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The Best Compact Camera for Less Than $450

By Tim Barribeau, Wirecutter

The Sony RX100 is the best compact camera you can buy, but $650 is a lot of money. If you want to spend a lot less, the $300-$400 Panasonic LX7 is a fantastic advanced camera alternative, with sharp and accurate images. Here's how it compares to the competition.

The Sony RX100 is the best compact camera you can buy, but $650 is a lot of money. If you want to spend a lot less, the $300-$400 Panasonic LX7 is a fantastic advanced camera alternative, with sharp and accurate images, although it is not the smallest camera. It replaces our current pick, the Canon S100, which has been king for a while.

With smartphones devouring the low-end camera market, manufacturers have been focusing their attentions on the high-end instead, producing great cameras like the $400 Nikon P7700, the $380 Canon S110, the $450 Canon G15, and the Panasonic LX7. All of these are solid choices for bringing some serious manual controls, raw shooting, excellent images, a 1/1.7-inch sensor, and fast lenses to a pocket sized camera. But, after poring over reviews and spending hands on time with all of them, it’s the LX7 that gets our pick.

Photo credit: Flickr user kongjak1 via Creative Commons

A good—but not super high end—compact camera needs to focus primarily on a couple of things: sharp, low-noise, and color accurate images for its price, and a stupidly wide variety of manual controls which are preferably on knobs rather than requiring you to dive through menus. Specifically, we’re talking about external buttons for changing commonly altered features like white balance, metering, ISO, and focus mode; an external flash hot-shoe; custom shooting modes; and additional high level tools like expansive noise reduction settings, bracketing, digital levels, and most importantly, shooting in raw. These camera tend to be aimed at photographers who know their way around a camera, and are maybe looking for a smaller backup to their usual DSLR rig, namely people who are more than a little demanding. That means all the manual control of a DSLR in a smaller package, and a combination of a sensor larger than most point-and-shoots (but smaller than a DSLR or mirrorless camera), sharp lens, and good processing in order to take superb photos. But also keep an eye on the size, those plentiful external controls can sometimes make these things blow up to ludicrous proportions.

You'll also want to consider the difference between a fast lens that lets in lots of light, and one with a longer zoom so you can shoot from further away. The LX7 doesn’t have a super-long zoom, but more than makes up for that with a lens that lets in an abundance of light, with a maximum of f/1.4 at the wide end, and f/2.3 when fully zoomed.

Also, how does the camera handle in low light? Does it have trouble focusing? Is it fast to shoot? How big is the thing? How tough is it? There's a long tradition of high-end compacts being near bulletproof — you'll probably find a Canon G7 that's weathered a bomb blast if you search hard enough. Also, some users want a compact camera that can take a flash or lens filters, which is another high-end feature to watch out for.

Before we go any further, It's worth noting that for this same price, you could also pick up an entry-level mirrorless camera that's a year or two old, which is certainly a good alternative. Then you'd be able to tap into the vast world of interchangeable lenses, and if you used a flat pancake lens on one of the smaller bodies, it might even be smaller than the LX7. But, for an all-in-one, ready to shoot, no need to swap lens rig, the LX7 more than holds its own.

Why the LX7?

The LX7’s lens is its major attraction. It’s only a 24-90mm focal length equivalent, so the 3.8x zoom isn’t going to blow your mind. But what it lacks in zoom, it more than makes up for in speed. It has a maximum aperture of f/1.4, which is the largest we’ve ever seen on a point-and-shoot camera, and stays to f/2.3 even when zoomed all the way in.

For comparison, the main competitors at this price point are the pocket size Canon S110, which has a 5x 24-120mm equivalent zoom lens, and an aperture range of f/2-f/5.9; the larger Canon G15, which runs 5x at 28-140mm equivalent, and f/1.8-f/2.8; and the huge Nikon P7700 with its 7.1x 28-200mm equivalent f/2-f/4 lens. In other words, at the wide angle the LX7 is faster than any of the others, and at its worst is still only barely slower than the best the S110 and P7700 can manage.

Photo credit: Flickr user Oxfordian via Creative Commons.

That large aperture means that more light is let into the camera, which means you can shoot in lower light than otherwise, taking advantage of low and failing light to still grab good images. It also means that you’ll be able to capture a smaller area of the image in focus, giving you a beautiful, out of focus effect. And it’s not just at the wide end either. Even when you’re zoomed in all the way it only decreases to f/2.3. You’ll be hard pressed to find another camera that’s that fast at any point in the zoom range. The Samsung EX2F starts out as fast at f/1.4 but tops out at 80mm and f/2.7, so a bit worse all around. As Imaging Resource explained it, “It's the stuff of camera-lover dreams.”

Normally, if you have a really fast lens like this, you can’t crank the lens all the way open in really bright sunlight, because too much light gets in, and your images come out over-exposed or with a depth of field that is not shallow enough. To counter this, Panasonic has included a three-stop neutral density (ND) filter. You can use this to limit the amount of light hitting the sensor, while keeping those artistically blurred backgrounds even on a sunny day.

It’s not just that the lens is super-fast, either. Panasonic have pulled out all the stops, giving the glass some serious optical excellence in order to get some of the sharpest images you’ll run into. Imaging Resource commented that the images are “remarkably sharp corner-to-corner at both wide and telephoto”, and DigitalCameraInfo’s testing showed “the LX7 offers some of the best sharpness around,” though they found it was less so when zoomed. DigitalCameraResource said “The LX7's lens is definitely high quality, with good sharpness across the frame”. So, a fast lens with excellent sharpness. So far, so good, right?

The lensy stuff only gets better. Like a number of recent high-end compact cameras, the LX7 has a control ring around the lens — but for some reason, it’s only linked to aperture, rather than being tapped to be used with any of a number of features like you might find in the Canon S110. It’s a bit sad that Panasonic have limited it like that, but the ability to manually control aperture via a ring around the lens is one of those long standing photographic traditions that many people still have from film days, and it’s still pretty fun to use.

The other lens feature that Panasonic has done an excellent job with is the image stabilization. CameraLab’s review of the LX7 was mightily impressed with the stabilization system, saying “the LX7 can produce sharp hand-held shots at speeds down to 1/5th – about four stops slower than convention dictates.” Generally, I don’t trust myself for handheld shots below 1/30s, so 1/5th is stellar. Imaging Resource agreed, saying “It's so rock solid that micro-adjustments disappear as if they were illicit motion. That makes for incredibly stable shots, which really builds confidence. Panasonic's Power O.I.S. remains the most impressive I've seen.” It’ll also work while recording video, which is a handy addition.

It’s also fast to focus, fast to start, and fast to shoot. I’m going to be lazy here, and just link to DCResource’s testing of the camera’s speed to start and focus, which includes pretty much everything you need to know. They found that the camera took a sliver over one second to power up, and there’s a shot-to-shot gap of around 1 second. With a bit of hands on time with the thing, I was incredibly impressed with just how well it did grabbing focus at a remarkable speed, it was on-par with the Canon G15 and Nikon P7700 in bright light, was faster than either in dimmer conditions, and beat the S110 in all situation. The LX7 also has a vast array of different high-speed shooting modes. With the focus locked, it can fire off a burst of 12 images at 11fps, thought this slows down to 5fps if you want autofocus tracking to engage. If you can accept a resolution hit, the speed ramps up massively, to 40fps at 5-megapixel, and 60fps at 2.5-megapixel. Why you’d want to shoot still images that small and fast is a bit beyond me, but the option is there. Compare that to the the Canon S110 and G15 that top out at 10fps, and 8fps on the Nikon P7700.

But there are plenty of other things to love about the LX7. The 921,000-dot LCD is as high-res as you’ll see slapped on the back of the camera. In macro mode, it can focus down to a mere 1cm. It has a rather interesting multi aspect ratio sensor, that means when you change the aspect ratio of an image, it doesn’t just crop down a normal photo like most cameras, but instead uses a slightly different area of the sensor, so your focal length stays the same, just the shape of the file is different.

The LX7 also straddles a difficult line between buttons and menus. Among the the world of high-end compact cameras, there’s a continuum of small and menu intensive on one end (like the Canon S110), and big with lots of buttons on the other (the Nikon P7700). The advantage to buttons is that you can set them without having to twiddle through menus constantly, but they do add bulk to the camera. The LX7 sits in a comfortable middle ground. With the aperture ring and aspect ratio controls around the lenses barrel, a dedicated ND filter button, and the usual array of knobs, dials, and levers, the most commonly accessed settings are all readily available. And it’s still small enough to easily slip in your coat pocket (though make sure to keep a tight grip on the itty bitty lenscap it comes with). Also, it comes with a standard hotshoe, so you can easily add an after-market flash for more illumination, as well as lens filters, or an electronic viewfinder if you desperately want one.

Unfortunately, not everything about the Panasonic LX7 is super-fast. In fact, there’s one major speed downside, and it’s a doozy. If you’re shooting raw (which is a major selling point of this type of camera) the buffer clearing time of the LX7 can be painful. According to Imaging Resource’s testing, firing off those full 12 images at high speed in raw+JPEG mode results in a 30-second delay while the images are transferred, even with a high-speed card. That’s 30 seconds where you can’t edit or take another photo, you’re just twiddling your thumbs. Ouch, and that essentially means that if you’re shooting raw, you’re shouldn’t be going for burst mode. Since raw files tend to be enormous, the LX7 isn’t the only camera to struggle with this. Imaging Resource's review of the Nikon P7700 saw about a three second delay between each shot when using raw, and if you fire off a cluster of six high-speed shots in raw burst mode, be prepared to wait up to 10 seconds for the buffer to clear. The Canon G15 doesn’t have the buffering problems while shooting raw, but does fire substantially more slowly at just 0.9fps. I wasn’t able to dig up any firm tested numbers for the S110, but seeing as it’s apparently identical under the hood to the S100, I’m betting you’ll see the same one fps with RAW but no buffering experience.

As seems to be required in this day and age, the LX7 has a fair few bizarro shooting modes and tools. Some of them are executed remarkably well, like the automatic panorama stitcher, the digital level, or the rather dramatic “Dynamic Monochrome” mode. Others are a bit less impressive, like “Star Effect” or “Soft Focus” shooting modes. One of the features I really anticipated playing with was the time lapse feature, but it was something of a let down. It can only record a maximum of 60 images, which are individual frames rather than in a video, and the shooting interval ranges from 1-30 minutes. So if you’re trying to make a super-cool time lapse of activity outside your house, and are combining the frames into 24fps footage, you get slightly more than 2 seconds of video. Woo. However, most of these tools are secondary to the basics — namely, this thing has one of the best lenses you can get on a compact camera, and takes sharp and beautiful images.

When Imaging Resource reviewed the LX7, they said that it “stands as the best iteration of the LX-series, putting its emphasis on two critical factors: Lens quality and Control access”. For a camera series that has long been the darling of photographers, that’s high praise.

The Competition:

As I mentioned before, the high-end compact market has exploded in the last year or two, creating some of the most amazing point-and-shoot cameras we've ever seen. Many of these are super-expensive, like the upcoming Fujifilm X100S which will set you back $1200, or our current pick for the best compact camera on the market, the $650 Sony RX100. If you want to keep things under the $450 mark, you're a lot more limited in your choices.

You've got the likes of the Fujifilm XF1, but the initial crop of reviews for this camera are dishearteningly bad due to slow and problematic autofocus, and weird zoom system. The Olympus XZ-2 is an incredible camera,and one of DPReview's picks for best enthusiast compact on the market, but it's only $50 less than the Sony RX100, and so you might as well get the Sony which is that much better. What about the Samsung EX2F? Surely the f/1.4 lens should get it some coverage? Apparently it has a bad UI and only average performance for this class of camera.

Photo credit: Flickr user uggboy via Creative Commons.

One of the bigger competitors in this market is from Canon’s G15, the newest entry in Canon’s long-running, and extremely tough G-series. These things are near indestructible, and its high quality bodies and excellent optics means people are willing to put up with their chunky frames and heavy weight. In this case, though, I’d lean towards the LX7. It has a faster lens and the G15 is generally speaking slower to shoot. I know some photographers will swear their souls to any camera that packs a viewfinder, but the optical viewfinder on the G15 is no prize. It’s just a tube through the camera’s body, so it doesn’t show any shooting information, it doesn’t zoom, and since it’s offset from the lens, it’s not a perfect representation of what you’re shooting. I don’t think it’s worth the extra space.

When it comes to out and out image quality, don’t get me wrong, the G15 is no slouch. According to testing at DigitalCameraInfo it has marginally worse image noise, color, and dynamic range at high ISO when compared to the LX7, but was still better than most compact cameras. It’ll take good images, no mistake, but it’s just a fraction worse. The larger body does mean you get a few external controls that the Panasonic doesn’t have, like a dedicated exposure compensation dial. But the combination of substantially heavier body, and a worse lens, means the LX7 gets the nod here.

Of course, there are some good alternatives that fit slightly different needs.

Bigger and Arguably Better

Photo credit: Flickr user kgnixer via Creative Commons.

Much like the G15, Nikon’s P7700 is big, tough, and covered in knobs. While it’s takes better shots, has a longer zoom, and has more external controls than the Lx7 above or the Canon G15, or any other camera in its price range, it’s just too damned heavy and large for most folks. If you’re an advanced photographer who’s capable of taking advantage of the extensive external controls, and don’t mind lugging around an extremely bulky and rather heavy camera, then the P7700 will reward you with its long zoom lens, and greater variety of physically accessible manual controls.

The P7700 packs a lot of features that you can only really have by having a larger body. There’s an articulated LCD for shooting from bizarre angles, a dial dedicated to exposure compensation, and a much longer zoom lens that runs 7x magnification (28-200mm) with an aperture range of f/2-f/4. Sure, that’s not quite as fast as the LX7, but it’s pretty damned sprightly, especially with such a long zoom. It also has a number of custom buttons on the camera’s body, so that you can toggle your favorite settings at will.

Photo credit: Flickr user exit1979 via creative commons.

Arguably, the P7700 has best in class image quality too. When DigitalCameraInfo put it through the works, they explained how good the images were, saying "What matters is that it’s best or among the best in virtually every category we test, with automatic white balance being the only real exception. It’s the complete package." Combine the DSLR like level of control with sharp, low-noise images, and you have something that advanced shooters absolutely freaking love.

But, the big body…man, this thing is huge. It’s something of a blessing, but more of a curse. Like I already said, the large body means you have plenty of external controls, and Nikon have designed it so that it feels fantastic in the hand. Ben Keough of DigitalCameraInfo called the design "simply exquisite", saying "It’s a big camera, that’s for sure, but the grip is perfectly shaped, perfectly textured, and perfectly sized to fit our hands. (And when we say that, we mean that it suited all of the hands in our rather diverse office.) Buttons and dials are intelligently laid out and respond to your touch with wonderful tactility." But it’s just too large. You definitely can’t fit it in your pants, and even in some of my jacket pockets it barely squeezes in. It’s the size of a Sony NEX with a pancake lens for criminy’s sake. And, even with all that extra size, it doesn’t have the control ring around the lens, which is a feature I’m more than a little fond of.

If you don’t mind the size and weight, I can see the argument, but for most folks, I think it’s probably excessive.

Pocket Friendly

What if you want to go in the other direction? If the LX7 is still too big for you? Then we say grab the Canon S110, the most recent update in the much-loved Canon S-line of high-end compacts. It kills a great number of the buttons from the LX7, instead relying on menus, and combinations of what buttons they are and the multiple dials on the body in order to change settings — but that means that it’s much smaller, and can actually fit in the pocket of a pair of jeans.

The S110 doesn’t have a flash hotshoe, it has a slower lens that maxes out at f/2, a lower res 461,000-dot LCD, can’t focus as closely, shoots images at a rather miserly 2.1fps, and can only shoot HD video at 24fps, compared to the 60fps of the LX7. It also has around ⅔ the battery life of the LX7, just 200 shots compared to 330. However, it also has a bit longer zoom — 5x rather than 3.8x, a built-in touchscreen and Wi-Fi, and is so much smaller. Add a centimeter to the height and width of a deck of cards, but keep it the same thickness, and that's the size of the S-line.

The S110 and its older model the S110 are near identical for all intents and purposes. Check out this spec comparison, and try and spot the differences. Depending on when you look, the price difference between the two version may be as much as $150, so it might well be worth grabbing the older version, as all you’ll be missing is the touch-screen and Wi-Fi, and you can always add the latter with an Eye-Fi card.

Photo credit: Flickr user markjsebastian via Creative Commons.

According to DxOMark, the sensors in the S110/S100 are all but identical in performance to that in the G15, so low light, color, and dynamic range performance should be on par with the far more expensive camera. DigitalCameraInfo’s testing of the S110 showed it to have sharper images, less accurate color, and significantly worse noise than the LX7. In terms of image quality, the S-series has some pretty serious chops, producing sharp images with decently low noise. In my hands on testing, the S110 was noticeably slower to focus than the LX7, and I did miss all the external controls. These cameras takes great photos in a small package, and if you're willing to go for a slightly older model, you could save yourself some serious money. The $280 pricetag on the S100 is an awful lot of camera for a relatively sane amount of money.

And now for something completely different

Did we mention the RX100? We really like it. Yeah, it’s $650, but that’s because it’s absolutely fantastic, and has a swell 1-inch sensor combined with a great lens. It’s one of the best reviewed cameras for under $1000 in recent memory, thanks to a huge sensor that keeps image noise down, and an incredibly sharp lens. Alternatively, for $100 more than the LX7, you could grab our pick for an entry-level mirrorless camera in the form of the Sony NEX-3N. By the time you add a lens, the NEX-3N is a bit bigger, but it has a much, much larger APS-C sensor, and you can enter the wonderful world of interchangeable lenses. But if you just want something that has a good, fixed lens, and that is small and takes sharp and great images, stick with the LX7.

What to look forward to

Like I mentioned before, the high-end compact camera right now is exploding with wonderful pieces of gear. Sony made the RX1, which has a full-frame sensor, and is widely hailed as the finest compact camera ever made — but it costs a stupefying $2800. The Fujifilm X100S looks and feels like a gorgeous antique, and packs a full APS-C sensor, and so does the recently announced Nikon A, but each will cost you north of a grand.

While those are all the show stoppers, the technology that goes into them trickles down into the less expensive models, many of which are on yearly (or semi yearly) update schedules. The Canon S-line has updated every year since 2009 in August or September. The Panasonic LX-line lasts two years between updates, and the Canon G-series are a bit less predictable, but generally every year or two. Which means towards this Autumn, we should start seeing updates to pretty much everything we’ve listed on this review, as the new crop of cameras land in time for the Holiday rush.

Nikon has already announced one new entry that might tinker with this list a little, the new Nikon P330, which seems to be a direct competitor to the Canon S110. It has the same size sensor, same megapixels, and same lens zoom, but a faster f/1.8 lens. While it doesn’t have the touchscreen and Wi-Fi of the S110, it is ever so slightly thinner, and will debut at just $380. It also appears to have both back and top dials, and maybe a lens barrel ring, too. We’ll have to wait on reviews, but it could take the S110’s spot, depending on how well it handles.

Photo credit: Flickr user kongjak1 via Creative Commons

But for most people, if you want to go and get a compact camera that’s a step up from your cheapo, $150 point-and-shoot, you should grab the LX7. It has a truly fast, sharp, and best-in-class lens. If you know your way around manual controls (or are willing to learn), it’ll keep you happy with the plentiful knobs and menus, but it’s still straightforward enough for anyone to pick up on auto mode and shoot with. And it manages to balance size and control well enough that you’ll be happy to keep it in your pocket even while lugging it around with you all day. And if you keep your eyes open, the price of this camera sometimes dips down to $300 (as it is at time of press), which makes it an incredible deal at that price.

This story originally appeared in The Wirecutter, published 3/21/2013 and is reprinted with permission.