Pick the perfect premium compact camera

DSLRs are great and all, but if there’s one thing the smartphone-photography boom has made clear, it’s that portability can trump performance. If you want a camera that’s easier to carry around than a DSLR but offers better image quality and more-granular controls than a smartphone or basic camera, a premium point-and-shoot fits the bill.

These cameras all have manual exposure controls, aperture- and shutter-priority modes, physical knobs and buttons that give you quick access to settings, and wider maximum apertures than your average compact camera. A few of them have standout video capabilities, compatibility with external flashes and microphones, and large sensors; in general, you’ll pay a whole lot more for a larger sensor.

Picking the right fit depends on what you’re looking for beyond the promise of very good image quality and manual controls. Though these are all performance-minded cameras, they vary greatly in terms of physical size, price, optics, and specialties. The first thing to decide is how big—or how small—you want to go.

Camera size (smallest to largest)
Canon PowerShot S100 3.9” x 2.3” x 1.1” Pocketable
Nikon Coolpix P310 4.1” x 2.3” x 1.3” Pocketable
Sony Cyber-shot RX100 4.0” x 2.3” x 1.4” Pocketable
Samsung EX2F 4.4” x 2.4” x 1.1” Semi-pocketable
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 4.3” x 2.6” x 1.8” Semi-pocketable
Canon PowerShot G12 4.4” x 3.0” x 1.9” Not pocketable
Nikon Coolpix P7100 4.6” x 3.1” x 1.9” Not pocketable
Fujifilm X10 4.6” x 2.7” x 2.2” Not pocketable
Canon PowerShot G1 X 4.6” x 3.2” x 2.5” Not pocketable

Here’s what the current field of premium compacts (and not-so-compacts) looks like.

The truly pocketables

Nikon Coolpix P310

The contenders: Canon PowerShot S100, Nikon Coolpix P310, Sony Cyber-shot RX100

All three competitors in this category look similar on the outside: They’re small black boxes that fit easily in a pants pocket, representing the ultimate blend of performance and portability. However, you’ll see some big differences when it comes to price, sensor size, and in-camera features.

Sony Cyber-shot RX100

The Sony Cyber-shot RX100 ($650) is a big deal for a few reasons. Despite having one of the smallest bodies in the premium point-and-shoot class, it also has one of the biggest sensors of any fixed-lens camera. Its 13.2mm-by-8.8mm CMOS sensor is bigger than that of any camera in this roundup except for the Canon PowerShot G1 X, which is a much larger camera.

Sensor size (largest to smallest)
Canon PowerShot G1 X 1.5-inch type
Sony Cyber-shot RX100 1-inch type
Fujifilm X10 2/3-inch type
(tie) Canon PowerShot G12 1/1.7-inch type
(tie) Canon PowerShot S100 1/1.7-inch type
(tie) Nikon Coolpix P7100 1/1.7-inch type
(tie) Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 1/1.7-inch type
(tie) Samsung EX2F 1/1.7-inch type
Nikon Coolpix P310 1/2.3-inch type

Another key trait is the RX100’s bright F1.8 aperture at its wide-angle end. The RX100 also has best-in-class video specs (1080p at 60fps) with manual exposure controls while filming, in addition to Sony’s usual array of innovative modes for low-light shooting, panorama shots, and portrait composition.

It’s also really expensive, with a $650 price tag that rivals that of an entry-level DSLR. And like the other two premium cameras in the pocketable realm, you won’t get much in terms of expansion options; the Cyber-shot RX100, PowerShot S100, and Coolpix P310 don’t have hot shoes for external flashes, mic-in ports, optical viewfinders, or adjustable LCD screens.

Canon PowerShot S100

Sensor size isn’t everything, especially if you want to save a bit of money. The PowerShot S100 ($430) and Nikon Coolpix P310 ($330) are both excellent little cameras with a few notable differences. The PowerShot S100 has a RAW-shooting mode, a built-in neutral density (ND) filter, and a lens with a longer zoom range (5X; 24mm to 120mm). For $100 less, the Coolpix P310 lacks the RAW mode, the ND filter, and a bit of the zoom range (4.2X; 24mm to 100mm), but it does have an F1.8 lens.

Buying advice: If you can afford it, the Sony is the clear-cut winner when it comes to sensor size, video specs, and shooting modes. If you have less money to spend and want to shoot RAW, get the PowerShot S100. Otherwise, the Coolpix P310 is a really good bargain and a superb entry-level option in the premium realm.

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