Gadget Bag: Large Sensors, Compact Cameras

The brand-new class of fixed-lens compacts with big sensors and pro features
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Samsung EX2

Compact cameras are facing heated competition from a new era of smartphones that are always connected and offer imaging quality on par with compacts that were introduced only a few years ago. As most serious photographers know, however, alongside these advantages smartphones also offer lackluster low-light abilities, impossibly slow autofocus, minimal manual controls, compressed image capture over RAW, run-of-the-mill video specs, nonoptical image stabilization and fixed lenses that offer slow apertures without optical zooming.

Now camera companies are starting to fight back by incorporating the advantages of cell phones into much more sophisticated cameras. For example, a few new compacts offer an interesting development, with several models fitting large image sensors, even full frame, into the efficiently sized bodies. This translates to far better imaging quality over the extremely small sensors that you’ll find in smartphones because, all things being equal, larger sensors are able to gather more light. That means a better signal-to-noise ratio, which will result in less image noise, even over the latest smartphones with a lot of megapixels like the Apple iPhone 4S/5, Samsung Galaxy S III/Note II or the 13.1-megapixel Sony Xperia Z.

With many more likely on the way, a handful of new models also incorporate WiFi and the Android operating system. Just like your smartphone, this gives the cameras wireless abilities for accessing camera controls and images from computers or tablets. WiFi adds instant connectivity for uploading images and behind-the-scenes shots to the Internet and social media right from the camera. In short, smartphones are certainly convenient, but if you’re looking for an extremely portable camera solution that also offers great imaging quality and pro features, there never has been a better time to look at compacts as a much better choice for shooting from the hip.

Full Frame
Historically, it has been expensive to produce a full-frame digital sensor the same size as the ubiquitous 35mm film plane of classic cameras. Now image processing and chip manufacturing have reached the point where large sensors are finding themselves more common, even in very small bodies.

Sony CyberShot DSC-RX1

The Sony CyberShot DSC-RX1 sports a full-frame CMOS sensor in a body weighing just over a pound. The remarkable RX1 currently sits in fourth place on DxOMark’s Camera Sensor Ratings grid, outperforming most current DSLRs and even several medium-format cameras in overall imaging quality. It has a 35mm ƒ/2.0 Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* prime lens with nine aperture blades and an internal flash, as well as compatibility with external flashes and accessories. Pro features include 14-bit RAW files, ISO up to 25,600, a close minimum focus distance of 5.5 inches and a 5 fps burst rate. Full HD video is available in 24p/60i/60p, with several accessories like viewfinders, a thumb grip and an LCD monitor. The 3.0-inch Extra Fine LCD Display panel provides extremely high screen resolution at 1229K dots. List Price: $2,799.

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APS-C sensors aren’t quite as big as full frame, but they offer a lot of imaging real estate. Because of the crop factor of projecting a full-frame circle to an APS-C sensor, these sensors offer a 1.5x to 1.6x equivalent focal length.

Fujifilm FinePix X100S

The design of the Fujifilm FinePix X100S is retro, but underneath the hood is an entirely different story. The X100S updates the X100, with Intelligent Hybrid AF for combining the advantages of both phase and contrast-detect autofocus. Fujifilm claims autofocus within 0.08 seconds in the High Performance mode. The 16.3-megapixel X-Trans CMOS II APS-C sensor and EXR Processor II offer a full-res burst rate of 6 fps for up to 31 frames, 14-bit RAW capture and shutter lag of 0.01 seconds. A unique Digital Split Image feature allows you to focus the camera through two overlays, much like a rangefinder. Video is available in 1080p 30/60 fps; ISO ranges from 100-25,600. List Price: $1,299.

Leica X2

Available in silver or black, the Leica X2 is an elegantly designed compact, though the interior specs are somewhat lacking. There’s a 16.1-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor with 4944×3272 resolution and an Elmira 24mm ƒ/2.8 ASPH lens that provides an equivalent 35mm angle of view. At 4.88×2.72×2.03 inches, the X2 weighs less than a pound, and unlike most other Leica models, autofocus is available alongside the manual controls. There’s no video, however. Additional features include a 2.7-inch live-view screen with 230K resolution and a retractable flash. RAW capture is also available in the DNG format. List Price: $1,995.

Sigma DP3 Merrill

Sigma produces not one, but three compact cameras with large APS-C imaging sensors: the DP1 Merrill with a 19mm lens (28mm equivalence), the DP2 Merrill with a 30mm lens (45mm equivalence) and the most recent model, the DP3 Merrill, with a 50mm lens and 75mm equivalence. The unique Foveon sensor offers three layers of stacked photodiodes that capture RGB values independently, unlike typical Bayer sensors that must interpret color information from a checkerboard-like pattern of photodiodes. Sigma fans say this results in very sharp images, even from a compact. All three compacts are otherwise the same, offering a nine-blade diaphragm with an ƒ/2.8 aperture, standard-definition VGA video capture and roughly 15 megapixels of resolution on the 4704×3136-resolution sensor. (Sigma states 46 megapixels of resolution because there are three layers of photodiodes on the sensor.) ISO ranges from 100-6400. Estimated Street Price: From $949.

1/1.7-Inch Sensors
The 1/1.7-inch sensors are smaller than DSLR sensors, but still much larger than sensors found in most compacts and smartphones. Several recent 1/1.7-inch sensors employ backside illumination, which exposes the rear of the sensor to light for achieving much better quantum efficiency with a notable improvement to low-light abilities and much less image noise.

Canon PowerShot G1 X

Canon‘s flagship model for its PowerShot series of compacts, the 14.3-megapixel PowerShot G1 X, was joined at CES last year by the 12.1-megapixel PowerShot G15 as a serious fixed-lens compact solution for pros. The older G1 X sports a huge 1.5-inch CMOS sensor (even larger than the Micro Four Thirds sensor in Olympus and Panasonic cameras) with 4352×3264 effective resolution. The G1 X incorporates a fixed 15.1-60.4mm lens for an equivalent 28-112mm zoom with a variable aperture of ƒ/2.8-5.8. Meanwhile, the newer G15 with 4000×3000 maximum resolution offers a 1/1.7-inch sensor at roughly one-sixth the size of the G1 X. The G15 offers a much faster variable aperture of ƒ/1.8-2.8, with a focal length of 6.1-30.5mm with 28-140mm equivalence. Both range in ISO up to 12,800, and each offers video in 1080p at 24 fps and 720p at 30 fps. They’re compatible with Canon Speedlite flashes. List Price: $699 (G1 X); $499 (G15).

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Nikon Coolpix P7700

Outsizing the majority of compact and smartphone sensors on the market, the Nikon Coolpix P7700 includes a 1/1.7-inch, 12.2-megapixel sensor. For this class of camera, it includes an impressively long 7.1x zoom range with 28-200mm equivalence on the 6.0-42.8mm ƒ/2.0-4.0 Zoom-NIKKOR lens. There’s lens-shift Vibration Reduction and a close-up mode with a minimal focusing distance of only 0.8 inches from the front of the lens. The 3.0-inch, 921K Vari-Angle TFT-LCD screen is fully articulated for composing shots from odd angles. The camera offers both 1080p and 720p video at 30 fps, as well as High Speed HS movie capture in three resolutions: 120 fps (640×480), HS 60 fps (1280×720) and HS 15 fps (1920×1080). ISO ranges from 80 to an equivalent 6400. Interestingly, its top continuous shooting rate is 8 fps at full resolution, but only for up to six shots. List Price: $499.

Olympus Stylus XZ-2

With a 1/1.7-inch, 12-megapixel back-illumination BSI-CMOS sensor (backside illumination results in better light-gathering abilities over conventional sensors), the Olympus Stylus XZ-2 sports a fast ƒ/1.8-2.5 variable aperture and 6-24mm i.ZUIKO DIGITAL lens for a 27-108mm equivalent 4x zoom. The swiveling 3.0-inch LCD panel with 910K pixels makes composition a snap from most angles, and you also can achieve critical automatic focus through the touch screen. Backlight HDR will composite several exposures for working with washed-out exposures, and ISO ranges up to 12,800. The XZ-2 comes with a hybrid control ring around the lens for switching between manual and digital operations, and also for assigning customizable functions that can be switched quickly via the adjacent Fn 2 lever. Dual Image Stabilization combines Sensor-Shift I.S. with high ISO sensitivities and fast shutter speeds for reducing shake. There’s also a Multi-Motion Movie I.S. for the same results during video capture, which is provided in 1080p or 720p at 30 fps. List Price: $599.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7

The stylish Lumix DMC-LX7 from Panasonic with a 1/1.7-inch, 10.1-megapixel High Sensitivity MOS sensor is available in white or black. The Leica Vario-Summilux 24-90mm ƒ/1.4 lens sports a 3.8x optical zoom and an incredibly fast ƒ/1.4-2.3 variable aperture. There are advanced features like Intelligent HDR, multiple aspect ratios and 11 fps continuous shooting at up to 12 frames, with up to 5 fps available during autofocus. Intelligent NR noise reduction optimizes by brightness to perform adjustments where it’s needed the most in a scene. Video capabilities are verbose with a selection of frame rates, resolutions and bit rates of up to 28 Mb/s, including high-speed frame rates of 120 and 100 fps at 720p, 1920×1080 AVCHD video files in 60p/50p/60i/50i and MP4 1080p video in 30/25 fps, as well as standard 720p in 60/50/30/25 fps. ISO sensitivities range from 80-12,800, and there’s a Time Lapse Shot function alongside several in-camera filters and modes. List Price: $499.

Pentax MX-1

Available in silver or black, the vintage appeal and economic price point of the 12-megapixel MX-1 from Pentax Ricoh Imaging are its biggest selling points, especially when coupled with a healthy set of specs. The MX-1 has a fast ƒ/1.8-2.5 aperture with a 6.0-24mm (28-112mm equivalent) zoom lens and 4000×3000-pixel resolution. The 1/1.7-inch BSI-CMOS sensor is backside-illuminated, and ISO extends from 100-12,800. Full HD capture is available in 1080p at 30 fps and 720p in 60 fps or 30 fps. The MX-1 includes macro abilities with the 1cm macro mode for close focus, as well as dual camera shake compensation with body-based Sensor-shift and Pixel Track Shake Reduction (SR). The 3.0-inch, 920K-pixel LCD screen can be tilted up or down for achieving overhead or underhanded compositions. Estimated Street Price: $499.

‘s affordable 12.4-megapixel EX2 incorporates one of the fastest apertures in the compact segment with a very bright, constant ƒ/1.4 aperture within the 5.2-17.2mm zoom (24-80mm 35mm equivalence. It’s also part of the Samsung Smart Camera line with WiFi for uploading files to social-media sites or accessing and transferring photos and video remotely through compatible Samsung TV Link and MobileLink-app devices. Video is available in 1080/30p, and three high-speed frame rates can be used at lower resolutions: 480 fps (192×144), 240 fps (384×288) and 120 fps (640×480). A Dual Capture mode lets you take photos and video at the same time. The 1/1.7-inch sensor is backside-illuminated, and ISO is expandable from 80-12,800. The EX2 also offers RAW shooting, full manual controls and DUAL IS with Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) and Digital Image Stabilization (DIS) to minimize shake. Estimated Street Price: $449.