One of the most exciting trends in photography is the recent resurgence in point-and-shoots. Specifically, very high quality compact cameras that take exceptional photos.
It’s actually quite weird. Until recently, the trend was that point-and-shoots were dying out, and people were switching in droves to iPhones/other smartphones as their portable cameras. But lately, a ton of camera manufacturers have started to come out with very high-end cameras with the small size and portability of point and shoots.
Really, these cameras should not be classified as point and shoots – which is why this website usually calls them compact cameras. They share the same size as traditional PnS’s, but that’s about all they have in common. Functionally, their role is to attempt to replace DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. They cost a lot more than point and shoots, they take great pictures, and apart from the size, they don’t really do what the more common PnS cameras do.
Most point-and-shoots are sold to people who want a cheap cam they can take a half decent picture on. The small size may be useful, but it’s not the focus of the cameras; it’s more of a convenience that most people don’t think too hard about.
These new premium compacts are essentially DSLR or Micro Four Thirds replacements and everything is aimed towards replicating the bigger-camera experience, with an emphasis on picture quality.
There are a variety of the new Premium Point and Shoots, and they do come in somewhat varied sizes now, but in my mind, the only ones that really matter are the ones that can actually be fit in a pocket comfortably and carried around casually by most users. I guess most of them can probably fit inside a purse with no problem, but that doesn’t really help a lot of people, and really, a lot of mirrorless cameras can fit in a purse too.
When you read reviews and user comments on these cameras, the one word that pops up all the time is pocketable. The whole idea of these cameras is that you can grab them and take them anywhere and not worry about missing any shots. Some of the bigger premium Point and Shoots really strain at this distinction, and it’s hard to really understand what they bring to the table to distinguish them from a small DSLR or Mirrorless (other than perhaps some cool retro styling in certain cases).
So there are some advantages and disadvantages to this kind of small, premium point and shoot:
The first and most obvious advantage is the size. You can take them anywhere.
The second advantage, that goes hand in hand with the first, is that the picture quality is much higher than other cameras of the same size. There’s obviously no point in having a camera you can take everywhere if it’s only taking pictures as good as your smartphone. (The sensor sizes in the premium PnS’s are generally a lot bigger than your iPhones or cheaper pocket cameras, and you’re going to get much nicer photos.)
So apart from size and picture quality, which are huge advantages and the main reason you’d buy these cameras, there are some disadvantages.
The first is that the sensors are much bigger than traditional point-and-shoots or iPhones, but they’re still not as big as Micro Four Thirds or especially DSLRs. This is not the biggest deal, because the picture quality is still outstanding, but you might not quite get easy, shallow depth of field effects under as many conditions (but you can still get them.)
Another big disadvantage is that you can’t change lenses on these. If you actually take one of the smaller Micro Four Thirds mirrorless cameras and you compare it to one of the bigger Premium Point and Shoots, the defining difference would probably be that on the MFT, you can actually change the lens. This is an extremely valuable option to have. It allows you to do tons of things that you can’t do with just one fixed lens.
A note: I have noticed a tendency in reviews of these premium compacts – Quit often the reviewer will kind of wave his hands over the fact you’re stuck with one lens and basically say “oh boo hoo, most people just buy a DSLR and never use anything but the kit lens anyway” (and quite often there’s a real air of superiority attached to this statement). I don’t think that’s really true these days! When I’m out and about, I see a ton of people using non-kit lenses for all sorts of stuff.
More importantly, I think making statements like that in reviews is a way for reviewers to just try to sell you on whatever camera they’re reviewing. It’s a subtle way of downplaying the bigger disadvantages of cameras they’re trying to steer you towards, so be somewhat wary of that if you see it.
Sure, some people probably never use anything but the kit lens on their DSLRs, but the kit lenses are pretty nice these days, and usually have a pretty usable zoom range, and a lot of people don’t need anything else.
You know, I really love these premium compacts, but I’m not going to pretend just having one lens for every shot is ideal. It’s a compromise you have to make, but it’s something to be aware of when choosing between one of these cameras and a Mirrorless or DSLR. It would be really nice to have interchangeable lenses for these types of cameras, but it’s basically impossible because of the size constraints. There’s no real practical way around it, and it’s not something that I expect to ever show up on Premium Point and Shoots.
In a year or two, these cameras will surely start showing up with features they don’t all have now, like 4K video for instance, but it’s prettttttty unlikely they’ll ever end up having interchangeable lenses, so it’s just something you have to accept at the start.
Anyhow, enough of that digression! Having said all that, the new premium PnSes do tend to have great lenses. In this article I’ll mostly talk about the camera I have the most experience with, the SONY RX100 line, which have really great Carl Zeiss lenses.
But first, back to the disadvantages. Another big one is that these things can seem kind of expensive. You can see this two ways really, and I tend to vacillate between the two:
On one hand, these cost maybe 3 or 4 times what a cheapo point-and-shoot would cost, and it seems sort of outrageous.
On the other hand, if you ignore cheap P-n-S cameras completely, you can realistically look at these models as just smaller, more portable versions of high quality DSLRs or Micro Four Thirds. They do share a lot more in common with these big, higher quality cameras than they do with the small, cheapo ones. So, if you think of it this way, then the price is pretty much justified, because you’re getting a high quality camera with a nice (albeit permanent) lens, and the bonus of portability.
If you count the extreme portability as a fairly even trade-off with the slightly decreased versatility, then maybe it only makes sense that the camera should be priced as high as a DSLR or Micro Four Thirds.
I guess really, I mostly agree with this second way of looking at it, but it’s still pretty tough to get over the initial sticker shock, since these things look so much like cheap traditional point-and-shoots and we’re so used to those being very inexpensive.
As a side note, I talked to a salesman at one of the big camera chains here recently about them, and I was lamenting how much they cost – how it’s just enough that it feels painful. He said something I think is exactly right: These nice compacts are unique and kind of amazing to a lot of people, and, in his words, “the camera companies know exactly what they have”, and they’re of course pricing them accordingly. I think that’s right – these cameras really fill a need for a lot of people, and the camera companies are betting that the cameras provide enough value to merit higher pricing. They seem to have been proven right so far!
Regardless, it doesn’t look like they’re going down in price anytime soon. In fact SONY, who were up until recently the only game in town for these, have actually increased the price of the RX100 line as they bring out new versions.
When the second version (the RX100 M2 aka RX100 II) came out, it cost $100 more than the original, and when the RX100 M3 (aka RX100 III) came out, it cost $150 more than the Mark 2. As of this writing (February 2015), the Mark 3 actually costs $200 more than the Mark 2, because the first 2 versions dropped about $50 in price recently.
And it’s worth noting that as of right now, all three versions are still being produced and on sale, with the first (as of this writing) being $500, the second $600 and the third a whopping $800.
Now, this is obviously very opposite to how technology usually works: When a new version of a product comes out, the price often stays the same, maybe goes down, but it’s extremely rare that it goes up, but to be fair to SONY, they really have improved these things tremendously and there are very good, justifiable reasons why the price has jumped. The Mark 3 is quite a different camera than the original, and SONY are definitely not ripping anybody off or being greedy by increasing the price. They’re just pushing the limits of what the camera is and moving the price accordingly.
So those are the advantages and disadvantages: In a nutshell, you’re getting a smaller, much more portable camera, that could conceivably replace a Mirrorless or DSLR camera, but you’re giving up the versatility of multiple lens choices, and the image quality is not going to be quite up there with a really nice camera with a really large sensor.
Check the other articles on this site for more info on specific models, and which I think are the best to buy in different situations, etc.