After researching and testing more than 30 high-end compact cameras over the past three years, we recommend the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX10 if you’re looking to take the best pictures possible with a camera small enough to slip into your pocket.
Compared with similarly priced competitors, the Panasonic LX10 is exceptionally fast to focus in both bright and dim lighting. It also has a sharp lens that lets in a lot of light plus a responsive and intuitive touchscreen interface that helps bridge the gap for smartphone photographers, and it can shoot 4K video. While it lacks one standout, killer feature—many of its rivals can match one or more of its specifications—the LX10 offers the most compelling combination of features at a lower launch price than we’ve ever seen, making it the best value of any pocket-sized camera under $1,000. However, it doesn’t have a viewfinder, a feature that can come in handy for shooting in bright light or if you prefer extra stability.
If you prefer the convenience of a viewfinder and can live without a touchscreen or 4K video, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III is a great option. This camera may be a few generations behind Sony’s current iteration of its popular RX100 series, but the Mark III is still being sold, with good reason. It delivers outstanding still images, HD video that looks better than what you get from many DSLRs, and good performance in low light. And the clever pop-up design of its viewfinder allows it to maintain a slim profile that easily fits into most pants pockets.
I’ve worked as a professional photographer and digital-imaging consultant for almost 15 years. I’m on the faculty of New York City’s International Center of Photography, and I lead photography workshops around the country. I’ve been covering cameras and photo gear here at The Wirecutter since 2013, getting to shoot with dozens of new cameras as they become available. I also shoot some of the lifestyle photography you see on our sister site, The Sweethome. As a result, I have a keen understanding of current camera technology, as well as of the features and performance that make a real difference when you’re out shooting.
In three years of researching and testing high-end compact cameras for various versions of this guide, I’ve pored over countless manufacturers’ spec sheets, read dozens of reviews from authoritative sources, and spent days shooting with several of our top contenders in real-world conditions both at home and while traveling.
Today’s high-end compact cameras are defined by an ability to capture higher-quality images than your smartphone, combined with a design that’s small enough for you to always carry around. They pair large sensors with wide-aperture zoom lenses and fit it all in a package that slips easily into a jacket or pants pocket. So while a search on Amazon for “point-and-shoot camera” will turn up nearly 6,000 products, in this guide we’re concerned with only a tiny handful of them. We specifically looked at models under the $1,000 mark, since models priced above that tend to be specialist devices, beyond the “best for most people” focus we take.
Our contenders here use 1-inch sensors that have nearly four times the imaging area of those found in an iPhone, a gap that was unheard of for compact cameras just a few years ago. All else being equal, a larger sensor can capture more light, which leads to cleaner, more detailed images, especially when you’re shooting at night or indoors. A larger sensor also allows for greater background blur—shallow depth of field is the technical term—when you’re shooting at wide apertures.
Lens speed, or aperture, is a measure of how much light the lens can let in at a given opening. The faster the lens—or the wider the aperture—the more light it allows. With more light available, you can shoot at lower ISO values for less noise or at faster shutter speeds to freeze subject movement as well as to avoid camera shake. Our top pick, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX10, has a fast lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 at 24mm (fully zoomed out) and f/2.8 even at its telephoto end (fully zoomed in). That’s impressive when you consider that most entry-level point-and-shoots are limited to apertures of f/3.2 or f/4.5 at any zoom setting, requiring significantly higher ISO settings or slower shutter speeds to take the same picture. If aperture and f-numbers are new to you, here’s an easy-to-understand primer.
No compact camera is as slim as a smartphone, but we prioritized models that can at least slip into a jacket pocket. Limiting our research to cameras with large sensors, zoom lenses with fast apertures, and a reasonable degree of pocketability, we were left with a handful of models to consider, from Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, and Sony.
For a detailed look on how we winnowed down the available choices to settle on our finalists, see The competition.
The notion of a tiny camera with a large, high-quality sensor has been around only since 2012, when Sony introduced its groundbreaking Cyber-shot DSC-RX100. Today, Canon, Nikon, and Panasonic all have their own pocket-sized cameras with identically sized 1-inch sensors. These models are largely evolutionary refinements of a basic formula, however, so while a camera like our current pick does offer welcome advantages, we don’t see upgrading from an existing large-sensor compact camera as a wise move; you’d be spending a significant amount of money for relatively little benefit when you have a camera that already delivers excellent image quality. If you truly feel you’ve outgrown the capabilities of a camera like the RX100 II, for instance, consider moving up to a mirrorless camera with an even larger sensor, such as any of the models we detail in our best affordable mirrorless camera guide.
If you’ve just recently caught the photography bug and are shooting mostly with your phone, however, the Panasonic LX10 will be a real eye-opener in comparison. With its much larger sensor size, you’ll enjoy sharp, natural-looking images that contain significantly more highlight and shadow detail. Plus, you’ll get great results even when shooting in low light—a situation where smartphone cameras struggle. And with 20 megapixels of resolution, you can crop images and still have enough pixels to make great prints. Upgrading from your smartphone to the LX10 will let you capture better-looking images in a much wider range of situations.
Experienced photographers who have already invested in a mirrorless or DSLR system often want a smaller, lighter second camera so they never miss a photo op, even when it’s impractical to lug around their larger gear. Until a few years ago, buying a camera that slips into your pocket meant settling for a tiny sensor that usually isn’t much better than the one in a smartphone. Our main pick is a great example of the large-sensor-in-a-small-camera trend, offering features and performance that will make even the pickiest professionals happy.
If you’re using a more traditional point-and-shoot camera with a tiny 1/2.3-inch sensor, like one of the picks in our cheap compact camera guide, upgrading to the LX10 will give you noticeably better images, a zoom lens with a wider aperture range, and outstanding video quality while providing easy access to manual exposure controls.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX10 is easy to use and very fast to focus, and it offers touchscreen control and shoots 4K video. Although many of its rivals can match it in one or more of those respects, the LX10 offers the most compelling combination of these features at a lower launch price than the competition.
The LX10 is, of course, notably compact, but you can maintain a reasonably secure hold on it thanks to a subtle handgrip protrusion on the front. This feature makes it less likely to slip from your hand than the flush-front design of cameras like the Sony RX100 series, but you’ll still want to use the included wrist strap to protect your investment. The LX10 also has a built-in flash that’s more useful than most found on compact cameras, because you can tilt it back to bounce light off the ceiling, avoiding harsh shadows.
The LX10 is easy and quick to operate, largely because of its touchscreen interface, something conspicuously absent from every RX100 model. The customizable Quick Menu allows you to put a collection of your most commonly used parameters, such as image quality, ISO, and AF mode, in an on-screen menu for quick adjustment. And a virtual pull-out tab located along the right edge of the screen puts no fewer than eight custom function buttons at your fingertips. Thanks to these features—combined with two lens rings, a thumb dial, and several buttons on the rear of the camera—you’ll rarely need to burrow into the camera’s menu to change settings.
Perhaps the biggest advantage to having a touchscreen is that with the camera set to its single- or multi-point AF mode, you simply tap the rear screen to set focus, a far faster action than the multiple-step process required on the Sony RX100 III. This tap-to-focus feature is a boon for video shooting, as you can “pull focus” to a subject located anywhere in the frame with a single tap. Panasonic’s engineers have tweaked the speed of focus acquisition in video mode to produce a smooth transition. You can see a good example of the behavior, from Gordon Laing of Camera Labs, below.
Images shot with the LX10 look great, with plenty of detail and reasonably realistic colors. Discerning users may find the camera’s default noise-reduction settings a bit too aggressive; we recommend dialing it down if you’ll be shooting in JPEG mode. Raw files from the LX10 can withstand substantial corrections in image editing software. Pleasing images aren’t a surprise, given that the LX10 uses a version of the same 1-inch sensor design we’ve been seeing (and liking) in the Sony RX100-series cameras since 2012. Again, the LX10 isn’t a groundbreaking camera—we can trace its headline features to previous models from Panasonic, Sony, and Canon. The LX10 is our pick because it offers such a strong combination of well-implemented features at a price that gives you more bang for your buck than we’ve seen in this class of camera.
While neither of our top picks offers true macro (1:1) capability, the LX10 can focus as close as 3 centimeters, giving your subject noticeably greater magnification than the Sony RX100 III, which has a more typical minimum focus distance of 5 centimeters. We shot the image below with both cameras’ lenses set to 24mm, positioned at their minimum focus distance.
Like other recent Lumix cameras, the LX10 uses Panasonic’s DFD (Depth from Defocus) autofocus technology. I’ll skip the geeky details of how it works (here’s a good overview if you’re interested), but when an object is out of focus, DFD allows the camera to make a really good guess as to how far out of focus it is. The result is very fast focus that in good light avoids the wobble you see in traditional contrast-detection AF systems as the lens hunts back and forth while trying to lock focus. In our side-by-side tests, the LX10 acquired focus faster than the Sony RX100 III, with fewer misses, in both bright and dim light.
The DFD technology also enables the LX10 to lock and hold focus on moving subjects as they propel toward or away from the camera. Reviewers at DPReview were impressed with the focus-tracking performance, finding that this camera “is only outclassed with respect to AF by the Sony RX100 V,” a model that costs a few hundred dollars more than the LX10.
The LX10 captures 4K video at 30 frames per second and Full HD output at 60 fps (or 120 fps with stabilization and AF disabled). In either resolution, the video is cropped from what you would see in still-photography mode—which gives you a narrower field of view, down to 36mm-equivalent in 4K rather than the normal 24mm. DPReview reports video quality with detail that’s “not that far off” from the class-leading RX100 V’s footage. And while the Sony model limits you to five minutes of continuous 4K shooting (due to heat buildup), the LX10 manages to capture up to 15 minutes of 4K footage at a time.
Even if you’re interested only in still photography, the included 4K capability is still relevant thanks to Panasonic’s 4K Photo mode. Taking advantage of the fact that 4K video consists of still frames, in this mode the LX10 can record a video burst instead of a single image when you press the shutter button and then automatically present the result as individual 8-megapixel still images. You get 30 still images per second every time you press the shutter button. You can quickly cycle through them, and when you find just the right expression or position of your subject, you can save it as an 8-megapixel JPEG. The LX10 even offers a Pre-Burst option, in which the camera continuously records video and saves 30 frames during the second before you pressed the shutter and 30 additional frames during the second after you pressed the shutter button. Almost like magic, this option allows you to catch the action even if you were a hair late in tripping the shutter. Because the camera is recording a video loop when this mode is engaged, it will drain the battery more quickly than if you were shooting traditional still images. In our hands-on testing, infrequent use of the 4K Photo mode didn’t drastically reduce battery life, but we’d be reluctant to use it if the battery charge was low to begin with and we didn’t have a spare on hand.
As you might expect, the LX10 connects to your phone via built-in Wi-Fi. The setup process is straightforward. After you download the free Panasonic Image App (iOS and Android), pressing the Wi-Fi function button on the camera will bring up a prompt for you to connect your phone to the camera’s network. By default, the password requirement is disabled. For security you can enable it in the camera menu, but don’t worry, you won’t have to manually type it in: You can have the camera display a QR code that the phone app recognizes so that you can make the connection.
Once your phone is connected, you can operate the camera remotely, previewing the scene on your phone and adjusting settings like shutter speed, ISO, and white balance, though oddly not aperture or exposure mode (presumably because those functions have dedicated physical controls on the camera). You set focus by tapping the desired subject on your phone’s screen. Focus is significantly slower when you adjust it remotely, and at least with the iOS app, I had to hold my finger on the screen for a moment, rather than merely tap, for the lens to focus. You then use a dedicated shutter button to take the exposure. You can also copy images from the SD card to your phone, but only JPEGs, as the app will ignore raw files.
While most shooting modes tend to be more gimmicky than useful, Panasonic includes a fun multiple-exposure mode where you can get creative by combining two or more separate exposures into a single image. Capture the first image, and a ghosted version of it appears superimposed over the live preview so that you can choose an appropriate subject for each additional exposure. The LX10 also has a panorama mode that automatically stitches the results into a single image; it works reasonably well, but we think the panorama option in our runner-up offers better results, with more seamless blends of the composite images.
Camera Labs’s Gordon Laing writes that the LX10 delivers “highly detailed images in decent light and a comfortable step-up in low-light quality over a smartphone, pocket super-zoom or budget point-and-shoot.” He found the optical image stabilization (OIS) to work as advertised during testing: “With OIS off, I needed a shutter of 1/80 to confidently handhold the shot, but with OIS enabled, I could handhold reliably down to 1/10 and in some cases 1/5, corresponding to three to four stops of compensation.”
Matt Golowcyznski of TechRadar was pleased with the LX10’s focus performance, writing, “In good light the camera acquires autofocus with almost no delay…. When challenged with darker conditions the lens speedily bounces back and forth before confirming focus, and even in particularly dark conditions … focus is often found with only minimal delay.” TechRadar’s conclusion: “The Panasonic LX10 / LX15 is a sturdy and powerful camera that’s replete with clever functionality and capable of great results.”
Though the reviewers of DPReview found the handling of the LX10 insufficient to give the camera a gold award, they did discover much to like about it. They call out the camera’s “downright impressive autofocus” and go on to say: “The LX10 is incredibly good at subject recognition and tracking: tap on a subject or face and you’ll be surprised by how well the LX10 keeps it in focus no matter it moves to within the frame…. Thanks to DFD, the LX10 quickly refocuses on your subject in a manner that would put its Canon peers to shame, even when shooting a burst at 6 fps.” They also note that “in classic Panasonic fashion, the touchscreen is extremely responsive and logically implemented.”
The most obvious shortcoming of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX10 is its lack of an electronic viewfinder, a feature common to every Sony RX100 model since the Mark III and also found on the physically larger Canon PowerShot G5 X. An EVF is most useful when glare makes viewing a camera’s rear screen difficult. The screen on the LX10 does tilt upward, which can help minimize glare, but the screens on the Sony and Canon models offer wider ranges of movement to accommodate shooting with the camera held overhead, something not feasible with the LX10.
Battery life on the LX10 is a bit disappointing, with a CIPA rating of 260 shots per charge versus 320 on the Sony RX100 III. Those numbers aren’t absolute; they’re only estimates that will vary depending on how you shoot. But judging from our time using the camera, we reckon that while a freshly charged battery should easily carry you through a Little League game or birthday party, if you’re spending the day sightseeing on vacation, you’ll need to carry a spare battery or plan on taking a break someplace with access to an outlet before you get back to the hotel.
While we love the inclusion of a lens aperture ring with tactile click stops, Panasonic’s implementation can be problematic in real-world use. As Richard Butler of DPReview observes, “Panasonic’s odd decision to put a marked aperture ring on a camera with a variable maximum aperture … means the aperture ring will frequently be set to an unachievable aperture setting: the ring may say you’re at F1.4 but unless you’re at the widest-angle setting of the zoom, that’s not going to be the case.”
Unlike rivals from Sony and Canon, this Panasonic model lacks a neutral-density filter. Given our earlier emphasis on fast lenses and large sensors, the ability to reduce light coming into the camera may seem counterproductive. But having an ND filter lets you do two things: shoot at wide apertures for blurred backgrounds even on bright sunny days and use long exposures to blur moving objects (think cottony waterfalls). The LX10 does address the first scenario by giving you the option of using an electronic shutter for shutter speeds as high as 1/16,000, fast enough to shoot wide open in bright light. Just be aware, however, that shooting fast-moving objects using the electronic shutter mode can produce “rolling shutter” effects.
These limitations won’t be dealbreakers for most people. The lack of an EVF certainly explains how Panasonic has been able to release the LX10 at a lower starting price than we’ve ever seen for a similarly specced 1-inch-sensor camera. At a savings of a few hundred dollars over Sony’s latest, the RX100 V, shelling out for a second battery seems a more than reasonable trade-off.
If you find an EVF more useful than 4K video capabilities and can live without the convenience of a touchscreen, we like the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III. It’s a former top pick, and while it may be a few generations behind Sony’s current model in the popular RX100 series, the Mark III is still a solid choice. It captures great-looking still images and HD video that looks better than what you get from some DSLRs, while offering good performance in low light—all at a price far below that of Sony’s latest iteration.
The RX100 III delivers outstanding images, largely indistinguishable in image quality from those of our top pick. Here’s a direct comparison using DPReview’s standard test scene. That similarity is no surprise, as it’s widely assumed (though not officially acknowledged) that all of the 1-inch sensors found in these compact cameras are actually made by Sony. The lenses and image processors that each manufacturer uses will account for most of the minor differences in how the in-camera JPEG images look. In fact, you’re likely to see as much variation in sharpness and detail among multiple units of a single camera model due to manufacturing tolerances in lens construction as you will between, say, a Sony model and a Panasonic model sharing the same sensor design.
Sony’s first-of-its-kind pop-up electronic viewfinder enables eye-level shooting and composition, even when glare makes the LCD screen hard to see. You rarely see a built-in EVF of any kind on a camera this size, let alone one that retracts to retain pocketability. In fact, the RX100 III manages to be slightly more compact than our top pick, which lacks an EVF.
While it doesn’t shoot 4K video, as our top pick does, the RX100 III produces some of the sharpest, most detailed Full HD footage you can get from nearly any consumer camera. Video specialist Andrew Reid of EOSHD writes, “Sometimes you can’t tell the RX100 III apart from the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera.” Later, Reid notes: “In terms of resolution the 1080p from this camera has the crispness of fine detail like the [Panasonic] GH3.” Suggesting that a point-and-shoot can even compete with cameras built primarily for videographers is high praise.
The built-in three-stop ND filter is handy for shooting at wide apertures on sunny days, nicely blurring the background. This convenient feature—something we’re seeing in more point-and-shoots—mimics the effect you’d get with a screw-in filter on an interchangeable lens. Using the ND filter also allows you to explore creative effects such as setting longer exposures to turn rivers or waterfalls into cottony swirls of motion. While you can enable and disable the ND filter manually, you’ll also find an Auto setting that allows the camera to engage the filter when necessary. It can’t get any easier than that.
Sony allows you to add more camera functionality through free and paid apps. The paid Star Trail app, for example, will shoot a series of night-sky images at regular intervals and then combine the results into a time-lapse movie. Multiple exposure and bracketing apps are among those available for purchase, as well. While additional functionality is welcome, several other cameras offer features like these but built-in and free.
The RX100 III includes some useful shooting modes like Sweep Panorama and an HDR option, both of which we’ve found to be a bit more effective than the equivalent options in our top pick. When the HDR option is enabled, this JPEG-only shooting mode will fire off a rapid succession of images at varying exposures and seamlessly blend them into a final image that displays significantly more highlight and shadow detail than would be possible from a single exposure. It’s a lifesaver when you’re shooting scenes with extreme contrast ranges. You can set the degree of exposure variation manually or simply choose the Auto setting and let the camera decide, an option that usually works just as well.
While the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX10 is a great value for a high-end compact camera, we know that some people may be looking to spend a bit less. For that, we recommend checking out our budget point-and-shoot guide. For under $500 you can get a camera that is still miles above a smartphone or cheap compact camera, one that will provide pretty similar image quality to the LX10. But the biggest features you lose out on are 4K video and a lens that can let in a lot more light (both zoomed in and out) for better low-light performance and more of a background blur. The lower-cost budget models also lack a tilting screen and have slower burst modes than the LX10—but whether those features are worth a price difference of almost $300 is up to you.
Superzoom cameras have long been a popular choice for photographers who want to shoot in both wide-angle and super telephoto without swapping lenses. These cameras’ main drawback has always been poor image quality, far below what our top pick delivers. Lately, though, we’re seeing camera makers put large, 1-inch sensors (the same size as the one in the LX10) into superzooms.
The zoom ranges on these new models are not as extreme as the ranges of their smaller-sensored cousins, but they easily surpass the range of our top pick here. You pay a significant size penalty, however, as the cameras are almost the size of entry-level DSLRs. You can read more about available superzoom choices in our best superzoom camera guide.
A mirrorless-system camera combines a very large Micro Four Thirds or APS-C sensor with the ability to swap out lenses. The result is a flexible camera system that produces more detailed, less noisy pictures at night while offering more dramatic background blur. Yet while some mirrorless camera bodies are impressively small, they are still much bigger than the LX10—and that’s before you take into consideration the additional bulk and weight once you put a lens on the camera. For a look at relevant mirrorless options, see our guide to the best midrange mirrorless cameras.
As of this writing we know of a dozen full-featured compact cameras with 1-inch (or larger) sensors and zoom lenses.
Sony’s follow-up to our runner-up pick is the Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 IV. This model offers several undeniable performance advantages: It’s powered by a new sensor and a beefier processor, it has a maximum shooting rate of 16 fps, it can shoot 4K video, and it captures super-slow-motion clips at up to 960 fps. Sony has also improved the camera’s AF performance, with DPReview writing that “autofocus is decidedly more determined and quick, even in lower light, lower contrast situations that have, in the past, posed challenges to these cameras.” In the Mark IV, Sony also added a new higher-resolution OLED pop-up viewfinder. All of these changes and additions are clear upgrades, but most people won’t see a benefit from shooting at 16 fps versus 10 fps, and super-slow-motion playback is a fairly niche feature. And our top pick shoots 4K video for a lot less money. We think most shooters are better served by opting for the Mark III or our top pick and pocketing the savings.
Sony’s newest iteration in the line, the Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 V, is the most expensive RX model the company has released, and at the time of this writing, it costs about $300 more than our top pick. A groundbreaking 24 fps burst rate and a new phase-detect autofocus system that can track fast-moving subjects will benefit dedicated sports shooters. For people just wanting to shoot great-looking vacation photos, birthday parties, or the occasional Little League game, however, the not-too-shabby 10 fps burst rate and fast focus of the Panasonic LX10 are more than enough to do the job. Class-leading AF performance and a higher-resolution viewfinder than the RX100 III offers are nice—but in our opinion they simply can’t justify anyone spending the extra cash when the image quality between the Mark V and both of our picks is essentially identical.
Equipped with the same image sensor as our top pick, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II was a step-down choice in previous versions of this guide. However, in our testing it tended to have trouble locking focus in even moderately dim light. It also lacks the EVF of our runner-up and the touchscreen and video capabilities of our top pick.
The Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark II, with its even larger 1.5-inch sensor, should have a sizable image-quality advantage over our picks, but in tests the camera’s outdated sensor technology typically fails to show much improvement over what the 1-inch sensors of Panasonic’s LX10 and Sony’s RX100-series cameras can do. When the people at DPReview did an image-quality comparison with the RX100 II, for example, they found that “the RX100 II’s sensor is so much better than the G1 X II’s that it cancels-out much of the dynamic range and high ISO noise advantages that the G1 X II’s larger sensor should bring.” And given that the G1 X II is a physically larger camera, one that won’t fit in your pants pocket, the extra bulk doesn’t seem worth the investment.
The Canon PowerShot G5 X has the same sensor as our top pick and features a zoom lens that reaches 100mm (versus 72mm), plus a fully articulated rear screen and an OLED viewfinder. Battery life is abysmal, however, rated at just 210 shots per charge, and the camera shoots less than one frame per second in raw mode, which is inexcusable for a camera in this class.
The Canon PowerShot G7 X and PowerShot G7 X Mark II share much in common, including the 24-100mm lens found on the G5 X. Neither, however, offers an EVF like our runner-up or can shoot 4K video like our top pick.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100 uses a Micro Four Thirds sensor, far larger than those found in our current picks, and can shoot 4K video to boot. The result, however, is a significantly bulkier camera that won’t fit in your pocket.
(Photos by Amadou Diallo.)
Originally published: December 6, 2016