Best compact cameras to buy for Christmas 2012

The megapixel myth

Before we give our recommendations on the best compact digital cameras to buy this Christmas holiday season, we thought that we’d discuss the megapixels myth first. One of the first questions that people will undoubtedly ask when you tell them that you bought a new digital camera is “how many megapixels does it have?” This is a seemingly valid question. However, by asking such a question, the enquirer appears to be inferring that the more megapixels a camera has, the better the photos will be. Unfortunately, this is not always true. In fact, in many circumstances, having more megapixels will actually make your photos look worse. It’s almost like saying “wow, you car engine is so loud, it must go really fast”. A sports car may be louder than an econobox, but a loud engine does not necessarily imply a fast car. The same reasoning applies to megapixels. High end cameras may have more megapixels than a cheap camera, but having a lot of megapixel does not necessarily imply a better camera.

If we asked you if you thought that you would get better photos from a smartphone or from Nikon’s most expensive DSLR, what would you say? The Nikon D4 has a MSRP of $6,299.99 CAD by the way. It may seem like a silly question, but please bear with us. If more megapixels meant better picture quality, why would a smartphone such as the Nokia Pureview 808 have a 41 megapixel image sensor while the Nikon D4 only has 16.2 megapixels image sensor? More megapixels means higher resolution (that is true), but it does not mean better photos. Resolution has nothing to do with picture quality.

We believe that a more apropos question would be “how big is the sensor in your camera?”. The answer to that question will give the enquirer a much better idea of how awesome or not so awesome your new camera actually is. Larger sensors usually have less noise so you can shoot at higher ISOs (better photos at night without a flash), better color reproduction, sharper images and a more shallow depth of field. You can read more about sensor sizes in this New York Time’s article called Sizing a Sensor: No Easy way or dpreview’s Making (some) sense out of sensor sizes.

What is an image sensor? An “image sensor receives the light coming through the lens into the camera, and turns that light into an image” (thephotographerblog.com). Expensive DSLR’s tend to have large sensors (with fewer total pixels than many smartphones and each pixel is larger) while smartphones tend to have tiny sensors (jammed packed with tiny little pixels). More pixels means more noise. Also, not all pixels are created equal. Big pixels good, small pixels bad. The general rule is that if the size of the sensor remains constant, the more megapixels the camera has, the worst the pictures will be. Smartphones often have a lot of tiny pixels in a small sensor. No wonder why so many smartphones take bad photos.

Smartphone manufacturers typically do not advertise image sensor size because they’re so tiny. It’s not something that they’re typically proud of. If you do some digging, you’ll find out that the iphone 5 has a 1/4″ image sensor. The iphone 5 is probably the best smartphone for taking photos and it still has a tiny sensor. Below is a graphic that we crudely made in paintbrush to show you the relative differences in sensor sizes. It’s not really to scale, but decent enough to give you a general idea. For reference, if you have a Canon DSLR, it most likely has an APS-C sensor size while many cheap pocket cameras (approximately $100) have a 1/2.3″ sensor.

Have you ever said to yourself “Wow, this blu-ray movie looks amazing. I can’t imagine anything looking better than this!” Well, you were looking at approximately 2 megapixels. You see how ridiculous a 41 megapixel smartphone is now? It makes good news headline though.

If you’re interested, you can read more about the megapixel myth in Ken Rockwell’s article called The Megapixel Myth or in The New York Time’s article entitled Breaking the Myth of Megapixels. There are plenty more articles: Dispelling more megapixel myths (securityinfowatch.com), The final word on the ‘megapixel myth’ (zdnet.com), Dispelling the megapixel myth (photonaturalist.net) and Busting the Megapixel Myth (lowendmac.com).

Why do manufacturers push megapixels?

The manufacturers sell more cameras this way. If consumers knew that they can print a billboard from a 6 megapixel photo, it may be harder to convince them to upgrade to a new camera every year. However, if the consumer is convinced that more megapixels means better picture quality, all that the manufacturer has to do is put out a new camera with more megapixels and it may be enough to sway consumer to upgrade to a new camera. We’re not saying that there aren’t any advantages in upgrading to a new digital camera (far from it), what we’re saying is that more megapixels is not necessarily a good thing. We’re also not saying that resolution is useless. It allows you to crop photos while maintaining a decent size and it allows you print larger prints, but it’s definitely not the be all and end all that it’s portrayed to be.

What are the most important factors in image quality?

Many experts tend to agree that among that the most important factors in image quality (in no particular order) are sharpness, noise level, dynamic range, contrast, tone reproduction, uniformity, color accuracy, lens distortion, light fall (vignetting), blemishes (sensor defects), exposure accuracy, ISO sensitivity, chromatic aberration, lens flare, moiré and artifacts (from software noise reduction and sharpening). Notice how resolution is nowhere to be seen? You can read more about this at these links megapixelmyth.com, imatest.com or wikipedia.

I don’t understand any of this, what should I take away from this article?

Big image sensor good. Lots of megapixels bad.

What are the best compact cameras to buy this Christmas?

This is what you’ve been waiting for. Here is a list of our favorite cameras in different price ranges. The prices below are estimated totals after taxes and shipping to Canada as of December 11, 2012.

Sony RX1 ($3,200), Full Frame sensor, dpreview.com

This is the first and only fixed lens full frame compact camera on the planet. Its image sensor is the same size as the Canon 5D Mk iii DSLR. If you want the best of the best, you have to pay to play. This is the unicorn that enthusiasts lusts after.

Fujifilm X100 ($937), APS-C sized sensor, dpreview.com

The X100 has always had a special place in our hearts as it was one of the first enthusiast compact cameras to have a retro design with analog control dials. If you’re looking for an understated compact camera that looks like it’s from the 60’s, but with ultra modern insides, this is it. It has the same size image sensor as most Canon Rebels DSLR’s, but in a much smaller package.

Canon G1 X ($644) 1.5” sensor, dpreview.com

The G1 X has a rather large sensor, but it’s a bit bulky. You can take a look at how it compares to the Fujifilm X10 (left) and Sony RX-100 (middle) here. It may not even fit in your pocket, therefore it’s at the upper limit of what we would consider compact. If you can live with the size, you get a lot for your camera for your money.

Sony RX-100 ($700) 1” sensor, dpreview.com

This is the camera that we would most likely buy ourselves. It’s new. It has a relatively large 1” sensor. It’s more compact than the G1 X and it’s cheaper than the Fujifilm X100. It’s really compact as it’s almost the same size as the Canon S110, but it has a larger sensor. This is the new hotness.

Fujifilm X10 ($484) 2/3” sensor, dpreview.com

This camera has the same image sensor as the new Fujifilm XF1, but it costs $100 less and its design is arguably more pleasing to the eye (unless you prefer two tone leather bound cameras), but it’s slightly larger. It takes great photos, but it’s slightly larger than the Canon S110 and Sony RX-100, but smaller than the G1 X. For roughly $500, it’s hard to beat the value of the Fujifilm X10.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 ($410) 1/1.7” sensor, dpreview.com

The LX7 has just been released a few months ago. It competes against the industry standard Canon S110. In comparison with the Canon S110, it’s slightly larger, heavier, slightly thicker, doesn’t have a touch screen, however it can take photos at f/1.4 instead of f/2.0 and that alone may be enough to sway people towards the Panny.

Canon S110 ($388) 1/1.7” sensor, dpreview.com

The Canon S110 is probably the most popular enthusiast camera in the world. The Canon S series gets better and better every year, this year Canon has added a touch screen and wifi. The best feature about this camera is its small size. It’s a very small camera (easy to slide into your pocket). It takes great photos and it’s relatively affordable (at least compared to the other cameras in this list). Many professional photographers buy the Canon S110 to complement their DSLR gear as they can’t always have their large cameras with them. Therefore, for most people, this is the pocket camera that you want to buy.

We typically don’t recommend any cameras cheaper than the Canon S110. However, a refurbished Canon S100 or S95 would also be a good choice for tighter budgets.