The best $500 camera you can get isn’t actually a $500 camera—it’s a $550 camera that you can often get on sale. The original Sony RX100 mk I (also available at Overstock,Adorama, and B&H, whichever’s cheapest), is one of the greatest pocket cameras ever produced, surpassed only by its successor, the mk II, and will take higher quality pictures than anything else near this price. But if you can’t find it on sale and aren’t willing to wait, then the $450 Canon G16 does a pretty good job of keeping up.
Approximately a year ago, we wrote an article about how the Sony RX100 is the best point-and-shoot camera for less than $1000. Everything we said in that write-up remains true, except that there’s now a better, newer version of that camera. But with a bit of hunting, you can now find the original RX100 for less than $500, and it’s by far the best around at that price, thanks to the biggest sensor in the business (which means low image noise, and lots of dynamic range) and a fast, f/1.8 aperture lens. And it’s still small enough to fit in your pocket.
But if you’re not having any luck tracking that one down, you can reliably get the Canon G16 for $450. It’s a bit bigger, the sensor’s a bit smaller, and the image quality isn’t quite as good. But in its favor, it has an (admittedly basic) optical viewfinder, WiFi capabilities, a flash hot-shoe, and a longer 5x zoom with a wider aperture across most of its range.
Finally, if you want something that will fit in your jeans’ pocket, get the Panasonic LF1, which has similar quality to the vaunted Canon S-series but has a longer 7x zoom lens and built-in electronic viewfinder for eye-level shooting.
What Do I Know about Cameras?
We came to these conclusions after analyzing more than a dozen of the currently available high-end point-and-shoot cameras, which sit on the back of our previous work recommending cameras in this category. This was based on the analyses of as many reviews as we could find for each, alongside my own experience as Camera Editor for The Wirecutter and having written about cameras since 2008 for publications such as PopPhoto, DPReview, Imaging Resource, and Reviewed.com.
How We Picked
We analyzed of dozens of reviews from more than 20 publications, covering everything from detailed lab-based testing of imaging prowess to more free-form work discussing handling and user experience. We specifically looked for a combination of image quality (specifically sharpness, low noise, and dynamic range); camera size and construction; shooting speed; and lens quality (sharpness, speed, and zoom). Less important, but still worth noting, is the inclusion of extras like WiFi, accessory ports, external flash hot-shoes, touchscreens, articulated LCDs, and the bevy of other extras that are sometimes found in this sort of camera.
When the Sony RX100 was first announced, it arrived with a huge to-do, thanks to Sony managing to fit a one-inch sensor1 into a body that’s still small enough to fit in your trousers. While smaller than, say, an SLR’s sensor, it’s bigger than anything else in this form factor or price. Generally speaking, the larger the sensor, the better the images—especially in low light. Add to that the fact that Sony is one of the highest quality manufacturers of sensors on the market right now, making them for the likes of Olympus and Nikon on the side, you have a camera with guts capable of taking stellar images.
The large sensor means that when shooting in low light, your images won’t look all smeared and speckled…
We wrote about the RX100 when it first came out, and rather than rehash a multi-thousand word article, why not just go ahead and have a read of why we thought it was worth it at $650, let alone $500. But for a quick recap, it has a super sharp lens, which means your images will come out very clearly. The large sensor means that when shooting in low light, your images won’t look all smeared and speckled like they do with cheaper cameras—and you’ll have a greater range of lights to darks in an image, too. It’s extremely fast to focus, shoots fairly decent video, and has a flash that you can adjust to bounce off the ceiling.
Here’s a smattering of reviews from when it first came out, expressing some of the general opinions about the camera: “the best pocket camera that avid photographers can currently buy,” “a monumental achievement in the technology,” “the best pocket camera ever made,” “the most appealing pocket-sized digital camera yet” and even “the best pocket digital compact of the year… actually, EVER!”
Flaws but Not Dealbreakers
As mentioned earlier, for all the love that was thrown at the RX100, it has since been surpassed in the public eye by its successor, the RX100 II. The newer model has a flash hot-shoe, WiFi connectivity, and a tilting screen. But it’s also $750. So while the original model isn’t quite the belle of the ball it once was, it’s a close second place and still a fantastic camera, especially if you can track it down for a lower price.
Which is another caveat: Strictly speaking, it’s not a $500 camera. Street price is $550, but it fairly frequently drops below the $500 mark, so we’re recommending it when you can find it for that price. As of the time of press, Overstock is selling it for $466, so maybe jump on with that. (It’s also available at Amazon, Adorama, and B&H, get whatever’s cheapest.)
More directly, it’s missing some of the other features that we like in the competition, like a flash hot-shoe (if that’s your thing) and built-in WiFi for remote control and easy image transfer.
The lens has a wide maximum aperture of f/1.8 while zoomed out—which means it lets in lots of light for shooting in dark conditions and can do a good job of isolating your subject by blurring the background. But as soon as you start to zoom in, that maximum aperture drops very quickly (it only manages f/4.9 when fully zoomed in to 100mm). Our backup pick (more on that below) manages to keep the aperture wider for longer.
Its video mode also isn’t the best in the world. Opinions were divided on it. As we discussed in our original review:
“[T]he videocentric site EOSHD was very impressed by how it shot, saying “the video mode on the RX100 is game-changing for a compact,” claiming it was better than the Sony NEX-5N and NEX-7. The Verge, on the other hand, was less impressed, calling it a “mixed bag,” and dinging the camera for both rolling shutter problems and lackluster stabilization while filming. Rolling shutter is a problem unique to CMOS sensors: Rather than expose the entire sensor at once, it’s done very quickly in individual sections. If the subject is moving fast, that means that it’ll be in different places in different areas of the sensor, making it looked warped and stretched out. This is especially noticeable in video recording, and you can see some examples of it here.Unfortunately, it’s a problem with many high-end cameras, including DSLRs, so you should probably go for a dedicated camcorder to avoid it. Even with these problems, The Verge admits that the video quality is “at least on par with other cameras in its class.”
For some people, that lack of an external mic jack is a real buzzkill, but for most photographers it’s fine. As Steve Huff commented, ”the RX100 will not give you video as rich as the NEX-5n or NEX-7 or even Olympus OM-D with a nice lens, but it will give you perfectly acceptable video that is rich and with great [image stabilization].” He also gave it points for letting you control the aperture and shutter speed while in video mode.
The amount of control afforded while recording video is either really good or really limited depending on who you talk to. Yes, that makes almost no sense, I know. Here’s the thing: The controls are good for a point-and-shoot, but can’t stand the comparison to a dedicated video device or even some HDSLRs.
As Imaging Resource puts it, ”while it lacks a 720p capture mode, as well as the external microphone connectivity, manual audio levels control, and fine-grained frame rate control that professionals and more experienced enthusiasts will crave, the Sony RX100′s video functionality is uncommonly comprehensive for a fixed-lens camera, and will doubtless satisfy most users.”
If the RX100 is too expensive (not on sale), this Canon is a great alternative. It’s very speedy, has an optical viewfinder, and takes nice images.
As we mentioned, the RX100 isn’t technically a $500 camera, except when it’s on sale. We think it’s good enough that we’ll take the heat over that bit of semantic self-delusion. But in case you can’t find it on sale and aren’t willing to wait for it to drop again, we’ve prepared an alternate pick: the Canon G16, the scion of Canon’s famed G-series of high-end point-and-shoots, which currently has a street price of $450.
For many years, Canon’s G-line of cameras was the default answer when someone asked about buying a high-end point-and-shoot, and while its star has dimmed of late, the G16 is a return to form. While the 1/1.7 inch sensor might not be up to the RX100 in terms of image quality, it’s still miles better than most point-and-shoots, and is a large part of what makes the G16 one of the best cameras around for this price.
The Canon G16 also has a 5x zoom lens, which has a maximum aperture of f/1.8 at the wide end and f/2.8 when fully zoomed in. The f/1.8 is good, but it’s pretty standard nowadays when paying this much for a camera. But the fact that the G16 keeps the aperture as open as f/2.8 while fully zoomed in is a rather remarkable feat of engineering. This means that you can zoom in low light conditions without cranking the ISO up super high, which leads to images with less noise.
…the G16 can also take up to 500 images at 9fps. That’s almost a solid minute of holding down the shutter button.
The G16 is also a very speedy camera. A new processing engine gives it not just faster autofocus speeds (which you always want), but also some really impressive speed stats. If you crank the burst speed all the way up, you can hit six images at 12fps. That’s nothing special. But the G16 can also take up to 500 images at 9fps. That’s almost a solid minute of holding down the shutter button.
It also includes a fairly wide suite of extra features, which are nice to have in a high-end camera. It’s a bit bigger than the RX100 and a fair bit heavier, but that’s due to its rock-solid construction. It features a hot-shoe slot, so you can load it up with a bigger flash it you want. It also has WiFi, which isn’t the best setup we’ve ever seen (entering in a password on those screens using little buttons isn’t exactly fun), but once it’s up and running it isn’t too bad.
The large body also leaves room for dedicated control dials, which means that it’s much easier and quicker to change settings on the fly without having to go diving through page after page of dense menus. There are two control dials (one on the front, one on the back) and a dedicated dial for exposure compensation. It’s also comfortable to hold and you can merrily use one for hours without feeling cramped, even if you have big hands.
Also, unlike many other cameras, it has an optical viewfinder. It’s not a very good one, as it doesn’t show any shooting info and only has around 80% coverage, but it does zoom with the lens, and for a lot of people it’s a very important addition. Plus you can extend your battery life like nobody’s business if you use it instead of the LCD—it jumps from 360 shots with the LCD on to 770 shots with it turned off.
Departing from years of tradition, we don’t think the current iteration of the Canon S-series is the best pocket-sized advanced camera right now. Instead, we say go for the Panasonic LF1. While it’s a bit of a trade-off on some features over others, we think it’s the most compelling small, high-end camera right now thanks to its long lens, electronic viewfinder, and one of the more advanced sets of WiFi controls around.
Panasonic has somehow figured out how to fit an itty bitty electronic viewfinder in the camera’s corner, which is remarkable given its small size.
The LF1 isn’t a direct replacement for last year’s LX7, but it’s the newest high-end pocket camera from Panasonic. It’s extremely petite, just 4 by 2.4 by 1.1 inches—so about half an inch longer and thicker than a deck of cards. But what’s impressive is just how much the manufacturers have managed to squeeze in that small a space. And it has a full 7x zoom lens, with an aperture range of f/2-5.9. Not only that, but Panasonic has somehow figured out how to fit an itty bitty electronic viewfinder in the camera’s corner, which is remarkable given its small size. For comparison, the Canon S120 has only a 5x zoom lens, and an aperture range of f/1.8-5.7—and no viewfinder.
Panasonic has also rolled out one of the more fully featured WiFi control setups out there. Many of these cameras have fairly basic WiFi controls that’ll maybe let you beam an image to Facebook or Dropbox directly. Panasonic’s LF1 has NFC for quick pairing with supporting smartphones, and through the use of the Panasonic Image App, you can remotely shoot, view, tag, share, print, and transfer images. You essentially have total remote control over your camera from your phone—imagine being able to set up your camera, get yourself in a group shot, and only hit the trigger when everyone’s in place.
That said, in the Canon S120’s favor are better burst modes, a 240fps video mode, and a touchscreen. But the two are pretty much on par for image quality, so we think the 7x zoom and the possibilities of the WiFi control scheme give the victory to Panasonic.
Last year’s recommendation, the Panasonic LX7, is still a very good camera, and now going for bargain basement prices of around $300. It’s slightly hindered by its ten megapixel sensor (which isn’t really a huge deal), and it doesn’t have the increasingly common WiFi compatibility that we’ve come to expect. But if you don’t need that? Might as well save yourself a bit of money and get the slightly older model. It still takes great photos, and it still has the brightest lens around with f/1.4 maximum aperture. However, we have heard some reports of some people having trouble tracking them down.
The Fujifilm X20 is also a favorite for many—and anecdotally, I have a number of friends who have bought one and totally love it. It has excellent image quality, a really great optical viewfinder, and that retro aesthetic that Fujifilm has become known for. But it’s large, only has manual zoom (you have to twist the lens to zoom in or out), and doesn’t have the connectivity of some of the other cameras on here. But if you’re into the whole retro-chic look, you could do a lot worse than the X20.
Pretty much every major manufacturer makes at least a couple of high-end cameras. In fact, with smartphones eating into the world of low-end cameras, many are focusing more and more attention on the higher-end offerings. Here’s a laundry list of the ones we dismissed.
The Nikon P7800 is enormous, expensive, slow thanks to a maximum 8fps burst mode, and requires a WiFi adapter if you want to take it online. Even its solid image performance can’t overcome that.
The Canon G1 X goes for $550. Just get the RX100 instead.
The Samsung EX2F and Olympus XZ-2 were both noble efforts by their respective companies that featured a checklist of features and specs. And now, about a year and a half after they came out, they’re remaindered for almost nothing and are departing having left no impression on the world whatsoever.
The Pentax MX-1 has a rather stunningly gorgeous design, complete with copper top and bottom plates, and is really nice to handle. But again, it’s extremely bulky, and when shooting RAW slows down to a crawl.
We had high hopes for the Fujifilm XQ1, thanks to its large, ⅔-inch imaging sensor that should provide higher quality images than the 1/1.7-inch sensors most of the other cameras in this price range pack. Unfortunately, there aren’t many reviews out there, and those that exist aren’t fantastic. TechRadar in particular was unimpressed,critiquing it for quickly losing lens speed, high noise, and low dynamic range—the very things that it should exceed at thanks to the large sensor. Pocket-lint also said that the autofocus system was “hit or miss”
What to look forward to
This segment of the camera market is rapidly expanding. New high-end models are coming out fairly frequently, as camera makers battle to outdo the encroaching specter of the smartphone. We’re bound to see yet more of them in the very near future, and possibly a Panasonic LX9 mid-year based on previous release cycles.
In fact, Nikon has just announced the Nikon P340, a followup to the P330, and it finally includes built-in WiFi and a slightly longer battery life. We’ll have to wait on reviews to see if it betters its lackluster predecessor, but both of those features are at least steps in the right direction.
Wrapping it up
If you can find one on sale, get the RX100 for $500 or so. It’s the best pocket cam you can get for that money, as it’s pocket-sized, huge-sensored, fast on the draw, and takes gorgeous images. Barring that, grab a Canon G16, which isn’t quite up to the RX100 on image quality but has more external controls, a tougher body, and WiFi. Or go for aPanasonic LF1 if you want something really pocketable that squeezes an electronic viewfinder and 7x zoom into an astonishingly tiny package.