5 Best Compact Cameras

Buying a camera nowadays is like walking through a minefield of uncertainty.

Camera manufacturers and their respective marketing departments have become increasingly imaginative with regards to the features they want you to consider when you’re buying a camera — ISO sensitivity, sensor size, AF speed, handling and a whole lot more — making the process of buying one confusing, intimidating, or even paralyzing.

Gone are the days when all anyone ever cared about is if the camera can take decent photos. This is especially true in the enthusiast compact camera market where new camera features are introduced and incremental improvements are seen as essential to every photographer’s needs.

The truth is virtually every enthusiast compact camera that has been produced in the last 3 or 4 years will take decent photos (in most cases — depending on how you use them — even extraordinary photos).

The only real question you have to ask yourself is which compact camera will best fit your personal needs.

The cameras we have in this article are all enthusiast-level cameras (meaning, they have manual controls and have RAW image capture capabilities) and have been extensively researched and briefly tested during our search for our own personal compact cameras at Design Instruct.

Canon PowerShot S120

image_01_s120

There’s a reason Canon’s Powershot S-series cameras get updated every year: People love them.

They’re small, they produce great pictures, have plenty of manual controls for the more advanced shooters, a great lens, and it can capture photos in RAW format. It’s the kind of camera that will satisfy most people looking to get a pocketable camera with great image quality.

Going on an impromptu road trip? Bring this camera. Want to take photos of your food for Instagram? Bring this camera. Going out on the town tonight? Bring this camera. Want to just have fun taking photos? Bring this camera.

For most of you looking for an everyday, do-it-all compact camera, the Canon S120 will most likely fill your needs, and then some. It has just the right balance of advanced features and ease-of-use to make it a compelling camera for those whose main goal is to take better photos than their camera phones.

The main downside of the S120 is its current price. At about $450, it’s certainly not cheap.

A smarter move would be to look at the S120’s predecessor, the S110, which can be had for $250. The newer S120 does have a newer image sensor, a more pixel-dense LCD screen, and “technically” better image quality. However, at $200 less than its newer sibling, the S110 makes a very good case for itself considering how very similar the two are.

Official Canon PowerShot S120 website

$449 on Amazon.com

Ricoh GR

image_03_ricohgr

The Ricoh G series of cameras have a long-standing reputation of being street photography cameras (renowned photographer Daido Moriyama used Ricoh cameras). The most current iteration in the Ricoh G line is the Ricoh GR, which retains that street cred and takes it to a whole new level.

While previous digital Ricohs had a typical compact camera sized sensor in their small bodies (1/1.7 inch or 2/3 sensors) the new Ricoh GR has a huge APS-C sized sensor magically tucked away into its diminutive proportions.

The Ricoh GR is perhaps the most affordable compact camera with an APS-C sized sensor (the same size sensor found in most DSLR cameras). Having played around with the Ricoh GR myself, I can safely say that it is truly a photographer’s tool. It just gets out of your way.

Almost every button on the Ricoh GR’s body can by customized to fit your shooting style. It feels great in the hand, it has a stealthy matte black finish, it has an amazingly sharp lens, great low-light performance, amazing dynamic range, and true DSLR image quality in a compact camera body. The Ricoh GR is truly a beast of a camera and is sure to become a classic in years to come.

The main downside of the Ricoh GR is its fixed focal length of 28mm. This means that there is no zoom. If you need to zoom, you will have to use your feet to get closer to your subject.

Another potential downside of the Ricoh GR is that it might just be too advanced for people just looking for a pocket-friendly camera.

And, priced at more than $700, the Ricoh GR is definitely an expensive niche camera for a very specific kind of photographer. If you’re willing to pay the price of admission and dedicate yourself to shooting at a wide focal length, then it’s hard to beat the rewards the Ricoh GR can offer you as a photographer. However, for a more well-rounded and versatile shooting experience, it might be best to look elsewhere.

Official Ricoh GR website

$730.89 on Amazon.com

Fujifilm X100S

image_04_x100s

The X100S is Fujifilm’s current top-of-the-line enthusiast compact camera. One look at the X100S tells you that it isn’t your typical enthusiast compact.

Not only does it produce amazing image quality (even while shooting jpegs), it does so while providing a very unique shooting experience. Sure, there are cameras with similar specs in a similar price range, but the X100S is a very different animal from its peers in my opinion.

It has the same sized sensor as the Ricoh GR, it has a hybrid optical viewfinder (a rarity nowadays), great performance, and provides an overall enjoyable photographic experience. It almost forces you to romanticize the act of photography, slowing you down and making your shots more deliberate and more thoughtful. This is not to say that the camera is slow, but rather, it is less “rushed”, if that makes sense.

If you’re the type of photographer who is ready to create some truly fine images, then the Fujifilm X100S might just be a worthy investment. I say investment because at about $1300, and with its 35mm fixed focal length, the X100S certainly isn’t cheap and it’s not a very beginner-friendly camera. Especially considering mid- to high-end DSLR cameras could be had for the same price (albeit not the same size).

Much like the Ricoh GR, the X100S is for a very specific type of photographer. If you think you’re ready to be that photographer, then it will be very hard to find any major shortcomings in the X100S. However, if you’re not that photographer yet, starting with a much more well-rounded camera that will fit many situations might be more suitable.

Official Fujifilm X100S website

$1299 on Amazon.com

Sony RX100 Mark II

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When the Sony RX100 was introduced in 2012, it was widely regarded as the best compact camera money can buy.

With a large 1-inch type sensor, great design, amazing image quality, and small size, the Sony RX100 effectively shifted all of our expectations when it came to digital compact cameras.

At the moment, the RX100, and its newer sibling the RX100 Mark II, are the yardstick with which all other pocketable compact cameras are measured. With good reason.

The RX100 Mark II has the biggest sensor in its size category, it produces amazing photos, it performs wonderfully in all kinds of light due to its new BSI sensor, it has a great design, a tilting LCD, an accessory hot shoe and is, overall, a no-compromise compact camera that you can easily take anywhere, to any imaginable situation in which you might need a camera.

The main downside of the RX100 Mark II is that it’s expensive. At $698, the RX100 Mark II is definitely in the upper atmosphere. But depending on how much value you place in its versatility and great performance, the price might just be perfect.

If you find the RX100 Mark II to be too expensive, the good news is that the older Sony RX100 is also available for your consideration. If you can live without a tilting LCD screen, a back-side illuminated sensor, WiFi capability and a hot shoe, the Sony RX100 can be had for around $550.

Official Sony RX100 Mark II website

$698 on Amazon.com

Olympus XZ-2 iHS

image_02_olympusxz2

The Olympus XZ-2 is perhaps the most underrated camera on this list. If you’ve done even the most cursory of camera searches online, you’ll undoubtedly come across the Fuji X-series of cameras, the Sony RX series of cameras, or the Canon S-series of cameras as recommendations, while the Olympus XZ-2 will probably remain under your radar. That’s because this camera came out about 2 years ago, at the same time when Fujifilm and Sony really upped the ante in the enthusiast compact camera market (i.e. Fuji X100 and Sony RX100), effectively stealing the thunder of very capable cameras like the Olympus XZ-2. Also, the fact that the Olympus XZ-2 was being sold for a hefty $600 when it was released didn’t help either.

However, today the XZ-2 can be had for as little as $285 while still being every bit a $600 camera, making it a very compelling choice in the enthusiast-compact-camera wars. It has a tilting LCD touchscreen, a hot shoe, a back-side illuminated sensor (similar to the BSI sensors introduced in newer, more expensive cameras like the Sony RX100 Mark II).

It is built like a tank, it looks like a camera Darth Vader would use.

It has a very fast and very sharp lens, a great zoom range, it’s a decent low-light performer, and it produces amazing image quality. The list goes on. All this, while fitting in your jacket pocket.

In all honesty, it is very hard to find a truly major downside to the Olympus XZ-2. Other than the fact that it may not have the newest “it” features or the “sexiest” reputation, the Olympus XZ-2 is a potential dark horse with its inherent versatility, great performance, and reasonable price point.

Official Olympus XZ-2 iHS website

$284.45 on Amazon.com

Final Thoughts

There are certainly many more cameras worthy of your attention that did not make it on this list. However, we feel that with the 5 cameras we’ve included, we are able to illustrate 5 distinct photographic experiences that fit a wide range of budgets and many different kinds of photographers. If anything, these cameras are a great place to start when looking for the perfect camera to fit your needs.

Tell us about some of your compact camera recommendations in the comments below.

  • I’m really happy to see this post published!

    I wanted to share what I eventually ended up getting for myself: Sony RX100 (the older 2012 model).

    Let me give you a bit of context about where I am in photography:

    • I’m not a professional photographer (unlike Isaac, who gets paid to take photos)
    • I’m not an enthusiast photographer either. I just take a lot of pictures and hope they turn out acceptably well. I’m a very casual photographer.
    • I don’t know a lot of photography terms or concepts, so what I say from here on down to the end of this comment may/probably have errors.
    • I shoot underwater photography, again, in a very casual and very amateur level. But that also means I’ve been in a lot of low-light situations and have experience with moving and unpredictable subjects.
    • I shoot travel photography, which basically means I take photos when I’m on a vacation, and everyone does that when they’re on vacation, but “travel photography” sounds so cool though, so please just humor me for one second, haha!
    • I’ve shot with film (when I was younger, our dad was an enthusiast photographer/videographer, so growing up we were *exposed* to photography), digital compact cameras (including the first-gen digital cameras, thanks to dad) and DSLR. More recently though, I just use my phone’s camera, a Canon G15 and, as of (roughly) a couple of months ago, a Sony RX100.
    • I’m sort of a minimalist. I like things that are basic, simple, and things that are designed and engineered to function well. I don’t own a lot of stuff, so I want to make sure the stuff I do end up owning are made well.

    When I was looking for a camera for my own use, I needed something small. But also, I didn’t want to compromise (too much) on image quality. These two characteristics of a digital camera have historically been mutually exclusive until just a few years ago.

    From past experience, big cameras often meant they’d be left at home because I don’t like having a lot of stuff with me when I’m mobile (or in any occasion in general).

    The Sony RX100 is nothing short of amazing for me. It’s the one and only camera (besides the camera in my phone) that I’ve consistently had on me for 10 days straight. I always bring a camera when I’m on travel, but I’d just leave it in the hotel room simply because it just didn’t fit in my pockets.

    Below is an off-the-cuff email I sent to Isaac (before this post was written) about my personal experience and thoughts with regards to the Sony RX100 (please forgive me for any grammatical issues, factual errors, the poor structure and the big wall of text because my writing degrades when I’m communicating with my brother):

    RE: Sony RX100 – The biggest sensor in its size category? I really think Sony engineers created an engineering marvel here. Extremely fast auto-focus (never had a camera be able to focus this fast, even faster than my old DSLR [Nikon D40x] also to me it produces sharper photos than Nikon D40x). Amazing photo quality/DSLR level quality (at least [compared to] older DSLRs). Great low-light performance (better than G15) — so far so good for night photography, magic hour photography, indoor ambient [light] photography (restaurant[s], party[sic], etc.). Handheld HDR, what, what (and it produces decent enough results, especially considering you’re not having to lug around a tripod). Super small which means I can take it around with me at all times without being burdened. For 10 days, I put it in my jeans pocket or jacket pocket or breast pocket. I’ve never carried a camera on me for that long period of time, besides my camera phone. Downsides: Though it’s good enough for me, video quality isn’t noteworthy for its price point (unlike Canon compacts that also take great videos at a significantly lower price) and price (you can get an entry-level DSLR for the [same] price, yes?). Also, I don’t like the ergonomics, buttons are too small and [too] close together and it’s not as comfortable to hold [with one hand on ready-to-shoot mode] for long periods of time versus the Canon G15 or a lightweight DSLR.

    To add to the above:

    • The image quality is great. Disregard the size of the camera; the quality and sharpness is, in my opinion, superior even compared to some bigger DSLR cameras (especially true when compared to older models).
    • The Intelligent Auto mode is… intelligent. It is the only camera I’ve owned that I’m not afraid to set on full auto mode most of the time. Most of my shots thus far are on what Sony calls “Intelligent Auto” mode. Usually I use aperture priority mode, and then manual mode if the shot is complex, and if I have time to mess around with the settings. I believe this is the only camera that I’ve used that is true to the term “point-and-shoot”. I even had a string of shots late in the day where I was too tired to even compose and look at the LCD screen, so I just pointed and shoot’ed while walking. To my surprise, it was able to focus on my intended subjects. What sort of sorcery was involved in the creation of this camera?
    • It doesn’t have an external battery charger, which means, for now, I have to plug it into a computer or wall socket to charge.
    • The ergonomics doesn’t work for me. I don’t like holding it for more than 15 minutes in one hand and then shooting continuously. I’ll probably use a camera strap for the times I know I’ll be taking a lot of shots for extended periods of time. But right now what works for me is just putting it away in my pocket when I don’t need it (just like my phone). The camera wakes up fast, so I haven’t yet been in a situation where the delay from taking it out of my pocket and taking a shot has been an issue.
    • The only complaint I have, and it will seem so petty and nit-picky, is with regards to the external design of the camera (besides the ergonomics, which is understandably going to be impossible to get perfect for every single person): The micro USB connector’s cover doesn’t look like it’s durable. Design-wise, there were many pleasant surprises with this camera, and I can understand that there are benefits to having a plastic cover, but that design decision stood out to me. I would have preferred the hinge to have been similarly designed to the battery cover, where the hinge is made of metal. The position, size of the USB connector cover, and possibly even the structural and/or electrical integrity of the camera could have prevented (or made it difficult to have) a metal hinge for it, or it was due to cost-cutting in production. I don’t know. All I know is that the camera is everything about the camera is built really, really well and so the USB connector cover is uncharacteristically flimsy to me.
    • Low-light performance is crazy good. I bought a Canon G15 (which I don’t own anymore) because of its reputation for good performance under low-light. The Sony RX100 is better in my opinion. A more likely explanation for the difference is that I just don’t know how to use cameras properly and the Sony RX100 is just more forgiving towards people like me.
    • The UI, overall, is intuitive. But the menu isn’t as easy/fast to navigate through compared to a Nikon or Canon menu.
    • There is an in-camera guide that has contextual tips depending on the screen you’re on. I’m just mentioning this simply because I appreciate these types of UxD.
    • The camera is so easy to use. It just works.
    • For me, Sony RX100 beats my old DSLR (which I still own, but haven’t used in a couple of years) in these ways: Ease of use, low-light performance, auto-focus, auto mode, size, general performance, price, UX and usability. The DSLR is better to hold in your hands for longer periods of time and the settings are significantly quicker to adjust. These factors have not been objectively tested. These are just my own subjective opinions.
    • It just looks beautiful. Simple. Clean. I know this shouldn’t matter for a fundamentally utilitarian device, but it does to me.

    I bought the first-generation model (the one that came out in 2012) even when the Mark II was already out in the market at the time I purchased my camera, because of the price difference and I didn’t need/want/appreciate the value of the new features.

    Bear in mind that I am a very casual photographer/occasional photographer/shouldn’t-even-call-myself-a- photographer so take what I have said with a grain of salt.

    I have no business offering advice about cameras — and this really isn’t advice – I’m just sharing my personal experience and offering up another data point with regards to a particular camera.

  • Rachel H.

    “…making the process of buying one confusing, intimidating, or even paralyzing.” AMEN!

    Thank you for this well written and researched article!

  • Sydney Miles

    Indeed, because there are just too many features to analyze, too much analysis can lead to paralysis! The thing is – just get the one with the functions that will give you the results that you would want to see…and if the one you got does not satisfy, there are still a lot to choose from in the market…photography like religion or spirituality is a very personal thing…you just have to have faith (F8)! and be There! (a quote from Isaac)..Very informative article…Thanks to the Design Instruct team for a well-researched write up..Thanks, too, Jacob, for sharing your personal experiences about the subject matter on hand. One really learns a lot from other people’s experiences. Does Sony know you have high regard for their product Sony RX 100? Surely,they’d be elated to know that 😉

  • Thanks you for your nice information. But you know become photographer is difficult. Someone who has not the ability to operate the camera they cann’t use the good camera as like your mentioned above, how?