Which Large Sensor Compact?

We now have quite a few choices of large sensor compacts (LSC), so many that they already fall into two categories: the single purpose LSC, and the general purpose LSC:

  • Single Purpose: Fujifilm X100s, Leica X2, Nikon Coolpix A, Ricoh GR, Sigma DP1/DP2/DP3 Merrill, Sony RX-1
  • General Purpose: Canon G1x, Sony RX-100

I'm sure more are on the way.

Many of us have been asking for large sensor compacts for a long, long time. Michael Johnson over at The Online Photographer and myself were probably the most vocal and consistent about writing about such a possibility, dating as far back as 2003. Funny thing was that I was attacked as being wrong about the possibility of a large sensor compact that was truly compact by many, for reasons I'll never figure out. Apparently a large group of the population doesn't remember 35mm film compact cameras or thinks that digital can't duplicate the size of such products. 

Leica was one of the first to jump, with the X1, while Fujifilm got considerable attention with their X100 mockup at the 2010 Photokina. So much attention that they decided they needed to actually make the camera. 

Today, as I noted, we've got 10 large sensor compacts, with more coming. Curiously, very few of them really slot up directly against each other, as each maker has tended to go a slightly different route. The Leica, for example, is a fairly modern interpretation of a fixed lens compact (36mm equivalent), while the Fujifilm hearkens back to the olden days when Leica-imitation rangefinder designs thrived. Strange. You'd think it would be the other way around. 

Let me just say up front I've used six of these compacts fairly extensively now, and have had hands on time with all of them, and from an image quality standpoint, there's really not a dud in the bunch. That's why we were asking for large sensor compacts in the first place: DSLR-type image performance in cameras that are easy to carry with you all the time. 

I've already looked at one way to categorize these cameras, but there are many other ways. For example:

  • 1" sensor — Sony RX-100
  • near APS sensor — Canon G1x
  • APS sensor — Fujifilm X100s, Nikon Coolpix A, Ricoh GR,  Sigma DP1/DP2/DP3 Merrill
  • Full frame (35mm film-sized) sensor — Sony RX-1

As you might expect, image quality generally tends to follow sensor size, though there are some notable exceptions. For example, if you think of the Sony RX-100 as more a 12 to 14mp camera instead of 20mp, it really does warrant thinking of it up a size. I'd match the Sony RX-100 against the Canon G1x any day, and neither would really win on image quality when all is said and done. The Sony, however, is a modern design shirt-pocket camera while the Canon is a jacket-pocket camera with more traditional design (and some nifty and handy features, like the swivel LCD). 

Likewise, the Sigma Merrills have one aspect of image quality going for them that is hard to ignore: the Foveon sensor makes for very high edge acuity and images that look very sharp. 

But the Achille's heel of all the smaller sensor compacts is simple: low light. The Sigma's aren't all that great above ISO 400, in my opinion, the Sony RX-100 is starting to struggle at about ISO 800 (even when considered a 12mp camera), and the Canon G1x maybe beats that by only a stop. 

At the other end of the spectrum, the Sony RX-1, with it's deliciously large sensor, has no real problems with any of the ISO values you're likely to shoot at, and an f/2 lens helps things along in that respect, too. 

All the APS sensor cameras do well in low light, with the Fujifilm X100s probably being the best of the bunch. 

In terms of operation, none of these cameras is wicked fast at focus, though the X100s is getting closer to DSLR speeds with its latest iteration. Some of these cameras are slow in operation, most notably the Sigma Merrills. Many have smallish buffers, so they're not really spray-and-pray cameras. I find the Sonys, Canon, Nikon, and Ricoh all to be very acceptably fast, the Canon a little on the slow side but not problematically so. None of these are DSLRs, and certainly none of these approach the high-end pro DSLRs in terms of operational speed. 

For me, what it all boils down to are lenses. I'm going to do this in 35mm film equivalent terms so that we can talk about them similarly, but remember that the crop sensor cameras will all have numerically shorter focal lengths due to the crop:

  • 28mm f/2.8 (Sigma DP1 Merrill, Nikon Coolpix A, Ricoh GR)
  • 28-100mm f/1.8-4.9 (Sony RX-100)
  • 28-112mm f/2.8-5.8 (Canon G1x)
  • 35mm f/2 (Fujifilm X100s, Sony RX-1)
  • 36mm f/2.8 (Leica X2)
  • 50mm f/2.8 (Sigma DP2 Merrill)
  • 75mm f/2.8 (Sigma DP3 Merrill)

The weakest lens of the bunch isn't all that weak, but that would probably be the RX-100's zoom; the Canon zoom is a bit better optically in my testing. All of the fixed lenses are just what you'd expect: pretty darned good prime lenses, with all the positive attributes you'd normally expect of same.

It's not a joke that you can now pick cameras instead of lenses. Consider this, for a moment. Let's say that you mostly shoot in what would be called the "normal midrange zoom" focal lengths (24-70mm). Consider this: you could buy a Ricoh GR (28mm), a Fujifilm X100s (35mm), a Sony RX-1 (52mm), and a Sigma DP3 Merrill (75mm) and have some darned good lenses sitting in front of some darned good sensors. Indeed, I can almost imagine walking around town juggling three such choices in my jacket pockets (one camera out, one camera in each jacket pocket). 

To a large degree, that's exactly what Sigma has done with the Merrills, and frankly, I find them a better choice than the Sigma SD1 DSLR if all you're ever doing is shooting in the midrange. You wouldn't even have to learn a new camera, just get them all set with the same base configuration settings. For less the price of some 24-70mm f/2.8 zooms you'd have three cameras and three fine lenses. Of course, there's low light that's a bit of a problem with the Merrills. 

Personally, I think you have to pick your ultimate large sensor compact by lens. The only exception to this is really the Sony RX-1, where I'd say you're really picking the big full frame sensor and getting whatever lens Sony gives you. 

First, you have to figure out whether you're cool with a fixed prime or really need a zoom. If you need a zoom, you have two very different choices in the Sony RX-100 and Canon G1x. I like them both, and recommend them both, but situational they're slightly different cameras. The RX-100 is more a true compact design and I treat it much more like a "grab shooter," while the Canon has some more advanced features and sophistication to its design and is likely to appeal more to the careful, control-freak shooter. 

In the prime lens compacts, you really pick by focal length you prefer for all-around shooting. Your choices really boil down to modestly wide angle (28mm), slightly wide angle (35mm), and "normal" (50mm). The 75mm DP3 Merrill is sort of a strange choice, though if you're into macro work, the fact that it'll get to 1:3 magnification might interest you. 

Frankly, while there's not a dud in the bunch, the most well-rounded is the Fujifilm X100s. Unfortunately, it's also one of the larger of the compacts. But there's no doubting that the hybrid viewfinder, fast focus, and traditional controls have a lot of appeal. The X-Trans sensor is also quite good for black and white photography, if you're into that. Studio shooters should note that the X100s doesn't have a flash sync speed top, though you might have a bit of difficulty at very high shutter speeds getting your lights to trigger in the short window. But 1/500 flash photography is a snap with the X100s. 

Finally, some of you may be motivated by overall size of the camera. After all, how you carry a camera is important. In terms of overall size, it goes something like this:

  • Smallest (shirt-pocketable): Sony RX-100
  • Nearly as small (still shirt-pocketable): Nikon Coolpix A, Ricoh GR
  • Significantly bigger because of lens protrusion (jacket pocketable): Fujifilm X100s, Leica X2
  • Largest (still jacket pocketable): Canon G1x, Sony RX1, Sigma Merrills

Note, however, that many bodies of mirrorless cameras are as small, most notably the Canon EOS M, Nikon 1, Olympus E-PM#/E-PL#, Panasonic GF#, Pentax Q, and Sony NEX. With the right lens, many of these would be smaller than the largest cameras here (G1x, RX-1). Still, we're talking much smaller than DSLR size.

Don't let their diminutive size fool you: these are all highly competent cameras capable of producing some amazing images. These are not the cheapo compact cameras you find at the big table at Best Buy or at your local Staples. These are all serious tools capable of lots of good imaging. 

My own personal choice has been the Sony RX-100, and I think I should be clear why that is: once you get to the APS sensor cameras, you'll find interchangeable lens choices that aren't significantly bigger. The Sony NEX cameras, for example, are actually smaller than the Fujifilm X100s. So, for me, I made a conscious choice: a true shirt pocket camera to carry everywhere, and when I wanted to go light but get a higher quality, I use mirrorless cameras (see my other Web site: sansmirror.com). When I really need quality, I use my FX DSLRs.

Thus, for me, most of the bigger cameras, and especially those with a fixed prime lens, don't necessarily deliver anything I don't already have available. But I'm a special case: I photograph (and write) for a living. I have a wide, deep tool case of gear I choose from based upon what I'm doing. For most of you, you're either trying to make a "one camera" decision or a "supplemental camera" decision. Because these cameras don't have interchangeable lenses, I really think you need to start with that as your focus. Then hone down into the sensor and handling of choices with lenses you'd be okay with. Simple as that ;~). 

Support this site by purchasing from this advertiser:

text and images © Thom Hogan 2015 -- all rights reserved
@bythom on twitter, hashtags #bythom, #gearophile