How we picked
Our top picks, the Panasonic LX10 (left) and Sony RX100 III (right), combine the high image quality of a 1-inch sensor and a bright lens with the convenience of a pocketable camera body. Photo: Amadou Diallo
Today's high-end compact cameras are defined by an ability to capture higher-quality images than your smartphone, combined with a design that's small enough for you to always carry around. They pair large sensors with wide-aperture zoom lenses and fit it all in a package that slips easily into a jacket or pants pocket. We specifically looked at models under the $1,000 mark, because models priced above that tend to be specialist devices, beyond the "best for most people" focus we take.
Our contenders here use 1-inch sensors that have nearly four times the imaging area of those found in an iPhone, a gap that was unheard of just a few years ago. All else being equal, a larger sensor can capture more light, which leads to cleaner, more detailed images and greater background blur when you're shooting at wide apertures.
Lens speed, or aperture, is a measure of how much light the lens can let in at a given opening. The faster the lens—or the wider the aperture—the more light it allows. With more light available, you can shoot at lower ISO values for less noise or at faster shutter speeds to freeze subject movement and avoid camera shake.
Limiting our research to cameras with large sensors, zoom lenses with fast apertures, and a reasonable degree of pocketability, we were left with a handful of models to consider from Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, and Sony.
Though it's much thicker than a smartphone, the LX10 can still slip easily into a relaxed-fit jeans pocket. Photo: Amadou Diallo
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX10 is easy to use and very fast to focus, and it offers touchscreen control and shoots 4K video. The LX10 also has a built-in flash that's more useful than most found on compact cameras, because you can tilt it back to bounce light off the ceiling, avoiding harsh shadows. Although many of its rivals can match it in one or more of those respects, the LX10 offers the most compelling combination of these features at a lower launch price than the competition. To read about some of the more advanced features of the LX10, please see our full guide.
The LX10 is easy and quick to operate, largely because of its touchscreen interface. The customizable Quick Menu and a virtual pull-out tab allows you to quickly access your most commonly used parameters and functions. Perhaps the biggest advantage of the touchscreen is that with the camera set to its single- or multi-point AF mode, you simply tap the rear screen to set focus. This feature is a boon for video shooting, as you can "pull focus" to a subject located anywhere in the frame with a single tap.
Images shot with the LX10 look great, with plenty of detail and reasonably realistic colors. Raw files from the LX10 can withstand substantial corrections in image editing software. The LX10 isn't a groundbreaking camera—we can trace its headline features to previous models from Panasonic, Sony, and Canon. The LX10 is our pick because it offers such a strong combination of well-implemented features at a price that gives you more bang for your buck than we've seen in this class of camera.
The LX10 captures 4K video at 30 frames per second and Full HD output at 60 fps (or 120 fps with stabilization and AF disabled). Even if you're interested only in still photography, the included 4K capability is still relevant thanks to Panasonic's 4K Photo mode. This mode records a video burst instead of a single image when you press the shutter button and then automatically presents the result as individual 8-megapixel still images. You get 30 still images per second every time you press the shutter button.
As you might expect, the LX10 connects to your phone via built-in Wi-Fi. Once your phone is connected, you can operate the camera remotely, previewing the scene on your phone and adjusting settings like shutter speed, ISO, and white balance, though oddly not aperture or exposure mode. You can also copy images from the SD card to your phone, but only JPEGs, as the app will ignore raw files.
The most obvious shortcoming of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX10 is its lack of an electronic viewfinder. An EVF is most useful when glare makes viewing a camera's rear screen difficult. The screen on the LX10 does tilt upward, which can help minimize glare, but the screens on the Sony and Canon models offer wider ranges of movement to accommodate shooting with the camera held overhead, something not feasible with the LX10.
This limitation won't be a dealbreaker for most people, and explains how Panasonic can release the LX10 at a lower starting price than we've ever seen for a similarly specced 1-inch-sensor camera.
An EVF but no touchscreen
Photo: Tim Barribeau
If you find an EVF more useful than 4K video capabilities and can live without the convenience of a touchscreen, we like the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III. It's a former top pick, and though it may be a few generations behind Sony's current model in the popular RX100 series, the Mark III is still a solid choice. It captures great-looking still images and HD video that looks better than what you get from some DSLRs, while offering good performance in low light—all at a price far below that of Sony's latest iteration.
The RX100 III delivers outstanding images, largely indistinguishable in image quality from those of our top pick. That similarity is no surprise, as it's widely assumed (though not officially acknowledged) that all of the 1-inch sensors found in these compact cameras are actually made by Sony. The lenses and image processors that each manufacturer uses will account for most of the minor differences in how the in-camera JPEG images look.
Sony's first-of-its-kind pop-up electronic viewfinder enables eye-level shooting and composition, even when glare makes the LCD screen hard to see. You rarely see a built-in EVF of any kind on a camera this size, let alone one that retracts to retain pocketability. In fact, the RX100 III manages to be slightly more compact than our top pick, which lacks an EVF.
Though it doesn't shoot 4K video, as our top pick does, the RX100 III produces some of the sharpest, most detailed Full HD footage you can get from nearly any consumer camera.
Sony allows you to add more camera functionality through free and paid apps. Although additional functionality is welcome, several other cameras offer features like these but built-in and free.
This guide may have been updated by The Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.
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