The concept of a compact, high-performance camera without interchangeable lenses has been around for eons. Until fairly recently, however, digital point-and-shoot cameras have been largely defined by two distinct design parameters—noninterchangeable lenses and small sensor sizes. Small sensors in the 1/2.5- to 1/1.7-inch range make it easier for manufacturers to design more compact cameras with longer zoom ranges and enhanced depth of field. And the incredible advances in sensor and imaging processing technology have allowed small-sensor P&S cameras to deliver impressive image quality, versatility and user satisfaction.
Rise of the Large-Sensor P&S
It took until 2008 for the first large-sensor digital P&S, the original Sigma DP1, to reach the market. Incorporating a slightly smaller than APS-C-size version of Sigma’s proprietary three-layer Foveon X3 sensor and fitted with a high-quality 28mm-equivalent f/4 lens, the minimalist DP1 created a sensation among enthusiasts. It established a loyal cult following and set the stage for Sigma’s current APS-C-format Foveon X3-sensor DSLRs and the Sigma DP2 Quattro. It also made camera manufacturers take notice of a previously untapped segment of the market—namely serious enthusiasts and pros looking for cool, high-quality, high-performance, walk-around compacts capable of delivering image quality on par with their DSLRs.
The rest is history, and reading about the eight, great large-sensor point-and-shoot models detailed here will give you a good idea of how far we’ve come in the last six years.
Big-Sensor Advantages: Image Quality and More
For any given megapixel rating, the larger the sensor the bigger the individual pixels will be, and sensors with larger pixels deliver a number of significant image quality advantages. These include better performance and less noise at high ISOs (especially at 1600 and above), enhanced dynamic range (the ability to accurately capture and output extreme highlights and shadows), a wider color gamut, better color differentiation within a hue, and increased color saturation, especially at high ISOs.
In addition, larger sensors require lenses with proportionally longer focal lengths to cover any given angle due to their lower crop factors—only 1.5 for an APS-C-format camera versus 4.5–6.0 for a typical P&S. As a result, a 50mm normal lens on a full-frame camera covers the same angle as a 33mm lens on an APS-C-format camera and a lens of 11mm on a 1/1.7-inch-format P&S. Since longer lenses provide shallower depth of field, large-sensor cameras with fast lenses in the f/1.8–2.8 range enable users to create striking pictorial effects and make portrait subjects “pop” by using limited depth of field and bokeh creatively—a sophisticated technique once largely restricted to DSLRs.
It’s also worth noting that large-sensor point & shoots are almost always high-end enthusiast models that not only sport fast, high-performance lenses but also a full complement of advanced features, including RAW capture, auto HDR, noise reduction, Full HD 1080p video capture, state-of-the-art autofocus systems, and high, full-res burst rates, along with responsiveness and minimal shutter lag times.
When Sony first announced the Cyber-shot RX1 with a full-frame 24.3MP sensor and a noninterchangeable Carl Zeiss 35mm f/2.0 lens at a price just shy of $2,800, I marveled at their willingness to take risks. That camera and its successors are now firmly established as cult classics. Indeed, perhaps that’s the secret of the success of this entire category: each one of the cameras on our “Eight Great” list offers a distinctive personality, authenticity and style, along with genuine performance creds. In an era of mass-market commoditization, that’s something manufacturers and dealers, as well as hip photographers that demand the best, can take to the bank.
Eight Great, Large-Sensor Point & Shoots at a Glance
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III. This svelte, stylish, higher tech follow-up to the RX100 II has an ingenious pop-up, 1440k-dot OLED True-Finder EVF (electronic viewfinder) to complement its 3.0-inch, 1229k-dot multi-angle Xtra Fine LCD. It features Sony’s most advanced Bionz X image processor, a 1-inch, 20.1MP Exmor R BSI CMOS sensor and a wider aperture Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 24–70mm f/1.8–2.8 zoom lens* to facilitate bokeh effects. Other features include: Full HD video in the XAVC S/AVCHD/MP4 formats; sweep panorama; an HDMI out port; built-in Wi-Fi with NFC; full-res bursts at 10 frames per sec; and ISO settings up to 12,800. It’s clearly aimed at serious enthusiasts that will appreciate its direct manual control ring, built-in ND filter, 12-exposure multi-frame noise reduction, creative styles and dynamic range optimizer (DRO). $799.99. sony.com
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ1000. This cool SLR-style, high-performance, long-range bridge camera features a 16x, 25–400mm f/2.8–4.0 Leica DC Vario-Elmarit lens coupled to a 1-inch, 20.1MP High-Sensitivity MOS sensor. Notably, it can shoot breathtaking 4K QFHD/HD video at 30 fps! Viewing is handled by a swiveling, 3.0-inch, 921k-dot LCD monitor and a 0.39-inch, 2,359k-dot OLED live-view eye-level viewfinder. The FZ1000 shoots continuous bursts at a blistering 50 fps, provides ISOs up to 25,600 plus in-camera creative controls, and offers built-in Wi-Fi connectivity with NFC. Shake-free imaging is assured by its hybrid OIS five-axis image stabilization, and its “light speed” AF system is designed to provide impressive speed and responsiveness for both still capture and video recording. $899.99. panasonic.com
Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark II. The latest large-format offering in Canon’s long running, enthusiast/pro-aimed G series, this handsome, robust, rugged-looking machine has a 12.8MP, 1.5-inch (measured diagonally) HS CMOS sensor that’s nearly equal in size to the APS-C format. In addition to a high-res 1,040k-dot, 3.0-inch tilting touch-screen LCD, it also provides 14-bit RAW and JPEG capture and a hybrid image stabilizer. Its faster, wider range 5x, 24–120mm f/2.0–3.9 zoom lens incorporates ultra-high-refractive index glass, dual control rings, and a nine-blade aperture for stunning bokeh. Other key features include: ISO 12,800; HDR scene mode; Full HD 1080p video at 30 fps; built-in Wi-Fi connectivity with NFC; high-speed AF; a maximum full-res burst rate of 5.2 fps; an electronic level; a wide range of additional manual and automatic shooting modes; and a slew of built-in creative effects. $799.99. usa.canon.com
Ricoh GR. This ingeniously slim, high-performance compact has a 16MP APS-C-format sensor and a GR Engine V image processor designed to deliver high resolution along with impressive response times. Plus, the low-pass filter was eliminated to enhance resolution and detail. Its fast, 28mm f/2.8–16 lens facilitates low-light shooting and the creative use of shallow depth of field. It also complements the GR’s ISO 100–25,600 sensitivity range. A high-res, 3.0-inch, 1,230k-dot LCD provides crisp, detailed viewing and playback, and the camera supports RAW and JPEG formats. There’s even a choice of two optional optical finders that slide into the hot shoe. Other key features are: Full HD 1080p video capture; macro mode; image effects, including retro and cross-processing; a full range of auto modes, like face detection; a maximum full-res burst rate of 4 fps; a dual-axis electronic level; and Eyefi wireless card compatibility. $699.95. us.ricoh-imaging.com
Sigma DP2 Quattro. Within its distinctively wide but still compact form factor, the all-new Quattro incorporates significant technical advances all designed to provide enhanced image quality, responsiveness and speed. The upgrades include a higher res 29MP Foveon X3 Quattro CMOS sensor that uses Sigma’s signature three-layer design to capture full-color information at each pixel point—and is not full APS-C size (23.5×15.7mm). It also utilizes a new True III image processing engine and a 3.0-inch, 920k-dot TFT LCD. The lens is a 45mm f/2.8 prime, the ISO range covers 100–6400 in 1/3 steps, and the camera provides RAW image capture at a maximum resolution of 5,424×3,616 pixels. Other features include: contrast-detection AF; a manual focus ring; PSAM exposure modes; and a range of color modes. $999. sigmaphoto.com
Leica X Vario. Billed as the first APS-C-format compact with a zoom lens, this elegant, high-end aluminum- and magnesium-bodied camera delivers pro-caliber imaging performance. It boasts an impressive 16.1MP APS-C CMOS sensor and an acclaimed Leica Vario-Elmar Asph 28–70mm f/3.5–6.4 lens. Other premier features include a 3.0-inch, 920k-dot LCD, a dedicated socket for an optional eye-level EVF that provides a DSLR-like viewing and shooting experience, RAW (DNG) plus JPEG capture, and ISO settings to 12,500. The X Vario also provides a maximum 5-fps full-res burst rate, Full HD 1080p video recording at 30 fps, a classic manual focusing ring plus manual exposure control, a wind cut filter for audio clarity, a free Adobe Photoshop Lightroom download and, of course, that indefinable Leica panache. $2,099 in black; $2,249 in silver. us.leica-camera.com
Fujifilm X100S. With a retro look reminiscent of a classic rangefinder camera and a unique 16MP APS-C-format X-Trans CMOS II sensor with a randomized pixel pattern to reduce moiré and aliasing without requiring a low-pass filter, the X100S combines high style with high tech. It utilizes a fast, sharp Fujinon 35mm f/2 fixed lens and also offers an innovative optical and electronic hybrid viewfinder that permits users to choose between OVF and EVF viewing. Other notable features include: a 2.8-inch LCD monitor; ISO 25,600; intelligent hybrid AF that employs both contrast- and phase-detection methods for improved speed and performance; RAW capture with in-camera conversion and file processing; Full HD 1080p video recording at 60 fps; film simulation modes; advanced filters effects; and a robust, die-cast magnesium body. $1,299.99. fujifilmusa.com
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1R. The world’s first and only full-frame (24x36mm format) noninterchangeable-lens compact, Sony’s beautifully made, high-performance flagship sports a high-res 24.3MP Exmor CMOS without a low-pass filter to deliver maximum resolution. Its fast, standard 35mm f/2.0–22 Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* wide-angle lens incorporates three aspheric elements to minimize chromatic aberrations. Other high-end features include: a 3.0-inch, 1,229k-dot Xtra Fine LCD; ISO 100–25,600; a Bionz image processor that provides 14-bit RAW output; a 5-fps maximum full-res burst rate; high-speed AF; Full HD 1080p video capture at 60p, 60i and 24p framing rates in AVCHD 2.0; SteadyShot optical image stabilization; noise reduction mode combining six images; MF focus-peaking indication; picture effects and creative styles; and included RAW Image Development software. $2,799.99. sony.com
* All focal lengths are in 35mm equivalents.