Plugged In: Pocket quality with travel-sized cameras

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Informed opinion was virtually unanimous in 2011 that so-called “premium compact” cameras were, at best, a dying breed. Perhaps 2012’s second-greatest surprise was the dramatic resurgence of these deluxe small-sensor cameras.

The biggest surprise, of course, was the large number of “affordable” new full-frame cameras that bring prolevel image quality to the table for under two kilobucks. So much for “informed” opinion.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve had several readers ask for our recommendation of the best premium compact cameras for extended travel later this winter. At the same time, these readers were looking for a durable and capable all-in-one camera that would stand them in good stead for years.

Making a single specific recommendation is a tall order because so many excellent new models have recently come on the market. During the latter part of 2012, every major camera manufacturer introduced new premium compact models, all of which mount zoom lenses with large apertures as fast as f/1.4 to f/1.8. Without exception, these are excellent cameras for serious travel photography. Realistically, you can’t go wrong with any of the cameras that we’ll discuss this week. Except as noted, these cameras cost between $250 and $600, with most in the $400 to $500 range. That’s not exactly cheap but is generally affordable.

Except for Pentax’s brand-new MX-1 product line, each of these new premium compact cameras is a refined evolution of a long-standing product line. I have some preference for the Canon G15, the Panasonic LX7 or the Olympus XZ-2, all of which have excellent lenses that start at a very wide-angle and end at short telephoto magnifications. Pentax’s brand-new MX-1 looks very promising, apparently using the same excellent lens found on the Olympus XZ-2, but the MX-1 is so recently introduced that no image quality comparisons have yet been published. Its mostly metal case is built very stoutly for a $500 camera.

Most significantly, all of the newest premium compacts include zoom lenses with much wider maximum apertures, with the widest angle settings now starting at f/2 or wider. It’s as though every manufacturer suddenly got low-light religion and realized that they actually could make affordable fixed-zoom lenses that were not only faster but also sharper than their earlier models. Certainly grabbing attention is Panasonic’s LX7, with its f/1.4 Leica-branded zoom. The f/1.8 to f/2 contenders include Olympus’ XZ-2, Canon’s G15 and S100/110, Nikon’s P7700 and Pentax’s MX-1.

Remember, though, that these very fast apertures are available only at the widest focal lengths, becoming rapidly dimmer as you zoom toward higher telephoto magnifications. Fujifilm’s X20 and XF-1 are other prominent contenders, but there’s some controversy about their quite different sensors, which are not well-supported by Adobe and which allegedly smear colors and details.

Which premium compact camera you might choose for travel or other more “serious” photography is something of a tossup, depending on your working style and preference.  The G15 is the only one with a built-in optical viewfinder. It’s not a great viewfinder but it’s usable and better than nothing. The Nikon P7700 has a longer telephoto range but tends to score a bit lower on objective tests of sensor and image quality. I suggest that, if possible, you try each of them out, see how they feel in your hand, and determine which feels and works best for you.

Before making a final decision, you may also want to try Canon’s S100 or S110. The S100 is last year’s model being closed out at a very good price, and it’s very small. The S110 uses the same lens, body and sensor as the S100 but with fewer features and a higher list price. Don’t you just love the free market? I have an S100 and find it very convenient and useful, but it’s really not a substitute for a large-sensor camera.

You also want to take a look at the $650 Sony RX100, $50 to $200 more than most premium compact cameras. It’s about the same size as the S110 but with a significantly larger sensor and a Zeiss zoom lens that some people rave about. My sense from several different standardized test photos that I’ve examined closely is that the RX100’s lens tends to be less sharp on the right one-third of the image frame, probably because the camera corrects distortion automatically by internal software, spreading and, thus, smearing the corner areas.

Very similar in appearance, concept and function to the G15 is Canon’s G1X, which uses a relatively very large sensor and an excellent lens. The G1X is definitely bigger, mostly thicker by two-thirds of an inch compared to the G15, but has the same general body layout and optical viewfinder. At $800, though, it’s pretty expensive. Some readers who insist on a traditional optical viewfinder report that they bought a G1X for their overseas travels and are quite happy with that model.

You might consider very seriously an Olympus E-PL5 or E-PM2 Micro Four-Thirds two-lens kit with both the standard and telephoto zoom lenses. Both the E-PL5 and the E-PM2 have significantly better image quality and low-light capability compared to any of the above cameras except possibly the G1X, which does not have an interchangeable lens.

The E-PL5 is basically an SLR in a body about the size of the G1X, particularly if you later buy some nice, small, single-focal-length lenses. The E-PM2 has the same internal components and image quality, but it’s a bit smaller, with a simple interface aimed at more casual point-and-shoot users. The E-PL5 with 14- to 42-mm zoom (about 28- to 84-mm equivalent) lists at $700, usually sells around $600 and can usually be had with the 40- to 150-mm kit telephoto zoom (80- to 300-mm equivalent) for another $200. Both lenses are somewhat better than average kit zooms. The E-PM2 is about $100 less than the E-PL5.

Compact size and relatively low weight are significant issues for any camera used while traveling or going light. Otherwise, there’s little reason to buy such a camera in preference to a larger, similarly priced dSLR camera with a bigger sensor and better image quality. You can compare relative sizes and weights at http://www.camerasize.com. To help you get started, we’ve made a few size comparisons, using the midsized Panasonic LX7 as our baseline.

Photos courtesy of www.camerasize.com. The Cannon S110 compared to the Panasonic LX7.

Photos courtesy of http://www.camerasize.com. The Cannon S110 compared to the Panasonic LX7.

First, let’s compare the midrange Panasonic LX7 (about the same size as the Olympus XZ2 and Nikon P7700) with Canon’s S110, which is about the same size and weight as the S100 and Sony RX100. The LX7 and its genre are obviously larger, even though the S110 uses a sensor that’s just as big.

It’s both surprising and instructive to compare the LX7 with Olympus’ E-PL5, an interchangeable-lens model with a large sensor. Without its good-quality, detachable, 14- to 42-mm kit zoom lens, the E-PL5 is actually smaller and lighter than the LX7. The Olympus’ collapsible standard zoom lens adds about 2.375 inches out in front and adds another 100

Panasonic’s LX7 compared to Canon’s G15.

Panasonic’s LX7 compared to Canon’s G15.

grams or so, but these lenses can be carried separately in your pocket if you really need to do so. (I prefer to carry mine already assembled, ready for quick action, using an inexpensive generic Neoprene case to protect camera and lens.)

Now, let’s compare the LX7 to Canon’s G15 and the G15 to its large-sensor sibling, the G1X. It’s evident that the optical viewfinder in the G series results in a camera that’s definitely larger. The G1X uses a much larger APS-C sensor, which in turn

G15 compared to G1X  front view

Canon’s G15 compared to G1X

requires a much larger lens. The result is evident when comparing the relatively large G15 with the unquestionably big G1X.

If I had to decide at this time on a single, all-in-one camera in the $400 to $500 range, I would probably choose either the S100/S110 or the G15. The S100/S110 is definitely pocketable, while the G15 has all-around versatility and an excellent lens.

For a little more money and bulk, though less than the price of the big G1X, you could buy a more versatile

The Panasonic LX7 compared to Olympus’ E-PL5.

The Panasonic LX7 compared to Olympus’ E-PL5.

Olympus E-PL5 with two decent interchangeable-zoom lenses. Were I traveling overseas, I would probably get the E-PL5 and supplement it with a tiny S100, currently being closed out for under $250.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

1 Comment

Filed under photography, Plugged in

One response to “Plugged In: Pocket quality with travel-sized cameras

  1. John Doe

    “The S110 uses the same lens, body and sensor as the S100 but with fewer features and a higher list price.”
    Fewer features? I don’t think so… S100 has GPS tagging. S110 has WiFi build in and other enhancements. The S110 is fantastic.

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