay more money only to use the camera in the exact same fashion and get worse image quality - carrying 600 grams on my shoulder is identical to carrying 300 grams)

Truly pocketable cameras seem to be in decline due to the great image quality out of mobile phones, as their small form factor means they can't deliver substantial enough improvements over an iPhone to create a compelling value proposition.

Imaging technology has improved across all areas (not just phones and compacts, but also DSLRs as well) which is something that gets overlooked - the lowest end DLSRs and kit lenses have benefited just as much from advancements in sensors and optics.
posted by xdvesper at 10:38 PM on October 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nthing the rx series, it's definitely the best for what you want currently
posted by smoke at 11:17 PM on October 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Fuji X100 or Fuji XT-1! I sold all my heavy Nikon gear to move over to those.
posted by raw sugar at 12:14 AM on October 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

We've got the Fuji X100T and an X20. The X20 is more flexible because it has a zoom lens, but the X100T gets the job done 80% of the time, with better controls and better quality. We've still got our Nikon SLRs, but the Fujis are just so much less hassle to use and so much easier to transport, that we pretty much only use the Nikons in the circumstances where what we actually want are particular lenses from our kit or want to use the tripod.

Calling them pocket-sized is kind of pushing it, most of the time, although they'll go into my deep, boxy winter coat pockets, and my husband generally just wears whichever one he's currently using on a cross-body or neck strap, and doesn't find it cumbersome at all.
posted by skybluepink at 1:35 AM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Leica makes great pocketable cameras, and there are Panasonic versions with Leica lenses. I have a BFA in photography and have had access to and used a lot of equipment. I am still pleased with the travel photos I took with my Leica. The lens handles light really beautifully, and the model I had allowed the option of full manual control, raw, and optical zoom. And of course - they're pretty slim and fit in a pocket.
posted by jrobin276 at 2:28 AM on October 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yeah, the new mirror less Micro 4/3 or APS-C cameras are great quality, compact, and not horribly expensive (although you can as always spend as much money as you want on glass).

The Wirecutter is, as usual, very useful. Depending on your budget and experience level, here are some options. Based on you wanting to upgrade from taking pictures on a phone, I'm guessing you want the first link, really:

The Best Mirrorless Camera for Beginners (500-600 dollars with one lens)

The Best Mirrorless Camera Under $1000 (800 dollars with one lens)

The Best Mirrorless Camera (1700 dollars with one lens)
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:31 AM on October 24, 2015

Oh, and don't entirely discard point and shoots either. They've gotten a whole lot better the last few years, and some have pretty big sensors that will take images more similar to those of the mirrorless cameras mentioned above than you might think. In particular, the top pick in this Wirecutter article has a one-inch sensor:

The Best Point and Shoot under $500

Also, if you want to spend more:

The Best Point and Shoot under $1000
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:38 AM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have a tiny old Leica that I use a LOT. It's nothing like an SLR, it's basically a point and shoot with manual control that shoots in raw. I use it constantly and takes great photos.

I have a Fuji X-E1 that I honestly never use. I plan to either get one of those pancake lenses to make it more portable (it's got a giant zoom right now) or upgrade to the x100t (unlikely to actually happen). I would use it more if it were smaller.

Um, really though, I want the new iPhone. I'm finally sick of being super impressed by the pictures that come out of it, and I've been buying android phones with "great cameras" for forever, but they just aren't that great.

(I'm a pro photographer and am pretty dedicated to my 5D Mark iii, but these are my walking-around cameras)
posted by jeweled accumulation at 7:14 AM on October 24, 2015

I've owned several Panasonic Lumix series cameras. Loved every one.
posted by humboldt32 at 8:30 AM on October 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Short answer: yes, there are a number of them.

Long answer: which one, precisely, depends on what your priorities are. Sony, Canon, Panasonic, and Fujifilm all make compact enthusiast cameras (and those are the words you want to search for: "compact" and "enthusiast"). For Sony that'd be the RX100 series (up to version four now), Canon just announced a few new models, Panasonic has the LX100 and a number of compact Micro Four Thirds bodies, and Fujifilm has its X100 series. Sony, Canon, and Panasonic all have compact cameras with zoom lenses; the X100 series has a fixed 35mm equivalent (semi-wide) lens. (For that matter Sony also has a compact camera with a fixed lens, but it costs more than most SLRs).

The biggest problem with any of these is that "enthusiast" implies a willingness to pay for quality, so you're looking at $600 for an older model, or $800-1K for the newest ones. But if you're willing to spend up to $1K you can definitely get a camera that will make you happy.

I have (and love) a Micro Four Thirds camera and a couple lenses, but I wouldn't actually recommend that if you're trying to get away from the whole "bag full of camera" thing. I mean, my camera bag is much smaller and lighter now than it was when I shot with a Canon SLR, but it's still a bag with a bunch of stuff in it.
posted by fedward at 10:17 AM on October 24, 2015

Most "pocket" cameras of any capability won't fit in your pocket unless you're wearing a trench coat.

The RX100 fits in my jeans pocket, in its case.
posted by justcorbly at 10:26 AM on October 24, 2015

I bought a little Canon Powershot D20. It is waterproof, therefore sand and generally user friendly. It takes big pictures and with the handy strap wrapped around my swimsuit strap, I even took underwater selfies blowing bubbles, this summer. I bought it to shoot with at a youth camp in Bluff, Utah, where I shot staff portraits and kayakers in the water on the San Juan River.

I don't really like shooting outdoors with an LCD viewer on back of the camera, but I didn't want to fill my 5D's lenses with sand. It fits in my pocket just fine, it is always a good idea to get a light nylon cover for your viewfinding side to protect the viewer from scratches.
posted by Oyéah at 11:14 AM on October 24, 2015

PS This camera was $350 new. Used it this summer, in the water, battery is still charged. It is also shock proof.
posted by Oyéah at 11:24 AM on October 24, 2015

The upcoming Canon G9X is the same size as the S120 but with a much larger sensor.
posted by tarvuz at 12:41 PM on October 24, 2015

If you want pocketable, take a look at the Panasonic Lumix LX7. It has a relatively short zoom (24-90 mm in 35mm equivalent), but an amazing f/1.4 aperture at its widest, and a pretty good f/2.3 at its longest zoom. I have its Leica-branded predecessor, and am very happy with the pictures it takes, though more recently I've been using a Fujifilm X100T for most of my photography and an old ruggedized Lumix for taking photos on active outings.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:06 PM on October 24, 2015

I don't know anything about photography but I've been seeing hype around the Light L16 Camera.
posted by somedaycatlady at 2:11 PM on October 24, 2015

Panasonic Lumix, whichever combination of price & features fits your budget.

I asked a similar question a year ago, and still ended up with a Lumix. (A ZS10, maybe?) I used it today at an outdoor cross-country meet, taking great distance photos, good action shots close-up, and smooth movies. And I also took passable pictures of the lunar eclipse a few weeks ago.

posted by wenestvedt at 4:40 PM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Panasonic Lumix ZS10 at SnapSort, a web site I use when shopping so that I can compare it to other cameras:
posted by wenestvedt at 4:41 PM on October 24, 2015

Sony rx100, or the fuji x100t. Or i guess the ricoh GR.

Everything below those is disappointing.

Inversely, above them are all the mirrorless cameras. I really REALLY regret buying into that at this point. Overpriced lenses, crappy lens selection. And then you're right back where you were with the big bag of camera crap.

If i could go back in time i would have just bought an x100s. My next camera is going to have a lens that doesn't come off.

The x100 is the closest thing i've ever seen to a digital version of my olympus pen-S, which is probably my favorite fixed lens film camera form factor/interface wise.

If you want zoom, just buy an rx100. There seriously isn't another fixed lens zoom camera worth buying IMO. And despite the smaller sensor than the x100 or GR, it's an amazing mindblowingly good camera.
posted by emptythought at 3:09 AM on October 25, 2015

We just got a mirrorless Sony and while it may be small for what it is, and takes great photos, it still feels fragile enough that it needs a padded camera bag rather than just being thrown into a backpack. Contrast that to a Canon S series or similar which is just a smartphone-esque brick when shut down and feels much more robust.
posted by smackfu at 10:45 AM on October 25, 2015

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