4 Top compact cameras compared! Pro features in small packages

Hey, is that a point-n-shoot in your pocket, or are ya just happy to be a photographer?

The ideal "pocket camera" is one that is quick and easy to use, takes great photos, and can actually be put in your pocket – comfortably. Granted, pockets come in all shapes and sizes. My nylon, multi-pocket pants of the 80's were so tight that I would have needed a coin sized camera to be able to actually pocket it. Even then, it would have caused unsightly bulges. Additional ones, I mean.

With a great pocket camera, you find yourself toting it along, pulling the car over to grab a roadside scene, and taking it on short walks around the neighborhood. These are often where life's little magic images occur - when and where you least expect them. A great pocket camera is fun to use and just feels right, That's a hard quality to describe in any sort of technical, or graphical terms. It's a culmination of tactile surfaces, build quality, ergonomics, intuitive controls, and great visual design–something Apple epitomizes. When it all boils down, we love to hold and use cool, beautiful, fun products. This is what I call the I.L.Q., or Intangible Love Quotient. To put things in perspective, on a scale from 1 to 10, an iPhone is a 10.

So what am I looking for in a pocket camera? I'm a pro photographer with all the latest gadgets and software. I know how to squeeze extra drops of quality from my cameras and images. My needs (er, desires) may be very different from a non-pro photographer looking for a camera to grab shots of friends for Facebook or their kids at birthday parties. The following is my main criteria for the purpose of this comparison, which could have been titled, "The perfect pocket camera for photographers who like to be able to control everything and get near DSLR image quality without needing a harness, strap, bag, or counter-balance to carry it comfortably anywhere". In other words, my perfect pocket camera should:

  • Be small enough to literally slip in a pocket or be carried in a belt pouch without looking like a dork.
  • Have full manual controls
  • Shoot RAW as an option
  • Capture HD video
  • Have a fast aperture of at least F2.0 for low light shooting without needing the flash and nice, shallow depth-of-field looks.
  • Have a zoom lens with a wide angle of at least 28mm equivalent (I find a wide angle much more useful in pocket cameras than long telephotos)
  • Have fast and intuitive access to my most manipulated controls: exposure compensation, focus point adjustment, aperture, and video capture. Easy Auto Exposure Lock (AEL) is a nice bonus.
  • Feel good in my hand so that I like just carrying it around - which inherently leads to more photo taking.
  • Have ISO options up to at least 1600 and at least look decent at ISO 400-800. (great for low-light indoor shots)
  • Have image quality that doesn't suck, and actually is impressive

While there are some truly amazing "compact" cameras in the MILC (Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera) category, I find that their larger size (with lenses attached) still make them something you have to really think about carrying with you all the time. You do get the benefit of interchangeable lenses, but you also get the burden of interchangeable lenses. It's not something you would typically keep in your pocket, bag, or brief and just know it's always there. Don't get me wrong, they are great photographic tools, but the subject of a different comparison project. If I'm going to carry one of those cameras, I might as well just grab a smaller DSLR, like a D600, and have all the quality and control I need. No, this is about one little camera, and no extra gadgets - except maybe a GorillaPod and unicorn stickers to bribe kids.

Ladys and Germs, here is my list of contenders!

There are other great options out there, but I tried to pick 4 of the best options that were available at the time, meeting my criteria. Some of these cameras have some pretty fancy schmancy bonus features too - like WiFi, GPS, facial detection, and lie detectors. That last one was a lie. The Nikon P7700 is pushing the envelope of "pocketable", but I decided to include it since it's still very compact and had tantalizing specs. I always get excited about cutting edge tech in compact cameras, but when it comes down to it, will you actually use those functions? Or, are they expensive distractions. We'll see. 

Click the image to enlargeScreen sizes are all about equal. The Nikon and Samsung have swing out screens.

The Canon is the sveltest of the bunch.

I'll be rating the cameras on the following criteria, on a scale from 1 to 5, 5 being the best. Keep in mind that I'm not providing a highly technical, graph laden, jargon enhanced review. There are myriad sites that do that already. DPReview.com is a great one and a resource I use when I want detailed specs. I want to provide reviews that are experiential and biased towards a specific need, with a heavy emphasis on the I.L.Q. A camera that earns a 5 here for image quality, may be only a 4 when compared to all other compact camera options out there, but it's tops for this purpose. Make sense?

So, here's what I'll be evaluating…

Image Quality:

  • High ISO noise
  • Purple fringing / Chromatic aberration
  • Sharpness
  • Shadow detail
  • AUTO WB
  • Dynamic range

Lens:

  • Max aperture - aperture range
  • Zoom range 35mm equivalent
  • Distortion
  • Bokeh
  • Susceptibility to flare
  • Edge to edge sharpness

Video Quality:

  • Quick one-button recording ability
  • HD video formats: 1080p, 720p, etc.
  • Format options. Are they common, high quality, and easily editable? 
  • High speed options. Higher speed capture makes better slow motion playback and smoother motion
  • Can you manually set exposure and focus? Can you zoom during capture?

Usability:

  • Quick focus-to-capture speed
  • AEL (Auto Exposure Lock) in one quick touch (all of these cameras have this feature)
  • Ability to manually adjust focus points quickly
  • Ability to adjust exposure compensation very quickly
  • Good Battery life 
  • Image review /zoom is intuitive and quick
  • Customization of controls to your personal needs

Ergonomics:

  • Good In-hand feel
  • Solid construction and feeling of quality
  • Ergonomic placement of common controls
  • Lens retraction/cover or a lens cap?
  • Dials - tactile operation, positive feel

Bonus stuff:

  • Wifi
  • GPS
  • In-camera HDR
  • Panoramic stitch
  • Other innovative features?

ILQ

  • How much do I just love this camera?
  • Do I want to use it more because it's fun or cool?
  • Am I constantly impressed by it's simplicity of design and ease of use, without feeling I'm missing something?

A quick summary of each camera.

Canon Powershot S100

If you want a true pocket camera, the Canon sure fits with the minimum of bodily disturbance. It packs quite a plethora of pro features, including a gps, in the smallest body of the bunch. It has a control wheel around the lens, with click stops, that can be programmed for several functions - my favorite being exposure compensation. The lens range is quite impressive for such a compact camera, and it feels very solid and has a silky metallic finish. The image detail is the lowest of the bunch, but not bad by any means. Noise is noticeable, but acceptable as you enter the ISO 800 domain, but not as clean as the Sony or Nikon. It does fare better than the Samsung, however. The ISO will bump to an impressive 6400, although details start to crumble and noise is quite obvious. When you don't have any other lighting options, however, it's nice to have 6400 to fall back on.

The Canon has a decent in-camera HDR function, that merges 3 separate exposures automatically for you. There are no options or alternate settings with this. Results are fairly natural looking, with a nice range of tonal detail.

The panoramic stitch mode is OK as well, but only allows stitching images shot horizontally, which I find to be limiting and less than ideal. Typically, if shooting images to manually stitch, you would turn the camera vertical to capture more image area top to bottom, then sweep left to right to capture as many frames as necessary for your desired width. This yields a very nice panorama with as much image area as possible.

The menu system on the Canon is good; easy to access and understand. You can setup a "My Menu" with your favorite settings, and access them quickly via one button press. 

One of the S100's unique features is the on-board GPS. This will geotag your photos so that you remember where you took them. It's a great feature for a travel camera and I typically attach the Nikon GPS unit to my DSLR when I travel so I gather the same benefit. If you typically don't care where you took your photos, have a perfect memory, or don't want anyone to know where you took your photos, then this feauture may just be a battery waster for you. You can turn it off.

The Canon comes with an external battery charger, which I find essential. Some cameras only come ready to charge with some sort of USB cable, meaning you have to plug the camera in and let it sit to charge. In these cases, I always end up buying an external charger and extra battery so I can keep one charging and always ready while I'm using the camera. If you are on my team with this one, budget for an external charger with cameras that don't supply one.

The Canon is the most compact of the bunch, and certainly could pass as a cash-laden wallet in your pocket. If you don't actually have a ton of extra cash, and you seriously want the most compact camera with a fair dose of high-end features, then this could be your stocking stuffer. 

 

Nikon P7700

I sure wish this camera were truly "pocket" sized. Although if you're wearing cargo pants with jumbo thigh pockets, you could portage it around. Just don't do any running as you'll bruise your legs. The controls, customizing ability, lens, ergonomics, and good-light image quality are tops in the group. I love the multi-angle viewfinder and even the option to use an external flash. I wish there was a dedicated video button – like all the other cameras, and most new cameras, have now. That's a great feature to have when you need to quickly capture your kids first handstand or the guy who just backed in to your car and is now driving away. Nikon was smart enough to give us two customizable function buttons, but not smart enough to make video capture one of the options for them. Hey Nikon, in your next firmware update why not let us program the Fn2 button to start video capture! It's in the perfect spot for that. Why don't they ever call me before putting these cameras out?

Speaking of custom Fn buttons, you can program the Fn2 button to temporarily capture a RAW file (if you are shooting JPG, and vice-versa). This is useful when you normally capture in JPG for your snapshots, but stumble upon a beautiful scene and want to quickly make a high-quality RAW file for it. Hold the Fn button, shoot a RAW file, then let go and all is back to normal. Nikon often surprises me with features that I didn't realize I needed until I tried them.

This Nikon has a thoughtful feature for those who like to make their own HDR images from a series of photos. The Auto Bracketing function allows you to take up to 5 exposures in a row, at up to 1 f-stop between each one, all automatically. Just put the camera on a tripod, activate it, then press the shutter and wait a few seconds. All the other cameras only allow up to 3 images to be taken automatically in Auto Exposure Bracketing. Five exposures are generally recommended for a high-quality HDR image. Just sayin'.

The Nikon has a built-in 3-stop neutral density filter, which is great for taking wide aperture shots in full sun or bringing your video shutter speed down to a more natural looking 1/50th or 1/60th when outside. I also like the dedicated exposure compensation dial on top of the camera. I use compensation often to get my exposures just right and the easier it is to get to it, the happier I am. When the dial is set to anything other than "0", a little orange light illuminates to help you remember you've tweaked it - which is easier to catch than another icon on a screen full of similar ones. 

I used the P7700 at my sons basketball game and it worked satisfyingly well for a point-n-shoot. I was able to get clean images in the existing gymnasium light and the focus tracking kept up with the fast action. Having the longer 200mm lens and very effective image stabilization really made capturing the action possible. With most compact cameras you end up with a bunch of ants running around a big room as they just don't have the zoom range or speed to nail the sweaty details from the sidelines.

The Nikon and the Sony are the only cameras that allow you to capture RAW while still using the B&W mode in camera. Leaving my camera in B&W mode is one of my favorite creativity exercises. When you view your scene monochromatically, you pay more attention to composition, contrast, form, and texture - which all lead to better images in B&W or color. I often set my camera to B&W so that I compose, shoot, and review this way – even though I'm capturing RAW and can make the image B&W or color later when I import it in to Lightroom or Bridge. (The B&W "style" is only applied to your .jpg preview, not the actual RAW file). 

Keep in mind that unless you are using your camera makers software to process your RAW files, the B&W info will be replaced by your Lightroom or Bridge defaults upon import (meaning it will switch back to color). I've created presets in these programs to mimic the camera's B&W looks so I can apply that if I really liked the images in their captured B&W rendition.

The P7700 has very good options for making panoramic images, either using its automatic mode or assist mode. In automatic mode you simply set it for 180 or 360 degrees, then click and pan your camera slowly across the scene – much like the new iPhone does it. This works nicely for quick, easy panoramas. For more control and accuracy, you can use the assist mode to take each image separately while the camera overlays a partial ghost image to help with alignment to the next shot. You then assemble these images later on your computer. Photoshop works great for this and is fast and amazingly accurate. In either mode, you can hold the camera horizontally or vertically, panning in any direction, which is good. Alas, as with all the other cameras, panoramic shooting only works with JPG images. This makes sense for the automated modes that assemble the images for you in camera, but it seems odd that the assist mode doesn't work with RAW files, since you'd use this when you want the highest quality panorama possible – and likely some RAW files to stitch from.  

The more I use the Nikon, the more I like and appreciate its depth of features, without over-complication. All the controls you'll ever need are quickly and easily accessible and it makes it simple to achieve just about anything you'd want to do – photographically. It actually encourages experimentation, which is always good. For an all-around, self-contained, compact camera, this one is hard to beat. It has a fast, versatile lens and great image quality. Although it is not super compact, it is a very comfortable size for extended shooting and manipulating controls. The problem with super compact cameras is they tend to feel cramped - pushing the right buttons takes some fine motor control and hands can literally feel cramped after extended use. 

My biggest gripe is the easily lost lens cap. Can't they at least put a tether loop on that thing? I mean, c'mon. I'd get one of those stick-on deals. Thankfully, the Nikon does comes with an external battery charger. 

 

Samsung EX2F

I was excited about the idea of an F1.4 lens on a compact camera, and the Samsung is the only one with such a beast. I own the previous version of this camera, with the F1.8 lens, and I was pretty satisfied with it. My main desire was for cleaner images at higher ISOs. While this model improves upon that, it unfortunately doesn't hold up as well as the other 3 cameras in my comparo. Granted, a faster lens will let you shoot the same scene using less ISO than another camera with a slower lens. So, in theory you could say that a camera with an F1.4 lens at 1/30th second and ISO 400 would be equal to a camera with an F2.0 lens at ISO 1600 at 1/30th second - since there is a 2 f-stop difference in the lenses. In my tests, however, when I looked at images from all cameras at the same ISOs, the Samsung comes in last. Boo. 

I really wanted to love this camera as it has good ergonomics, a beautiful AMOLED screen that tilts and swings, built-in WiFi for remote control, viewing, and download to your iPhone, and a nice wide lens. I tested the free companion iApp on my iPhone to control the camera, and it works pretty well, subject to occasional WiFi dropouts. You don't need to be in range of a WiFi network to use it, the camera creates its own ad hoc network so you could use it on a deserted island, if you desired. You have to go through a few steps to activate and connect, but once you do, it could be a fun way to control your camera remotely at parties or use it as a spy camera to prove your dog chewed your wife's favorite bunny slippers, and not you. It works reliably from up to about 30'-40'' away, so don't plan to hide very far. The best use of the WiFi app would probably be to download a favorite image to your phone quickly so you can share it with your online buddies before it's old news - which is generally 3-5 minutes.

The Fn (that's Function, not effen!) menu system, however, kinda sucks. To access common settings, you have to press the Fn button, then a screen with a grid of icons comes up. The frustrating part is that you can scroll left-right and up-down, but the icons are not all the same size and scrolling to get to the one you want is just a pain. Once you find it, you click and another different menu pops up for you to adjust the setting, then you can half-press the shutter to go back to the shooting screen. It's not un-intuitive, just tedious. I almost always end up scrolling past the icon I want and back again to land it. The other cameras have quicker, more direct ways to access your common settings. 

The Samsung viewfinder is a bright, crisp, tilting, twisting, AMOLED screen which is really pretty to look at. However, it's not completely accurate. Just as looking at the world through rose colored glasses is a great substitute for hallucinogenic drugs, it is not reality - at least for most of us. The Samsung screen is just a bit too nice in that images appear slightly brighter and more colorful than they do when downloaded, which could lead you to slightly under-exposure your images if shooting manually. If you capture RAW, this is easily compensated for, but JPG shooters should be aware so they capture a full range of shadow detail. 

The EX[2F has a simple and useful panorama mode, similar to Nikon's where you click then sweep across your image. You can hold the camera in any orientation and move any direction. There is no manual assist mode, like Nikon, but this auto mode does work quite well and is the simplest to use of all the tested cameras. 

The in-camera HDR function is OK, but only captures then merges two exposures and the resulting image is washed out and fake looking, not "dynamic" by any means. 

The Samsung does not include an external battery charger, you have to plug the camera in to a USB charging adapter.

The Samsung does have good image quality in good light, and would certainly make a great travel camera. It has the best grip feel, next to the Nikon, and is considerably smaller – although heftier than the Sony or Canon. To me, this camera falls in an odd middle ground. It's nearly as big as the Nikon, but lacks the sophistication of design and features that the Nikon has, as well as the image quality and lens range. On the other hand, it's not compact enough to compete with the Canon or Sony for tight-pant pocket space, and the image quality is inferior to the Sony in every way. The Samsung does have a great price, however, currently it's on special for $78 less than then next lowest-priced camera, the Nikon. If you are on a budget and want a fast, wide lens with impressive good-light image quality, this could be your ticket to ride.

At least Samsung included a lens cap tether.

 

Sony RX100

The Sony camera, although nearly the smallest of the bunch, actually packs the largest image sensor. It is a 1" CMOS sensor packing in 20.2 megapixels. Yes, this is too many megapretzels for most point-n-shoot needs, but the physically larger sensor, on the other hand, is really nice to have. It is nearly 4x the size of a typical compact camera sensor, and about 3x as large as the other cameras in this comparison. Two benefits of a larger sensor are reduced noise and shallower depth of field for a given f-stop. This translates to better low-light images and photos that have more feeling of "depth", like your full-frame DSLR when shot wide open. (Don't get too excited, there is still a big difference).

The Sony, like the Canon, has a function ring around the lens which can be programmed to adjust things like focus, exposure compensation, etc. It doesn't have click-stops, or any tactile feedback when you move it a notch left or right, which some reviewers found disconcerting. I personally didn't have a problem with it as the feedback is visual on the LCD screen and I'm adjusting by eye, not by a click or number, for the most part. The RX100 has a pretty cool feature called DMF, (Direct Manual Focus) which allows you to use the normal autofocus to quickly lock on, then turn the control ring for magnified manual-focus fine tuning. This works especially well when you want to focus on a detail in the foreground but aren't sure if the autofocus point truly nailed it. If you like to take advantage of the f1.8 lens, like I do, then getting the focus pin-point accurate is really important, and this feature helps a lot.

One of the standout, and unique, features of the Sony is its ability to buffer the huge 20 MP RAW files efficiently so that you can move from shot to shot with no noticeable delay. All the other cameras have a buffering delay (even with their lower 12 MP files), forcing you to wait a second or two between shots, which lengthens to 2-4 seconds when capturing RAW. This is normally not a big deal, but if you are trying to capture your kids or pets as they frolic about, you could have a hard time keeping up with them. Using the fastest SDHC card you can will help here, but it's impressive that Sony manages to overcome this delay completely, even when using older Class 4 SDHC cards. There is essentially no write delay – ever.

The RX100 has a nice panorama mode, similar to the Samsung. It's an automatic sweep from left to right while the camera fires a series of shots and figures out how to stitch them all together. You can only hold the camera vertically, which is fine since this is the proper way to create panoramas anyway. 

In-camera HDR images are a snap with the Sony as it allows for automatically capturing and assembling HDR images with options for Auto mode or selecting 1EV up to 6EV difference in the captures. As with all cameras, you can only capture JPG as the camera assembles the varied exposures in to one HDR .JPG file. If you want more control, and to assemble your HDR captures manually with software, use the auto exposure bracketing instead and capture 3 frames at .7 EV apart. This is not ideal for high-quality HDR images, but quick and easy.

The Sony allows you to save your favorite adjustments under a Fn button/menu, which is easy to use and helpful. It seems that every feature commonly needed is easily accessible. Being that this is such a compact camera, some of the buttons do feel a bit teeny, and pressing the right one, at the right time, takes some finesse. The Sony has a solid hand "feel" to it, pro level features, a great lens, and incredible image quality (for a compact camera). Sony did not grace us with an external battery charger, but affordable after-market chargers and batteries are available.

If you want the best image quality from a compact, fully pocketable camera, the Sony is epic. You could easily make wall prints from the beautiful files and nobody would be the wiser – except you. The RX100 also works great as your "moments" camera that you always have with you. It shoots faster than anything and works exceptionally well in low-light. With the best image quality comes the appropriate price tag and the Sony is easily the spendiest of the bunch.

 

Let's Talk About Lenses.

Nikon has the only lens that can maintain a fairly large aperture, throughout the zoom range. Considering it has the longest zoom of all the cameras (200mm equivalent), this is eyebrow raising impressive. Most compact cameras with zoom lenses may be able to tout a reasonably fast aperture, like f2.0 or f2.8, however, this is only true at the widest angle setting. As you begin to zoom the lens towards telephoto, the lovely wide aperture quickly begins to deteriorate towards f5.6 or even f6.3. 

Below are the maximum apertures vs. the fully zoomed aperture for each camera:

  • The Samsung (max f1.4 at 24mm), when fully zoomed to 80mm, has an aperture of f2.7
  • The Canon (max f2.0 at 24mm), when fully zoomed to 120mm is at f5.9
  • The Sony (max f1.8 at 28mm) when fully zoomed to 100mm is at f4.9
  • The Nikon (max f2.0 at 28mm) when fully zoomed to 200mm is at f4.0

For an equalized comparison, when all cameras were at 80mm, these were the accompanying f-stops.

  • Samsung f2.7
  • Sony f4.5
  • Nikon f3.2
  • Canon f5.0

Why does any of this geek stuff matter? Because! The beauty of a fast aperture is in the ability to photograph in lower light without needing flash and/or to create lovely shallow depth-of-field looks. If this maximum aperture shrinks considerably as you move away from wide angle, then you quickly lose your benefits as you begin to zoom in. In this arena, the Nikon blows the others away with its versatile 28-200mm lens that maintains a respectable f3.2 all the way until nearly the full 200mm where it finally has to drop to f4.0. The Samsung seems impressive up to 80mm, but that's as far as it goes, so its the least versatile lens of the bunch. The Canon does have a decent zoom range for such a compact camera, but you're walking the f6.0 line by that point, and that's less than impressive. The Sony is respectable, with a useful 100mm zoom and decent aperture of f4.9 at that setting.

In addition to the obvious stats, each lens has its own characteristic amounts of chromatic aberration, edge sharpness, resolving power, and pretty rainbow colors when you stare in it. Let's compare some images, shall we!

Note: To view any of the images below, click on them and they open full-size in a new window. You can open multiple image windows side by side (by resizing the windows) to make detailed comparisons. Zoom the image in a window with CMD/CTRL and the + or - keys. Some of the images have been downsized slightly for quicker viewing.

Canon S100 at widest zoom setting. Click to Enlarge.Samsung EX2F at widest zoom setting. Click to Enlarge.Sony RX100 at widest zoom setting. Click to Enlarge.Nikon P7700 at widest zoom setting. Click to Enlarge.

From the same tripod position, I zoomed each camera to the maximum to see what it would capture. Would this range be useful?

Canon S100 at maximum zoom. Click to enlarge.Samsung EX2F at maximum zoom. Click to enlarge.
Nikon P7700 at maximum zoom. Click to enlarge.Sony RX100 at maximum zoom. Click to enlarge. (Image has been downsized slightly for easier viewing)

Comparing Depth of Field when using maximum zoom

The following comparison was done to compare the look you achieve with maximum zoom and the largest aperture available at that zoom setting. The longer telephotos / wider apertures produce softer backgrounds.

Samsung EX2F at full zoom and maximum apertureCanon S100 at full zoom and maximum apertureSony RX100 at full zoom and maximum apertureNikon P7700 at full zoom and maximum apertureAuto White Balance Accuracy

When shooting indoors, the white balance accuracy is important, more so than outdoors as most cameras seem to be able to get it pretty close in normal daylight. Under tungsten light, however, some cameras fail miserably resulting in lots of post-processing correction.

Canon S100 Auto White Balance was the least accurate of the bunchNikon P7700 balances nicely and fairly accurate. It's a wee bit magentaThe Sony had very good Auto White BalanceThe Samsung is probably the most accurate under these conditions.

High ISO performance.

 The following setup was shot in very low existing light to test the high ISO capabilities of each camera. Click on an image to see it at full size. Note some will be large files!

Click to enlarge and look at the zoomed area to compare noise and detail at ISO 1600.

Canon S100 at ISO 3200Sony RX100 at ISO 3200
Samsung EX2F at ISO 3200. Notice the color contamination and loss of detail.Nikon P7700 at ISO 3200

 

So, what's the bottom line?

After playing with all of these cameras for some time, I initially fell in love with the Sony RX100. The quick, positive handling and superb image quality, in any light, really won me over. The compact size means it can go anywhere easily and I found myself throwing it in a jacket pocket whenever I headed out for a walk. It has beautiful build quality and a high level of ILQ (Intangible Love Quotient, in case you forgot). I love the look of the f1.8 lens on the larger sensor, especially on close-up and macro images. It has "depth" that other compact cameras can't touch with their smaller sensors – no matter what aperture. The Samsung, even though it has a faster f1.4 lens, doesn't create as soft and beautiful out-of-focus areas as the Sony. 

The only empty spot in my heart was left by the limited zoom range. I know, I know, I said earlier that the wide angle was most important to me, and it still is. But after using the Nikon P7700 with its awesome 28-200mm lens, I found myself using the Nikon to capture images that I would have missed with any of the other cameras.

I started to wonder if maybe having a truly versatile, "near-pro", compact-yet-not-pocketable camera would make the most sense. After all, I have my iPhone 5 don't I? That thing takes pretty decent snapshots and I have it with me ALL the time. Would that be sufficient to use instead of an ultra-compact camera like the Sony or Canon? Maybe I bite the film canister and throw that Nikon P7700 on my belt, and all fashion sense to the wind. Is it worth packing a slightly bigger camera for so much more photographic versatility? Out of curiosity, I compared my iPhone 5 to the Sony in a similar setting. Keep in mind that this is outside in good light, when the lights go down, the Sony will give far cleaner images than the iPhone. Trust me on this one.

iPhone 5 image with all automatic settingsSony RX100. Image is downsized slightly to match iPhone and captured in JPG, to be fair.

OK, so the Sony is clearly more detailed and accurate than the iPhone, but how will you be using these images? How much detail and control do you really need? Just some food for thought.

And that brings me back to the Nikon P7700. It grew on me, slowly making more sense in my mind as a full-featured "compact" camera than the Sony. If it weren't for Nikon's sweet, sharp lens, I'd pick the Sony for sure. I wish I could have the Sony's sensor in the Nikon body in the Sony's size. I'm torn. I guess the best answer to "which is the best compact camera?" depends on what's most important to you? If low-light image quality and compact size are paramount, go with the Sony RX100. If having all the features of a basic DSLR (and then some), including a widely versatile zoom lens, along with superb design and ergonomics are key – and you have generous sized pockets, go with the Nikon P7700. I doubt you would be unhappy with either camera as they are both standouts. 

For the budget conscious looking for something pretty impressive, check out the Samsung (especially now while it's on sale). In good light situations the image quality is more than satisfactory and the fast lens and comfortable handling make it fun to use. 

If you absolutely want the smallest camera with pro features and good image quality, go with the Canon S100. It doesn't "wow" me in any particular area, but it's solid and well rounded, while adding the least to your body weight.

Die hard Canon adherents looking for a comparable camera to the Nikon P7700 should take a look at the Canon G15, which wasn't included here for lack of time. It has the same sized sensor in a similar sized body with pro-level controls. The lens range is 28-140mm, so not quite as useful as the Nikon, but it is also a great camera that bridges the point-n-shoot to compact DSLR gap nicely.  

If I had my druthers, I'd keep the Sony for everyday carry and the Nikon for whenever I feel like packin' a little more. It's still small enough that I can tote it around in my briefcase or MAG (err, man bag. I don't admit to using one, although I do own a couple and fantasize about carrying all kinds of gadgets around in them wherever I go, like women get to do. I prefer MAG to MAC, or Man Sac, as it has a better ring to it). For pure photo taking fun, though, I'd grab the Nikon P7700. 

For more details on the video comparison between these cameras, watch for my mini part 2: Video coming later this week.

Do you have a favorite compact camera? I'd love to hear about it, so leave a comment! See the bottom of this post for my ratings of each camera by category.

Following are a few more images from the top contenders, the Nikon P7700 and Sony RX100.

The Sony under exhibit lighting at the Chihuly glass museumThe f1.8 lens on the RX100 is great for dreamy closeupsEven with the sun in the lens, the Sony maintains contrast and clarity.At the Kubota Gardens in Seattle (no relation) the Sony captures beautiful details and textureBy shooting directly in to the sun, and underexposing the image, I got beautiful color flare which saturated the image. Slight adjustments were made in Bridge to reveal the shadow detailThe Nikon zoom lens enabled me to see details on the river from high atop the cliffs

My Score of each camera by category, 5 being the best:

Overall Image Quality

5-Sony

4.5-Nikon

4-Samsung

3-Canon

 

Sharpness and detail

5-Sony

5-Nikon 

4-Samsung

3-Canon

 

Low light/low noise

5-Sony

4-Nikon

3-Canon

2-Samsung

 

Pocketability

5-Canon

4-Sony

2-Samsung

1-Nikon

 

Ergonomics/Ease of use

5-Nikon

4-Sony

4-Samsung

4-Canon

 

Lens Range

5-Nikon

4-Canon

3-Sony

2-Samsung

 

Natural Color Rendition (I put less weight on this factor as I adjust all my images to taste in post-processing anyway)

 5-Nikon

4-Samsung

3-Canon

3-Sony

 

Auto White Balance in tungsten light (If you shoot a lot indoors, this makes a big difference)

5-Samsung

4-Sony

4-Nikon

1-Canon

 

Macro Ability (How close can they get?)

5-Nikon

4-Samsung

4-Canon

3-Sony (the sony uniquely doesn't require a button press to enter macro mode, but also doesn't focus as close as the others.

 

Pro Features and Controls/Customability

5-Nikon

4-Sony

4-Canon

3-Samsung

 

Intagible Love Quotient

5-Sony

5-Nikon

3-Samsung

3-Canon

 

If you are interested in buying one of these cameras for yourself or a loved one this holiday, consider using our links to get more info from our partner, B&H. Every purchase helps support this site! They have some great deals right now too.

Canon Powershot S100 ($429)

Samsung EX2F ($349 w/ $100 instant discount until Dec. 22nd)

Nikon Coolpix P7700 ($427 w/ $50 instant discount until Dec. 15th)

Sony RX100 ($648)

Canon G15 (not reviewed)