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I’ve been invested in the Micro Four Thirds system for a number of years now. I have a old and trusted Olympus OM-D E-M5 and my most used lenses are Olympus 9-18mm f4-4.5, Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4, Panasonic 14mm f2.5.
(2018-12-17 Update: I have posted an update on my outdoor camera setup)
Now, m4/3 is a light system. I can fit the E-M5 body plus a Panasonic 14mm pancake into a normal jacket pocket or a E-M5 + 9-1mm into a large jacket pocket. But I started lusting for a smaller camera that would serve as a handier companion when I’m outdoors, hiking or skii’ing.
What I ended up buying (I’ll get into it) does not fit that description, but in the process of buying the new camera I made a huge amount of research that I wish to share with everybody looking for a new camera to take outdoors.
I started with these requirements, some of which contradict each others:
- Good picture quality (sensor size at least 1″ and good to excellent optical quality)
- Preferably a wide zoom range
- Weather protection is plus
- Reasonably priced (closer to $500 than $1000 if possible)
In particular, I had these scenarios in mind:
- Photographing kids at home, large aperture, preferably < f2
- Photographing handheld at woods, in the dusk, large aperture, preferably < f2
- Photographing landscapes, preferably 24mm wide end
- Reach for shooting animals and framing in the open tundra where everything is far away, preferably > 100mm tele end
- Able to always carry it with me, even in slight drizzle preferably pocketable, weatherproof
Now, you can’t fit all of those in a single body, it’s just not physically possible. While I started looking at cameras favouring the criteria at the beginning of the list, I ended up selecting one that weighted the criteria at the end of the list more.
One thing the reader should keep in mind: although pocketable is pocketable, I have very small hands. Therefore what is just the right size for me, may be small for some. What is too large for my hands, may feel just right for someone with large hands. Before you make any decisions, try to get your hands on the camera that you are looking at buying. Differences that look small on screen may feel huge in practice.
A word about sensor sizes
I come from an APS-C DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera background, which has a sensor size of 22.2 x 14.8 mm and a crop factor of 1.5x compared to 35mm full frame (or 35mm film) cameras. From there I moved into the micro four thirds system, with a sensor size of 18 mm × 13.5 mm and a crop factor of 2x. I wanted to go smaller, because a smaller sensor allows for smaller optics and a smaller body. What you lose is control over the shallow depth of field, as well as image quality when photographing in low light. However, the developments in sensor technology have made the step from APS-C to four thirds- size sensors a no-brainer for many.
With the new camera, I was looking to go into even smaller camera, so the sensor would in all probability be smaller as well. Most of the contenders had a 1″ sensor (meaning, the diagonal of the sensor is one inch and the area is 13.2mm x 8.8mm, with a crop factor of 2.7x). This smaller sensor size is used in the Nikon 1 series of cameras as well as many of the top digital cameras (that this article reviews a large portion of).
The sensor size affects also the focal lengths used by the camera. A focal length of 50mm in APS-C is equal to 75mm in full frame (crop factor 1.5x50mm = 75mm). For a 1″ sensor, the equivalent field of view would be provided by a a lens of approximately 28mm, because 28mm*2.7 = 75.6mm.
As the sensor gets smaller, the depth of field goes up. That means that the smaller the sensor, the harder it is to get those photographs with most of the image blurred out of focus (bokéh) and only a single part in focus. For some that is a great loss, but for an outdoors / landscape camera, we actually want to have the whole view in focus. Also it’s easier to catch moving kids with larger area in focus. So a smaller sensor is a tradeoff that suits well into outdoors/trekking camera.
The worse trade off of a smaller sensor, is the noise going up as light goes down. In outdoors (and indoor as well) situations, we often have to use high ISOs (high sensitivity) at dusk and dawn. Here the developments in sensor technology have really served the photographer well. The Sony 20 megapixel 1″ sensors provide excellent image quality even in relatively high ISOs and coupled with wide apertures (f2 or smaller), we can often get shots that we could only dream of ten years ago with our DSLRs with APS-C sensors.
The main takeaway from my research was that there’s never been a better time to buy a camera than today
The main takeaway from my research was that there’s never been a better time to buy a camera than today. There’s a huge array of excellent cameras out there that are really small in size, have brilliant image quality thanks to the versions of 20 megapixel 1″ sensors shared by most of the cameras on the list, and excellent optics and that weight a fraction of the DSLRs I started with 10 years ago. I still have and shoot my micro four thirds system, but for most people I would recommend a single digital camera with a 1″ sensor and excellent optics, rather than a smaller interchangeable lens camera body and mediocre optics.
The cameras on my list
In this article, I will totally ignore DSLRs and interchangeable lens cameras. While there are some excellent very small mirrorless options, I was looking at a single purchase that would serve in a one-size-fits-all purpose. You might also notice that many of the cameras I cover are a few years old models. The reason is that there hasn’t been that much development in recent years, but in many cases buying a model few years old will allow you to buy the camera at a huge discount to it’s original price.
The cameras I will cover in this article are:
- Sony RX100 I, II, III, IV and V
- Canon G1 X Mark II
- Canon G7 X Mark II
- Canon G3 X
- Canon G9 X
- Panasonic LX100
- Panasonic LX10 / Panasonic LX15
- Panasonic TZ100 / Panasonic SZ100
- Panasonic FZ1000
- Sony RX10 and RX10 Mark III
For each camera, I write about the factors that led me to consider it but also any factors that led it to dropping from the race. I do have to say that I could have gone with just about all of these cameras, and depending on your local pricing and availability, any of the above would be an excellent purchase.
Sony RX100, RX100 Mark II, RX100 Mark III, RX100 Mark IV and RX100 Mark V
These are hugely popular cameras from Sony that catapulted the 20 megapixel Sony 1″ sensor into world fame and popularity. Their claim to fame is a small size combined with excellent image quality (both sensor and optics). The zoom range is around 3-3.5, with wide end being 28mm on I and II and 24mm on III.
The original RX100 can be had for less than $400 at the moment, while RX100 III goes for $600-700 and RX100 mark II somewhere in the middle. In truth, above that I did not even investigate as 4K video was not high on my list of features.
Each of the revisions improves upon the older generation, although some may lament the loss of long end in upgrade from mark I and II’s 28-100mm focal range to mark III’s 24-70mm (accompanied by a gain in aperture). At the same time, many will celebrate the 4mm gained at the wide end.
As you go up, you get a viewfinder, better image quality, better video, and other improvements. But also, the camera size goes up. For some reason (possibly the limited zoom range and prices quickly going up with the newer models), I made the least amount of research into the RX100s.
Summary: The RX100 series is hugely popular and if you’re looking for pocketable image quality, I’m sure you can’t go wrong with any of these. The oldest, RX100 or the RX100 III represent very good value for money, with the newer IV and V models being quite costly for their feature set.
Canon G1 X mark II
The Canon G1 X Mark II was a formidable contender in my research, into the very end. It has a large 1.5″ (almost APS-C size) sensor coupled with a 24-120mm f2.0-3.9 equivalent zoom lens. At 19.9 oz (563 g) it’s significantly larger than for example RX100 mark III at 10.1 oz (287 g), but with some stretching still could be considered to lay in the pocketable category. For some reason, I loved this camera on paper. Zoom range, large sensor, touch screen and tiltable screen, what’s there not to love. Small things, but significant enough to earn a miss from me.
You would think think the large sensor would be at significant advantage over the RX100s and other Sony 1″ sensor cameras, but you’d be wrong. The downfall of the G1 X Mark II is the low dynamic range and color depth, that show the age of the sensor. With all probability, I’d be hard pressed to see the difference in real life, but in the end it was too much of a limitation for me to suffer, especially as I am transitioning into an all JPEG workflow.
If you love shallow depth of field photography or beautiful bokéh (don’t we all), then the larger sensor size might be worth your while to check out. Also check LX100, another camera with a larger than 1″ sensor size.
The G1 X Mark II was also the one camera I could not handle personally before making the decision. It may well be that if I’d managed to get my hands on it, I might have ended up going with the G1 X Mark II. Now I’ll never know.
Canon G7 X Mark II
The Canon G7 X Mark II is a direct competitor to RX100 mark III. At 319g is a little larger (compared to RX100’s 290g), but still very much pocketable. It could be had at approx. $600, which is a reasonable price. Dynamic and color depth beat even Sony, and focal length of 24-100mm with aperture f1.7-2.8 are near the best in class.
Just about the only real weakness of G7X Mark II in my books was the poor battery life. At 265 shots, it is a bit lackluster. Other worries were notes about large variety in lens performance between individual G7X Mark II units. G7X Mark II was another top contender until the very end.
Canon G3 X
I found it odd how little information there was available on the Canon G3 X. After all, it seemed to be a nearly perfect solution for the outdoors camera. Weatherproof, huge zoom range (24mm-600mm) yet relatively small (at 739g) for such a large focal range. The only downside for me was the relatively slow maximum aperture (f2.8), which can still be considered fast, but is handily beat by the f1.7-f2.0 max aperture crowd.
The G3 X was the camera that lured me from the pocketable mode into considering these semi- to non-pocketable cameras. The thought of a 600mm range was almost too tempting. Of the Canon bodies, the G3 X was the hardest to find a good deal on, so if I was buying a G3 X, I was looking at shelling out cash more than I would be willing to part with at this time.
Canon G9 X
If G3 X is almost non-pocketable, then the Canon G9 X is the ultimate pocketable high performer. It is the size of a very small pocket camera, light (209g) and small. If you’re an ultralight hiker and value small dimensions and weight above all, but still want a high quality camera, then the G9 X may be just the thing for you. It is also among the cheapest of the cameras on the list. The relatively slow aperture (f2-4.9) and limited zoom range (24-84mm, still better than RX100) were some of the factors that kept me from going with G9 X, although in truth I probably should have given it more consideration.
Panasonic LX100 is a camera that I’ve been lusting over for a long while. It has dropped in price recently, so at first I was almost sure I was going to go with the LX100. It features a 4/3 sized sensor (of which it uses a part of, but not the entire sensor, depending on the picture format you choose), so it has advantage over the 1″ sensor cameras in low light.
LX100 is also one of the few cameras on this list that have 4K video recording (at least in the sub-$1000 category). In size LX100 sits between the G1 X Mark II and G7 X Mark II, with a weight of 393g. Pocketable, barely.
In the end, just about my only complaint was the zoom range, which at 24-75mm is lackluster. LX100 is yet another camera I could very well have gone with.
Panasonic LX10 / Panasonic LX15
LX10 (or LX15, depending on the market) has a large aperture (f1.4 at wide end), smaller size than the LX100 (because of the sensor that has dropped from m4/3 to 1″) and consequently a lot more pocketable. I was very drawn to the size and fast aperture, but zoom range 24-72mm I found lacking. Also because it’s a newer model, the price is still a bit high. Dpreview seemed to also be not so keen on LX15 so this model I paid very little attention to.
Panasonic TZ100 / SZ100
Another Panasonic model with different name depending on market, this was an interesting camera. A 25-250mm zoom lens with aperture ranging from f2.8 to 5.9, this was a fast lens and with some compromises in image quality over e.g. Canon G3 X. Nonetheless, the TZ100 is the only really pocketable 1″ superzoom by a wide margin with a very good image quality for the size. Just about my only complaint was the slow aperture and the still quite high price, as it’s one of the newer camera models on the list. This is another camera that I regret not paying even more attention to.
FZ1000 is the second real super zoom on this list, with a reach of 24-400mm. Although only slightly lighter than G3 X (733g for G3 X vs. 780g for FZ1000), the G3 X is worlds smaller in real life hand holdability. To be exact, 40% smaller at 123×77×105 mm vs FZ1000 at 137×99×131 mm. Against the 600mm reach of G3 X, FZ1000 provides faster autofocus and faster tele end.
Make no mistake, the FZ1000 is a large camera. In fact, too large for my hands. Without that fault, FZ1000 would probably have been the camera I would have chosen. For many it will be an excellent choice (especially now that the price has come down significantly).
Sony RX10 and RX10 III
The Sony RX10 is a superzoom (barely) with a zoom range of 24-200mm at constant f2.8 aperture. It is ultimately the camera I went with, although in the end the deciding factor came down to the price. I was able to get a camera that had been a demonstration unit for $300-$400 off the asking price.
At 813g, RX10 is significantly heavier and 10% larger than the G3 X, but still fits well into my small hands. Although the difference in volume is only 10%, where the G3 X might have fit into a large pocket, the RX10 has no chance of doing that. It is the trade off I regret the most.
Why I chose RX10 (beside the excellent deal) was the largeish zoom range, but even more than that, the constant aperture throughout the range. It means I can get useful photos at even the tele end in dim light, where G3X (or even FZ1000) might not deliver.
Weatherproofing of the RX10 is another feature that I cherish.
The RX10 mark III is another camera that goes from 24mm to 600mm. It is the ultimate camera in terms of aperture, reach and image quality. However, it is significantly heavier than even FZ1000, and 30% larger than the RX10. In addition, the price is still well over $1500. If the size of RX10 mark III wasn’t an objection, then I would still have gone with similiar sized but lighter FZ1000 at less than half the price.
My experiences with the RX10
So far I’ve only shot the RX10 a bit indoors and in very bright sunlight. The sensor hold it’s own at ISO400-ISO640 indoors, but at base ISO (125) and closed down a bit, the results are nothing short of spectacular.
At the moment, I feel like the 200mm range is enough. I certainly value the constant aperture. Handling, charging and ergonomics feel fine. I will be sure to post updates after I get some use for the camera in outdoors / trekking /skiing type situations.
In the end, I could’ve gone with any of the cameras in this article. I still regret not getting my hands on the G1 X II before making my decision. I believe that even ones I thought were too large, I could probably have learned to live with. All have strenghts and downsides, which in truth are hard to determine from a short hands on trial. Luckily e.g. DPReview does a pretty good job of covering all the nitty gritty details of each camera.