The concept of a compact, high-performance camera without interchangeable lenses has been around for eons. However, until fairly recently 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-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 with high pixel densities to achieve impressive image quality, versatility and a high degree of 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 28mm 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 new Sigma dp0 Quattro P&S. It also made camera manufacturers take notice of a previously untapped segment of the market—serious enthusiasts and pros looking for a cool, high-quality, high-performance, walk-around compact capable of delivering DSLR image quality. The rest, as they say, is history.
Big-Sensor Advantages: Image Quality and More
For any given megapixel rating, the larger the sensor, the bigger the individual pixels. Sensors with larger pixels deliver a number of significant image quality advantages. These include better performance and less noise at high ISOs (especially above ISO 1,600), 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.
Larger sensors also require lenses with proportionally longer focal lengths to cover any given angle due to their lower crop factors—only 1.5x for an APS-C-format camera versus 5x–6x for a typical P&S. Since longer lenses provide shallower depth of field at any given aperture, large-sensor cameras with fast lenses in the f/1.8 to f/2.8 range enable users to create striking pictorial effects and make subjects “pop” by using limited depth of field and bokeh creatively. This sophisticated technique was once largely restricted to interchangeable-lens cameras.
It’s also worth noting that large-sensor point & shoots are almost always high-end enthusiast models that sport fast, high-performance lenses and a full complement of advanced features. These include RAW capture, auto HDR, noise reduction, Full HD 1080p video recording, state-of-the-art image stabilization and AF systems, and full-res burst rates—along with responsiveness and minimal shutter lag times.
When Sony first announced the DSC-RX1, the first noninterchangeable lens camera with a full-frame, 24.3MP sensor and an integrated Carl Zeiss 35mm f/2.0 lens at a price just shy of $2,800, we marveled at their willingness to take risks. But that camera and its successors are cult classics.
Perhaps that’s the secret of the success of this engaging category: each one of the cameras in our “notable” list offers a distinctive personality, authenticity and style, along with genuine performance credibility. In an era of mass-market commoditization, that’s something manufacturers, dealers and hip photographers who demand the best can bank on. Manufacturers have gotten the memo, which is why more than half the large-sensor models covered here are brand new or seriously upgraded.
Nine Notable Large-Sensor P&S Cameras at a Glance
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 IV. This svelte, higher tech follow-up to the RX-100 III has an ingenious, higher res, pop-up, 2,359K-dot OLED electronic viewfinder (EVF) with Zeiss T* coating. The EVF complements a 3-inch, 1,228K-dot multi-angle LCD. It also offers Sony’s most advanced Bionz X image processor; a 1-inch, 20.1MP Exmor R BSI CMOS sensor; and a wide-aperture Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 24–70mm f/1.8–2.8 zoom* lens to facilitate easy bokeh effects.
Other features include: Full HD movie capture in the XAVC S codec; 4K UHD video clip recording; internal S-Log2 Gamma; 40x, slow-motion video capture at 960 fps; a clean HDMI out port; and built-in Wi-Fi connectivity with Near Field Communication (NFC). The RX100 IV can shoot full-res bursts at 16 fps and provides sensitivity settings up to ISO 12,800. It’s clearly aimed at serious enthusiasts who will appreciate its direct manual control ring, built-in ND filter, 12-exposure multi-frame noise reduction and dynamic range optimizer (DRO). $999. sony.com
Olympus Stylus 1s. This gorgeously retro-styled camera boasts a 12 megapixel, 1/1.7-inch BSI CMOS sensor (crop factor: 4.7x). This allowed the designers to incorporate a fast 10.7x, 28–300mm “all-in-one” iZuiko zoom lens with a constant f/2.8 maximum aperture. The result: optimum shooting flexibility in low light, shallow depth of field at wide aperture and beautiful bokeh. Aimed at knowledgeable shooters, it captures RAW and JPEG image formats, has a 3-inch, 1.04M-dot tilting, touch-screen LCD that enables focus point selection and shutter firing by touch, and provides a hybrid control ring that facilitates complete control.
Its 1,44M-dot EVF incorporates an eye sensor, and the advanced Olympus TruePic VI image processor delivers fast, decisive AF, very short shutter lag times, and a 7-fps, full-res burst rate for up to 25 exposures. Also featured are: Full HD 1080p video capture at 30 fps; an ND filter; interval shooting; built-in Wi-Fi; a hot shoe; scene select AE; and art filters. $699.99. olympusamerica.com
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100. This stylish, high-performance Micro Four Thirds format all-rounder features a 16.8MP, multi-aspect, High Sensitivity MOS sensor and a fast, sharp 24–75mm f/1.7–2.8 Leica DC Vario-Summilux zoom lens. It can capture breathtaking 4K QFHD 3,840×2,160 video at 30 and 24 fps and 8MP stills from video clips! Viewing is handled by a swiveling, 3-inch, 921K-dot LCD as well as a 2,764K-dot OLED live-view, eye-level finder.
The LX100 can shoot full-res bursts at 11 fps, provides ISOs from 100–25,600 and offers built-in Wi-Fi connectivity with NFC. Other features include: full manual controls; RAW capture; 0.14-sec Light Speed AF with DFD (Depth from Defocus) technology to enhance AF speed and precision; slow motion animation; highlight/shadow gamma curve control; a focus-peaking display with a control ring; a digital level gauge; and a hot shoe. $799.99. panasonic.com
Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark II. The latest large-format offering in Canon’s enthusiast/pro-aimed G series, this handsome, rugged-looking machine has a Digic 6 processor and a 12.8MP, 1.5-inch High Sensitivity CMOS sensor that’s nearly equal in size to the APS-C format. In addition to a 1,040K-dot, 3-inch tilting, touch-screen LCD monitor, it provides RAW and JPEG capture, a hybrid image stabilizer and a fast 24–120mm f/2.0–3.9 wide-angle zoom lens incorporating ultrahigh refractive index glass. The lens has dual control rings and provides customized functions with operation similar to SLR lenses, allowing full-time manual focus. A 9-blade aperture produces beautiful bokeh.
Other key features include: HDR scene mode; Full HD 1080p video capture at 30 fps; built-in Wi-Fi connectivity with NFC; high-speed AF; a 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 creative effects. $799.99. usa.canon.com
Ricoh GR II. This ingeniously slim, high-performing compact offers built-in Wi-Fi/NFC connectivity—and wireless flash. Its 16.2MP APS-C-format sensor and GR Engine V processor deliver high resolution along with impressively fast response times. And the low-pass filter was eliminated to enhance resolution and detail.
Complementing a wide ISO 100–25,600 sensitivity range, its 28mm f/2.8 lens facilitates low-light shooting and the creative use of shallow depth of field. A 3-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 its hot shoe. Other key features include: an AF system that focuses in 0.2 second; Full HD 1080p video capture; macro mode; 17 effects modes, including retro and cross-processing; a full range of auto modes, such as face detection; a maximum full-res burst rate of 4 fps; a dual-axis electronic level; a magnesium alloy body; and Eyefi wireless card compatibility. $699.95. ricohimaging.com
Sigma dp0 Quattro. Within its distinctively wide but still compact form factor, the all-new Quattro dp0 incorporates significant technical advances all designed to provide enhanced image quality, responsiveness and speed. The upgrades include a higher res, 29MP Foveon Quattro CMOS sensor that uses the company’s signature three-layer design to capture full color information at each pixel point. Not full APS-C size (23.5×15.7mm), it is tested to be the equivalent of a 39MP Bayer sensor.
Also new is a True III image processor and 3-inch, 920K-dot TFT LCD monitor. Its lens is an ultra-wide-angle 21mm f/4 with four “F” low-dispersion (FLD) glass elements. The Quattro provides sensitivity settings from ISO 100–6400 in 1/3 steps as well as RAW image capture at a maximum resolution of 5,242×3,616 pixels. Other features include: contrast detection AF; a manual focus ring; and PSAM exposure modes. $999. sigmaphoto.com
Leica Q (Type 116). This elegant, new, full-frame digital compact features a high-performance 28mm f/1.7 Summilux Asph lens and a 24MP CMOS image sensor. The sensor is coupled to a low-noise Leica Maestro II image processor to deliver impressive image quality, beautiful bokeh and blazing speed.
The Q incorporates an ultra-high-res 3.68MP LCOS electronic viewfinder, a 3-inch, 1,040K-dot touch-screen LCD monitor, and an advanced contrast-detection AF system. The sleek aluminum-and-magnesium-bodied camera can capture Full HD 1080p video at up to 60 fps as well as full-res, 10-fps bursts. Other features include: sensitivity settings up to ISO 50,000; live view mode with both focus peaking and live view zoom; built-in Wi-Fi/NFC connectivity; support for DNG, RAW and JPEG file formats; flash sync at up to 1/500 sec; a wind-noise filter; and a hot shoe. $4,250. 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, the X100S combines high style with high tech. The sensor employs a randomized pixel pattern to reduce moiré and aliasing without requiring a low-pass filter. Also notable are its fast, sharp Fujinon 35mm f/2 fixed lens and 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. $1,049. fujifilmusa.com
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 II. Touted as having the world’s first 1-inch, 20.2MP Exmor RS stacked, back-illuminated CMOS sensor, this handsome machine boasts a shutter speed of up to 1/32,000 sec. The sensor realizes a readout speed that’s five times faster than the RX10—thanks to a DRAM chip integrated into its structure. This allows for full-res, 14-fps continuous shooting, 4K movie capture in the XAVC S codec, and super slow-motion HFR (High Frame Rate) recording of movie clips up to 960 fps (40x)—as well as enhanced low-light, low-noise capability.
Pro functions include picture profile, S-Log2/S-Gamut, TC/UB, rec control, dual video recording and a marker display function. Other features include: a Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 24–200mm f/2.8 lens; a 2,359K-dot OLED EVF; a 3-inch, 1,229K-dot, multi-angle LCD; 0.09-sec AF speeds; Wi-Fi/NFC; the ability to capture 16.8MP photos while shooting movies; an ND filter; a range of creative picture effects; and a moisture-resistant, magnesium alloy body. $1,299.99. sony.com
* All lens focal length ranges are in 35mm equivalents, unless otherwise noted.