Until about two years ago, I never paid any attention to the compact camera market. As a working pro photographer, it was Nikon DSRLs all the way for me, with no reason to even consider a small camera. Back then, image quality, features and overall performance just wasn’t anywhere close to I needed it to be if I wanted to create marketable, high end outdoor work.
Oh my, how the world has changed.
Small cameras technology has pretty much gone through the roof and it shows no sign of slowing down. CMOS sensors are getting bigger, better and faster, and the ability to shoot in full all four PSAM exposure modes allows you to fully explore your photographic creativity with unencumbered bliss.
Plus, many of them just look and feel so cool with their traditional styling. That’s definitely one of the reasons that I’m so intrigued by these things. As someone who has one foot in the vintage world and the other in the modern, high tech world, I just love picking up, fiddling with and using them.
There’s no question that these little cameras are awesome for every day life, travel and for taking into the backcountry when you just don’t want to lug around your DSLR. And with maximum capture rates of up to 12 fps on some models, there’s no reason you can’t shoot action and adventure with these little guys too. I shoot sports all the time with my Fuji X20.
As I look around the field of compact cameras that are out today, I’ve put together a list of my 5 favorite and best compact and mirrorless cameras. These are either cameras that I own, have used on occasion, or that intrigue me in some way. If you’re in the market, maybe this list will help you narrow down your choice. And as always, if you do decide that it’s time to buy a new little camera, consider purchasing through these links, or visit my B&H Photo Recommended Gear Page.
1. Fujifilm X20
If you’ve read my blog before, then you know how much in love I am with the Fujifilm X20. I think that it’s the best camera in its class. With the new X-Trans sensor, which is the same sensor technology as the hot new X100S and the X-Pro 1 the X20 is even sharper than the X10 was.
Also, the new Advanced Optical Viewfinder, which displays shooting and focus info, is extremely useful; you can actually use the camera in extremely bright sunlight. Plus, I hate electronic viewfinders. To me there’s something intrinsically organic about looking at your actual subject through a viewfinder as opposed to looking at in on a tiny TV screen.
Overall, the X20 is an awesome little performer that I take with me just about everywhere. And even though there are cameras out there with bigger sensors, I just love the styling, the controls and the features and the extremely simply portability that the X20 offers.
2. Fujifilm XE-1
I’ve been trying out the Fujfilm X-E1 this summer and I have to say, I really like it. I’ll can definitely see myself buying one, especially for travel. I just took it on a bike trip over the Alps and it worked great. It’s so much lighter than my D700, and with the three XF lenses that Fujifilm offers, (14mm, 18-55mm, 55-200mm) you pretty much have all the range you need for everything from wide angle landscapes to portraits to long lens shots.
Again, same X-Trans sensor technology here, which has proven to produce excellent quality photographs, only this one is full size APS-C, just like the X-Pro1 and many of the DSLRs on the market. The XE-1 has very nice styling as well, and I’ve found it to be a rather enjoyable camera to use. It has full PSAM modes and in A mode, you can even turn the aperture ring. Just like a real camera.
If the X-E1 is a little on the high for you in terms of price, then you’ll want to check out the brand new Fuji XM-1, which was just announced the other day. It still has the same APS-C sized X-Trans sensor and similar styling and features, and built in Wi-Fi, but it’s a slightly stepped down model for those photographers looking for a mid-price range camera.
3. Nikon COOLPIX A
The COOLPIX A is Nikon’s first full sized sensor compact, and so far it’s gotten great reviews. With an APS-C sized sensor, just like the one you’ll find inside all their non-full frame DSLRs, the COOLPIX A delivers excellent image quality in a pocket-sized camera.
The COOLPIX A has a fixed equivalent 28mm f/2.8 lens, a 16MP CMOS sensor, built in WI-FI, it will shoot 14-bit RAW files at up to 4 fps, Full HD video, and a full array of auto and manual exposure options. It also plays nicely with Nikon Speedlights; you can stick a flash or an SU-800 commander on the hot shoe to control other Nikon flashes.
It has pretty nice styling as well. Not quite as vintage looking as some of the other cameras out there, but the image quality alone more than makes up for that. If you want pocket-sized camera that you can use with one hand and take pro quality, full resolution imagery, this would make a great camera for many adventures. It’s definitely worth a look. Also comes in black.
4. Sony NEX-7
The Sony NEX-7 doesn’t quite have the same traditional styling as some of the other cameras out there, but there’s something about it that has made it a modern classic.
With a 24MP sensor, the NEX-7 makes great photos, definitely publishable in terms of quality. And I know that it stands up to the rigors of the outdoors, because I have quite a few ultra running, bike packing and adventure seeking friends who beat the crap out their NEX cameras, and yet they keep on ticking.
Another thing that I really like about the NEX cameras is that there are a number of Carl Zeiss lenses that are made for the Sony X mount. This gives you incredible quality imagery, because in addition to the glass, Sony makes great sensors. In fact, Sony makes the sensors for the Nikon D800, which is the highest resolution DSLR ever produced.
From the few times that I’ve used the NEX-7, I just think that you wouldn’t go wrong if you ended with one of these in your arsenal.
5. Olympus OM-D E-M5
I’ll admit, I haven’t tried the Olympus OM-D E-M5, but I have two close friends who absolutely LOVE it. Both of them work in the photo industry and have tried lots of cameras, so I trust their recommendations.
Also, the OM-D E-M5 is simply a gorgeous looking camera that has awesome, classic styling. I love the way it looks, and I’ll bet that if I actually tried one, I’d totally dig it. Ah… so many cameras, not enough trips…
With a 16MP sensor, superb image quality, an ultra high resolution EVF, (maybe this could make me like EVSs?) and extremely fast AF with 3D tracking, the OM-D is a micro four-thirds camera that actually excels at shooting sports and action. Hmmm… so why exactly haven’t I tried one yet?
The Olympus OM-D E-M5 also has a wide array of lenses, flashes and accessories that make it a really versatile camera system. And Olympus cameras have long been the favorite choice with outdoor photographers- remember the ultra classic Infinity Stylus Epic? Be careful, you could easily fall in love with this one.
Honorable Mention: The Sony RX100, and the new, just announced updated RX100M2, for being the smallest compact camera with the biggest sensor. It’s got a huge 1-inch 20MP sensor, a fast f/1.8 Carl Zeiss lens and it still fits in your shirt pocket. My friend Beat took one of these on his month-long, 1,000-mile trek from Anchorage to Nome earlier this year.