Point & Shoots: At the Crossroads?

Point & Shoots: At the Crossroads?


A beady-eyed bean counter assessing the fortunes of the point-and-shoot (P&S) market over the past few years might be forgiven for concluding that this once dominant sector of the camera universe is verging on becoming an endangered species. According to recent Japanese export data, P&S cameras as an undifferentiated class are down a whopping 29% over last year, and 2011 P&S sales weren’t that hot to begin with.

The cause of this seeming debacle isn’t too hard to fathom. P&S cameras are caught in a classic pincers movement, crushed between high-flying DSLRs and sizzling interchangeable-lens compact system cameras (CSC) on the one hand and legions of ever-more competent, comprehensive smartphone cameras on the other. The latest buzz is all about cool, new DSLRs and the amazing expansion of the CSC category with exciting entries from Canon, Samsung and Sony.

Despite all the gloom and doom, reports of the P&S cameras’ demise are, to steal Mark Twain’s immortal phrase, greatly exaggerated. Indeed, the category is not only unwieldy but also a bit misleading. Technically, any camera lacking interchangeable lenses is automatically lumped into this amorphous class, which can definitely give the wrong impression. In reality, the P&S category includes at least four major subtypes with serious upside potential, and the fortunes of each do not tend to move in lockstep, which is to say that some are doing a lot better than others. Here’s a thumbnail analysis of each.

         Four P&S Categories: Some Are More Equal Than Others
Ultrazoom Cameras. The most rapidly growing and versatile members of the P&S tribe, these all-in-one cameras feature extended-range zoom lenses with zoom ratios from 16x to 40x. Many are slim and compact though others resemble and function much like DSLRs (albeit without optical eye-level viewfinders). They’re great for travel and general shooting though their maximum apertures at the long telephoto end is limited, which can compromise their low-light capability. On the other hand, most current models have built-in image stabilization, Full HD 1080p video capability and an amazing array of features that rival those of DSLRs and CSCs.

Active Lifestyle Cameras.
Yes, these are the attractively rugged, submersible, shockproof, dustproof, freezeproof models you see at the beach and on hiking trails, and the latest ones provide such enticements as faster lenses, somewhat longer zoom ratios (4x and 5x are commonplace), Full HD video, GPS and big high-res LCDs, including some with OLEDs. They’re typically chunkier than their slim standard P&S counterparts, though some of the latest models are surprisingly slim for this class. A few models offer accessories such as teleconverters to extend their versatility, though many are impressively full-featured right out of the box.

Enthusiast High-Performance Cameras.
These beauties feature larger high-performance sensors (often larger than 1/2.3 inch, all the way up to APS-C), fast high-performance zoom lenses, optical, hybrid and electronic viewfinders, and high-res image sensors that provide outstanding performance at high ISOs. Other features include high-res tilting and/or swiveling LCDs for image evaluation, Full HD video capture, metal or metal-clad body construction, high-performance AF and AE systems and RAW shooting capability. They’re often the cult classics of the P&S brigade and are frequently used by pros and serious shooters as walk-around cameras and backups to their DSLR systems.

Ultracompact Pocketable Cameras.
These svelte, stylish critters pack a lot of picture-taking power into pocket-size packages. Many of them feature 12-18MP sensors, 4x and up zoom lenses with enhanced digital zoom to 10x or so, impressive burst rates of 5 fps and above, touch-screen LCDs, and Full HD video recording. Some are actually smaller and slimmer than the ubiquitous iPhone, earning them the nickname of credit card cameras. They appeal to women, travelers and folks who want to have a light, super-portable, high-performance camera with them at all times. A few are even waterproof though none are quite as rugged as active lifestyle cameras.

There is actually another category of P&S cameras that’s not as well defined in terms of form factor or function as the four just covered—let’s call them price-point cameras. In general they sell for about $120 or less and offer 12-16MP sensors, good all-around performance and a satisfying feature mix aimed at casual or family shooters. Some provide optical viewfinders and use AA batteries. At first glance, this basic type of camera looks like it might be at risk for extinction, but many dealers we spoke with report they’re the most popular point & shoots they sell—go figure. Most of the latest cameras in this category come in elegantly compact bodies and a luscious array of colors, so don’t count them out.

Now that you have a clearer picture of the P&S domain, here are some of the latest P&S cameras we saw at photokina 2012 in Cologne, Germany, this month. Will they grow the P&S market and turn this whole category to the plus side of the ledger? It’s probably too early to say, but it’s clear that the world’s camera makers are sure giving it their best shot.

               Photokina P&S Roundup
Olympus SP-820UZ iHS. This brand-new crisply styled ultrazoom features a 40x, ultra-wide, ultra-long, 22.4-896mm equivalent f/3.4-5.7 lens, along with a 14MP iHS technology CMOS sensor (intelligent high-speed, high-sensitivity), a 460K-dot 3.0-inch LCD, Full HD 1080p video capture with HDMI output, and dual image stabilization. It’ll shoot full-res images at 3 frames per sec and 3MP images at an impressive 30 fps. Other features: hand-held starlight mode; HDR adjustment; and iAuto mode. $329.99. olympusamerica.com

Nikon Coolpix S800c.
If you can’t beat smartphone connectivity why not join ’em? Since this camera runs on Google Android 2.3 “Honeycomb” OS, users can instantly upload and e-mail captured video and photos as well as have the whole Google Play library available for downloading photo-editing apps, games, video etc. This svelte smoothie also features: a 10x, 25-250mm equivalent Nikkor optical zoom lens plus 4x digital zoom; a 1/2.3-inch, 16MP BSI CMOS image sensor; a 3.5-inch rear OLED touch-screen monitor; Full HD 1080p video recording with stereo sound; and wireless image transfer via Wi-Fi. With features like that, it should sure give the latest smartphones a run for the money. $349.95. nikonusa.com

Pentax X-5. Just released, this attractive 26x ultrazoom features a 22.3mm ultra-wide to 580mm super-telephoto equivalent zoom lens, a 0.4-inch macro mode, a 16MP image sensor, a 3.0-inch LCD, an eye-level electronic viewfinder with diopter adjustment, triple shake reduction, auto picture mode, Full HD 16:9 video capability at 30 fps, and a quick-set mode dial that controls 10 shooting modes. It can shoot up to 30 images at 10 fps, provides a choice of three aspect ratios, includes 12 digital filters and is powered by AA batteries. $279.95. pentaximaging.com

Canon PowerShot SX160 IS.
This sleek, new minimalist 16x optical zoom camera sports a 28-448mm equivalent zoom lens, a 16MP 1/2.3-inch CCD sensor, a 3.0-inch wide-view LCD and an optical viewfinder. It offers smart auto mode with 32 predefined shooting situations for both stills and video, high-speed AF, optical image stabilization and 720p HD video recording with HDMI output for HDTV screening. It uses AA batteries for convenience when traveling. $229. usa.canon.com

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100.
Aimed at serious enthusiasts and pros, Sony’s top-of-the-line RX100 compact features: a large 1-inch, 13.2×8.8mm Exmor CMOS sensor with 20.2 megapixels; a fast Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 29-105mm equivalent, f/1.8-4.9 lens; an Xtra Fine 3.0-inch LCD; and optical and electronic image stabilization—all housed in a minimalist metal body with a built-in pop-up flash. Other features include PASM modes, auto HDR, RAW-format capability, Full HD 1080p video capture and ultra-fast 0.13-sec AF. Normal ISOs top out at 6400, but extended mode gets up to ISO 25,600, and it shoots full-res bursts at 10 fps. $649.99. sony.com

Fujifilm FinePix F800EXR.
Ergonomically contoured, this long-range all-in-one zoom model sports a 20x, 25-500mm, f/3.5-5.3 zoom lens, a 16MP 1/2.3-inch EXR-CMOS sensor and a 3.0-inch 460K high-contrast LCD. It’s set up for wireless image transfer, has Full HD 1080p video capability, high-speed AF, intelligent image stabilization, built-in filters and auto mode with motion detection. It’s one of a few cameras in its class with RAW image capture—a plus for serious enthusiasts. $349.95. fujifilmusa.com

Samsung MV900.
This 16.3MP MultiView compact has a 3.3-inch flip-out AMOLED touch display to take self-portraits and pictures from multiple angles—from 0-180º, over crowds and eye-level with kids and pets—using one of three shutter options to comfortably snap from any position. Its gesture shot function lets users take photos hands-free using hand movements! It also features: a 5x, 4.5-22.5mm optical zoom lens; Full HD video capture with HDMI output; and a Mobile Link button to wireless upload photos to Facebook or e-mail from the camera, backup shots on cloud storage services and send them to a smartphone or tablet. $349.99. samsung.com

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7.
With a newly developed 24mm ultra-wide-angle Leica DC Vario-Summilux lens with 3.8x optical zoom and f/1.4 brightness at the wide-end, f/2.3 at the tele-end, this Lumix has a 1/1.7-inch 10.1MP MOS sensor that features an improved S/N ratio. Other features include: a 3.0-inch, 920K-dot LCD; creative control mode with 16 filters, including radial and smooth defocus modes; photo style; time-lapse shot; Full HD video recording; RAW and RAW+JPEG options; HDR and 3D photo modes; and manual controls. To enhance operability, its equipped with an aperture ring, internal ND filter, focus lever and rear dial to control the light source. $499. panasonic.com

Leica X2. A classically styled, high-performance, minimalist camera for serious street shooters and sophisticated travelers, it features a 16.5MP APS-C-format sensor, providing low noise and a high dynamic range, in addition to a Leica Elmarit 24mm f/2.8 Asph lens, full manual and automatic controls, and ISO settings to 12,500. Its 2.7-inch LCD provides a live-view display, and the X2 is impressively compact and lightweight at 2.7×4.9 inches and 11.2 ounces. $1,995. us.leica-camera.com

GE G100.
This perky-looking compact in General Imaging’s Power Pro series sports a wide 15x, 28-420mm equivalent zoom lens and features a 14.4MP Aptina A-pix CMOS sensor claimed to provide exceptional picture clarity. Other features: Full 1080p HD video capability; HDMI output; HDR+ mode; 30 shooting modes; a multi-exposure function; high-speed continuous shooting; and optical image stabilization. $179.99. general-imaging.com

Canon PowerShot SX500 IS. This brand-new ergonomically contoured ultrazoom camera features a 30x, 24-720mm equivalent zoom lens, a 1/2.3-inch 16MP CCD image sensor, a 3.0-inch, 461K-dot LCD and smart auto mode with 32 predefined shooting modes. Other features include intelligent optical image stabilization, high-speed AF, a Digic 4 image processor and 720p HD video capability with a dedicated movie button. There’s also a zoom framing assist function that helps shooters find the right subject to zoom in on. $329.99. usa.canon.com

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX30V.
This cool, classy looking long-ranger with built-in Wi-Fi boasts: a 20x, 27.5-550mm equivalent optical zoom lens; a 1/2.3-inch, 18.2MP Exmor R CMOS sensor; a 3.0-inch Xtra Fine TruBlack LCD; active three-way SteadyShot image stabilization; and iSCN, which automatically detects and adjusts for 33 different scene types. Other features: built-in GPS and compass; Full HD 1080p video capability; nearly lossless 40x Clear Image digital zoom; and the ability to shoot full-res bursts at 10 fps. $419.99. sony.com

Nikon Coolpix P7700. Resembling a classic rangefinder camera, this rugged, top-tier model is clearly targeted at serious enthusiasts, with a large 1/1.7-inch, 12.2MP CMOS sensor and a fast f/2-4, 7.1x, 28-200mm equivalent Nikkor optical zoom lens. Its 3.0-inch vari-angle LCD has a 921K-dot display for enhanced image evaluation. The P7700 can shoot full-res bursts at 8 fps and Full HD video; it also features subject tracking AF, 19 scene modes, RAW capture, complete PSAM control and a range of in-camera special effects. $499.95. nikonusa.com