Choosing a quality compact camera.

Choosing a compact camera.

I will update this soon to reflect the raft of excellent new compacts from many manufacturers!

Most compact cameras are a “triumph of marketing over engineering”, very few are designed to deliver the best image quality.

There are a bewildering array of compact cameras on the market, virtually everyone I know owns a compact camera, it is one of the defining gadgets of the last 10 years. If you are looking for a compact able to deliver the sort of quality that will deliver a reasonable A3 print, then the choice of cameras is surprisingly limited. This post discusses the issues and identifies the only compacts worth spending your hard earned cash on.

While DSLR’s can comfortably deliver quality that exceeds 35mm film, the same is not true of compact cameras, unlike their film-based ancestors from another era. I used a 35mm Olympus XA in the ‘80’s – it was easily a match for my Canon 35mm SLR – albeit limited to one fixed focal length lens. The film was the same size in this case. Cameras that used smaller film formats such as APS and 110 delivered considerably poorer image quality, with more grain, lens distortion and less resolution. Digital compact cameras do not have the same size sensors as 35mm film, indeed they are generally considerably smaller. This means that like the smaller film formats when an enlargement is made, the noise, chromatic aberrations and distortion are multiplied more and more.

Most importantly the amount of light falling on the sensor is so much less – proportional to the area of the sensor. This means that the signal must be amplified. Think of this like amplifying a cassette tape – the more the volume is turned up (the higher the ISO) the greater the Tape hiss (digital noise). More pixels for the same size of sensor mean that each individual one is obviously smaller. For example a sensor that has 12 megapixels will have individual photosites half the size of a 6 MP sensor of the same size. The state of the art high ISO performance currently is the Nikon D3 which has a full frame 35mm sensor and “only” 12 megapixels. You can imagine then how optimistic a 1/(1.8)” sensor with 12 Megapixels is then – A triumph of marketing over engineering!

The dynamic range – or difference between the ability of a camera to distinguish the brightest to the darkest shades also reduces with sensor size, making it more difficult to obtain images without blown highlights or blocked up, noisy shadows.

The sensors in small cameras are tiny. As you can see in this table:

Sensor Width mm Height mm Notes
1/(2.5)” 5.8 4.3 Too small – suitable for Internet use and small prints at low ISO. Not accepted by picture libraries such as Alamy.
1/(1.8) 7.2 5.3 Minimum size for acceptable A3 prints at low ISO, High ISO performance causes noticeable reduction in resolution with detail, with high noise levels
1/(1.7) 7.6 5.7 The Sony sensor used in all the four camera recommended
1/(1.6) 12.7 9.5 Used by Fuji in the discontinued (but legendary) F11/F30/F31FD and the current F200EXR but JPEG only unfortunately
4/3” 18 13.5 Panasonic, Olympus and Samsung so called “Four-Thirds” or “Micro Four Thirds”. Great quality – but hardly a pocketable camera. Interchangeable lenses.
APS-C Canon 22.2 14.8 DSLR’s from many manufacturers use this – capable of excellent A3 prints. Sigma DP2 and Leica X1.
APS-C Nikon 23.7 15.7
APS-H Canon 28.7 19.1 Step up in quality from APS-C – only two cameras have this format – a specialist sport camera form Canon 1Ds and the Leica M8

Full Frame

36 24 A very select bunch from Canon, Nikon, Leica and Sony. Stunning A2 prints, medium format film quality.

Designing a quality compact then is a considerable challenge and to make matters worse, most of these cameras are aimed at a mass market of people who buy on hyped up specifications and marketing, where image quality is far down the list of sexy features. Examples of crazy features include

  • 18x zoom lenses – no manufacturer can possibly deliver a good quality 18x zoom at any price – it is simply too much to ask! Canon manufacture a 35-350mm lens that costs £1800 and is really quite soft, used mostly by Paparazzi for low resolution pres images.
  • Screen on the front of the camera, as well as the back so that you can shoot self portraits!
  • In camera special effects and paint packages.
  • Ludicrously high pixel counts on small sensors – even on camera phones!

What is needed from a quality compact is,

  • The largest sensor possible, with a reasonable number of pixels 10MP is more than enough.
  • RAW capability – it is very easy to blow highlights with small sensors, RAW gives you more chance to recover them on your computer.
  • High quality fast lens, with the minimum of distortion, a zoom range in the 24-135mm range and wide aperture enabling lower ISO to be used.
  • Image stablisation enabling lower shutter speeds and thus lower ISO’s.
  • Easy control access to shutter speed, aperture and ISO.
  • Be able to fit at least in my coat pocket, ideally in my shirt pocket.

Unfortunately there are only 4, yes ONLY FOUR cameras on the market that fulfil this criteria! So few that I can discuss each in detail.

All these cameras are 10MP and use the same Sony sensor, they are my “Recommended Four”

Lens (equiv) Speed Sensor Notes
Canon G11 28-140 mm f2.8-4.5 1/1.7 10 Megapixel The best control dials of any camera? Slow lens. Viewfinder
Canon s90 28-105 mm f2.0-4.9 1/1.7 10 Megapixel Nearly as good controls as the G11.
Panasonic LX3 24-60 mm f2.0-2.8 1/1.7 10 Megapixel First of these to be released, interface old fashioned
Samsung TX1 24-72 mm f1.8 – 2.4 1/1.7 10 Megapixel Swivel screen – special OLED screen

There is no Olympus, no Nikon, no Pentax – only Canon, Panasonic and Samsung  are manufacturing  compacts with this size of sensor.

Panasonic LX3  £325

This was the first of this batch of serious compact cameras aimed at enthusiasts as second cameras for DSLR owners. Its’ lens has a limited zoom range at the telephoto end – 60mm, but unusually has a 24mm wide angle.  Branded Leica it is very sharp but requires software correction to compensate for distortion at wide angle. This is automatically applied in-camera for JPEG’s or applied by the supplied RAW processor or Lightroom on the computer. Well made, solid feeling and a retro look, it has the unique ability to shoot images in different ratios – 3:2, 4:3 or 16:9.

The weak point of this camera are the controls, compared to these other cameras, there is too much dependence on menus and fiddly buttons.

The best feature is the 24mm lens – ideal for cramming groups of people into shots indoors, or for architecture or dramatic landscapes.

Canon G11 £400

The replacement for the G10  has less mega pixels – a drop from an optimistic 15 to a sensible 10MP. The success of the Panasonic LX3, showed Canon the way as it reversed their crazy strategy of cramming more and more photosites onto their sensors. (Hooray for Panasonic!)  In practical terms this gives a two stop advantage in quality at high ISO, ie. 1600 ISO on the G11 is like 400 ISO on the G10. The G11 is quite chunky – and is the largest camera compared here, but does have a tilt and swivel screen and is the only camera here with a viewfinder. Its’ best feature though is the mechanical control dials and wheels which better most DSLR’s in ease of use. This gives it the feel of a mini Leica. A proper ISO dial for example – fantastic, even if it does have some very high ISO settings which are frankly unusable.

The best features are the swivel screen and controls, the worse feature is the size, and weight, indeed it is as big as the next size up four thirds cameras from Panasonic and Olympus, see below.

Canon s90 £315

The s90 is a compact pocketable version of the G11 – controls are not nearly as good, but much better than the Panasonic, but the lens certainly isn’t. The distortion at 28mm verges on the comical – fairground mirror standard, however software in camera fixes the distortions automatically – at the expense of a softer image. A trend that will surely be followed by other manufacrurers. This lens is not as sharp as the G11.

Samsung TL500 / EX1  £399 and now tested

This camera is very interesting. A first attempt at a serious compact from Samsung, it has a swivel screen like the G11, but no viewfinder – so is more compact. The lens has a fantastic wide aperture of 1.8-2.4, meaning that lower ISOs can be used, reducing noise. The new styling means that for me it is the most exciting looking compact, with a knurled ring on the lens and a control wheel under the shutter release. It looks like an engineering tool, not a piece of handbag jewellery! It is comfortable in the hands, and the swivel screen makes it easy to use two handed to keep it steady.

I have now tested the Samsung and regret to say that it produces disappointing results see the sample images at least from the JPEGs I was able to view on the computer. It could be that this camera has a production fault, but it was very noisy and had a colour saturation problem.

All four of these cameras USE THE SAME SENSOR – made by Sony, who unbelievably haven’t made their own “enthusiast compact, concentrating instead on the mass market “point and shoot” and DSLR’s.  Image quality, therefore is as you can probably imagine should be virtually identical between these cameras, when shooting RAW, which bypasses the in-camera processing. However I have been unable to read the RAW files shot with the Samsung, and given it seems to have a serious quality issue, I would recommend waiting until RAW files are accepted by Adobe Camera RAW for example.

In summary up to 200 ISO, the images give good A3 prints with plenty of detail and low noise. At 400 ISO, problems start to appear, with noise becoming intrusive in shadow areas and posterisation problems with colours, noise reduction starts to smear details. At 800 ISO it is very clear that these images have been shot with a compact camera and print size should be limited to A4. 1600 ISO and above are emergency only settings, added for marketing reasons and resulting in comedy levels of noise and / or noise reduction smearing detail.

As a consequence choosing between these cameras is not a question of comparative quality, but of what you want to use the camera for, and this is mostly determined by the lens focal length, speed and size.

  • If you want the greatest lens range and don’t mind the chunkier body, choose the G11.
  • If you want the smallest camera possible that delivers good quality RAW images, choose the s90.
  • If you want a camera that excels at wide angle choose the Panasonic.
  • If a swivel screen is important, to enable you to shoot above your head, or low down or to shoot from the hip – choose the G11 or the EX1
  • If you shoot most of your images in poor lighting conditions, the Samsung’s fast lens will enable lower ISO’s to be set. – However see the sample images and test yourself before buying, in case the unit I tried has a production fault.

Sample images – from this sensor – taken with the Canon s90.

Canon s90 100 ISO Centre crop click for 100%
Canon s90 200 ISO Centre crop click for 100%
Canon s90 400 ISO Centre crop click for 100%
Canon s90 1600 ISO Centre crop click for 100%

Other cameras that are worth looking at but don’t fulfill the above criteria.

Fuji F200EXR  £150

The Fuji’s large sensor, clever technology and low price may be worth considering, but unfortunately it doesn’t have RAW processing.

This camera is a straightforward point and shoot, without the luxury of RAW, external control dials or even manual controls, but it does have some interesting technology. Fuji use a 12MP 1/1.63 sensor which is larger than the four cameras above, but the extra megapixels unfortunately are wasted as the lens simply isn’t good enough to resolve the extra detail. However it is the clever way that Fuji use this sensor that makes it worth a try. The camera intelligently uses the 12 megapixels in 3 different ways to solve various difficult lighting problems.

  1. In low light it combines two photosites to give a bigger surface area and lower noise, but records half the number of pixels – 6MP.
  2. In high contrast situations where the range of brightness exceeds the sensors capability – e.g. bright sky and dark shadows, it uses 6million photosites to expose for the shadows and the other six to record the highlights, combining them in camera to produce a single 6MP “High Dynamic Range” image.
  3. In normal lighting conditions and at low ISO’s the camera records a detailed 12MP image.

It sounds incredible, but it doesn’t entirely work as the images look rather processed and “digital’ and it certainly doesn’t deliver the quality achieved by any of the four cameras above. The really great thing about this camera however is the bargain price, at £150 it is around half the price of the cheapest of the “enthusiast compacts” and is recommended as a curious, pocket sized point and shoot camera that will always recover a reasonable image even in difficult lighting conditions.

The Micro “Four – Thirds” cameras – the next size up from the compacts

Olympus and Panasonic have developed a new market segment – compact cameras with interchangeable lenses, based on the so-called “four thirds” sensor – due to the ratio of the shape of the sensor – 4:3. The sensor is one quarter of the size of a 35mm frame.

This makes the sensor large for a compact but small for an SLR, consequently the image quality comfortably outperforms the “enthusiast compacts” but is not as good as a DSLR.

Olympus and Panasonic produce a range of lenses that can be fitted to each others bodies – the Four Thirds standard demands that. It is also possible to fit Zeiss, Leica and Voigtlander lenses, with appropriate adapters.

These camera bodies look very compact, and look even smaller than the Canon G11, however, once the lenses are added these are no longer pocketable compacts, to add lenses that cover the range of the G11, two lenses would be required, making a considerably larger package.

APS-C sensor sized mirrorless cameras

Samsung and Sony have launched products into this new segment. Like the “Micro four thirds” cameras they have no mirror or optical viewfinder and are therefore considerably smaller than an SLR, however they are still rather large, with a lens in place, compared to the “coat pocket” compacts here.

The following cameras are near misses, as they don’t have zoom lenses.

Leica X1

The Leica X1 has an APS-C sized sensor, but is rather larger than a pocket camera. It is however, without question the best quality camera listed here by some margin. Unfortunately it has some major disadvantages. At £1300 it is priced at a level of very high quality DSLR’s. The operational speed of the camera is too slow, and it doesn’t have either a zoom, or interchangeable lenses, unlike it’s stablemate, the Panasonic GF1, see above.

Ricoh GR Digital III £500

The Ricoh has the familiar 1/1.7 10MP sensor in a rather elegant body with easy to use control wheels. This almost makes it into the recommended category, but for two problems, it is very expensive at nearly £500 and the lens is a fixed 28mm, (but very sharp).

Sigma DP2

The Sigma DP2 is an interesting camera as it was the first to use an APS-C sized sensor in a (reasonably) compact body. The sensor uses the revolutionary Foveon technology, where like colour film, the red, green and blue photosites are arranged in three layers on top of each other. This has some advantages and disadvantages. The output is very sharp, as no interpolation is required to assemble the image from a conventional “bayer” type sensor, however by the time the light reaches the lower layers, it is reduced somewhat in intensity, so the signal to noise ratio is rather poor, discounting the advantage of the large sensor. Worse still the output is only 4.6 megapixels – this is really not enough by today’s standards for an A3 print, and this is confirmed by the picture library “Alamy” who have specifically banned images from this camera.


I’ve reduced the number of compact cameras to consider to four, from possibly hundreds, because the rest of the compact cameras on the market are compromised by design and marketing departments that demand higher pixel counts and fashionable gimmicks.

The market has been segmented into “Point and Shoot”, “Enthusiast Compacts”, “Four Thirds” and other mirrorless, interchangeable lens compacts and finally DSLR’s. The exciting developments over the past two years have been in the higher quality smaller cameras aimed at enthusiasts whether fixed or interchangeable lens.

The success of the Panasonic LX3 has lead to Canon, Samsung and Ricoh to release competitor products and created a new segment in the camera market.

Each of the four cameras rviewed here has basically the same sensor, but different compromises in terms of lens, size and controls. Choose from these four based on your personal preferences, but with the caveat on the Samsung that I think there is a problem.

I have pointed out a number of alternatives, which have different compromises, mostly much larger bodies, with larger sensors and higher image quality as the benefit for the extra bulk. Of these the mirrorless cameras with interchangeable lenses, offer a unique proposition – a camera that is much smaller and lighter than the DSLR but with similar image quality and flexibility, expect this sector to expand this year.

Overall my personal favourite is the Canon s90, it will fit easily in your pocket and is not too expensive, but delivers reasonable results, within the limitations of it’s tiny sensor.  The larger cameras here are simply to big and encroach on the size of the micro four thirds and other mirrorless, interchangeable lens cameras like the Sony NEX-3 and NEX-5, which have an APS-C sensor in a compact – G11 size body. In conclusion then, I’d say buy the Canon s90 if you want a compact, but if you are prepared to carry a larger camera, you will improve picture quality DRAMATICALLY,  in which case look at the Panasonic GF1 and the two new Sony NEX nachines.

Sample Images are available on Flickr Groups

Canon G11
Canon s90
Panasonic Lx3
Samsung Pre-release images Samsung images


3 thoughts on “Choosing a quality compact camera.”

  1. Wayne, saw the link from your comments to LPH on Facebook. Thanks for this article. The quest for a quality compact for use in landscape photography has been of interest to me for some years. I love walking but when I walk I go a long way! Next week I start the Coast to Coast. I have tried a number of options, the G10, Fuji F200exr, Canon S5is but never been completely satisfied.

    Last year I bought a GF-1 and thought I had got close. Unfortunately the lack of a viewfinder and non articulating screen put paid to its usefullness (still a lovely camera).

    So what am I walking with next week? I must be in love with Panasonic because I downgraded the GF-1 to a G1 and added the 45-200mm lens…….and I also have the LX3 on my hip. To compliment this I have a small 40 cm long CF tripod from Manfrotto and the Lee RF75 system. These cameras have been tried out on various walks and climbs over the last few months and …….. while they are no D700 of 5DmkII the IQ is good enough for competition work up to A3 (as long as you have good technique). In fact I even took a hand held shot with the G1 in a snowstorm in the Peak District, which has done pretty well.

  2. I think it is not realistic to compare a G11 to a NEX. The NEX wins in compact size without a lens but with the 18-55 kitlens on it, it is much bigger than a G11.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: