Compact cameras don't have to be small on quality or sophistication. Here, we examines some advanced models that can deliver spectacular image quality even in the most demanding of conditions.
These top compact cameras also offer the creative shooting modes and advanced adjustments that we expect from our DSLRs, but that would fit in a pocket.
So whether you need to travel light or you just want a camera that you can take anywhere, anytime, so that you can stop missing those golden photo opportunities, you've come to the right place.
At the heart of any camera is its image sensor, and this is where downsizing begins for compact models. A full-frame DSLR has a sensor that is the same size as a frame of 35mm film, measuring 36 x 24mm.
Most DSLRs have APS-C (Advanced Photo System - Classic) sized sensors that are smaller at around 23.6 x15.6mm, but the sensors fitted to most compact cameras are much smaller.
Popular choices for high-end compacts include 2/3-inch or 1/1.7-inch sensors. The dimensions of these work out to around 8.8 x 6.6mm and an even smaller 7.6 x 5.7mm.
In this group, the Canon PowerShot G12, Nikon Coolpix P7100 and Ricoh GR IV all use 1/1.7-inch sensors, whereas only the Fujifilm X10 has a larger 2/3-inch sensor. The Olympus XZ-1 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 have an intermediate 1/1.63-inch size, which roughly equates to 8 x 6mm.
So whereas most DSLRs have a crop factor or focal length maginifcation of 1.5x (1.6x for Canon), the compact cameras on test have crop factors varying between 3.93x and 4.55x.
The upshot is that to get an effective zoom range of, say, 28-112mm, the actual focal length range is tiny in real terms, at about 6-24mm. Because the focal length is so short, and the image circle needed to cover the sensor is small, the lens as well as the camera body can have small physical dimensions.
Big in parts
A major advantage of compact camera lenses having very small focal lengths is that the depth of field can be massive. That's because depth of field is dependent on the actual focal length of the lens rather than after the crop factor has been applied.
At the wide-angle end of the zoom range, there's no problem keeping very close objects and distant horizons simultaneously sharp.
The downside is that blurring the background for creative effect is much more of a challenge. You'll need to use the maximum telephoto zoom setting and select the largest possible aperture.
All our cameras here have a full range of Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual exposure modes, so making these adjustments is quick and easy, just like on an DSLR.
Even so, you'll still struggle to get a shallow depth of field with the Ricoh GR IV, because it's the only camera on test that lacks a zoom lens, instead having a fairly wide-angle, fixed focal length lens equivalent to 28mm.
Can you handle it?
Handling is often a problem with compact cameras. Firstly, the small size of the camera makes it difficult to get a natural, steady grip, especially when you're holding it at arm's length to compose shots on the LCD screen.
To help out, all the cameras in the group have either optical or sensor-shift stabilisation built in, which helps to minimise camera shake.
The Canon, Fujifilm and Nikon cameras go one better by adding an optical viewfinder (OVF). This helps stability, because you can lock the camera into your face, like you would with an DSLR, even if the zoom mechanism and off-axis placement of the viewfinder mean you only get an approximation of the composition.
If a viewfinder is a must-have, Olympus offers an electronic one as an optional extra, whereas Ricoh has an optional optical viewfinder and Panasonic has both optical and optional electronic viewfinders.
The other factor that adversely affects handling is that there's little room to put dedicated dials and buttons for all your favourite shooting parameters.
Even so, the Canon, Fujifilm and Nikon models manage to squeeze in plenty of direct access controls. Indeed, Nikon's P7100 has more direct control buttons and dials than most of its mid-range DSLRs.