The Compact Conundrum

For the purposes of this article I'm going to define large sensor compact as having a 1" sensor or larger.

Michael Johnston over at The Online Photographer and I both in the mid-00's began lobbying for large sensor compacts (here's one variation on the large sensor compact articles I wrote). It took awhile for anything to appear that met our definitions, but eventually such cameras did begin to appear. Strangely, though, it really doesn't seem like any camera company quite got the message that Michael and I were delivering: almost none of the models produced were quite what was being asked for.

Here in 2017, we just had Nikon cancel their latest attempts at producing large sensor compacts. This has been particularly galling to the photo enthusiast crowd because at least one of those models was going to be completely unique and was regarded as desirable by a fairly large group (DL 18-50). Meanwhile, other large sensor compacts, such as the Ricoh GR, haven't seen an update in ages, while Sony rapid-fired five RX100 variations.

What the heck is going on? 

If you ask me, what's going on is random searching for the Holy Grail of compacts. But before we get to that, let's examine what's really available for a moment:

  • Canon — G3 X, G5 X, G7 X, G9 X. All use a 1" sensor, but the body size/styles are considerably different. The G3 X is a soap bar with 25x zoom, the G5 X is a mini DSLR style with a fast 4.2x zoom, the D7 X is a small soap bar with that fast 4.2x zoom, and the G9 X is a smaller soap bar with a more modest 3x zoom. Prices range from US$530 to US$999. 
  • Fujifilm — X70, X100T, X100F. Both X100's use the same 23mm (35mm equivalent) f/2 lens and classic rangefinder design. The older T is 16mp, the newer F is 24mp, and both sensors are X-Trans. Price is US$1299 (the older T version probably will go on sale when the F version actually ships). The X70 is the older 16mp with an 18.5mm (28mm equivalent) f/2.8 lens, but no EVF or EVF option, for US$700. 
  • Leica — X-U and Q, D-Lux. The D-Lux is a Panasonic LX100 in a Leica wrap and uses a 4/3 sensor with a fastish 3x zoom. The X-U is a curious all-weather model with no other real competitor and uses the old Sony 16mp APS sensor. The Q is classic rangefinder design (with EVF), and 24mp full frame. Lens is a fixed 28mm f/1.7 Summilux, a very defining element if you pardon the pun. Prices range from US$1099 to US$4250. 
  • Panasonic — LX100, LX10, ZS100. The LX100 is a 4/3 sensor with that fastish 3x zoom. The ZS100 is a 10x zoom in the basic rangefinder-type body (with crude EVF). The LX10  is a basic soap bar with a fast 3x zoom. Prices all hoover in the US$699-799 range.
  • Ricoh — GRII. Here we have a long soap bar with the older 16mp APS sensor and a fixed 28mm (equivalent) f/2.8 lens. Price is currently US$600.
  • Sony — RX1, RX100. For some reason we have all five variations of the RX100 camera still available for purchase. The lens is basically the same on all these, as are most of the controls and feature sets. The differences were the addition of BSI sensor in the Mark II model, the addition of the pop-up EVF in the III, 4K video in the IV, and faster focusing in the V.  The RX1 is a full frame large soap bar with a 35mm f/2 Zeiss lens and a 24mp sensor, but no built-in EVF. Prices range for US$450 to US$1000 for the 100's, US$2800 for the RX1. A few readers noted that I forgot the updated RX1, the RX1RII, which has a 42mp full frame sensor and a small pop-up EVF (ala the RX100) for US$3900.

Even from this simplification of description you can tell there are a lot of very different approaches to large sensor compact going on. In terms of what comes closest to what I and others originally asked for, I'm going to say that only the Fujifilm X100 and the Panasonic LX100 need apply. Okay, add the Leica Q (but it's in a class, including price, of its own).

Why? Because the premise was a camera that a serious photo enthusiast would use as their go everywhere camera. I specifically asked for DSLR-like level of directness and control, and only these four cameras can legitimately claim that. I dropped the GRII and X70 off the list these days because I'd go further and say that we want at-the-face composing, too (which is why the RX1 drops off the list, too; true, the GRII and RX1 cameras have an optional EVF, but that's not exactly what we want).

Some might claim that the Sony RX100 ought to be in my list, too, but sorry, I've given up on the tiny controls on that camera that mimic the old consumer compacts. Sure, it fits in a shirt pocket and takes very good photos, but these days I think of it as more aspiring to its specs than capable of them. By that I mean that, while the sensor is 20mp, the lens lets that down. In practice, detail is more like that of a 12mp camera, at which point the Panasonic LX100 suddenly becomes a lot more interesting. 

So we're down to X100, LX100, and Q. All three are fine cameras and I can recommend any of them. 

Personally, I really look forward to Panasonic updating the LX100's sensor. It's the weak part of the camera, and about the only weak part. It really needs to get to at least 16mp without messing anything else up. On the other hand, the Fujifilm and Leica cameras require you to buy into the focal length they've chosen (35mm for Fujifilm, 28mm for Leica). 

Quality, control, performance. Those are the three factors most photo enthusiasts are looking for in large sensor compacts. Quality as in "DSLR level lens"; Control as in "DSLR-like direct and complete control; Performance as in "DSLR-like focus and image quality." Add to those three things being able to compose and control the camera at the eye, and you've got the basic formula for a winner.

It's clear that we'll pay at least US$1000 for that, and probably easily into the US$2000 range for the dead-on right camera. But the tricky part is the lens specification. At any given focal length you get a different set of takers. I don't understand why you can't build the basic camera—say the Fujifilm X100 with just an EVF instead of the dual-mode viewfinder—in multiple models cost efficiently: X100-28, X100-35, X100-50. Yes, it becomes a bit of demand and stocking problem, but these cameras, done right, would be on the market for several years. Some people would tend to eventually buy two (maybe all three, especially if the lower length was 24mm). 

It really seems that the camera industry has to figure out how to live with modest volumes of cameras like this. Getting it right means sales. Getting it wrong means no sale. 

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